[box cover]

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock: Special Collector's Edition

Paramount Home Video

Starring William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley,
George Takei, Walter Koenig, James Doohan, Nichelle Nichols,
Christopher Lloyd, Robin Curtis, and Merritt Butrick

Written by Harve Bennett
Directed by Leonard Nimoy


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Review by Mark Bourne                    


"Spock was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Kirk signed it. And Kirk's name was good upon 'Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to.... Old Spock was as dead as a door-nail."

A Christmas Carol (23rd century ed.)

 

Part 1:  The search for plot

(To jump down directly to the DVD details, click here.)

It's a frayed canard among us Star Trek fans. It goes like this: the Star Trek movies can be divided into two categories, the "good" even-numbered ones and the "bad" odd-numbered ones. It's a notion that took root sometime during the 1984 theatrical run of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and it's not entirely without merit. After the fresh exuberance and swashbucklery of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the third adventure was something of a downer. It was broody and somber, damn near Wagnerian. Having been credited simply for "story" before, this was producer Harve Bennett's first solo screenplay, and his inexperience shows time and again. Likewise, the movie was directed in a functional but flavorless style by first-timer Leonard "Mr. Spock" Nimoy himself. Their freshman effort didn't so much soar to a satisfying conclusion as stop in mid-sentence. And while it did what everyone knew it was going to do — resurrect the beloved Spock, who had perished so nobly at the end of the previous outing — it did so in a manner that begged a bagful of unanswered questions, the first being "Huh?"

Casual filmgoers in particular had a hard time with Search for Spock. Out of all the Star Trek films, this is the one that most feels like a movie made exclusively for the series' fans. It's brimming with plot points and references attached like footnote asterisks to episodes of the original TV episodes or other prior sources of canonical writ, thus threatening to leave behind the non-Trekker date who's rattling the popcorn and checking her watch.

However, as a Star Trek movie, this one presents some of the best scenes, character-play, and performances of the entire series. It contributes significant new components to the mythos, and many fans — well, at least I — prefer its tone of teeth-clenched earnestness to the ditsy sitcom atmosphere of its successor, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.

Even the hardcore Trek troops, though, find Search for Spock to be a movie with a frustrating split personality. It has the physique and will of a bold adventurer, but it's afflicted with acute brain-stem damage. Mixed in among some of Trekdom's best moments are some of the canon's sloppiest choices, the biggest being the rather nonsensically handled return of our favorite late, lamented Vulcan. So Search for Spock is typically lumped into the "bad odd-numbered" column — alongside the somnambulistic Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, a movie bad by any measure — even though Search for Spock has a great deal more going for it than either of those ill-remembered entries.

"To be continued..."

By picking up right where Wrath of Khan left off, Search for Spock is a direct continuation of the story rather than a self-contained sequel. Although Admiral Kirk (William Shatner) has won his battle against Khan, Spock's heroic self-sacrifice is an "open wound." After the battle-worn starship Enterprise limps home to Earth, Kirk discovers that not only is his second-best friend, Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelly), suffering from a mysterious mental trauma initially diagnosed as exhaustion, but the old Enterprise is a museum piece scheduled for decommissioning. During an unexpected visit, Spock's father, Ambassador Sarek (Mark Lenard), informs Kirk that Spock isn't truly dead, that the Vulcan would find a way to save his "living spirit" or katra even though the body has died.

Meanwhile, back on the Genesis planet, Kirk's newfound son David (Merritt Butrick) and Lt. Saavik (Robin Curtis) explore the strange new world and discover that Spock's makeshift casket is empty and, presto!, his body "mysteriously regenerated." Misdirection arrives in the form of a rogue Klingon captain (Christopher Lloyd) determined to stop at nothing and no one to capture the "secret of Genesis" for the glory of the Empire.

The only way for Kirk to save Spock is to steal the Enterprise, kidnap Dr. McCoy — who is carrying Spock's uploaded katra — and somehow bring Spock's body and soul to the Vulcan homeworld. Trouble is, Genesis is disintegrating and a whole crew of Klingons are in the way.

The good...

Continuing his reined-in approach from Wrath of Khan, here Shatner delivers his finest work as Kirk (perhaps finest ever, period). Spock's presence, even if only in abstract, looms throughout the movie, but this is Kirk's show. He's the one with the most at stake and the most to lose (and does, mostly). Shatner rises to the occasion without ham or bluster. In his biography, he wrote that his reaction to the news of David's murder was his finest Kirk moment. Who would disagree? (In this disc's commentary track and in the chief new "featurette," Nimoy passionately counteracts years of anti-Shatner mockery with praise for Shatner's ferocious contributions to Star Trek's legacy.)

