In 1979, Paramount Pictures brought back the cult TV series Star Trek in the form of a large-scale feature film. The film under-performed against the studio’s expectations, and a sequel – Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan (1982) – was only put into production because its producer Harve Bennett managed to demonstrate how much cheaper it would be than its predecessor. When the sequel proved a commercial success, Paramount was looking to immediately make a third film. Khan, however – and look away now if you do not want to be spoiled for 35+ year-old movies, had culminated in the death of Spock (Leonard Nimoy). The solution? Make the act of bringing Spock back to life the ultimate goal of the third film.
Upon his return to Earth, Admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner) learns that despite Spock’s physical death his ‘katra’ – a Vulcan’s soul – was transferred into the mind of Dr McCoy (DeForest Kelley). With McCoy’s mind suffering and time running out, Kirk commandeers his own starship to return to the planet Genesis and reunite Spock’s body and soul. At the same time, the research team on Genesis – including Kirk’s son David (Merritt Butrick) – are ambushed by a Klingon crew seeking the secrets to their project.
There used to be a running joke among Star Trek fans about the ‘odd/even rule’. Put simply: even-numbered Star Trek films – The Wrath of Khan, The Voyage Home, The Undiscovered Country – were good while odd-numbered ones – The Motion Picture, The Search for Spock, The Final Frontier – were bad. Despite broadly seeming accurate, in truth the joke always seemed deeply unfair to The Search for Spock. It led to a broad thinking that it was a bad movie. Its only crime, as it turns out, is that it is not quite as good a film as Khan or Voyage Home. Assessed fairly, and it is a well-plotted and charming sequel that manages to reverse the end of the previous film without ever seeming as if it has cheated the viewer.
It is worth noting that The Search for Spock is the only direct sequel the Star Trek films ever got. While The Voyage Home is book-ended by references to earlier films, its central narrative does not require any viewing of them. The Search for Spock, on the other hand, does not make a lot of sense without pre-viewing The Wrath of Khan. It gives the film a distinctive feel. It makes it hard for it to be anyone’s favourite in the series, because it does not feel enough like its own entity. The film’s story, setting, and characters are almost entirely set up in advance.
Despite this, there are so many elements of the film that impress. Barring cameos, it features the return of the Klingons – fan-favourite antagonists from the original series – and introduces a top-notch hissable villain. Christopher Lloyd, caught a year before his star-making turn in Back to the Future, portrays Commander Kruge with a delightful theatricality. He is both cruel and vicious, and most importantly he and Kirk manage to share the same location together: something never afforded to Ricardo Montalban in The Wrath of Khan. He feels like a real threat, and helps to set up the portrayal of the Klingons that lingered on the following two decades.
The film also introduces a quite staggering sense of loss. The death of Spock gave the ending of Khan a pyrrhic victory, and any attempt to reverse those events would risk retro-actively ruining that film. While Kirk may get Spock back by the film’s end, it is at an enormous cost. The Genesis planet, created out of stellar matter in an apparent miracle of terraforming, collapses into fire. Kirk’s theft of a starship leaves him and his crew wanted criminals. His son David is murdered. The Enterprise itself, an iconic symbol of the entire franchise of TV and film, self-destructs; an even trade, ship for Spock. It is a testament to Harve Bennett’s screenplay that the film does not just avoid ruining Khan but actively doubles-down on what is lost.
In his directorial debut, Leonard Nimoy directs with a firm hand and a comfortable sense of purpose. He presents the film with a minimum of fuss, and allows the characters to support the narrative. Despite the grim goings-on there is still a sense of humour and fun scattered thoughout. Even more than Khan, it gives the familiar characters space to be themselves again.
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock is a rock-solid and enjoyable sequel. Its long history of being lined up against The Motion Picture and (heaven forbid) The Final Frontier really needs to change.