Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Star Trek Movie Ranking

At a recent Star Trek convention in Las Vegas-which was held during the same weekend as the D23 Expo-the crowd was polled about their favorite Star Trek films, and the result was the films being ranked in the following order:


Obviously this ranking of the films is totally incorrect, meaning that I have a different opinion. Also, what the heck is Galaxy Quest doing there? It’s a fun movie, sure, but it’s not a Star Trek film any more than Spaceballs is a Star Wars film. Anyway, here is my listing of the Star Trek films, ranked from worst to best. All films are ranked solely on the basis of how much I enjoy them, and nothing else. Your mileage may vary. Let’s begin:

12. Star Trek: Nemesis. Nemesis is a terrible movie that fails on pretty much every level. Check out the Plinkett review if you’d like a detailed breakdown of all the film’s problems, but here are the most outstanding ones: a horrible script that tries to trick you into thinking it has a complex mystery plot when it’s really just a cynical rehash of The Wrath of Khan, a tired “nature-versus-nuture” message that’s only profound if you’re age 12 or younger, and production values that are more suited to a SyFy original movie than a major motion picture.

11. Star Trek: Insurrection. A bland, forgettable excuse for a film. The only reason it exists is because it had been two years since the last one, and at the time two years was the prescribed interval between Star Trek movies. Insurrection tries to be too many different things, and it fails at all of them. It wants to be an action movie like First Contact, and fails because its company of middle-aged TV actors are not convincing action stars. It wants to be a romantic comedy, but the humor is forced and unfunny and the romance between Picard and Anij isn’t believable. And it also wants to be a Classic Star Trek Morality Play, but it fails at that too because the moral is stupid: the 600 attractive Space Amish who aren’t native to the planet should get to hoard its Fountain-of-Youth powers for themselves for what reason exactly? In the end, the only good thing you can say about Insurrection is that it’s not quite as bad as Nemesis.

10. Star Trek: Generations. Generations is a textbook case of what happens when there are too many cooks in the kitchen. Paramount wanted the film-which was supposed to reboot the film franchise with the Next Generation cast-to include some cast members from the Original Series. Originally it was supposed to be all of them, but when that proved impossible it was whittled down to William Shatner and whoever else was available and didn’t want too much money. Picard and Kirk were supposed to meet somehow, but without time travel. Also, Patrick Stewart wanted an emotional storyline for Captain Picard. And William Shatner wanted to be able to ride his horse. The producers wanted Data in a central role since he was the Next Generation’s most popular character. And of course there had to be action and space battles. Oh, and all of this had to happen on about half the budget that a normal blockbuster tentpole film would get, because Paramount was kind of cheap when it came to Star Trek. Brannon Braga and Ronald D. Moore-who had only written for television before this-put all these required elements into a blender and the result was a movie where the climax is three elderly dudes having a fistfight on top of a mountain. The one positive thing I’ll say is that the saucer crash sequence-which was one of the last big movie effects sequences to be accomplished without CGI-still looks pretty impressive after all these years.

9. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. A trifecta of unfortunate events conspired to make Star Trek V a stinker: a writers’ strike, the fact that Industrial Light and Magic’s “A-team” was working on Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Paramount was unwilling to pay big bucks for ILM’s “B-team”, and the choice of William Shatner to direct. Shatner was fixated on a story where the Enterprise crew sets out to physically locate God. Producer Harve Bennett and co-star Leonard Nimoy tried to get him to reconsider, but Shatner was irrationally confident in his ability to make the concept work. Even worse, somebody (probably the studio, but I’m not sure) wanted the movie to feature the same kind of humor that worked so well in the previous film. Unfortunately, under Shatner’s direction the humor was mostly embarrassing slapstick that reduced the supporting characters to cartoon versions of themselves. With an experienced director, a more polished script, and better special effects, the movie might have been good. As it is, there are some nice moments, but not near enough to save it.

8. Star Trek: First Contact. I know what you’re thinking: how could I rate this one so low? First Contact is widely regarded as the best of the Next Generation films. I’ll admit that I loved First Contact when I first saw it. At the time it was a breath of fresh air for the franchise: reimagined Borg! Action hero Picard, armed with a big ol’ phaser rifle and an attitude! A new Enterprise designed for interstellar butt-kicking! Unfortunately, none of this makes up for the fact that the plot doesn’t make any sense and ruins the Borg, perhaps the most unique adversary we ever saw on Star Trek.

