The movie in the entire film series that I think has always gotten the shaft, and for no discernable reason, other than coming between the ones fans (Wrath of Khan) and general audiences (The Voyage Home) really love, the middle part of the original crew trilogy that can be too easily dismissed as merely utilitarian. My argument is that it’s so much more than that. It may be, pound for pound, the most completely satisfying Star Trek movie.
Released in 1984, urged on by its predecessor and by that decade’s fascination in recreating the Star Wars experience in as many ways as possible (something that would doom many franchises by its end, including the Ghostbusters, Superman, and even Mad Max), The Search for Spock was perhaps the only movie the fans absolutely demanded, given that Spock had been killed off in the closing moments of Wrath of Khan, which had to reshape its ending to allow for a little more hope, which the new film had to then extrapolate and dramatize. It’s the only piece of franchise history that you absolutely can’t see on its own to fully appreciate (and then, maybe that’s a little of why its reputation suffers, because fans are at once fiercely protective of what they love, and yet strangely averse to be apologetic, lest their interest come off as weak), even though the key moments and plot points are presented again, to maintain at least the semblance of a closed loop.
And yet this creates a sense of urgency throughout the movie, a need to finish something the fans are now expecting, in as interesting a way as possible, and indeed, many obstacles are placed in front of Kirk, from a Starfleet completely unsympathetic to his need for redemption (because for him, the last film amounted to something of a tangible defeat), Klingons who seek to exploit the planet and its secrets that provide the hope Kirk needs, and the unexpected deterioration of that planet. You might even say that the Genesis device is better represented in this film than the other, reaching its full potential, both for good and otherwise, making Wrath of Khan more a prelude than superior product to Search for Spock. It’s almost less important that our famous Vulcan is dead than his unlikely new relationship to the device’s implications.
Indeed, Saavik (now played by Robin Curtis, looking and acting different than Kirstie Alley) is another example of this heightened atmosphere. Instead of supporting our established characters in activities that never really concern her, she takes the Chekov role from Wrath of Khan, amping it up, and is engaging in her own adventure, which is interrupted both by circumstances and the villain of the movie. She’s accompanied by David Marcus, who is similarly free to pursue his own interests, for the first time allowed to run his own experiments, unencumbered by family concerns (mostly).
But what truly sets the film apart, and is something that has probably be overlooked by most fans, is that this is the first time the new Klingons introduced in The Motion Picture take center stage. Without Search for Spock, The Undiscovered Country would be unlikely (and considerably less personably compelling), or the work four subsequent TV shows accomplished after it.
One of the most blatantly unfair charges against the movie revolves around the principal Klingon, Kruge, who has the distinction of being portrayed by Christopher Lloyd, who is still to this day known as a comedic actor. Viewers refused to accept him in a dramatic role, and critics were equally confused, because they expect genre properties to have built-in devices so that everyone knows the proceedings aren’t being taken too seriously (the only known exception to this rule is the extreme reverence everyone seemed to embrace Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy with). Lloyd should have been comic relief. And yet, he clearly wasn’t. He took the role quite seriously, and is still to this day probably the closest Star Trek has come to portraying, as a central figure of a story, an ordinary Klingon warrior, dedicated to duty, his pet, and the empire.
Perhaps tellingly, he makes for a more satisfying villain than Khan, too, at least for the filmmakers. After all, he does get to engage Kirk in the only hand-to-hand combat our hero actually gets to do (with a significant figure) in the Star Trek films before he finally dies in such a struggle, which had been so common in the original series, with whole episodes sometimes built around this tendency. For much of the film, Kruge is as removed from Kirk as Khan was, but in the end that fight can no longer be resisted, especially since the Klingon does what the genetic superman couldn’t bring himself to do despite all his bluster: he made it personal. Khan had two generations of Marcus to threaten, Kruge had one, and could have killed Spock, personally. You can imagine what was going on in the writing room when these scenes were conceived. I would argue that the filmmakers knew exactly what they were doing, even if fans would come to think of their efforts as just another confirmation of the emerging Odd Number Curse.
I would submit that the ending of Wrath of Khan is strengthened by its repetition in Search for Spock, that it takes on mythic proportions when reiterated between Kirk and Sarek (Mark Lenard, making his first appearance in the films, and another reasons why I love this one) and Kirk and Spock himself, not to mention the creepy (and at times amusing) revelation that McCoy got stuck with Spock’s soul, which makes an ironic and compelling connection between normally lightly antagonistic friends. In fact, one of my favorite scenes is when DeForest Kelley pulls off his best impression of Leonard Nimoy, in the shadows, the first time we see Bones in the movie. Kirk is already on edge, far more depressed than in the two previous films (which amounts to an escalation that few could have anticipated when they consider The Motion Picture even for the tenth time). In that sense, because maybe people really just want to see our hero happy and carefree for a change, it’s better to look elsewhere for a cherished movie memory.
But as a single experience, even with a lot of loose ends dangling, plots left over and picked up by later films and series, Search for Spock presents a heck of an experience, perhaps the most complete story and character arc for Kirk. It’s a full adventure, blows up a beloved ship, elicits really emotion from William Shatner, and closes the loop opened in the first film, bringing us back to Vulcan for another dramatic ceremony, except this one we’re more than happy to see to conclusion.
All of this isn’t to say it’s my favorite one. I think it lacks a lot of punch, that it does seem a little too inevitable in its beats (Curtis is such a departure from Alley that she seems to hardly exist at all, at least in the role of Saavik, and David becomes an afterthought, only to be killed off, with the audience expected to care for him based on the previous film alone). The rest of the familiar characters have a few things to do so they can get to the Genesis planet, but they’re all forgotten by the time they get there. There’s a lot to sacrifice so that this story as conceived can happen, much like Wrath of Khan, even though what we’re given works so well in its most important elements.
Perhaps the most successful piece of the film is the absence of Nimoy (except behind the camera, where he proves a deft hand as director) until absolutely needed, a move calculated for maximum impact. Just as Kirk is beginning to wonder if he’s sacrificed everything just to lose it all, Spock finally offers a glimmer of recognition. His friend is back.
But Search for Spock is an exercise in proving that an old friend was never really gone. In many ways, this was the true beginning of a whole new era.