'Star Trek III: The Search for Spock,' Leonard Nimoy, and William Shatner
Entertainment Geekly's 'Star Trek' series looks at an accidental self-portrait of a magnificent, narcissistic friendship.
Kirk and Spock. Nimoy and Shatner. Was anyone ever more important to Star Trek then those two? Would Trek have ever been Trek without them?
Gene Roddenberry had the vision, sure, but you start to see how his utopian dream trends antiseptic, didactic, just outright boring: Look at the unaired pilot, or the human parts of The Motion Picture, or most of The Next Generation before he got retired. The creator needed some just-right combination of performers: A hero so dashing his charisma felt like parody, a stone-faced dry witted brainiac who made thinking hard look sexy and sad.
Put them anywhere: A four-color bridge with glowy computer lights and a movie screen, a western town on the Paramount backlot, the San Fernando Valley doubling for some far-flung alien planet. Pair them off against a whole galaxy of extraterrestrials, humanoid and reptilian and globoid and abstracted beyond biological definition. Put Kirk and Spock anywhere, with anyone – and maybe, without them, Star Trek would have gone nowhere with nobody.
“Of course, it’s always been a team effort,” you want to say. Brilliant writers, fine supporting actors, production designers and sound effects engineers crafting a futurescape so influential we’re practically living in it now. Isn’t McCoy the third leg of the trinity, human Id, agnostic Holy Ghost? What about Uhura, Sulu, Chekov, Scotty, and the vision of a future where all races and creeds and fake accents work together in common cause? Hasn’t Trek long transcended Kirk and Spock, anyway? Isn’t The Next Generation more thoughtful, Deep Space Nine more provocative, Voyager less socially Cro-Magnon? Hell, any New Frontier fans out there want to talk about how Peter David was doing gender fluidity two decades ago?
Trek is bigger than any one person, sure. I’m not convinced it’s bigger than these two people. Certainly not in 1984, the year William Shatner starred in Leonard Nimoy’s feature-film directorial debut. The Search for Spock begins with the greatest onscreen moment in Kirk and Spock’s history as a duo: A replay of Spock dying in Wrath of Khan.
And that scene lingers throughout the movie, getting replayed three times more. First via mindmeld flashback, with Spock’s dad Sarek as Spock’s stand-in. Then again, on future videotape, with Kirk watching security cam footage of Spock’s death. (The footage is taken straight from Wrath of Khan; the security cameras on the Enterprise are positioned at bold and dynamic angles, unlike the cameras used to film Search for Spock.) Then yet again, one last time, at the very end of Search for Spock, with the Vulcan resurrected to put a different inflection on his dying words. We hear it, over and over again: “I have been, and always shall be, your friend.”
The age-old question with Shatner and Nimoy: Were they friends? The embedded question within that question: Did they hate each other? In later years they would both protest the latter point, with some teasing hesitation: “No! No! No! Well…”
When the old man looks back on his life, he might talk about his younger self the way he talks about his children. In his second memoir, I Am Spock, Nimoy recalled early days with his costar. “We were like a pair of very competitive brothers,” he wrote, “two squabbling kids.” (Shatner and Nimoy were both 35 by then, fathers of three and two, respectively.)
He remembers a vintage Hollywood incident of egomania. There was a photographer taking pictures of Nimoy becoming Spock, in the same makeup room where Shatner was becoming Kirk. Suddenly, the photographer disappeared. “Bill had gone to the assistant director,” recounts Nimoy, “and said, ‘I won’t continue while this is going on. Get rid of this guy.’”
Was Shatner upset that Nimoy was getting too much attention? In the Captain’s retelling, he was simply confused by the presence of the photographer – and upset that an outsider “had gotten permission to invade this actor’s sanctuary.” (Sanctuary!) Sure, he complained to the producers. But: “In my memory, I asked politely,” he writes in Leonard: My Fifty-Year Friendship With a Remarkable Man.
Shatner, it seems, had approval of still photographs taken on the set. Follow this, if you can: In his retelling of the incident, Shatner says Nimoy said Shatner said, “[The photographer] wasn’t approved by me.” Shatner now has no memory of saying that. By way of apology, he writes: “Years later, if I really remembered saying this, I certainly would have regretted it.” Politicians, take note.
