In 1979, Star Trek went where few TV shows had gone before. Using effects that looked more like 2001: A Space Odyssey and capitalizing on the success of Star Wars, Paramount decided to bring back a canceled television show that somehow found new life as a Saturday morning cartoon and become a sleeper hit in syndication. Did it work?
The fans were forgiving of the overblown first effort and were rewarded with what has become a science fiction classic in its own right, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The franchise made it through eight more films across two series (with elements of two more) before going on hiatus for several years. Then JJ Abrams was tapped to give Star Trek a reboot. He managed to take the overused time travel plot line and graft his own continuity onto the original storyline (over 800 episodes and ten films). The film rocked, though not everyone was happy.
So how do I rate the films?
11. Star Trek: The Motion Picture
Originally a script for an aborted revival of Star Trek as a TV series, this 1979 blockbuster gave us a colorless Enterprise, colorless uniforms, and a colorless plot. A giant entity called V’Ger is headed to Earth to find “The Creator.” Only the Enterprise is in range to intercept, but the ship has undergone a massive refit and isn’t quite done. Desk-bound Admiral Kirk comes out of retirement to take command from Will Decker (a character eventually recycled as Wil Riker in Next Generation.) Nurse Chapel is a doctor now. Rand is a transporter tech. Chekov is chief ass-kicker, and everyone in the original cast has been promoted, except for Spock, who’s gone off to the desert to find himself.
The punchline? This enormous entity was originally a missing NASA probe.
True, this is not as bad as Star Trek V (which is higher on this list than you might expect for reasons that I’ll get to), but it’s a dull, boring plot, and even the climax is boring. Yes, Decker and his beautiful bald girlfriend Ilia get what they always wanted in the end: They wanted to be a beam of light. Yippee. Thank God the special effects attracted enough fannies into theaters to fund a better-written (and acted) sequel.
10. Star Trek: Nemesis
This was the first Trek movie since 1981 that I did not see in the theater. By then, I was extremely burned out on Star Trek and had no desire to even see this one. I finally relented and got it on DVD. It’s two hours of my life I’ll never get back. Like the first movie, Nemesis had a lot of potential, a finale for the Next Generation crew. It was badly executed by a director who did not respect his cast, the franchise, or the fan base. Was Stuart Baird trying to do like JJ Abrams and go for a wider audience? According to the cast, he “had his own vision.” Fine and dandy. So did Nicholas Meyer, Leonard Nimoy, and Jonathan Frakes (who should have directed this.)
It’s the end of the road for the crew of the Enterprise E. Will Riker has married Counselor Troi and is moving on to take his own command. But wait! Picard’s clone has taken over the Romulan Empire and wants to… um… Well, he hates Picard. Me personally, I’d be hating the Romulans, but unless you’re an idiot like Glenn Beck, the idea of someone like that becoming the leader really doesn’t pass the smell test. What else went wrong?
Picard driving an SUV on an alien planet. Data’s Spock-like sacrifice at the end (which made little sense.) The whole Romulan coup subplot. Just a murky, stupid movie that could have been up there with the 2009 movie, First Contact, and The Wrath of Khan. Not a good ending for the original run.
9. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
Okay, let’s be honest here. This is really the dumbest movie of the franchise. There are a lot of ridiculous flourishes here. The Enterprise has 86 decks? It doesn’t even look that big on screen. The fake God at the end that sounds like it’s constipated when it tries to kill Kirk? And the Klingon Captain Klaa? Purely comedic.
To be fair, every single cast member, including those critical of Bill Shatner, has pointed out that Paramount pretty much forgot the movie was even under production and kept cutting the budget. Couple that with a director who, as an actor, was starting to transition into a more comedic presence, and you have a recipe for unintentional parody.
And parody is what keeps this movie from being worse than the tedious The Motion Picture (which even has a dull name) and the badly executed Nemesis. The cast seems to be having fun despite the ridiculousness of the plot and dialog. The scenes in Yosemite National Park at the beginning with Kirk, Spock, and McCoy are actually well-done and well-written (all except Spock’s rocket boots. That sequence comes off as a Wile E. Coyote bit remixed for the coming 1990’s.) As long as you don’t take it seriously, remember to make fun of it as you watch, it’s actually quite funny. Should have been better, but then Shatner should not have directed.
