This year, Star Trek celebrates 50 years in the culture zeitgeist with the release of its thirteenth film and the production of its sixth TV series. That’s quite an accomplishment for the small budgeted, relatively short-lived Wagon Train to the Stars Gene Roddenberry first developed in 1966. But beyond the movies and the TV shows, Star Trek has inspired a rabid fanbase unrivaled by any of its contemporaries, save for (perhaps) Star Wars. The books, the conventions, the fan films…Trekkies are crazy and crazy devoted to this universe.
I am not a Trekkie. Star Trek is one of the rare cultural entities that has not been taken over by my completeist mentality. I have seen all of the Star Trek movies many, many times and have partaken in perhaps half of the TV episodes over all (most of the original series, all of Next Generation, some of Deep Space Nine, very little of Voyager or Enterprise). But Star Trek has never spoken into my life the way Star Wars has. I do, however, have a great appreciation for the level of commitment Trekkies have for this property.
There are pros and cons to that dedication, however. On the one hand, it is that obsession that has kept Star Trek relevant for 50 years. On the other, Trekkies’ zeal for that which they love makes it incredibly difficult to gain access to their elite club of nerds (I use this term affectionately). Yes, within any fanbase, you’re bound to find a percentage of the membership that scoffs at the minimal knowledge of some of their counterparts. But whereas the average Star Wars nerd takes a “The More, The Merrier” stance on growing fandom, Trekkies seem to crave exclusivity. It’s as if, upon finishing your first Star Trek experience, you’re given a rigid set of rules by which you must live your life and if you’re not keen on learning the Klingon language or reading endless fan fiction or agreeing on the proper way to clean a mythical Transporter screen, then you’re out of the club. There is a line where a fanbase crosses over from “committed” to “obnoxious” and serious Trekkies run up against that line far too often.
This becomes abundantly clear when discussing the Star Trek films with a Trekkie. One of the things I noticed in “researching” this piece is how vastly different the average filmgoer and even the average film critic feel about these movies compared to the average Trekkie. For a Trekkie, Star Trek movies must align themselves perfectly with a pre-established canon and timeline and if they deviate even slightly, then it’s not enough to call out those deficiencies; instead, you must declare the movie worthless and shun its very existence. For the rest of us, these movies can just be entertaining regardless of how they line up with an obscure reference from Deep Space Nine. I’m not bashing this way of life; rather, I’m just pointing out these differences in approach so that we can acknowledge up front that my ranking of Star Trek movies is likely to be different (and perhaps vastly different) from that of a Trekkie and hopefully we can avoid an intergalactic fight. In the words of Spock, “May the Force be with you.” (Just kidding, that was mean.)
12. The Final Frontier (1989) – Original Cast
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 21%, Domestic Gross: $52M
As mentioned in the intro, there’s bound to be some disagreement here between myself and serious Trekkies. But I truly can’t imagine a list such as this that doesn’t begin (or end, if you’re going from first to worst which is, by the way, the wrong way to do this) with Final Frontier. There is not one minute of this movie that makes sense, let alone works in any sort of cinematic fashion. It is basically a 107 minute excuse for William Shatner (director) to explore his God complex. Most Star Trek movies are at least watchable, even if they’re not “good”; not so much with this one.
11. The Motion Picture (1979) – Original Cast
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 47%, Domestic Gross: $82M
The best thing you can say about The Motion Picture is that it’s easily forgotten. If the Star Trek movies were first produced in, say, the late 90’s, Paramount would greenlight a reboot a few years later and title it Star Trek while pretending that the first movie never happened. It is boring, it is nonsensical, it is basically just an episode of the original show stretched out into movie format and, as the years go by, fewer and fewer people remember that it ever happened. (In hindsight it’s kind of amazing that SO MUCH Star Trek came down the chute after this thing flopped so miserably. Good job, Trekkies.)
