Wednesday, October 23, 2002

STAR TREK Redux, part two.

(Introduction, Part One)

:: Star Trek III: The Search For Spock.

After the death of Mr. Spock, the Star Trek powers-that-be faced the task of bringing him back to life. (I've always been a bit fuzzy on this point; when he was originally killed off in STII:TWOK, was his death intended to be permanent? or was his eventual resurrection planned all along?) They had the seeds of how to do it: the previous film had ended with a shot of Spock's coffin sitting in an Eden-like glade on the new Genesis planet, and there was an unexplained mind-meld with Dr. McCoy. So, the basic gist of the matter is this: before embarking on what Spock knew would be a suicidal mission to save the Enterprise, he "downloaded" his memories, personality traits, and various other bits of mental stuff into Dr. McCoy's brain. Sure enough, in The Search For Spock, we are informed that this is "the Vulcan way when the end of the body is near". As the new film opens, Dr. McCoy is being driven insane by the clashing stuff in his head, the Enterprise is being decommissioned, the Enterprise crew is being held up from new assignments because they've been witnesses to the creation of Genesis, and a science vessel containing David Marcus and Lt. Saavik is being sent to explore their new world. Oh, and some Klingons have also found out about the Genesis project and the new planet, and they smell a nifty weapon in the offing, so they're off to Genesis as well.

STIII:TSFS may be the strangest of the Star Trek films. It has some gargantuan flaws. Foremost is the plot, which quite frankly is not only half-baked but is also tied for the most ludicrous SF plot in the entire series (the other will be revealed later on....). As science fiction, of course, Star Trek was never much for plausibility -- its approach was pretty much always to posit SF-nal things and show them in action, rather than try to explain them. (At least, that was its approach until The Next Generation came along and dressed everything up in a veneer of "tachyon bursts" and "space-time anomalies" and "cosmic string fragments" and various other items of technobabble.) Suspension of disbelief is always essential in Star Trek, but STIII:TSFS really puts it to the test. I think I can accept Spock transferring the core of his "personhood" to McCoy, but I'm not sure I can accept that he does it in less than sixty seconds -- although, admittedly, the baud-rate of a Vulcan mind-meld has never been established. And if the Genesis wave can "regenerate" Spock's cells, why would it return him to infancy? How was his body nourished? We are told that his body is somehow "linked" with the planet, so he is aging in sudden spurts as is the planet itself -- but how does that work? And why would it be sufficient to merely get him off the planet to stop the process?

I guess I can accept all of this, but none of it really stands up to close inspection. Consider Sarek's meeting with Kirk, early in the film. They establish that Spock gave McCoy his "Katra" (the Vulcan "soul", I suppose). The remedy for this is that Kirk must "bring them both to Mt. Seleya" (a mountain on Vulcan). Note Sarek's insistence that both Spock and McCoy must be brought there. However, at this point they have no idea at all that Spock's body has been "regenerated"; as far as they know, he's still lying stone-dead in his coffin on Genesis. Why do they need Spock's body, then? What are they going to do with Spock's Katra, given that as far as they know there is no living body to receive it? I would have liked to have seen this explored, since I must assume that all those Katra's from dying Vulcans end up....somewhere. Kirk claims personal responsibility for Spock's "eternal soul", but what exactly is to become of that soul is never revealed. Of course, this is because we all know that his soul is going to be put right back where it originally came from....but as that's not known to be an option, there's a big hole in the story's rationale here. And it's not the only hole in the story:

:: Whatever happened to Carol Marcus? Wouldn't she also be exploring the new planet, or if not, shouldn't her whereabouts at least be mentioned? Maybe she's testifying before the Federation Council about Genesis or something like that....but her absence should have been explained.

:: It's revealed that David Marcus used "protomatter" in the Genesis Matrix, which is what's making the planet so unstable and ultimately doomed to destruction. It's also implied that the events of The Wrath of Khan are all David's fault. This makes no sense at all. If David hadn't used "protomatter", would Khan still be stuck safely on Ceti Alpha V? And there was a whole team of scientists working on Genesis -- did none of them notice what he was doing?

:: If Genesis is such a security issue for the Federation, why isn't there a ship stationed at the Genesis Planet to protect it? and can Klingons really fly into the Federation at will, the way they do here?

:: What is up with Lt. Saavik in this film? Kirstie Alley is replaced by Robin Curtis, who plays Saavik as a straight Vulcan -- we see none of the ambition and barely-concealed emotion that Alley displayed in STII:TWOK. This may not be Curtis's fault, though. I remember reading an interview with her in Starlog in which she described how Leonard Nimoy kept coaching her line delivery, telling her to make every line "dryer". Also, consider a small continuity breach: in TWOK, Saavik has arched, human eyebrows -- but in TSFS, her eyebrows are now the slanting, Vulcan brows. Saavik's character was basically overhauled, for no apparent reason, and in a way that pretty much negated one of the most interesting potential characters to come along in Star Trek.

The other chief problems with The Search For Spock are its production values and its pacing. The sets, quite frankly, all look cheap, and some of the direction (by first-time director Leonard Nimoy) is less-than-convincing. (Witness the McCoy jailbreak scene, when Sulu overpowers a hulking security guard. Note the way the actor playing the security guard goes right along with George Takei's fighting moves, right down to the facial expression that says, "Oh, man, my first big movie appearance and I gotta let this little guy rough me up.") As for pacing, STIII:TSFS suffers from the opposite problem that afflicted ST:TMP and, to a lesser extent, STII:TWOK: it actually moves too quickly. This is the shortest of all the Star Trek films, and many of its plot elements are breezed over or handled in perfunctory fashion.

I've probably given the impression that The Search For Spock has nothing going for it, but it actually has quite a bit going for it -- and, when it really counts, the film delivers in a big way. Despite all of its plotting flaws -- and believe me, it's loaded with them -- STIII:TSFS is still a good film, because of the way it treats the heroism of its characters. This film is almost a treatise on the conduct of true heroes: of how a hero will opt for the hard road, accept all of the suffering and pain and misery dumped on his head, and still in the end stand up to do the right thing. Toward the end, there is an exchange between Kirk and Sarek that perfectly captures the essence of heroism:

SAREK: Kirk, I thank you. What you have done --

KIRK: What I have done, I had to do.

SAREK: But at what cost? Your ship...your son...

KIRK: If I hadn't tried, the cost would have been my soul.

I've never seen it put better than that.

The film's other strengths include James Horner's fine music score and the acting of the principal players. By this point, these actors can display their characters' quirks in their sleep, but still there is some fine work here. DeForrest Kelley's scene with a comatose Spock toward the end of the film is extremely well-done, as is the film's final scene as Spock tries to recapture his memories. Christopher Lloyd makes a fine Klingon villain, although it would have been nice if he could have played a post-TNG Klingon; at the time of this film's making the Klingons were still big, dumb brutes as opposed to a culture based on blood and honor. There are a lot of very emotional moments in STIII:TSFS, the most harrowing probably being the destruction of the Enterprise. After all of the hardship endured, to see Mr. Spock raise one eyebrow in the film's next-to-last shot is a fine thing indeed.

If I were to make a baseball analogy to describe the overall quality of Star Trek III, it would be the big slugger who goes 1-5 with four strikeouts and a three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth to win the game.

Tomorrow: The Voyage Home.

No comments: