Saturday, October 30, 2010

Star Trek III: The Search For Spock

Release Date: June 1, 1984
Director: Leonard Nimoy


After the surprise success of Star Trek II, this installment was given an instant green light by Paramount. Bennet and Nimoy had left a deliberate opening at the end of II to bring Spock back ("Remember..."), and it was deemed appropriate to make this film all about his return. Nimoy parlayed this unique negotiating power into his feature directorial debut. Star Trek III picks up essentially immediately after the conclusion of the previous film, with the crew and vessel licking their collective wounds, limping back home. It is upon arrival there that Kirk discovers his blunder - Spock's father Sarek demands that his son's body be brought home to Vulcan for a proper burial and that his katra, which has been deposited in the person of Dr. McCoy, be brought along with it. Kirk, out of devotion to his fallen comrade, risks his career to go back to the now forbidden Genesis planet, which has become the center of galactic controversy, representing the ultimate power to create and destroy.  What they discover there, however, gives them a shocking new purpose - Spock's body, regenerated by the Genesis planet, might just be reunited with his katra - if only they can survive the murderous designs of the Klingon Commander, Kruge... what will the crew have to sacrifice this time?

Hey, at least it didn't get wrecked the first time Troi got behind the wheel...


Matthew: It might be said that Star Trek II kind of wrote our crew into a corner. Certainly, the shape of STIII is almost entirely dictated by the parameters laid down in the previous movie. But could it really have been any other way? I'm trying to imagine a movie in between. What if IV had come before III? I think, at worst, it might be said that retrieving Spock so "soon" robs it of some impact. I think that this dulled impact is compensated for, however, by the characters. The theme of "the many vs. the few" is developed here, in a reversed form from the previous movie. Whereas Spock's utilitarian calculus had moved him to sacrifice himself for the many, now, human sentiment and love leads a group of friends to sacrifice themselves for the sake of just one of their fellows. The other theme running through this tale, though perhaps more subtly, is the danger of technology untethered to a full-bodied morality. David Marcus' slipshod scientific ethics have led to the creation of a powerfully destructive device, to be sure, but even worse, it is a device that leads to instability and ruin on its own terms. The metaphorical link to atomic power and the "race" of two competing empires to command it is definitely present in this story.

Kevin: I agree that the plot of SFS is largely dictated by the events of WOK, but I never felt like the resurrection robs WOK of its impact. It's nowhere near the sin of Nemesis, that packs its potential resurrection explicitly into the denouement of the same movie. And, as Sarek points out at the end, it's not like Spock's life comes without a cost. I think they successfully resisted the urge to make everything better, as if it had simply never happened.

Matthew: We get to see more of the McCoy character in this film, and it is to good effect. His "crazy" scenes are genuinely unnerving, and his scene with Spock's soulless body is very emotionally effective. It was nice to see their relationship acknowledged and explored in this script.

Kevin: As in All Our Yesterdays, the few moments between just Spock and McCoy are great. It's nice to see the characters have conflict and connection that is not solely in the context of their roles as personification of Kirk's character traits. The writers should be given particular praise for handling so much sentiment so cleanly. One very easy way to annoy me is to talk about something rather than show it. I don't want a speech about McCoy's feelings for Spock. I want to see them. So, the quiet scene with maybe a few lines, and Spock unconscious to boot was profoundly affecting, where a longer scene with too much exposition would have dragged.

Matthew: Kevin has pointed out some narrative creakiness in this plot, leaps of logic in which characters make decisions that don't seem entirely founded in the plot, as opposed to being necessitated by the plot. I think this is a valid criticism, but one that is surmounted by the charm of the actors and by the overall momentum of the movie. This is very action-oriented, and for the most part, the action really works. It is hard not to be quite entertained by the whole thing, and our investment in the characters makes the perils and dangers seem very real and palpable. The scene in which the Klingons murder a hostage is very effective.

