Star Trek III: the Search for Spock

Premièred by Paramount Pictures
Star Trek III: the Search for Spock
Written by Harve Bennett

The death-and-resurrection formula has been used in the hero’s journey so often that it’s become a labelled stage of the hero’s journey, the “Abyss”, which is considered a time of revelation for the characters involved in the mono-myth. It dates back as far as the death and return of Jesus Christ in the Gospel, and the general versions of that story’s been referenced by most stories featuring a character who returns from the dead.

In The Final Problem (Arthur Conan Doyle), Watson recalls how Hudson described Moriarty as having a face like the Devil. It climaxes with the apparent death of Sherlock Holmes, who’s believed to have fallen into the Reichenbach Falls, described as an “abyss”. In the following Holmes story, The Empty House, Holmes returns.

Biblical narrative was already a source of material for Star Trek: the Wrath of Khan (Jack B. Sowards), where Spock was last seen as he died in an act of self-sacrifice above the Genesis planet battling a fallen prince consumed by hate. His casket was labelled “Mark VI”, an obvious allusion to the description of Christ’s death and resurrection in chapter six of Gospel of Mark (Mark the Evangelist). Those Biblical allusions were part of made Star Trek: the Wrath of Khan such a substantial story; the references were woven into the story appropriately, as opposed to being included to seem interesting. Which is why it makes sense for a sequel to return to those themes – Kirk’s returning to Genesis, and to that story. The problem is, it’s difficult to do that when a story’s pre-determined. In fact, it’s difficult to really do anything original in a pre-determined story, because, unlike most stories which just follow a general format, Star Trek III: the Search for Spock already had more pre-requisites than usual: it has to explain how Spock returns, why he mind-melded with McCoy before his death, what happens to Vulcans after they die, how this fits into the aftermath to the creation of the Genesis planet, and it needs to have an antagonist. Tough order of the day to serve right.

Ultimately, though, that’s not the largest flaw with Star Trek III: the Search for Spock. Because, regardless of those things, the one thing we know is that Spock returns. That’s the goal Kirk’s trying to complete, and we know that happens, because otherwise Spock couldn’t be in a potential Star Trek IV. Paramount made no attempt to cover up that ending. Or indeed, any of it. The Enterprise’s destruction wasn’t just alluded to in the tagline –

“All that they loved, all that they fought for, all that they stood for will now be put to the test… Join us on this, the final voyage of the starship Enterprise.”

– but was even shown in the trailer:

It’s not as if you can blame Paramount. Star Trek: the Wrath of Khan had been a phenomenal success, and money makes the movies. While one title they could have used is Star Trek III: the Search for More Money, perhaps a more appropriate one would’ve been Star Trek III: the Enterprise Destructs at the End – as opposed to the previous one, Star Trek: Spock Dies at the End. Then again, Star Trek III: Spock Returns at the End is at least more accurate, because he’s barely in it. And I know he’s seen for most of the story, but all he’s doing is rapidly ageing due to the unstable atmosphere of Genesis. You know, the place he was taken after his death? Why is Kirk “search”ing for Spock? He knows where he is. Or is he on Genesis, and not McCoy’s head, having transferred him his katra. Exactly what a “katra” is doesn’t really get much development – why transfer the mind of a dead Vulcan into another, living Vulcan? I know the Vulcans are logical, but that’s just weird. So Spock is either in this in a large capacity or a small capacity, but either way, the Vulcan child we see on Genesis isn’t Spock until he does at least get his “katra” back, even if that’s an under-developed concept. Why he was even a child on Genesis is also a very arbitrary element of the plot – he was dead, so surely Genesis should just return him to life? Why did Spock even bother leaving the Mark VI without his burial robe? Especially since half of Genesis is just snow.

It’s possible I’m over-thinking this, but it’s directed by Leonard Nimoy. He is Spock. He understands Vulcans more than anyone. Personally, I think Spock should have stayed dead for it to actually mean anything, and this really proves why. Star Trek: the Wrath of Khan had set-up Spock’s death in such a perfect way that going back to it means moving forward with remaining elements. It’s basically saying “write your way out of it”, picking-up with leftover story and trying to carrying-it on. And it’s that kind of storytelling that leads to questions like “why didn’t Saavik tell Kirk Spock needed returning to Vulcan?”

