Star Trek III: The Search for Spock is a 1984 American science fiction film directed by Leonard Nimoy and based on the television series of the same name created by Gene Roddenberry. It is the third film in the Star Trek film series, and is the second part of a three-film story arc that begins with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) and concludes with Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986). After the death of Spock (Nimoy), the crew of the USS Enterprise returns to Earth. When James T. Kirk (William Shatner) learns that Spock’s spirit, or katra, is held in the mind of Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy (DeForest Kelley), Kirk and company steal the Enterprise to return Spock’s body to his homeworld. The crew must also contend with hostile Klingons led by Kruge (Christopher Lloyd) who are bent on stealing the secrets of a powerful terraforming device.
Paramount Pictures commissioned the film after the positive critical and commercial reaction to The Wrath of Khan. Nimoy directed the film, becoming the first Star Trek cast member to do so. Producer Harve Bennett wrote the script starting from the end and working back, and intended the destruction of the Enterprise to be a shocking development. Bennett and Nimoy collaborated with effects house Industrial Light & Magic to develop storyboards and new ship designs; ILM also handled the film’s many special effects sequences. Aside from a single day of location shooting, all of the film’s scenes were shot on Paramount and ILM soundstages. Composer James Horner returned to expand his themes from the previous film.
The Search for Spock opened on June 1, 1984. In its first week of release, the film grossed over $16 million from almost 2,000 theaters across North America. It went on to gross $76 million at the domestic box office, with a total of $87 million worldwide. Critical reaction to The Search for Spock was positive, but notably less so than the previous film.
Reviewers generally praised the cast and characters, while criticism tended to focus on the plot; the special effects were conflictingly received. Roger Ebert called the film a compromise between the tones of the first and second Star Trek films. The Search for Spock has since been released on multiple home video formats, including VHS, DVD, and Blu-ray high definition discs. Nimoy went on to direct The Search for Spock‘s sequel, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.
The Federation Starship Enterprise returns to Earth following a battle with the superhuman Khan Noonien Singh, who tried to destroy the Enterprise by detonating an experimental terraforming device known as Genesis. The casualties of the fight include Admiral James T. Kirk’s Vulcan friend, Spock, whose casket was launched into space and eventually landed on the planet created by the Genesis Device. On arriving at Earth Spacedock, Doctor Leonard McCoy begins to act strangely and is detained. Commander-Starfleet, Admiral Morrow visits the Enterprise and informs the crew the ship is to be decommissioned; the crew is instructed not to speak about Genesis due to political fallout over the device.
David Marcus (Merritt Butrick)—Kirk’s son, a key scientist in Genesis’s development—and Lieutenant Saavik (Robin Curtis) are investigating the Genesis planet on board the science vessel Grissom. Discovering an unexpected life form on the surface, Marcus and Saavik transport to the planet. They find that the Genesis Device has resurrected Spock in the form of a child, although his mind is not present. Marcus admits that he used unstable “protomatter” in the development of the Genesis Device, causing Spock to age rapidly and meaning the planet will be destroyed within hours. Meanwhile, Kruge (Christopher Lloyd), the commander of a Klingon vessel, intercepts information about Genesis. Believing the device to be potentially useful as a weapon, he takes his cloaked ship to the Genesis planet, destroys the Grissom, and searches the planet for the survivors.
Spock’s father, Sarek (Mark Lenard), confronts Kirk about his son’s death. The pair learn that before he died, Spock transferred his katra, or living spirit, to McCoy. Spock’s katra and body are needed to lay him to rest on his homeworld, Vulcan, and without help, McCoy will die from carrying the katra. Disobeying orders, Kirk and his officers spring McCoy from detention, disable the USS Excelsior, and steal the Enterprise from Spacedock to return to the Genesis planet to retrieve Spock’s body.
On Genesis, the Klingons capture Marcus, Saavik and Spock and before Kruge can interrogate them their ship signals that the Enterprise has arrived and Kruge immediately beams back to the Bird of Prey.
In orbit, the undermanned Enterprise initially gains the upper hand in battle, but the Klingons return fire and disable the ship. In the standoff that follows, Kruge orders that one of the hostages on the surface be executed. Marcus is killed defending Saavik and Spock. Kirk and company feign surrender and activate the Enterprise‘s self-destruct sequence, killing the Klingon boarding party while the Enterprise crew transports to the planet’s surface. Promising the secret of Genesis, Kirk lures Kruge to the planet and has him beam his crew to the Klingon vessel. As the Genesis planet disintegrates, Kirk and Kruge engage in a fistfight; Kirk emerges victorious after kicking Kruge off a cliff into a lava flow. Kirk and his officers take control of the Klingon ship and head to Vulcan.
