1982’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was a smash hit; it made less money overall than its predecessor, The Motion Picture, but given its budget it was still a bigger success. Star Trek had been saved… the question was, what next? The Wrath of Khan‘s Nicholas Meyer wouldn’t return for the third film, as he had disliked the last-minute changes that occurred without his knowing or approval. The success of the film also came as a surprise to Leonard Nimoy, who had originally only done the film on the condition that his character Spock was killed off in a glorious fashion. Some time during filming, he began to rethink that decision. Producer Harve Bennett seemed to have also been thinking about the future of the Star Trek franchise without Spock, so during filming he asked Nimoy to add a “thread” to the picture; after knocking out Dr Leonard McCoy (Deforest Kelley) with a nerve pinch, Spock initiates a mind meld, telling his friend to “remember”. Spock then sacrifices himself to repair the good old Enterprise. It seems to be a done deal. But in science fiction, there are always… possibilities.
Bennett was given the go-ahead to write the script for Star Trek III the day after The Wrath of Khan opened, the fastest greenlight he’d ever recieved. Now, however, with the void of director open, Nimoy himself stepped in. After a bit of persuading the Paramount Pictures executives, Nimoy was given the job. It was certainly a gamble, as Nimoy hadn’t directed a major motion picture; there was also the fact that he would still be acting in the film. As Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry put it to Bennett, “[You’ve] hired a director you can’t fire”.
In developing the story, Bennett and Nimoy jumped on the Wrath of Khan mind meld as their way to bring Spock back-it was a given that Spock would have to come back, the question was only how that would occur. As Nimoy said in interviews, if “Captain Kirk turn[ed] to the camera and [said] ‘Sorry, we didn’t find him,’ people would throw rocks at the screen”. Much like how the original Star Trek television series episode “Space Seed” had given Bennett the idea of making Khan Noonien Singh the villain for the second film, the episode “Amok Time” gave him the idea that the alien Vulcan had a certain ability of “spiritual transference”. Slowly, this developed into the idea of a Vulcan katra, or living spirit.
As ultimately formed, The Search for Spock has the damaged USS Enterprise limping home, its crew still mourning Spock’s death. Unexpectedly, however, McCoy begins to act strangely. Captain Kirk (William Shatner) learns from Spock’s father, Sarek (Mark Lenard) that before he died, Spock transferred his katra to McCoy. The only way to give both men peace is to return Spock’s body, which resides in a coffin on the “Genesis planet”, to the Vulcan homeworld.
Of course, given that the events of The Search for Spock directly follow The Wrath of Khan, Bennett had to device a way of quickly introducing the important events to viewers. As he had with The Wrath of Khan, Bennett used his experience from television to inform his choices; he had Kirk narrate a “captain’s log” describing some of the events of the past film to get people up to speed with a minimum of time wasted. Given that the film’s logical conclusion was so obvious, Bennett opted to include a dramatic and shocking twist; the beloved USS Enterprise would be destroyed! Nimoy, for his part, wanted the blow things up for the third film, with a story that was operatic in scope. Originally, the Vulcan-like Romulans were intended to be the main villains, but Nimoy preferred the more theatrical Klingons, who travel to the Genesis planet in order to learn the secrets of the powerful Genesis terraforming device and use it as a weapon.
The script was completed in six weeks, with Bennett writing the story starting from the final scene and working backwards. The production was given a slightly larger budget of $16 million, compared to the $11 million for The Wrath of Khan and exorbitant $45 million for The Motion Picture. By keeping established aspects of the Star Trek universe, such as uniforms and sets from previous movies, the producers could make every dollar count towards bringing the much grander story of The Search for Spock to life.
Early on in development, effects company Industrial Light and Magic was brought in and hired for the film’s optical work. Working closely with Nimoy, Bennett, and Paramount’s creative staff, ILM was responsible for developing and fabricating the many new starships seen in the film; these included the sleek new Federation Starship Excelsior, the aptly-named Klingon stealth cruiser Bird of Prey, the science vessel Grissom, a merchant vessel that delivers the Klingon antagonist Kruge (Christopher Lloyd) details on Genesis, and a large Federation starbase.
Since the Klingons were the antagonists, that necessitated an expanded look at their ship, style, and culture. In The Motion Picture, the Klingons had been radically redesigned from their original television appearance, with cragged foreheads based on dinosaur vertebrae, but costume designer Robert Fletcher wanted to tone down the look. Many of the costumes created for the first feature film had been lost or destroyed, so Fletcher had to create new ones, adding touches such as an officers’ vest for Kruge. The film also gave viewers a look at civilian clothes for the principal characters, so Fletcher had to envision what casual wardrobes would look like in the 23rd century. The Vulcans were dressed in robes adorned with mystical-looking patterns and colored stones.
Filming commenced on August 15, 1983. Despite much of the action taking place on the alien world of Genesis, all but two days were spent on Paramount soundstages. Cinematographer Charles Correll had wanted to go to Hawaii to film the primeval world of Genesis, but that idea proved impractical, considering the film’s finale had the planet undergoing a state of upheaval with massive rockslides, earthquakes, and fires. Instead the largest soundstage was converted into the Genesis planet, with hidden trapdoors and pyrotechnics. A fire started in a nearby lot threatened to destroy the set; some of the actors including Shatner helped to put out the flames before they damaged the set.
Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) supervisor Ken Ralston had always hated the Enterprise, as the model used for it was clunky, heavy, and wired complexly; getting the chance to destroy it on screen was a secret thrill. Several models were made for the different shots of the Enterprise exploding. One model, for example, was filled with steel wool and set alight to simulate the destruction of decks inside the Enterprise. Acetone dripped on the model melted through, exposing the burning insides underneath. Other models were simply blown up, shot at a fast frame rate to catch every explosion. The effect of the ship burning up in the atmosphere of the Genesis planet was painstakingly created by hand.
The Search for Spock premiered in theaters June 1, 1984. It made $16 million its first week, setting a record for best weekend gross, as well as widest release (in almost 2000 theaters across the United States.) Its total domestic gross was $76 million. Ultimately, the film is regarded as a “compromise” between the first and second films; ultimately, it was judged a lesser product than The Wrath of Khan. That’s not to say it didn’t garner praise; Nimoy’s direction was almost universally applauded, as his familiarity with the characters cultivated one of the most personal Star Treks and in some critics’ views, the closest one to the spirit of the original television series. Ultimately, Nimoy would return for a lighter sequel, The Voyage Home, a film which would for more than two decades, be the most accessible Star Treks for a general audience-and forever known as “the one with the whales”.
Star Trek History: Making The Search For Spock;
*Anderson, Kay. “Star Trek III” [Cinefantastique v17n3/4.]
*Lee, Nora. “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock”.
*Munson, Brad. “The Last Voyage of the Starship ‘Enterprise'” [Cinefex v1n18.]
*Rioux, Terry Lee. From Sawdust to Stardust: The Biography of DeForest Kelley (ISBN 0743457625).
*Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, The Directors Edition [Special Features and Commentary]
Previous Star Trek History:
More Star Trek info by David Fuchs:
“Making ‘The Wrath of Khan'” / “Making ‘The Motion Picture'” / “Creating the Klingons”