Though the Star Trek movies got off to a shaky start with the first film – The Motion Picture, which I reviewed here – the second film was an absolutely spectacular romp, full of high stakes action, superb writing and excellent character development. It ended on a pseudo-cliffhanger too, with the death of Spock. Despite Leonard Nimoy’s apparent desire for the character to be killed off and the event being somewhat of an open secret in advance of the film’s release, the climax of The Wrath of Khan left tantalising threads dangling; clearly the potential setup for the character to return.
So it’s not really surprising then, that the third film sees us taking the trip with our familiar crew to get the beloved Vulcan back. His coffin having landed on the Genesis planet during the final moments of The Wrath of Khan – along with his ‘katra’ (essentially his spirit or soul) being transferred to his old sparring partner, Dr McCoy, before he died – means that Spock can be fully, miraculously resurrected. We start with a recap of the previous movie’s climax and move into the new story very swiftly from there.
Klingon commander Kruge – a fantastic Christopher Lloyd – has found out about the Genesis device and seeks to weaponise it; meanwhile, Kirk’s scientist son David and Vulcan Starfleet Lieutenant Saavik – both of whom made their first appearance in The Wrath of Khan – are beaming down to the surface of the Genesis planet to inspect the discovery of an unexpected life form…
Though Leonard Nimoy had – as mentioned – sought to escape the shadow of Spock throughout the 70s (nothing demonstrates this better than his first autobiography, published in 1975, which was titled ‘I Am Not Spock’), his experience when viewing The Wrath of Khan was such a positive one that he expressed the desire not only to return to the role that made him so famous – he also wanted to direct the next film himself.
He does well. It’s an excellent and very direct follow up from The Wrath of Khan. Though it isn’t as good as the second film, it certainly accomplishes an excellent – unpredictable, even, in terms of the story beats that get us to the expected climax – return for Spock. Despite the fact that the character coming back is a foregone conclusion, particularly at this point in time, there are still plenty of surprises in store over the course of the film. It often has a bit of a lighter tone than The Wrath of Khan too – and the cast are brilliant, with the more familiar characters we know and love all getting excellent moments to shine, as well as working together as a team in a way you don’t realise you haven’t really seen before. Without Spock involved for most of the running time, characters such as Chekov and Sulu get a bit more screen time than we’re used to and are utilised well for once.
There’s one exception: Saavik. Portrayed by Kirstie Alley – in her first ever film role – in The Wrath of Khan, the character is played by Robin Curtis in The Search for Spock. She doesn’t quite find the right tone for the Vulcan Lieutenant, coming across as very wooden. It’s a shame; apparently the only reason Alley didn’t return is that she feared being typecast.
The special effects, for the most part, really hold up well. The Klingon Bird of Prey, in particular, looks absolutely fantastic – the cloaking effect is superb and the ship’s look adds a great splash of colour to the space battles – with its bold green colouring – too.
I’m a big fan of Kruge’s pet, the mangy, slimy Klingon ‘monster dog’, as well – it’s an excellent design and a nice example of how effective puppetry can be, rather than the CGI we’re all too familiar with these days.
One thing that does disappoint is that there’s a very artificial feel to the Genesis planet; it’s clear that it all takes place in a studio. Very little of the film takes place in real locations and it’s unfortunately more obvious here than in The Wrath of Khan, given how much time we spend planetside.
There’s a sense here of the franchise moving even further away from expectations than The Wrath of Khan did; with Kirk and crew stealing the Enterprise from Starfleet, for example – but also in the fact that it’s the end of the road for the Enterprise itself (for now, at least). The crew finishing their adventure on a Klingon vessel is another sign that we’re seeing a new Trek, despite the fact that The Search for Spock could well have fallen into the trap of being far too predictable.
The sudden, tragic end for Kirk’s son David is a shocking development too; though Shatner’s reaction to this is fantastic, it’s not quite on par with his handling of Spock’s death in The Wrath of Khan, which I still believe is his greatest Star Trek performance. It’s made all the more tragic when you discover that Merritt Butrick, who played David, died at the age of just 29, from complications arising from an AIDS-related illness.
Perhaps as an acknowledgement that Kirk never directly confronts Khan in the previous film, here he goes toe to toe with his adversary at the climax, for a fight that – due to the involvement of Kruge in David’s death – feels even more personal for Shatner’s character (though it’s very brief).
So there we are. The oft-cited curse of only the even numbered films being any good when it comes to the Star Trek movies is proven wrong here – at least in my opinion. I thought that The Search for Spock was a great companion piece to – and continuation of – the story that began in The Wrath of Khan. Though it suffers a little in comparison to that film, as well as the fact that it exists almost solely in order to get Spock back, I do admire the fact that it’s not simply a lazy cash grab – it does have twists and turns outside of the Spock resurrection that make it an essential entry in the series, as far as I’m concerned.
With the time travelling fun of The Voyage Home up next, can we maintain the same level of quality seen here? The ‘even numbered’ rule was there for a reason, after all – so perhaps we’re going to be on to a winner there too. I’ll be sure to let you know once I’ve had the chance to watch it again.
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