Making Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

Leonard Nimoy and Harve Bennett
Leonard Nimoy and Harve Bennett on the set of Star Trek III (Trekcore)

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.


Nimoy had originally refused to return to Star Trek for a second television series. When Phase II became The Motion Picture, he changed his mind. But he was again reluctant to return for the sequel. What persuaded him was the chance to play Spock’s death.

Then Nimoy had such a positive experience on Star Trek II that he was keen to come back. When he suggested directing in addition to acting, Producer Harve Bennett and Paramount chief Michael Eisner were both supportive.

Nimoy was given $18 million, $6 million more than Nicholas Meyer had for The Wrath of Khan, and 49 days to shoot the film. He finished precisely on time.

Saving money?

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 theoretically gave the production the equivalent of two films’ worth of sets, costumes and props.

Reality was a little different.

Robert Fletcher had planned to reuse the Klingon costumes from The Motion Picture, but it turned out that only six were left and they were in tatters. They had been reused in a sitcom.

Another problem was that things had disappeared. Fletcher recalled that items he had counted on using, which were supposed to have been locked up, were either lost or stolen.

A third reason to keep the costume budget flexible was William Shatner’s tendency to grow out of his clothing.

“We had twelve shirts made for him,” Fletcher told Cinefantastique in 1987.

He diets before a movie and shows up looking terrific. But he would slip as it went along.

Fletcher could reuse the Starfleet uniforms from The Wrath of Khan, and the extra budget allowed him to create different civilian outfits for each of the major characters. George Takei was particularly pleased with his cape, which gave him a swashbuckler look.

George Takei
Publicity photo of George Takei (Trekcore)

Unusually, Fletcher was also asked to design the Klingon and Vulcan makeup, which allowed him to create a uniform look.

I suppose Leonard asked me to do that part of the makeup, because he trusts me. He asked me to do many things he perhaps wouldn’t have otherwise.

The Klingons had already been given forehead ridges on The Motion Picture. For The Search for Spock, Fletcher refined their look.

There had never been a good marriage between the forehead appliance and the actors’ faces. We tried to keep them in character rather than have these obstructive things on their heads.

Getting the look right took two hours for each actor each day.

Visual effects

At first, the script had called for Romulans to be involved in trying to track down the secrets of the Genesis Planet, but Nimoy convinced 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 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. In all, ILM contributed some 120 shots to the film.

The climatic destruction of the Enterprise near the end was seen as an opportunity by some designers to move ahead with the development of a more sophisticated starship. But although the bridge set was blown up, the producers saved the large Enterprise model, destroying a smaller one instead.

Critical reception

Critical response to a Star Trek film improved significantly. Not all the reviews were raves, but critics were starting to overcome 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 so 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 argued 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.