Thank the heavens again for DeForest Kelly, who always graced McCoy with finely honed charm and personality even under the most ludicrous circumstances. His "I've missed you" scene with Spock's recumbent soulless body (!) is a real lump-in-the-throater.

Among the second-tier regulars, a couple of favorites finally get their own moments in the spotlight. George Takei's "Don't call me Tiny" scene and Nichelle Nichols' "Mr. Adventure" bit are welcome highlights. Mark Lenard once again shows his ability to imbue potency and gravitas into Sarek, who almost by definition could be as dry and dull as a Vulcan desert. Speaking of the planet Vulcan, the glimpses of its rugged mountains and ancient ceremonial grounds are quite striking (though the chorus line of pointy-eared babes during the resurrection ritual is a peculiar touch).

Several fetching sequences serve up genuinely cool Trekstuff. The Earth-orbiting Spacedock is the first time we see this impressive three-mile-tall starship garage. Kirk's theft of the Enterprise from Spacedock is one of the series' all-time best action scenes. Later, the destruction of the series' oldest grand dame, the Enterprise herself, is a well-justified and poignant spectacle. And from start to finish, James Horner's orchestral score is stirring and emotive in perfect style.

Best of all, Search for Spock ratchets up the Kirk-Spock-McCoy relationship triad to it highest level ever, before or since. Through them, themes of sacrifice and loyalty to one's family-of-choice are given a rare cinematic starring position. Pulled forward and tested against even higher stakes are Kirk's "I don't like to lose" and other support beams from Wrath of Khan. That movie's mantra of "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few" is inverted until the needs of the one, Spock, are granted such cosmic importance that everyone else is willing to repay his singular sacrifice with their own collective personal and professional immolation. Nice stuff to find in a Hollywood popcorn flick, "sci fi" or no.

...the bad...

On the other hand, the Genesis scenes are slow, stagy, contrived, and dull. The planet's alien landscapes look phony and stagebound. Butrick and Curtis exuded little chemistry individually, so put them together and they have all the spark of water with tissue paper. Poor Curtis seems to be a perfectly capable actor, but she isn't given anything worth doing or saying, and isn't well directed, so no matter how hard she might have tried she's doomed to come off as flat and devoid of presence. It's unlikely that Kirstie Alley, who played the role in Wrath of Khan, would have done any better.

When another Starfleet captain sets sail to chase down Kirk in the Federation's hottest new ship, he doesn't know that Scotty (James Doohan) has sabotaged the works. When his ship lurches to a dead stop in space with "Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang" noises, the moment is played for painful cheap laughs.

We adore Christopher Lloyd. He's a terrific actor and we can't fault Paramount for giving the movie's villain to a marquee-worthy celebrity. But he's so distinctive and his tics and mannerisms are so recognizable that he's forever cursed with Christopher Walken Syndrome — no matter what character he plays (especially a heavy) you're going to see, well, Christopher Lloyd instead of, say, a threatening alien evil overlord. He was perfectly cast as Uncle Fester, but not here, not in a role so underwritten that, really, a strong unknown actor would have done at least as well and wouldn't have, in '84, prodded stand-up comics to mimic Lloyd's Klingon Kruge with the voice of Lloyd's Reverend Jim from Taxi (for which he won an Emmy the year before).

In The New Yorker, Pauline Kael argued that Search for Spock churlishly dismantles the goodwill set up in Wrath of Khan. She had a point. So many elements that greeted us warmly in Number II — Kirk's reinvigorated self-awareness, his ex-lover and their son together, the Genesis planet, not to mention (one can further argue) the impact of Spock's sacrifice — are offhandedly dismissed here. It's one thing to flip the series' emotional register, it's something else to offer us such welcome pleasantries only to snatch them away the next time we buy a ticket.

...and the stupid.

Granted, Spock's death in Wrath of Khan had written the series into a corner. His enigmatic "remember" mindmeld with McCoy was an eleventh-hour wedge shoved into the climax to prop open the door for Spock's return, details to be worked out later. When later arrived, there probably wasn't any good way to bring Spock back from the Vulcan Valhalla short of divine intervention (a device the TV series used often enough). So Search for Spock couldn't help but run into problems, both as a story and as an addition to the Star Trek universe. Still, the whole resurrection mechanism is so lame, so ill-conceived and poorly dramatized that those scenes play like a memo from the studio's "they'll buy anything" committee. An experienced science fiction writer might have devised a plausible, dramatic means of revivification that didn't feel like hasty wand-waving magic. But that wasn't either Bennett or Nimoy.

