by Christopher Jones
After more than three decades of big screen voyages, the Star Trek film count has now grown to eleven, with a twelfth installment on the way. We’ve been taken on quite a ride along the way, and have traveled from the 23rd century to the 24th and back again. In the second episode of The Ready Room Greg Harbin and I covered the Trekathon event in which 23 Trek fans screened all eleven movies over the course of two days and ranked them all. So where do I stand? Which are the best and which are the worst? Let’s find out…
#11: Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
This poorly lit, unwanted child of the Star Trek universe is almost universally accepted as the worst film of the lot; which is too bad because it is built around a concept that is actually quite interesting—that God is what we make him. Unfortunately, this idea is destroyed by poor writing, inept directing, forced attempts at humor, and overall bad production. William Shatner’s long-sought-after turn at directing resulted in a box office bomb that exudes the same arrogance that its director has often been known for. Besides the concept, the only good thing about The Final Frontier is the excellent score by Jerry Goldsmith.
#10: Star Trek: The Motion Picture
The triumphant return of Star Trek from shortsighted cancellation and the realm of reruns came in 1979, at a time when the world was a little more prepared to embrace Roddenberry’s vision. It arrived in the form of a plodding, overly grandiose epic that seemed to want to be the next 2001: A Space Odyssey. Marred by overdone sequences such as a flyby of the Enterprise that gives viewers enough time to go to the bathroom and buy popcorn without missing any of the story, the whole plot of the movie is a bit hard to swallow. Despite its many flaws, The Motion Picture is an important part of Star Trek history that is still enjoyable to watch from time to time.
#9: Star Trek Insurrection
The follow-up to the very successful First Contact sees the TNG cast make a 180-degree turn from action to philosophy. This means that on the one hand it is a let down, lacking the excitement that drove First Contact to box office success, while on the other hand it is on target with a return to what has made Star Trek and TNG so successful over the years—examining the inner workings of humanity. The message this time is about the violation of rights and forced relocation of populations, with echoes of the Europeans and the Native American tribes. A story that had the potential to be great is presented in a film that feels like it was put together with less than 100% effort. With Star Trek at its height Berman and Paramount were just going through the motions. Insurrection is a great concept and good movie that has its moments, but the return of the TV-episode feel and the lack of a certain intangible “magic” finds it sliding down the chart.
#8: Star Trek Nemesis
The last installment of the Trek film franchise to be helmed by Rick Berman was been touted as “a generation’s final journey.” It almost felt like a franchise’s final journey, but despite its cool reception from fans and weak box-office performance Nemesis is overall a fitting end to an amazing run for TNG. Picard and crew resurrected Star Trek and shaped the franchise into what it is now. Nemesis demonstrates just how far Star Trek has come over the decades and how much richer the Trek universe is today that in the days of TOS. A gutsy move by Paramount put the characters and the franchise in the hands of those with no Trek experience, and the gambit resulted in a film with a unique flavor that is intriguing, exciting, and meaningful all at once; even if it fails to fully connect with “Star Trek.” We see the familiar world of TNG dismantled before our eyes—for better and worse—and the loss of something we love is surprisingly satisfying.
#7: Star Trek Generations
Picard meets Kirk in this film that served to pass the big screen torch from one generation to another. Suffering from the TV-show feel—from costume design to set design to framing—Generations wasn’t much more than an extension of the seventh season shown in theaters. With hit and miss casting—Malcolm McDowell was born for the role of the villain Soran while Alan Ruck is impossible to take seriously as captain of the Enterprise-B—Generations was an adequate vehicle for transitioning the TNG cast to movies but could have been much better. The crash of the Enterprise-D, though contrived, was spectacular nonetheless. The death of Kirk was poorly handled and lacked the “big bang” finish he deserved. The film did carry one great message about making the most of our lives: “Time is the fire in which we burn.”
