More noise than signal

Star Trek: The Search For Spock

Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

Following on near enough directly from the previous film, we join the gang back on Earth still grieving for the loss of Spock, although Lieutenant Saavik (recast as Robin Curtis) and David Marcus have transferred to the science vessel Grissom, named of course after William Petersen’s character in CSI: Las Vegas. They are investigating the planet that was formed after Khan set off the Genesis device in the nebula at the end of the last film, which also marks the final resting place of Spock’s body. Or, well, it should have done, but it appears that the body’s gone walkabouts.

It turns out that this, and the increasing instability of the planet is a side effect of David using the banned substance “protomatter”, renowned for producing the powerful but unpredictable effects that are demanded by the script. Convenient. Saavik and David discover that Spock had been resurrected, sort of, in a rapidly ageing child’s body, but with no memory or the personality of his previous life.

Back home, Kirk and company discover that one of Spock’s last acts was transferring his katra to Dr. McCoy, which is why he’s behaving erratically. For the uninitiated, a katra is a bit like an iCloud backup of your brain, but with a crotchety old geezer as the backup server rather than an Apple facility, making it far more reliable. Unfortunately Starfleet are trying to hush up the Genesis incident, as they don’t want the Klingons playing Sonic the Hedgehog, and are also looking to decommission the aged Enterprise, so bar Kirk from pursuing the matter.

Kirk accepts this with the good grace he’s known for, stealing the Enterprise, sabotaging the new Starship flagship such that it cannot follow and belting off to the Genesis planet. They are met there by a Klingon Bird of Prey, captained by Christopher Lloyd’s Kruge, who has heard communications chatter about the increased colour palette and blast processing of the Genesis device, and is infuriated that the Klingons must continue to play the likes of Alex Kidd in Shinobi World rather than The Revenge of Shinobi. Really, it’s barbaric in comparison.

Kruge rightly recognises the destructive potential of the device and is resolved to move it from Federation to Klingon hands, and, well, the man has a point. It turns out that going up against a wildly understaffed and semi-obsolete Enterprise isn’t too difficult, especially with the element of surprise afforded by a cloaking device, and he cripples the Enterprise. By this point Kruge has already taken Saavik, David and Spock hostage, and as Kirk refuses to co-operate he has David killed, which pretty much seals Kruge’s fate.

Before you know it they’re having a fistfight in the lava fields of the rapidly falling apart planet, Kirk’s tricked most of the Klingons into beaming on board the Enterprise a few seconds before it self destructs and the Enterprise crew has taken over the Klingon vessel and are headed off to Vulcan to spotweld Spock’s soul back to his body, this apparently being a thing that can be done.

Now, perhaps fittingly given the title, this instalment was directed by Leonard Nimoy, from a script finished off by Exec Producer Harve Bennet. And, in a lot of ways, these two must share the blame for The Search for Spock not quite hanging together all that well as a film. I don’t think there’s all that much here that’s outright bad on the atomic level, with the minor exception of Kruge’s ill-considered pet puppet thing, but there’s not a great deal of cohesiveness to the piece.

Chris Lloyd does his best with the material, but the overblown way the character’s written comes across as an attempt to recapture the glory of Khan’s reception, and a more contrasting character might well have been more impactful. That said, the almost operatic way Kruge’s been written is probably an attempt to graft a character on to someone that doesn’t have the screentime to properly develop one, and indeed the entire Klingon contingent feels rather like an afterthought, shoehorned in to give Kirk someone to punch in the final act.

There’s an argument, I think, for excising the external threat entirely – after all, there’s this brand new, rapidly decaying planet that could host all sorts of environmental hazards that might have made for an ultimately more interesting experience, had they fully committed to the “search” element of the title. After all, the film is, rightly, mostly concerned with battering the undo button for Spock’s death, and as such perhaps doesn’t really need to have a sub-plot with Klingons to make things more conventional.

That said, now we’re talking about a film with a larger budget that this, as cinematographer Charles Correll was already concerned that due to budget constraints essentially nothing was shot on location, and, well, he was right, as none of the soundstages look all that convincing. It might just about have passed muster on a TV show fifteen years before this was made, but it looks rather tacky in ’84. Indeed, despite the increased budget over Wrath of Khan, I’d argue this looks the cheapest of the series.

Not to overplay that, as it’s not all that bad, but it doesn’t help believability, given the plot that’s already concerned with bringing a dude back from the dead. You’d have to be a very forgiving viewer indeed to get to the end of the film with you belief still suspended, and I’m sure a lot of people were just wishing that they simply didn’t kill Spock at the end of the last film. It’s also tough to judge the ending in retrospect – the destruction of the iconic Enterprise vessel should have a big impact, but viewed from today it’s almost part of Starfleet’s standard operating procedures.

I think, perhaps, this sounds as if I’m being rather more harsh on The Search for Spock than I intend. While, yes, it’s got problems, they don’t get in the way of enjoying it in quite the same way that they are apparent when discussing it. It’s worth watching once, but I can’t imagine it’s on heavy rotation for even the die-hard Trekkies.