There used to be a rule, that maybe does not have so much currency with the younger folk, given that it was spectacularly broken in 2002, so I will restate it for those who are unfamiliar with it: Even-numbered Star Trek movies are good. Odd-numbered Star Trek movies are bad.

What, exactly, that means depends on the teller. For some it's literally that the the second, fourth, sixth, and eighth movies in the franchise are worth watching, and the first, third, fifth, seventh, and ninth are not. For some it's merely that the evens are better, as a whole. I've even heard the narrow view that it only refers to even-numbered movies being better than the odd-numbered movie immediately preceding, though I don't know what would drive somebody to that level of specificity.

The point being: we're at Star Trek III: The Search for Spock now. I'll let you do the math.

It was only with this film that the pattern can be said to emerge: Star Trek: The Motion Picture could be fairly dismissed as overreachingly ambitious, and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was the course-correction, setting a new template for the rest of the series to follow. Except that whatever template it set is plainly not followed in The Search for Spock, a damn weird little movies in all the ways a movie can be weird. Or damned.

Okay, fair is fair: this is almost certainly the best of the "bad" Star Trek films (I'd rank it neck-and-neck with fellow odd-number, 2009's quasi-reboot Star Trek, though of course it's a minority opinion to rank that one along with the bad Star Treks), and for the first 30 or 40 minutes, it's not really even bad, to speak of. A gigantic drop-off in ambition and execution from The Wrath of Khan, to be sure, but there's plenty of fun to be wrung from the first act, in which the crew of the wheezing U.S.S. Enterprise, ready to be put out to pasture by Starfleet, engages in some caper-movie shenanigans to steal the ship back and embark on an illicit quest, and the final scene is excellent, if just the little bit saccharine in its attempt to play the audience's presumed emotional connection to the characters for maximum waterworks. In between that caper movie opening and that lovely character-driven ending, though, all is death - the middle sequence of The Search for Spock is as tedious and meandering as anything in The Motion Picture, and without the benefit of really sublime visual effects to keep your attention from focusing on the various dramatic dead-ends being played out onscreen.

The film doesn't even open right after the ending of The Wrath of Khan: it opens with a recap of the "Spock dies" scene from The Wrath of Khan, which producer & screenwriter Harve Bennett felt was a necessary step to make sure the audience could get caught up quickly, just in case anybody would go and see a movie called Star Trek III: The Search for Spock without having some attachment to the franchise already (seriously, that is the most willfully off-putting title of all 12 Star Trek features; putting a character name in a title is already dubious for a franchise picture, and it becomes downright asinine when that name is an alien word). So Spock is dead. Got it.

As the new material ramps up, we find that the crew of the Enterprise is rather bleary and upset, with Dr. Leonard McCoy (DeForest Kelley) in particular suffering an apparent mental break, speaking in something awfully like Spock's voice and acting like a cross-breed of his normal irritable self and the stoic Vulcan. With a shiny new toy in the form of the U.S.S. Excelsior at its disposal, Starfleet is ready to put the Enterprise and all aboard her out to pasture, leaving the crew to be split up uncaringly as politics demand.

Luckily for the purposes of spacefaring adventure, about this time Admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner) is visited by Spock's father, Sarek (Mark Lenard), who brings a tale of Vulcan mysticism, claiming that Spock would certainly have left is katra, or the essence of his soul, before plunging into death's grip. Kirk shortly realises that this explains McCoy's aberrant behavior, and now it needs only finding Spock's corpse to revive their fallen comrade; lucky, then, that the science mission sent to the newly formed Genesis planet (explosively born at the end of The Wrath of Khan), headed up by Kirk's son David Marcus (Merritt Butrick) and Vulcan science officer Saavik (Robin Curtis), has just discovered the torpedo tube in which Spock's body was launched into space, on the planet surface. They've also discovered that it's empty, and that the Genesis planet has the ability to regenerate tissue, owing to a highly dangerous substance David used in building the Genesis technology, something not even vaguely hinted at in the last movie, but the new film needs some ginned-up interpersonal drama, and making David a mad scientist tampering in God's domain will have to do.

The Enterprise crew - most of them, anyway - escapes into space, where they find a more immediate problem: the Genesis planet has attracted the attention of a rather nasty Klingon commander, Kruge (Christopher Lloyd), and by the time the starship arrives, the Klingons have already taken David and Saavik and a rapidly aging child Spock hostage. Meanwhile, David's wicked technology is backfiring, and the whole planet is about to disintegrate. So many dramas! Such a ticking clock! So many possibilities for searing personal conflict! So pointless and dull!

