I don’t feel like I should put a spoiler warning in the main heading for movies that are more than 30 years old, but I will put one here. Major spoilers ahead for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.
A commonly held opinion among Star Trek fans is that the even-numbered Star Trek films (with the exception of Nemesis) are the good ones and that the odd-numbered Star Trek films are the bad ones. And Star Trek III: The Search for Spock is probably regarded as the best of the bad Star Trek films. I imagine it’s widely seen as an okay Star Trek movie with not the best pacing and kind of a one-dimensional villain. But I love it, and here’s why:
The movie opens with Kirk quietly mourning the loss of his best friend and the other crew members who were killed during Khan’s attacks.
As soon as it’s discovered that McCoy is basically carrying around Spock’s soul (which is what has been causing his apparent delirium), Kirk becomes committed to reuniting McCoy with Spock and taking them both to Vulcan. His loyalty to his friends trumps all else, including his career. And Scotty, Sulu, Chekov, and Uhura are there to support Kirk and McCoy all the way — even if it means risking their own Starfleet careers in the process. Star Trek III is at its core a story about friendship, and I love it for that.
In the B-story, Kirk’s son David is wrestling with the notion that he messed up— BADLY. He cut corners with the Genesis project to get the results he wanted, and now everything is literally falling apart around him.
And Kirk is dealt a heart-wrenching personal blow when David is killed while sacrificing his own life to save Saavik and Spock. It absolutely crushes him in a compelling scene that shows him falling to the floor in shocked grief as his friends look on in sympathy. He had finally gotten back into his son’s life (in Star Trek II) only for that life to be snatched away.
As if the loss of his son wasn’t bad enough, Kirk is forced to destroy the Enterprise in a last-ditch effort to save his friends and himself. It has been said before that the Enterprise in Star Trek is a character all its own, and its destruction is deeply felt by Kirk, McCoy, Scotty, Chekov, and Sulu as they watch its fiery remains plummet to the surface of the Genesis planet.
Other Star Trek movies certainly have very personal elements (Khan’s revenge plot against Kirk in Star Trek II, Kirk’s struggle with his prejudice against Klingons in Star Trek VI, etc.). But I don’t think any of them have the kind of strong focus on the characters and their relationships that Star Trek III has.
If you take a close look at Kruge’s motivation, you’ll see that he isn’t as one-dimensional as he may initially appear. He sees that Federation scientists have developed a device that can be used as both the ultimate tool for galactic expansion and the ultimate weapon. It can almost instantly terraform a lifeless planet or moon into a celestial body that is capable of supporting life, and it can just as easily exterminate all life on a planet that already has a thriving ecosystem. So it’s no wonder that visions of a conquering Federation are dancing in Kruge’s head — and he’s having none of it. His quest to secure the secrets of the Genesis device isn’t about doing evil things because he’s evil. It’s about trying to level the playing field in order to protect his species from what he considers an imminent threat from the Federation.
Coming into this movie from Star Trek II, I find Star Trek III’s Saavik unrecognizable. Yes, there was obviously a casting change in between the two films, but that’s not all I’m talking about. Saavik in Star Trek II was a fairly green cadet. She seemed unsure of herself and came off as an innocent and naïve character. Saavik in Star Trek III is confident and wise. And considering that the events in Star Trek III take place a few weeks at most after the events in Star Trek II, there wasn’t enough time for Saavik to naturally mature. She’s simply a different character, and I approve.
This new Saavik first shows herself to be far different from her predecessor when she bluntly forces David to be honest with her and with himself about his work on the Genesis device. She uncovers the fact that he used an unstable element in order to solve certain problems with his work and accomplish his goals, and she hits him with a metaphorical punch to the gut by asking him how much death and destruction his impatience has already caused, and by wondering what horrors are still to come.
After giving David something to think about, she shows her gentle side by tending to the frightened and childlike Spock. Spock’s body has been regenerated by the Genesis device (causing him to essentially grow up all over again), but he has no memory of the person he was — or even how to communicate.