Kirk and Spock were together forever, their duality providing a stark contrast rife for easy symbolism. Shatner and Nimoy were together as close to forever as humans can be, and nothing about their duality is easy. Their collaboration is the first great central achievement of Star Trek, and it did not come easy. “One of the wisest things I think Gene Roddenberry ever did,” remembers Nimoy, “was to consult Isaac Asimov on the friction between Shatner and myself, and the problematic popularity of Spock.” Asimov – Isaac Asimov! – told Roddenberry to make Kirk and Spock “loyal, inseparable friends, so that when the audience thought of one, they’d automatically think of the other.”
As a feat of cultural production, Asimov’s advice paid off. (Years later, Paramount asked J.J. Abrams to reboot Star Trek. “My first reaction was that it should be a story about Kirk and Spock,” he told EW, “because I didn’t know anything else about Star Trek.”) And, in Nimoy’s whimsical remembrance, Asimov was part social engineer, part Hayley Mills. “The advice worked with the viewers – and maybe even with Bill and me, because we certainly came to appreciate our friendship more as time went on.”
Shatner’s book has no Asimov, and maybe the mere fact of Shatner writing a well-timed friend-ography about a recently deceased costar comes off like a crude cash-in. But there is palpable honesty in Shatner’s recalled cynicism. “Leonard and I began to understand that we had far more power working together than working individually,” he says. “We made the decision to negotiate together… we brought that power to bear on script changes, on contractual clauses, and certainly where money was concerned.”
Money, and power, concerns Shatner. Nimoy doesn’t talk about such things very often in I Am Spock. The memoir – a follow-up and perhaps a refutation to his first memoir, I Am Not Spock – is thoughtful, sensitive, psychologically astute. Nimoy’s vision is macrocosmic enough to explore how “Star Trek was a product of the sexist ’60s,” but also microcosmic enough to muse on Roddenberry’s preference for the muscular “k” sound in character names. Kirk, Pike, Spock, Scott, McCoy, Sarek, Picard: “If one wanted to get psychoanalytic about it,” Nimoy says, “A case could be made that these officers were part of Gene’s fantasy life, representing the ‘tough leader’ he always wanted to be.”
If one wanted to get psychoanalytic about that sentence, a case could be made that Nimoy is burying a sharp and provocative statement beneath conversational equivocation – “if one wanted,” “a case could be made.” Politicians, take another note.
When it’s time to talk about The Search for Spock, Nimoy’s book fills with details and thoughtful commentary. He is generous. He wishes Kirstie Alley had returned to play Saavik, but thinks Robin Curtis “delivered a lovely, sensitive performance” as the character. He remembers pushing hard for Edward James Olmos to play the Klingon bad guy, but declares that Christopher Lloyd’s Kruge was “a joy to watch.” (Wrong on both points – but only the best directors are tough critics.)
Until Abrams, Nimoy was the most democratic of Star Trek filmmakers, and you can feel his pride when he writes about the supporting cast. Nimoy knew Nichelle Nichols had never really done much as Uhura, besides open hailing frequencies and declare said frequences jammed. “We felt it was long overdue to show her character really taking charge of a situation, in a way that made it obvious the scene’s outcome rested in her hands,” he recalls, in language that could make all of Generation Thinkpiece cry tears of joy.
Nimoy doesn’t mention that Uhura disappears right after her big scene, banished to the denouement while the boys steer the Enterprise on a merry runaway adventure. But credit Nimoy for bringing a firm sense of teamwork back into Star Trek – or maybe for inventing it. He has no patience for particularity – so this is the Trek movie where the Chief Engineer can be a helmsman, where Chekov double-times as science officer and communications officer. A bit loony, maybe, especially coming from Wrath of Khan, which dramatized the Enterprise as a nuclear space-submarine requiring steady care from a squad of engineers.
But you appreciate how Nimoy loves to film the Enterprise crew all together, in group tableaux, united toward a common cause.
“Scotty, Uhura, and Sulu would all have their moments in the film,” Nimoy explains, with pride, in I Am Spock. “While Chekov’s abilities weren’t specifically showcased in this movie, I hope we made it up to Walter with the wonderful Chekov scenes in Star Trek IV.” Important to mention, perhaps, that this is the movie that dresses Chekov up like a puritan man-child cosplaying Prince Valiant with your great aunt’s drape fabric.
