Happy Birthday to Star Trek, the grand science-fiction mythology that has existed for five decades in the form of television series, films, merchandise, games, and the imaginations of fans! Star Trek is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, an occasion that is marked by the release of its 13th feature film, and in early 2017 the release of its first television series in over a decade.
Last week, I presented my shortest ever post which featured no original material from me. It was a simple phrase: “It’s going to be okay” that linked to The Oatmeal’s fantastic comic about the third (yes, third) plane crash that Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry survived that served as the turning point in his life. Matt Inman drew this comic to highlight how we are all helpless on our own and to encourage us to get out there and help someone. It seemed an appropriate piece to display in the wake of further acts of terror. It also serves as a segue into this week’s post which is focused on the grandest body of Roddenberry’s work.
Specifically, this post will look at the body of work inspired by Roddenberry’s vision put forth on the grandest stage. Today, I will be detailing the greatness and lack thereof of each of the 13 Star Trek films by ranking them from worst to best. I am not the first person to do this, and obviously, this list is representative of my opinions, however, I am not alone among Trek fans in the general feeling toward most of these films. I have ranked them according mostly to their overall story and quality, yet I have also taken pacing, originality, direction, and acting into account. Oh, and spoilers are potentially present for all films but the latest installment, Beyond.
Star Trek Films Ranked Worst to Best
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989) – This one is rough. William Shatner starred, directed, and cowrote this film, although he should not be proud of much of any of it. After the almost unbelievable success of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Shatner and company probably felt that campy references and self-deprecating jokes about the franchise tied to the current time period were surefire hits. Somewhere along the line they also decided Nichelle Nichols should do a fan dance in the desert. I’ve never been so happy to get back to three grown men singing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” on a camping trip, because it feels like the rest of the movie interrupts this.
The plot, if there is one, focuses on Sybok, a Vulcan who opened himself up to the feels and was banished for it (among some other things) searching for God at the center of the universe. But wait! Sybok isn’t just some Vulcan! He is Spock’s half-brother you’ve never heard of whose mom was a princess! Ambassador Sarek, you dog, you! Sybok somehow is able to take control of people by getting them to let go of their pain, and he uses this ability to lure the Enterprise crew to rescue some diplomats, before taking over the ship. This leaves many of our favorite characters either bumbling around (Scotty) or playing Hawkeye as Loki’s main man for almost all of their otherwise meaningful scenes (Sulu, Uhura). Captain Kirk has a nice moment where he refuses to let go of his pain because he needs it; it defines who he is and how he became that man. He does not wish to look back at when he “turned left when I should have turned right.
This all culminates in the Enterprise traversing to the center of the universe where they meet God. Well, it’s not God, but some being trapped who wishes to escape his surroundings aboard the Enterprise. It’s never really clear about who he is, or what is going on through much of the film, which is why it sits firmly at the bottom. The scene where Kirk brings up a good point in the midst of what seems to be God is the best part of the film. That and when he gets blown up by a Bird of Prey.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) – Ooooh boy, this one is booooooring at times. Like all the time. This first Trek film is excruciatingly slow in almost every detail and features some cringe-worthy William Shatner moments of acting. Directed by Robert Wise, the guy who directed West Side Story and The Sound of Music, but also The Day the Earth Stood Still, this film was never really in the right hands. Not to say anything bad of Wise, he’s just not a good fit for Star Trek, and he is not the only one involved in this film who should not have been. It plays out like an episode of the show which is not bad, except when you consider that it is an episode that drags along at every straight line and tries to be the next 2001: A Space Odyssey with much less profound questions. While the effects are not bad, this is an effects heavy film meant to be a technical spectacle, but this is a major problem considering they are not spectacular enough to match Star Wars which came out the year before and had a considerably more engaging story.
Star Trek: Insurrection (1998) – Ah, the NextGen films, where Picard dances the mambo and Worf makes boob jokes. Obviously I have already provided two stark reasons why the original series crew was not exactly flawless in their film approaches, but they definitely did better overall then the younger guys. Actually, while the two crews are separated by a century, the original crew got to be younger longer, and they also got to have the best look back on their younger days as older people. Really, all the age-related subject matter is superior in the hands of the original crew. That is why this movie, about a planet that slows the aging process and revitalizes the body, is out of place, and, again, unnecessary. The older guys did the old bit already, so don’t waste this biz on the NextGen folks who could have easily done this with a two-part episode in a season. I think the execs at Paramount simply felt they needed to keep making Trek movies.
