5.15.2013

Captain's Blog pt. 21: Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

Star Trek Into Darkness opened this week and seems poised to rake in enough money worldwide to justify its $185 million budget several times over. We'll get to the Abrams movies down the line, but let's turn the clock back almost 30 years (and trim the budget by about $160 million) for:


Technically, of course, The Wrath of Khan was a sequel to The Motion Picture, but it makes more sense to view TWOK as part one of a trilogy of a films, with The Search for Spock being the sequel / pt. 2 of the trilogy. As such, does TSFS succeed? i.e. Does it re-establish its core cast, up the stakes? Is it just a retread? Does it exist merely to set-up part 3?

My answer to most of these questions is "yes." Stakes upped? Certainly. Re-establish what came before? Absolutely. (Harve Bennett said he fell back on his TV past with the "Previously on..." bit at the beginning, but TSFS is hardly alone in doing so, for its era. I always call it the "Rocky" effect, but it goes back to the days of the serials, of course.) Is it a retread? No. Different concerns, different pacing, different approach. Similar in many respects, sure, but it's a continuation of the same story/ development of a similar theme.

And I don't think anyone could say TSFS exists simply to set up A Voyage Home. I'll get into this a bit more next time around, but one thing I love about these movies is how naturally the themes develop from film to film. TWOK is all about the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few. TSFS says yes, but sometimes, the good of the one is worth breaking all the rules for; our loyalty to one another is at least as important as our loyalty to "the many." And Voyage Home expands it to its ultimate platitude,  the Needs of the All (that which encompasses both the one and the many.) Few trilogies have such a tidy progression of philosophical hierarchy.

I've got to admit a personal bias, here, as this has always been one of my favorite movies. In 1984, I was in the United States for all of two weeks, and I'll never forget going to the Cumberland Twin and catching this in the theater, which made me the envy of my classroom upon returning to Germany. (Ok, I might be making that up, but summer sojourns stateside were always a chance to "get the scoop" on movies that wouldn't make their way across the Atlantic for several more months.) As a youngster and on subsequent viewings as an adolescent, I connected powerfully with this film.

I had a binder/keeper sort of thing for jr. high, and this picture was what you saw when you opened it, glued to the front inside cover. Look out, ladies!
So, while I think I can judge the film's merits objectively enough, I'll always love it for what it is. Let me jump ahead of myself and talk about Klingons for a minute.

 Christopher Lloyd is flanked by Maltz (John Larroquette) and Torg (Stephen Liska,) and that's Cathie Shirriff as Valkris.

One thing I realized watching it again last week was how much this film formed my ideas of how Klingons were/ should be/ look. My knowledge of TOS was limited to the episodes my parents had on VHS, so at the time I'd never seen "Day of the Dove" or "Errand of Mercy." The only Klingons I knew were from the beginning of TMP and from "The Trouble with Tribbles."

I was fortunate to have Christopher Lloyd's Kruge as my initial tour guide to these Trekkiest of bad guys:

"I wanted prisoners!" What happened to "Klingons take no prisoners?" I guess hostages are different. (Kor, after all, planned to make the Organians hostages, in "Errand of Mercy.")
"Give! Me! Gen!e!sis!"
"I...! Have HAD!...
"Enough... of YOU!"
  

And yes, I do live for the day when I can yell "Matlh! Jo-o-lll yICHU'!" into a phone and not be told to "calm down and take your seat."
 

Google "Best Klingons" and you're hard-pressed to find a lot of Kruge-love out there. It's too bad. (This one has Christopher Plummer on it, for f**k's sake, but no Kruge.) True, he didn't have the chance to revisit the role like Gowron or Worf or even Kor or Kang, both of whom returned for DS9 and Voyager, but Lloyd's performance, here, is completely undervalued. His swaggering around the Genesis planet, the rage over his murdered Targ, his political cunning: all just as sincerely performed as Montalban's Khan, yet he gets only a tenth of the acclaim. It's long overdue to say this: Christopher Lloyd's Kruge is one of the all-time great Trek-movie villains.

"Yes, exhilarating, isn't it?"
I've described elsewhere how Klingons have a tendency to be All Wrestlemania All the Time in certain incarnations of Trek, and I always find myself wondering how the hell they ever developed the science to build starships/ containment cores, etc. (We see a bit of this here with Maltz's reaction to the Genesis presentation: (paraphrased) "Interesting... They make-um... plan-ets...") While Kruge's no scientist, his understanding of Genesis at least extends beyond the immediate and obvious.

