May 4 2011 11:57am

All For One: Star Trek III: The Search For Spock

The third Star Trek feature film gets a bad rap. It had a hard act to follow. How could any movie continue the saga after the masterful and heart-wrenching second film, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan? Even today, few fans list the third film among their three most-favorite of the eleven feature films, and it often cracks viewers’ top five simply by default rather than out of affection. While I acknowledge that the film has flaws, I think it’s far better than most people remember.

I think part of its image problem is that, for many fans, it’s easy to take the good parts of the movie for granted while giving too much weight to its imperfections. Admittedly, the biggest strike against Search for Spock is that it embodies the much-reviled trope known as “the reset button.” One could argue that, by using technobabble and magical science-fantasy to resurrect Spock, the third film robs its predecessor of its dramatic impact. In fact, I’m fairly certain I myself have made that argument on many occasions. However, considering that Spock continues to be a brilliant character despite this hokey reincarnation, I propose we just let that go.

The film’s other missteps are by no means trivial. The forced casting change for Saavik, with Robin Curtis stepping into the role originated by Kirstie Alley (who didn’t want to reprise the part), undercut the easy suspension of disbelief that a story such as this demands. As if that weren’t enough to strain viewers’ patience, the “science” underpinning this movie is ludicrous, even by Star Trek’s rather lax standards. We’re asked to believe that the Genesis Planet is unstable because Dr. David Marcus used “protomatter” in the Genesis Device (I have a whole other rant about that), and that the planet’s “energy field” somehow regenerated Spock’s corpse, rejuvenated it into a child who ages rapidly but never seems to eat, and causes the whole planet to spontaneously explode.

Looming large above those picayune quibbles, however, is the one enormous, unmotivated turn of the plot that propels the entire story: the decision by Kirk and his crew to return to the Genesis planet. I don’t want to put too fine a point on this: this part of the story makes no sense.

Early in the film, McCoy—speaking in Spock’s voice—asks Kirk to take him home to Vulcan, and to “climb the steps of Mount Seleya.” Subsequently, Sarek visits Kirk at home and asks him to bring Spock’s katra, his “living essence” or soul, home to Vulcan, as McCoy requested. Kirk and Sarek discover that Spock placed his katra into the mind of McCoy for safekeeping, so Sarek asks Kirk to bring McCoy to Vulcan so that Spock’s katra can be retrieved from the human doctor’s mind and both Spock’s spirit and McCoy’s can be at rest.

Following this so far?  Okay, good.

The very next things that happen are that Kirk asks his boss to let him take the Enterprise back to the Genesis planet, and McCoy gets arrested while trying to book illegal passage to the Genesis planet. Say it with me: “Huh?”

Five minutes earlier, everyone had been focused on going to Vulcan. That should be easy. It’s very close to Earth. Flights probably leave three times a day. Starfleet probably operates a regular transport service. So, why, all of a sudden, do all our characters want to go back to the Genesis planet? They don’t need Spock’s body for the ceremony to free McCoy of Spock’s katra, and and none of them at this point have any reason to believe Spock’s body is even intact.

They want to go only because the plot said so. It’s a colossal unforced error the likes of which isn’t usually seen outside of a Mets home game.

But I didn’t write this just to rag on Search for Spock. I’m writing this to tell you why this film is actually kind of awesome, despite these dramatic blemishes. There is so much that is right and awesome about this movie that it will knock your socks off.

The banter between the members of the Enterprise crew is packed with funny retorts and spot-on perfect jibes.  This easily ranks among the funniest of the Star Trek films, right up there with Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. This movie is jam-packed with  great comedic moments—from the sabotage of the Excelsior to McCoy’s failed neck-pinch, from Scotty grousing “Up your shaft” at an overly chipper turbolift voice, to McCoy, upon learning that Spock foisted his katra upon him, declaring, “That green-blooded Vulcan son of a bitch!”

You want action? This film’s got action. Uhura pulls a phaser on a cocky youngster, Sulu whips some fancy judo on a tough-talking bruiser who deserves an ass-kicking, Kirk and crew hijack the Enterprise out of spacedock, and an entire planet goes boom. There’s cinematic adventure galore here.

If the criteria by which one judges a Star Trek film is whether its story has high stakes and lasting consequences, Search for Spock more than measures up. Kirk sacrifices his career, his ship, and his son to keep his word to Sarek and fulfill his duty to his best friend. Anyone who didn’t mist up when the Enterprise self-destructed can’t have been a true fan of the original series. And despite my criticism of the resurrection of Spock as a “reset button,” the scene of his true rebirth, when his katra is rejoined with his regenerated body, and he’s reunited with Kirk, is beautifully depicted and deeply moving.

The underlying theme of Wrath of Khan is “one for all.” The sentiment at the heart of Search for Spock is “all for one”—and both are part of what makes Star Trek great.

David Mack is the author of numerous Star Trek novels and the cowriter of two episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

This article is part of Star Trek Movie Marathon: ‹ previous | index | next ›
1. Edgewalker
It's been a while, but don't they say they need his body to complete the ritual of laying him to rest?
Marcus W
2. toryx
I very much agree. The plot itself is so weak and the science so bad that it just hurts your brain to think about it.

