When people talk about influential sci-fi movie trilogies from the late ‘70s and ‘80s, they usually are thinking of Star Wars. But there was another great sci-fi trilogy of the same era, and in its own way, it’s just as solid from a storytelling standpoint as George Lucas’ original films. We’re talking about the Star Trek “Genesis Trilogy.” Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984), and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986). And they were a trilogy of films that were never planned that way at all.
Now, you might say “Wait a minute, weren’t there five Star Trek films in that time period??” Technically, yes there were. But Star Trek II-IV forms a complete narrative trilogy. One that just so happened to have three other films bookend it. At the core of these three films is the creation and ramifications of the Genesis Project, a device that can create life, and the death and return of Spock. Hence, the fan-given “Genesis Trilogy” label. And this trilogy structure all happened by total chance, and wasn’t at all mapped out. And yet, it remains an immensely satisfying bit of cinematic sci-fi storytelling.
Why the Star Trek “Trilogy” Didn’t Begin with Movie One
Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the first Trek feature film, came out in 1979. And it was something of a bloated, costly affair. The film had at the time an astronomical budget of $45 million, and Paramount was hoping a big-screen reunion of the original Star Trek TV series cast would be their Star Wars. Especially having a budget three times that of Lucas’ film. And although TMP disappointed most audiences and critics at the time, it did make money. Maybe not Star Wars money, but enough to justify a sequel.
But the powers-that-be at Paramount Pictures decided that a sequel would be completely different from TMP. Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, largely blamed for the creative decisions with TMP, received a “creative consultant” position, but was not allowed direct influence on the production. This allowed the studio to make the Star Trek movie they wanted to make. Something a lot more action/adventure and crowd-pleasing, and a little less ponderous.
Star Trek II: The Genesis of the “Genesis Trilogy”
Enter producer Harve Bennett, who took over the production. Coming from Paramount’s television division, he promised to produce the sequel for a much smaller $12 million budget. They reused many sets, props, and models from TMP to cut costs. Bennett commissioned five original scripts for the sequel, all of which contained very different stories. The hope was that one of these would be good enough to serve as the basis for the film.
Instead of an expensive industry veteran like Robert Wise, who directed TMP, He hired a young director named Nicholas Meyer, who came in and picked five different things he liked from each of the existing scripts. These pieces were the return of the original series villain Khan, Kirk meets his adult son, the Genesis Project, the Vulcan Lt. Saavik, and the death of Spock. In a week’s time, he combined all these elements into one cohesive script that satisfied everyone.
The Needs of the One (Spock) Outweigh the Needs of the Many
The trick was in getting Leonard Nimoy back as Spock, who swore that TMP was his Vulcan swan song. Bennett did the smart thing, and promised Nimoy a great death scene for Spock. Nimoy, as a stage actor as well as an on-screen one, couldn’t resist the prospect, and they were off to the races on the second Star Trek film. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan hit theaters on June 4, 1982.
As we know now, TWOK is Star Trek firing on all thrusters. It contains a great villain in Ricardo Montalban as Khan, a great new crew member in Kirstie Alley as Saavik, and the introduction of Kirk’s former lover Carol Marcus and their son, David. There was also an intriguing sci-fi concept at its core, the Genesis Project, a way of creating living worlds out of dead moons. Brought together with a touching death and send-off for Mr. Spock, TWOK was a huge hit with audiences and critics. Star Trek was officially back in the zeitgeist.
The Resurrection of Spock (And a Franchise)
With the success of TWOK, Nimoy was far less hesitant to play Spock again. Even though his character was dead. When he asked to direct a third film, Paramount was happy to oblige him. Instead of ignoring the death of Spock or telling some kind of prequel story, they picked up where TWOK left off. They looked for plot threads and hints from the previous film on how to bring his character back. They intentionally placed some of these hints as a storytelling “out,” and some were totally accidental. But with a bit of creative writing, Nimoy and Bennett concocted a story on how to bring Spock back.
But The Search for Spock never feels like it was anything but an organic continuation. After all, the previous film did leave Spock’s casket on the life-giving Genesis planet. It completely felt like some kind of setup for a resurrection story. But TSFS understands that if we as the audience are to get Spock back, then we have to lose several things. As Buffy the Vampire Slayer would later use to great effect when Buffy died and later resurrected, such returns from the grave come at a price. Captain Kirk loses his beloved Enterprise, his Starfleet rank, and his son David, murdered by the Klingons. But as Kirk says in the film, “If I hadn’t tried, then the cost would have been my soul.”
Bringing it Home
With TSFS another hit film, a fourth installment was a sure thing. Once again, Nimoy and Bennett delivered another crowd-pleasing hit with The Voyage Home. This time, with Nicholas Meyer back as screenwriter. After two heavy installments with much destruction and death, TVH was all about rebuilding and redemption. It was far more lighthearted, but it remembered to play off important Star Trek signifiers; time travel stories and social commentary. In this case, environmentalism. Ultimately, TVH comes to a rousing conclusion, one which is not only a fitting ending to this impromptu trilogy, but one that could have just as easily been a satisfying conclusion to the entire original Star Trek saga. It wound up being the biggest Star Trek movie hit to date.
You Don’t Always Need a Plan
Harve Bennett, Nicholas Meyer, and Leonard Nimoy purely did all of it on the fly. These days, when a series of films disappoints fandom, they go to social media and cry about how things “didn’t have a proper plan from the start.” You see this especially when it comes to critiques of the Star Wars sequel trilogy. But it’s not just that series. We saw it with the original Matrix sequels, and shows like Lost. But planning things out meticulously isn’t always the key to success either. We’re pretty sure they planned out the ending to Game of Thrones from day one. And that didn’t exactly please a lot of people.
The Star Trek Genesis Trilogy proves there really isn’t a rule for this kind of franchise storytelling. In the final analysis, these three films cover a metric ton of thematic ground very successfully. They deal with coming to terms with old age and death, and when to let go (and not let go). It has a through line about friendship and sacrifice, and when “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Or the one.” And they were also damned entertaining. With so many fans obsessed these days with meticulously drawn-out narrative plans for film and TV, Star Trek’s ’80s heyday proved it simply is not always a necessity.