Nimoy showed that Star Trek’s cosmic scope could produce whimsical human comedy. He made a Star Trek film that was part message movie and part screwball farce, mixing a scary vision of apocalyptic danger with a profoundly hopeful portrait of collaborative human triumph. He is still the only man to make a Star Trek movie that could truly be called sublime. And we will be talking about that movie next week, when we get to The Voyage Home.
The Search for Spock is not any of those things. It is a monument to egotism, Nimoy’s and Shatner’s. And it is a point-missing victory lap around Wrath of Khan that repudiates everything the second film stood for. Nimoy said so himself:
Obvious answer: No! Follow-up question: What the f— does that even mean? If Wrath of Khan was about one person sacrificing for the greater good of many… and if Search for Spock is about the precise opposite of that… then is Search for Spock about how the vast majority of people should sacrifice for just one single person? (Politicians, take more notes!)
When actors direct, even the best actor-directors indulge their vanity. (Remember Affleck shirtless in Argo?) So Nimoy – by all obvious accounts a generous and thoughtful man – created a movie about how much everyone loves the character played by Nimoy.
And you don’t need to read too deep to see how the film serves as a referendum on Kirk and Spock, on Shatner and Nimoy. Nimoy recalls Shatner walking into a preproduction meeting for Search for Spock and declaring, “I want nothing to do with this script.” (Shatner in his book: “That sounds a lot more confrontational than I remember.”) You can almost certainly read that moment as Shatner at his most egotistical. Heck, in his book, Shatner recalls hearing that Nimoy was directing the movie, and even his attempt to sound supportive circles back helplessly to self-interest:
Translation: “Leonard’s directing? Good news, I get to direct!” But if this naked self-interest is clearly all over Leonard – a book about Nimoy written by Shatner – let’s also allow that a similar naked self-interest is all over Search for Spock – a movie starring Shatner directed by Nimoy, a movie about how Kirk, McCoy, the Enterprise crew, Starfleet, and the whole galaxy inexorably orbits the gravity of all that is Spock. Nimoy’s vision is democratic, but also weirdly autocratic: Everyone joins forces in Search for Spock to bring Spock back to life, and it doesn’t really matter how many other lives are ruined along the way.
Nimoy only appears in Search for Spock for a couple scenes. His name isn’t in the opening credits: apparently, an attempt at surprising the audience, as if anyone would seriously think a movie with “Spock” in the title wouldn’t have Spock. In his memoir, Nimoy considers this decision:
The mind wanders to “The Anonymous Donor,” an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm. People are impressed when you donate a hospital wing – but they’re especially impressed when you donate anonymously. So you could argue that The Search for Spock is one of the great works of humblebrag auteurism: Nimoy “removed” himself from a movie that’s entirely about the crucial importance of Leonard Nimoy.
Spock and Nimoy: What’s the difference? Part of what makes I Am Spock an essential read is that Nimoy himself doesn’t really know. He was a stay-in-character kind of an actor; three straight years as Spock changed him. “The character I developed soon took on a life of his own,” says Nimoy, “And began affecting me, rather than the reverse!”
For Shatner, these method-y affectations were confusing. “This was beyond my understanding,” he writes. “At the end of the day, I was able to shed Kirk or T.J. Hooker or Denny Crane or any of the many other characters I became and resume my adventures as Bill Shatner.”
(Obvious retort: Who remembers T.J. Hooker and Denny Crane? Hell, real talk: Who really understands what Kirk is? Nimoy-as-Spock became such an archetype that every Trek iteration needed its own Pinocchio variant: Data, Odo, the Emergency Medical Program. Quinto-as-Spock is the archetype with cheat codes, plugged simultaneously into an action movie and a rom-com. But every further Trek commander is a race away from the Kirk archetype: professorial Picard, diplomatic Sisko, wry Janeway. Bizarrely, the only thing that defines Kirk is his Shatner-ness: The inflections, the amused self-regard. Lacking Shatner, the Star Trek reboot gave him a dead-parent Chosen One narrative, because it worked for Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter.)
But allow, for a moment, that Nimoy spent years of his life staring inward – that his frustration and fascination with his fictional character was deeply entrenched, maybe, in his frustration and fascination with himself.
