In this installment of our Nostalgia series, we’re looking at Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. Klingons, the return of the Genesis Project, some poignant moments for the Enterprise, and Spock, oh my…
When I first saw this film, in my early teens and at the height of my Trek-mania, I thought it was the best thing ever. After all, it all revolved around Spock! I read the novel adaptation, too, which fleshed out character relationships and motivations more than the film version allowed. But I never went back and watched it again until just recently…and now I remember why.
(Spoilers follow, of course.)
Here’s the thing. The Search for Spock could easily have been a great movie. There’s lots of good stuff in it.
Why It Should Have Been Good
As the story starts, our heroes have lost one of their own – no, make that two, since the Enterprise has been decommissioned – and they’re struggling to move on. They’ve been reassigned, separated. Kirk can’t even depend on Bones, because Bones has gone mad. The trio has been torn apart.
Then – there’s hope! Between Sarek’s asking Kirk about Spock’s katra (soul) and the news of the Genesis planet, they realize all may not be lost. They work together – even Uhura gets to do some ass-kicking – and steal the Enterprise out from under the nose of Scotty’s annoying new commander. But when they reach Genesis, everything goes wrong again. The scientists are missing, the Klingons are present, Kirk’s son is killed, and before long the Enterprise is literally going down in flames.
From this low point, our heroes claw their way back up. They defeat the Klingons, escape the disintegrating planet, rescue Spock – or at least his body – and take him back to Vulcan, where his katra is taken out of McCoy’s head and put back where it belongs. And they even end up back together on a brand-new Enterprise.
That all sounds fine, right? It’s got a good structure, a good plot arc, a couple of good character arcs, and some very poignant moments.
Which is why watching it was so frustrating.
Major problem #1: The Direction
This was Leonard Nimoy’s debut film as a director, and it shows. There’s always the sense that our characters are just starting to move when the camera turns on them; that they don’t exist outside of the story. The dialogue is far too pat to be real. The comedy falls flat. Even the music is too heavy-handed.
Major problem #2: Mary Sues
It’s sometimes a fine line between telling a story about a character who’s doing the most interesting thing in his story-verse, captain of the finest starship, possessor of the coolest powers and the greatest loyalty to a friend, and telling a story about a Mary Sue. Yes, those can be two different things. Viewers (and readers) want a cool character to follow, and they want her or him to triumph in the end. What they don’t want is a cool character whose storyteller is making things too easy.
Let me explain. All the way through, I got the sense that the universe (in the form of Nimoy) was on our heroes’ side. The people who try to stop them in their quest are often made to look like incompetent, shortsighted fools – or else downright evil. (Christopher Lloyd makes a fine evil villain, but he’s no Khan. Khan has not only motivation, but style. For more on Star Trek II, see my post here.)
Even when they’re watching the Enterprise streak across the sky in the form of a meteor, Kirk asks “My God, Bones, what have I done?”, and Bones answers, “What you had to do.” It sounds like Kirk is questioning himself, but the story thinks Kirk is right. This happens again and again. Of course, at the end he does turn out to be right, as a hero should…but you don’t want to know that until the end.
Major problem #3: the absence of Spock
Of course, Spock is there, but only as a MacGuffin and not in his right mind (ahem). Sadly, with Spock-as-we-know-him missing in action through most of the movie, an indelible part of the crew’s chemistry is gone. The last five minutes of the film, even with Spock not yet himself again, have more life in them than the preceding two hours.
…Or is that just my enduring crush talking?
Your turn. What did you think of The Search for Spock? Which bad movie do you wish had been done better so it lived up to the story’s potential? (Here’s another from me: Seven Years in Tibet.)