There have been twelve movies based on the 1960’s television program Star Trek, six featuring the original cast, four with the cast from a later TV spinoff (The Next Generation) and two set in a big budget reboot of the original series. Ask any person familiar with these films, either as a die-hard Star Trek fan or a casual viewer, which is the best and you’ll invariably get one of five answers, The Wrath of Khan, The Voyage Home, First Contact, Star Trek (2009) or Into Darkness. The last two we can pretty much dismiss as so much big budget noise, attractive to those who enjoy the brainless Hollywood block busters that pass for summer entertainment these days. First Contact, the strongest among the Next Generation films, is certainly a good choice, strong story, compelling character conflicts and an intractable, terrifying threat (the cybernetic Borg). The fun fish-out-of-water time travel story of The Voyage Home brought the Enterprise crew to Earth in the 1980’s and featured a strong environmental message. And The Wrath of Khan’s dynamic revenge plot and powerful villain were enhanced by Spock’s sacrifice and the story’s exploration of Kirk’s past.
One Star Trek film not likely to be placed at the top of anyone’s best list is The Search for Spock, the third of the original series films and the second in the mini trilogy started with The Wrath of Khan. While by no means as reviled as The Final Frontier or Nemesis, The Search for Spock suffers from an association with the odd number curse, the theory that odd numbered Star Trek movies are just not that good. Of course many will argue that it was The Search for Spock that set this pattern, coming on the heels of the generally better liked Wrath of Khan, but that pattern did not truly emerge until The Final Frontier proved that it was possible for Star Trek films to be truly bad.
In the 30 years since the premiere of The Search for Spock I’ve had plenty of opportunities to watch and re-watch this and the other films in the Star Trek franchise, and have come to the conclusion that The Search for Spock is indeed the best film in the series. Sure the destruction of the Enterprise appears to have been nothing more than a gimmick, the big ‘Spock’s Death’ moment in the film that reversed Spock’s death, but at its heart, The Search for Spock was truer to spirit of the original series than any of the other films. Leonard Nimoy truly understood Star Trek better than any of the other directors who have tackled it. That insight allowed him to create a film that incorporated all of the best elements that had been the hallmark of the Star Trek TV series.
The focus of The Search for Spock is the relationships between these familiar characters, the friendship between Kirk, Spock and McCoy and the loyalty of Scotty, Uhura, Sulu and Chekov. Spock’s body, left behind on the Genesis planet at the end of The Wrath of Khan, must be retrieved in order for his Katra, his living essence, to be extracted from the mind of Dr. McCoy. In a reality where telepathy is a fact, the notion that the echo of a mind can be placed inside another mind does not require too much suspension of disbelief. That McCoy, emotional humanist to Spock’s detached logician, should be the caretaker of Spock’s ‘soul’ is both ironic and appropriate. The constant state of conflict between their philosophical outlooks notwithstanding, McCoy and Spock were close friends, even during the TV series. And as a doctor, McCoy was a natural choice for the job. Kirk, of course, had the responsibility of bringing Spock and McCoy together. As he had throughout the series, Kirk unites the emotion of McCoy and the logic of Spock in a course of action that resolves the crisis, although at a great cost (“Your ship. Your son.”)
Of course we get a villain, the Klingon Kruge, the secondary storyline on Genesis with Saavik, Kirk’s son David and a regenerated (if ‘soulless’) Spock (who are dealing with the effects of David’s scientific misconduct), and a line of Starfleet bureaucrats who try stand in Kirk’s way. It all works out fairly well; the film moves at a brisk pace and doesn’t get bogged down in any particular element. There is plenty of humor, Sulu’s ‘tiny’ moment, Uhura’s encounter with ‘Mr. Adventure,’ and Scotty’s sabotage of the Excelsior that allows the Enterprise to be stolen. And at the end we come to Vulcan, where Spock’s resurrected body is reunited with the ‘soul’ in McCoy’s head. I used to find that ending somewhat anticlimactic, since the defeat of the villain and the self-annihilation of Genesis tied up so many of the other storylines. But The Search for Spock was not about the scientific failings of Genesis or the military ambitions of Kruge, it was about restoring a relationship, the relationship between Kirk, Spock and McCoy. And on that note, the ending was perfect, and the movie, a science fiction movie with a little less action and fewer thrills than we might expect from the genre, became the best movie in the Star Trek franchise.