The Definitive and Indisputable Ranking of Star Trek Films (#5-#1)

[Author’s note: This posting is a reprint of my list that originally appeared on The Practical Dreamers blog.]

Thank you everyone for checking out part two of my ranking of the (original timeline) Star Trek films. Yes, again, we’re only doing the original timeline movies because my proudly self-righteous purist hat is securely fixed atop my head. And if you didn’t know this was part two, then you lucked out because this is the good part of the list. However, I would of course encourage you to also check out part one here. No really, I’ll wait…

Well now that you’ve thoroughly read through part one (numbers 10-6), I’ll admit it: yeah some of those in part one were a little rough. But hey when you have ten movies spanning almost four decades (1970s-2000s), they can’t all be winners. From now on though, these ones can all be winners. And do you know why that is? It’s because we’re in the top five. From here on, they’re all above average…by definition. It’s simple mathematics. And you can’t argue with math. It’s definitive and indisputable, just like this ranking.

Yes, there was some massive tongue-in-cheek action going on in that last paragraph. But in all seriousness, I love all five of these movies. And if I had either children or spouses, it would be like picking between them. But I don’t, so what we’re left with is a bad analogy. And that’s what I specialize in…bad analogies.

Anywho…before you get me sidetracked on another tangent, let’s just get to the good ones. Let the lovefest commence! Or to use a classic Captain Picard catchphrase: “Make it so!”

#5: Star Trek: Insurrection (1998)

MPAA Rating: PG

Jean-Luc Picard: We are betraying the principles upon which the Federation was founded. It’s an attack upon its very soul.

This is the third of the Next Generation cast films. The common knock against this one is the same as it was for Generations–that it feels more like a bigger budget version of a two-part episode from the show than it does a movie. While I understand that, I don’t particularly agree with it. The scope on this is much larger and the plot is complex and multi-layered. And, it works as a standalone–you don’t need to have seen the series or the previous entries to enjoy this film.

The short plot summary is that Data ‘malfunctions’ while on a research/observation mission and begins attacking the other team members, and eventually reveals himself to the ‘indigenous’ population of the planet whom they were observing/researching. Data warns them that the Federation was their enemy. Our Enterprise crew travels to the planet to recover Data, and determines that he was shot by the other members of the research team which caused him to malfunction. And he was shot because he was unintentionally close to discovering that there was a plot to forcibly displace the planet’s population to acquire the radiation from the planet’s rings that rejuvenates the body and promotes longer lifespans. To complicate matters further, we learn that the planet’s population is actually not indigenous. For lack of a better term, they’re “space Amish”. They were a faction of refugees from a warp-capable society that traveled to this planet centuries ago and chose to give up advanced technology in favor of living essentially as pre-industrial peasants. Picard and crew decide to side with these people against the machinations of the Federation and its allies, the Son’a, who possess the technology to extract the radiation. There are even more twists and turns along the way, but I don’t want to give too much away, because of course this is only 22 years old.

The other potential knock against this movie–that I don’t agree with–is that it’s a ‘white savior’ film. Again, the plot is far more complex than that and the characters are acting from a position of moral principle against injustice. Opposing injustice to the point where you’d risk your own life fighting against your former compatriots should never be casually or, worse, condescendingly dismissed. To dismiss solidarity as a savior complex is reactionary thinking and reactionary politics.

Anyway, there are many things this film does well. It’s a good balance of tones and elements between action, drama, introspection, suspense, and even comedic moments. This balance between serious and comedic is perhaps best exemplified by what I will call the Gilbert and Sullivan scene. For as much as I love the utopian ‘world’ that is the Federation, I do enjoy seeing them get knocked off their high horse every now and then. I love this film’s particular perspective and angle on the Federation in portraying them as essentially a villain–a foolish and unwitting one perhaps, but a villain nonetheless. I love the twists throughout, especially the dramatic one about the Son’a that I will not spoil.

There are so many great scenes and character moments. We get another great moral speech from Picard. I love the Geordi can see a sunrise with his own eyes scene. I love the visual and auditory contrast/juxtaposition between the idyllic Ba’ku and the darker and dystopian Federation in the opening scene.

I love the interaction between the crew members and everything about the scene with our newest Federation members.

F. Murray Abraham is quite good as the villainous Son’a captain, name Ru’afo. I love that Riker and Troi finally get together after a decade of their will-they-won’t-they relationship.

