“The Enterprise feels like a house with all the children gone,” Admiral James T. Kirk intones in his first scene in Star Trek III, the darkest and in some ways most heartfelt of all the Star Trek films. The Search for Spock suffers from its chronology in the Trek film series, coming right after the best (The Wrath of Khan) and right before the most popular (The Voyage Home). It’s been maligned due to the old “even numbers good, odd numbers bad” rule, somewhat unfairly. The film does suffer from a “stagebound” TV-feel, and the script by producer Harve Bennett, while effective, lacks the poetry and elegance that a writer such as Nick Meyer would have brought to it. But it’s rescued and transported by some great performances significant dramatic stakes.
Star Trek III, and in fact all the original cast films that followed, builds on the momentum generated by Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That film played the Trek universe for “keeps”, and took huge chances, killing off a major character at the climax. The death of Spock was a bold choice, especially as it was surrounded by a lot of philosophizing about death and dealing with the permanence of death and age. Leonard Nimoy did not, in fact, have it written into his contract that his character would die, but he wasn’t opposed to the idea, either, and didn’t think there would be any future Trek films, so there was little risk, from his perspective. When Khan did become a major hit, and was a pleasant experience to make, Harve Bennett insisted that they leave a thread “open” for the future, for some sort of Spock-related appearance, somehow. The elegant solution was to have Spock briefly mind meld with McCoy before his death and speak one word, “Remember”. That was enough to build a whole series of films around.
In the comics at the time, by the way, the DC writers simply plunged ahead with new adventures for the crew without Spock, his place in the crew taken by Saavik, and McCoy sometimes wondering what Spock asked him to “remember”. But by and large, the comics committed to the change of cast and got some great stories about it. (You can read the all the details in our book about Star Trek comics, by the way.) The films lacked that boldness, and decided that the only way forward was to immediately bring back Spock from the dead.
The decision to back away from the dramatic commitments made in Khan seems crass and commercial (Meyer, the director and co-writer of Khan, refused to have anything to do with the third film), and that charge would have stuck, were it not for the fact that Star Trek III actually did deal with the consequences of the previous film on an emotional level. The easy way out would have been to have a smirking Kirk figure out the solution to the problem early on, round up the gang, beat up some Klingons and save the day, with McCoy making wry little jokes about “remembering”. But instead, Kirk is depressed and a bit shattered, which is logical, and McCoy is a complete mess, about to be institutionalized with serious mental illness. We should at least give the film credit for not taking the easy way out.
An interesting way to read Star Trek III is as an early draft of a film like Iron Man 3, which also dealt with consequences of a previous chapter on an emotional level. It’s really a quite interesting study of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Action-adventure series don’t usually go to that place, for the same reason why Bond films don’t generally linger over whatever physical damage is being done to old James. Which is understandable, given that once, for example, Bond’s potential injuries start to be contemplated, there’s quite a slippery slope. (Where do we stop? By all rights, this guy should have been dead by now.) It’s very much the same in the world of Trek.
Consider, for a moment, the month that James Kirk had before start of Star Trek III. He had been depressed about his job, as an academy supervisor and high-ranking member of the general staff, dragged along on a two week inspection cruise of the old Enterprise with a crew of cadets. That cruise, even if it were uneventful, would only serve to remind him of the life he should have been living, and wasn’t. As it happened, that cruise turned into a deadly game of cat-and-mouse with Khan, leading to the deaths of many cadets (for whom Kirk is responsible) and his closest friend in the world. Oh, and he also found out that he had a grown son, who hated him. So, when Kirk slumps over his chair at the beginning of Star Trek III, it’s an earned moment.
But Kirk has to keep it together for his crew – this is the part of the job of being the Captain. When he’s called to Spock’s quarters and finds McCoy imitating the dead man’s voice and staring into the darkness, part of him wants to join McCoy in that catatonic oblivion, but his command instincts force him into decisive action. Then, just to rub salt in the open wound, he learns that the Enterprise is being decommissioned as it’s now an obsolete model, and he’s returned to his earth-bound life.