Star Trek: Generations (1994) – The unnecessary handshake that followed the passing of the torch from one crew to another, this film is called Generations to showcase a select few from the first generation of Enterprise crews as we transition to another. While the Next Generation show was in full swing on TV, it had not had a movie until this film. While it is not a strong start to what would be not a strong series of films, this one does have some fun moments where we see just what would happen if Captain Kirk and Captain Picard met… while trapped within a timeless preservation of your consciousness in a rift in spacetime that evil Malcolm McDowell is desperately trying to get back to.
Star Trek: Nemesis (2002) – I don’t remember much good about Nemesis, nor much bad, nor much at all. Tom Hardy is in it as the quite young bad guy, a fact that is more interesting now given what he has become. It does have a fun space fight between the Enterprise and a couple of Romulan ships and Tom Hardy’s cloaked warship, but there honestly is not much else to write home or anywhere else about in regards to this film.
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984) – Aside from the reboots which have broken (or perhaps reversed) the trend, this is the best of the odd-numbered Trek films. A major reason why is because this is the middle film of a trio that was written as a trilogy within the full franchise of films, so it fits well between Star Trek II and Star Trek IV. However, it is definitely the most lacking of the trio, and mostly serves to bridge the complete story between those two segments. Still, Leonard Nimoy got some good practice for The Voyage Home by directing this film that ironically centers on his character but does not feature him until the final scenes. Yet while the story is focused on recovering Spock’s not so lifeless body, the real star is again Kirk, who gets to once more defy Starfleet along with his closest friends to save one of their own. However, the threat of diplomacy is not so great as the threat of rogue Klingons led by Christopher Lloyd. Yep, a year before he was Doc Brown, Christoper Lloyd was a Klingon commander seeking out the Genesis device for galactic annihilation. The two could not be more different, although neither needs roads.
The Search for Spock is also noteworthy for being the first film where the crew has to destroy the Enterprise and it is still the most emotional scene of its many final flights.
Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) – This was the hardest one for me to place. In many respects it is my favorite of rebooted films, but in others it is the worst. There is some great acting, especially from Cumberbatch, but there are some really bad moments too, especially the Khan yell. Like, yeah, Shatner isn’t the best at conveying the emotions he should on screen, but there is a difference between this moment and this moment. The real problem with Into Darkness is that it has the makings of a great film. Not just a great Trek film, but a great film overall. It follows a successful blockbuster in a major franchise, which is no easy task, and right away it begins to set the bar even higher. It ramps up the action, it brings in the Klingons, it has Benedict Cumberbatch! It is such a goddamn good movie for the first hour. Then Cumberbatch reveals his true identity and us Trek fans are going nuts. Not because its Khan, which we all knew going into it, c’mon – but because Cumberbatch makes us feel genuinely sympathetic toward a character who we all know we should hate because he’s the bad guy from Star Trek II! It is done so well… and then it becomes Diet Wrath of Khan. They flip the script and switch out Kirk for Spock, but that doesn’t make it a new story. Sure the action is constant, the cinematography is gorgeous, and the direction is as beautifully flawless as Cumberbatch’s smooth milky skin, but that does not change the fact that this is more of a rehash than the 2009 film. You don’t get to just reuse lines and situations from Wrath of Khan because you have prettier people and effects than they had in 1982! I think the scene that best displays this weird juxtaposition of frustration and admiration is where Spock speaks with Spock Prime. It is such an obvious shoe-in scene for Leonard Nimoy that does not belong, but it is also the logical thing for any character, especially Spock, to do to decide to call the guy who might know something about the new superstrong supersmart, not supernice guy they just met. Not to mention, much like the “My name is Khan” scene, it is service to the superfans that is fun in the moment, but dilutes over time, much like the film as a whole.
Still, this movie is a lot of fun. To Abrams’ credit, he doesn’t leave you much time to think about what is wrong with the movie because you are too busy keeping up with it. Not to mention there are some really great scenes, especially with Cumberbatch who brings such acting chops to the part that seemed impossible for anyone but Ricardo Montalban to play. Cumberbatch proves otherwise though, and though it is not described in the title, he can be pretty wrathful himself, such as when he displays his savagery to Kirk, the Marcuses, Spock and the Enterprise. Shall we begin? Easy to forget his earlier humanization after that!