Speaking of: As a kid, I always wondered why Shatner re-did the Genesis presentation. Later, when I read of how the other cast members hated the way he'd steal their lines, I thought "A-ha! That explains it." Of course, it wasn't that, merely that they'd have to have paid Bibi Besch again if they used her likeness. Still, it's an amusing coincidence.
Nimoy's first choice for Kruge, by the by, was Edward James Olmos. On another level of the Tower, a Bryan whose conception of Klingonology is filtered through Admiral Bill Adama is writing this very same blog, I'm sure.

Let's go back to pre-production. Within days of TWOK's release, Harve Bennett got the call to start developing pt. 3. Leonard Nimoy wanted to direct, and after Michael Eisner was disabused of his notion that Nimoy hated Spock (something Nimoy had to live with after battling the studio and writing I Am Not Spock,) he got his chance. Roddenberry famously quipped to Harve, "Well, you've hired a director you cannot fire," upon hearing the news. (And then he resubmitted his proposal for the JFK/ time-travel story, this time tweaking the idea to have Spock on the grassy knoll firing that infamous "phantom shot." As crazy as that idea sounds, I have to say...)


That plot was politely-enough rebuffed, but once Roddenberry got wind of what Nimoy/ Bennett were planning to do with the Enterprise, he again leaked the news to the faithful, who (again, and as he expected) mounted a negative campaign against the film. The Paramount brass were less concerned this time around, and Bennett and company didn't have to perform the same amount of crisis management, but he and Roddenberry's working relationship deteriorated further because of it.

Speaking to Shatner for his Movie Memories book, Roddenberry's long-time assistant Richard Arnold had this to say about the death of NC-1701:

"Harve Bennett's military experience came in helicopters over Korea, while Gene came out of WW2. When Gene was flying these great big airships, they had names, they were referred to as "she." If the plane was damaged, "she" was "wounded." He had a very similar attitude about the Enterprise. Harve's perspective was entirely different. (...) If you crashed your helicopter and walked away from it, it was still a good landing. You just went and got another chopper. There wasn't any real attachment to the equipment. That explains in part why Gene was so hurt by Harve's destruction of the Enterprise (and also) why Harve never really understood that."

I think that's a particularly insightful comment. (Speaking of Gene's aviation, here's a tweet from Rick Berman that intrigued me:)


Shatner's take: "To me, the death of the Enterprise merely provided a great bit of cinematic drama, a wonderful, exciting and unexpected plot twist in light of a seemingly unwinnable situation. In short, it made the film better."

Did it? I will say I think it's perfectly in character for Kirk to make that decision, and that everyone involved treated it with respect. The ship's death is not exploited for cheap drama; it is a true gasp of a sequence and arises logically enough from the crisis at hand. But (at least one of) the problem(s) with blowing up the ship is that it's a bit like having someone besides Thor pick up Mjolnir. The first time it happens, it's dramatic and exciting, but it inevitably leads to it happening again and again. By the time the Enterprise blew up in Generations, I was shrugging. I'd seen it happen a dozen times in one episode of TNG alone and in plenty of the books, comics, etc.

Anyway, I'm probably closer to Shatner's and Bennett's thinking, here, than I am to Roddenberry's, but I do see where he's coming from. The Mjolnir comparison brings it home for me; these things are more than props, more than interchangeable machines. I don't suspect Nimoy (or Bennett, really) would disagree. (On the commentary track, it's argued the scene works precisely because no one thinks of the Enterprise as "just a ship.") I had zero problem with this as a kid; I'm a bit more ambivalent as an adult. One thing's for certain: if Gene was upset with the idea of seeing the old girl go, he must have been torn to shreds actually seeing it happen, as few onscreen deaths are as in-your-face as this one:

 
In the Scream criteria for sequels, this is an example of a "kill scene" being twice as big in the sequel.

The death of the ship overshadows the murder of Kirk's son. Sounds kind of weird, but really, David had only been around for one film; the Enterprise was a founding member of the cast. (Bjo Trimble once said that if they counted letters addressed to the ship, the NC-1701 got more fan mail than the rest of the cast combined.)


And where I think the ships' destruction serves the plot, does David's? On one hand, sure; a one-two punch with considerable dramatic weight demonstrating the price Kirk is paying to save his friend and the lengths to which he will go to carry out the mission. On the other, it just reminds me of the tv trope of giving a character a son or a "love of his life" only to get rid of them almost immediately so things can get back to normal. Shatner is to be commended (even if I don't always like the way he did it) for giving Kirk a definite post-David's-death "edge" he didn't have. The death definitely stays with him.