I'll give Nimoy, making his directorial debut (becoming the first Star Trek actor to direct Star Trek, setting up a noble tradition that spread across four more features and a great many TV episodes), credit for this much: like the best actors-turned-directors, he had a keen sense of what actors need, and as a member of the Star Trek ensemble, he had a lot of love for not just Spock, but all the characters, to go around. That, plus the way he shaped the first act as a riff on his other old TV show, Mission: Impossible, giving each of the characters a specific role to execute a complicated task, makes The Search for Spock the first Star Trek movie in which every character has something worthwhile to do, and a good chance to show off their personality (almost: as he admitted in his autobiography, I Am Spock, Nimoy left Walter Koenig and his Pavel Chekhov hanging). It's an especially strong outing for DeForest Kelley, the alleged third spoke of the show's central triangle, who'd been left out of the loop for the most part in the preceding movies, and with Nimoy largely absent for reasons of character death, he gets to play two characters in one body, and virtually all of the best moments in the film either revolve around him, or at least feature him in an important capacity.

This love for his friends in the ensemble is worthy and all, as is Nimoy's apparent enthusiasm for using the script as a guide rather than a blueprint, and encouraging ad-libbing (this unfortunately resulted in Shatner giving a bit too loose of a performance, though I enjoy the moment where he learns that David is dead, and falls down trying to sit in his chair). But it's not exactly the same as being a solid director, which is why The Search for Spock end up being, frankly, a flimsy movie, shot with the indifferent set-ups of a TV show and no sense of scale whatsoever - when the Enterprise blows up, what should be a completely devastating moment feels oddly small, with the actors barely responding no matter how hard James Horner's score screams at us to feel bittersweet. The film cost a bit more than The Wrath of Khan, and by reusing sets and costumes had a lot more budget to spend on effects and new locations, yet it feels considerably shabbier, which I take to ultimately be the fault of Nimoy, and probably Harve Bennett as well; the producer's background in television was never more palpable in any of his Star Trek films than this one.

That's a huge problem: compared to the first two movies, The Search for Spock feels very much like the movie version of a TV show, and not a feature film set in the same universe as a TV show. But that is not the only problem, nor even the worst. The worst problem is that the middle part of the film is desperately hunting for dramatic stakes, throwing out all sorts of heightened conflicts to try and get there, but Nimoy is not director enough to find them. The script relies, heavily, on David and Saavik to generate human interest; but the characters speak in sci-fi clichés, and the expectation that The Wrath of Khan will have set them up as people we like as much as Kirk, McCoy, et alia is laughably far off-base. Especially with Butrick feeling so much more watery without having Shatner and Bibi Besch to play off, and Curtis proving an awful, dime store replacement for Kirstie Alley in the same role (Alley having exploded in the intervening years, and becoming prohibitively expensive). When Lloyd - making for a damn fine villain, as it turns out - menaces them, it's too imbalanced to feel threatening, and spills right on into absurdity, and by the time the action shifts from Kruge vs. scientists to Kruge vs. Kirk, it's far too late to salvage the Klingon subplot, which is chiefly of value because of a fine motif for the Klingons that is Horner's chief new contribution to a largely redundant score.

With the interesting Kelley performance being sidelined and the personal touch slipping away desperately, The Search for Spock has a giant hole right in its center, obliterating all goodwill that might be leftover from the solid opening; that the movie has any kind of reputation at all (it's easily the best-regarded of the odd-numbered films in the first ten pictures) probably owes a lot, or everything, to the final sequence, where to absolutely nobody's surprise, Spock is revived. It's honestly not that worthy of a payoff considering how much blind work it took to get the film there, and it leaves us with the dubious sense that the whole movie only ever served as a vaguely-defined excuse to undo all of the rich plot developments that made The Wrath of Khan a great film. I do enjoy Spock, but I still don't know that it wouldn't have been better to live him dead.

Still, the scene where Spock, in a mental fog, meets his old friends for the first time is excellently acted and staged with admirable simplicity (probably accidental simplicity as well, given that nothing in the whole movie has been particularly complex); Nimoy's reading of the line "Jim... your name is Jim" is exactly what I want Star Trek to be at all times and in all contexts, and I like Kelley's knowing tap on the side of his head almost as much. The deeply corny "...and the Adventure continues" title card at the end is to be regretted, but outside of that, The Search for Spock ends on its highest point, which has been the saving grace of many a film. It's not the saving grace of this film, quite, but it does make it easier to like it more than its hollow center should have made possible.

Reviews in this series
Star Trek: The Motion Picture (Wise, 1979)
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (Meyer, 1982)
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (Nimoy, 1984)
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (Nimoy, 1986)
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (Shatner, 1989)
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (Meyer, 1991)
Star Trek: Generations (Carson, 1994)
Star Trek: First Contact (Frakes, 1996)
Star Trek: Insurrection (Frakes, 1998)
Star Trek: Nemesis (Baird, 2002)
Star Trek (Abrams, 2009)
Star Trek Into Darkness (Abrams, 2013)
Star Trek Beyond (Lin, 2016)