Then again, this is absolutely no different from the 2009 Star Trek movie. I kind of have to wonder if J.J. Abrams saw ST: III and decided to use it as his baseline for a Star Trek movie.

When you set all these things aside, however, it's got moments of greatness. The dialogue alone is so enjoyable that I can quote half the movie verbatim. And this is the closest to an ensemble film Star Trek ever had, giving everyone a good moment.

It also helps that basically McCoy is the real star of the movie and he's always been my favorite character anyway. I watch ST: III just for McCoy. Which is yet another similarity to the Abrams Star Trek.

So even though the plot itself is pretty terrible, this movie has some of my all time favorite scenes. I love that whole encounter between McCoy and the alien when he's trying to charter a flight to Genesis. I love Sarek's scene. The destruction of Enterprise breaks my heart every time I see it but I still love the moment between Kirk and McCoy immediately after. And though the scene on Vulcan was dragged out for way too long, when McCoy finally comes back from having his brains unscrambled the moments that follow are incredibly touching.

So despite everything that made absolutely no sense whatsoever, I do love this film.
Chris Hawks
3. SaltManZ
To me, movies II-IV are Star Trek—nothing else is necessary (though I quite enjoy V as well.) But III is the linchpin that holds the entire sequence together.
4. Spot the Cat
I like to watch the three films together, from the Wrath of Khan to the Voyage Home, as one long story, and then it doesn't seem as painful. Science fiction does not have to be based on real science for me to enjoy it, as the personalities of the characters and the way they interact are what I really enjoy.
James Whitehead
5. KatoCrossesTheCourtyard
ST III is definitely the bridge between II & IV but I did like it anyway. Sulu telling that mucle bound meat head, "Don't call me tiny" was priceless. I did love the interaction of the crew has they break McCoy out & steal the Enterprise. Really believed they 'cared' about Spock to do all this.

Not too worried about the 'science' of the whole thing as ST science is at best dubious. I did think the switch of Saavik was glaring but mostly because Curtis wasn't as good as Saavik as Kirstie Alley was.

On the plus side, Christopher Lloyd was fabulous at the Klingon commander. His depiction paved the way for the Klingon 'renaissance', for lack of a better way to put it, that we see today.

Chris Hawks
6. SaltManZ
Chalk me up as another Lloyd-as-Kruge fan, but I never warmed to Kirstie Alley's Saavik; it was always Robin Curtis for me.
Noneo Yourbusiness
7. Longtimefan
It is a very impassioned movie about rescuing the most logical member of the team.

It would have been nice if Kirstie Alley had chosen to remain. Maybe with CGI they can offer a re-print where fans can chose a Kirstie Alley Saavik or a Robin Curtis Saavik for continuity.

Each actress could be paid a nominal fee based on which revision the fans chose to purchase.

Or we can just make all the characters William Shatner just for fun. :)
j p
8. sps49
It's also the only time Spock is shown to get any.

It is a decent movie, and the franchise still cares about itself here.

But I always wonder if the crew of the Yorktown felt like they got the shaft just so "our" crew could get a replacement ship.
Marcus W
9. toryx
I totally agree with the others who have commented on Chrisopher Lloyd's performance as Kruge. He was quite enjoyable in the role.

Longtimefan @ 7:

I have no doubt that'll someday be possible. And when it is, I'll definitely be watching only Kirstie Alley for Saavik.
10. Mike Poteet
"it embodies the much-reviled trope known as 'the reset button'" -- Yeah, because the status quo is for the Enterprise to be destroyed, Kirk & Co. to be on the lam, and Spock to be the mental equivalent of a first-grader. If you want to criticize the film for being one step on the road to reset, that's one thing; but the movie leaves a lot of unfinished business that the next one has to mop up.

You're closer to the mark for criticizing a plot that just doesn't hold together on the surface. Fortunately, great character moments abound and some great action abound, more than making up for it. And, absolutely -- where's the love for Christopher Lloyd as Kruge? I think he pulls the role off spectacularly. Too bad he couldn't have returned as an ongoing nemesis.

(Oh, and consider me a "yes" vote for a circa 1982 Kirstie Alley-fied ST III, too.)
Richard Chapling
11. Chappers
It almost feels like there's a scene cut out where Kirk hears a report from the Grissom regarding finding a life-form on Genesis.

The films did do very well for their villain casting. Khan, Kruge, Chang...
12. WickedCarptelltruths
Re: the plot holes.

I could just be crazy here, but doesn't Kirk specifically state in The Wrath of Khan that he would HAVE to come back to Genesis one day? It is a voiceover while he is musing about the life from lifelessness of the Genesis torpedo.
13. TBonz
I've always loved this movie and am willing to suspend my disbelief.

It's about family - the Enterprise family.

They should have never killed off Spock in the first place, drama be damned. If I want drama, I'll call my family.

