Favorite Star Trek movies. Fourth

Star Trek III : The Search for Spock

First Contact might be better, but this is my list of personal favorites, and the original cast trumps the Next Generation almost every time. (Guess which movie with the original cast gets ranked lowest.)

When I was a kid, I loved this one for all its great moments. Stealing the Enterprise, thwarting that jerk captain, and hanging around in weird alien bars. But as I got older, I found those fun scenes to be only bright spots in a movie that just felt like it was a dreary in-between for better movies. And I do still prefer II and IV to this. But I thought of it as only a linking movie, in which nothing really happens. I mean there’s no Khan and there’s no whales. C’mon!

I haven’t watched it in years, but I have thought about it a lot. (That’s usual for me, by the way. I rarely re-watch movies.) On reflection, it’s a totally necessary Star Trek movie. Spock demonstrated his love for his team in the previous movie. He and Kirk showed us how close they had become, and how well they were able to work together. And here we get a whole movie to see Kirk without his Spock. The ramifications of Spock’s death are surprisingly long-lasting for a sci-fi franchise. Characters usually spring back to life (to protect the precious fans?) within the same movie, or story.

The DC Comics published between movies II and III present a fascinating alternate Trek. Saavik becomes the new science officer (and maybe first officer too…I can’t recall). And business carries on. We get what amounts to a whole season of adventures for the Spock-less Enterprise. Then the comic creators jumped the gun and revived Spock, only to learn that they had to hurry up and kill him again if they wanted their stories to dovetail into the beginning of the third movie. They do work it out. For any Trek fans who want to freshen the movies up, reading the comics alongside them can offer another perspective on the whole series.

I will admit that this movie has its problems. Spock’s absence was a brave choice. I know that the first time in the director’s chair occupied most of Mr Nimoy’s time, but excluding Spock from 95% of a Star Trek movie was still pretty gutsy. It worked as far as demonstrating Kirk’s need for a Spock. Shatner plays Kirk confident, as usual, but he seems lacking something in his confidence. Maybe it’s direction? Or structure? Whatever it is that Kirk is missing, it’s apparently present when he and Spock are together. The benefits of showing Spock-less Kirk might not outweigh the detriment of not having Spock around.

I’m very sensitive to the size of the world any given story is set inside of. Not that I can visualize what a light year really is. But I have what I can only describe as a feel for the scope of the world. The old show felt like space was as it is now. We’ve seen the view of earth from the moon, but it is blackness past that. Some pioneers ventured out, but who knows what’s happened to them? (A good few episodes will tell us.) The world of TOS is massive. The crew just huddles inside the Enterprise and rockets (or warps) to the next bright spot. The world of the Next Generation is much smaller. That show has always struck me as less about exploration and more about management. It seems that there are starbases conveniently placed throughout the Enterprise-D‘s supposed path of exploration. Each movie offers another scale to the universe. The Search for Spock presents my personal favorite size of the Star Trek world. Here is Star Trek in the Hyborian Age. Points of civilization are separated by vast deserts of space. Illicit trading is easy because the wilderness is everywhere. The reach of the Federation, which seems all-powerful by the time we get to TNG, is localized around earth but stretches across the quadrant in thin tendrils of occupied space and a thousand unreliable outposts. The wildness of the original series is felt here, but with a peek at the underbelly that would logically exist in a world like that.

Of course the big moment that sells this movie, the pivotal scene that makes this movie soar is the destruction of the Enterprise. Kirk kills his ship to get Spock back. Sort of. I guess he kills his ship to get rid of the Klingons to facilitate getting Spock to life. Spock died to save the Enterprise. Kirk killed the Enterprise to save Spock. There’s something there… Anyway, it gives us one of the great images from any episode. There’s also an intriguing bit of dialogue, which I admit to not fully understanding.

“My god, Bones. What have I done?”

“What you had to do. What you always do. Turn death into a fighting chance to live.”

First of all, is Bones saying that Kirk always does what needs doing? Or is he saying that Kirk needs to do what he’s always done before? Or, am I missing the point that what Kirk always does is what needs doing, which is to death into a fighting chance to live? It’s probably that. McCoy wasn’t talking about the death of the spaceship though. He was talking about the death of Kirk’s only son, a horrible act, being leveraged by Kirk himself to end this battle and ultimately to save the lives of the crew and restore the life of Spock.

