It's been a long, exciting journey…
Ranking the Star Trek Movies
It’s hard to believe that a little, low-budget science fiction show that was canceled after only 80 episodes (counting the unaired pilot “The Cage”) has spawned a huge cultural movement, thousands of hours of television, and 13 movies!
Star Trek is the proverbial “little engine that could,” embedded in the geek culture of at least three generations. Unfortunately, anything that big is going to vary in quality. A lot. So here’s my ranking of the films, best to worst. Your mileage may vary.
1. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Star Trek fans are fond of saying that the even-numbered films are the best of the bunch. That is certainly true with the very first film on the list – Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. After the disappointing moderate success of the first film, producers were looking for fresh eyes and brought in Harve Bennett.
He started by watching all 79 episodes of the original series and sparked on the idea of revisiting an episode from late in the first season. “Space Seed” guest-starred Ricardo Montalban as the leader of a group of genetically engineered soldiers that the Enterprise crew had exiled on a distant planet. What if, 15 years later, they escaped and took control of planet seeding technology?
The idea was brilliant – Montalban’s scenery-chewing Khan was a perfect foil for one of William Shatner’s finest Kirk performances ever. And the story did what Trek did best – looked at the future while dealing with universal themes of actions having consequences, fatherhood, and sacrifice. All of that leads to one of the most emotional scenes in any Star Trek ever – Spock, laying down his life for his friends.
2. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
After the muted critical and financial success of Star Trek III, Paramount decided to piece together the best parts of all of their Trek efforts to date – and close the series strong. Leonard Nimoy was brought back to direct. The director and co-writer of Khan were paired up with producer/writer Harve Bennet, and elements from both the first Trek movie as well as the series were mined for consistent content.
The story picks up shortly after the events of Star Trek III and echoes the first film; an alien probe is orbiting Earth, destroying everything around it. Nimoy & Bennett exercised the freedom given them by the studio to focus on an environmental cause, and Spock recognizes the probe’s signal as being that of the humpback whale – now extinct in the 23rd Century. The crew uses a slingshot maneuver – flying towards the sun to travel back in time – to 1986 San Francisco.
Playing off a newer, less emotionally-controlled Spock and the varied talents of the other bridge crew, The Voyage Home is a much funnier, lighthearted movie, with less science fiction opera and more grounded life, which appealed to fans as well as a broader audience.
3. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
“You have not experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon!” – Chancellor Gorkon.
After Star Trek V almost killed the franchise, Paramount went back to its roots. First, considering a prequel film proposed by Ralph Winter, fan and cast reactions sent them pivoting back to Nicholas Meyer, the director and co-writer on Star Trek II. Between Meyer and Leonard Nimoy, they hatched a story loosely based on the cold war and the fall of the Berlin Wall – in space.
After a Klingon moon explodes and their homeworld is threatened, the Klingons beg for peace – and the Enterprise is sent to assist over Kirk’s objections. After a tense meeting, where the Klingons quote Hamlet, saboteurs make it look like Kirk and Dr. McCoy are part of assassinating the Chancellor and are sent to a prison planet. Spock begins an investigation that discovers a much deeper conspiracy, and the crew teams up with old friends to try and save the Federation and the tentative peace one last time.
This is the last film with the majority of the original cast, with a few notable guest stars – Michael Dorn playing the grandfather of his Commander Worf character, Rene Auberjonois, who would later star in Deep Space Nine, and Christopher Plummer as the one-eyed, Shakespeare quoting Klingon General Chang. The humor and high-stakes adventure, reminiscent of The Voyage Home, also made this one a fan favorite.
4. Star Trek: First Contact
First Contact is the first film populated solely by characters from The Next Generation series. As the eighth film, continues the tradition of even number films being better than the odd-numbered ones, despite the fact that it was written and developed by the same team. Without the baggage of the original Trek crew, more screen time could be devoted to the larger crew of the Enterprise-D. After Ridley Scott and John McTiernan turned Paramount down, Jonathan Frakes, who also played Commander Riker, was tapped to direct.
