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Star Trek: Star Trek III: The Search For Spock / Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

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Stories have to move forward. If you were chart out the plot progression of a successful genre film, you'd probably find lots of curves and loops and the occasional cul-de-sac, but overall, the thing would progress from left to right fairly steadily. Too much back-tracking and you gunk up the works, too much stalling and all those delicate lies and concessions that make a fictional world real start to collapse under their own weight. If you've ever been to the movies and found yourself checking your watch around the two-thirds mark, you'll get what I'm talking about. (And it's such a definitive moment, too, like somebody in your head flipping a switch between "Interested" and "So, how much is left?")

One of the things that makes Star Trek III: The Search For Spock such an odd duck is that the entire movie is, in a sense, its own cul-de-sac. Our leads aren't trying to save the world or defeat some terrible enemy (although there's a little of that last near the end). They're just trying to return to the status quo that the climax of Star Trek II: Wrath Of Khan overturned. It's like the first act of Return of the Jedi stretched to feature length, only instead of rescuing Han Solo from the clutches of the universe's most dastardly giant slug, here we've got Kirk, McCoy and the rest fighting against time to get Spock's body and Spock's soul (or "katra") reunited. Ostensibly this is to preserve his knowledge back on Vulcan, but I can't imagine anyone thinking we weren't going to hit the end credits without seeing Nimoy doing that eyebrow thing again. There's precious little that's new in Search; in fact, the film rejects the idea of innovation, either mocking it (with Scott's easy monkey-wrenching of the Excelsior) or actively negating it, with a conclusion that not only restores everybody's favorite Vulcan to life, but also destroys Khan's two biggest additions to the mythology: Kirk's son David, and the planet Genesis. In many ways, it's an entry with a calculated design on longevity. "Don't worry," we're reassured. "These guys may look old, but they've still got some miles left in them. We'll be watching them do the same things in slightly different ways for many years to come."

And yet for the life of me, I can't find it in myself to dislike Search. Sure it's redundant. Sure, it wastes the momentum of the first act with a climax so rote you can almost hear the writer admitting defeat. But it's fun, by and large. There's something charmingly old school in its machinations, and while its ambitions aren't terribly, well, ambitious, it's still a decent time-waster, and a nice bridge between the space opera weightiness of Khan and the light absurdity of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Its main flaw is that it never entirely justifies its existence; Spock's death was a satisfying, moving capstone to the series, and to undo that for no better reason than "just cuz" is always going to come off weak.

One thing that's easy to forget, especially if, like me, you grew up watching this; Search takes place right on the heels of the end of Khan, which makes the sudden shift in Shatner's toupee especially jarring. (Whatever you do, don't look at it too long. It kills the whole movie.) With David and Saavik (a flatly wooden Robin Curtis; Kirstie Alley wanted too much money to return to the role) already headed back to Genesis for study, it's left to Kirk and the others to mourn Spock in their own way. One of the better aspects of Search is that with Spock out of the action, the rest of the crew gets a chance to fill up the vacuum of his absence, and we get a much stronger sense of Kirk, Uhura, Chekov, McCoy, Scotty, and Sulu as a family unit, and not just a bunch of people who work together. Seeing everyone in Kirk's apartment, mourning the loss of their friend, creates a warm glow that covers up a lot of the movie's weaker moments.

Of course, that connection doesn't stop Kirk from hustling everyone out when Sarek arrives. (At Sarek's request, of course.) We've talked before about the odd juxtaposition of mysticism and clinic-ism in Vulcan culture, and once again we've got intellect (in this case, Spock's katra, his essential self) being preserved by an arcane ritual that we, as outsiders, never completely understand. Obviously this is just as much goobledy gook as is necessary for resurrection, but it has a nice thematic ring to it. And it allows McCoy to get his own minor subplot. As Kirk himself discovers (via some suspiciously well-edited security footage), Spock passed his essence to McCoy before dying, which means we get Nimoy dubbing in some off-screen lines that are supposedly coming from DeForest Kelley's mouth, as well as having McCoy's personality shift ever so slightly to the pointy-eared. Bones' clumsy attempt to book passage back to Genesis in the Starfleet equivalent of Mos Eisley is great, as is his reaction to learning what Spock did to him: "It's just his revenge for losing all those arguments."

