Star Trek on Film: From Worst to First
As long as any fiction taking place in a shared universe has existed, fans have always heavily discussed which stories they love best. When it comes to the beloved Star Trek franchise, the rules surrounding those fan debates are usually significantly more in-depth, since Trek fans are especially passionate about Gene Roddenberry’s optimistic vision of the future. I know, because I’ve been a card-carrying member of the “Trekker Nation” since about the time I could walk without falling (which, despite popular belief, was not last week).
Since the camera first rolled on “The Cage” back in 1964, the Star Trek franchise has been home to six TV series (a whopping 30 seasons of television, including the 1970’s Animated Series) and eleven movies, released between 1979 and 2009. We have the 12th Trek film coming up this summer with Star Trek Into Darkness, but before the anticipation machine kicks into high gear for that film, I thought it’d be fun to give my two-cents on where the previous eleven features rank, in my very humble opinion, from worst to best.
Now, I have to warn you: there are a couple of instances where my opinions on these rankings don’t jive with a lot of the accepted consensuses among both casual Trek fans and the hardcore variety. There are several spots where my rankings do fall into line, but just please keep the discrepancies in mind before setting your phasers to kill.
Anyway, without further ado, here are my rankings from worst to best for the feature-length outings of the USS Enterprise:
11) Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)
I think that this pick for last place is one of the instances where I’m in the majority of opinion. Star Trek V was a very bizarre entry in the franchise for three reasons: one, it came off of the success of the then-highest grossing film in the history of the franchise, which should’ve had more influence on the final product. Two, unlike a lot of previous Trek, it fully embraced a religious theme with virtually no allegorical strings attached. And three, it went up against several 1989 summer box office heavyweights like License to Kill, Ghostbusters II, and a little film called Batman. When it became clear that William Shatner’s directorial debut would not be the success that the producers or the studio had hoped, Gene Roddenberry was a vocal critic, calling the film, “apocryphal at best.” If there’s ever been a death sentence for a Trek film from the perspective of the fans, the admonishment by the Great Bird of the Galaxy had to be it.
Now, I like the earthbound scenes. I think that the triumvirate of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy is successfully displayed here. I have a guilty fondness for the scene exposing Spock and McCoy’s “inner pain,” especially with the Shatnerian proclamation from Kirk telling his friends and Sybok “I NEED MY PAIN!”
All in all, though, Star Trek V gave many people the impression that the series was out of gas, and that another film would simply be flogging a dead horse. Thankfully in a couple years’ time, they’d be proven very, very wrong.
10) Star Trek Generations (1994)
Looking at this film through the prism of late 1994, it seemed like there was simply no stopping the Trek franchise. The Next Generation had just completed a successful seven-year run on television, Deep Space Nine was proving to be a successful spin-off, another new show was in the works, and the first film featuring the cast of TNG was coming very soon. Both Captains Kirk and Picard would feature on the cover of TIME Magazine that November, and fans were growing restlessly anticipatory of a film that promised to unite two generations of Enterprise captain.
I don’t think those same fans expected one of those captains to be killed, though. By a bridge, no less (not a cool Star Trek bridge, just the normal crossing-from-A-to-B kind).
The reasons I have to put this film at nearly the bottom of the barrel are two-fold: one, the decision was made at the end of The Next Generation’s production cycle to either make this story or another into the feature film, and they went with this one because, I believe, of the “baton-passing” aspect of Kirk and Picard’s meeting. What was the other story, you might ask? The one that became the episode “All Good Things…,” the wonderful series finale of Star Trek: The Next Generation. That episode also happens to be one of, if not my absolute favorite episode of that entire series, and I feel it would’ve absolutely made for a superior film (Q on a film budget? How is that NOT a missed opportunity?!).
The second reason? Well for context, the original series happens to be my favorite Trek show. The perfect balance of the three main characters featuring McCoy’s unfettered passion, Spock’s cold logic, and Kirk’s decisive leadership makes for the most rewarding Trek viewing experiences I’ve ever had. And this movie KILLED MY CAPTAIN NEEDLESSLY. With Alex DeLarge. And a bridge. And a lack of grand send-off. That’s unforgivable.
9) Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
What a weird movie, huh? When Paramount decided to abandon plans for a TV series called Star Trek: Phase II, the pilot script for that show was reworked slightly to become what we know as Star Trek: The Motion Picture. It was made largely as a result of the massive success enjoyed by the original Star Wars film two years prior, and by the time it premiered, it was arguably one of the most gorgeous looking movies of that entire decade. The problem, though, was that it was drab, bleak, monochromatic, slow, and very monotonous.
I actually tend to like this film, but when compared to so many of the other entries in the series, it falls very short. Much of what works against this film is the runtime, because it takes a long time to set the stage for the new threat, and it takes even longer to give us a slew of beauty shots of the refit Enterprise in drydock (beautiful music, though).
In spite of these misgivings, The Motion Picture did some very important things: it gave fans their first look at big budget Trek (which had never really existed before), it set an aesthetic tone for much of what would follow in subsequent shows and films (like giving Klingons ridges and showing us what Earth looks like in the 23rd century, as well as a beautiful expanded look at the surface of Vulcan), and it set the stage for more cinematic outings. The next one would be very memorable, if not legendary, and much of that is due to the creation and success of The Motion Picture.
8) Star Trek Nemesis (2002)
In December of 2002, I was the most ecstatic high school freshman around. The next Star Trek movie was on its way into theaters, and it looked like it was going to fulfill the prophecy of the “even number rule” in grand fashion. When my friends and I caught a ride to the local theater playing the film on opening day, I walked up to the ticket counter, and my heart sank. It was all sold out. I was crushed, and would be even more crushed by watching our consolation film of the night, Die Another Day. Ugh. “Well,” I thought, “at least it’s successful.”
And that, dear readers, is just a hint of my teenage naiveté (probably brought about by hormones or something), because I was grossly mistaken. Star Trek Nemesis proved to be the final outing for the crew of The Next Generation and a huge box office disappointment, and would make fans wait a grueling seven years (the longest gap between Trek films) for the next installment in the franchise. Nemesis bombed at the box office for a number of reasons: critics felt that the series was showing its age and running out of ideas, fans thought that the story attempted to redo too many elements from The Wrath of Khan with the TNG crew, and it came from a director that the cast acknowledges cared very little for the history and characters of the Star Trek franchise. Plus, the studio made the great decision of releasing it less than a week ahead of The Two Towers. Yeah, that was a good idea.
I’m actually in the camp that likes this film more than most (due in no small part to an intense young Tom Hardy as Praetor Shinzon), but when compared to so many other, better Trek films, it’s easy to see that this one falls short. For the final outing of the crew of The Next Generation, I consider Nemesis a failure, because it didn’t seem like we were ever given a full moment to truly say goodbye to characters (and, in many cases, friends) that we’d known for the prior fifteen years. And that, in my opinion, is the film’s biggest crime of all.
7) Star Trek: Insurrection (1998)
Geez, it seems like we’re blowing through the TNG films a little fast! To be clear, I don’t consider Insurrection a “bad” movie, but as far as the story fitting the cinematic grandeur expected of a feature film, it doesn’t really deliver. Insurrection is like an extended, bigger budget episode of TNG. This has both its good and bad qualities, but either way I think that this film largely represented a missed opportunity.
One of the most awesome things going on in Star Trek at the time this film was released was the highly intriguing saga of the Dominion War playing out in episodes of Deep Space Nine. While Insurrection makes little more than a passing mention of the war, a film would’ve been very, very promising in both expanding the scale of the conflict, and making for a Trek film that no one had ever seen before: a war film. Captain Picard’s off-handed mention of the Federation’s recent losses to the Borg and the Dominion was about as close as the TNG crew ever got to the war, and I can’t help but repeatedly hit my head against the nearest table thinking of how such a great opportunity was wasted.
The film has its moments, though. From the invention of the “Riker Maneuver” to a well-delivered speech about Federation morality to a superior officer from Captain Picard, I’m entertained every time I watch Insurrection. However, I long every single time for the movie it could’ve been, and by all accounts, should’ve been.
6) Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984)
The middle-child of the trilogy of films II-IV gets the number six spot not because it’s bad, but again, because it falls just a little bit shorter in entertainment value than some of the other films. The emotional rollercoaster that was the end of The Wrath of Khan demanded a resolution for everyone’s favorite Vulcan, and to its credit, Star Trek III added some very interesting spiritual characteristics to the largely scientific, logical Vulcan people.
