Today marks STAR TREK III: THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK’s 35th anniversary.
Released in the United States on June 1, 1984, THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK opened on 1,966 screens with an opening box office weekend take of $16,673,295, achieving 21.8% of it’s eventual $76,471,046 domestic box office take ($188,084,916 for inflation.)
The film follows Nicholas Meyer’s stunning STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN (1982.) That film saw the death of the beloved Spock, the vanquishing of Khan Noonien Singh and the detonation of the, then untested Genesis Device.
Harve Bennett, who executive produced and co-wrote THE WRATH OF KHAN screenplay, returned as producer and writer of this film. THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK marked Leonard Nimoy’s feature directorial debut when Meyer refused to direct the sequel (he didn’t believe in the idea of sequels in the early 80’s.)
It was thought that Nimoy no longer wanted to play Spock and that he had it written into his contract to have the character killed off at the end of THE WRATH OF KHAN. After seeing THE WRATH OF KHAN, and even during that film’s production, both Bennett and Nimoy knew that they had something special on their hands and they made sure to leave breadcrumbs that would lead to THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK. It took some convincing of then Paramount prexy Michael Eisner that it was not written in his contract that he didn’t want to play Spock before he was allowed to direct the picture.
Bennett returned in a producer role for this film as well as its sole script writer. Nimoy wanted Christopher Lloyd in the role of Kruge, the Klingon commander who sought information about Genesis, after seeing his performance in Taxi and in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST.
The rest of the original crew returned with Grace Lee Whitney having a cameo. Kirstie Alley did not return in the role of Lieutenant Saavik because she feared being typecast. The production recast the role with Robin Curtis (who would go on to play the role in THE VOYAGE HOME and in a TNG episode, ‘Gambit” as a Romulan.)
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Mark Lenard reprised his TOS role of Sarek, Spock’s father while Merritt Buttrick also reprised his role of David Marcus from THE WRATH OF KHAN. It was established in that film that Marcus was Kirk’s son. Bibi Besch did not return in the role of Carol Marcus, and every effort was made to ensure that her likeness was not presented in this film, including a new version of the Genesis Device presentation featuring Kirk.
I saw the film on the big screen back in late 1984. I vividly remember my next door neighbor friend asking me to see the film. It was an experience that I remember all these years later.
Sequels were less commonplace in the mid-1980’s then they are today, but Bennett and Nimoy committed to bringing the events from THE WRATH OF KHAN to a resolution in THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK.
THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK does an effective job at expanding the Star Trek universe by introducing us to new Vulcan lore (pon far, fal tor pan), new Federation starships (the U.S.S. Excelsior and the U.S.S. Grissom) as well as a new version of Spacedock. It also brought back the fan favorite villains, the Klingons.
The first act of the film recaps the events of THE WRATH OF KHAN and introduces us to Kruge (Lloyd) and the Klingon Bird of Prey, a brand new design. When we first see the Bird of Prey decloak, it was intentionally shown as being massive and menacing. It is actually a very small and agile ship with a minimal crew, designed for strafing runs and quick attacks.
Christopher Lloyd ate up the opportunity to act with heavy makeup and prostheses, but his role isn’t very well defined within the context of the script. The Klingon presence in the film was originally conceived of as the Romulans, but it was felt that the audience would relate better to the Klingon’s as a favorite of the original series.
The first act feels exceptionally flat. Yes, we see the struggle Kirk has with the loss of his friend and McCoy’s unexplained madness. The Genesis project had become very hush hush and, sadly the Enterprise was due to be decommissioned.
Once Sarek enters the picture, the story picks up its pace. The mind-meld between Sarek and Kirk is exceptionally shot by director of cinematography, Charles Correll. This sequence in particular is a hallmark of this film. It created an intimacy that other Star Trek films didn’t necessarily incorporate.
David Marcus and Lieutenant Saavik are reassigned in THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK to the science vessel, U.S.S. Grissom, another newly designed ship. It is an unarmed, exploratory vessel on a research assignment to the newly created Genesis Planet. These early scenes with Marcus and Saavik demonstrate a hurried excitedness, not only to move the story along, but also to build out the dangers that await them on Genesis.
A variant of the Kobayashi Maru theme runs through this film once again as Kirk is faced with a life and death situation from which there is no escape. As a grounded Admiral, he is forced to steal the Enterprise. In a unique scene between Kirk and Fleet Admiral Morrow (Robert Hooks), Morrow reminds Kirk, “Jim, your life and your career stand for rationality, not for intellectual chaos! Keep up this emotional behavior, and you’ll lose everything! You’ll destroy yourself! Do you understand me, Jim?” Kirk is quick to respond in that Kirk-like way. “I hear you. (chuckles) I had to try.” In that instant, Kirk reminded us that intellectual chaos had ruled his life and career thus far and for his friends and his ideals, it was worth sacrificing his career.
