Star Trek III: The Second-Part of the Best Space Adventure Ever Put to Film


 

The Star Trek film franchise has a long and storied history. But few installments in this venerable series are as controversial and misunderstood as Star Trek III.

 

In the previous review, we covered how Wrath of Khan director Nicholas Meyer and writer/producer Harve Bennett coaxed Leonard Nimoy into reprising the role of Spock by offering to kill the iconic character off.  Spock’s death got a negative reception from audiences – including Nimoy, who had so much fun making Star Trek II that he asked to return for Star Trek III. So instead of the planned Return to Genesis, we got The Search for Spock.

 

Nimoy’s change of heart has since given rise to a number of false memes among Trek fandom. The most often-told tale holds that Nimoy had grown to loathe Spock and Star Trek after years of being type cast. So he appeared in the first film reluctantly, returned for the second with the understanding that it would be his final appearance, and only came back again because he needed the money. After that, he resigned himself to playing the role that overshadowed him until his death.

 

Some cursory research into The Wrath of Khan‘s production debunks that zombie meme. Nimoy had decided to stay with the series before Star Trek II premiered. The proof is two scenes added in post-production: Spock’s last-minute mind meld with Bones McCoy and the closing shot of his coffin torpedo on Genesis. Both were added to pave the way for Spock’s return should Wrath of Khan perform well enough to merit a sequel.

 

And perform it did – not grossing as high as TMP, but garnering higher profits due to its more cost-effective budget. With The Search for Spock greenlighted, Nimoy returned – this time behind the camera as well as in front of it – to continue the Enterprise‘s voyages.

 

Only this time, it’s not such smooth sailing. The film’s inciting incident is a grand heist sequence in which Admiral Kirk leads his senior officers in stealing the Enterprise. They know the career-ending consequences of such a caper full well – and they’re willing to accept the ramifications for the sake of Bones and Spock, the latter of whom has his soul trapped in the former’s body due to the aforementioned mind meld. Their one chance to save both of their friends is to recover Spock’s body from the quarantined Genesis Planet.

 

It’s at this point that the series fully overcomes the wooden, unnatural portrayals that plagued its first installment. The main cast play characters who’ve bonded over decades of working in close quarters, and they sell it flawlessly.

 

 

The first act also introduces one of SfS’s central themes: There ain’t no free lunch. Yes, you can get what you want, be it a starship,  the return of an absent friend, or atonement for a grave mistake – but you will have to pay the full asking price down to the last penny.

 

And Kirk & Co. aren’t the only ones seeking Genesis. Enter Klingon Bird of Prey commander Lord Kruge.

 

Played – in another of the film’s longstanding controversies – by comedic actor Christopher Lloyd.

 

 

Like Khan before him, Kruge wants the Genesis device for its superweapon potential. He’s also ruthlessly single-minded and a cunning tactician.

Those similarities aside – and this take comes close to Pop Cult blasphemy – Kruge is a better villain than Khan.

Before you scroll down to the comments to give me an earful, hear me out:

 

  • Khan lacked a clear motive for stealing the Genesis device. Yes, he used it as a suicide attack of last resort when Kirk disabled Reliant, but it’s obvious Khan didn’t expect to end up in that highly specific situation. Kruge wants Genesis to raise his profile as a warrior in the Klingon Empire. And one could see such a superweapon taking him to the top.
  • Whereas Khan’s vengeance motive often clouded his judgment, undermining his superhuman intellect, Kruge remains cool and calculating – except for a couple of violent outbursts meant to make a point. He even kills his lover to keep his mission secret. Kruge is all business, which is a major reason why …
  • Kruge proves to be more of a threat than Khan. The alleged superman wound up getting duped by Kirk. But Kruge sees through Kirk’s ruses and calls his bluffs, exacting heavy tolls in the form of the Enterprise and the life of Kirk’s son.

 

The latter point illustrates how Kruge plays a pivotal role in enforcing the movie’s “Every desire has a price” theme. And that theme has special importance in light of the film’s main plot.