Star Trek (2009) – Thanks to J.J. Abrams, the sci-fi series got its blockbuster revival by going back to its roots, re-exploring classic characters while introducing new ones, keeping a constant pace, and being action packed while still delivering emotionally and satisfying the rabid fan base. No, I am not talking about Star Wars like I usually am, but the Star Trek film called just that which Abrams first made a name for himself in defibrillating a stale space franchise. The film provides us with new actors perfectly cast as original crew characters, but while they all maintain a reverence to the actors who preceded them, they each make their respective character their own, in a film that does much the same with its franchise. Star Trek draws upon influences of the series and films that have come before it, and justifies the new direction with a time travel anomaly that creates an alternate timeline, so that it serves not purely as a prequel or reboot, but in a purely Star Trek unique scenario that allows a fresh start without disregarding or having to match up with the already established material. When they choose to, that is, cough cough Into Darkness!
This film does a great job of introducing each of the major players from Kirk (whose father gets a grand entrance and exit thanks to Chris Hemsworth’s brief role that has done him some major good), Spock, and Bones, to Uhura and Sulu. Yet the finest of them all may be Pavel Chekov, portrayed magnificently by the tragically late Anton Yelchin, who literally burst onto the scene with unbridled energy and joyful optimism that he can solve a seemingly impossible problem. RIP Anton; you will be missed.
Star Trek Beyond (2016) – Considering this one just came out this weekend, I will not dive into it for the sake of spoilers, as well as the fact that I think I need more time to really gauge where it sits, but it definitely belongs closer to the top than most of its fellow films, and just may be the best of the alternate timeline films. Star Trek (2009) might edge it out, but there can be no denying that Beyond features the most original story of the reboots. Obviously Star Trek has a lot of original series material in it that it rehashes beautifully, but some of it feels recycled. Into Darkness becomes a new version of Wrath of Khan, but while it clearly has too much of Star Trek II in it, it’s easy to miss just how much of Star Trek VI is in it too. Beyond, which was cowritten by Simon Pegg, is a breath of fresh air and stands very well on its own. It also serves as a nice tribute to Leonard Nimoy and Anton Yelchin.
Star Trek: First Contact (1996) – The best of the Next Generation films, and really the only good one from that crew. However, it is a really good one! Directed by Number One himself, Jonathan Frakes, and featuring the favorite subject matter of time travel and the assimilating horror that is the Borg, this film focuses on Captain Picard struggling to work past his wrath (that’s right, it’s not just for Khan) for the Borg, as he contends with staving off the Borg who plan to prevent humanity’s first contact with an alien race by sabotaging the first warp drive flight by Zefram Cochrane, played by James Cromwell. By the 24th century of the NextGen crew, Cochrane is one of the great pioneering heroes of humanity, but as they find from meeting the man, your heroes are not always the people you expect them to be. Cromwell does a great job of portraying a man who is eager and willing to literally reach for the stars, but is reluctant to be a role model, or anything more than a man looking for comfort in an uncomfortable world (Cochrane’s achievement is all the important as it occurs after the third world war and brings the people of Earth together with a common cause).
Meanwhile, Picard navigates the back ways of the Enterprise with Cochrane’s friend Sloane, who brings fresh perspective in the form of fan service that is not too overbearing. He brings her up to speed on the Borg and their complex nature, and she tells him that he is the one making things difficult and accuses him of being like Captain Ahab from Moby Dick.
Data, the NextGen Spock in many regards, gets a taste of life as a human courtesy of the Borg queen who tempts him to betray his friends for the opportunity of being human. This comes to a thrilling conclusion when Picard offers to become Locutus of Borg once more to free Data.
The classic references, continued story from specific episodes, themes of self-sacrifice, and the strong acting help to place this film up with Nicholas Meyer’s Trek films. Such as…
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991) – Nicholas Meyer returned to the Trekverse to direct the send off of the original crew, and he once more churned out a terrific film. Similar to his other Trek film, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Meyer taps into classical literature for parallel themes. Here William Shakespeare’s Hamlet plays an integral role and in fact provides the film its title. The title was originally meant to be the title of Star Trek II, in reference to Spock’s death as Hamlet contemplates death in the scene he speaks the line, but since the studio demanded Khan’s name be in that title, Meyer had to scrap it. Luckily, he got to use it again here, but this time the undiscovered country is not death but a shaky new peace brokered between the ailing Klingon Empire and the Federation. This unfamiliar allegiance is a direct parallel to the fall of the Soviet Union and the peace between the capitalist West and the formerly communist conglomerate country. Themes of prejudice between the two races strongly mirror not only uneasy differences between American and Russian, but between other races and ethnicities.