Kevin: The only moment that truly bothers me is when Kruge kills Valkris. It seems odd he would kill a close confidant for seeing the material then show it to members of his crew. Alternately, why would she look at it in the first place? I understand that its supposed to establish the value of the Genesis information, but it makes me question the credibility of the villain in his first scene. As far as my other issue, why do they decided to go back to Genesis when Sarek initially only seems concerned about getting Spock's katra to Vulcan...that one I can let go more easily. It's plausible they received the Grissom's initial report, or maybe Spock's mind inside McCoy nudged the decision, realizing the possibility of the effect of the Genesis wave on his body. In any event, it's not that there's no valid reason for them to know to go back to Genesis; it's that we don't see them learn it. And Matt's right, the characters are credible enough in their performances to cover the gap.

Matthew: I must say, I also find the concepts of Katra and Fal-Tor-Pan to be rather problematic. The way it is portrayed is as some sort of memory/soul dump into another person. "Everything which was not of the body" and so forth. But why, if this is being done, does Spock retain his knowledge and intentions at the end of STII, namely, saving the ship? Apparently, then, this is some sort of copying process. So... does the Spock we get after being reunited with his Katra remember his scenes with Kirk at the end of STII? This seems impossible if the memory "file" was saved a few minutes beforehand.  Does Spock remember the time his Katra was in McCoy? Does the Genesis-regenerated body of Spock have its own Katra, which is being either overwritten by or appended to with the original Katra? This seems to present ethical issues, since young Spock clearly had the ability to feel pain, pleasure, form preferences, and the like. Suffice it to say, it's a big can of worms, and it is given rather short shrift. I can't blame the movie for not wanting to get bogged down by this. These sorts of questions seem more appropriate to an episode. It's just too bad this episode has never been written.


Matthew: Shatner shines again, and his screen time is only buoyed by the absence of Nimoy for 90 minutes. He doesn't waste the opportunity. He knows his character inside and out, and every signature aspect of Kirk shines in this outing. Kirk is at turns brash, rebellious, cool, calculating, emotional, and brave. It's a quintessential Kirk performance for Shatner. As mentioned above, DeForest Kelley gets a chance to flex his dramatic muscles. I wish we had seen more of him, because he really excels. The sheer pathos he wrings out of a demented McCoy is really impressive. 

Kevin:  I agree with you on both Shatner and Kelly. It remains a shame that Shatner gets tagged as being hammy, when this movie shows he can be anything but that. And the scene on the bird of prey after they rescue Spock where McCoy admits to unexpectedly missing him is moving and the perfect payoff of 79 episodes and 2 films of bickering.

Matthew: I can't mention this film without citing my favorite Uhura scene - her hilarious and cool bitch-slapping of "Mr. Adventure" during the crew's hijack of the Enterprise: 

"Um, can I come out of the closet now?"
"No way, cracker... this fantasy's not over yet..."

She is really great in this scene (some dialogue may have been changed above). I wish she had gotten more to do, because she is really wonderful here. But this is something that the Trek supporting cast has been great at for years - making the most of a small scene. Doohan and Takei really shine, too, in their "Excelsior" and "Don't Call Me Tiny" scenes. 

Kevin: I never understood why Uhura didn't go with, and I wish she had. Scenes like this make it clear she has the chops to fill screen time with the boys, and her underutilization in both the series and the movies remains one of the franchise's more enduring sins.

Matthew: Christopher Lloyd does a great job delivering lines in Klingon and making them sound like he really cares about what he's saying. That's got to be hard to do. And Mark Lenard? Forget about it. Anything with him in it is aces in my book.

Kevin: Given Lloyd's resume of more comedic roles, like Taxi, Back to the Future, and a personal favorite, Uncle Fester in the Addams' Family movies, it's especially nice to see him handle a dramatic role so easily. He may be less bombastic than Khan, but the movie wasn't trying to paint Kirk and Kruge as grand nemeses, just enemies. I like the transition in the character after the death of his crew. There's a calculating ruthlessness in his earlier actions that turns to suicidal zeal in the final fight with Kirk.

Kevin: I would be remiss in my duties here at Treknobabble if I did not single out Robin Curtis for praise. I like her Saavik more than Kirstie Allie's. Kirstie Allie never quite found the reserve that I think I Vulcan should portray. It came off more as distant and a little brusque. I think Robin Curtis nailed the layer of forced serenity of a deeper pool of emotions. Maybe with Nimoy directing, there was more focus on that, but I think it paid off. Her report of David's death was a page right out of the TOS Spock playbook of a veneer of neutrality of a torrent of emotion, obvious to the viewer, if not the other characters.

