Star Trek III is, in many ways, the flip side of the coin that was Star Trek II. In the former, we get a good old spaceship battle akin to the classic episode Balance of Terror (which itself was basically a submarine battle). The Search of Spock gives us planet-side fisticuffs with Kirk beating up Doc from Back to the Future! In Khan, we learn that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one. In Spock, we discover that it’s not always the case; sometimes the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many. What’s the take away? You have to wait until Star Trek IV to learn that. These 3 movies are so interconnected, you need to accept that it’s one long story. (The Motion Picture kicks off the idea of friendship, but it’s these three movies that really send the points on their voyage home! Sorry… I couldn’t resist!)
Trek III picks up very shortly after the events of The Wrath of Khan. Saavik and David are investigating the Genesis planet where we see that David cuts corners. Kirk and crew are home; the Enterprise is being decommissioned and the crew will go their own ways. Except, Spock isn’t dead and he needs help while McCoy is learning to do a mean Nimoy impression. What I don’t get is that Sarek knew this was a possibility. He even says it’s “the Vulcan way, when the end is near.” That brings up my first question. On Vulcan, after Spock is rescued, Sarek asks for a procedure that is, according to the high priestess, legend; it hasn’t been done in a very long time. So why did Sarek expect Kirk to know to bring Spock’s body home? Did Spock have a moment to download his “Katra” during the events on Amok Time, or did they know there was no chance Spock would be killed? If it is a well known thing, the very last episode (Turnabout Intruder) sees Kirk ask Spock if he’s ever heard about a consciousness transfer before, to which Spock says no. But based on this, his own people have pulled off the very thing!
Alright, look, picking nits in a movie that is actually very heartfelt isn’t fair. The idea that we have an eternal soul, as Kirk learns, is what drives him to risk life and limb. He loses his son in the process. (Ok, I do have to point out that the Klingon who was told to kill a prisoner has no honor. He has a choice of who to kill: a child, a woman, and a man. He chooses the woman. Nah, I don’t buy it from the warrior race! I do buy, however, that Kirk’s son would try to overpower the Klingon even though he has no fighting experience to speak of! As Saavik points out, he’s like his father in many ways.) Saavik never actually says “David gave his life for me”. She seems to avoid that even in the next movie; she says he gave his life to save all of them. I’m torn on how I feel about that. Equally, I think she did a good thing helping Spock trace her fingers to overcome Pon Far… but is that a bit weird? Depending on how you look at it, she’s either far older than the teenage Spock or far younger than the regenerating one. (Is finger tracing really a good way to overcome that desire? You mean, Nurse Chapel could have just done that with Spock in Amok Time and all would have been well?) Ok, back to the heartfelt stuff… Shatner sells it for me when he grieves the loss of his son. Just as he was getting a chance to know the guy, Kirk loses him. More than that, when Kirk detonates the Enterprise, I was gutted. (Although I did like that they maintained the 3-person self-destruct activation continuity from Let That Be Your Last Battlefield!) Watching the Enterprise burn up in the sky was very hard to take!
To honor David, let’s review what he said in STII: good words are where ideas come from and there are a lot of ideas here. “What you had to do; what you always do: turned death into a fighting chance to live.” Star Trek is often about seeing other possibilities. Kirk’s career has been based on turning dangerous situations around. What is interesting here is that there’s an underlying theme that goes back to the series: Kirk is prejudiced against the Klingons and with the murder of his son, that prejudice has been “justified”. But take note, this movie refers to a “galactic conference” and we see more about that in the next movie. This theme will be resolved by the sixth movie in the franchise, but it’s interesting to note that for a show that had done very little world building, the movie series is continuity-heavy. (I mean that in a very good way!)
I also credit the writing where McCoy actually visits Spock to say that he really misses him and couldn’t stand to lose him again. All that bickering seems to be playful teasing when McCoy sees Spock so vulnerable. On the flip side, when he learns what happened, he does resort to his typical racial slurs, but with a sense of humor about it: “That green blooded son of a bitch! It’s his revenge for all those arguments he lost!” I genuinely enjoyed when McCoy tries to give a Vulcan neck pinch and the scene of Kirk holding up the Vulcan salute and asking Bones how many fingers he sees is priceless! Sarek also interests me in this movie. A father who has often expressed disappointment in his son, is now reduced to admitting that “my logic is uncertain where my son is concerned.” Is it possible that he is coming around? Considering how strongly he advocates for Spock, one would think he may be seeing the error of his ways. And the great Christopher Lloyd as Kruge is killed with one of the best Shatner lines while being kicked in the face: “I… have had enough… of you!” (The remaining Klingon also makes me laugh: “I do not deserve to live!” “Fine, I’ll kill ya later.”)