For me, Star Trek III is odd just because it’s so disjointed. While not as strong as films II or IV, it’s not nearly as poor of an outing as V would be or as The Motion Picture had even been comparatively. Leonard Nimoy’s arms came out swinging as a director on this film, and in lesser hands it could’ve been a disaster. One of the reasons I hold it in relatively high regard is because the film makes very clear the lengths to which the crew will go to save the friend that they love as much as their audience does, and I find that reflexive quality really adds to the watching experience.
In a lot of ways, Search for Spock reminds of the second Timothy Dalton Bond film License to Kill, only without as much vengeance. Kirk, Scotty, Chekov, and Sulu (don’t call him Tiny) abandon the integrity of their uniforms and steal the Enterprise in a daring and entertaining scene to save their friend’s soul, and it’s very hard to deny the heartbreak and emotional resonance of the death of David Marcus (especially considering how important that element would prove to be in The Undiscovered Country). All in all, The Search for Spock has its lighthearted and entertaining moments surprisingly weighted down by bleakness and death.
5) Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)
SAVE THE WHALES! Anyone that hasn’t really seen this film but has heard about it will repeat that mantra in an attempt to belittle such a ridiculous premise. The most continually astonishing thing to me about The Voyage Home is that it works so well. Star Trek IV quickly became the undisputed box office champion of the franchise for the next decade, grossing more than the previous three entries in the series, and watching it today makes the reason behind that success no mystery. Star Trek IV is just absolute tons of fun. From the crew learning how to use money, to Spock’s incredible discovery of “colorful metaphors,” and the infamous insult “DOUBLE DUMB ASS ON YOU!,” the elements all collate in grand fashion to make for one of the most enjoyable Trek experiences you’ll ever find.
Besides the fish-out-of-water scenarios for the characters in the 20th century, The Voyage Home also gave fans a more personal look at Spock, who has far more curiosity about his shipmates and his own existence after being confronted with mortality. Beyond that, the way the film ends is priceless, with Kirk demoted back to Captain and given command of a new ship. No matter how aware I am of what that ship is over the horizon, I always get goose bumps seeing the 1701-A for the first time. “My friends, we’ve come home.” How true that is.
4) Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
Okay, remember how I said not to phaser me/throw me out the airlock when things don’t jive? This is what I was talking about. Placing The Wrath of Khan in fourth place in no way diminishes what is truly a great and legendary film, but in my opinion, the best for Star Trek was still to come. The emotional rollercoaster of Wrath gives incredible and intimate insight into the mind of Admiral Kirk, who is struggling greatly with his age and the perception of his own usefulness. For giving us that look at my favorite Captain, I will always hold this film in high regard.
You also had something that was then and is now a unique narrative component: making a cinematic sequel to a TV episode. Wrath of Khan, as all Trek fans know, continues the story of the TOS episode “Space Seed,” where the crew of the Enterprise first happens upon Khan and the rivalry between he and Kirk is born. While Star Trek doesn’t often permit for rivalries at the same level of something like Batman vs. the Joker or Bond vs. Blofeld, Kirk vs. Khan is about as close as we get to seeing such a definitive rivalry unfold in the Star Trek universe (at least, perhaps, until Sisko vs. Dukat).
If you’ve seen Wrath of Khan, I really don’t need to explain what makes it great. Nicholas Meyer’s directing treated the battle between the Enterprise and the Reliant like a thrilling undersea skirmish (oddly reminiscent of “Balance of Terror”), and the weight of the Genesis Device (the Star Trek universe’s atom bomb-analogue) was very adequately explained and understood. Every time I watch Spock’s death, I still get choked up, not only because of the (temporary) loss of the iconic Star Trek character, but because of the loss of Kirk’s swagger. After Spock’s death, something would permanently die inside James T. Kirk. You can only cheat death so many times before it finds a way to sink its claws into you through someone you love.
3) Star Trek (2009)
With the franchise seemingly dead after the cancellation of Star Trek: Enterprise in 2005, the rumblings of a new feature film bringing back the original, definitive crew sounded immediately promising to me. It had been nearly twenty years since Captain Kirk, Spock, Dr. McCoy, and all the rest had been on the big screen, and it looked like we were about to get what I thought was a long overdue return. My friends were coming back, even if they looked a little differently than how I remembered them.