As originally conceived, the Borg were an impersonal horde of cyborg “space locusts”. Their only goal was the single-minded consumption of technology. (For their second appearance, it was decided that they also wanted to assimilate people) But it’s kind of hard for Captain Picard to have a verbal confrontation with an impersonal foe, and it must have been written into Patrick Stewart’s contract that every film had to have a scene with him verbally confronting the villain. And so the Borg Queen was created. As a concept, it was kind of cool-a physical manifestation of the Borg hive mind. Unfortunately, it also gave the Borg an Evil Leader. Instead of an impersonal, cybernetic locust swarm, the Borg were turned into a bunch of stormtrooper-like henchmen commanded by an Evil Overlord who brought about her own downfall by making all the stupid Evil Overlord mistakes.

First Contact’s B-plot, about Zefram Cochrane building his warp ship, is even worse. The movie asks us to believe that some guy living in a remote village in Montana in the aftermath of a nuclear war is able to build a warp-capable rocket ship out of spare parts. Not even Tony Stark could do that!

And just to strain the audience’s credulity even more, we’re asked to believe that these people who have been through a nuclear war and are still distrustful of each other and divided by deep-seated issues that go back centuries if not millennia, are suddenly inspired to join hands and sing Kumbayah by a UFO landing, then invite the aliens from the UFO to the local honky-tonk to have a beer with them. Do I even have to make fun of this?

All in all, Star Trek: First Contact may have accomplished what it set out to do in 1996, but I believe it’s aged worse than any of the “good” films in the franchise.

7. Star Trek Into Darkness. The most recent entry in the Star Trek film franchise is a fun and exciting ride. Unfortunately, like Star Trek: Nemesis it rips off The Wrath of Khan, albeit a bit more capably. But what really eats at me is how obviously unqualified Kirk is for his job. Prime Universe Kirk was always keenly aware of his responsibility for the lives of his crew. But JJ-verse Kirk doesn’t figure that out until about two seconds before his bad decision-making is about to get his crew killed by Admiral Robocop and his Big Bad Spaceship of Cartoonishly Obvious Villainy. This is clearly something that scriptwriters Robert Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof didn’t think about and would prefer the audience not think about, either. Still, setting that to one side (and it’s not easy!) I do like how this is the first Star Trek film since 1991 to even attempt some relevant social commentary. Also, the film is very well-acted, and all the actors give very enjoyable performances.

6. Star Trek (2009). For the first time since 1979, Star Trek got an actual movie-sized budget. And for the first time ever, the big-screen starship Enterprise was not crewed by middle-aged television actors. The result was a fun, fast-moving film that made Star Trek relevant again. What makes the success of this film even more remarkable was how similar it was to the previous film, Nemesis, which is the standard by which Star Trek movie badness is judged. Like Nemesis, it features a bald, irrationally angry Romulan-oriented person in a Big Evil Spaceship of Doom who plans to use his implausible superweapon to destroy the planet Earth to satisfy his vendetta against a member of the Enterprise crew. And although Nero’s reasons for wanting to destroy Earth make no more sense than Shinzon’s, J.J. Abrams Star Trek is still many orders of magnitude more entertaining. It’s just a well-executed film. The actors really shine in their roles; Zachary Quinto is especially good as Spock, and Chris Pine manages to make you root for Kirk even though he spends most of the movie behaving like an arrogant frat boy.

Unfortunately, the nonsensical decision to “award” Kirk with command of the Enterprise at the end of the movie despite the fact that he’s only just graduated from the Academy makes it very hard for you to suspend your disbelief. It’s bad enough that the film seems totally ignorant of the distances between things in the solar system (the Enterprise needing to “hide” behind one of Saturn’s moons to avoid being seen by Nero’s ship in Earth orbit reflects a level of scientific ignorance I haven’t seen since the old Lost In Space) but it kills me that it’s also ignorant of how real human organizations work, too.

