Star Trek III The Search for Spock at thirty

I find it hard to believe that Star Trek III The Search for Spock is 30 years old this year. The movie arrived in cinemas in the summer of 1984, two years after Star Trek II The Wrath of Khan. TWOK arguably remains the best of the Star Trek movies and consequentlyTSFS probably gets hidden in its shadow a bit.

The movie’s main purpose was to sort out all the cards that were flung up into the air by the previous entry in the series, most notably the death of Mister Spock, but also the implications of existence of the Genesis Device.
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Finally we got the Klingons as the main villain in a Star Trek movie. They had of course made an appearance at the start of Star Trek The Motion Picture but it was really just a guest star slot. And their only appearance in TWOK was by reusing some effects shots from the first movie. Christopher “Doc Brown” Lloyd is the main Klingon commander although I have read that director Leonard Nimoy wanted Edward James Olmos (the future Commander Adama in the Battlestar Galactica reboot) as his first choice.

I always thought that Industrial Light and Magic did some outstanding effects work in this movie. TWOK remains impressive, especially with the Mutara Nebula battle sequence, but TSFS has some wonderfully crisp model work. For example there’s the early scene featuring the Enterprise returning to Earth and the shot of it approaching space dock. (By the way I always loved the reaction shots of the personnel looking through the window as they catch sight of the damaged Enterprise.)

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The model makers at ILM were kept busy with this movie as they had to produce the new Klingon Bird of Prey, the USS Excelsior, the USS Grissom plus the interior and exterior of Space Dock.

The sequence depicting the crew stealing the Enterprise is a highlight of the movie in terms of writing, humour, effects work and James Horner’s music. I remember I could not quite believe that Scotty told the Excelsior turbo-lift “up yer shaft!”

But after the Enterprise is stolen the mood of the movie turns darker. Kirk is forced to take his jury-rigged ship into battle and faces an opponent who is willing to kill Kirk’s son David just to make a point.

Which leads us to the last card Kirk holds: the destruction of the Enterprise. Nowadays we are used to the idea of many ships called Enterprise so the thought of the current one being destroyed does not have the same impact. But this was THE Enterprise, the original from the tv show, albeit modified for the movies. As Scotty would say “no bloody A, B, C or D”.

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And Kirk’s choice to destroy it encapsulates the whole point of the movie: you can’t get something for nothing. If you want Spock back there has to be a heavy price paid. Here Kirk looses not only his ship but also his son.

(Which is the main problem I have with the most recent Star Trek movie Star Trek Into Darkness. Here the makers hit on the idea of repeating the death scene at the end of TWOK but switching Kirk for Spock. Fine, but they need to bring back Kirk. How do they achieve this? They use Khan’s magic blood to resurrect Kirk. Let me repeat that: Khan’s. Magic. Blood. I’m sorry, but that’s just lazy, lazy, lazy writing.)

There are some very nice dialog references that link the movie strongly with TWOK. In the previous movie Spock famously says “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.” In this movie when reborn Spock asks Kirk why he came back Kirk replies “because the needs of the one outweighed the needs of the many.” Also there’s a nice little reference to the Kobyashi Maru setting sail for the promised land.

Deforest Kelly as Bones gets some of the best lines. For example as the Vulcan Katra ritual is about to get underway he is told it is dangerous. “Hell of a time to tell me,” growls McCoy as only Deforest Kelly could.

The movie has its flaws. The exterior scenes on Genesis are clearly shot indoors, although that always has seemed appropriate to me given how many alien planets in the original show were ‘indoor’ planets too. Also the Excelsior bridge set seems a bit minimal.

And there is what I have always thought was a major plot hole. Kirk and friends steal the Enterprise to go and get Spock’s body at the Genesis planet, but do they even need it for the Katra ritual? And how can they know that it is even there?

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James Horner returned to do the music and as a result there is another strong link with TWOK. In a way it’s a pity Horner didn’t go The Voyage Home as then all three parts of the “trilogy” would have that linkage. Another moment where music and visuals are perfectly matches comes near the end of the movie when the “borrowed” Klingon Bird of Prey arrives at Vulcan.

Someone who didn’t return from TWOK was Kirstie Alley as Saavik. For whatever reason the part was recast and we got Robin Curtis played Saavik in TSFS and also briefly in the next movie.

On a personal note I remember seeing the lobby cards for TSFS outside a cinema on Dublin’s O’Connell Street during the summer of 1984 when there for a few days holiday. The movie didn’t open for another few weeks but every time I walked past the lobby cards I would go over to subject them to another examination. One card in particular sticks in my mind. It was a photo of David and Saavik walking through some greenery. By that point I think I must had read the novelisation of the movie as I incorrectly thought that photo was of a scene where they returned to the Genesis cave inside the Regula asteroid. As it turned out that sequence was an “only in the novel” scene that was not in the movie. So the photo in question was from the Genesis planet itself.

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Which brings me neatly to the novelisation. At some point I had picked up the new adaptation by Vonda McIntyre and devoured it quite quickly. I distinctly remember reading the book late at night in bed and getting to the bit where Kirk starts entering the destruct codes on the Enterprise bridge. I was struck with a feeling of disbelief and shock at what was happening. Surely not! Not the Enterprise!

I eventually did get to see the movie but not in the cinema. I had to wait for the VHS rental. Since then I’ve owned copies on VHS, Region 1 DVD, Region 2 DVD and now a blu ray. Wrath of Khan remains my favourite Star Trek movie, but Search for Spock is not far behind.

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