The Spock-Katra-Regeneration thing opens a can of scientific, philosophical, religious, and ontological worms. There's no getting around the fact that the Federation now has a technological means of raising the dead. So what if the planet disintegrates? It's now been proven that super-speed Gaia-style cloning — or whatever the boffins want to call it — can be achieved. Accidentally even, one might add. Oh, how or exactly what happens with Spock's body is never explained. The issue is brushed away with a single line of dialogue, "the planet has somehow regenerated Captain Spock," and an empty coffin and a Vulcan tyke sprouting to manhood within a handy amount of time until Nimoy takes up the role just before Genesis goes kablooey.

(Prurient trivia note: Trek enthusiasts have long wondered what occurs off-camera between Saavik and the adolescent Spock once he is overcome by the Vulcan pon farr mating fever. It's certainly a scene shot with great weight and portent, but its conclusion is at best ambiguous. So, do they "do it"? In the commentary track on the Collector's Edition DVD of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Nimoy himself posits that the answer is an uncommitting yes, and that Saavik ultimately stays on their home planet quite probably because she's carrying Spock's child!)

Oho! you retort. Only Spock's body was regenerated. His soul, his "katra," had to be downloaded back into it from McCoy's mind. Okay then. What does that show about the nature of, as Kirk put it, an immortal soul? Or could it be that only Vulcans have such a thing? If so, why? If not, we now have scientific, verifiable, and reportable proof of a noncorporeal component — complete with "everything that was not of the body," Sarek says, including the memories and personality of the deceased — existing independently of that body. So-called "Vulcan mysticism" becomes cold, hard materialist fact. How far is that going to shake up beliefs both scientific and religious from one side of the galaxy to another?

Star Trek has a long history of sparking this sort of stoned-in-the-dorm-room bull session that can go on late into the night. In another long-time Trek tradition, these convenient plot points never get mentioned again in the Star Trek universe.

Because it is just writer's convenience. So it's annoying. A bit insulting too.

Still, we shrug and look the other way because it's Star Trek and those of us who love it long ago learned to accept the fact that the series frequently violates the Law of Ignored Ramifications. And frankly, to be generous, what else could Bennett and Nimoy do once their Paramount contracts decreed that Spock would return? I mean, did they think we'd accept some baloney such as, I don't know, time travel that gives Kirk and his crew some cheap cosmic "undo" button? Wait a minute. In the very next movie even a ratty old Klingon ship can be used for easy pinpoint time travel into the past and then back to the future (shades of Christopher Lloyd again), so why not just go back in time and prevent Khan from being a problem in the first place so that Spock and David and Scotty's nephew and Capt. Terrell and Carol Marcus's staff would never have to die at all, and while we're at it let's keep Chekov from getting that icky "cleature" dropped into his ear and we can save the Enterprise and....

But of course we're not supposed to think about all that, so put that bong away and stop asking too many questions.

While supplies last

You'd be hard-pressed to find many fans willing to call Search for Spock the last great Star Trek movie. Sure, IV: Voyage Home was the most commercially successful (which should tell you something dire right there), and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country was a cool old-school intrigue story that benefited from the return of Nicholas Meyer to the director's chair. But after Search for Spock the series acquired too many lead weights such as flat-footed humor, winking self-parody, and the obviousness that Star Trek and its beloved characters really are just so much franchise product, like Mayor McCheese and Happy Meals. After Search for Spock, "character" ceased giving much noticeable thrust to these Space Opera narratives. The Next Generation flicks in particular play like superhero comics, where each familiar personality is imprisoned within the narrow walls of his or her previously established template.

Oh, why am I grousing? Every few years the series resurfaces at the theaters, and there I am in line every time. After all, these films aren't made to add depth to the Great Works of Western Literature, or even to be a great leap forward in something as trivial as "science fiction cinema." Let's face it: They are franchise product, aiming to be nothing more than entertaining, geeky-smile-inducing popcorn-crunchers worth, one hopes, multiple viewings. Like the James Bond series, they're part of our pop-culture fabric, rendering them invulnerable to ninnyhammer nitpicking.

Those of us who love it all will continue to go, boldly or otherwise, back where we have gone before.

 

Part 2:  About the DVD

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock: Special Collector's Edition is altogether a companion piece to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan: The Director's Edition. Again we get a two-disc set that offers an excellent print with enhanced visuals and audio. The extras here are similar to what's found on the Wrath of Khan discs, with the "Captain's Log" interview featurette obviously shot at the same time and place as its same-titled predecessor.

The basics

Looks great, sounds terrific.

The anamorphic image (2.35:1) is apparently the same sharp and solid transfer found in the previous Search for Spock bare-bones DVD edition. This time, though, its digital compression receives more room on two disc layers instead of the previous one. No restorative touch-ups were applied, so expect a little grain and other minor blemishes, especially in the first half-hour. Any possible complaints are overruled by the vivid colors, fine definition and detail, and generally the gorgeous look of it all.

