People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.
A few years ago, V’ger answered my prayers; my wife learned to love Star Trek.
This was a Very Good Thing™; I’ve loved the franchise for at least twenty years. I couldn’t wait to watch Trek with her—to see her fawn over each entry in the series. But as we progressed through these films, one uncomfortable fact became clear: as with other movies I loved as an 80s kid, most of Trek isn’t great.
The Star Trek films, at their worst, demonstrate the dangers of “fan service.” Studio suits want to protect a money-making franchise, so they steer the creatives toward audience-pleasing plots. But fans “don’t know what they want”—not really. They think they crave more of the same: more Spock. More Kirk. More Enterprise. But rehashing familiar tropes inevitable wears your storytelling thin. It strangles compelling drama. It forbids risky twists.
Star Trek III offers the quintessential example. Its predecessor, Wrath of Khan, featured one of the gutsiest plot twists in cinematic history: killing off Mr. Spock. But outraged fans protested the death of their favorite character. The studio flinched, and per its direction, Search for Spock resurrects the beloved science officer. The film’s denouement, in which Vulcan gurus reunite Spock’s soul with his body, serves up a feel-good ending for the fan base.
Star Trek III cheapens the genuine heartache of Spock’s death. More problematically, it also eliminates any trace of dramatic tension from the franchise. From that moment on, any tragic event could simply be undone. When the starship Enterprise blows up, we know it can’t really be gone forever. Star Trek IV wastes that bold move by introducing an entirely identical, replacement Enterprise. Or consider J.J. Abrams’ latest Trek entry, Into Darkness. That film echoes Wrath of Khan by killing off Captain Kirk. But Kirk stays dead just twenty minutes.
What if the franchise hadn’t lost its nerve? What if Spock had stayed dead? Looking back, this would’ve been a cleverer, bolder, more rewarding approach than surrendering to fan service. Make the audience feel the loss of Spock. Show us how a grief-stricken Kirk spirals out of control. Tell how his recklessness, untempered by Spock’s cold logic, eventually derails his Starfleet career. In other words, let Trek take risks.
If it had, I might have shared Star Trek III with my wife less apologetically.
As Khan director Nicholas Meyer recalls, “We had been getting letters from a lot of people who were very alarmed at the prospect of Spock dying. I remember I got one that said ‘If Spock dies, you die.’” ↩
Technically, the seeds for Spock’s return were planted in Wrath of Khan. But that was a late alteration to the script, resented by the film’s director, Nicholas Meyer. As he explains, “I just thought this was so unfair to an audience of people who really care about this shit, and then saying, ‘You know, oh, it was just a dry hustle.’ No, I didn’t think that was right…. At the time, I just thought that my vision of the thing was being insensitively overruled. But that’s when they made that insert, about ‘Remember’ and put him on the planet in his torpedo.” ↩
Admittedly, ST3 deserves some credit for blowing up the original Enterprise. It’s the best scene in the entire picture. ↩