Speaking of romantic relationships, Picard even gets a good love interest.

And this last one is admittedly stupid, but I even love the completely arbitrary and forced inclusion of Worf in this movie even though he was a regular on Deep Space Nine at the time.

#4: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

MPAA Rating: PG

James T. Kirk: Of my friend, I can only say this: of all the souls that I have encountered in my travels, his was the most…human

Okay, for this one there are two things that I want to get out of the way early. For a lot of people Wrath of Khan is their all-time favorite Trek film. And that’s fine. Trek fans will differ on the sequence of the top four, but I don’t know how anyone could put anything else above these four entries in the Trek canon. While the list started getting difficult at the sixth spot, here is where it really gets tough. And this is certainly a fine movie, but for me the plot is just a little too straight forward as a revenge story. The three films above this all have more complex and multi-layered stories. However, again, this movie has some great and iconic scenes, great character performances, and some great lines.

A second thing that I want to get out of the way early relates to my above quote. SPOILER ALERT on a movie that came out 38 years ago, but yes this is the one where they kill Spock. The death and funeral sequences are devastating, and I still can’t watch it without tearing up at least a little bit. And of course it’s so much more effective than the garbage imitation they gave us in the Abrams-verse.

Now that those are out of the way, let’s get to the movie itself. This film follows up on the first season episode titled “Space Seed” where our crew first encountered this ship from the late 20th century populated by cryogenically frozen genetically-enhanced humans led by Khan Noonien Singh. At the end of that episode, when Khan had failed to kill Kirk and take over the Enterprise, Kirk dropped them off on an uninhabited planet to have their chance to build their own civilization from scratch. However, we learn that not long after this planet’s orbit was altered which radically changed the climate of the planet and killed most of Khan’s crew. Now, Khan seizes an opportunity to exact personal vengeance against Kirk, who he blames for everything that has happened since his ‘exile’ to that planet. In both that episode and this film, the character is played by the wonderful Ricardo Montalban, who defines the character. Montalban’s portrayal is easily a great villain performance, but it is also arguably the best villain performance in the Star Trek canon.

In that same vein, this movie is such an improvement over the first film and has no connection to it at all that you would be forgiven for forgetting that The Motion Picture even existed. While the uniforms for this movie are different from both the last movie and from the show, they are the ones that define the film era for the original cast as they are used for this cast throughout their remaining run on film. It’s difficult to overemphasize how important this movie was for rejuvenating the franchise, and showing that Star Trek films could be quality stories, appeal to a popular audience, and with that be financially successful. It was the sixth highest grossing film of 1982. That’s a whole rant that I won’t go into about how Star Trek was quite successful in the 1980s yet has largely been excised from official ’80s nostalgia narratives (along with heavy metal music).

While there are the added plot elements of a new super technology, called ‘Genesis’, to radically terraform planets, and the introduction of a previously unknown (even to him) child of Kirk’s, the plot really does center around Khan’s revenge against Kirk. Khan channels Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) in this film. It is not the last time the franchise would reference Moby Dick, but he does it well and memorably.

This film also gives us the iconic “KHAN!!!” yell by Kirk. Of course we also get the wonderfully infamous Kobiyashi Maru test.

And for you Cheers fans, you get a different and pretty solid early performance by Kirstie Alley as a Vulcan protégé of Spock.

#3: Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)

MPAA Rating: PG

Chancellor Gorkon: You’ve not experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon

What can we say about the last hurrah for the original cast? They sure went out on a good one. As I said before, there’s a debate to be had between Undiscovered Country, Wrath of Khan, and Voyage Home as to which is the best of the original cast movies.

While all films can be said to be ‘of their time’, it is very true of this film. And while that phrase is often said in a negative manner to mean that a film is dated, that is not my meaning. This film represents or embodies, in every way, the end of an era. This actually operates on three levels.

On one level, as I said, it is the end of the era of the original Star Trek cast. While a few of them would make appearances in later films and episodes, this was the last film to include and feature all of the main cast members from the original television show. As such, this film centers on resolving one of the main conflicts of the Star Trek universe from the original television series that was continued throughout the film series: that of the permanent state of unease and potential war with the Klingon Empire. This film is the resolution of the past and present, and the building of a new future. The ‘undiscovered country’ is the future: it is the fear of being on the precipice of a new era. While the film plays out on the macro-level in the context of the pending economic/ecological collapse of the Klingon Empire, the film is personalized in Kirk. Kirk is among the older generations of Starfleet officers whose entire lengthy career has involved seeing the Klingons as the enemy, and nothing else. In essence, Kirk is incapable of seeing Klingons as people, rather than as a barbarian menacing horde or as a plague almost that needs to be purged from the galaxy.

