Fun fact: my first exposure to Star Trek was, of all things, The Search for Spock. My mother was working her way through nursing school and worked weekends at an independent video rental store, and on those weekends, she would bring home unrented tapes for us to watch. And one weekend, there was The Search for Spock. I had maybe seen bits and pieces of the old show before, but I hadn’t seen anything from start to finish that I legitimately remembered.
As Trek movies go, it isn’t a terrible introduction. I somehow knew Spock had died in the previous movie, so seeing the crew get together to get him back, well, it was fun.
Watching it today, well, it isn’t a bad movie, but it likewise isn’t a great one. It’s a got a journeyman quality to it. I know the rule of thumb is odd-numbered Trek movies are the bad ones, but this one wasn’t that bad all things being equal. It just never really rises above what makes the better Trek movies stand out. However, as a direct continuation of Wrath of Khan, it doesn’t quite shine as bright as that one or the next one, and quite frankly, I always liked the fourth one best.
What Search for Spock does more or less right is make a few tonal changes. It gets a bit of the light humor that I think better Trek does well when it does it at all on the big screen (at least as far as the original cast goes), and for the first time, it actually gives each member of the crew something to do. Uhura and Sulu spent the movies so far more or less as familiar faces standing or sitting around. Chekov had a good role in the action for Khan, but there he was a brainwashed victim of the villain. Quite frankly, going back to the old TV show, any character that was Kirk, Spock, or McCoy and maybe Scotty never really got to develop all that much. Heck, Sulu changed jobs three or four times in the first few episodes before settling down as helmsman. Scotty got by with his big personality and faux Scottish accent. Uhura answered the phone and Chekov said everything came from Russia. For this movie, even if it isn’t much, we get to see each character play a role in saving the day.
And there some pleasure to see McCoy stumble around with Spock’s memories in his head. DeForest Kelley got to show a different side to McCoy, one where his usual crankiness had to give way to confusion that looked like insanity. We’ve seen McCoy grumble, even admit privately he also cares about Spock, or make a sarcastic wisecrack about Vulcan society, and he does all those things here, but he also tries to give a guy the Vulcan nerve pinch while arguing things aren’t logical. And of course once told what’s going on, McCoy would say it was Spock’s revenge for all the arguments McCoy “won”.
We even get Mark Lenard back as Sarek. And personally, I think Robin Curtis is a fine Saavik. Wikipedia tells me she sells real estate these days, so there’s that.
Basically, if Wrath of Khan was about growing older, Search for Spock says the old fogies still have a few tricks up their sleeves. We see Uhura (who sadly disappears for a good chunk of the movie while the men rush off to retrieve Spock’s body) hold up a guy who made a few poorly-timed comments about her career. Sulu beats up a guard twice his size (yes, Sulu apparently was the team’s muscle) and simply say, “Don’t call me tiny.” Scotty makes a dirty-sounding joke after sabotaging another ship. And Kirk, well, he remembers the Enterprise‘s destruct code, the same one he once used in an episode of the old show. Only this time, the ship does blow up. It just takes most of a Klingon crew with it.
And therein lies the problem for the movie: the Klingons. Oh, they aren’t bad. They’re Klingons doing what Klingons always do. Led by Christopher Lloyd’s Kruge, they aren’t the most memorable of bad guys. They seem more generic Klingon than anything else. Assuming the Genesis Project was designed to make a superweapon, they respond with violence as Klingons were wont to do. The problem with Kruge isn’t that he’s a bad character. It’s that he could be any Klingon. We saw some pretty memorable ones in the original show. Kruge is basically every Klingon, a guy who will kill a subordinate for a “lucky shot” when he wanted prisoners, will likewise kill his girlfriend for seeing too much of a stolen data file, and only really mourns his weird Klingon dog when it dies in Kirk’s counterattack. What is there to set Kruge apart from every other Klingon in Trek history? Danged if I know. He’s very tall, but that’s about it. If anything, he earns his place in Trek villain history for the death of Kirk’s son David, but Kirk will in later movies blame the Klingons as a whole for that, not Kruge.
Leonard Nimoy famously moved behind the camera for this one, directing the first of two movies, and he does a good job. Spock appears in the movie played by six or seven different actors as he ages rapidly from child to adult, with pon farr showing how dangerous Vulcan puberty can be to an unwary Klingon. As such, Nimoy might have more lines shown in flashback from from the previous movie than he has in this one, but it all comes down in the end to remembering Jim is his friend. And for his friend, Jim and the others would risk their careers and their freedom to bring him back.
But consequences are for the next movie.