The film mixes two fan-favorite elements – the fearsome Borg and time travel. In this case, after the Enterprise helps to defend Earth against a Borg cube, a smaller Borg ship is chased by our heroes through a temporal vortex that takes both back to the dawn of warp-capable space travel.
The Borg intends to change history and assimilate Earth much earlier, while Captain Picard, Riker, and Geordi LaForge work with the inventor of warp technology – Zefram Cochrane – who is much rougher around the edges than the hero they studied in history. James Cromwell and Alfre Woodard shine in the movie, as Cochrane and his assistant, and Alice Krige is equally attractive and scary as the newly introduced Borg queen.
5. Star Trek (2009)
After the poor performance of Nemesis, it seemed like Star Trek was effectively dead. However, all the way back in the late 1980’s Ralph Winter had proposed a prequel movie to Star Trek, about Kirk, Spock, and McCoy’s Starfleet Academy years. When Enterprise was canceled in 2005, the producers also considered going back to the beginning but had lost trust with the studio.
Enter Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, who had penned the hugely successful Mission Impossible III. Working with their friend – and eventual director – JJ Abrams, they looked at the Star Trek novels as inspiration and came up with a clever plot device to essentially reset the timeline.
In 2009, a new Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and crew were introduced to the world. Taking a hint from Nemesis, the new film, titled simply Star Trek, had a Romulan madman forcing Leonard Nimoy’s Ambassador Spock to create a time anomaly – catapulting them back in time before the birth of James T. Kirk (Chris Pine).
From then, the film branches off into a new “Kelvin” timeline – named for the ship where Kirk was born. Thus new adventures of the much younger Enterprise crew could continue but still tangentially connect to the original shows and movies. The fans' reaction was mixed, but the movie appealed more to general audiences and did well enough to launch a whole new era of Trek.
6. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
Sometimes the middle part of a trilogy works (see Empire Strikes Back), and sometimes… it falls flat. Coming directly after the events of Star Trek II, the crew of the Starship Enterprise returns to Earth to face Spock’s father and decommission the ship. Meanwhile, Kirk’s son finds himself face to face with a young reborn Spock, Klingons who have come to investigate the Genesis Device explosion, and the consequences of his scientific shortcuts.
The death of Spock had meant to be permanent, but Leonard Nimoy loved the writing in Wrath of Khan so much, he not only asked to have the character resurrected but signed on to direct the third film. Unfortunately, despite the film echoing a lot of the same themes and a script written largely by the same writer, this one slips into a sophomore slump. However, there are some high points – Christopher Lloyd (aka Doc Brown) as the Klingon commander, Night Court’s John Larroquette as his number two, and DeForest Kelley offering his most masterful performance as Doctor Bones McCoy.
7. Star Trek: The Motion Picture
Following the success of Star Wars and Close Encounters, Paramount was desperate to get into high-budget science fiction – and turned to the one property they owned that continued to deliver. Gene Rodenberry, the original series creator, had been lobbying for a few years to create a spin-off – especially now that syndicated reruns (thank you, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz) had made the show far more popular than it had been in the ’60s.
The new show's pilot would use the original stars to introduce a new Enterprise crew, who would then continue the series. With some targeted rewrites, Rodenberry turned the pilot into a 2-hour movie (he would later mine a lot of it again for what would become The Next Generation pilot).
Now playing Admiral James T. Kirk, William Shatner takes command of a refit Enterprise, demoting the captain to “Number One” when an alien entity threatens the solar system. Spock shows up, citing an emotional connection to the alien cloud, just in time for the ship to be attacked by the entity, who abducts and then replaces one of the crew members in order to study carbon-based life forms.
Turns out, the alien entity, V’Ger, is an earth probe (Voyager) that fell into a black hole and was modified by living machines. The former captain chooses to merge with V’Ger, creating a new life form that heads into deep space. And, yes, if this sounds familiar, it is later implied in ancillary Trek works that this was probably the birth of the Borg.