This makes Search for Spock a work of egotism. Which isn’t the same as saying Nimoy was being egotistical; given the laziness of some of the filmmaking, it’s possible that Nimoy had the first-time director’s love of just being there, working with actors, filming models from dull angles. But this is first time that Nimoy was truly in command. Think of how many scenes in this movie are about Kirk – yet think of how many of those scenes are about Kirk feeling deep yearning for Spock. It’s a push-pull, happening onscreen: Between star and director, leading man and beloved icon, coworkers and frenemies.
That push-pull continues now, even with Nimoy gone. At the risk of sounding dismissive, you could argue that Leonard is essentially the most famous scenes from I Am Spock with added commentary and counterargument from Shatner, plus some publicly available quotes and a considerable amount of backhanded compliments. (Shatner’s book has a much bigger font, too.) At times, he writes about Nimoy’s life with the distant affection of a cousin: He writes that Nimoy’s divorce was “neither easy or amicable.” Unlike most divorces, I guess!
Then again: I Am Spock glosses over Nimoy’s divorce entirely. That’s the memoirist’s prerogative, obviously. But it’s illuminating to learn that – with his long first marriage almost over – Nimoy made Search for Spock, a movie where losing a family member isn’t half so tragic as losing a friend and a coworker. And although Nimoy recounts the production of Search for Spock in great detail, it’s Shatner’s terrible book that provides the most morbidly human detail about this third Trek film. He includes this quote from Nimoy:
Nimoy said that, years after writing I Am Spock. When Shatner quotes him, he muses freely: “I can only wonder how much more he might have accomplished if he had been sober through those years… most of our fans would have been shocked to know that the restrained, occasionally acerbic, often wry beloved creator of Spock could be an unhappy, angry man.”
An unhappy, angry man. There’s some poison in that pen. “This, in a book about friendship!” you may exclaim. (We may pause to note here that there is one other big difference between Nimoy and Shatner: George Takei only ever said “F— you” to one of them on national television.) But how do you define friendship, anyways? Nimoy himself once told Shatner, “You’re my best friend.” He said that on camera, for a documentary called Mind Meld – co-produced by Shatner, referenced extensively in Leonard, buy it online, would you like some signed Boston Legal scripts?
You can watch that moment here, set to workout-video muzak, and try to plumb it for metatextual depths. Would this very stilted moment be happening without cameras around? Is Nimoy serious or just playing along, trying to provide Shatner with his cathartic climax so he gets out of his damn kitchen?
“Neither one of us could have imagined that we would become best friends,” writes Shatner. You think he won’t go one step further? He goes one step further: “Until Leonard and I developed our relationship – with the exception of my wives – I never had a real friend; I didn’t even know what a friend was. I had never had anyone in my life to whom I could completely emotionally unburden myself.”
Maybe this is just the great hyperbolist hitting his high notes – or maybe Shatner was the real Vulcan all along.
This strange mixture of friendship and narcissism is maybe the only truly convincing subject of Search for Spock. There are at least 10 movies inside this third Trek movie – about which more momentarily – but none of them have any air to breathe. The movie only exists to bring Spock back to life; characters in the movie are split evenly between Spock believers and Spock skeptics. And all skeptics are silenced. When Saavik announces that she has found the resurrected Spock, the camera cuts to a random crew member on the science ship Grissom, never named, disproportionately shocked.
Soon the Klingons explode her and the rest of her crew. No one mourns for the Grissom; they’re too busy saving Spock.
In the movie’s extremely strange vision of Kirk, nothing in the great starship commander’s life really matters with Spock gone. The end of Wrath of Khan was sad, yes, but that film left Kirk on the cusp of a new beginning. His friend’s sacrifice had filled him with a sense of grace; he had a new family, new Vulcan officer, a new lease on life. “I feel young,” he said.
In Search for Spock, that feeling’s gone sour. He’s all alone, monologuing about his missing piece. “It seems that I have left the noblest part of myself back there on that newborn planet,” he says. Because Search for Spock’s narrative is all backwards, Kirk wants to go back to Genesis from the beginning – wants to find Spock before he has any actual reason to. But reason arrives with Sarek, who mindmelds with Kirk and forces him to relive the death for Spock.
Like all mindmelds, this interaction is based on touch; unlike all mindmelds, this one is filmed cutting between Shatner’s mournful eyes and Sarek’s lips, filmed with odd suggestion.