There are a lot of moments in Star Trek III that have no precedent, at least in terms of the original cast shows and films. One is the notion of the surviving crew gathering at Kirk’s apartment, in civilian clothes, just as friends and co-workers. We had never seen that before, although of course we all presumed that this crew had that kind of relationship. Another is a long sequence on Vulcan, featuring an ancient ritual. Still another is a long sequence set on the bridge of another ship, the Grissom, engaged in their own mission that crosses paths with the rest of the crew only quite late into the film. (Yes, we did spend time with the Reliant crew in Khan, but not as long. Ironically the two ships are exploring the same planet, in vastly different states.) And finally, we get a substantial portion of the action taking place on earth, of the Star Trek present, which is again an interesting glimpse into something we had all imagined. So, Star Trek III opened up the universe of Trek in important ways, getting the action off the bridge of the Enterprise (for the most part) and seeing what these characters could do in the wider world.
At its core, though, is the story of post-traumatic stress disorder. PTSD affects people in many different ways, and we can compare the reaction of McCoy and Kirk to the death of Spock to get a sense of how that plays out. Common long-term symptoms include depression and anxiety, as well as compulsive behavior and wild mood wings. Some people with PTSD seem “numb” and have difficulty feeling emotions and connecting to the rest of the world. Others are constantly on edge and react emotionally to the smallest stimulus. Kirk, it seems, is in the “numbed” camp, probably out of necessity. Kirk flails generally when he doesn’t have a mission, or a goal towards which he can dedicate his considerable energy. When Sarek shows up and explains Spock’s dilemma to him (his soul was implanted in McCoy before his death and it needs to return to Vulcan), Kirk’s lassitude and sulkiness in the early parts of the film fall away and he becomes the stalwart man of action again. McCoy, on the other hand, is in full-on PTSD, reliving the event that precipitated his illness, reacting emotionally and compulsively (even by McCoy’s standards) and is clearly in need of care and not asking for it. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of people in that exact state at any given time. McCoy is very lucky indeed to have a friend such as Kirk, who, once he understands that he can have some control over the situation, shakes off his illness and gets to work.
The character with the worst PTSD is Spock himself, his body having been re-generated in the Genesis planet without his rational mind. (“It seems that I have all his marbles,” McCoy says.) Spock is reduced to a terrified, feral little animal, constantly on edge and nervous. Saavik has to literally have Vulcan sex with him in order to calm him down. Having gone through literally death and rebirth, the metaphor Spock is playing out is quite deep, once we read it as metaphor and not literally. Spock sacrificed his mind in order to save the day, just as numerous soldiers do, without consciously knowing that they’re making the sacrifice. What’s left of him after the event is a shattered personality, one that requires a lot of help in order to rebuild, and they’re never quite the same. Neither is Spock: in many subtle ways, the Spock character is different in Star Trek IV, V and VI than in his earlier appearances. But he’s still recognizably Spock, once he gets the help he needs.
It’s McCoy that admits the emotions everyone is feeling – he’s often used that way in the Trek dramatic universe. In a quiet scene, just after the big explosion of the Genesis planet and just before the crew arrives on Vulcan to begin the healing ritual, McCoy sits with the unconscious body of Spock in the dark. “I’ve missed you,” he says, with gruff tears. “And I don’t think I could stand to lose you again.” Like much of the dialogue in this film, it’s a bit “on the nose”, but effective nevertheless. Moments like that are what make Star Trek films great, especially when they’re earned. The crew is literally at their longest reach by this point, their clothes tattered, flying a stolen Klingon ship and running from the authorities. But they did it all for love, and dedication to their friend, maybe just to allow him to rest in peace, but maybe to give him a chance at life.
In Star Trek II, the message was about plurality and social obligation: the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Star Trek III turns that equation around and emphatically says that sometimes a single person needs care, and sometimes others have to sacrifice for that person. Sometimes the needs of the few outweigh the needs of the many. That’s the commitment these friends made to each other, and it’s reflected in many a therapeutic effort in the real world, dealing with the consequences of heroism, of PTSD. It isn’t a perfect film, but it has a great deal to tell us about the human spirit.