#6: Star Trek (2009)
The J.J. Abrams reboot of Star Trek ruffled the feathers or more than a few long-time Trekkies, but the reality is that is reinvigorated a dying franchise and ensured that we’ll get new Star Trek for years to come. Not only is another film in the works but the renewed interest in Star Trek should eventually lead to a seventh television series of some type. As far as the film goes, it is the most exciting Star Trek movie and succeeds fully in its goal of connecting with a new, younger audience—something Star Trek desperately needs. The casting, costume design, art direction, acting, and the directing are all beautifully done. As a story it is difficult for this film to rise to the top of my rankings because it focuses too much on character introduction and uses too many implausible plot devices to really compete with the best TOS films and my nostalgic connection to them. But as a shot in the arm to an ailing franchise it’s just what the doctor ordered.
#5: Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
Just as Nemesis forced the TNG cast to grow and evolve, The Wrath of Khan and The Search for Spock did the same for the TOS cast. The death of Spock, the discovery and subsequent death of Kirk’s son, and the destruction of the original Enterprise brought an onslaught of emotional turmoil to Kirk and his crew. In Star Trek III Kirk demonstrates one of his best qualities: rebellion. Going against the orders of Starfleet, he puts together a risky mission to recover Spock’s body and free McCoy of his mental turmoil. This exhilarating example of determination, desperation, and resourcefulness shows why Kirk is perhaps the most beloved of all Trek captains.
#4: Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
As we entered the tumultuous 1990s and the Cold War came to an end, Star Trek took a serious look at that significant turn in history by taking the U.S. - U.S.S.R. conflict and transferring it to the Federation and the Klingon Empire. From the Chernobyl-like disaster on the Klingon moon Praxis to the financial challenge of maintaining military parity, the Klingons were effectively turned into the Soviets. Filled with great inside jokes that paid tribute to the classic series and the crew that was on its final journey, the mostly serious historical and social commentary of The Undiscovered Country made for an exciting conclusion to the missions of the crew of the original 1701. Accented by an excellent performance by Christopher Plummer as General Chang, Star Trek VI effectively mixed Tom Clancy, Sherlock Holmes, Shakespeare, and Peter Pan for a thrilling whodunit that made for an exciting yet sad 1991 Christmas season.
#3: Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
A lighthearted ending to the storyline that began in The Wrath of Khan, The Voyage Home proved that Star Trek could laugh at itself—something that hadn’t happened since the original series episode “The Trouble with Tribbles” (unless your count “Spock’s Brain”… which was unintentional humor). Filled with unforced, natural humor—unlike its follow-up The Final Frontier—Star Trek IV finds Kirk and crew trying to bring two humpback whales back from the past to save Earth from its own shortsightedness. Rather than being menaced by Klingons, our heroes are menaced by San Francisco traffic and mid-80s American culture. Spock swimming in his underwear to mind meld with a whale is just one of the many jewels in this film that remained the biggest moneymaker in the franchise until J.J. Abrams rebooted Trek in 2009. Gently delivering a timely ecological message, The Voyage Home is probably the most fun you’ll have watching Trek.
#2: Star Trek First Contact
The first film to feature the TNG cast exclusively is filled with similarities to The Wrath of Khan. Both are excellent translations of small-screen foe to big-screen menace, and both are space-age takes on Melville’s masterpiece Moby-Dick. Marked by excellent casting—Alice Krige as the Borg Queen, Alfre Woodard as Lily, and James Cromwell as Zefram Cochrane—First Contact largely sheds the TV-episode feel of Generations and creates a mixture of action and philosophy that is Trek at its best and appeals to both Trekkies and non-Trekkies alike. Excellent direction by Jonathan Frakes and spectacular special effects round off a flick that is spot on and gives Star Trek II a run for its latinum at the top of the charts.
#1: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
This follow-up to the original series episode “Space Seed” brought us perhaps the greatest single villain in Star Trek history. As the franchise found its footing after 1979’s plodding Star Trek: The Motion Picture, fans were treated to a spectacular cat and mouse game filled with shades of Moby-Dick. Space battles, classic Kirk cunningness, and an unexpected touch of mortality left fans talking until the release of Star Trek III and the resolution of Spock’s fate. After all these years, watching Wrath of Khan is still a delight—especially the new director’s cut DVD—and it comes in as my top Trek film of all time.