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When Star Trek V: The Final Frontier came out in 1989, the joke was "Ah, yes, the Star Trek movies, where the even ones are good and the odd ones are bad." This numerology-based criticism only grew stronger in 1991 when Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country was, to put it in mature terms, spocktacular.
But the gag was the same two-dimensional thinking that led Khan Noonien Singh to a fiery death in the Mutara Nebula. No, I'm not here to defend The Final Frontier (I'm a Trekkie, not a psychopath), but I will say that prior to the fifth film there was nothing resembling "bad" cinematic Star Trek.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture is an anomaly, but a terrific anomaly. Directed by Robert Wise (using a style similar to his great The Andromeda Strain) and closely shepherded by Gene Roddenberry himself, this is the rare look at '70s Trek, riding that post-'60s new age/spiritualism warp trail. It's not action-packed, but it's incredible.
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, on the other hand, does have a lot of action. What it doesn't have is evident right there in the title: Spock. And the original Star Trek crew needs Spock as much as they need dilithium crystal. A lack of the principal character is going to hamper your movie, even if that movie has good performances, good writing, forward momentum, and a focus on getting him back. It's a problem!
Additionally, Star Trek III has the dumb luck of being wedged in between Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. These aren't just terrific Star Trek movies – these are two of the greatest sci-fi movies of all time.
But 35 years ago I, a very wee lad, somehow convinced my grandfather to take me to see Star Trek III: The Search For Spock. The last thing I thought coming out of that theater was that I'd seen "one of the bad ones." (Lord knows what Grandpa, an immigrant who escaped pogroms in the Ukraine, thought of Christopher Lloyd in tons of latex shouting "GIVE! ME! GENESIS!")
To celebrate the anniversary of this often-overlooked middle child of the "Genesis arc," let's grab our tricorders and reflect on 35 reasons Star Trek III: The Search for Spock rules.
DIRECTED BY SPOCK
Leonard Nimoy may be hardly in the thing, but he's in the director's chair. It was his first theatrical feature film (oddly enough a previous TV credit was on his captain's T.J. Hooker), and it led to a successful career directing not just Trek but comedies like Three Men and a Baby and dramas (Diane Keaton in The Good Mother, anyone?)
PREVIOUSLY ON ...
You kinda-sorta don't need to have seen the last one. Sure, it helps if you saw Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. It also helps if you speak fluent Klingon. But the movie, written by producer Harve Bennett, offers a nice little recap of the previous entry's final scenes. So that means pack some Kleenex, because we're going to watch Spock die all over again.
VECTOR GRAPHICS VICTORY
1984 was a very specific time and place for computers and special effects. The screens in the background are right in that sweet spot between Asteroids and Super Mario Bros. Give me those sharp, crisp lines and bright bold colors forever and I'll be happy.
SCOTTY SPILLS HIS SECRET
With the Enterprise banged up after its encounter with Khan and outrunning the Genesis Wave, it's going to take some effort to limp back to a starbase. Scotty tells Kirk it will take him eight weeks to get back, "but I'll have it to you in two." Perhaps a little disarmed by the death of his lover, uh, I mean, best pal and First Officer, Mr. Spock, Kirk calls Scotty's bluff and asks, "Have you always multiplied your estimates by a factor of four?"
Scotty chuckles and asks how else he could keep his reputation as a miracle worker.
THREE MEN AND A TARG
The chief villain in Star Trek III, other than the hubris of the Genesis Planet manifested in really lousy weather, is Commander Kruge, a nasty Klingon looking to steal Genesis technology and kill anyone in his way (even his own love interest).
Kruge is played, somewhat amazingly, by Christopher Lloyd. This was a year before he appeared in Back to the Future, but he was already known for lighter roles, as in the sitcom Taxi. Even better, one of his two henchmen, the role of Maltz (Maltz?!? This is a Klingon name, Maltz?), was the last thing that Night Court's John Larroquette shot before becoming a 1980s sitcom sensation. If you don't know that it is Larroquette under the makeup (and are old enough to know Night Court), you'll spend each of his scenes scratching your head, asking "Why do I know that voice??"
Another exciting aspect of the first Klingon scene in Star Trek III is that this is our first-ever peek at a Bird of Prey, making this a substantial moment in #lore. Also, that snarling beast on the bridge might be a targ, or at least the pitbull equivalent of a targ.
