Star Trek celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, with the original TV series having debuted in September 1966. Six — soon to be seven — series later, Star Trek is one of the most popular franchises in the world, thanks in no small part to its string of movies.
Over the 37 years since 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture, there have been three different casts to helm the bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise, who have each steered the property through movies notably excellent and notably not.
As the 13th movie, Star Trek Beyond, open in theatres today, it’s the perfect time to look back on the film franchise that boldly went where no one had gone before. These are the Star Trek movies, from worst to best.
12. STAR TREK V:
THE FINAL FRONTIER (1989)
It’s often said the odd-numbered Star Treks are the weaker efforts, and none exhibit that more than the fifth one. After Leonard Nimoy received so many accolades on behalf of the successful Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, William Shatner petulantly grabbed the reins and directed the series to its dumbest entry, seeing the crew sailing off to meet God — after an extended prologue including a mountain-climbing Shatner and a laborious campfire sing-along.
11. STAR TREK:
Nemesis is worse than Insurrection by the smallest sliver, solely due to the crippling flaws that only ambitious movies can suffer from. Featuring such turn-of-the-millennium issues like human cloning and biological warfare, Nemesis’ sole redeeming factor is a bold performance by a young Tom Hardy as the villainous Shinzon. Otherwise, Nemesis drowns any positives with clunky action scenes and a plot that makes no sense.
10. STAR TREK:
The second-worst of The Next Generation’s batch — merely by the virtue of aiming lower than Nemesis and thus failing less spectacularly — Insurrection remains the most forgettable of the twelve Treks. With enough plot for an hour-long episode of TV but three times that in length, Insurrection finds the Enterprise crew stepping into a the middle of a fight between two remarkably boring species of aliens, against Starfleet’s wishes.
9. STAR TREK III:
THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK (1984)
A different crew goes against Starfleet’s wishes when Kirk and (what remains of) his crew steal the Enterprise upon realizing that the spirit of Spock — who the crew left for dead at the end of The Wrath of Khan — is still alive and calling out for help. The Search for Spock attempts moments of real gravitas but is weighed down by a pointless villain played at the completely wrong pitch by Christopher Lloyd, ultimately preventing Star Trek III from coming close to the heights reached by its predecessor.
8. STAR TREK
INTO DARKNESS (2012)
The best thing that can be said about Star Trek Into Darkness is that it’s so brightly made, so skilfully edited, and so swiftly paced, all of its giant gaps in logic aren’t evident until the credits roll. Into Darkness holds up to the least scrutiny of any Trek movie, though, and makes the wrong choice so many times it almost feels intentional. It’s a thrilling movie and the most action-y the series had been, but really wastes the goodwill justly earned by the masterful 2009 reboot.
7. STAR TREK:
THE MOTION PICTURE (1979)
Star Trek: The Motion Picture was unfairly trashed upon its 1979 release for not being what fans wanted or expected, but the deliberate pace and extended sequences of visual wonder serve to produce one of the most reflective and quietly thoughtful science-fiction movies since 2001: A Space Odyssey. The Wrath of Khan was a reaction to everything The Motion Picture “did wrong,” the most obvious of which is a lack of an interesting villain until the final moments.
6. STAR TREK:
There are parts of Generations that are wondrously brilliant, like the magnificent score and Malcolm McDowell’s performance as myopically obsessed scientist Soran. But there are also aggravatingly silly parts and poor choices, constantly undermining any intelligence or ambition. It’s ironic that a movie built so much on passing the torch between two Star Trek series is so torn between the best and the worst tendencies of the six prior films.
5. STAR TREK IV:
THE VOYAGE HOME (1986)
Until J.J. Abrams made Star Trek mainstream, The Voyage Home was the movie-of-choice for casual moviegoers who didn’t know Scotty from Chekhov, and remains one of the most popular. A time travel movie that finds Kirk’s collective grounded in 1986 San Francisco, The Voyage Home splits the crew of the Enterprise into pairs, leaves them in situations rife with comic potential, and creates several bite-size buddy comedies. The only thing that feels really clunky nowadays are all the dated cultural references.
4. STAR TREK:
FIRST CONTACT (1996)
After Generations’ identity issues, First Contact shed the shadow of Star Trek’s original crew completely, resulting in the strongest film with Picard in the lead. Again employing time travel, First Contact finds the nefarious Borg collective going back in time to prevent humanity’s contact with aliens and thus preventing Starfleet from ever coming into existence. All that stands in their way is the crew of the Enterprise. Every supporting performance is strong, as is the script. First Contact only suffers due to Jonathan Frakes’ greenness as a director.
3. STAR TREK VI:
THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY (1991)
The best way to recover from a poorly received Star Trek movie is to hire Nicholas Meyer to direct the follow-up. After The Final Frontier showed how low Kirk and Co. could go, the director of The Wrath of Khan return the series to its former glory. Shakespearean allusions proliferate this political thriller that finds Kirk’s lifelong prejudices (and an unknown mole) framing him and Bones for a Klingon assassination. Not only does The Undiscovered Country have the most intelligent statements to make of any Trek film — aided by its timeliness so soon after the Cold War — but Christopher Plummer’s measured work as the Machiavellian commander Chang remains the best performance of all twelve movies.
2. STAR TREK II:
THE WRATH OF KHAN (1982)
The Wrath of Khan laid the blueprint for everything Star Trek would become after 1982, while proving to be a rare enough sequel as to improve on the original in every way. A sequel less to Star Trek: The Motion Picture than to the episode “Space Seed” of the original Star Trek TV series, The Wrath of Khan found the show’s most formidable villain accidentally rescued and setting off on a Melvillian quest of mad vengeance against Kirk, who’d marooned him there, where Khan’s wife and most of his crew died. With countless quotable lines and the most memorable scene of the entire film series, The Wrath of Khan is a brilliant masterpiece dulled just a fraction by it not aging so well over three decades later.
1. STAR TREK (2009)
Reboots of dead series don’t often work well, let alone stand above their originators. Unexpectedly, J.J. Abrams’s post-millennial restart of the whole Kirk and Spock dynamic was insanely strong, giving the characters the origin story they never truly had, in film or television, and making them feel like a true ensemble of equals. As well, the original six movies’ was always hindered by some actors (whose specialty was TV) not being suited for the leap from television to film; 2009’s Star Trek is immaculately cast, with every actor giving exactly the right performance. It all works so smoothly — and looks so refreshingly new, thanks to Abrams’ visual look, which hadn’t yet become a parody of itself — that people who never cared for Star Trek and series diehards alike all found an engaging movie upon which to agree.
(All photos: Paramount Pictures)