Reel Rumbles: “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock” vs. “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home”
While Mr. Nimoy was, of course, more than “just” Spock, the venerable Star Trek franchise will forever be the indelible juggernaut of his legacy. In tribute, I would like to take a look at the two feature films that Leonard Nimoy directed for the franchise, with Star Trek III: The Search for Spock vs. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.
(Be warned: There are spoilers here for anyone who has not seen Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan – as well as its sequels – and is actually unaware of how it ends.)
Round One: Genesis
The two Star Trek films directed by Leonard Nimoy came in the wake of the franchise’s biggest big-screen success featuring the crew of the original television series. The first film, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, had turned a profit, but was viewed as a disappointment when it returned only $82 million domestically on a $35 million budget. As a result, the production budget for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was slashed by two-thirds.
Despite the budget, Khan grossed nearly as much as The Motion Picture and became much more profitable as a result. One of the ways Khan had cut costs was by tapping sophomore director Nicholas Meyer instead of a big name like Robert Wise (who had helmed the first film). The Search for Spock took that one step further by keeping things in-house, and offering Leonard Nimoy his feature directorial debut…as a way to lure him back to the franchise.
Nimoy had returned for Star Trek II only on the promise that Spock would be killed off. Viewing these films in hindsight really makes it seem as though The Wrath of Khan was setting up Spock’s return in the third film, but the intention was never there from the start. Khan‘s success changed Nimoy’s mind, and one of the greatest science fiction trilogies in film history was born.
There has long been a misconception that the odd-numbered Star Trek films are, overall, weaker than the even-numbered ones. While the first and fifth films are clearly among the weakest, I don’t think this adage was ever really true. The Voyage Home is a wonderful, light-hearted romp that was a breath of fresh air in the wake of the somber tones of the previous two movies. It deserves its place as one of the franchise’s fan-favorite films. Yet The Search for Spock had the unenviable task of pushing the story forward as a direct sequel to Khan and bridging the gap between two of the franchise’s most popular entries. It does so in an entertaining way that is often overlooked simply because the two bookends are so great.
Advantage: Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
Round Two: Script
The Wrath of Khan saw the first time in the franchise’s storied history that the great Captain James Tiberius Kirk (William Shatner) lost the battle, even if he ultimately won the war. His defeat of Khan Noonien Singh came at a price: the death of his dearest friend, Spock.
The Search for Spock opens with another friend in peril: Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) is suffering from a Vulcan mind-meld: Spock uploaded his consciousness into McCoy before he died, and the two ids are battling for space in one brain. When the prospect arises that Spock’s body may have regenerated on the Genesis Planet, Kirk goes against Starfleet orders on a quest to save both his friends. The question becomes, how much will he have to sacrifice to see his friends whole again?
His career will be one of those things, and The Voyage Home sees Kirk and company returning home to face judgment. At least Spock is back – though struggling with reintegrating his consciousness. The voyage home turns into a case of right-place, right-time, however, when a mysterious alien probe threatens Earth with destruction. Spock may not be all there, but he’s still the smartest man in the room, and figures out the probe’s motivations: It is attempting to communicate with humpback whales, who have been extinct on Earth since the beginning of the twenty-first century. Of course, Kirk will take his crew back in time to track some down and save their home world.
The Search for Spock is a natural extension of Khan‘s themes of sacrifice and loss. The Voyage Home becomes a delightful fish-out-of-water story as Kirk and company struggle to blend into 1980s San Franciscan society. Tonally, they couldn’t be much more different, yet they both exemplify key elements of Star Trek: the wonderful rapport between the characters that kept audiences coming back, and the commentary on social issues and the human condition that was at its core.
It’s that weaving of the morality lesson into The Voyage Home‘s fun and endlessly quotable narrative that gives the latter film the edge. This is pure Star Trek, and all the better for it.
Advantage: Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
Round Three: Performances
By this point in history, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley and the rest of the original Star Trek crew were completely inseparable from their onscreen counterparts. Their camaraderie was second nature. And though The Search for Spock showcases that camaraderie better than many other Trek outings, Nimoy’s absence for most of the film highlights just what would have been lost from the subsequent films had he not returned. Additionally, the lighter atmosphere in The Voyage Home really allowed the cast to cut loose, and the heightened sense of humor lets their friendships shine.
Among the “guest” players, Robin Curtis stands out, replacing Khan‘s Kirstie Alley as the Vulcan Saavik. (One could argue that she improves on Alley’s performance.) Merritt Butrick provides pathos as Kirk’s estranged son, David, and Christopher Lloyd chews the scenery with gusto as Klingon Commander Kruge, one year before he would deliver his most iconic performance in Back to the Future.
The Voyage Home features even fewer guest players, but Catherine Hicks is feisty as marine biologist Gillian Taylor, who keeps Kirk on his toes. (An interesting side note: In a typically crazy studio idea, Paramount initially wanted to combine their two most successful franchises – Star Trek and Beverly Hills Cop – by having Kirk and Spock meet Eddie Murphy in 1986. Hicks is a much better choice.)
Ultimately, it’s all about the USS Enterprise crew that the audience has known and loved. Removing Nimoy from the equation simply provides The Search for Spock with an unfortunate handicap.
Advantage: Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
Round Four: Direction
Leonard Nimoy became the first principal actor on a Star Trek television series to direct an onscreen Trek adventure. Several actors from the later series would direct episodes, while William Shatner (Star Trek V: The Final Frontier) and Jonathan Frakes (Star Trek: First Contact, Star Trek: Insurrection) would follow him into the feature films. While the directing gig was certainly part of the deal to bring him back into the Trek fold, Nimoy definitely made a splash with his debut.
The Search for Spock is slightly rough around the edges, but that speaks more to the film’s low budget than any weaknesses on the part of first-time feature director Nimoy. He keeps up an excellent pace, finds the right humorous moments, and directs William Shatner to one of his very best turns as Captain James T. Kirk.
All that said, The Voyage Home only benefits from Nimoy having the experience of Star Trek III under his belt, and any actor-turned-director will tell you that the difficulty is compounded when they have to direct themselves. The Voyage Home is an extremely competent piece of filmmaking, light, humorous, and able to preach without being preachy. Nimoy becomes more confident behind the camera with almost every frame.
Advantage: Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
And the Winner Is…
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock gets a bum rap, unfairly overlooked among the better half of the Star Trek films by virtue of being the middle child in the franchise’s great trilogy. It’s the Empire Strikes Back of Star Trek, that dark middle chapter of a big trilogy, and an impressive directorial debut for Leonard Nimoy.
Yet The Voyage Home deserves its position as one of the franchise’s great achievements. Its perfect blend of humor and adventure joins seamlessly with a morality message that is a true hallmark of great Trek. As such, the winner of this bout, by a narrow, yet not insignificant margin, is Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.
And meanwhile, there could be no better way to remember the legacy of Leonard Nimoy than by popping these two films in for a double feature. Nimoy may be gone, but Spock and the legacy of Star Trek truly shall live long and prosper.
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