8. Star Trek: Insurrection
Honestly, I had trouble remembering what this one was about five minutes after walking out of the theater. I think F. Murray Abraham plays the leader of an alien race addicted to facelifts. That and Picard falls in love with a 300-year-old woman. There’s a vague time travel element to this that makes little sense. It’s well-paced, thanks to Jonathan Frakes, and gorgeously photographed, but I’m not sure there was enough here to justify an entire episode of the series, let alone an entire movie.
This was the movie that cost Ron Moore and Brannon Braga, originally the wonder duo of Next Generation and First Contact, as well as Deep Space Nine, their regular gig of penning Star Trek movies. It also cost Frakes the opportunity of directing the series final effort. What this movie suffered from, though, was overwork. Paramount had Deep Space Nine on the air, as well as Voyager, was still employing Moore as a producer and Braga as Voyager’s executive producer, and was already deep into developing Enterprise. Insurrection became the neglected little sister in the mix, and it shows in this turkey. They could easily hired another screenwriter. Better still, take Rick Berman out of the equation. Berman seemed to look at each movie on his watch as a television movie with a huge budget.
7. Star Trek: Generations
At last! The two captains meet! It starts off well enough. Kirk, Scotty, and Chekov see the Enterprise B off on its maiden voyage. Naturally, disaster strikes and the Enterprise is the only ship in range. In the process, Captain Harriman (Alan Ruck, aka “Cameron” from Ferris Buehler’s Day Off) slowly realizes Starfleet wasn’t quite finished putting the ship together. Leave it to the old guys to take over and save the day. In the process, Kirk is sucked out of a gap in the hull and into a temporal vortex. If that had been the end of Kirk, this movie might have been a bit better, but instead, said temporal vortex, which explains why Guinan was psychic, becomes an excuse for one of the most contrived bits of casting in movie history.
This comes off more as a long episode of The Next Generation and is not the most auspicious debut for that cast on the big screen. Darkly photographed with a murky plot, it gives Kirk one of the most ignoble endings. Too bad, because Malcolm McDowell is great as Soran, the sociopathic, smarmy villain. Lursa and Betor, the conniving Duras sisters from Next Generation, meet their fiery fate. Data has fun with his new emotions (even saying “Oh, shit” when he realizes Deanna Troi has just wrecked the Enterprise.) But overall, not very satisfying.
6. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
Klingons making nice with the Federation? This loose allegory for the end of the Cold War marked the end of the original cast’s run in theaters. There are plot holes big enough to drive the Enterprise through, and sometimes it rides roughshod over its own plot. But there are some great moments, both serious and comedic in this one. Chancellor Gorkon sums up the conflict in this movie nicely: “You don’t trust me. Do you, Kirk? I don’t blame you. If there is to be a brave new world, our generation is going to have the hardest time living in it.” When Gorkon is promptly assassinated, with Kirk and McCoy framed for the murder, everyone has to overcome their prejudices to find out who’s behind it all.
While the movie seems a bit rushed, it benefits from guidance from Leonard Nimoy and Nicholas Meyer, who were responsible for the troika of the second, third, and fourth movies. A bit more militaristic than creator Gene Roddenberry would have liked, it nonetheless had the feel of The Wrath of Khan that saved the movies from the scrap heap.
5. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
This could have ranked higher, but it had a dodgy premise. Spock’s body was shot into orbit around the Genesis planet and has somehow regenerated as a result. But the planet’s rapid aging is also aging the newly baby Spock (who has no mind to speak of now. It’s in McCoy’s head) rapidly as well.
What keeps this movie from falling down around the Final Frontier and Nemesis on this list is that the premise is almost superfluous to this film. Directed by Leonard Nimoy (his first movie and a condition of his returning), the movie uses the chemistry of the original cast to its fullest potential. It also develops the backstory of James T. Kirk nicely, building up the relationship with his son (whom, I suspect, will be conceived in the upcoming Star Trek Into Darkness) and then tragically ripping them apart in a way that bears fruit three films later. It’s understood that Spock would obey orders and leave Kirk’s body on Genesis despite the outrage that might cause. Kirk would expect no less from his best friend, but he is James T. Kirk. And the rest of the crew also know Kirk would fly through the gates of hell, even sacrifice the Enterprise itself (which he does), to save any one of them. That’s what this film is all about.
4. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
Star Trek does a time travel movie. If anything, this movie is The Motion Picture done right. It takes the same premise and simply goes in a different direction with it. Nimoy again directs and does what he and Nicholas Meyer do best: Exploit the chemistry of the cast. On their way to their “own funeral,” as a sarcastic Chekov puts it, an alien probe comes to Earth and threatens to destroy the planet if it does not hear from that world’s most intelligent species. No, not humans. Whales. Humpback whales. Which disappeared… Oh, right about the time I’m writing this, which is Sunday evening before this posts. Taking a cue from a couple of episodes, they slingshot back into time to bring back some humpback whales.
Done for comedic effect, the movie brings Kirk and crew full circle, redeeming them for the crimes they committed to save Spock in Star Trek III, and puts them on the bridge of a new (and familiar-looking) Enterprise in the end. It’s whole fish-out-of-water vibe – Kirk’s awkward swearing, Spock looking like a hippie in 1987, Scotty’s inability to figure out the mouse on a Macintosh – is what brought in non-Trekkies to this movie. The crew drawing closer together and carrying on the adventure again brought in the core audience. Win-win.
3. Star Trek: First Contact
The Borg go back in time to kill Zefram Cochrane, inventor of warp drive, before the Federation can begin and be a permanent thorn in their collective side. Picard is not having it and follows them, only to have his ship, this new Enterprise, slowly be taken over by the bionic zombies.
Directed by Jonathan Frakes and written by a surprisingly underworked Bragga and Moore, this movie does what the Original Series movies did: Use the cast’s chemistry to tell the story. Picard is out for payback while Data proves to be more human (in a good way) than even he suspected. Together, they face the Borg Queen, the actual intelligence of the species personified in a being who is both sensual and repulsive at the same time. She is sort of a human version of The Bitch from the Alien movies. Extra kudos to this movie for helping raise the profile of James Cromwell, who went from obscure television actor to a go-to guy for playing powerful, if often corrupt, men and, on the softer side, the kindly farmer in Babe.
2. Star Trek
This could have been bad. And if you’re one of those who has a favorite original cast member who just cannot be replaced, it is bad. But red matter aside, this movie rebooted a stale franchise with a new look and a new feel, using the old continuity as a jumping off point. While some of the cast do a good job capturing the characters originally played by someone else – Simon Pegg as Scotty and Karl Urban as McCoy in particular – others added a new dimension to previously unexplored characters. John Cho plays a less confident, but more kinetic Sulu while Zoe Saldana puts some much-needed flesh on the bones of Uhura’s character, something original actress Nichelle Nichols complained was missing in the original run.
It’s Kirk who is the most changed, and you can’t help but expect it in the film’s first ten minutes. Kirk’s father is killed – on screen, no less – moments after Jim Kirk’s birth. So, instead of Shatner’s original martinet who eventually loosens up and becomes a curmudgeonly old admiral, Chris Pine plays Kirk as a rebellious, arrogant young man who has the original Kirk’s swagger and smarts, but none of the discipline we saw in “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” Nero plays one of the most bizarre Trek villains. Angry over the destruction of his planet and the death of his wife and daughter, it never occurs to him to simply go to the capital of Romulus, and say, “Hey, I’m from 150 years into the future. There’s a supernova that’s going to crack the homeworld in two right about then. You might want to tell the Vulcans to step it up with the red matter a little faster.” But this man is not rational. This movie is #2 for reviving a dead franchise and making it into something new instead of regurgitating the same old thing.
1. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
In the franchise’s second reboot on the big screen, director Nicholas Meyer pretends Star Trek: The Motion Picture never happened. Instead of setting the movie two years after the end of the original series, he puts our heroes 15 years forward. They’re older, tired, and past their prime. Yet, Khan escapes the prison Kirk made for him, hijacks a ship of the line, and goes after him, hoping to use the Genesis device to kill him.
This is Moby Dick in space, as well as Run Silent, Run Deep (which was directed by The Motion Picture director Robert Wise). Only Kirk and Khan are both Ahab and Great White Whale. The interplay between Kirk and Spock is poignant through most of the movie, even though it’s Kirk we pity in the beginning, the forgotten man watching the world move on without him. In the end, it’s about sacrifice and duty. Originally intended to the end of Spock, this movie, a scifi classic in its own right, serves as the template and the jumping off point for the rest of the Original Series movies.
All photos Paramount Pictures