Matthew: I don't want to attack someone for their looks, which are largely beyond their control. But Curtis' face is much more interesting than Kirstie Allie's. I found her much more magnetic on screen, and I wanted to know more about the character than I did Allie's Saavik.

Production Values

Matthew: I think this movie is the unsung hero of the Star Trek franchise. This film did more to contribute to the look and the shape of the Trek universe than any other. We get the classic "mushroom" Spacedock which will be seen countless times in the future series. The Oberth-class science vessel Grisson is introduced. The utterly classic Klingon Bird of Prey makes its debut here. There is just something about the sets, the props, and the models in this movie that "feel" like Star Trek, in a way that no other movie in the franchise had really captured to this point. Put simply, Star Trek III sets the tone for the rest of Trek through the 80s and 90s.

Kevin: Nimoy took a very direct hand in selecting designs, and his attention to detail shows. The Bird of Prey manages to convey everything it needs to in its very first frame. There is a reason the ship sticks around and supplants the D7 as the go-to model for Klingon ships. The Excelsior is the perfect next step in the progression of Federation design and hangs as a lovely midpoint between the Constitution and Galaxy classes. The Spacedock was an amazing model and provided for an amazing scene. Watching on a big screen, your stomach drops a little at the implied enormity of the space, and it provides several smaller venues for awesomeness in the control station and the cafeteria where now Commander Rand watches the ship dock.

Note: I forgot to mention this on the podcast, but the credits credit Whitney only as "Woman in Cafeteria." I wonder if that was to not have to pay royalties to whichever writer created the character, but still...that's a little cold to do the woman. Hasn't her character suffered enough?  

Matthew: The use of STII footage to recapitulate parts of that plot was actually pretty artful. It didn't seem gratuitous. I will say, however, that the pacing of the Mt. Seleya scene at the end drags a bit, especially after the action thrill-ride we had just enjoyed for the previous 90 minutes.

Kevin: The hyper-letterboxing was surprisingly effective, though I can't articulate why. The smaller screen just made me feel more desolate somehow. The Seleya scenes could have been trimmed, but for what was there, it was pretty awesome. For a people who eschew emotion, they know how to be total fucking drama queens when the occasion calls for it.

Matthew: Nimoy seems to have chosen a higher grain film stock than in STII.  While this choice may be fine for what it is, it leads to a Blu-Ray that is somewhat butchered by grain reduction and DNR. Paramount, if you're reading this - grain isn't the enemy. Excessive digital manipulation of images is. There are some waxy faces on this Blu-Ray presentation. It doesn't reach STIV levels of crapulence, but it is noticeable. 

Kevin: This bothers me far less than it does Matthew, but I will say it is sad they did not remaster the negative first, like they did for WOK.


Matthew: I unabashedly love this movie, and I hate it when it is lumped in with the "bad odd numbers." That notion is a crock, people. Is it as good as II? No. But it's quite entertaining in its own right, and adds loads of texture to the universe. It is vigorously entertaining for nine tenths of its run-time. Only the final scene drags, and that is still salvaged by the actors. This is a 4. Easily in the upper quartile of Trek tales. It probably just misses a 5 by a few ticks.

Kevin: This is a 4 for me as well, for a total of 8. It lacks TWOK's ambition and scale, but it more than compensates with a tightly executed action story punctuated with plenty of genuinely emotional moments. I agree with Matt that the film's contributions to canon are plenty, and sadly overlooked. This isn't just an okay movie, or even a good movie only for Trek fans. This is a good movie. Period. It's sad it gets lumped in with weaker offerings, largely to maintain the "odd number curse" thesis, because it doesn't deserve it.

Curse schmurse. This movie was a hoot.



  1. I generally liked your podcast on this one. Though I was slightly annoyed by the constant references to the Blu-Ray transfer — since I'm goin' off the DVDs, I can't actually see the noise removal issue —  I was glad to hear someone else enthusing about how vital the movie is to the expansion of the STU. I remember being utterly amazed by this movie as a kid, probably more so than even Khan. It made Starfleet somehow more real by showing Kirk in face-to-face informal sit-downs with his bosses. It also some real and credible definition to Vulcans and Klingons.