Poor Robin Curtis, it's not her fault that she had to replace someone who was a perfect Saavik. Had we never seen Kirstie as Saavik, we'd have been fine with Curtis.
14. Jaquandor
Uhhh...they DO need Spock's body for the planned Katra ritual. Sarek specifically says: "You must bring them BOTH to Mt. Seleya." It was never "Bring McCoy to Vulcan and we'll do the rest."

The film has plot holes galore, obviously -- but the exchange between Kirk and Sarek at the end -- "But at what cost? Your ship, your son." "If I hadn't tried, the cost would have been my soul." -- is as good a Trek character moment as I can think of.

On Robin Curtis: I read a Starlog interview with her back in the day in which she indicated how her big struggle was playing the emotionless Vulcan Saavik; director Nimoy kept telling her to say her lines "Drier. Drier. Drier." But Saavik was never an emotionless Vulcan, so the error may well lie in Nimoy's complete misunderstanding of the character.
15. Edgewalker
Not trying to be sassy, but for someone to miss something so big and the criticize the movie for a plothole that doesn't exist doesn't bode well for these re-watches.
Marcus W
16. toryx
Well to be fair, the movie tried to have it both ways. First it was all about bringing Spock's katra back to Vulcan. Then suddenly they needed Spock's body too. There was no explanation for that and, really, it made no sense whatsoever.

A number of the Star Trek novels written later went through a considerable amount of effort to explain it without really being successful because there's nothing of logic to it. Unless you're returning the soul to the body there's no need for the body whatsoever. And if it was so important to ensure the body went back to Vulcan, why didn't Spock's will stipulate it? They're not going to just jettison his body into space at random.

It's a huge plothole that makes no sense. But that's okay, I forgave it long ago.
17. Lil Shepherd
I'm very fond of this movie, but mainly because I can just see the Enterprise mob as an interstellar A-Team - which was what this movie looked as if it was setting up. I was very sorry the next film did not exploit this idea.
18. Jaquandor
Toryx @16: Not to get hopelessly stuck on a particular plot point -- and you're right, the whole thing makes zero sense -- but it was "Bring Spock and katra to Vulcan" the whole time. The first time in the movie this stuff comes up, it's when McCoy has broken into Spock's quarters, and speaking as Spock, he says to Kirk, "You left me on Genesis...why did you do that?" This pretty strongly implies that Kirk wasn't supposed to shoot Spock onto the Genesis Planet.

As stipulated, the whole business makes no sense, but that's not the same thing as saying that the movie tries to have it both ways. It's one way, all along. (I seem to recall Vonda McIntyre's novelization addressing some of this stuff, trying to come up with an explanation of sorts for why they need a corpse to transfer the katra to...someplace else, but I can't recall what that explanation was. It was an interesting novelization, though -- more than half of it is stuff that didn't happen in the movie, such as Spock's wake on the Enterprise, and a MUCH more "in line with Trek II" characterization of Saavik.)
19. Glenn Greenberg
Important to note that the final version of ST III is different from the way it was scripted. As originally written, the film was to open with the scene in which the U.S.S. Grissom arrives at the Genesis Planet and discovers that Spock's tube is on the surface. As you may recall, this discovery is immediately reported back to Starfleet.

The next scene would have been the introduction of the Enterprise (the scene that ended up opening the film), and Kirk's voiceover would have been slightly different. Instead of him saying, "The death of Spock is like an open wound," he would have said, "The news of Spock's tube has shaken me."

So Kirk would have known from the moment we first saw him in the movie that Spock's capsule was intact, and this information naturally would have reached Sarek before he showed up at Kirk's apartment. It would have been fairly clear that both men were fully aware that Spock's body was still in existence and on the Genesis Planet, and how they knew.

But in the editing stage, it was decided to begin the film with the Enterprise, and that created some plot holes and lapses in logic that weren't fully addressed in post-production.
Jim Burnell
20. JimBurnell
Regarding Saavik: I always liked Robin Curtis better. I think she was better at being dry and unemotional. The novelization of Star Treks II and III indicated that Saavik was intended to have been half-Vulcan, half-Romulan. By that standard I'd take Kirstie Alley's portrayal. But since that detail was never canonized on film, I felt Curtis did a better job as a Vulcan.

The other thing that I love about this movie that didn't get mentioned: Horner's score for II and III was amazing, and the capstone of it all is the music for "Stealing the Enterprise". I listened to that so many times on my casette recording that I ruined the tape. Truly awesome music.
21. SeeingI
@ Glenn Greenberg: Good lord, how I want to hear Shatner intone "The news of Spock's tube has shaken me."
Michael Burke
22. Ludon
@20 JimBurnell

I too enjoyed Horner's Star Trek music but a problem with Horner becomes evident if you listen to a lot of soundtracks and filmscores. Horner does a lot of Horner - he borrows from himself. (Much more than Goldsmith, Williams and now McCreary.) I cannot listen to his Star Trek soundtracks without seeing scenes from Brainstorm.

Having said that, I do like James Horner's work. For me, his best was the score for Searching For Bobby Fischer.
23. Book CluB Mom
Sarek says Kirk must bring BOTH of them to Vulcan. You missed that line! That's why they went to the Genesis planet.

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