And as if to make things even more confusing, it turns out that by the end, he still isn’t Spock, because his memories are still developing. He just about recognises Kirk, but we’re left on a cliffhanger. Say what you will, it’s really more of an afterthought to Star Trek: the Wrath of Khan, rather than a next chapter of the story that feels as if it needs telling.

Star Trek: the Search for “Spock”(?)

Star Trek: the Wrath of Khan — screenplay, structure, story

"Screenplay, Structure, Story", in-which single dramas are analysed for their pace and narrative.

Theoretical structure:

Duration: 103 minutes

  • Act I: 0 – 25 minutes
    • Introduce Kirk: 5 – 10 minutes
    • Introduce Khan: 10 – 15 minutes
    • Establish conflict: 15 – 20 minutes
    • Plot Point I: 20 – 25 minutes
  • Act II: 25 – 75 minutes
    • Conflict: 25 – 70 minutes
    • Plot Point II: 70 – 75 minutes
  • Act III:  75 – 100 minutes
    • Conflict solution: 75 – 95 minutes
    • Ending: 95 – 100 minutes

Actual structure:

Act I (minutes 2 – 56)

Introduce Kirk (minutes 5 – 11)

Kirk’s introduced at the five minute mark to review Saavik’s test on the Kobayashi Maru, which generates a no-win scenario to test character. Kirk considers a test of death the test of life. Kirk beat the Kobayashi Maru test on his third try. McCoy visits Kirk at his home to celebrate his birthday. Kirk’s retired from Starfleet, but still wishes he could be living his old life.

Introduce Khan (minutes 17 – 24)

Khan is a genetically-engineered warrior living a solitary life on Ceti Alpha V with the seventy-six survivors of his crew in the SS Botany Bay, which was launched into space in 1996 after Khan fell from power over Earth, then marooned by Kirk in 2267 after Khan tried to take over the Enterprise. When Terrell and Chekhov investigate Ceti Alpha V, Khan recognises Chekhov from the Enterprise. Khan deduces that Chekhov and Terrell thought Ceti Alpha V is Ceti Alpha VI, which exploded six months after they were marooned and made survival difficult. Khan takes control of Terrell and Chekhov by infecting them with mind-controlling bugs, and then asks them about Kirk.

Establish conflict (minutes 49 – 53)

Khan attacks the Enterprise with the Reliant and reveals his identity for Kirk to know who it is that’s beaten him. Khan offers to negotiate with Kirk if Kirk surrenders the Genesis Project. Kirk feigns ignorance of it and uses the façade of recalling its data to hack the Reliant and override its shields. The Enterprise retaliates against the Reliant, and Khan evacuates.

Plot Point I (minutes 53 – 56)

Kirk inspects the medical bay and sees the crew casualties. Spock informs Kirk of the engine’s repair, and the Enterprise thrusts away from the battle sector.

Act II (minutes 56 – 85)

Synthesis (minutes 56 – 78)

Kirk goes to inspect Genesis Project’s lab, Regular I, where Chekhov and Terrell have been kept hostage. The crew have been tortured to death by Khan, and the data-banks have been cleared of Genesis Project information. As Kirk confers with Spock, Khan listens over their frequency. Kirk beams-down to Regula’s underground testing facility, where Chekhov and Terrell take him hostage, their hypnosis not resolved. Khan orders Terrell to kill Kirk, Terrell fights-back against Khan’s control and turns his phaser on himself instead. McCoy helps Chekhov back to sanity. Khan realises Kirk is still alive, which is a better alternative – he’s trapped Kirk beneath Regula, having now taken the Genesis Device. Kirk marooned Khan on Ceti Alpha V, Khan’s marooned Kirk in Regula. But the Genesis Device has already been tested, leaving Kirk with a lair of renewable food. In the “Genesis cave”, Kirk admits to Saavik that he cheated the Kobayashi Maru test by hacking it because he “doesn’t like to lose”. The Enterprise has now broken-past Khan’s signal block, and Kirk beams back aboard. The Reliant and the Enterprise are now circling Regula. The Enterprise leads the Reliant toward the Mutara Nebula.

Plot point II (78 – 85)

Kirk address Khan and taunts him as the Enterprise disappears into the Mutara Nebula. They engage in cat-and-mouse. The Enterprise takes the upper-hand and devastates the Reliant, but not before the Reliant attacks the Enterprise, causing a radiation leak.

