Before I get into my assessment of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, allow me a brief moment of indulgence. After my first day of first grade, my parents asked me who was in my class, and to describe them. I dutifully rattled off various names and attributes before noting that one classmate “had spaceman ears.” Now, I barely watched television as a kid (much less Star Trek, so I’m still a bit surprised that I would refer to someone with pointy ears in such a way. I barely remember anything else about said classmate (I think he’s a techno DJ in New Hampshire these days), but what I’m getting at, I guess, is that somehow Star Trek so deeply permeated the culture that even a little kid with no firsthand knowledge of it knew a Spock lookalike when he saw one.
The casting of Leonard Nimoy as the logical, emotion-impaired Vulcan is one of the most serendipitous in television history. His affect is, for lack of a better word, otherworldly, even without those angular eyebrows and jutting lobes. It’s almost impossible to imagine anyone other than Nimoy in the role. And what a difficult role it is: one that requires a tight control over any hint of emotion, while simultaneously exuding the confidence of one who possesses a staggering body of knowledge — all the while being strangely endearing, and providing an essential counterweight to the more visceral McCoy and passionate Kirk in the Enterprise‘s hierarchical trinity.
The problem with The Search for Spock is right there in the title: if the crew of the Enterprise is looking for the ol’ greenblood, that means he’s off-screen for most of the movie.
As ST:TSFS opens, the Enterprise is headed back for Earth after being heavily damaged by Khan; the ship is set to be decommissioned. Of course, the crew’s greatest loss was Spock, who was killed by radiation trying to fix the ship’s warp drive. But wait! Dr. McCoy is acting awfully funny; could it be that Vulcan mind-meld Spock dropped on him right before entering the reactor room? (Side note: the other major Star Trek memory from my youth was the vigorous playground debates among my third grade classmates as to whether the Vulcan neck pinch really worked.) Meanwhile, Kirk’s son David and Lt. Saavik (now played by Robin Curtis) have discovered an unspecified life form on the Genesis planet. They discover that Spock has been reborn, and is growing quickly, but the Genesis planet itself is highly unstable.
Back on Earth, Spock’s father Sarek (Mark Lenard) swings by Kirk’s quarters to upbraid him for leaving Spock’s corpse on the Genesis planet. However, he lightens up a bit (at least, as much as Vulcans can) after mind-melding with Kirk. He discovers that Spock’s soul has inhabited Bones’ body, which could be detrimental to both of them. Kirk realizes that his only chance to save Spock is to travel to the Genesis planet, which has been declared off limits by Starfleet command. Never one to stand on ceremony, he and the gang utilize some subterfuge in order to commandeer the beat-up Enterprise.
However, trouble awaits them. Kruge (Christopher Lloyd), a Klingon commander, is aching to get his hands on the Genesis device; like Khan, he sees its potential as a weapon. After pilfering some key information about its construction, he heads to the Genesis planet to learn more about the device and its destructive powers. His crew accidentally destroys a Starfleet vessel, and subsequently captures David, Saavik, and a rapidly maturing Spock, who is going through an intensely accelerated puberty.
Let me pause for a moment to address two things that have been bugging me as I watch the Trek movies. Number one is the way the Klingons are handled. As an outsider, I’ve always admired Star Trek‘s treatment of race; its vision of the future is one that’s refreshingly tolerant, with humans of all races working side-by-side with other life forms. So how do the Klingons fit in? Thus far, they’re dirty, devious, vile, and without nuance. I understand that a sci-fi series needs conflict in order to create dramatic tension, and I certainly don’t plan on becoming an advocate for Klingon rights. But as a non-initiate, I would like it if the films provided a little more backstory on this warrior race. Their motivations seem pretty murky to me.
My second issue is that it seems to me that they broke the mold after Nimoy when it comes to other actors playing Vulcans. Nimoy so embodies Spock — and by proxy the Vulcan demeanor — that virtually anyone else who tries is doomed to come up short. As Sarek, Lenard comes the closest; he looks uncannily like Nimoy and captures many of the mannerisms that he brought to the role. Others don’t fare as well; as Lt. Saavik, Kirstie Alley mostly seemed drowsy, and Collins too chipper. It’s not simply a matter of acting chops; Alley has been excellent in other roles, and Collins has a number of movie, TV, and theater roles to her credit. Nor do I expect all Vulcans to behave exactly the same. It’s just that Nimoy made the character his, and in doing so, defined an entire alien race; everyone else seems to merely mimic his affectations.
Back to the movie. The Enterprise arrives at the Genesis planet, and trades volleys with the Klingon warship. The Enterprise‘s controls are badly damaged, and Kruge decides to kill one of the captives on Genesis in order to further weaken the crew’s resolve (the victim is David, who volunteers in order to save Saavik and Spock). Kirk is obviously upset, but pulls it together long enough to double-cross the Klingons who plan to raid the Enterprise; he orders that the ship be programmed to self destruct, and he and the crew beam down to Genesis (the destruction of the Enterprise is one of the few moments of awe to be found in the film). There, Kirk and Kruge go mano-a-mano to the death as the Genesis planet collapses into chaos (no points for guessing who wins). Ultimately, the Enterprise crew commandeers the Klingon ship and heads to Vulcan, where Spock and Bones are disentangled. The end.
My reaction to The Search for Spock was essentially ho-hum; perhaps the fact that Khan set such a high bar contributed to my general disinterest. It doesn’t work as a stand-alone entity; you have to have plenty of familiarity with Trek history (and Khan) to understand what’s going on. But I think a larger factor is the emphasis on event over character; I’m becoming enamored with the Enterprise crew, and I find my interest waning when they’re not all on board, solving problems together.
Tomorrow I’m going whale-watching in the Bay Area with Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. For the sake of the franchise, I’m glad Spock will live long and prosper.