But what makes this movie so special for me is the lengths the crew go to for one of their own. Everyone wants in. Kirk offers them a chance to walk away but Sulu, Chekov, Uhura and Scotty won’t have it. This effectively means the end of their careers, but it’s what they signed up for, regardless. Kirk loses his ship and his son but the cost for him to not try, he says, was his soul. Spock and the crew of the Enterprise are family, not by blood but by belief. That bond can be stronger than family, as we see with Kirk and his son. (There’s no hidden meaning here; I am very happy to say my family and I are very close; I just mean in general!) Like love, that bond can send us to great lengths and Trek does a great job making that point for us. Star Trek III is a great part of the saga, but probably isn’t suited to watch on its own. It’s part of a series and holds up very well as the middle piece. But more than that, it’s about friendship and being part of a crew that cares about one another. That’s one of the enduring messages of Trek! And so, the adventure continues… ML
The view from across the pond:
The first few minutes of this film replays events from the previous one, with the death of Spock, his funeral, and the arrival of his coffin on the genesis planet, so this is very much a continuation. Bizarrely this gives the films a continuity between “episodes” that the television series never had, and unfortunately does contribute to the general impression that these films are television stories that have been stretched to fit the movie format. This is another slow one.
The title is a bit of a misnomer, because everyone knows where Spock is. Instead, it’s about the struggle to get to him. A running theme of Star Trek and to a certain extent sci-fi in general, is the extent to which the people in charge are always jerks. Here, Kirk quite reasonably wants to go and rescue his friend, a hero who saved a whole starship, and the powers that be won’t let him go. Even worse, they want to decommission the Enterprise altogether, but Kirk has never been one to let rules get in his way.
If you ever wondered how many people it takes to fly a starship, we find out here that five is plenty, although it looks as if Kirk forgets how many crewmembers he had on board when he orders the red alert to be sounded when everyone is already on the bridge. What’s the point of that? Perhaps he just likes the mood lighting. Standing in his way is a rogue Klingon ship, commanded by Kruge, who isn’t too happy about the negotiations for peace with the Federation and wants to steal the genesis technology. The director (Nimoy!) is at pains to indicate what a scoundrel Kruge is by focussing on his toothy pet as often as possible, like some kind of a Bond villain’s cat but with extra drool. I felt quite sorry for Kruge when his muppet with teeth got killed, and I reckon when Kirk says “Klingon bastard killed my son”, he should have considered them to be just about even after the death of Kruge’s beloved pet, considering that David had less of a personality than the muppet monster. Kruge was played by Christopher Lloyd, who managed to make him quite a watchable villain, but also made me wish I was watching Back to the Future instead.
Down on the planet, Spock needed to go back to the future himself. Well, his own future anyway, because the planet revived him as a child. Absurd doesn’t even begin to describe all that stuff, and of course he conveniently escapes the planet just as he returns to his apparent age before he died. The running time is padded out by showing us a teenage Spock having his sexual awakening, stroking Saavik’s fingers. Did we need to see that?
So, much like the last movie, the storyline was basically a bit of pulpy rubbish stretched across a movie-length format, but also like the last one this was frequently a triumph of style over substance. The visuals for the planet are striking, especially the snow on the cacti. The self destruct is all very exciting and the Enterprise exploding is a breathtaking moment. Probably for the first time ever McCoy comes across as a decent human being, perhaps because he’s half-Spock, and I enjoyed the focus on the importance of friendship. There were some great lines: “I have had enough of you.”; “If I hadn’t tried, the cost would have been my soul.”; and best of all, the reversal of Spock’s philosophy:
“Why would you do this?”
“Because the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many.”
There were plenty of frustrations along the way. Grace Lee Whitney continues to be stomped all over by the world of Star Trek, this time getting nothing more than a reaction shot. Saavik is played by a different actress and is almost entirely characterless. And the ceremony to put Spock’s soul back in his body, or whatever they were doing, was a prime example of the sort of pseudo-mystical crap that infects sci-fi so often, with a bunch of people in cloaks talking in “thee”s and “thy”s and even hitting a gong, with the obligatory thunder and lightening to accompany the ceremony.
I almost feel like echoing Kirk’s line and saying “I have had enough of you” to the original Star Trek crew, but I’m actually very curious to know where we go from here, with the Enterprise destroyed and the entire crew basically outlaws now. As long as it’s not called Star Trek IV: The Search for David, I’m in. RP