10. Insurrection (1998) – Next Generation Cast
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 55%, Domestic Gross: $70M
The “TV episode stretched into a full length movie” concept is a common complaint down in the bottom of the Star Trek movie rankings. As a random episode of Next Generation, Insurrection would be fine. But add an extra hour to the run time and suddenly you’re twiddling your thumbs, checking your watch, reaching for your smart phone that didn’t exist in 1998, etc. The first two times I attempted to watch Insurrection, I fell asleep. I have since made it through the movie, thankfully, but only thanks to sheer willpower and those little orange pills that Jesse Spano took in that very special episode of Saved By the Bell. It’s very boring, is what I’m saying. (As one Trekkie I consulted with pointed out, however: F. Murray Abraham is pretty dope no matter what.)
9. Nemesis (2002) – Next Generation Cast
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 37%, Domestic Gross: $43M
I don’t hate Nemesis like many people seem to, if for no other reason than it introduced us to Tom Hardy. But it is easily the laziest of the Star Trek movies. By this point, Next Generation had been off the air for eight years, the cast was ready to go on to…basically nothing, except for Patrick Stewart but still they were all pretty much done with this thing, and the story mostly feels like running out a ground ball. Moreover, there’s this big reveal of Tom Hardy and how he’s Picard’s clone and I was super confused because I didn’t think he looked anything like Patrick Stewart other than the fact that he was bald and most of the movie hinges on this point. So that’s not the best.
8. The Voyage Home (1986) – Original Cast
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 85%, Domestic Gross: $109M
Okay, I know that the average Trekkie thinks of Voyage Home in much higher regard than I do, but hear me out. When I was a kid, I loved this movie. The whales were super dope and it was unquestionably the best of the Star Trek movies to me. And then I didn’t watch it for 20 years, during which time the movie aged HORRIBLY. It is the most 80’s movie of 1986 to the point that I would think adults who saw it in 1986 came out saying, “Man, that was pretty heavy on the references to 1986.” There’s not one thing that happens in Voyage Home that isn’t directly influenced by 1986 and to me, that makes it borderline painful to watch 30 years later. Initially, I actually had Voyage Home a couple spots lower but I didn’t want Trekkies to try to fight me (yet).
7. The Search for Spock (1984) – Original Cast
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 78%, Domestic Gross: $76M
I think of Search for Spock as the median Star Trek movie. It’s fine, it’s watchable, the events actually matter to the canon, and we get some serious Klingons which is nice (and I could be wrong but I think this is the introduction to the new look Klingons, which actually look like terrifying space warriors instead of dudes with wrinkly noses). The stuff involving Kirk and his son has some value and, of course, the Genesis Project provides a convenient way in which to bring Spock back from the dead. But overall, it’s a fairly middling movie and Puberty Spock is EASILY the worst of the Spocks.
6. Generations (1994) – Next Generation Cast
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 48%, Domestic Gross: $75M
When you become a (semi) professional movie critic, one of the things you discover is that sometimes you really liked a movie that came out BEFORE you became a (semi) professional movie critic but other professional critics REALLY did not like that movie and it shocks you. Like, I get that adult movie critics didn’t care for Rookie of the Year the same way I did at 10 years old. But Star Trek Generations? What’s wrong with Star Trek Generations? I still don’t know. I watched it recently and, while it’s fairly messy from a narrative standpoint, I think it’s an enjoyable flick and feels very Star Trek-y to me. It works (mostly) as a hand-off from the original cast to the newbies and in doing so, makes it clear that the franchise is in good hands while giving Kirk a very Shatnerlike send off.