8. Star Trek: Generations
At long last, the proverbial face-off between Captains James T. Kirk and Jean-Luc Picard would happen! Sort of. Envisioned as a baton-pass from the original Star Trek crew to The Next Generation team, Generations stumbled in many ways. First, besides Kirk, most of the original Enterprise crew was essentially given cameos, causing many to bow out.
In a vastly complicated plot that seemed to take some cues from The Final Frontier, Kirk, Scotty & Chekov race to rescue a planet being threatened by a galactic anomaly called The Nexus. Unfortunately, only a few refugees are able to be saved – including Whoopi Goldberg’s Guinan, and Kirk is lost in the Nexus.
Flash forward 75 years, and The Next Generation crew is fighting to retrieve Geordi LaForge, who some Klingons abducted. In doing so, they find out that one of Guinan’s fellow refugees, Soran, played by Malcolm McDowell, is trying to reenter the Nexus, dragging a whole planet with him.
While trying to stop him, the Enterprise suffers a warp core breach and crashes on the doomed planet. Meanwhile, Picard and Soran end up in the Nexus, where they meet Kirk, who also tries to stop Soran – ending with his death. For real this time – unless you read the novels in the “Shatnerverse.” Yeah.
9. Star Trek Beyond
While the pre-release buzz was that Star Trek Beyond would be a return to the roots of the franchise, the film itself didn’t quite deliver. Or rather, it delivered on what the filmmakers thought was a return to its roots. Trek has always been a fusion of philosophical and courageous, with a light dusting of action.
Unfortunately, despite an excellent, almost too self-aware script from series star Simon Pegg (Scotty), in the hands of director Justin Lin, probably best known for The Fast & The Furious series, we careen from one action set-piece to the next. After numerous fan complaints of JJ making Trek more like Star Wars, Beyond appears to double down on just that tone.
Considering Into Darkness ended with the crew leaving on its ‘historic’ five-year mission, this film appears to leap well past that, with Kirk seeking a promotion to admiral. Ambassador Spock has died, echoing the actor’s passing between films, and the whole crew seems restless.
They are sent on a rescue mission that goes wrong almost immediately, ending with dozens dead and the ship crashing on an alien planet. There they discover a ship thought lost over 100 years earlier – and learn its captain is the mutated megalomaniac that attacked them in orbit. For whatever reason, he decided to join the Xindi – bad guys almost no one remembers from the low-rated Enterprise TV show. Idris Elba does fine in this role, and we get a cameo from Jeff Bezos, of all people, foreshadowing his race to space, I suppose.
10. Star Trek: Insurrection
After the success of First Contact, Paramount Pictures suggested that the next film have a lighter tone. After all, it had worked very well for Star Trek IV, at that point, still the most successful of the franchise. The problem was, nobody was quite sure what that meant and all had different ideas on how to execute it. With too many cooks trying to fit their pieces in together, the resulting movie was exactly what they hoped to avoid – it felt like a longer episode of the television show and not a spectacular film.
The film starts with Brent Spiner’s Data working undercover, observing the people of a low technology planet when he mysteriously malfunctions. Spiner had requested that his character die in the film, as he was aging and required more makeup to look like the android he was playing, but this was not to be. Captain Picard is informed of the malfunction but told not to worry about it.
So, of course, that’s exactly what he does. The Enterprise shows up on the planet to discover that it is not low-tech. The inhabitants just prefer a more monastic, eternal lifestyle. A further discovery reveals that the observation team is working with alien enemies to try and steal the planet and its fountain of youth properties for themselves. It would have been a fine episode, but it did not strike a chord with filmgoers.
11. Star Trek: Nemesis
The problem with any trend is that it’s bound to be beaten at some point. And for Star Trek films, Nemesis – the fifth even-numbered film in the franchise – was that end. The film was received and performed so poorly that an additional planned film to close out The Next Generation cast was scrapped almost immediately. Nevertheless, producers had long wanted to bring the Romulans to the big screen, and this film would finally be their chance. In fact, the film begins on the Romulan home planet and sets the tone for the villain-centric movie.