NEW SHIP ON THE BLOCK
The Earth orbit spacedock station in Star Trek III, which, for some reason, never got a cool name, offers worldbuilding in every frame. Best is catching a glimpse of the Excelsior, which will later become Captain Sulu's ship. (The novelization of Star Trek III says that Sulu's knowledge of classified aspects of Project Genesis is what prevented him from getting the center seat before Captain Styles, which makes absolutely no sense, but whatever.)
In a state of rapture, Sulu remarks that Excelsior is capable of transwarp drive, probably the least explained concept in Star Trek. How can something go faster than Warp 10, in which all of spacetime becomes a singularity? I dunno, but Tom Paris did this with the Delta Flyer and, as such, he and Captain Janeway had salamander babies. Let's not talk about it. Next time we see the Excelsior, all mention of transwarp drive is dropped.
When Chekov is confused by a life sign signal in Spock's quarters, Scotty comes over to investigate. Then Chekov starts babbling in Russian. There has never been any indication that the good chief engineer speaks this language.
Costuming has always been key in Star Trek. But during this stretch of the franchise, the security officer uniforms are just ridiculous. Truly, they look like Spaceballs.
Even as a little kid I immediately knew what the hell was going on as soon as Kirk found Dr. McCoy spooked out in Spock's quarters, rambling about "take me home." Clearly, Spock had implanted his "katra" into his old frenemy, and the husk of his corpse on the Genesis Planet would somehow reanimate in that weird environment. But it's going to take Kirk a while to catch up. In the meantime, we'll get a lot of great DeForest Kelley whacked-out moments.
Actress Robin Curtis had some big shoes to fill. Kirstie Alley's version of Lt. Saavik, much like Leonard Nimoy's portrayal of Spock, was of an inscrutable Vulcan that you just knew was itching to lay out some of those "earth emotions" when no one was looking. Is she giving Captain Kirk eyes in the turbolift? I think she … nah, she can't be! Wait, can't she?
It was perfect.
Robin Curtis is all business. It's not a very layered performance, to be honest. Oh well. She's still rockin' the best mullet this side of New York-era Lou Reed, so it's hard to get too upset.
SPACE-AGE BACHELOR PAD
Kirk and the crew (minus McCoy) have a toast to absent friends at Kirk's place in San Francisco. Uhura's outfit is incredible, and it's just nice that they all get a chance to hang out in natural gravity. This is the only scene of the original crew hanging out together off the ship, off-duty and on Earth, in the entire franchise. It's nice.
SPOCK HAS A STEPSISTER?!?!
Okay, Kirk doesn't say that, but if we're going by the book and accepting canon as the truth, man, that means that when Sarek (played marvelously by Mark Lenard) says, "I must have your thoughts" and performs a mind meld, everything is shared. Right? Sure, maybe Sarek is enough of a 10th-level Vulcan that he can firewall his secrets away from a puny hu-man, especially if he's only just rooting around for the whereabouts of his son's katra. But if not? Well, that means Kirk knew the premise of Star Trek Discovery a lot earlier than we did.
Microbes on the side of Spock's photon torpedo casing/coffin have evolved into huge slimy organisms. (Ones that kinda look like the neural parasites of Deneva, to be honest.) Anyway, when David Kirk and Saavik discover them it's a quality gross-out moment and a good reminder that, on some level, these movies are designed to wow pre-teens.
THAT NUTTY STAR WARS — UH, STAR TREK — BAR
McCoy needs to charter a space flight, so he does what Luke and Obi-Wan did. He goes to a cantina looking for his Han and Chewie.
He finds some weirdo with bushy eyebrows, a loud voice, giant ears (a proto-Ferengi?), and a (let's be honest here) Yoda-like way of speaking. "Genesis is planet forbidden!" he shouts in one of the funniest scenes in the movie.
The back-and-forth between McCoy and the smuggler only gets better when Starfleet fuzz interrupts them.
Speaking of fuzz, keep your eyes out for a pair of tribbles in one of the booths. (Also: some holographic videogames and a weird retro-kitsch waitress who's definitely more Dexter Jettster than anything usually found in Trek.)
HOW MANY FINGERS AM I HOLDING UP?