Search isn't as overtly comedic as Voyage Home, but it gets a brief charge out of the ensemble being witty and kicking ass. The best bit of the whole film is when Starfleet tells Kirk he can't go back to Genesis for "political reasons," and Kirk decides he'll just take the Enterprise anyway. With a little help from his friends, of course. Search is Leonard Nimoy's first time in the director's chair for the franchise, and he goes out of his way to make sure that everybody gets a chance to shine: Sulu beats up a guard twice his size, Uhura locks a bratty ensign in a closet, and Scotty gets to take-down that new-fangled spaceship that everybody's so keen on. (Chekov gets screwed, I guess, but at least he has a whole sub-plot in Voyage to himself.) If Khan was about Kirk coming to terms with getting old, Search is about celebrating seniors. It's ridiculous, but I find myself grinning every time.

The rest of the movie can't quite keep up the pace; it never turns into a slog (although I still find the sequence back on Vulcan where Spock gets brain back fairly dull), but it's predictable. There's a crazy Klingon named Kruge (Christopher Lloyd doing his best John Lithgow) who's become obsessed with the secrets of Genesis. He destroys the ship that David and Saavik hitched a ride on, then sends a couple of thugs down to the planet to menace them face to face. As scene-chewing as Kruge is, he's mostly just a missed opportunity. We've already had a larger-than-life character railing about Genesis, and no matter how much spit Lloyd sprays, he's nowhere near as interesting and threatening as Montalbahn. Story-wise, the only reason he's around at all is so Kirk gets to fight somebody in person for once (and what a pathetic, anti-climactic fight it is; makes you appreciate the fact that Kirk and Khan are never face-to-face), and so that David can sacrifice himself heroically. Oh, and so the Enterprise can get blowed up real good.

Of course, just bringing up the katra concept wasn't going to be enough to get Spock back—otherwise Vulcans would be functionally immortal, and that probably would've come up before now. Instead, we have the Genesis planet somehow resetting Spock's body, making him young and then aging him as the planet ages. It's one of those things that makes a kind of surface intuitive sense, but doesn't hold up at all under scrutiny. Why would his corpse de-age and then age again? If Genesis is some kind of fountain of life (would this work on any corpse? Does it only work a little while after the planet's created? If enough time had passed, and if the planet hadn't been destroying itself, would Kruge's dead crewmembers turn into baby Klingons?), that would seem to have some pretty serious ramifications on things. Thankfully, the planet tears itself apart before anyone can really think about it.

Search for Spock is basically for fans-only, and for once, I don't mean that in an entirely pejorative sense. What you get out of it depends entirely on how much you care about these characters, and how much of a charge you get at the very end, when Spock is back to (sort of) himself. He's befuddled, but he eventually recognizes Kirk, and then he does that eyebrow raise… I dunno. I'm not sure I'd go so far as to agree with "The needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many," but it has a nice ring to it; and if I'm honest, I'll admit that Star Trek without Spock isn't really Star Trek at all.

Hey, remember the '80's? Remember when saving the whales was a pretty big deal? I sort of do. I mean, whales are big and I assume they're friendly for some reason, and they're slow moving which makes them easy targets, so they deserve to be saved. And I can only assume that they were saved eventually, because you don't really hear a lot about it these days. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Leonard Nimoy's second time in the director's chair, is a polished, well-balanced audience-pleaser. It's a deeply ingratiating movie, the sort that comes out of the gate with a big goofy grin and a hand out-stretched, and keeps patting your back and offering you sodas for the entirety of its running time. It doesn't have Khan's edge, or any edge at all, really; despite the fact that Earth is threatened once again by a giant space probe that could destroy all life on the planet, the only truly serious moment in the film is the opening dedication to the crew of the Challenger. But it does have Kirk saving some whales, and who doesn't like whales? If Search is for fans only, it's no real stretch to say that Voyage Home is meant to be a kind of gateway drug. It's nice to know the characters going in, but it's not exactly necessary.

Which isn't to say that Voyage Home is disconnected from the previous Trek films. Voyage Home picks up right about where the previous movie left off; in this case, that's on planet Vulcan, with Spock working to get back to his real self while Kirk and the rest face the threat of serious criminal charges back home. A Klingon ambassador is already calling for their heads, claiming they "stole" a Bird Of Prey and killed its crew without provocation. (Hilariously, we get actual footage from Search of the Enterprise blowing up. Did Kirk send this from the Klingon ship? Or did they just happen to have an invisible camera crew in the area?) The threat of government sanction is never that much of a threat—whatever Kirk's crimes, it's hard to seriously censure someone who's saved the planet before—but it does provide a structural anchor for the rest of the story. And it's not like we could just forget the whole "steal a ship" thing completely.

