Study Guide

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock Behind the Scenes

  • Director

    Leonard Nimoy

    Spock died at the end of The Wrath of Khan and is resurrected at the end of The Search for Spock. So what was Leonard Nimoy to do with all that down time between scenes? Write the Vulcan cultural encyclopedia? Manage an L.A.-based pet store?

    (Actually he'd already tried the pet store thing. It…it didn't work out.) (Source)

    No. Nimoy set aside these worthy pursuits and decided that if he couldn't be productive in front of the camera he'd be productive behind it. He would direct.

    But despite his extensive knowledge of the franchise, Nimoy almost didn't get the job. For the longest time, the Trek rumor mill claimed it was Nimoy's idea to kill off Spock. Michael Eisner, Paramount chief at that time, believed the gossip and objected to the idea of Nimoy directing the third film, "feeling that anyone who clearly disliked the franchise would do a terrible job behind the camera." Nimoy personally met with Eisner to slay the rumor and nab the job. (Source)

    The Search for Spock would be Nimoy's first theatrical directing job—he'd only directed the odd television episode or two before that. But Associate Producer Ralph Winter noted that Nimoy's knowledge of Trek and Vulcans was an asset to the film, saying,

    Leonard knew about [Vulcan culture] and wanted to bring to life a lot of things that had been glossed over or never really developed before. (Source)

    Such areas of Vulcan culture include its burial rituals, spiritual beliefs, and mating rites. The film also featured the steamiest mind-meld ever put to camera, featuring Kirk, an elderly Vulcan, and a roaring fire. All that was missing were the sensual bass-baritone vocals of Barry White.

    The consensus was Nimoy did a fine job, and Paramount asked him to return to direct Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. In what might be the oddest achievement of any director's career, he somehow turned a story about time-traveling humpback whales into one of the franchise's highest grossing films. Let's see Stanley Kubrick pull that off.

    With that said, Nimoy never made the jump from acting to directing the way actors like Clint Eastwood or Robert Redford have. After Star Trek IV, he directed only four theatrical films: 3 Men and a Baby, The Good Mother, Funny about Love, and Holy Matrimony. As you can see, these aren't the films Nimoy will be remembered for.

    In fact, of the four, 3 Men and a Baby is the most often discussed, less for its directorial pizzazz than for the urban legend of its on-set ghost. An urban legend that turned out to be, in a phrase, most illogical. (Source)

  • Screenwriter

    Harve Bennett

    Before working on the Star Trek film series, Harve Bennett produced and wrote mostly for TV series. Maybe you remember The Mod Squad, The Invisible Man, and The Bionic Woman? Okay, unless you're sixty years old, you probably don't remember any of those, but Bennett's TV work was well received in the days of wooden TVs and rabbit ear antenna.

    So well-received that Paramount called him up to the big leagues to work on the Star Trek franchise in the early 8's. There, he proceeded to crush it.

    According to Khan director Nicholas Meyer, "one of Bennett's gifts was the ability to analyze shows and figure out what made them compelling." Bennett thought Star Trek: The Motion Picture was boring, and he decided the series needed to refocus on the interactions of its three main characters: Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. (Source)

    Although he didn't write the screenplay for The Wrath of Khan, Bennett did pen the original treatment where he renewed focus on the characters over the spectacle.

    For The Search for Spock, Bennett decided to continue that trend. He wrote his original draft in six weeks, then titled Star Trek III: Return to Genesis. He would later say it was "one of the easiest scrips he'd ever worked on as he started with Spock's line near the end, "Your name is Jim," and just worked backwards." (Source)

    While the closing line remained intact, the original script was way different from the film we all watched. In Bennett's original, Genesis remained stable and Spock's adopted home. It also featured a Romulan mining party and a civil war on Vulcan. (Source)

    Nimoy would make the switch to Klingons later, and Romulans wouldn't get the chance to be the proper villains in a Star Trek film until 2009.

    The script was well received and the film proved a success, so Bennett returned to write Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home and Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. His scripts for Trek II, III, and IV would all get nods in the science fiction award circuit, including all three receiving Hugo nominations in their respective years.

    And the The Final Frontier earned him a Screenplay nomination for the Razzie Award in 1990. Guess they can't all be winners.

    Still, Bennett is batting .750 when it comes to Trek, and that's not a shabby success average at all.

  • Production Studio

    Paramount Pictures and Cinema Group Ventures

    Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was meant to be the franchise's finale. And that just makes sense. Its story saw the sacrificial death of a beloved character and concluded with its heroes looking hopefully into a future with a renewed sense of purpose and life. It was perfect.

    Maybe too perfect…

    The film was so well received that it "renewed interest by not only fans, but the cast, [meaning] that once Star Trek II was successful, the future of the franchise was guaranteed." (Source)

    And with visions of money and merchandise dancing in their heads, Paramount Pictures green-lit Star Trek III.

    We imagine the boardroom pitch went something like this: "The Motion Picture was expensive and not a lot of people liked it. Everyone likes The Wrath of Khan and it cost pennies by comparison. So let's just copy all the decisions we made the second time around and break for an early lunch."

    Or something like that.