On the way to a wedding reception for Riker & Commander Troi, the Enterprise gets a distress signal from a planet near the Romulan neutral zone, leading Picard and Data to discover a dismantled older version of Data. Almost immediately, they are sent to Romulus to try and broker peace with the Federation. But, of course, it’s a trap – set by a Romulan, er Reman slave turned conqueror, Shinzon. As an added bonus, Shinzon is a Romulan clone of Captain Picard – played by a then-unknown Tom Hardy. The film is mostly watchable due to Hardy’s performance and Brent Spiner portraying Data at his most human. But the franchise was dead. Or so we thought.
12. Star Trek: Into Darkness
Things looked positive for the second foray into the newly established Kelvin timeline – reuniting the cast, the writers, and director JJ Abrams, plus the addition of Benedict Cumberbatch as the villain. But, unfortunately, things did not go exactly as planned. Rumors about who Cumberbatch would play came out almost instantly – and proved to be true, despite denials from the set.
Long before the film was finished, it had been Monday morning quarterbacked to death by geek and pop culture fans. Of course, it didn’t help that on top of essentially re-working a story already seen on screen, Rodenberry’s vision of diversity in the universe was seemingly ignored in the casting of Cumberbatch as an established Asian character.
Instead of telling a wholly original story, Star Trek Into Darkness was turned into a retread of The Wrath of Khan, with some notable changes – many of them unexpected and seemingly unmotivated. While elements like terrorist attacks and changing allegiances added to the story, some parts of the story were flipped for nothing more than subverting audience expectations. Instead of Spock’s noble sacrifice, Kirk gives his… well, not life. He’s barely sick before a plan is hatched to revive him. All in all, the sequel did not deliver what the Trek fans wanted or needed. It’s an okay movie, just not at all a great one.
13. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
As part of his contract negotiations to appear in Star Trek IV, William Shatner was handed the director’s reins for Star Trek V, which he imagined as a search for God, who is really the Devil. Following the crew’s pardons for the events of Star Trek III & IV, they are sent on a mission to rescue Klingon, human and Romulan diplomats, taken hostage by an unknown person. That person turns out to be Spock’s half-brother Sybok (long before Spock's classified sister, Michael Burnham on Star Trek: Discovery), who is convinced he can reach the hidden planet of universal creation – but only with the Enterprise’s help. Oh, and there’s a Klingon that wants revenge on Kirk for some reason that keeps following them and complicating matters.
The Final Frontier is roundly considered to be the worst of the franchise – almost killing it. Almost no one liked Shatner’s story, and the 1988 Writer’s Strike further complicated things. Afraid they were losing momentum, Paramount rushed the movie into production, even though it would cost them Sean Connery – they wanted him to play Sybok. Still, he was already committed to Indiana Jones. Special effects were cut to avoid going over budget, and poor audience testing forced them to rework the ending as less offensive.
Star Trek Going (Ten) Forward?
After the disappointing box office from Star Trek Beyond and the unfortunate death of Anton Yelchin who played Chekov in the Kelvin timeline films, further development of Star Trek films appears to have stalled. However, the rumors of a Quentin Tarantino entry still persist.
Where to Stream the Films
Paramount and CBS-Viacom seem much more focused on the television side at the moment, with four shows currently on Paramount+, including the upcoming sixth season of Star Trek: Discovery and the final season of Picard.
For the first time ever, all of the Star Trek films can be streamed from one platform – Paramount+. Formerly CBS All Access, the streamer has every episode of Star Trek as well, from the original series (and its animated spinoff!) to the more recent entries into the canon.
Additionally, you can stream all of these movies on Hulu except the 2009 (Kelvin Timeline) Star Trek.
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This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Paul Rose Jr has worked as TV News Producer, Forensic Analyst, and Train Conductor, among many other things. He’s the former TV Editor for Infuzemag.com and owns more books, DVDs, and comics than most people have seen in their lifetimes. When he’s not writing articles, he exercises his creative muscle writing screenplays and acting in film and television in Los Angeles, CA.