It’s the first of two films to be directed by Leonard Nimoy, who carved out a niche for himself as a director after this. It’s also the first time we have the chance to tackle “the curse of the odd numbered movies”, the true-in-popular-culture idea that when it comes to Star Trek films, the even-numbered ones are good, the odd-numbered ones are not (though if we follow numerical sequence, that would make Nemesis – the least beloved of just about any Trek movie – Star Trek X: Nemesis, where I suspect most fans might suggest this theory goes a bit wrong). I haven’t seen this is a good couple of decades, maybe longer, and my residual memories of it are very variable, so I’m looking forward to revisiting it.
What’s It All About, JG?
It’s all right there in the title. They are searching. For Spock. Following his unlikely resurrection after being fired at the Genesis planet Spock’s alive again, though young but ageing rapidly like the planet around him. Meanwhile, some Klingons discover Genesis and want it / want to stop it, which means some fine scenery-chewing from Christopher Lloyd. Back on Earth, the Enterprise is being decommissioned but the crew steal it to help Doctor McCoy, who had Spock’s brain (though thankfully not “Spock’s Brain”) downloaded in to him and it is, understandably, driving him mad. After sacrificing the Enterprise and a quick visit to the Garden Centre Of Doom it all ends back on Vulcan, with Spock’s katra and body reunited, but an uncertain future lies ahead.
Any Other Business:
• We start with a “previously on” montage that summarises the end of The Wrath Of Khan for anyone who might have forgotten how that movie ended.
• On the ride home Some Random Ensign asks Kirk if they’re getting a heroes welcome when they get back, and Kirk sighs heavily and says they deserve it for what they sacrificed. Again, Kirk behaved appallingly in the last movie, got at least some of his crew – including his first officer – killed, and all for entirely preventable reasons. Why would Starfleet throw them a party, rather than in jail?
• Ah, here comes the gently subtle acting choices of Christopher Lloyd! Actually he’s great as Kruge, able to growl and glower with the best of them. And that’s John Larroquette as Maltz, a couple of years before his likably mean turn on Night Court.
• When Kirk reviews what happened in Engineering around the time of Spock’s sacrifice, we get a playback of events from the recorder. Understandably this is just recycled footage from The Wrath Of Khan, but that means it also has all the same cuts, edits, zooms and shifts in perspective, which if taken in isolation suggests that whoever installed the cameras in Engineering also included a “dramatic events in progress” setting, in cause one of the crew might need to sacrifice themselves and the footage needs spiced up a bit when watched back later.
• Phenomenal scene between Shatner and Mark Leonard, as Sarek probes Kirk’s mind to try and find Spock’s katra. Whether it’s because he’s facing off against a noticeably great actor, or whether it’s because he’s got a much more sympathetic director, Shatner is in general on great form here, and this is his best performance so far.
• Hey look, they’ve given DeForest something to do in this movie! He’s fantastic, and gets a couple of great moments, firstly when he’s discovered in Spock’s quarters, then later when he goes to a bar that is absolutely not the Mos Eisley cantina to try and charter a ship. And he’s wearing clothes an actual human being might buy!
• Unlike Chekov, who seems to be going for a Little Dutch Boy look this time out. The white collar is especially lamentable, though thankfully he loses is. Kirk’s gone for some kind of members only jacket, which isn’t great but at least looks passable in a “Old Man Yells At Klingons” sort of way.
• Uhura and Sulu have been given something to do other than “hailing frequencies open” and driving! That makes a nice change.
• There’s a lot of endearingly silly humour in this movie that works generally very well, from Sulu getting to best someone twice his size to Uhura throwing “Mr Adventure” in the closet. Even the daft “clanking” noise the Excelcior makes when unable to get to warp somehow works (though a physics fail here – the ship visibly slows as if drifting to a halt when the engines fail, rather than just continuing onwards as momentum would generally suggest it ought to).
