Just because Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan had been the success the franchise needed to wipe out the ignominy of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, that didn’t mean the third installment was going to be made without compromise. In fact, while Paramount Pictures commissioned producer Harve Bennett to start work on his second Star Trek movie the day after Khan premiered, there were a series of rules dictated to him that started a long arc of negotiations.

For one, it had to lean towards more of the action of 1982's The Wrath of Khan and less of the moody atmosphere of 1979's The Motion Picture. For two, Kirstie Alley couldn’t come back as Saavik, because the open-ended nature of her contract made her too expensive. For three, Leonard Nimoy couldn’t come back as Spock, because he hated Star Trek and had insisted on dying in the second movie – or at least, that’s what senior exec Michael Eisner thought. After having been advised by Nimoy that he was wrong, and the evidence could be found in the basement of the building he was in, the argument went the other way.

Not only was Nimoy on board as Spock; he wanted to be on board as director. That was a risky call for Paramount. They’d seen fit to effectively dismiss creator Gene Roddenberry after the disaster of The Motion Picture; and as Roddenberry himself pointed out, Nimoy was “a director you can’t fire.” On the other hand, if the movie’s plot was to be about the search for Spock, it wouldn’t go down too well if he wasn’t found (Nimoy predicted bricks being thrown at movie screens if that happened).

In the end, the series of compromises resulted in a movie that, while perhaps not the best of the Star Trek series, was far from the worst. With Bennett as producer, and also having written a script that did everything Paramount needed, and Nimoy as director, probably knowing more about the actors’ role in the Trek universe than anyone, the stage was set for a production that would ensure the franchise’s survival for decades to come.

Kirk Discovers McCoy Is Not All He Seems

The main theme was friendship, Nimoy said. “What should a person do to help a friend? How deeply should a friendship commitment go?… what sacrifices, what obstacles, will these people endure?” The majority of the theme would, of course, be explored via Kirk’s sacrifices in trying to rescue Spock once he discovered that his oldest, closest friend didn’t die when he saved the Enterprise from destruction at the hands of Khan in the previous movie. In one scene Kirk says, “Don’t quote rules to me. We’re talking about loyalty and sacrifice.” Sacrifice is heavy on the ground for the wayward admiral: by the end of the story he’s lost his son, his ship and potentially his career, even though it looks as if he’s found his friend.

Bennett knew that the setting of classic hero Kirk against a near-equal enemy had been the crowning achievement of The Wrath of Khan, and so The Search for Spock (note the matching title rhythm) played it safe by playing it again. There’s another cat-and-mouse game between Kirk and his opposition, the Klingon Captain Kruge; and this time there’s an actual one-on-one crescendo moment. By the time Kirk offers to save Kruge during their fist-fight, the response is another attack, and he sends Kruge to his death by saying: “I… have had… enough… of you!” he might as well be saying it to the self-doubt he’d carried since the apparent death of Spock.

It’s a cleverly-set balance. Kruge is a rebel from his own government, scorning the idea of peace with the Federation and asserting that the Genesis Device, far from being a peacemaking technology, is a weapon created by “a gang of Intergalactic criminals.” Kirk is now in full rebellion from Starfleet, having stolen and destroyed the Enterprise, and breached intergalactic law.

Less obvious, but discussed more in other places, is Kirk’s anti-Klingon racism. This time, faced with a Klingon who’s killed his son, Kirk gets revenge by killing his enemy’s entire crew but one, then reneges on his “promise” to kill the last, since there’s no need any more. Perhaps Kirk has seen a reflection of himself in Kruge, and he’s had enough of that.

Kirk Versus Kruge

It’s also worth noting that the idea of Kirk recovering “his noble self” arose from a poem Bennett saw in a Star Trek fan magazine. The suggestion that Kirk has really abandoned the best of himself is never entirely convincing and neither was the idea that, as a result of “cheating” the Kobayashi Maru training exercise at Starfleet Academy, he’d never truly faced death. There had been a rather successful TV show in the '60s where he faced death on regular basis. However, it’s set that Kirk believed it. It seems as if his son David suffers the death sentence that the older man perhaps believed he deserved himself, killed by a Klingon with the plotline suggestion being it’s a punishment for having cheated while building the Genesis Device – a decision that’s brought about so many deaths over the last three hours of screen time.

Bennett also strove to put much more meat on the bones of the Klingon race. Kruge is seen to kill his lover because she knows too much, kill his gunner because he destroyed rather than damaged an enemy vessel, kill a giant worm-snake creature for fun, and grieve the death of his horrific wolf-dragon pet. However, we also see some of his crewmen attempt to limit the extremes of his behavior, and at least we have evidence that there’s more than one personality in the Klingon Empire. That platform, of course, was to be explored in great detail in the future.

Also in much more abundance than in the past was the light-hearted moments that close friends will share in moments of stress, if only to remind each other how much they’ve gone through together in the past. Most of the lines find their landing in the way they’re delivered – for example, when McCoy says, “I choose the danger,” it’s the glance between him and Kirk that makes it massive; and when Scott responds, “Up yer shaft” to an over-polite turbolift, it’s because he’s deadpanned it. On the other hand, the sound of the Excelsior shutting down after Scott sabotaged its transwarp drive is cartoonish (and, as it happens, the young Spock’s screams on the Genesis Planet were voiced by Hanna-Barbera regular Frank Welker). Comedy, too, was to play a much greater role in Star Trek’s future.

The Search for Spock opened on June 1, 1984 (with a long gap in the leading titles to emphasize the absence of Nimoy’s name). It seemed that the carefully-paced revelation of how – not if – Spock would be saved served to satisfy audiences, and the destruction of the Enterprise, which had successfully been kept secret, offered the shock factor Bennett had hoped for. By the end of the story we had a redeemed Kirk, a reanimated Spock, a new depth of relationship between Spock and McCoy, a deeper understanding of Klingons and even perhaps an uncomfortable history between Spock and Saavik which might have been intriguing to watch unfold (along with their interaction on the Genesis Planet, she is very much a Vulcan who plays by the rules, while he’s another rebel in his own way).

The Destruction of the Enterprise

“If I hadn’t tried, the cost would have been my soul,” Kirk says once the story is resolved. Backstage, what the production team had tried cost $16 million and made $87 million at the box office globally, compared to The Wrath of Khan’s $11 million budget and $79 million box office.

“I thought the script was workable and did what it had to do, which was to find Spock and get him back on his feet,” Nimoy said in 2009. “It may not have been as much fun a film as some would like, but I thought it did the job. It did it what it set out to do. Maybe, in retrospect, we might have found a better story or construct, to get that job done. … It was not a gigantic runaway hit, but it was not considered a failure. And it was strong enough that they decided to go ahead and make another one after that."

Nimoy’s first movie directorship led to more such roles for him, and of course opened the door for many more Star Trek cast members to direct in future (the practice is now standard in many corners of Hollywood). While Paramount would never fully trust the Star Trek franchise, The Search for Spock made sure it would at least respect it to an extent. And perhaps that’s the way cast, crew and fans all secretly like it.