Act III (minutes 85 – 103)

Conflict solution (minutes 85 – 91)

Ordered to surrender the Reliant, Khan programmes the Genesis Device for detonation. The Enterprise is too damaged to warp away. Spock enters the radiation chamber to repair the Enterprise’s warp core. Kirk doesn’t believe the Enterprise can escape detonation range. Spock’s repaired the warp core, and the Enterprise escapes detonation range as the Reliant explodes.

Ending (91 – 103)

The Genesis Device explosion terraformed the “Genesis planet” beneath. Kirk arrives at the engine room, separated from Spock by glass as Spock dies. Kirk holds Spock’s service funeral and realises this is the true no-win scenario.

Star Trek: the Wrath of Khan — single drama review

Premièred by Paramount Pictures
Star Trek: the Wrath of Khan
Written by Jack B. Sowards

Is Star Trek II: the Wrath of Khan the best of the Star Trek features? It’s considered and accepted to be by fans, but critically, it’s only the third highest-scoring. Nevertheless, it’s still extremely popular, and has inspired the most homages in popular culture. Whatever one subjectively thinks of it, the creative industry has looked to the second Star Trek feature for material more than the others. Which is both interesting and ironic, given that the story is essentially Moby Dick; or, the Whale in space, inspired by Herman Melville‘s novel. That was the approach taken by director Nicholas Meyer – it’s a modern day ocean adventure with a science fiction dressing. That’s when science-fiction is at its best – when it’s telling a universal story through a particular style. Is science fiction even a genre? A genre is a category of an artistic medium based on form, style or subject matter.

The form in this case is a motion picture feature. Using moving images to tell a story, based on a written blueprint that follows the composition of others to make sense to the other artists involved. Whereas a style is just a “manner of doing something”, which is more attributable to the director than anything else. The auteur theory suggests that each film-maker has their own, unique style, but then that’s obvious, because the director’s the principal artist. Every artist has fingerprints on their works. So in that sense, Star Trek: the Wrath of Khan is simply “a film by Nicholas Meyer”, which is just a factual statement. It even says “a film by Nicholas Meyer” in the credits. But then subject matter is really where the meaning comes-from. And in that sense, Star Trek: the Wrath of Khan is the best of the Star Trek features because its subject matter is the most substantial. Science fiction is so popular because it raises questions and tries to answer them by creating fantastical analogies that all relate back to the real world.

But it’s not “just science fiction”, it’s Star Trek. And the core of the Star Trek universe is Leonard Nimoy as Spock. He’d been hesitant to reprise his role based on confirmed suspicions from previously, but was persuaded to do so by the plot point of Captain Spock dying. This, Nimoy figured, would be a way to finally put the role to rest with a definitive end. And Meyer embraced that element of the story as the strongest character moment. The reason Spock’s death works so well is because it resonates with the rest of the narrative in perfect synch. The story was crafted around the concept of killing a character like Spock, which gives Star Trek: the Wrath of Khan a thematic overtone that other Star Trek features simply don’t have.

Spock’s death became the key scene in a story with themes relating to it, but that meant those themes had to be developed. Death is finite in storytelling, and often impacts the story less because a character’s now absent, but because other characters will be affected by that absence. And there was never going to be anyone more affected by Spock’s death than Admiral Kirk. Which meant that, if Kirk were to be affected by Spock’s death, Kirk’s own feelings about such things had to be established. That lead to the scene in Kirk’s apartment in-which Doctor McCoy visits Kirk and their conversation brings-up those themes. Kirk’s next strongest bond after Spock was to McCoy; therefore, using McCoy to establish Kirk’s own feelings about death would be a more subtle way of giving his reaction to Spock’s own death meaning than having Spock be the one with whom he discusses those feelings. This scene in particular is the second most important in the story, and shows how Star Trek: the Wrath of Khan uses storytelling-by-numbers to create something artistic, substantial and meaningful.