5. Star Trek: The Motion Picture. I know everyone says this movie is boring, and they’re not altogether wrong. But The Motion Picture is by no means a bad film. It’s really amazing that it turned out as well as it did considering its troubled production history. It handles the characters very well; Kirk takes a while to get his groove back after being stuck behind a desk for two years and Spock has a great arc where he’s forced to admit that logic alone is not enough. Sure, the film focuses on Decker and Ilia to the exclusion of series regulars like Scotty, Uhura, or Sulu, but wasn’t the Original Series always doing the same thing? The big-screen Enterprise has never looked better than it did in this movie, and the ship’s interiors were thoughtfully designed by people who were honestly trying to depict what a futuristic deep-space exploratory vessel would really be like. Even the much-ridiculed “disco pajama” uniforms are thoughtful projections of what 23rd century astronauts might actually wear. The Motion Picture may not have as much heart as I’d like, but it certainly has a brain.

4. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. One of the very best. Director Nicholas Meyer (who also co-wrote the script) delivered a taut political thriller that expertly drew on current events of the time-the breakup of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. Even better, he did it on a ridiculously tight schedule and an even tighter budget. Composer Cliff Eidelman’s score has a cool “eastern-bloc” sound that’s never really been heard on Star Trek before or since. Other things I like about the film: Admiral Cartwright, a character introduced in Star Trek IV, appears again in a nice bit of continuity then turns out to be one of the bad guys. Also, the behind-the-scenes folks did a excellent job redressing the sets to give the Enterprise a great submarine vibe. It’s unfortunate they didn’t get more time and money to more fully redress the sets they had to share with The Next Generation, most notably Engineering, but they did a fantastic job with what they had. Christopher Plummer is a wonderfully theatrical villain, Michael Dorn has a nice turn as Worf’s grandfather, and Kurtwood Smith does a good job as the Federation President. It’s a shame they couldn’t get Kirstie Alley to reprise the role of Saavik, as her betrayal would’ve packed more punch than that of brand-new character Valeris.

3. Star Trek III: The Search For Spock. Again, I’m ranking the films here based solely on how much I enjoy them. And since my favorite Star Trek films are the “Spock trilogy”, this film is in the right spot on the list. The Search For Spock is often tagged as a “bad” film by people who buy into the notion that only the even-numbered films are any good, but before Internet fandom started telling everyone how to think Star Trek III was pretty well-regarded. And why not? Sure, it’s not as good as Star Trek II, but that’s no reason to dislike it. It deals very well with the aftermath of Spock’s death in the previous film and I really love the story of our family of characters coming together and sacrificing their careers to save their friend. The Search for Spock also holds a special place in my heart as the first Star Trek film I ever saw. Christopher Lloyd does a fine job as the Klingon villain Kruge and Mark Lenard has a nice turn as Spock’s father Sarek, a role he originated on the TV series.

2. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. What? How could I not rank this one number one? The Wrath of Khan is the best Star Trek ever! Have I lost my mind? Not at all. I really love The Wrath of Khan, but I enjoy the number one film on this list just a teeny bit more. And so, my number one favorite Star Trek movie is:

1. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. This is a fun movie, pure and simple. All the characters get something interesting to do (well, Uhura gets the short end of the stick there, but it’s hard to juggle seven main characters and one guest star in a two-hour film) the humor is genuinely funny and not at all forced, and we get to spend some time in every EPCOT Center fan’s favorite decade, the 1980s! Interestingly, The Voyage Home came out in 1986, the same year that The Living Seas pavilion opened, a nice piece of totally unintended Star Trek-EPCOT Center synergy. Walking around SeaBase Alpha, it was easy to imagine it as the futuristic undersea research lab where Dr. Gillian Taylor and her new 23rd century colleagues were studying George and Gracie.

Well, there you have it: my personal list of the Star Trek films, from worst to best.


  1. Great list! My own ranking would be slightly different, but it's good to see ST:TMP getting a little love. Also, your comments on ST IV blew my I'll never be able to watch that movie or visit The Living Seas (what's left of it) without imagining Gillian Taylor running around Seabase Alpha in an orange and blue jumpsuit!

  2. I like the list, David. I agree with your numbers 1 and 2 but I'd probably put Search for Spock a little lower and Undiscovered Country a little higher. I haven't seen the new ones though I have the first on DVD.

  3. I think I'd have put Star Trek VI as number one, moved Star Trek 1 to the last place with Star Trek V right before it, and kept the spock trilogy right after Star Trek VI to take up slots 2, 3, and 4 ironically.


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