In the novelization for TSFS, David and Saavik have a romantic relationship. It's a pity they didn't put this in the movie, as I feel it adds more to his loss, as well as their presence in the movie.

Perhaps Nimoy just didn't want to see Saavik getting it on with anyone other than Spock.
Speaking of Nimoy, a great advantage this and Voyage Home have is him in the driver's seat. He collaborated with each actor rather than dictate to them, and he brings considerable experience with the characters and concepts to the proceedings. As with the Klingons, my basis for how these characters are supposed to interact with one another is formed largely by how they interact here. It's important to note, as well, that this is the first time the "peripheral" cast was actually consulted on their onscreen representation - another bonus of having one of their own in the director's chair.

If they expected the same treatment from Shatner on Final Frontier, they were to be disappointed, alas.

Uhura's moments with Mister Adventure, Scotty's sabotage of the Excelsior, and Sulu's "Don't call me Tiny:" all great. (I guess Chekov got his big arc last time, though he'll get some memorable screentime in Voyage Home, of course.)

Although the sound effects for Scotty's sabotage (that of an internal combustion engine breaking down) are a little odd.
 
 Sulu gets his first glimpse of the ship he will soon command.
I always forget Miguel Ferrer is in this movie.
 

Nimoy also deserves special commendation for his dramatic use of lighting and the sets. The soundstage (which nearly burned down due to a fire on the Paramount lot towards the end of filming) is like a TOS set on steroids, the ship sets and planet surface are lit with a real theatrical eye, and the Vulcan set in particular is simple but perfect.

 

But the most unique aspect of TSFS (and the real heart of the film) is McCoy.


This is DeForest Kelley's finest moment. This is the only of the films to give McCoy a truly vital part in the proceedings. He makes the most of his character arc, here, alternating between cranky, anguished, humorous, and heroic.

Here he is with Dean Cain's mom (Sharon Thomas) and Conroy Gedeon.
 
 
Speaking of this scene, the role of money in the future is again confused... I guess we're supposed to think it's there when it needs to be there, but society is organized around non-capitalist means. I'm fine with keeping it murky - this is not a series that needs to present comprehensive economic theory - but some consistency, please!

The scene where he addresses Spock's body on the way to Vulcan is such a great, great moment.

 

Much is made of the Bones/ Spock/ Kirk trinity, and rightly so, but it is in this film we see the finest expression of the Bones/ Spock relationship. The absence of Spock allows us to see a different side of the trinity, for the first (and only) time.


As for Kirk's character arc, Shatner, too, delivers an underrated performance. What praise it is given seems confined to his moments after David's death: the grief and anger replaced by grim resolve and quick thinking. But there's more to his performance and arc, here, than that.

 

We get one of the greatest Kirk moments of all time in this film, directly after he is denied permission to return to the Genesis planet.

"The word? Is 'No.' I am therefore going anyway." As Nimoy says in I Am Spock, "THAT's our hero!"
The "you'll never sit in the Captain's Chair again" business is how you really damage Kirk, as we learned in TMP and elsewhere.

The film is, again, about friendship, about how attending to the needs of the one is often the best (and noblest) way of saving yourself. (As Kirk says to Sarek at film's end, "If I hadn't tried, the cost would have been my soul.") Few other Treks make the point as well as it's made here: "these are the friends you want to have, and here's why."

 
When Nimoy was directing this scene, he encouraged the rest of the cast to surround and reach out to their comrade. He relays that they were extremely reluctant at first, but then Sulu reached out to touch his arm, and everyone immediately warmed. 
The somewhat awkward outpouring of affection feels very realistic to me. They've all been through quite a bit, after all, Spock most of all.
 
 

The Search for Spock remains one of the strongest original cast adventures. And while it failed to match the receipts of The Motion Picture or achieve the critical mass of The Wrath of Khan, it was brought in on time and under budget, so the $80m it generated went a long way. Producers love that. Another sequel was set up almost immediately.

A final word - the scores for the first four Trek films are all masterpieces, but James Horner's work for TWOK and TSFS are my personal favorites. Both films use the classical approach to scoring and to great effect. Whether it's Reliant's theme (or the Enterprise theme itself) or the way motifs accentuate the subtext, what we have here is essentially one symphony between the two soundtracks (TWOK and TSFS.) I've been listening to them a lot over the past few days, as background for these blogs, and have picked up on a lot of subtleties previously missed. Great stuff.


I leave you with this early example of the now-all-too-common "techno remix" of the Search for Spock theme. I never knew this existed until a few days ago, but it was recorded at the time Horner scored all of the above. A real relic of its era - enjoy.