• While it’s easy to surmise that Uhura stays behind on Earth to head off the authorities, the film itself never gives us a reason why she doesn’t join the rest of the crew, only that she’ll join them on Vulcan.
• So… well, sorry to be crude about this but does Saavik bang teenage Spock to help him through puberty? It’s left vague – somewhat thankfully – with the old finger-stroking routine, but it’s certainly what is implied. Which is not great.
• David’s death is slightly anti-climatic. He technically dies repenting for his “sin” that was the creation of Genesis which allows for a slight metaphorical underpinning, but it’s a bit vague.
• Shatner does pretty well with his whole, “you Klingon bastard, you killed my son” routine. But decent though he is, he’s very shortly eclipsed by the destruction of the Enterprise. It’s shocking in all the ways Spock’s death in The Wrath Of Khan wasn’t, carries a proper emotional punch, and the special effects are fantastic – genuinely terrific in a way that Trek movie effects very rarely are.
• Yet again, the film sidles up to the line of making a trenchant criticism of Starfleet and the Federation but stuffs the landing. While it’s clear that Kruge is interested in Genesis for either his own power or, if we’re feeling generous, to help the Empire, but he’s quite right when he points out that Starfleet have developed the ultimate weapons, and it really does threaten peace throughout the galaxy. Given Kirk’s rejection of authority here in order to do the right thing, the film really should have leaned into this much more.
• Kirk’s fight with Kruge is… not great. Two portly actors slap each other about a bit in the Garden Centre Of Doom, while occasionally interrupted by two stunt-men taking their place.
• Oh yeah, the Garden Centre Of Doom. One of the issues with this film is that the Genesis planet never comes close to convincing as a location, it’s just a few fronds in a breeze on a sound stage somewhere. That’s not a default total disaster – how often did planets look real rather than polystyrene sets in TOS? – but the rest of the film actually looks very good in terms of its locations (even though they’re mostly spaceships) so it does rather stand out.
• Up until, that is, they set fire to the set, then we get some real fire-and-brimstone stuff and something that looks convincingly hellish – again an appropriate inversion of the Genesis / Garden (Centre) Of Eden vibe without it being clumsily overstated.
• Vulcan looks terrific again.
• Nimoy’s few minutes on screen, after his katra and body are re-joined, are by miles the best performance he’s given across these three films. “Your name… is Jim” carries exactly the emotional wallop that scene needs to work – and boy does it ever – while Alexander Courage’s original theme is allowed to build us to a hugely satisfying conclusion.
Refreshing, interesting, well-written and engaging, The Search For Spock is pretty much everything one might hope for from a Star Trek film. It’s a long way from flawless, and we shall certainly get into that, but right at the top there’s just something that’s incredibly satisfying about this film that belies its somewhat mediocre reputation. True, you would be hard-pressed to call this original or inventive, but it’s a film with a clear idea of what it wants to achieve, and sets about achieving it in ways that are absolutely in line with Trek of old, while still giving us some scope to explore new things. For one, we have Kirk giving us a wholesale rejected of Starfleet (and along with it, his reputation and career), because his friendships are more important to him than simply following orders. This is, if you will pardon the expression, light-years away from the bland acceptance of rules and structure The Wrath Of Khan presented us with. Starfleet still have a use and function here – for the first time in the movies we get to see a proper survey craft engaged in genuine exploration of a new phenomenon – but they are not the be-all and end-all, and Kirk’s acknowledgement of this actually allows his character some growth, which is not something we often see of Kirk. But far from the “growth” of corny “I feel young” mid-life crisis sentiments the last film rounded out with, here Kirk’s growth feels much more organic, and much more interesting and genuine as a result. For once we actually get to see Kirk stuck in an impossible situation and figure out how to get out of it (by destroying the Enterprise) rather than just being told how great he is or listening to mumblings about prefix codes. Kirk is a fully-realised presence in this film, everything the character ought to be – thoughtful and compassionate, but resolute and intelligent – and that elicits a so-far movie best performance from Shatner. He’s terrific here – landing the emotional scenes just as well as the light comedy, and though his turn here isn’t often lauded as one of his stronger performances it absolutely deserves to be.