If you are ever inclined to read the Kirk-Spock relationship as a genuine love affair – buried beneath layers of Sirkian code and inadvertent camp – then Search for Spock is the only Trek movie that resembles a fairy-tale romance.
Anyhow: Given some flimsy spiritualist reason, Kirk immediately torpedoes his life to rescue Spock. Along the way, his son dies. When that happens, Kirk reacts majestically – it is some of Shatner’s finest work. (“You Klingon bastard… you’ve killed my son.”)
But the movie forgets about his grief almost immediately. Fifteen minutes after David’s death – and 10 minutes after Kirk watches the Enterprise fall from the sky – Kirk is on the bridge of a captured Klingon ship, comically overreacting to his helmsman’s difficulty with the Klingon controls.
Ho ho ho, this man just lost everything that ever defined his life! Doesn’t matter, right? All Kirk cares about is Spock; Spock is all; son, ship, career, all secondary. So you can watch Search for Spock as a movie about how Kirk is nothing without Spock – and maybe, as a victory lap for the subordinate who skipped the captain’s chair for the director’s chair. (If Kirk is nothing without Spock, maybe Shatner is nothing without Nimoy.)
Then again: Maybe Nimoy just knew Shatner – and Kirk – better than anyone. In I Am Spock, he recalls a telltale moment from filming the classic first-season episode “Devil in the Dark.”
In Nimoy’s recounting, Shatner returned from his father’s funeral to immediately stage a prank on the set. So maybe Kirk’s goofy overreactions aren’t out of place, so soon after his son’s death. Maybe, as played by Shatner, Kirk is the kind of guy who can shed his whole life without a second thought.
Before filming Kirk’s reaction to his son’s death, the director cleared the set of everyone besides his lead actors. They were alone on the bridge of the Enterprise: Nimoy and Shatner, Spock and Kirk. And in one of the most metaphysical moments in the history of our young universe, they pretended to get in an argument.
Shatner screamed, “Kirk would never do it that way!”
And Nimoy yelled back, “My way is the right way! I’m the Director!”
“We’ll see about that, Mr. Director!”
“Damn straight we will!”
They laughed, and laughed, and laughed. It must have been nice, for once, to play themselves.
NEXT PAGE: The movies Search for Spock isn’t, and a Fashion Check-In[pagebreak]
There are roughly 11 movies inside of Search for Spock, each of them vastly more entertaining in theory than anything that happens in Search for Spock.
1. A Star Trek horror movie
The movie begins with Spock’s death, and his funeral. His memory is an infection, torturing the living. Kirk’s opening narration: “Enterprise feels like a house with all the children gone. No, more empty even than that. The death of Spock is like an open wound.” The ship is a haunted house now. Chekov gets a curious reading: There’s a lifeform inside Spock’s room! On the Genesis Planet, David and Saavik finds Spock’s coffin – it’s empty! The Enterprise is shot to look like an empty cavern, a decrepit old ship that Starfleet doesn’t even bother fixing.
2. A bodyswitching Star Trek comedy
Spock’s inside McCoy’s brain: Imagine the delightful comedic possibilities! Really imagine them, because Search for Spock doesn’t use any of them. McCoy says “logical” a couple times, but the film mostly plays his Spock consciousness as a freakish dementia. Ponder this logic: Here’s a Star Trek movie where Spock is dead and McCoy is a mental patient.
3. The Enterprise heist
By far the most successful sequence in Search for Spock comes around minute 40, when Kirk and his crew go rogue and steal their own ship from Starfleet. There is no real narrative preparation for this; Kirk says, “Can I go back to Genesis?” and Starfleet says “No” and Kirk says “Okay team, let’s throw our whole career away on the remarkably flimsy and incoherent physiological possibility that our dead friend’s corpse is accessible back on Genesis!” and the team says “Sure!”
But this brief detour into Ocean’s 11 territory gives everyone besides Chekov something to do, and it produces the first great/even-remotely-noteworthy Sulu scene in the movie franchise. A big dumb Starfleet guy calls “Sulu” tiny. He knocks the guy out and nonchalantly destroys his control panel. I’m obsessed with Takei’s casualness in this scene.