Star Trek IV is the one everyone remembers for the lulz, but Star Trek III is really sharp, too. With McCoy still mostly himself, but with flashes of Vulcan-isms, it's quite entertaining. The scene between Kirk and McCoy in the brig is a galaxy of zingers.
DON'T CALL ME TINY
Hikaru Sulu is a badass. We've always known this. We've known it since "The Naked Time" in The Original Series' first season. But when he grabs a security officer twice his size, flips him over his shoulder, then phaser-blasts a computer monitor all while wearing a cape?! Yeah, badass.
Uhura doesn't get much to do in Star Trek III (so what else is new?), but when she is on screen she commands it. Working the graveyard shift at the transporter deck in "Old City Station" (and, real quick, where the hell is that!?!) is one of Trek's few peeks at the dull parts of the future. Her wide-eyed workmate is going nuts from the boredom. Until Kirk and fugitive McCoy bust in and need her help beaming to the Enterprise. When the pipsqueak is shoved into the closet it is TOTAL SPACE OWNAGE on Uhura's part.
THEY'RE VERY SLOWLY GETTING AWAY!
Star Trek is often maligned for its realism. But the theft of a starship isn't going to be speedy. So when Kirk, still an admiral, makes his exit, the spacedock station is at yellow, not red, alert. This means that, like, not everyone is troubled. The guy mopping the floors? Yeah, he can stay on that job. (There is one outstanding shot of a random dude at an enormous window that's great ship porn.)
No, you're not nuts. The first officer on the Excelsior is the young Miguel Ferrer.
NERD EASTER EGG
I don't care if this isn't true, but since 1984 I've been convinced that the spacedock doors in Star Trek III were deliberately designed to look like the bridge from Atari's Adventure. Prove me wrong!
BAD DAY AT THE OFFICE
Commander Kruge, hot on the Genesis trail, wants to disable the Grissom and take prisoners. Whoopsie, the shot meant to kill the engines accidentally blows the science vessel up. (Luckily David Kirk and Saavik are down on the planet still.)
"A lucky shot!" the Klingon gunner mopes. Seconds later he's vaporized by a disruptor. Do what the boss says!!
WHAT'S THE MATTER?
The Genesis Planet is roiling in ecological flux, and David Kirk knows why. He fesses up to having used protomatter in the Genesis matrix. What's protomatter? Well, it's a little vague other than, if I may quote ol' stick-in-the-mud Saavik, "an unstable substance which every ethical scientist in the galaxy has denounced as dangerously unpredictable."
Well, when you put it that way!
UH, THIS IS PG, RIGHT?
Welcome to the weirdest moment in all of Trek, one that'll cause arguments long after the Borg have destroyed us all. The rapidly aging Spock-shell (he's not the real Spock) has entered Pon Faar. This is the time of Vulcan mating, and if Spock doesn't get busy -- or undergo an emotional discharge like thinking he's murdered his captain and best friend -- he will die. (You thought your dry spells were bad!)
So Spock, who just a few hours ago was a baby, and is now maybe 18, and Saavik, an adult, share "a moment." What the hell happens in that moment?!?
Well, Robin Curtis has confirmed that the idea of young quasi-Spock impregnating Saavik was definitely discussed with producer-writer Harve Bennett as a consequence for Star Trek IV. Google this and you'll see it's no jive. Leonard Nimoy decided to downplay it.
What actually happened on Genesis stayed on Genesis, so we'll have to just call it an Invisible Touch.
It's hard not to make fun of William Shatner's acting. The guy made a whole second career out it. Those Priceline ads and Denny Crane stem from "Shatner the Ham." And while screaming "KHAAAAAN!!!" might be ridiculous, there are occasions, I swear, where the guy is terrific.
Among his top moments is learning that his son, David, with whom he'd only just buried the hatchet, has been killed on the Genesis planet. He's literally knocked over, falling on his ass in front of his command chair. He's still in the position of captain, but laid low. Completely unmoored, he cries about the Klingon bastards who murdered his son … but soon picks himself back up. He's still a man of action.
Other than the somber death moment, the back-and-forth between Kirk and Kruge is hilarious, with William Shatner doing one of the all-time great spins to appear on the Klingon viewscreen. ("The Genesis commander himself!")