 

 

Let’s talk about the elephant in the room: Spock’s resurrection.

 

It’s been a tired plot conceit for decades, thanks to the comic book industry’s refusal to make character death permanent. But resurrection stories can work. The foundational story of Western civilization is an example of one that happens to be true. The reason why nobody can pull off a satisfying return from death story these days is they do it on the cheap.

 

And I’m not talking about low production values. I mean contemporary writers don’t pay the cost in thematic terms.

 

But SfS does. And its villains and plot turns continually reinforce that cost. Which is why Spock’s return from the dead is one of the few post-1980 instances that works.

 

Storytelling 101 dictates that character achievements must be earned.

 

What that means to Kirk is that if he wants Spock back, he must pay an equivalent price.

 

And the movie doesn’t stop there. Every character who goes in search of Spock pays for it.

 

Kirk’s crew lose their standing in Starfleet.

 

Bones loses his mind for most of the movie and must accept an extreme risk to regain his sanity.

 

Saavik loses her ship and her romantic interest.

 

Kruge loses everything piece by piece until he finally loses his life.

 

And Kirk himself loses his rank, the Enterprise, and his son.

 

The movie makes us feel it, too. In particular, Shatner’s reaction to the death of Kirk’s son drives home how humbled and shaken these blows have left the great James Kirk.

 

 

To regain his brother, he had to give his son. Fair’s fair.

 

And doubly so, since David confesses that he cut corners while designing Genesis, using unstable and illegal materials in an act of hubris that’s endangered everyone. So according to the movie’s tough but fair standard of justice, the only way David can atone for his terrible choice is to pay the ultimate price.

 

In fact, David’s death pulls triple duty, since losing him is Saavik’s price, as well.

 

WoK and SfS both feature plot arcs that intersect at multiple characters’ turn and pinch points. That is how you maximize a story’s emotional impact, and it’s why Harve Bennett is not a writer to be trifled with.

 

And as I mentioned before, the end result is that Spock’s return from death feels earned. Even he pays a price in the form of memory and personality changes that persist until the final original cast film. That is the way to write a recurring character in a long-running series.

 

Before the final verdict is rendered, failing to mention this movie’s visuals would be gross negligence. The practical effects and models are as crunchy and solid as in Wrath of Khan – perhaps more so. We’re even treated to several significant firsts:

 

  1. First appearance of the standard Excelsior, Bird of Prey and Oberth-class models. These designs would continue as Trek mainstays into The Next Generation and Deep Space 9.
  2. Klingons as we know them throughout the rest of the original cast Trek films, as well as TNG and DS9, are codified here.
  3. The first time on film Kirk and his officers crew a ship other than the Enterprise.

 

 

So, how does Search for Spock compare to Wrath of Khan? Which Trek is better?

 

Regular readers know I seldom welsh on questions like these, so I’m cashing in my well-earned weasel chip.

 

Having watched both films back to back, I’m of the opinion that it’s less useful to consider each as a standalone work than to view them as two halves of a single story.

 

Both were planned around the same time by the same writer, and SfS depicts the ultimate conclusions of the themes and character arcs introduced in WoK. In that sense, Star Trek III is less a sequel to Star Trek II than its completion. Their relationship is similar to that of Fellowship of the RingTwo Towers, and Return of the King.

 

And as a complete story in two parts, Star Trek II and III might just be the best space adventure ever put to film.

 

So enjoy a marathon viewing of these cinematic masterpieces tonight.

 

You’ll need the store of positive sentiments for the next one.

 

 

For a much less Star Trek-y vision of the 23rd century, read my hit mech thriller now!

 

 

Originally published here


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Brian Niemeier

Brian Niemeier is a best selling science fiction author and a John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer finalist. His second book, Souldancer, won the first ever Dragon Award for Best Horror Novel., and its sequel, The Secret Kings, became a 2017 Dragon Award finalist for Best Science Fiction Novel. He's currently crowdfunding his latest work Combat Frame XSeed: CY 40 Second Coming on Indiegogo. Read more of his work at brianniemeier.com or pick up his books via Amazon.

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