As always, though, there are more serious things to worry about. Another giant, mysterious object has shown up on Earth's doorstep, blocking the sun and draining power on the planet. Kirk and the others are the only ones who can help, mainly because they were busy on Vulcan when probe arrived; it's up to them to decipher that the signals the probe is sending out are much like the songs of the humpback whale, a species that was hunted to extinction centuries before. Since the fate of the world is in question, the only answer is to travel back in time to the mid-eighties, snag a couple of whales, bring them to the present, and hope to god those whales will lie like crazy. ("Oh, hey, no, we're here, we just, y'know, not really answering the phone this week. It's stress and all, right, sometimes you need to get away from everything. It's not like we've been dead for three hundred years or anything!")

Four movies in, and already the series has stopped trying for new ideas. While the design and intention are both different, the whale song probe is basically just V'Ger with an upgrade; the crew of the Enterprise is so used to time travel at this point that nobody blinks an eye when Kirk suggests it (even McCoy takes the concept in stride), and the bulk of the time spend in 1986 follows the familiar pattern of your fish-out-of-water comedy, with lots of confusion over slang and cultural mores. It's probably asking too much to expect a franchise this old to surprise us, but the more time you spend in the universe of Trek and its multitude of spin-offs, the more you find that all that mythology and all those races are really just the back-drop for the same five or six plots endlessly repeated. Occasionally the show can rise above this ("The Inner Light" from Star Trek: The Next Generation is a great example), and it's a little much to expect commercial television to consistently exploit its possibilities. But it does drag you down a little, seeing how close to Earth "where no man has gone before" really is.

That's more a general criticism than one specific to Voyage Home, though. I have friends who despise this movie for what it does to its main characters—while there's no "I know this ship like the back of my hand." moment here, having Scotty talking into a computer mouse comes perilously close to making him look like a moron. I can sympathize with those complaints, and I certainly don't consider this a great film; but it's so relentlessly genial I have a hard time disliking it for long. Chekov's "Who's on first" routine after getting arrested is forced, but McCoy's bitching about the state of '80's medical science is perfectly in character, and Spock's inability to swear properly ("They are not the hell your whales.") always makes me grin. This sticks to the ensemble piece style established in Search, and everyone involved is so clearly delighted to be doing what they're doing that the enthusiasm becomes infectious.

There's no villain here to speak of; there's a brief appearance by a team of evil whalers near the end (the "evil" is redundant, possibly), but apart from that one short stop into Captain Planet territory, there's not much danger. Even Kirk's sort of romance with the whale friendly Catherine Hicks (another eventual Seventh Heaven alumnus) is muted. Shatner's putting on all the charm, but there's no chemistry between the two. It's like watching an insurance salesman flirt with a potential client before closing the deal. Their last conversation, after Hicks has hitchhiked a ride to the future, makes it seem almost like she just used Kirk to get a trip to outer space; it would've made her character more interesting, for sure. As is, she's a means to an end, and not much else.

Still, there is some interesting character work happening here. While by and large the main cast is static (there's occasional talk throughout the series that Kirk is getting old, but really all that amounts to is him moping a little before getting reminded he's amazing), Spock has to come to terms with being alive once more. There's a childish quality to him that we've never seen in the character—while Spock's always mocked human emotion, this is the first time we see him actually struggling to comprehend it, and what its value might be. His wild-card status is exploited for decent laughs, and registers strongly enough that in the end, when he asks Sarek to tell his mother he feels "fine," it provides an honest emotional charge. For once, Spock appears to have struck a balance between his Vulcan and human sides, without short-changing either.

Like Search, Voyage Home lags some in the home stretch; while Voyage Home is the better film, once the whales are rescued, there's not much drama left to resolve. The Earth is saved, the Enterprise crew gets the ovation it deserves, and the end finds Kirk demoted to captain and once more on the helm of the ship that was always his first, best destiny. In a way, that's what the title meant all along—home for our heroes isn't Earth, and it never will be. While neither Search nor Voyage Home are particularly ambitious, and while neither of them come close to the emotional depths the series is capable of, there's still a deep satisfaction in seeing old friends risking their lives for each other, and in the end, coming back to where they belong.

Star Trek III: The Search For Spock: B-
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home: B+

Stray Observations:

The Star Trek recaps will be going on a hiatus for the next few months; hopefully we'll be starting back up with Season 3 in December. I'm taking a break from Trek in order to dig into The Prisoner, starting with the original series and leading into the AMC remake this November. It's been a blast, gang; and I hope you'll all join me in the Village for chess, some light interrogation, and the evilest weather balloon in the world. Be seeing you!