There, Spock’s katra is reunited with his body in a dangerous procedure called fal-tor-pan. The ceremony is successful and Spock is resurrected, alive and well, though his memories are fragmented. At Kirk’s prompting, Spock remembers he called Kirk “Jim” and recognizes the crew. His friends joyfully gather around him.
William Shatner reprises the role of Admiral James T. Kirk, Starfleet officer. Shatner remarked that being directed by Leonard Nimoy, his longtime co-star and friend, was initially awkward, although as the shoot went on, it became easier as Shatner realized how confident Nimoy was. To reduce weight, Shatner dieted before the start of production, but as filming continued, he tended to “slip”; the costume department had to make 12 shirts for him. In his book with Chris Kreski, Star Trek Movie Memories: The Inside Story of the Classic Movies, he believes that the scene where he learns of his son’s death is “Kirk’s finest celluloid moment ever”.
Nimoy, in addition to his directing duties, appears towards the end of the film as Spock, but only appears in the opening credits as the director. Nimoy found the most difficult scene to direct was one in which Leonard McCoy talks to the unconscious Spock in sickbay, en route to Vulcan. Nimoy recalled that not only was he in the scene, but his eyes are closed, making it difficult to judge the quality of the shot or the actor’s performance: “It drove DeForest Kelley crazy. He swears that I was trying to direct him with the movement and flutter of my eyelids.” Nimoy was thankful the story required him to appear in a minimal number of scenes. The rapidly aging Spock, at the ages of 9, 13, 17, and 25, was portrayed successively by Carl Steven, Vadia Potenza, Stephen Manley and Joe W. Davis. Frank Welker provided Spock’s screams, and Steve Blalock doubled for Nimoy, so that a total of seven actors contributed to the role.
DeForest Kelley returns as Leonard McCoy, doctor and the carrier of Spock’s living spirit. Kelley has the majority of the film’s memorable scenes, but admitted to occasional difficulties in acting with and being directed by his longtime co-star. However, he has declared that he had no doubts about Nimoy’s ability to direct the film. Responding to suggestions that Star Trek copied Star Wars, Kelley asserted that the opposite was true. Playing the other crew members are James Doohan, as Montgomery Scott, the chief engineer; George Takei, as Hikaru Sulu, Enterprise‘s helmsman; Walter Koenig, as Pavel Chekov, navigation and acting science officer; and Nichelle Nichols, as Uhura, the ship’s communications officer. Nichols had always insisted on wearing a skirt; although the standard female uniform used trousers, the costume designer created a skirted version specifically for her. Takei was dismayed to hear that his character was called “Tiny” by a guard at McCoy’s cell during the film, and argued with the film’s producer to have the line cut. When Takei saw the first screening of the film, he changed his mind and promptly apologized. He would later admit in his To the Stars: The Autobiography of George Takei that “without that snipe from [the guard], the scene [where Sulu eventually beats up that same guard] would not have played even half as heroically for Sulu.”
At age 87, and after an acting break of 14 years, Dame Judith Anderson accepted the role of T’Lar—a Vulcan high priestess who restores Spock’s katra to his body—at her nephew’s urging. Nimoy wanted someone with “power and magic” for the ethereal role. Anderson claimed to be 5 feet 2 inches (1.57 m) tall, but her true height was closer to 4 feet 8 inches (1.42 m), which presented a problem when the designers needed to make her look appropriately regal. The solution was to dress her with an overlong hem and built-up shoes which, combined with a crown, added 6 inches (15 cm) to her height.
Kirstie Alley, who had played Saavik in The Wrath of Khan, did not return to reprise her role because she feared being typecast. Robin Curtis had arrived in Los Angeles in 1982; she became friends with the head of Paramount’s casting department, who recommended her for the role. Nimoy met with Curtis, and gave her the assignment the next day.
Nimoy had admired Christopher Lloyd’s work in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Taxi, and was impressed by his ability to play powerful villains. Lloyd was given the role of Kruge, a Klingon interested in securing the powerful secrets of Genesis for use as a weapon. Nimoy said that Lloyd brought a welcome element of theatricality to the role.