He’s not alone. Almost everyone here is at the top of their game, and it’s just great to see even the minor characters get something to do. Nichelle Nichols is on fire during her one big scene with “Mr Adventure”, but tellingly she switches from the comedy of the scene to sounding really heartfelt when wishing the rest of the crew good luck and promising to meet them on Vulcan. She pivots effortlessly between the two without it seeming contrived, and it helps add weight to an otherwise light and silly scene. And that’s basically true of everyone. George Takei looks like he’s taking some real pleasure beating up someone twice his size with apparently no real effort (and it looks pleasingly like he’s flirting with the guard a little earlier when he asks, “keeping you busy?”, for anyone who thought Gay Sulu in Beyond came out of nowhere), and its these little moments that really help this movie feel like much more of an ensemble piece. Scotty gets to pull the plug on some smart-arse and his ship because said smart-arse chooses to under-estimate the engineer? Lovely. For the first time as far as the movies are concerned, this actually feels like a crew who like each other, and have their own skills and abilities beyond just sitting behind a console. The expanded role for McCoy helps this greatly as well – with Spock spending the vast majority of the film off camera, or at the very least as not Leonard Nimoy, DeForst Kelley is allowed to come to the fore and completely rises to the challenge. He gets a number of great scenes, which, while terrific in their own right, also just serve to highlight how under-utilized he is elsewhere in the movies. He can do the huffing and puffing, we know that, that’s one of the reasons we love the character, but Kelley is simply terrific when sliding between McCoy and McCoy-as-Spock, sometimes conspicuously (as with the voice) and sometimes with just a little gesture or head-tilt. It really is a terrific performance, and it gives some real humanity to the centre of the film. This isn’t just some abstract question for revenge or power ported in from the clichés of literature, but a real person who’s suffering terribly yet still absolutely do all he can to help. “I choose the danger,” he tells Sarek on Vulcan, following it with a quiet, wry, “hell of a time to ask”. It’s the quintessence of the character – afraid, making the right choice anyway, but funny with it. It makes McCoy hugely likeable, and Kelley know precisely how to play it. Even if the rest of the film were dreadful, The Search For Spock would be worth it for his performance alone.
The rest of the film isn’t dreadful, it’s actually mostly very good, though I don’t want to suggest that it’s flawless. There are certainly some flaws here, and one of them is the very linear nature of the script. There’s really nothing going on beyond simple A-B-C storytelling – no sub-plots, no diversions, no avenues, we just start at the beginning and end at the end and that’s pretty much it. Other than a few scenes with the Klingons, which mostly exist as framing, we basically just stick with Kirk and co until the end credits roll. That means the film feels pretty uncluttered, but it also means there’s not a lot to explore beyond the basic premise. And speaking of that premise – the air kind of goes out of the movie once Spock has been found. Well no, actually that’s not quite right, the air kind of goes out of the movie after David’s death / the destruction of the Enterprise. The film has actually been sustaining itself remarkably well up until that point, but something happens around that moment where it suddenly becomes rather… uninvolving I suppose. It’s not bad, but it becomes a bit mechanical. The rest of the crew stand around watching Kirk and Kruge snipe at each other, then they fight a bit, then Kirk contrives his escape from the planet (to be fair, actually quite a nice moment) and that’s pretty much that. The scenes on Vulcan resonate very well, and the film manages to find itself before it bows out, but it sags in the run-up, and that’s a real shame. Of course there are plenty of plot holes – was the Excelcior really the only ship Starfleet could have sent after the Enterprise? How did Uhura get to Vulcan? Did someone bother to tell Vulcan the Klingon ship about to land isn’t an invasion force? – but nothing that stands out in the context of typical Star Trek plot holes. And one might question a Starfleet Admiral dismissing Vulcan mysticism as “mumbo-jumbo”. But honestly, beyond that there’s not a lot to complain about here.