“BUT,” said the continuity gospel raging in my head, “WHAT ABOUT THE CANON?! YOU CAN’T JUST WIPE IT ALL AWAY!” This was continually cycling through my brain up until the film’s release and made me so conflicted that I thought I’d self-destruct (like Nomad). However, all would be revealed, and even preserved. This wasn’t a reboot, at least not in the purest sense of the word. Writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman found a way to reintroduce the crew of Captain Kirk while simultaneously preserving the prior 43 years of Star Trek continuity, and I was taken aback in the best possible way by this creative wizardry.
After those qualms were settled, it became very clear to me just how great, and reverent to the original material, this film really was. Although played by different actors with different “takes,” the dynamic of the crew I love so much remained gleefully intact, and brought back the original Enterprise in grand fashion. By the time the crew was fully assembled and had earned the original show’s music, my tear ducts were pretty active. I was so happy, because Star Trek was finally back. And, perhaps even more surprisingly, it had become cool.
2) Star Trek: First Contact (1996)
When my dad and I went to go see First Contact at a local theater in November of 1996, I was probably the single dorkiest eight-year old around. I wore a TNG command division Halloween costume my brother had handed down to me (largely because he was now “too cool” at age 13 for Star Trek), and sauntered into that theater ready for a great new, rousing science fiction adventure.
I didn’t expect to be scared sh*tless.
First Contact, like The Wrath of Khan before it, expanded from the story of a television episode, in this case the fantastic two-parter from TNG entitled “The Best of Both Worlds.” At the time that episode aired, The Borg were recently introduced in season 2 of the series, and the finale for season 3 saw them not only return, but take Captain Picard captive and turn him into a servant of the Borg collective. “I am Locutus…of Borg.” That still proves to be one of the most definitive moments in the entire seven-year run of The Next Generation.
First Contact picks up six years after Picard’s assimilation by the collective, where the Borg are driving themselves into Sector 001 toward Earth. Throw in some time travel and some highly entertaining yet informative (and formative) Trek history, and you have one of the best films of the series, hands down. First Contact proved to be a critical and commercial powerhouse, with snappy dialogue, a new (and awesomely designed) Starship Enterprise, and a surprisingly engaging film for both hardcore fans and franchise newcomers alike.
I absolutely love First Contact because in my eyes, it was the only truly successful method of bringing The Next Generation to the silver screen. For many fans, TNG is their favorite series, and with good reason. To me, First Contact is the only film those fans can definitively display to make their case for why it’s a superior show to its predecessor, but even beyond the bickering Trek fans have on that level, it’s just a solid film with a terrifying antagonist and a suspenseful plot that always delivers, no matter when you watch it, or how many times you’ve seen it.
1) Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)
For me, the champion of the eleven Trek films has to be The Undiscovered Country, because it culminates the entire pantheon of adventures the original crew had for the previous 25 years. Kirk is forced to confront his bigotry toward Klingons, Spock is forced to carry a burden of guilt for placing his Captain in harm’s way and for placing his faith in a spy, Sulu receives his own well-deserved command, and the rest of the crew is collectively forced to realize that their time together has come to an end.
I’m always fascinated when Star Trek delves into its “future history” from a sociopolitical perspective, and this movie did exactly that very effectively. We knew from The Next Generation that the Klingons were at peace with the Federation by the 24th century, but the how hadn’t been answered yet. From that canonical precedent, the “Berlin Wall in Space” concept was cooked up by Leonard Nimoy and returning director Nicholas Meyer, and this film was off and running.
One of the reasons I love The Undiscovered Country so much, conversely to one of the things I strongly dislike about 2002’s Nemesis, is that it’s a huge success as a goodbye to the original crew. From every perspective, this film is a neat bow on the total package of the TOS era, with Kirk even promising that the ship would soon be in the hands of another crew, “boldly going where no man…or no one…has gone before.” No bleakness, no shortsighted story, just a long and illustrious goodbye to the people that started it all.
Add in the intrigue and excitement afforded by the difficulty of making lasting peace between formerly bitter rivals, and I think you have the most poetically sound Star Trek film yet released, even if it gets a little hammy in a few places. I hate goodbyes, but when one like The Undiscovered Country comes along, it definitely makes it more bearable.
That does it for my look at the eleven Trek films, but I’m anxious to see where you rank the films! Sound off and be heard. I’m Chris Clow. It’s great to be a part of GeekNation, and I hope you enjoy what I have to add to the conversations going forward. Thanks for reading, live long and prosper, and let me know what you think of my list and how yours is made up!