5. Into Darkness (2013) – New Cast
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 86%, Domestic Gross: $228M
If we must fight, dear Trekkies, I am now ready for the battle. Choose your weapon. (You probably chose that super cool Klingon axe thing but, surprise, I picked a Romulan Warbird and blew you away with a photon torpedo, idiot.) I know that some Trekkies HATE this movie the way I hate Dwyane Wade. I’ve heard some respectable Trekkies refer to it as, “the worst Star Trek movie ever including the fan-made movies.” But, from my observations, this hate is derived almost exclusively from the handling of the Star Trek canon, the behaviors of the characters, and the (admittedly poor) introduction of Khan. That’s all well and good, you do your thing, Trekkies. As a non-Trekkie, however, I don’t care about that stuff and I find Into Darkness to be a fun, if flawed, action movie. I don’t think it will age as well as some other Star Trek movies have and if I make this list again in 20 years, there’s a decent chance it drops down a few pegs. But for now, my qualms with Into Darkness are minor and don’t keep me from enjoying it purely as an action movie.
4. The Undiscovered Country (1991) – Original Cast
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 83%, Domestic Gross: $74M
I feel like Undiscovered Country is both the most forgotten and underrated of all the Star Trek movies. Rarely in a Star Trek conversation (of which I have been a part of more times than I care to admit) does someone mention this one, let alone praise its many virtues. For me, Undiscovered Country is a perfect close to the original cast chapter of the Star Trek universe. The crew comment on their respective aging, they’ve seen through their mission of unifying the Federation of Planets, and the plot hinges on the events of the preceding films in the series. Undiscovered Country is a tidy bow on the entire 25 year Star Trek run and it’s also a blast to watch, an underrated element of any Star Trek movie. Also, Christopher Plummer as a Shakespeare-quoting Klingon is kind of the best.
3. Star Trek (2009) – New Cast
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 95%, Domestic Gross: $257M
I don’t think Star Trek is the best of the Star Trek movies (duh, since it sits at number three on this list) but it is probably my favorite and definitely the one I would take with me to a desert island if I was only allowed to bring one Star Trek movie (I’m assuming this is a very specific desert island). There are flaws within it (time travel is always a risky maneuver) but I love what JJ Abrams did with the cast, the characters, and the direction in which he pointed the…ship (*insert gif of David Caruso putting on sunglasses*). Hardcore Trekkies may quibble with the character elements most of all but to me, Abrams went out of his way to respect the original canon while simultaneously giving the new franchise permission, as it were, to boldly go into new territory. Star Trek is fun, it’s energetic, and it makes this universe so easy to embrace for a new generation of would-be Trekkies.
2. First Contact (1996) – Next Generation Cast
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 93%, Domestic Gross: $92M
I know I’ve spent most of this list talking about how “fun” is an important part of the Star Trek universe that often gets overlooked but here’s where we have to take a slight turn: the top two Star Trek movies are the top two Star Trek movies because, for the most part, they set aside the fun and get super serious. First Contact is actually very dark. And that fits, because while Klingons and Romulans and Ferengi look cool and are, at times, menacing in their own right, The Borg are legitimately terrifying and moreover, they once enslaved Picard himself. First Contact has weight to it that most of the other Star Trek movies lack and it works so well for this particular story. In addition, the look of First Contact is on a whole other level from all the previous movies in the franchise. It is cleaner, sharper, and shot with more sophistication (of course advanced technologies help with this quite a bit) than any of non-Abrams movies. It’s sort of the manifestation of everything Next Generation built toward for seven seasons and I love it.
1. The Wrath of Khan (1982) – Original Cast
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 88%, Domestic Gross: $78M
There are very few franchises that have an indisputable champion. Star Wars? You can have a serious debate between A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back. Bond? I personally think Skyfall takes the cake but ask five Bond fans and you’ll probably get five different answers. Avengers, X-Men, and on down the line, there will be very plausible disagreements between fans. But Star Trek? Star Trek has a clear-cut “best” and it’s Wrath of Khan. Khan is such a perfect embodiment of what the original series was all about but cranked up on steroids. The stakes are high, the battles are fierce, and Khan is such an incredible villain. Marvel would KILL to have a Khan in their universe and JJ was so obsessed with him that he almost (or perhaps did, depending on your position) scuttled his own movie trying so hard to make Khan awesome and menacing. It’s the perfect Star Trek movie but it’s also a fantastic piece of science fiction that, I think, holds up on its own better than any of its brothers.