We need to talk about Leonard Nimoy though. It’s well known that he wasn’t exactly excited about the idea of returning to play Spock in the first two movies, and it shows. There’s a clear lack of engagement, even when he’s being jollied along by Kelley and Shatner who do their best to try to coax him back into it. But the difference here is quite palpable. He’s clearly engaged in a way he doesn’t seem to have been since… oh let’s say around 1968 and his few moments on screen as Spock demonstrate just how good he can be when he bothers to get off his arse and actually act. Yet it’s behind the camera where he really distinguishes himself. He’s a natural, fluid director – not necessarily flashy in the technical sense, but certainly able to get scenes and moments to flow into each other. There’s a few standout moments – Sareks’ mind-meld for one – that show proper flare, and this feels like a much more coherently directed film than either The Motion Picture’s “special effects, and also some other stuff” or The Wrath Of Khan’s point-and-click approach. Certainly Nimoy is a better director than Mayer, producing a visually interesting film (well, as much as he can when stuck on the Garden Centre Of Doom set) but much more than that, he’s able to coax great performances from everyone else. That goes for the regulars, of course, but also for guest star Christopher Lloyd. Honestly, once you know Lloyd’s been a Klingon it’s impossible not to think, “oh yeah, he’s perfect for that”, and indeed he is – able to fully occupy a moustache-twirling villain without simply descending into cliché, but reigned in enough to have his performance be credible. It would have been easy to have a director let his guest star just chew through the scenery – Meyer did with Montalban, though Montalban’s good enough to pull it off – but the script affords Kruge just enough of perspective to ground the character, with Lloyd’s performance delivering on that, and it’s impossible not to think that Nimoy was a part of that. He even seems to have reigned in James Horner! The score for this film is a million times better, far more subtle and working with the action rather than imposing itself on the action and, again, it’s hard not to think of Nimoy pointing at The Wrath Of Khan and saying, “yeah, not like that”.
The few flaws of The Search For Spock – it’s linearity, the side-lining of Saavik, the way that every bridge is clearly a redress of the Enterprise – don’t come close to derailing what remains a startlingly enjoyable film. This may not be the big-ticket item of a returning bad guy that we had last time out, nor the last time the TOS crew touch cultural relevancy next time out (seriously – it seems everyone remembers “the one with the whales”), but it remains a thoroughly satisfying piece of entertainment in its own right. By simply being its own thing it’s able to somewhat fly under the radar, and while that’s led this film to be somewhat underappreciated it certainly doesn’t deserve to be, because there’s a thoughtful script here, which is well performed and well directed by a group of people who are clearly just taking delight in being part of something that’s working. Really – everyone seems to be having a whale of a time here, and it becomes rather infectious. Sure a lot of the film is simply getting the band back together, and certainly if you want to criticise it for being straightforward then that’s an entirely valid complaint. But that also feels pretty unfair. The Search For Spock ends up being the one thing that truly recaptures the feeling of the original series – because here everything is, absolutely, more than the sum of its parts.
This really is something of an unexpected triumph.
What Percentage Of This Film Could Be Cut?
None. There’s really nothing that needs to be excised here. The film is a brisk one hour forty-five minutes long and all of the material actually feels relevant. And if anything it wouldn’t hurt to actually be slightly longer – while I’ve generally praised the film for giving everyone something to do beyond the basics of their character the exception really is Chekov, who’s a bit short-changed here. Oh he hangs around in the background and declares little bits of exposition when the time is right but beyond that he’s not exactly vital to proceedings. The Klingon stuff is, for once, the right length – long enough to be engaging, not so long as to get dull, and not bogged down in Klingon politics. While the film does lose momentum after David’s death it’s not like any of the stuff on the Genesis planet is unnecessary, and the very personal battle between Kirk and Kruge just needed to be shot better rather than losing anything. So yes, we’re on 0% here.