Consider that this movie came out in 1984, the year of The Terminator and one year pre-Rambo II, and consider how Takei in this scene is doing the sort of nonchalant walking-away-from-an-exploding-car physical acting that wouldn’t go mainstream until The Bourne Identity.
4. A parable about the benefit of human experience versus new technology
When the Enterprise arrives at spacedock, the crew gets a look at the shiny new flagship of Starfleet. The U.S.S. Excelsior. “The great experiment,” says Kirk. “She’s supposed to have transwarp drive!” says Sulu. (No one ever explains what transwarp drive is, or what kind of experiment Excelsior represents.)
What a setup for drama. It’s the old Enterprise versus the shiny new Excelsior, John Henry against the steam powered hammer, tortoise versus hare. “Tortoise” being, unfortunately, the apt word: At the climax of the Enterprise heist, the Excelsior chases the renegade ship, a sequence filmed with all the kinetic excitement of two elephants yawning, until the Enterprise warps away and Scotty reveals that he took a couple microchips out of the transwarp drive. The Excelsior never appears again in the movie.
5. A tale of ambition run amok, with direct and painful resonance for Kirk
Establishing a tradition later picked up by Alien 3 and The Bourne Legacy, Search for Spock takes key intriguing elements from the beloved predecessor film and drags them through the mud. At the close of Wrath of Khan, Kirk was kindling a genuine relationship with his son and pondering the boundless possibility of the universe, said possibility symbolized by the beauty of the Genesis Planet, a scientific feat that David helped to create.
Search for Spock kills David, but not before revealing that the greatest work of his lifetime was all a lie. The Genesis matrix was built out of protomatter, some faux-unobtainium nuclear allegory “which every ethnical scientist in the galaxy has denouncd as dangerously unpredictable.” As a result, the Genesis Planet is an evolutionary nightmare, a global ticking time bomb.
Saavik chastises David for this. “How many have paid the price for your impatience? How many have died? How much damage have you done? And what is yet to come?” None of those questions have any answers because nothing about Genesis in Search for Spock makes any sense – it’s a super important top-secret project that everyone in the galaxy knows about and which Starfleet isn’t defending at all – but Merritt Butrick makes an appealingly baby-faced Oppenheimer figure, mourning his unfinished creation.
And, as a bonus, the movie specifically situates David’s “flaw” as a reflection of Kirk’s central character trait. “Like your father, you changed the rules,” says Saavik. In a movie where Kirk and David interact in any meaningful way, that line could resound like a thunderclap. But Kirk barely remembers that he has a son until their first conversation, via communicator; David’s dead a couple minutes later.
6. A trippy tale of emerging sexual identity, with father-figure Spock reborn into puberty and former student Saavik reconfigured as his Freudian maternal-madonna Mrs. Robinson
Nimoy talks a lot about Vulcan culture in I Am Spock. He proudly incorporated his Jewish heritage into the V-fingered “Live Long and Prosper” sign, and gradually helped construct the notion that Vulcan society centralizes on tactile contact. He recalls working with his actor-parents Mark Lenard and Jane Wyatt on the Vulcan show of affection, a finger-to-finger “embrace.”
I think Nimoy truly loved – and felt some proprietary ownership over – the Vulcan mythology. Search for Spock dives deep into Vulcan mysticism, first-and-foremost vis a vis the resurrected Spock. Aging upwards from adolescence to adulthood, Baby Spock quickly finds himself undergoing Pon Farr, the Vulcan brand of occasional puberty.
The Vulcan stuff in the original Star Trek has always been way kinkier than any of the later series ever allowed. (“Amok Time” is the only TOS episode set on Vulcan, and it’s basically Federico Fellini filming a WWE match.) Unsurprisingly and not accidentally, what ensues between rapid-onset-puberty Spock and Saavik is deeply weird. Spock’s former protégé takes care of a little baby Spock…
But then, when he’s a teenager, she gives him the finger-to-finger embrace, a scene hilariously rife with sexual supertext.
In I Am Spock, Nimoy compares Saavik in this scene to the proto-Mrs. Robinson played by Deborah Kerr in Tea and Sympathy. This scene is never mentioned again and has nothing to do with anything that happens in the rest of the movie, but very little in Search for Spock has anything to do with anything that happens in Search for Spock.