    Of those reused decisions, the best was to bring Harve Bennett back as producer and screenwriter. Bennett had worked on TV shows like The Mod Squad; Rich Man, Poor Man; and The Six Million Dollar Man before Paramount nabbed him for Wrath of Khan.

    Based on audience reactions to The Motion Picture, Bennett chose to refocus The Wrath of Khan. Rather than focus on high concepts and special effects, his Star Trek would center on lead characters, namely Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. He continued to work in this direction with The Search for Spock.

    Another decision Paramount chose to recycle was budget. The studio handed Bennett a moneybag filled with $18 million for The Search for Spock (again, more how we like to imagine Hollywood operates). This amount was more than The Wrath of Khan's $12 million moneybag…but it wasn't a huge sum, even by early 1980s movie standards. No doubt the decision stemmed from the financial hangover that was The Motion Picture, a film that cost $35 million to make but grossed only slightly more. (Source)

    One decision Paramount did not recycle was its choice in director. Nicholas Meyer declined an offer to return as the director after reading the script. He felt Spock's death should have been final—apparently forgetting that in comics and science fiction stories death is more a revolving door than an impenetrable wall. (Source)

    In Meyer's absence, Paramount turned to Leonard Nimoy. Yep, Spock would lead the search for Spock.

    It was a bit of a gamble, because Nimoy's directing career at that time had been limited to a few TV episodes. It paid off though. The Search for Spock was a hit on the same level as The Wrath of Khan. Nimoy would return to the director's chair for The Voyage Home, the highest grossing Star Trek film until J.J. Abrams took the helm in 2009.

    In the end, The Search for Spock grossed roughly $79 million for Paramount, proving the reduce, recycle, reuse philosophy can be worth a lot. (Source)

  • Production Design

    Everything Old (School) Is New Again

    The Search for Spock shows us a futuristic world of starships, phasers, and teleporters, but today, it's hard to shake the feeling that the future feels…old. As in: dated to the point that your average modern household sports way more advanced technology than the whole of the Enterprise.

    This old-school vibe stems from the fact that the film was shot in the 1980s, well before the CGI revolution of the mid-90s. The film also suffered from a budget of $18 million, a paltry sum of scratch to make a movie with…even back then.

    Hitchhiker's Guide to the Studio Lot

    The first thing you'll notice is that the various locations feel like life-sized dioramas. Obvious this is the case with the starships—they couldn't pop down to Cape Canaveral and ask NASA to borrow one. But even natural settings like Genesis have a distinct artificiality to them.

    That's because almost the entire film was shot on location at the Paramount Studios, the same huge studios Cecil B. DeMille used for his 1958 epic The Ten Commandments. (Source)

    Obviously the film crew couldn't afford to find an Earth-like exoplanet, build a spaceship, and fly to it—you know, for that truly authentic look.

    But budgetary restrictions were so tight that they couldn't even afford to fly to Hawaii for on-location shooting as cinematographer Charles Correll had hoped. Nimoy and his people did an admirable job hiding the sound stages with close-up framing and the use of matte paintings for shots needing distance. (Source)

    Yet the limitations can really be felt in the destruction of Genesis, which looks too controlled to be a full rager. Again, they didn't quite have the budget to blow up an actual planet, thanks to the Paramount bean counters.

    Keen-eyed viewers will also notice the production team saving beans by recycling and reusing sets. For example, the bridge of the USS Grissom and the USS Enterprise are the same set, shot from various angles and redressed slightly. Also the lounge where McCoy visits to book his illegal space vacation is the Enterprise's sick bay with a few extra arcade games and a liquor license. (Source)

    The single day of on-location filming took place at Occidental College in Los Angeles, which served as the planet Vulcan. (Source) Got to admire what they can do with some large steps and bright orange lights.

    Welcome to the World of Tomorrow

    So where did all that budget go? Mostly to Industrial Light and Magic, who provided the film's special effects. ILM has been at the forefront of movie magic since George Lucas developed the VFX studio to create the visual effects for the original Star Wars film in 1977. If you can think of a film that impressed you with its effects, chances are they had a hand in making it. (Source)

    The Search for Spock required more extensive special effects than The Wrath of Khan. After all, it contains the spacedock scene, a starship chase, a starship battle, the destruction of Genesis, and that wire-framed arcade game in the bar. (If they only knew what the future of video games truly held.)

    To make these scenes, ILM used the go-to method for visual effects of the day: models. Every model was hand crafted and shot with a camera before being added to composite shots with the other models and sometimes in the backgrounds of shots with the actors. The visual effects are exceptionally well done, although our era of HD home viewing makes the "strings" easier to find.

    Even so, you can see some of the limitations of this model work if you compare them to more modern Star Trek films. Consider Star Trek: Beyond, which also contains a destruction of the Enterprise scene. In Beyond, the camera swoops and flies over and through the Enterprise, showing the destruction at several different angles all between cuts. This flexibility is granted because the entire shot is animated in a computer, where the camera can do and go where it likes.