Mark Lenard plays Sarek, Spock’s father and a Vulcan ambassador. Lenard had previously played the role in the Star Trek: The Original Series episode “Journey to Babel” and the Star Trek: The Animated Series episode “Yesteryear”. Merritt Butrick reprises his role as David Marcus, Kirk’s son and a scientist who had helped develop the Genesis Device, from The Wrath of Khan.
Other roles include Robert Hooks as Admiral Morrow, the commander of Starfleet; James Sikking as Captain Styles, the commanding officer of the Excelsior; Miguel Ferrer as the Excelsior’s First Officer and Helmsman; and Phillip R. Allen as Captain J.T. Esteban, the captain of the ill-fated Grissom. John Larroquette plays Maltz, a member of Kruge’s bridge crew whom Nimoy describes as “the thoughtful Klingon”. Catherine Shirriff plays Valkris, Kruge’s doomed lover. Grace Lee Whitney, who played Janice Rand in the original Star Trek series, made a cameo appearance (wearing a wig) as “Woman in Cafeteria”. Scott McGinnis plays a young man whom Uhura forces into a closet at gunpoint.
The Wrath of Khan was a critical and commercial success, and Paramount Pictures quickly prepared for a third Star Trek film. The Wrath of Khan‘s director, Nicholas Meyer, would not return; he had disagreed with changes made to his film’s ending without his consent. Upon seeing The Wrath of Khan, Leonard Nimoy became “excited” about playing Spock again. When asked by Paramount if he wanted to reprise the role for the third feature, Nimoy agreed and told them, “You’re damned right, I want to direct that picture!” Studio chief Michael Eisner was reluctant to hire Nimoy because he mistakenly believed that the actor hated Star Trek and had demanded in his contract that Spock be killed. Nimoy was given the job after he persuaded Eisner that this was not the case. Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s first reaction to the news was that producer Harve Bennett had “hired a director you can’t fire”.
Paramount gave Bennett the green light to write Star Trek III the day after The Wrath of Khan opened, the fastest go-ahead the producer had received. He began writing the screenplay, noting that “seventeen other people could have written [it]” after the hints at Spock’s resurrection in the previous film. Bennett and Nimoy used the open thread of Spock mind melding with McCoy at the end of The Wrath of Khan as a way to explain Spock’s restoration. The idea and name of the Vulcan “katra” came from Bennett’s discussions with Nimoy. The actor referred the producer to an episode of the television series, “Amok Time”, that suggested to Bennett a high level of “spiritual transference” among the Vulcans. Bennett admitted that the idea of Kirk and company going back to the Genesis planet to recover Kirk’s “noble self” stemmed from a poem he read in a Star Trek fan magazine. The film’s production acknowledged certain expectations from fans—Nimoy remarked that if Spock had not been resurrected and, instead, “Captain Kirk turn[ed] to the camera and [said] ‘Sorry, we didn’t find him,’ people would throw rocks at the screen.” A major issue Bennett wrestled with was how to introduce the story for people who had not seen The Wrath of Khan. Bennett said that his television producer mentality “won out”; he added a “previously in Star Trek …” film device, and had Kirk narrate a captain’s log, describing his feelings and sense of loss. Aware of the story’s predictability, Bennett decided to have the USS Enterprise destroyed, and intended this plot element be kept a secret.
Nimoy wanted The Search for Spock to be “operatic” in scope; “I wanted the emotions to be very large, very broad, life and death themes […] and the [look of the film] and everything about it derives everything from sizable characters playing out a large story on a large canvas,” he said. In addition, he wanted the characters to have significant scenes, however small, that made them grounded and real. Bennett started writing the script with the ending, where Spock says, “Your name is… Jim”, and worked backwards from that point. Elements such as Kruge killing his lover were added to establish context and add drama and intrigue. Originally, the Romulans were the villains, but Nimoy preferred the more “theatrical” Klingons, feeling that their pursuit of Genesis was analogous to the Soviet race for nuclear weaponry. Bennett took the opportunity to flesh out the alien race, who he felt were ill-defined in the television series. The name of the class of the antagonists’ ship, Bird of Prey, remained unchanged.
The script was completed in six weeks. The production’s estimated budget of $16 million was slightly larger than that of The Wrath of Khan, but still much less than Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979). Since elements such as many sets and uniforms had been established, more money was available for special effects. Assistant producer Ralph Winter described the extra money as a “toybox” that allowed more leeway and “fun” in planning the scope of the film.