The genius of this film is that the seeds (or roots) for this plot line and this character arc go back even to the first season of the television show. Kirk was warned by the Organians about this blindingly limited worldview and hatred that he has for the Klingons back in the classic episode “Errand of Mercy”. And even in that episode, the Organians tell them that the Klingons and the Federation are destined to become allies. This worldview was further hardened and personalized with the killing of his son by a Klingon in the Search for Spock film. And Kirk’s feelings about this are recounted in a rather touching scene in Kirk’s personal log. Thus it is no surprise that Kirk’s first reaction is: “Let them die”. That’s why he can be framed for the assassination of the Klingon Chancellor and it is entirely believable even though we (the audience) know for a fact the entire time that it isn’t true.

This film is also about reconciling the past and present on a secondary level within the Star Trek universe. While this was actually the second film to overlap in our time with the Next Generation television show–which began in 1987 and was at the time of this film in its fourth season–this film actually attempts to reconcile the original cast ‘Star Trek’ universe with the ‘Star Trek’ of the Next Generation cast and bring us to a situation where it is actually understandable how the villainous Klingons from the original show could become the relative friends that we experience them as in the latter series. Literally, how we could go from never trusting Klingons to the point where there is a Klingon–Worf–serving on the Enterprise-D. And it is noteworthy and representative of this point that Worf actor, Michael Dorn, actually makes an appearance in this film as Kirk’s Klingon defense attorney.

The further macro level on which this film operates is the real world parallel to the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is certainly there and is an essential and important angle on this film. The Star Trek version though is far more utopian. In reality, the collapse of the Soviet Union would mean the plundering of Russia by capitalists and the United States. Poverty would skyrocket and the life expectancy of the average Russian dropped dramatically throughout the decade. In fact, it took the Clinton administration interfering in the Russian elections to prevent the Communist Party from being elected back into office. For our purposes here, I will leave that rant at that.

Now to wrap it up, this film has so many great parts, scenes, and characters. This film is also somewhat genre-bending regarding the whodunit nature of the scramble to vindicate Kirk and identify the assassin (and conspiracy). Christopher Plummer is wonderful as the villainous (and Shakespear quoting) Klingon General Chang. This film gave us everyone’s favorite Sulu drinking tea meme. I love the amount of Shakespeare in this film and how it has inspired actual Klingon language performances of Hamlet.

The dinner scene is wonderful. There’s a fun little Christian Slater cameo. And you Sex and the City fans will enjoy seeing Kim Cattrall in a very different role–as a Vulcan.

#2: Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)

MPAA Rating: PG

Sarek: It is difficult to answer when one does not understand the question.

If you’ve done the math, you’ve realized by now that I put the two time travel movies on top. That’s not intentional; I just like them the best apparently. The title carries with it a double meaning. For the characters, it is their return to Earth from Vulcan. However, for the audience, it is the franchise traveling to then present time–the voyage to the audience’s home.

Voyage Home is a noteworthy film for a number of reasons. For one, it is the conclusion of the internal trilogy that began with Wrath of Khan. Secondly, it was one of the most financially successful of the original cast Star Trek films. And last but not least, it’s also the film where Star Trek went its most overtly pro-environmental. Many people know this one as ‘the whale movie’

This one picks up where Search for Spock left off with the crew on Vulcan and a resurrected Spock struggling to re-learn and adjust to his old life and the people in it. The crew is set to return to Earth on their commandeered Klingon Bird of Prey to face court martial charges for stealing and destroying the Enterprise when they receive word that the transmissions of a massive alien probe have drained power from the planet and have begun to ionize the atmosphere causing extreme weather events across the planet. Our crew figures out that the transmissions are actually the attempt by the alien probe to re-establish contact/communication with the then-extinct species of Humpback whales. They determine that the only way to save the planet is to travel back in time and retrieve a breeding pair of humpback whales and to put it in Dr. McCoy’s words: “drop ’em off, and hope to hell they tell this probe what to go do with itself”.