    In comparison, The Search for Spock's treatment, while exhilarating, lacks such flexible camera work. The shots show the Enterprise panning up and down or left and right in the frame, but every time it goes to show the action from another angle, we get a cut so the real life camera can be adjusted for the next shot. The result is less frantic, but it also allows you to really feel the weight of the ship's destruction…since they had to destroy an actual model for the shot.

    Despite these limitations, director Leonard Nimoy and his team did an admirable job crafting the world of tomorrow yesterday, and the movie still holds up today—even if it feels more like a really expensive TV episode more than a theatrical film.

  • Music

    When it comes to Hollywood composers, everybody's heard of John Williams, Danny Elfman, and Hans Zimmerman. Despite working exclusively behind the scenes to score films, they've managed to become household names. Yet several other composers have provided beloved scores who have yet to receive name recognition.

    And, you know, that's just not fair. So let's take this time to shine a light on one of Hollywood's underappreciated gems, James Horner.

    During his thirty-year career, Horner has been nominated for the Oscars seven times for his work on such films as An American Tail, Field of Dreams, Braveheart, and A Beautiful Mind.

    His only Academy Award win is for Best Original Dramatic Score and Best Original Song, both for Titanic. Yep, this guy is responsible for the most devastating earworm in history with the Song Which Must Not Be Named (lest it get stuck in your head all day).

    But let's not hold that against him. We're sure he's a good guy despite his crimes against radio airwaves.

    Star Tracks

    Before working on Oscar-winning films, Horner composed B-rated films for producers such as Roger Corman, a.k.a. "The Pope of Pop Cinema" (These films included the Battle Beyond the Stars, a Star Wars knockoff that is gloriously bad enough to be entertaining.)

    Horner's big breakout film was The Wrath of Khan, and when that film became a hit, he was signed on to compose its sequel, The Search for Spock.

    Since the film was a direct sequel, Horner revisited many of his previous scores from The Wrath of Khan but remixed them to be more suitable for the third film's motifs. You'll find Wrath's bass and percussion have been replaced with a lighter, airy note of strings and winds for Search. This is in keeping with the films' various themes, loss and danger in Wrath versus hope and loyalty in Search.

    Consider "Prologue" which plays over—you guessed it—the prologue. This track underscores our return to the Genesis planet. It features chimes and strings and air instruments, introducing that light, airy motif we mentioned. Then a trumpet kicks in with some notes from Spock's theme from The Wrath of Khan to highlight the two films' connection.

    This track is played while we are being reminded of Spock's sacrificial death from the previous film as the camera pans over his coffin. But its feeling isn't one of mourning or loss. Instead, it derives a sense of hope, a promise of better times to come. When the prologue shifts into the main titles and starts incorporating those classic Star Trek theme beats with its uplifting violins, you're ready for the adventure.

    And now for something completely different. "Bird-of-Prey Decloaks," plays during the scene when, well, the bird-of-prey decloaks. (Yeah, the naming conventions on this soundtrack can be a little on the nose.)

    This track returns to the bass and percussion beats from The Wrath of Kahn but incorporates an industrial clang in the background. By including some trumpets that sound like they're assaulting you, Horner taps into a villainous sound in keeping with classic action-adventure films. The Bird-of-Prey is a threat and the music underscores this perfectly. As a bonus, you'll notice the flutes and strings become more uplifting in the scenes where the heroes start to gain the upper hand.

    Let's finish our exploration of The Search for Spock's score by enjoying the track, "The Katra Ritual." The track adds many elements associated with Eastern religions to the track. A heavy gong introduces the track, announcing the solemnness and weight of the ritual and its importance to the story. Yet, as the track continues, the airy strings return to remind the audience of the hopefulness of the Prologue and key us in that this hope will pay off.

    Spock will return.

    And those are a few examples of Horner's composition work in The Search for Spock. While it hits many of the same notes as other action-adventure scores, it does them so well that it is still remembered today as having some of Trek's best tracks.

    And unlike that the Song Which Must Not Be Named, its soundtrack we can enjoy revisiting time and time again.

  • Fandoms

    Yeah; Star Trek doesn't really have fans.

    It has the fans.

    Star Trek's fandom is the primal fandom, the fandom by which all other fandoms evolved to rule the Earth like collectable-obsessed dinosaurs. If that's an exaggeration, it's not by much.

    Trekkers? Trekkies? Whatever They're Called, They've Lived Long And Prospered.

    Today, Star Trek is a million-dollar franchise that encompasses thirteen feature films, seven TV series, countless video games, a mythology's worth of books, and enough plastic action figures to populate several Alpha quadrants.

    But all of this would not exist if not for its fans. When Trek was threatened with cancellation after its second season, a grassroots letter campaign, led by Bjo and John Trimble, managed to keep the show on the air for another season. This produced enough episodes for syndication where "Star Trek emerged as such a phenomenon that it was resurrected as an animated series and, in 1979, a big-budget feature." (Source)

    Since then, fans have made Star Trek a pillar of pop culture. Trek cosplay can be found at most any convention. Films like Galaxy Quest are basically two-hour riffs and references to the series. Trek's dialogue has entered our cultural phrase books, including "Beam me up, Scotty" and "Live long and prosper," and its alien languages have dictionaries devoted to them. There's even a Klingon Language Institute. No; really. (Source)