Spock died in The Wrath of Khan, but the ending of the film clearly set up the possibility that he would return. Scotty had been killed and brought back in “The Changeling,” McCoy in “Shore Leave,” so why could that not be the case with a Vulcan? Especially when that Vulcan wanted to direct.
As a direct sequel to Star Trek II, The Search for Spock was able to draw on what had been built for the earlier feature. This gave the production the equivalent of two films’ worth of sets, costumes and props, making it much more visually interesting.
Robert Fletcher’s Starfleet uniforms remained the same. New Klingon costumes were required but they followed the design he had established in The Motion Picture. At first, the script had called for Romulans to be involved in trying to track down the secrets of the Genesis Planet but director Leonard Nimoy convinced producer Harve Bennett that Klingons were more theatrical. However, as the script was subsequently changed, the name of the villain’s spaceship was not. Thus what was originally and logically a Romulan Bird of Prey became Klingon.
Industrial Light and Magic, which had done such a noteworthy job on visual effects for The Wrath of Khan, was once again asked to participate. Not only did the company provide four new ships; it became involved in the creation of props, including all the Klingon gear as well as the ferocious pet kept by the Klingon commander.
The climatic destruction of the Enterprise near the end of the film was seen as an opportunity by some designers to move ahead with the development of a more sophisticated starship. But though the bridge set was blown up, the producers saved the large Enterprise model, destroying a smaller one instead.
Critical response to a Star Trek film improved significantly. Not all the reviews were raves but many critics were finally taking the time to ignore their automatic reaction to the premise of a space movie based on a canceled television series to try to understand what gave Star Trek its appeal to so many dedicated followers.
The Washington Post went as far as to say that the cast “are such agreeable, familiar old fixtures that you feel absurdly protective and tender about them.” USA Today recognized that the film “strikes the best balance between story and effects, between characters and action and between humor and melodrama.” Time‘s Richard Schickel argues that the movie was “the first space opera to deserve that term in its grandest sense.”
The third Star Trek film’s opening weekend gross broke the record that had been set only a week before by Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom which itself had just broken the record set by The Wrath of Khan. There was no doubt about it — a fourth Star Trek film was inevitable.
Text adapted from Garfield and Judith Reeves-Stevens, The Art of Star Trek (1995)