Composer James Horner returned to score The Search for Spock, fulfilling a promise he had made to Bennett on The Wrath of Khan. While Nimoy considered hiring his friend Leonard Rosenman for the score, he was persuaded that Horner’s return would grant continuity between The Wrath of Khan and the new film. Much like the content of the film, Horner’s music was a direct continuation of the score he wrote for the previous film. When writing music for The Wrath of Khan, Horner was aware he would reuse certain cues for an impending sequel; two major themes he reworked were for Genesis and Spock. While the Genesis theme supplants the title music Horner wrote for The Wrath of Khan, the end credits were quoted “almost verbatim”.
In hours-long discussions with Bennett and Nimoy, Horner agreed with the director that the “romantic and more sensitive” cues were more important than the “bombastic” ones. Horner had written Spock’s theme to give the character more dimension: “By putting a theme over Spock, it warms him and he becomes three-dimensional rather than a collection of schticks,” he said. The theme was expanded in The Search for Spock to represent the ancient alien mysticism and culture of Spock and Vulcan.
Among the new cues Horner wrote was a “percussive and atonal” theme for the Klingons which is represented heavily in the film. Jeff Bond described the cue as a compromise between music from Horner’s earlier film Wolfen, Khan’s motif from The Wrath of Khan, and Jerry Goldsmith’s Klingon music from The Motion Picture. Horner also adapted music from Sergei Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet for part of the Enterprise theft sequence and its destruction, while the scoring to Spock’s resurrection on Vulcan was lifted from Horner’s Brainstorm ending.
The Search for Spock was not heavily marketed. Among the promotional merchandise created for the film’s release were Search for Spock-branded calendars and glasses sold at Taco Bell. A novelization (ISBN 0-671-49500-3) was also released, and reached second place on The New York Times paperback bestsellers list. President Ronald Reagan screened the film for friends during a weekend away from the White House in 1984, spent with White House staff chief Mike Deaver and the president’s own close friend Senator Paul Laxalt. Reagan wrote of the film: “It wasn’t too good.”
The Search for Spock opened June 1 in a record-breaking 1,996 theaters across North America; with competing films Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Gremlins, Ghostbusters and Top Secret! released at the same time, more than half of the nation’s screens were filled by summer blockbusters. The Search for Spock grossed over $16 million in its opening weekend. In its second weekend the film’s gross dropped 42 percent. The box office strength of The Search for Spock and Indiana Jones led Paramount to dominate early summer film business. The film made $76.5 million in North America, for a total of $87 million worldwide.
James Horner’s soundtrack to the film was released on a 43-minute LP record by Capitol Records in 1984, and also contained a 12″ single titled “The Search for Spock”, composed by Horner and performed by Group 87, a band featuring composer Mark Isham and Missing Persons drummer Terry Bozzio. It was re-released on compact disc in 1989 by GNP Crescendo. Film Score Monthly released an expanded two-compact disc score June 1, 2010. The Expanded Edition included both the original Capitol Records release from 1984 and an all-new version which featured the complete soundtrack as heard in the film, including alternate versions as well as many cues heard for the first time outside of the film. The soundtrack would be Horner’s final contribution to Star Trek.
The Search for Spock was released on home video in 1985. The initial retail offerings included VHS, Betamax, LaserDisc and CED formats with closed captioning. As part of a plan to support its push of 8mm video cassette, Sony partnered with Paramount Home Video to bring titles like The Search for Spock to the platform in 1986.
The film was given a “bare bones” DVD release on May 11, 2000, with no extra features—the release was several months earlier than the release of The Wrath of Khan. Two years later, a two disc “Collector’s Edition” was released with supplemental material and the same video transfer as the original DVD release. It featured a text commentary by Michael Okuda and audio commentary from Nimoy, Bennett, Correll, and Curtis.
The film was released on high-definition Blu-ray Disc in May 2009 to coincide with the new Star Trek feature, along with the other five films featuring the original crew in Star Trek: Original Motion Picture Collection. The Search for Spock was remastered in 1080p high-definition from the 2000 DVD transfer. All six films in the set have new 7.1 Dolby TrueHD audio. The disc features a new commentary track by former Star Trek: The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager television writers Ronald D. Moore and Michael Taylor.
The film was briefly removed from Netflix in August 2013 because of inaccurately translated Klingon and Vulcan subtitles.