Geeks of Christ could spend a whole year in this movie.

I should note that these first four movies on my list are all beloved by me. How one movie gets ranked higher than another is a question of which I like more. The latter eight movies are ranked by which I like better AND by which I dislike more. So far, I only have affection for the movies on the list. These are my top four.

The list so far:

The Wrath of Khan

The Undiscovered Country

The Voyage Home

The Search for Spock

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14 thoughts on “Favorite Star Trek movies. Fourth

  1. “The world of the Next Generation is much smaller. That show has always struck me as less about exploration and more about management.” – That is spot-on. I like TNG, but I have to agree. That said, past the first season of TOS, there is a large amount of infrastructure in place in that universe, too, and part of what detracts from ST III for me (although I like it quite a lot for the character work) is that, for some inexplicable reason, Starfleet has become the Worst Bureaucracy Ever. I mean, Federation ambassadors were always kind of a pain in TOS, but what is the deal with Admiral Morrow? Not only is he totally rule-bound, he’s bigoted – “I’ve never understood Vulcan mysticism,” saying that phrase as though he’s talking about year-old dog poop or something. Scoffing at Kirk’s sense of honor and loyalty to his friend. Wanting to mothball a ship that’s “20 years old” (he also can’t do math, apparently, since the Enterprise was already at least 13 years old by the time of “The Menagerie,” and the pre-V’Ger refit was at most five years earlier).

    I also dislike how there is never — not once — any logical reason established onscreen for the Enterprise go to back to Genesis. The discovery of Spock’s tube by the Grissom comes as a surprise. That plot point is clear. (Vonda McIntyre’s clever novelization of ST II notwithstanding.) We are left to assume that Kirk somehow hears about the discovery (this is something McIntyre fixed in her ST III novel, rearranging the movie’s chronology slightly). We are left o assume Sarek is talking about the body when he says “bring them both to Vulcan,” even though the immediate context of their conversation makes it pretty clear he is talking about Spock’s katra only (“Then everything that he knew, all that he was, is lost”… Not once does he suggest Spock can be resurrected. “Both in pain” — Well, so far as Sarek knows, Spock’s body is burned up, so how can it be in pain? No one could have predicted the Genesis Wave would bring it back to life, as a kid, no less – what’s up with that?)

    I am ranting, so I’d best stop, because I genuinely do enjoy this film. I watched it more times than I can remember in the late 80s, over and over. I can still recite swaths of it from memory. But that major hole in the plot has always bugged me.

    But your post is another fine one, and I like it for much the same reasons you do. I think your second take on Bones’ line is the intended one, with “death” meaning not only Marcus’ death but also as just a shorthand for “no-win scenario.” What I really like about ST III bringing Spock back (after two real-time years and a whole movie), as opposed to STID bringing Kirk back (after five minutes, if that), is that bringing Spock back *costs.* It costs Kirk dearly. He loses his son. He loses his ship. He loses (temporarily) his career, his “first best destiny.” It’s as though the universe is saying, “Ok, Kirk, you wanna cheat death once more? Fine – but it’s gonna hurt.” That’s why the bit between Sarek and Kirk is so perfect – “If I hadn’t tried, the cost would’ve been my soul.” “What doth it profit a man,” indeed.

    And, also, when Spock comes back, he’s not quite the same. And, I would argue, never will be. But that’s for another day!

    • Now that you mention it…

      You’re right! Why would Kirk think to return to Genesis? Not only does Sarek’s request seem to indicate Spock’s Bones-bound Katra only, there’s also no reason to think the sunglasses case survived being torpedoed into space. Even after it’s discovered that Spock’s coffin remained intact, there’s no indication that Kirk got that information. Maybe he got an email about it off-screen.

      But. I guess if I can say Star Trek IV is one of my favorites, I can forgive the plot holes of Part III.

      As for STID, right on. The more I think about that movie, the less I think of that movie.

      • No they don’t.

        I’ve read a handful of Star Trek books. Some are good, some are not. But recently, I read one that was surprisingly well-written. I had to flip it to the cover…yep, there’s a painting of William Shatner on the front and it IS a good book! Who would’ve thought!

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