Making Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
The ball on the third Star Trek film began rolling early. Harve Bennett, the man credited with bringing Star Trek back to life by killing Spock, was told by the suits at Paramount almost immediately after The Wrath of Khan’s opening weekend, “Start working on Star Trek III!” According to Bennett, it was “the fastest green light [he] ever got on a project.”
Having observed the reactions of the test audience on Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and getting to know the cast and the fan base, Bennett knew exactly how this film needed to end and what the theme needed to be; it was just a matter of getting the TOS main cast from where they were at the end of The Wrath of Khan to the ending that Bennett wanted. So he started at the end and worked his way backwards.
The story went through a number of interesting changes along the way, but unlike the previous film, where Bennett had a great deal of trouble finding a good narrative, he evidently found this film quite enjoyable to write, and this time almost single-handedly managed to come up with a story that would expand the Star Trek universe as we had never seen it before.
Bennett also decided to carry on The Wrath of Khan’s themes by turning them on their head. For instance, whereas Spock had sacrificed himself because the needs of the many outweighed the needs of the few, in this film, when he asks Kirk why he would sacrifice everything to come back for him, Kirk’s response is, “Because the needs of the one outweighed the needs of the many.”
The question of who would direct this film wasn’t a foregone conclusion. After Nicholas Meyer had turned down the opportunity to direct the film (citing that he didn’t believe in resurrections, though I personally believe he really turned it down because he was against the idea of Spock’s return in particular), the suits at Paramount discovered there was a talent they had all along… Spock actor himself, Leonard Nimoy.
When asked if he would “like to be involved in any way in the making of Star Trek III,” Nimoy, who long had dreams of directing features, seized the opportunity and said, “Yes. I would like to direct the picture.” He didn’t expect a ‘yes’ answer right away, but the new head of Paramount, Michael Eisner, thought it was a great idea. “I can see it in print now. ‘Leonard Nimoy Directs The Return of Spock.’ Great idea!” Although Nimoy almost didn’t get the job due to a slight misunderstanding regarding his contract for The Wrath of Khan killing Spock off, he nevertheless managed to iron out this wrinkle and try out his wings on becoming the visual author on a feature film.
It wouldn’t be easy. With a budget of only sixteen million US dollars, the studio constantly looking over his shoulder and jealousy issues from his castmates, Nimoy was tasked with delivering a vision for Bennett’s story that would out-spectacle its predecessor.
The sense of family in The Search for Spock no doubt went a long way towards resolving any jealousy issues that the rest of the cast might have been feeling towards Nimoy in the beginning. He truly understood that Star Trek had, by this time, become an ensemble piece. When I had the pleasure of meeting James Doohan at a convention in Fort Myers, Florida in 1996 and a fan asked who was the best director they had ever had, Doohan said, “Leonard, easily!”
The film’s production saved tons of money by making use of the previous two films’ sets, models, and costumes. With this in mind, Nimoy went over several new spaceship designs with Nilo Rodis-Jamero and Bill George at Industrial Light & Magic. Four new spacecraft designs were chosen: the Klingon Bird-of-Prey, the USS Excelsior, the USS Grissom, and the gargantuan Starfleet orbital spacedock.
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock was eventually released on 1 June 1984.
A freelance writer, Douglas has several years experience writing newsletters, sales copy and movie reviews. He is also the author of the screenplays Supralight and Bloodstone: The Sorceress and the Warrior. His reviews of Star Trek films (as well as a DS9 retrospective) have been published on the TrekSphere website.