Now if that strikes you as a somewhat odd premise for a film: you’d be correct. But it works. The film achieves it by not taking itself too seriously, but it also doesn’t mock its subject matter either. It’s an earnest film that makes its pro-environmental points but also has a lot of fun doing it. And while it certainly has the (literally) ‘save the whales’ message, it is not solely about this. The film makes use of its setting in the then-present of San Francisco in 1986.

So much of the humor in the film draws from the fish-out-of-water dimension of these characters being immersed in a city that is in some sense very familiar to them (San Francisco is the location of Starfleet Headquarters) but is also of course very alien to them. As Kirk warns them at the beginning: “This is Terra Incognita. Many of their customs will doubtless take us by surprise… This is an extremely paranoid and primitive culture”. I’d be lying if I told you that this dimension to the film isn’t a major reason why I rank it this high.

It completely appeals to my anthropological sensibility in terms of making the familiar seem strange, as we look at our own society and our own ‘present’ through the eyes and sociocultural lens of these characters. There are more examples of this throughout the film than I could ever have space for. The crew having to adapt to the vulgarity in language. Spock doing the neck pinch on a rude punker. Scotty having to navigate the world of late 20th century technology.

McCoy having to navigate the world of late 20th century medicine.

There’s the joy of seeing Chekov interrogated as a possible Soviet agent.

And let’s throw the awkward Kirk restaurant scene in there as well.

This last one is just for my own vanity for the reference to Wrath of Khan when Kirk goes to sell his antique glasses to a dealer. I love the temporal paradox of it all.

This is one of those films that despite being the fourth in the series actually works pretty well as an introduction to the franchise for a general audience because it’s easily relatable in terms of existing in the then-present time. However, of course it also has so many developments on previous plot lines and in-universe ‘Easter eggs’ and tie-ins that make it even more fun and enjoyable for the more hardcore fan. Simply put: I love this movie. Highly recommended.

#1: Star Trek: First Contact (1996)

MPAA Rating: PG13

Borg Queen: Brave words. I’ve heard them before: from thousands of species across thousands of worlds, since long before you were created. But now, they are all Borg.

As I said in the intro, the Borg are one of the ultimate Star Trek villains, and especially so for the Next Generation cast. It was only a matter of time until we got the Borg movie that we always deserved.

The Borg as we see them in this film are a little different than how we see them in the show–it’s amazing what a movie budget does. But it’s not just a look. You also get the (admittedly somewhat controversial) re-imagining of the Borg from a faceless collective to a collective subordinated to a single dominant mind (i.e. the queen).

Nonetheless, Alice Krige absolutely nails it,and you’ll get no complaint from me about this retcon. And I love that they give us the full–what I call the–Borg introduction speech.

First Contact represented not just the modernization of the Borg–which would carry over into Voyager–but it represented a modernization of the whole franchise in terms of an intentional visual differentiation from the television show. We get the new grey uniforms, new artificial eyes for Geordi, and most importantly a new ship–the spectacular and sleek looking Enterprise-E.

As for the plot, the Borg initiate their second attempt at assimilating Earth. After being initially kept out of the fight due to his prior assimilation by the Borg, it eventually falls to Picard and crew to save the day. After thwarting their invasion attempt, the crew must follow the surviving Borg back in time to the mid-21st century to prevent a Borg disruption of the past–specifically preventing formal first contact between humans and extraterrestrials.

While that sounds straightforward, the film operates on two physical levels–on Earth in the post-apocalyptic mid-21st century, and on the ship in orbit as the surviving Borg also attempt to take over the ship–with our cast divided between these two locations. It’s a complicated thing to balance, but the film does it well. And a big part of that is due to the absolute standout performances by Patrick Stewart (of course) and James Cromwell as Zefram Cochrane.

I don’t have the length here to delve into everything that’s worth mentioning about this movie. There are so many great character moments, subplots, and tie-ins that all work. We get Picard’s brief description of the postcapitalist economy of the Federation.

We get the exploration of Picard’s personal vendetta against the Borg through the analogy of Moby Dick. We get humor throughout the film, and even horror elements, yet the film balances all of the tones very well. You also get great little shout outs to the other contemporaneous shows: to Deep Space Nine with the appearance of the Defiant, and to Voyager with Robert Picardo appearing as the Emergency Medical Hologram, as well as an appearance by Ethan Phillips though not playing his Voyager character of Neelix.

In short, I have absolutely nothing bad to say about this movie at all. It is a true joy from start to finish. Oh yeah, you also get a brief early appearance by Adam Scott as a crewman on the Defiant.

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