7. A paranoid and satirical thriller about how the old heroes of Starfleet are giving way to a new generation of narcissistic egotists, callow young douchebags, and go-go ‘80s Reaganauts
You’ve heard of Starfleet? The post-national organization representing all the combined best ideals of conscious sentience, devoted to exploration and scientific study and keeping the peace throughout the galaxy?
That’s old-time, son. Meet the new Starfleet, composed entirely of Crusty Old Deans and wannabe Paul Reisers and meathead jocks. Meet Starfleet Commander Morrow, reigning authority figure, who blithely announces in his first scene that the Enterprise’s day is over.
His subordinate Admiral Kirk – trusted hero of the Federation – begs him for the chance to revisit Genesis. Morrow tells Kirk, “You are my best officer,” and also tells him that if Kirk so much as talks about Genesis one more time, his career is over.
Morrow is basically every politician from a David Simon TV show, and Search for Spock makes it clear that Morrow is only the tip of the spear. The commander of the Excelsior is a preening buffoon, shown here reclining with a nail file as only preening buffoons ever do.
Since the new Starfleet’s authority figures are yes-men politicians with no obvious field experience, it makes sense that their subordinates are all vaguely predatory career bros with no respect for their elders. At Starfleet prison, Sulu runs afoul of this Hitler Youth renegade with a pornstache, who refers to one of the greatest helmsmen in Starfleet history as “Tiny.”
This is not long after a high-collared barfly at a hip cocktail establishment surprises McCoy with a badge and arrests him on trumped-up charges of breaching Starfleet security protocols.
People complained when Star Trek Into Darkness implied an elaborate 24-level conspiracy inside of Starfleet, but at least that conspiracy was a conspiracy, something to be discovered and defeated. In Search for Spock, this dude represents “Federation Security,” some demi-Stasi organization – never mentioned outside of this movie – which apparently sends agents after aging heroes of the Federation. This is some serious Kremlin stuff, with more pornstache.
And all of this is mere prelude for Mr. Adventure, a Ramsay Bolton-looking, Patrick Bateman-exuding, probably-cute-puppy-abusing young officer. By way of introduction, he makes a crack about Uhura’s age.
Jesus, you need any more evidence that Starfleet is on the wrong path? The helmsman of the Excelsior is Miguel Ferrer, soon to play a Hall of Fame monument of ’80s corporate excess in RoboCop!
Most of these characters appear exclusively during the Enterprise heist sequence, and never appear again. Introduced and disposed of: Search for Spock, in a nutshell.
8. An exploration of late Cold War political dynamics, with Christopher Lloyd playing a renegade Klingon seeking to regain the balance of power in the galaxy by seizing control of Genesis
Which never even remotely works, because Kruge’s motivations are aimless – he wants “THE SECRET OF GENESIS” and thinks Kirk has it, which is like demanding Macarthur to demonstrate how to split the atom. Also, whenever Kruge is in danger of seeming remotely threatening, something like this happens…
…or something like this happens…
…or something like this happens.
You wonder if Nimoy really believed in evil, or if he was maybe he was too goodhearted to conceive of “the bad guys” as anything but comical grotesques. Khan was Kirk’s mirror image; Kruge is a goofball. (The Voyage Home has no real antagonist, and is all the better for it.
9. A beautiful visual exploration showing the birth and death of a planet, with clashing climates producing an Edenic Ragnarok
Search for Spock cost more than Wrath of Khan, unfortunately providing us with further evidence for our theory that Star Trek usually gets worse when it gets more expensive. Much money was maybe blown on bland cloaking effects, elaborate cocktail-bar sets, and disco-Victorian costumes – about which more later. But there is one cool shot of a snowy desert.
And there’s also the stunning idea of portraying the planetary life cycle through the life cycle of a living being: The resurrected Spock, in this case. The problem is that Neo-Spock is literally brainless and spends the movie moaning through Jack-ian rapid aging when he’s not going mute. You imagine that there could have been some fun from seeing various young actors do Spock impressions, but instead there’s just a parade of young actors with pointy ears screaming through snowstorms and earthquakes.
10. A retelling of the resurrection of Christ reimagined via post-religious spiritualism flavored with trendy pseudo-science
Are you searching for Christian allegory in Star Trek? In Search for Spock, your chariot has arrived. Kirk and crew are Apostles; the Starfleet yes-men are the Pharisees; the Klingons are the Romans; Spock is the Risen Space Jesus.