10 comments:

  1. The loss of the Enterprise hit me hard. I had grown up with it, essentially. I'd come to think of it as a being, separate and discrete from its crew, but only truly alive with that crew aboard. I'd gotten the impression from watching TOS over the years, and reading the books that brought the TOS episodes to print, that Kirk deeply felt for the ship itself, aside from it being the vessel that housed his crew. So its destruction hit me like a gut punch.

    That contrast and comparison between Roddenberry and Bennett is interesting, and does indicate a fundamental difference, not just between them, but between members of the viewing audience. You and I, for example, have different feelings about it that could derive from a number of sources. One could be that I'd watched all 79 episodes of TOS multiple times by the time of the movies, while your experience was quite different. Let me be clear: I feel your experiences are just as valid as mine, and mine might be much more subjective because the Enterprise was such a focus for me as a kid. So my view is skewed to the point where no demise would have been fitting for the Enterprise. I'm reminded of how real-world ships, like CV-6, the carrier Enterprise the US started WWII with, survived seeing action in every major action of the Pacific war, only to be handed over to breakers in 1958. The TOS ship had a more spectacular end, but it still deflated me much the same way I was deflated to read of CV-6's end.

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    1. In the same way only Nixon could go to China, only Kirk could blow up the Enterprise.

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  2. I remember seeing this when it came out, probably opening day. I can tell you that when the Enterprise exploded there was dead silence in the theatre. I don't think there's any moment in any movie that stunned me like that one did.

    I agree that this movie doesn't get its share of accolades. I've always liked it and I always will.

    My biggest problem with the movie (aside from the Admiral who says the Enterprise is 20 years old, which is ridiculous; it would be much older than that) was the condition of the bird of prey when our heroes take over. It received two direct torpedo hits while UNSHIELDED. Not only did it not blow up, Sulu says they have full power available as they're making their escape from the Genesis planet. Who carried out these repairs? Maltz? Had to be. There was no one else aboard. Does he strike you as the Klingon version of Scotty?

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    1. That's a good point about the Enterprise's age. How long did Captains April and Pike have the ship, anyway? Is it established anywhere? Actually never mind - I'm sure it's one of those things that's referenced six different ways in six different places.

      Maltz, apparently, had hidden depths.

      Speaking of, I can't believe I forgot to give a shout-out to the "Fine, I'll kill you later" remark. One of my favorites.

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    2. Capt April's existence was never confirmed outside of one of the animated episodes. He's never been mentioned in an episode or movie. All we know about Pike is he visited Talos IV 11 years prior to "The Menagerie" and that's all. However, since TWOK takes place roughly 20 years after Kirk's original 5-year mission ended, that would make the Enterprise 36 years-old, MINIMUM, at the time of TSFS. Clearly the admiral never watched the original series.

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  3. And just to get REALLY snarky...

    How big, exactly, is spacedock? When they're stealing the Enterprise, Kirk orders 1/4 impulse. A few seconds after that Sulu states they're 1 minute from the space doors. Here's the issue: It's been established that full impulse is 1/4 the speed of light. That means 1/4 impulse is 1/16 the speed of light. Since light travels at 186,000 miles per second, the Enterprise is travelling at 11,625 miles PER SECOND. In that minute Sulu mentioned, the ship would travel 697,500 MILES.

    I trust my geek cred is good here?

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  4. This post makes me want to revisit "The Search for Spock" and give it a fairer shake than I gave it last time. Well done!

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  5. Ahhhhh Star Trek III: The Search For Spock. This one rarely gets much respect and is often referred to as "the best of the odd-numbered Treks" as if that's supposed to be a compliment. TSFS deserves so much more than that. I guess the fact that it followed the great TWOK didn't do it any favors (similar to Batman fans proclaiming "Dark Rising Rising was OK, but it's no Dark Knight"). But this was a more than solid entry: excellent use of the supporting cast, terrific performance by Christopher Lloyd as Kruge, and a truly great moment for Shatner during David's death scene. While the destruction of the Enterprise doesn't quite carry the emotional weight as the death of Spock in TWOK, it's still a very powerful scene. And the "needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many" exchange at the end is such great closure to the death scene in TWOK. I have to give Nimoy tons of credit; I've never seen a more perfect resurrection of a beloved character that didn't seem to cheapen the original death (unlike what's gone on with say, about half the residents of the DC and Marvel Universe). Bravo Mr. Nimoy, and may you Live Long & Prosper forever!

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