How Shatner-y Is Shatner?
Shatner is, for the most part, pretty great here. He gets a few scenes of real acting – not just isn’t-Shatner-doing-well? acting – and absolutely proves at this stage he’s still able to deliver when the scenes call for it. There’s some light comedy which definitely leans into some of his less ideal tendencies, though even there he’s not completely falling into predicable traps. The “I’ll kill you later” offhanded dismissal of Maltz lands well exactly because its not lingered on, it’s just a smart line that’s fired out then moved on from rather than lingered over as if waiting for an imaginary sad trombone.
How Achingly 1984 Is This Movie?
Oh my have the 80’s arrived. Just hark at the leisure suit Kirk wears, with white, light blue and dark blue thick stripes in his apartment that make him look like he’s just stepped out of an aerobics video. Or the members-only jacket he sports for most of the rest of the movie. McCoy does quite well in his off-duty clothing – in fact the best anyone will ever do throughout these movies – though the cravat is an… interesting touch (he pulls it off though). Saying all that thought, nothing – and I mean nothing – says 1984 quite like Saavik’s hair and make up. Vast piles of curls that Whitney Houston could dance with somebody to, topped off by blush and lipstick that seems decidedly un-Vulcan (or maybe not. The High Priestess has been slathering it on a fair bit too). Robin Curtis has replaced Kirstie Alley – she’s fine, by the way, if relatively unremarkable – and with her the decade has truly arrived.
Fanwankometer Reading, Captain
Well, there’s some tribbles in the bar McCoy goes to when he’s trying to charter a ship to the Genesis planet, so there’s that! And the Excelcior has the registration NX-2000, since it’s an experimental ship – this is more pre-fanwank though, since Archer’s Enterprise will go on to have the registration NX-1 (or had it before. Time settings are difficult). There’s plenty of references back to The Wrath Of Khan of course, and a hefty does of Vulcan mysticism, but there’s nothing that massively sticks out – the film expects the audience to be up to speed for the most part and other than the introduction recap doesn’t pander to newcomers especially. I suppose the biggest instance is the return of Sarek, as played so fantastically well by Mark Leonard. Honestly, he’s on screen for all of about five minutes, yet makes a huge impact. Kirk’s immediate respect for him – and it seems Shatner’s – makes the character have weight but it’s in the strength of Leonard’s performance that it really comes from. He’s an incredibly domineering screen presence, harsh and unrelenting, but not overbearing. Leonard makes Sarek (Leonard also highlights the vast gulf between him and James Frain, who plays the same character on Discovery. Frane is understandable casting but he in no way can match Leonard in giving the character what it needs).
Another tough call this time out. I’m very tempted to say Shatner, because really he deserves a lot of praise here, and this is pretty much the last time we’ll have the chance to have him in this section. And Christopher Lloyd deserves so much praise for making Kruge seem like a valid threat while not just falling back in to the ticks of Jim or Doc Brown (not that they’re entirely absent either, but still). Kruge feels more rounded than Khan ever did. But I don’t think there can be any doubt that it should go to Nimoy. He lands the final heartfelt moments of the film, he does a great job behind the camera, and there’s just no question that he’s managed to pull it all together when it really mattered. Even the special effects seem better handled here – Spackdock looks amazing (hopefully you think so too – we’re going to be visiting it an awful lot) whether the Enterprise is approaching and getting swallowed up by it, or slowly backing into the doors. The “bar full of aliens” might feel like a Star Wars cliché – because like it or not it is – but it still feels like a real location, and the bits of the Star Trek world we don’t normally see convince in a way that’s all too rare for the occupants of the original series. So yes – all praise to Nimoy this time out.
1) Star Trek III: The Search For Spock
2) Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan
3) Star Trek I: The Motion Picture