After a while, Saavik notices that Spock is going through Vulcan adolescence at an accelerated rate, which for him means that he has reached the point of pon farr — an intense desire to mate that Vulcan males must endure every seven years (starting when they’re young men). The way Saavik chooses to handle Spock’s intense longing is by offering him female companionship. In a really sweet moment, she guides him as they slowly caress each other’s fingers in what almost looks like a form of meditation. And that’s all they do. It seems to be the Vulcan equivalent of holding hands. I appreciate the restraint shown in the writing here. If this scene had been written thirty years later, it might have shown Saavik and Spock getting ready to have sex with each other. But that doesn’t happen here, and the scene is all the better for it.
Star Trek is no stranger to the exploration of spiritual themes. The Bajorans’ worship of entities called the “Prophets” was frequently shown on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is all about finding God. Star Trek III is one of the earliest points in the franchise’s history that has a strong focus on spiritual themes.
In Star Trek III, the concept of a soul is explored. In fact, the whole point of the main plot is to restore Spock’s soul to his body. And I can understand why some might say that McCoy is only carrying an imprint of Spock’s memories, but there’s one scene early in the film which might refute that. When Kirk finds McCoy in Spock’s quarters, McCoy-as-Spock asks why Kirk left him on the Genesis planet. And the way he asks it seems to imply that whatever part of Spock is inside McCoy knows that Spock’s body is alive (after being regenerated by the Genesis wave). If we can assume that Spock’s soul is still connected in some way with his body, then from Spock’s soul’s perspective, it would make no sense for Kirk to have left his living body behind.
Personally, I don’t subscribe to the notion that science and spirituality are incompatible. I’ve even read an interesting theory which states that DNA by itself doesn’t have a sufficient amount of data to account for everything that we are. I see nothing impossible about the notion that something metaphysical — like a soul — works together with our physical makeup to form the complete person that is each of us. And Star Trek III explores that concept pretty well.
Also, I like Kirk’s line near the end when Sarek asks him if the cost of his quest to save Spock was too high. Kirk says that if he hadn’t tried, the cost would have been his soul.
Star Trek II has a great example of one of the biggest problems with Vulcan society: Pure logic doesn’t always work. Spock waxes philosophical in the movie and says that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one. It’s a very robotic way of looking at the world, and it’s a view that can lead to major problems in practice. Mob rule and collectivist attitudes can grow from such a philosophy. (Collectivism is basically the view that the individual must always comply with the directives of the collective and that individual rights can be deemed of secondary importance to what the collective perceives to be the greater good.)
At the end of Star Trek II, Spock sacrifices himself for his shipmates. Since we’ve been told elsewhere in Star Trek that Vulcans feel deeply but just suppress those emotions, I find it hard to believe that Spock did what he did just because logic demanded it. I think he felt a deep bond with his shipmates (Kirk and McCoy in particular) and was willing to sacrifice his own life to save theirs.
At the end of Star Trek III, Kirk turns Spock’s “needs of the many” philosophy on its head when a puzzled Spock asks him why he would do what he did to save him. Kirk answers that it’s because the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many. What Kirk is saying is that the needs of the few or the one matter, and sometimes they can matter so much to the many that the many will put their own needs aside in order to serve those needs. And that’s exactly what Spock’s logic is missing. It’s missing that human element that can cause people with a compassionate mindset to value an individual’s needs over the good of the collective when the situation calls for it.
If the story in Star Trek III seems simple, it’s because it’s perhaps more personal than any of the other Star Trek films. It’s a story about a group of friends going to great lengths to help two of their own. There’s no epic space battle and no plot about galactic intrigue.
Kruge isn’t the most interesting villain ever, but he is a villain whose motivation makes sense. Had the roles been reversed, the Federation would have been very concerned about the Klingons having access to something as powerful as the Genesis device.
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock works as both a nice epilogue to Star Trek II and a necessary prologue to Star Trek IV; yet it also manages to stand quite well on its own. In my opinion, it doesn’t deserve to be forever lumped in with all the other odd-numbered Star Trek films.