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This is the point where the story picks up its pace as Kirk plots a return to Genesis in spite of orders. These efforts, as well as the inclusion of The Original Series supporting cast heightened the pacing of the story a bit more naturally than the first act.
When Bones is confronted with what ails him, his reaction, “that green-blooded-son-of-a-bitch, is this his revenge for all those arguments he lost” is absolutely priceless. That’s the beauty of these theatrical stories – the PG rating (now PG-13) really allowed what the series had wanted to say but couldn’t because of television censorship.
These films also allowed us to see Kirk’s gambits on the widescreen, with a much bigger canvas. His poker face as he baits Kruge is as empty as Kruge’s threats, again pointing to the lack of development of the Kruge character, not Christopher Lloyd’s performance.
Kirk’s gambit doesn’t come without cost or sacrifice.  The production did its best to hide the destruction of the Enterprise, which the marketing team splashed all over the film’s theatrical trailer. But, this gambit also results in the death of David Marcus. The revelation of his father’s tendencies in the development of the Genesis Project demonstrated his impetuous ways, which felt out of sorts with a STAR TREK story because it was done in a very hurried fashion, unlike Kirk who was a gambler with a purpose. In a way, his own sacrifice for Spock and Saavik redeems his misdeeds in life.
Kirk questions the reasoning behind the decisions hes made, “What have I done?” McCoy, who knows Kirk best (and benefits from having Spock’s essence within) replies, “What you always do. You turned death into a fighting chance to live.” No matter how many times I watch the film, this hits home as Kirk is distilled into his most vulnerable point as a character. One could make an argument for his “I need my pain!” speech in STAR TREK V: THE FINAL FRONTIER, but that isn’t as central to his overall character.
The Genesis Planet and Kruge’s attempt to gain its secrets paralleled the ongoing Cold War tensions between the United States and the U.S.S.R. at the time. From Starfleet Command’s quiet tamping down of Kirk and crew to the fact that they sent out an unarmed research vessel into harms way and Kirk saving the day with a limping horse named Enterprise fit the mood and the real-life tensions of the day.
Despite Charles Correll’s desire to film on location, Paramount chose to save money by filming the Genesis Planet “locations” on stage. In fact, near the end of principal shooting, one of the stages caught fire. They were able to save it with minimal disruption to the schedule, but you can tell for most of the film that the location scenes were on a stage. The fist fight between Kirk and Kruge was one of the better staged “location” elements. There was a sense of danger for both characters.
With Spock recovered, the crew of the Enterprise return to Vulcan where famed stage actress Dame Judith Anderson returned to the screen as a Vulcan High Priestess. The fal tor pan sequence in which the essence of Spock is returned to his physical form is STAR TREK’s first real stab at religious themes of resurrection.
McCoy brashly states, “I choose the danger,” when faced with the choice of living with Spock or returning Spock to his physical body. Even with their arguments over the years, McCoy knew that the risk was justified. This is where the story lets us down just a bit. As Kirk and crew prepare to steal the Enterprise, Scotty (James Doohan) asks Kirk if he would give the ‘word’. Kirk sardonically replies, “Gentleman, may the wind be at our backs.” It’s a genuine moment, but is rendered moot with his interaction with Spock towards the end of the film when he says, “because the needs of the one outweighed the needs of the many.”
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The sacrifices and the dangers represented in STAR TREK III: THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK are a part of STAR TREK’s spirit, mythology and history. There is a convenience in the way events unfold and an emptiness in Kirk’s gambit. The Genesis Planet and its fate are a far more defined villainy than the central villain, Kruge.
On the other hand, STAR TREK III: THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK is full of beautiful special effects and genuine character moments, both for the entire original cast as well as for the film’s guest stars. James Horner returned, creating a more moody score. His pieces during the mind meld between Kirk and Sarek, the theft of the Enterprise and its subsequent destruction are amongst the best in the film series. Horner opens up his range during the fal tor pan sequence, yet it is still moody and somber in its themes. There’s a reverential feel about his music in this film; less ‘heat’ and ‘fire’ than THE WRATH OF KHAN, but no less operatic. The most important detail that THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK gets right is the fact that it opened up so many new opportunities for the series’ history and mythologies.
In today’s parlance, it “world builds” very well. That’s also its problem. It is so worried about adding layers that it sets aside its own history to pave the way for a future.
…and the Adventure continues…ad hominem.