The audio is clear and clean with active surround channels used to quite satisfying effect. Don't look for digital-to-digital wraparound immersive sound environments or full-bore gimmicky directional add-ons. Instead the firm DD 5.1 remix is robust and full with just enough ambiance-enhancing flavor in its directionality effects. The .1 LFE channel adds real oomph to the Klingon ship's uncloaking and various scenes of carnage and destruction. The Enterprise bridge comes to life with all those incidental "console speaker" voices to your left and right, so you might as well pull your old Captain Kirk shirt from the closet and pretend like your couch is the Big Chair. James Horner's score gets to go balls-out and the Enterprise whooshing at warp speed is dandy. The Dolby 2.0 Surround mix isn't as full-bodied, though it too delivers plenty of dynamic range and definition, so it's up to the job.

Unlike the "Director's Editions" for Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Wrath of Khan, this disc adds no new or TV-only footage to the release. This is the theatrical print as you saw it in the theater. It just looks and sounds a bit better now in your living room than it did in 1984-vintage cineplexes.

The extras

Disc One's scene-by-scene commentary track brings to the microphones director Nimoy, writer/producer Harve Bennett, cinematographer Charles Correll, and actor Robin Curtis. The track is assembled from separate individual screening/recording sessions, but that fact isn't intrusive. Nimoy and Bennett are the main attractions here, and their reminiscences about the conception and making of Search for Spock are authoritative, insightful, and free of fluff and filler. Nimoy in particular is a wealth of fondly told anecdotes about his first-time directing job, the difficulties and triumphs preserved in the film, his relationship with Shatner, and his life as Spock. His resonant voice gives every sentence the authority of a benign sage.

Also as before, Disc One comes with a text commentary track by long-time Star Trek designer and encyclopedic librarian Michael Okuda, this time with his wife Denise sharing the byline. The caption commentary points out production details, bloopers, in-jokes (the Warning sign in the transporter room includes a No Smoking line), and behind-the-scenes info. This remains one of the best features on these "special" Star Trek movie releases.

Disc Two is where the new and archival supplements are housed:

The Captain's Log (26:12) is a new documentary about the movie's production history assembled from interviews with the cast and crew that took place in 2002. On board are Nimoy, Bennett, Shatner, Lloyd, and Curtis. A low-gloss, no-frills "talking heads" production, what it lacks in E! Network glitz it makes up for in plain-spoken information and remembrances. Nimoy's bountiful personality and sparkling intelligence are the hallmark here, and once again Shatner fuzzes the line between dry-as-dust humor and irksome self-inflation, with hints of something that looks like festering sour-grapesism.

The Star Trek Universe is divided into four clickable items devoted to some of the movie's technical creations: "Space Docks and Birds of Prey" (27:28) focuses the camera on the artisans and designers at ILM who crafted the models and special effects. "Speaking Klingon" (21:03) features Marc Okrand, who devised the Klingon and Vulcan languages used throughout the movie series. Alien fashions and their designers are the subject of "Klingon and Vulcan Costumes" (12:15). Lastly, an unnamed and easy-to-find Easter egg (7:06) gives us the designer of Christopher Lloyd's cool "monster dog" on the Klingon bridge.

Archives contains the now-standard collections of "Storyboards" and "Photos." The storyboards are thorough and extensive to the point of becoming one of the best extras on board.

Terraforming and the Prime Directive (25:51) attempts to elevate the level of discourse through lofty-minded science-fiction author David Brin, NASA scientist Dr. Louis Friedman, and other smart folks trying to convince us that the Genesis Device concept has anything at all to do with real-world speculations regarding far-future planetary adaptation. It's not an unwelcome extra for those of us who have the Discovery Channel programmed into our cable TV boxes, but it's pretty pointless here.

Finally there's Search for Spock's Theatrical Trailer and the Star Trek: Nemesis Teaser Trailer for those who want something a little old and something a whole lot new.

—Mark Bourne

  • Color
  • Anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1)
  • Two single-sided, dual-layered discs (SS-DL)
  • Dolby Digital 5.1 (English), Dolby 2.0 Surround (English, French)
  • English subtitles
  • Commentary track with director Nimoy, writer/producer Harve Bennett, cinematographer Charles Correll, and actor Robin Curtis
  • Textual commentary track (captions format) by Michael and Denise Okuda
  • Featurette: "The Captain's Log" (26:12)
  • Three-part "The Star Trek Universe" segment made up of "Space Docks and Birds of Prey" (27:28), "Speaking Klingon" (21:03), "Klingon and Vulcan Costumes" (12:15), and a "monster dog" Easter egg (7:06)
  • Archives: "Storyboards" and "Photos"
  • Featurette: "Terraforming and the Prime Directive" (25:51)
  • Theatrical Trailer
  • Star Trek: Nemesis Teaser Trailer
  • Dual-DVD keep-case



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