Other Shakespeare quotes find their way into the film, often flowing from the lips of Christopher Plummer, who plays Klingon General Chang. Plummer is a classically trained actor, and William Shatner actually understudied for him for a time. Plummer adds a classic theater element to this film that helps its excel, similar to Benedict Cumberbatch in Into Darkness. Also noteworthy, is the appearance of Michael Dorn as a Klingon lawyer, playing a character who is the ancestor of his Lt. Worf from the Star Trek: The Next Generation series that was already on television at the time of this movie’s release.
This film stands out among its franchise due to its unique blend of styles. It features a political crisis, courtroom drama, murder mystery, prison break, and the space battles we’ve come to expect, and it pulls them all off. Not to mention, the original crew receives a fitting farewell as they officially hand off the Enterprise to the next generation.
This was an especially welcome film after the debacle that was Star Trek V, and it gave rise and name to the special technical effect of a wave from an explosion in space with the opening explosion of Praxis. We now call this the Praxis effect, and it was made immensely famous as one of the few great additions in the special edition of Trek’s rival franchise.
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) – Affectionately known by fans as the one with the whales because its plot sees the Enterprise crew take a Klingon Bird of Prey around the sun at Warp 9 to travel back in time to 1980’s San Francisco to retrieve two humpback whales to bring back to the 23rd century where Earth is held helpless at the mercy of a massive alien probe that wants to talk to whales that are extinct in that time. I know, it sounds like a steaming turd if a film, but believe it or not, it actually works! This one is unlike any other Star Trek film, or perhaps quality film of any kind, but the anachronism of seeing a group of Starfleet officers bumble their way through the present day (at least upon release, yet since we have more in common with the 80s than the 23rd century so far, it holds up) is highly entertaining, despite the fact that the Enterprise is nowhere to be found until the very end, one of the highlights is Kirk wooing a marine biologist over pizza, and the entire film is one big “Save the Whales” bumper sticker. Nicholas Meyer cowrote this final film of the trilogy that spans films 2-4, but sitting in the director chair was Leonard Nimoy himself for the second straight film.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) – Was there ever any doubt? This movie will be forever remembered as the best Star Trek movie ever made. It’s also the movie that introduced the world to Kirstie Alley, but it probably won’t go down in time for that. Truly this is Star Trek’s finest hour and 53 minutes, and quite possibly the reason why there is still anything Star Trek at all. After the original series was cancelled and the first film debuted as a spectacular failure, Star Trek seemed doomed. Creator Gene Roddenberry had some further fantastical ideas on where to go from there, such as a film where the Enterprise crew attempt to stop JFK’s assassination, but unsurprisingly not many executives were thrilled by such concepts. George Takei may as well have actually said Sulu’s reserved line during the climax of Wrath of Khan when the crew feels they are finally finished: “We’re not gonna make it, are we?”
Fortunately, in walked Harve Bennett and Nicholas Meyer. Along with Jack Sowards and Samuel Peeples, they concocted the story and screenplay that propelled Star Trek back to life quicker than the Enterprise at maximum warp. Bennett watched all the original series episodes for inspiration and decided that Kirk’s greatest adversary was Khan Noonien Singh, played by Ricardo Montalban in the episode Space Seed. He brought him back in all his vengeful fury to face off against our favorite trekkers of the stars who are brought back to the Enterprise to oversee a training maneuver for the vessel’s next crew. There are plenty of interesting tidbits of trivia I could share about this film, like how it is the first film to be a sequel to a TV episode, or how it was supposed to be called Revenge of Khan but posters for the latest Star Wars film were already printed to advertise Revenge of the Jedi which was later re-renamed Return of the Jedi, but the quality of the film itself outshines its impact on the series as a whole. Wrath of Khan endures as not only the best of the Star Trek films, but as one of the best science-fiction films ever made. It is certainly one of my favorites in any genre.
The story is great, offering the best of each of the characters including the beautifully bombastic Khan, serving as an especially good look into the how age affects us and our relationships. With parallel themes to Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities which is featured in the story in the form of a birthday gift from Spock to Kirk, Wrath of Khan delves into reconnecting with your purpose and loved ones in the midst of the space frontier and starship battles we know and love. Combined with a masterful score from the late great James Horner, and capped with the greatest heroic sacrifice in any film, this brilliant work of art continues to stand as the epitome of Star Trek excellence.
Thanks for reading/(re)watching! I hope you enjoy these films and the Star Trek universe. If you have any questions or comments, please direct them to firstname.lastname@example.org. Be sure to warp back here next week for the State of the Season recap.
Live long and prosper,