The cosmology gets hazy, of course. Kirk-as-God-the-Father “sacrifices” his son so Spock can be reborn; but also Spock lives on in Apostle-McCoy’s memory, and also if a planet called “Genesis” has an “Apocalypse” then WHAT HAPPENED TO THE THESSALONIANS I ASK YOU???
But there are two separate pieta moments, with Kirk holding the semi-resurrected Spock-McCoy, and later hugging Spock close to him as Genesis implodes all around him.
All of which allegory tragically dead-ends into the interminable closing sequence Search for Spock, a deep dive into the shallow end of Vulcan mysticism. The last 10 minutes of the film bring the characters to a Vulcan temple shaped like a frying pan, with a Vulcan V-shape jutting out with all the grandeur of a stonecut tuning fork.
Said temple comes complete with a central-casting Mute Man With A Gong and various Greco-Romanic flowrobe nuns.
All of which should lead to loopy fun, but which is unfortunately just background furniture to a thrilling climax where HANDS. TOUCH. FACES.
If The Motion Picture was the Star Trek movie for marijuana enthusiasts, Search for Spock is the Trek for vegan tantric practitioners whose official profession on Facebook is “Seeker.”
In I Am Spock, Nimoy makes a point of talking about the new uniforms designed by Robert Fletcher for The Motion Picture. You remember, the beige-gray jumpsuits that made everyone look like imprisoned employees at a Stalin-themed Baby Gap? “I thought they were sleek, even cool,” says Nimoy, arguably the most revealing and certainly the most terrifying statement in his entire book. Shatner, bless him, is simultaneously more accurate and funnier in his style breakdown: “They didn’t have a fly in front, as if by the 23rd century mankind had discovered a way of going to the bathroom.” (Shatner would later make up for this oversight by directing The Final Frontier, a 106-minute-long trip to a metaphorical toilet.)
But by God, Nimoy thought the deep V-necks and Soul Train onesies were hip, and on Search for Spock, he let costume designer Fletcher run wild with disco-Victorian designs. The fun starts when the crew returns to Earth and dons their casual attire.
Dear god, almost too much to take in with this image. Uhura’s Tower of London ring, Sulu’s Emerald-green robe-shirt, Shatner’s workout-chic formal trackjacket. Shatner gets all the best clothes in Search for Spock, and it all starts here with the revelation that that off-duty Kirk dresses like a Jersey street boss who exclusively shops at the top-secret Uniqlo hidden in in the corner of REI.
Kirk quickly shifts into the outfit that defines the middle duology of his Trek films, a maroon suit with flared sleeves and a collarless ruched foldover magenta shirt. Note how the jacket has no buttons, just a prominent belt clearly designed to bodyshame Shatner into maintaining a healthy diet. It is a crime of history that this is not the outfit that everyone wears to work, especially because of the movie’s twist ending…
…which reveals that the pantcuffs and shirt sleeves are long and billowy. Since the climactic final sequence takes place in the middle of a windy apocalypse, Search for Spock is the rare opportunity to see the great hero James T. Kirk fluttering in the breeze like a talking flag in a tornado.
Second only to Kirk is Sulu, who rocks a leather jacket-cape with cut-open sleeves. At no point in any version of the past and future has “leather jacket-cape with cut-open sleeves” been anyone’s aesthetic, but Takei so completely sells this look as a stylistic choice that it makes you yearn for a whole spinoff about Sulu’s wardrobe.
McCoy has always been an adventurous style icon, perhaps surprising given his no-nonsense spirit. The good Doctor is especially on point with his neckwear. You’ll recall his pimp-Cimmerian bling from Motion Picture…
…and in this film, McCoy keeps up his diligent campaign to bring back the ascot for the crazy-coot demographic.
And of course, no conversation about style in Search for Spock would be complete without talking about how the Enterprise crew is haunted throughout the film by the pinksuited ghost of King Edward V, shown here on the right side of the screen plotting his vengeance.
And no discussion of the annals of Federation chic would be complete with closely studying the cocktail waitress at McCoy’s favorite neon dive, shown here with her ceremonial uniform of Christmas lights.
The future is now! More makeup, damn you!
THE WHOLE MOVIE IN A NUTSHELL