After some bartering, the Klingon Kops make their way to the Enterprise, but not before an auto-destruct sequence has been instigated. (This was nicely set up in a long-ago TOS episode as a possibility.) The dummies on the away mission can't put together that a computer counting backward means doom, but luckily Kruge does and we get the great shot (great Scott?) of Christopher Lloyd showing "Get out nowwwwwww!"
END OF AN ERA
The Enterprise explodes, with our heroes watching from a cliff on the Genesis planet. Harve Bennett wanted to keep this a surprise, but Paramount publicity led with it, showing the big kaboom in trailers, TV ads, and even tie-in glasses from Taco Bell. As Captain Kirk says looking at the wreckage, "My God, Bones, what have I done?"
At some point in every nerd's life they realize something: Kirk and Khan are never actually in the same place together. They do all their fighting from their respective bridges, communicating via viewscreen.
It looks like it will be much the same for Kirk and Kruge, with Kirk even pulling some of the same taunting moves. "You're gonna have to bring us up there to get it!"
But Kruge beams down and it turns out he's one of the great in-your-face villains. He has no time for BS. "Genesis – I want it!" he shouts. Why mince words? Better is what happens after all the other Enterprise personnel are beamed to the Bird of Prey.
"You should take the Vulcan, too!" Kirk says.
And this is maybe the best thing in the whole movie. Kruge looks his foe in the eye and says the most honest thing anyone has ever said. "Because you wish it!"
What if more bad guys were in touch with the stupidity of their actions like this? How much time we'd all save!
Christopher Lloyd's stunt double gets into a real scrape with William Shatner's stunt double on the surface of the Genesis planet, and right when it's tearing itself apart. An in-camera gag of rocks bursting up through the ground was planned, but the hydraulics weren't quite working. They only managed to shoot one, somewhat slowly. As such Kruge takes what some might call a stone elevator, but the fight choreography plays it off like a major disruption. Kruge is flung to the ground in the middle of the fight.
WEIRDEST THING TO HEAR BEFORE YOU DIE
Imagine you are holding on for dear life over a fiery pit of lava. Captain James T. Kirk is bonking you in the face with the heel of his shoe. The last thing you hear before you fall is this: "I! Have had! Enough! Of YOU!!!"
Maltz (Maltz??! What a name!) is overrun by the Enterprise crew, and Kirk and half-Spock are beamed to safety. "You!" Kirk orders. "Help us or die!"
"I do not deserve to live," Sad Maltz says.
"Fine," Kirk responds without missing a beat. "I'll kill ya later."
It's great throwaway delivery, proving that Kirk will always be the best captain when it comes to comedy.
The gang gets to Vulcan. The temple at Mount Seleya, to be precise. Sarek and Uhura are there, the aforementioned "rendezvous point" she mentioned at Old City Station. They have Spock's shell of a body, his katra in McCoy, and T'Lar the priestess is there.
And she's like, "Naaaaaaah."
I guess Sarek didn't clear this in advance? "What you seek has not been done since ages past, and then only in legend."
Wait, what? Spock dumped his soul into Bones on a wing and a prayer. And Sarek didn't tell anyone that this was, like, a maybe-at-best kinda deal? Vulcans are weird.
I CHOOSE THE DANGER
In "Amok Time," McCoy made it clear to T'Pau that he was Spock's pal for life. This time he's ready to stick his neck out even more. "McCoy, Leonard H., son of David" isn't going to come this far without giving this Fal-Tor-Pan business a try.
Let's take a moment to reflect on just how photographable a face DeForest Kelley had. We love you, Bones!!
RUNWAY ON MOUNT SELEYA
Can we just talk about the outfits in the Vulcan High Temples? And who is that woman in the background there? Werk!!
You know you've made it when your co-workers are ready to throw their careers in the toilet and journey to a self-destructing, artificially created planet to rescue your rejuvenated and rapidly aging husk of a body and bring it, along with your schizophrenic friend, to a mountain in the desert. Feels good.
THE SEARCH IS OVER
Spock emerges, resurrected. A little dazed, but definitely the same guy. The first thing he asks Kirk is whether the ship is out of danger, the last thing he asked before he died. Uh, ah, mm, I may have something in my eye, excuse me … these Earth emotions … illogical!
And the adventure continues.