By having established Kirk’s evasive personality to matters such as death, a character flaw’s established. The Kobayashi Maru test is explained in the plot as being something Kirk cheated to win his captaincy, despite being rewarded for it. The character development as such follows a natural pattern: Kirk confronts his own fear of death, then has to deal with it when it confronts him. But for that second element to make sense (the first being explained with the death of Spock, Kirk’s oldest friend), it must be presented as a challenge. Kirk, in the Star Trek series, was presented as a great space hero, a man who could overcome anything. Gene L. Coon and Carey Wilber created Khan Singh in the episode Space Seed, which ends with Kirk banishing Singh to Ceti Alpha V, which is referenced in dialogue. That episode was very much in keeping with Kirk’s status as a flawless hero, which fit the period for 1960s television being very pulpy but no less entertaining. Star Trek: the Wrath of Khan‘s status as a Star Trek: Space Seed sequel also makes it, in that regard, a sequel to Star Trek itself. As arguably the protagonist, Kirk’s development as understanding himself to be a flawed hero is the franchise itself coming to understand itself as it reaches its age. The Kobayashi Maru test presents us with a man who can’t be beaten, not even by a dictator, who then has to understand that inevitably he’ll be defeated by time, in the same way as Singh – the aforementioned dictator – being defeated himself.

This also makes Singh the other side of this. He’s the figure from Kirk’s past – the embodiment of everything he was during that time. Kirk finds himself facing Singh, and this is the reason he finds himself reflecting on his past. The two characters are fixed against each other ironically – Singh has thought about Kirk constantly since his exile, but Kirk’s forgotten Singh until he sees him on the view screen. Singh made the decision to reveal his identity to Kirk in order for Kirk to know who’d beaten him, but finding himself faced with his past is what made Kirk able to defeat him, as it helped him address the mid-life crisis he felt he was having, and to finally move on from it. But the cost of that was Spock’s death, which presented the next challenge to Kirk. Star Trek: the Wrath of Khan shows an example of an effective storytelling technique – if the protagonist’s experiences are to change them, the story must end with them facing their next challenge, which fits with the challenge they’ve just overcome. Spock’s death prompted Kirk to finally understand that he was flawed, and the next stage of his life is to tackle the problem of understanding those flaws, and the conduit for that is how he’s to live without his oldest friend.

But Star Trek: the Wrath of Khan succeeds as a story because it allows the audience catharsis. Kirk’s acceptance of the challenge to live without Spock presents the audience with the possibility that he may yet become heroic again, an exciting prospect. It’s often said that science fiction serves as an analogy for real life, and the inclusion of a major character’s death is the closest it can come to reality, because death is the one thing everyone must eventually face. By having a fictional character face that universal prospect, it’s the most accurate mimicry of real life, and the one to which everyone can relate the most. Star Trek: the Wrath of Khan is not the only Star Trek feature to include the death of a major character, but it’s the only one that shows death for what it is by having another major character with some connection to them be affected by it. Kirk dies in Star Trek Generations (Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga), but nobody from the original Star Trek series was with him, so it wasn’t as impacting. When Lieutenant Commander Data was destroyed in Star Trek Nemesis (John Logan), he was only an android anyway. When Lieutenant Yar died in Star Trek: the Next Generation – Skin of Evil (Joseph Stefano and Hannah Louise Shearer) , that didn’t have an impact either because she’d only been a regular for one season. In fact, the only other Star Trek franchise character death that works is considered to be Lieutenant Commander Dax in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Tears of the Prophets (Ira Steven Behr and Hans Beimler), because she’d been a regular for six seasons. And when Commander Tucker died in Star Trek: Enterprise – These are the Voyages… (Rick Berman and Brannon Braga), it was considered forced and unnecessary. Star Trek: the Wrath of Khan‘s the only Star Trek death to actually have both impact and cultural resonance. So much so that it was even famously recreated in Star Trek Into Darkness (Roberto OrciAlex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof), to much criticism, which also noticed the way the Alternate Reality’s death had been cured when Captain Kirk’s revived using alternate Singh’s blood.

What Star Trek: the Wrath of Khan gives us is an ordinary story with added elements for style to make it unique. A man faces something from his past –> realises he isn’t indestructible –> must face the death of an old friend –> accepts the challenge and goes on living, being a changed person. And it takes place within the Star Trek universe, combining elements of it in such a way as to still make sense, and developing them to have a greater meaning than previously. It takes a lot to use elements from something already existing and transform them into something more. And the fact that everyone involved did that should show other storytellers how a story should first be universal, and only then, unique. Contrary to popular cynicism, there’s nothing wrong with franchises if the story has some substance. The reason Star Trek: the Wrath of Khan‘s often cited as the best of Star Trek is – get this – because it’s got the best story. All people want from Star Trek is a good story that makes sense and means something. And, based on the given analysis above, it’s clear Star Trek: the Wrath of Khan does that the most.