    I also very much appreciated your defense of Shatner. He is fantastic here — better even than in the last film, where he was ridiculously good. People are so damned used to picking on the man that in order to be caricatured, there must be something about you worth exaggerating. He is at the very top of his game in every part of this film, and when people complain about Shatner's acting style, I can't help but think about how perfect he is here.

    On the other hand, I think you're both utterly wrong about the denouement. It's perfectly timed. It's as long as it needs to be to convey doubt about whether the procedure will work. its length, and all those reaction shots, are the only things that create any doubt about the results of the procedure. Besides, if the film is called "The Search for Spock", then it's perfectly appropriate that the final leg of that journey both takes a while and is lavishly photographed. It makes Vulcan seem a most wondrous place. I wouldn't touch one thing about that ending. In fact, it makes me wish there could have been an entire film set on Vulcan.

    Indeed, the major problems with this film aren't really in the narrative. The problems really have to do with the marketing, which was beyond spoilery.

    Harve Bennett tacked on a shot of the funeral casket at the end of Khan, which was just a horrible idea. He shouldn't have messed with Meyers' cut, which trusted the audience to have the emotional maturity to leave the theatre believing Spock was D-E-A-D dead. I see you guys gave 5 to Kahn, but really that telegraphing of Spock's not-death should be an automatic full point deduction. It's a huge flaw in that movie, which robbed viewers of a lot of potential emotion.

    The second main issue with this movie was one you kinda danced around: the name. If you name a film "The Search for Spock", there's little doubt they're gonna find him. It's so "on the nose" that it's actually a spoiler. "Wrath of Khan" tells you that somebody named Khan is angry. "First Contact" gives ya all of nothing to go on. Plain, simple "Star Trek" — and why you guys so unfairly malign the 2009 film at the drop of a hat, I'll never know — is an even better title.

    If this thing had been called "Star Trek: Katra", "Star Trek: Disobedience", "Star Trek:AWOL", "Star Trek: Identity Crisis" — or, dear God, Any Damn Bland Thing At All — I for one would have been much happier.

  2. Oh, and one more thing: you are — and there is no nice way to say this — out of your flippin' minds to think that Robin Curtis is a better Saavik than Kirstie Alley. They just had different briefs. Alley was playing Saavik as a Romulan/Vulcan hybrid, because that was the original character concept. For whatever reasons, Nimoy and company changed that, such that Curtis believed she was playing full Vulcan, and was obviously coached by Nimoy in that direction. And, I'm sorry, but there's no way that Curtis can hold a candle to Kim Catrall in Undiscovered Country. Far better to have a new character, but get Catrall, than to have Robin Curtis return as Saavik.

    Not for one minute do I believe Spock would deliberately choose some kind of pseudo-sexual relationship with Curtis, when he could have had T'Pring. I do absolutely believe that Catrall offers him the kind of stimulation he would need. The Saavik/Spock vibe is far too inappropriate — like a professor preying on his undergraduate student. Catrall's character does seem his equal in a way that Curtis' (or, really, Alley's) performance never suggested.

  3. Darth,

    Thanks for your insightful comments, first of all. It's nice to know someone is reading and listening!

    As for the 2009 movie, the following link will give you the general gist of my criticisms, at least:

    In short, the story is dumb, dumb, dumb. The comment section is an interesting read, too. Your mention of Spock never having a relationship with Saavik is interesting in light of the 2009 movie's sexy-times between Spock and Uhura, who is DIRECTLY under his supervision as his student, and then is assigned to his ship after she plays the relationship card. Blargh. That may be the most maddening part of an absolute cavalcade of crappy writing and storytelling that defecates on the fabric of something wonderful.

    I like the visuals in the Seleya scenes quite a bit. And I agree that some tension was necessary to pay off the promise of the slightly spoiler-ey premise. But the slow pan across the character's faces was only necessary once. I stand by my criticism of it as too drawn out, while acknowledging freely that it's a matter of taste.

    You should check out my Star Trek vs. Star Wars article, given your avatar name :-)