Despite being told that I’m obsessed with Star Trek, I rarely ever post about it here at the site. Since my only ever other Trek post concerned the first film, I thought it might be fun to revisit the odd numbered films and discuss whether or not they’re as bad as people say. Having already defended The Motion Picture — a movie I love despite obvious flaws — we’re moving on to the third film in the series, the so-called Search for Spock.
Previously on Star Trek: Kirk and the crew of the Starship Enterprise fought the merciless and crazed genetically engineered super-villain known as Khan. In that fight, the noble Vulcan Captain Spock was killed.
And now, the conclusion: After limping back to earth, Kirk learns the Enterprise is to be decommissioned and mothballed to make way for a new flagship. At the same time, Dr. McCoy is suffering from delusions that he is somehow Spock.
Following a visit from Spock’s father, Ambassador Sarek, Kirk and his loyal bridge crew resolve to steal the Enterprise and return to the Genesis Planet (created in the wake of Khan’s fiery death) in the hopes of finding Spock’s body and reuniting it with his soul which is now housed in the mind of McCoy.
There, they find a rogue Klingon ship has destroyed the science vessel exploring the planet. The alien captain is intrigued by the Genesis Device’s “awesome destructive force” and desperately wants to possess its secrets. In attempting to do so, he kills Kirk’s son, co-creator of the device and the only person who knows how it works.
Kirk responds by inviting the Klingons to the Enterprise and blowing up his own badly damaged ship. Taking command of the alien vessel as the Genesis Planet rips itself apart, Kirk and Company set out for Vulcan where Spock’s mind and body can be fused together.
THOUGHTS: If my recap of Wrath of Khan seems oddly dismissive of the film, so is Star Trek III. Though the entire plot hinges on the events of the previous film, the script is loathe to describe just what the Enterprise was doing to get itself so banged up and get one of its senior officers killed. Not once is the word “Khan” uttered and, I think, the omission always rings strange whenever I watch the film … especially when the Starfleet Commander comes on-board and tells the crew they’re all getting commendations for “remarkable service under the most difficult of conditions.”
And those would be?
It’s not that I’m looking for a full recap of the earlier film, but the script seems to go out of its way to avoid mentioning both Khan and Dr. Carol Marcus by name. Almost as though mentioning the characters would mean the actors who played them would get a bonus check. While Carol does get one name-check, he status is unknown. In the opening log, Kirk mentions his son David stayed behind at the Genesis Planet, but no mention is made of her.
Y’know, let’s take a look at the log as its emblematic of my problems with this movie:
USS Enterprise, Captain’s personal
log… With most of our battle
damage repaired, we are almost
home. Yet, I feel uneasy. And I
wonder why? Perhaps it is the
emptiness of this vessel: most of
our trainee crew have been reassigned;
Lieutenant Saavik and my son David
are exploring the Genesis Planet,
which he helped create, and Enterprise
feels like a house with all the children gone.
No. More empty even than that…
The death of Spock is like an open wound.
It seems that I have left the noblest
part of myself back there, on that
Besides being one of the longest Captain’s Logs ever narrated, it’s also filled with metaphors Kirk would never use. “A house with all the children gone” and “like an open wound” are just shockingly out of character and the sort of thing that appears only because the writer likes the sound of them. Producer Harve Bennett is the credited screenwriter on this flick and I think his shortcomings in the script department are announced with this narration. The character not only directly tells you what he is feeling — a giant no-no of storytelling — he does it in way that is meant to sound poetic, but lacks all the poignancy and beauty the imagery is supposed to convey. It also fails to sound natural.
And before you say it’s the future and Star Trek doesn’t have naturalistic dialogue, take another look at The Wrath of Khan. Besides the tehcno-babble, writer/director Nicholas Meyer’s dialogue is pleasing to the ear and, more importantly, right for the characters. Harve Bennett, for his part, aspires to Meyer’s dialogue, but instead we get lines like “Your life and your career stand for rationality, not intellectual chaos” and “One alive, one not. Yet both in pain.”
Of course, the director had to okay the material and in this instance, the director was none other than Leonard Nimoy, the man who usually plays Spock in the series. While his overall direction is competent, Nimoy’s style most closely resembles television of the time than the qualities of a feature film. Sets are often over-lit. The staging more effectively serves the square TV frame than the wide sweep of the theater … and he let Bennett craft a baffling, yet uninspired story with questionable dialogue.
There’s also the plot hole that allows Spock to come back from the dead.
Bennett and Nimoy offer an interesting idea in the concept of the Katra. Transferring the majority of his consciousness to Dr. McCoy, Spock was able to preserve his experience and essence for Vulcans to subsequently access with the aid of those funky Vulcan priestesses. In Star Trek — at least on Vulcan — the soul is a measurable, definable occurrence. Where the storyline goes pear-shaped is Kirk’s insistence on returning to the Genesis Planet in order to retrieve Spock’s body; a thing he isn’t even sure he’ll find. In order to do this, he breaks orders, steals the Enterprise, and takes McCoy with him — imperiling Spock’s Katra in the process.
In the script I’ve been quoting from, Kirk states that he knows Spock’s body has been found. In the finished film, Kirk’s obsession with the Genesis Planet is merely a whim. He hopes to find Spock’s remains there, but news of its discover on the planet (a fact the audience is aware of) never makes it back to Kirk or, it seems, Starfleet Command. To me, this is problematic because Kirk has no reason to go back to Genesis, really. All Sarek wants is Spock’s Katra returned to Vulcan. Kirk arbitrarily decides to cause all kinds of havoc within Starfleet on the hunch that his best friend’s corpse has been reanimated and that it is an empty vessel that can house his soul once more.
In aiding this idea, Bennett and Nimoy sacrifice the benevolent hope contained in the concept of the Genesis Device. It is renamed “The Genesis Torpedo” by the Klingons and turns out to be a failure not because it was detonated in a starship, but because Kirk’s son used “protomatter” — a Star Trek techno-babble term invented to explain away the rapid aging of the planet and, therefore, Spock.
This also leads to a scene where a snake on the Genesis planet chokes the Klingon Commander for no reason … okay, it does set up the “Nothing to report” punchline. I suppose it’s Bennett’s attempt at humor. As a producer, he recognizes the subtle humor Meyer layered into Khan was an asset, but as a writer, he fails to grasp the need for subtly. Hence, we get the silly scene in the Federation bar where McCoy tries to use the Vulcan never nooch (snoochie boochies!) on a Starfleet Security Agent. To be fair, there are some comedy beats that work … but it took Meyer’s return in Star Trek IV for the characters to truly branch out into comedy.
Besides the questionable scripting and bland direction, Star Trek III‘s biggest problem is just how uninspired it is. It uses a lot of off-the-shelf ideas from Khan and only adds cynicism to the mix. In recycling so many ideas, it fails to make Spock’s resurrection an interesting or engaging moment. The cast merely stands around while all the Vulcan’s close their eyes.
Is it as bad as The Final Frontier or Generations? No … but it’s not as ambitious or cinematic as The Motion Picture. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock stands at the middle of the Star Trek movie spectrum. The mediocre ground covered by so many episodes of “The Next Generation” and “Voyager.”