Ranking the Star Trek films

One of the things people will ask about any franchise, really, is “what’s your favourite film in the series?” And it can be a difficult question to answer, especially in a franchise like Star Trek where the films tell different kinds of stories. Star Trek: The Motion Picture is a very different entity from its sequel, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan – and those are just the first two titles! The former is a more ethereal, slow-paced affair, whereas the latter is very much an action-sci fi film. People have preferences over which style they prefer, of course, and that’s to be expected, but comparing different styles of film and different kinds of stories is difficult. It’s like asking “do you like comedy or horror?” The answer can be “I like both”, or “it depends what I’m in the mood for in a given moment” – but neither of those answers makes for a satisfactory ranked list!

There have been, as of 2020, thirteen Star Trek films – with a fourteenth rumoured to be in the early stages of production. The films were released between 1979 and 2016, making Star Trek one of the longest-running film franchises, alongside such series as James Bond and Star Wars. The films have featured three different casts: the cast of The Original Series, led by William Shatner; the cast of The Next Generation, led by Sir Patrick Stewart; and most recently the reboot cast, led by Chris Pine. I have long felt that there is scope within the franchise for other crews to get a look-in; don’t get me started on the idea of a Deep Space Nine film or we’ll be here all day!

Initially I planned to do a proper ranked list, with each film in order from 1-13, but that was just too difficult. Instead I settled on this approach: the films will be split into four groups, which reflect their rough positions in my ranked list. There will be a bottom three, a lower- and an upper-middle, and a top three. Within the sections, films are listed in chronological order by year of release. It’ll make sense when you read it, don’t worry!

So without further ado, let’s rank the films!

Spoiler Warning: There will be spoilers ahead for the films on this list.

The bottom three:

This wasn’t a particularly easy task, because generally speaking, I have enjoyed at least parts of all of the Star Trek films. While some of them do have issues in terms of things like plot, special effects, and dialogue, every single one has redeeming qualities that make for worthwhile and entertaining viewing. However, when considered alongside other offerings in the franchise, these are the films I feel are the weakest. Remember that these sections are in chronological order of release, not ranked in order of preference.

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)

Sybok, Spock’s half-brother, was introduced in The Final Frontier.

Where The Final Frontier arguably came undone was William Shatner’s involvement as writer and director. Due to contractual obligations with Paramount, after Leonard Nimoy had his turn in the director’s chair with The Search for Spock and The Voyage Home, William Shatner was able to exercise his right to write and direct his own Star Trek film. And he seized the opportunity to put Kirk at the centre of the story, as Sybok (Spock’s long-lost half-brother) used his power of pain removal to corrupt members of the Enterprise-A’s crew.

There were specific issues with some of the film’s visual effects, too, notably in its climactic final act. The “god entity” which Kirk and the crew encounter was widely criticised, even at the time, for being sub-par, and a now-infamous sequence with rock-aliens ended up being cut entirely from the film due to the visual effects being so poor. Shatner would blame this on using a new special effects company, as his first choice was busy on another project.

There are some great moments in The Final Frontier, though. The camping scene with Kirk, Spock, and McCoy was touching at points, and ended up being one of the last times we got to see the trio alone together before The Original Series era was over. The shuttle crash was also a high point for me, being sufficiently tense and dramatic. Scotty saying he knows the Enterprise “like the back of his hand” and then immediately walking into a bulkhead was genuinely funny – if slapstick. And finally, the setting of Paradise City on Nimbus III managed to perfectly convey that it was a run-down failure of a settlement – a metaphor for the peace initiative that it was founded for.

Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)

Nemesis would be the final outing for the crew of The Next Generation… until Star Trek: Picard brought some of them back!

Nemesis was, until January 2020, the furthest point in the main Star Trek timeline (except for some sequences set in the far future), and because of that I think its status may have been over-inflated. It isn’t a bad film per se, and it does try to tackle a number of different issues. Firstly, the premise of Picard vs Picard is interesting in theory, as is the film’s exploration of Romulan society and the introduction of the Remans. The Romulans had had a long presence in Star Trek, but Nemesis was the first time we’d seen them in such detail.

It’s often criticised for being “not very Star Trek-y”, with much of that criticism being aimed at its director, Stuart Baird, who admitted up front that he wasn’t familiar with the franchise when making the film. However, the main points about Picard being cloned, the Remans being telepathic, and the references to Deep Space Nine’s Dominion War story arc did, at least in my opinion, tie it to the rest of the franchise in an adequate way.

Data being killed off was also a point of significant criticism at the time, not just for the death itself but for how Data was handled in the story. Star Trek: Picard has recently rectified that – Data was able to have a proper goodbye, and it was shown how his legacy remains in the way his friends think of him. But for eighteen years the way Data’s death was handled was, for some fans at least, a bone of contention.

The buggy sequence at the beginning of the film – complete with a car-chase – was also something that many fans felt did not work. And it does, at the very least, feel like something that was shoehorned in rather than an organic element of the story.

Star Trek (2009)

Putting Spock and Kirk at odds with each other for much of Star Trek was seen as jarring by many fans.

Star Trek had been in continuous production for 19 years (or longer, depending on how we count things) when Star Trek: Enterprise was cancelled in 2005. For many, it felt like the end of an era and it seemed for a time that Star Trek was dead and not coming back. However, in 2006 rumours began circulating of a new film being in production, and this project – helmed by JJ Abrams – would eventually become Star Trek.

This film was a significant change from anything that had come before in that it was a stylised, action-heavy film – with some sci-fi trappings. The franchise had dipped its toes in the action-sci-fi world before (more on that in a moment) but for many fans, Star Trek took too much of an action-oriented approach to its story. While there were familiar elements – most notably the appearance of Leonard Nimoy as Spock – the time-travel and alternate universe elements of the story took a back seat to fighting and drama.

The decision to recast The Original Series characters, instead of using a new crew, was also a problem for some fans – I know several people who still, more than a decade on, have refused to see Star Trek simply for that reason. There were major aesthetic changes that went along with the recasting – notably the USS Enterprise itself, both inside and out. Many of the sets – which included a Budweiser brewery as the Enterprise’s engine room – simply felt very far removed from what had come before.

The recast crew behaved very differently to their Prime Timeline counterparts, which only added to the feeling that Star Trek was something radically different. The decision to have Kirk and Spock be at odds for large parts of the film may have given both characters a chance for development over the course of their arcs within the film, but was incredibly jarring to longstanding fans of The Original Series.

All in all, a combination of the various factors listed above came together to make 2009’s Star Trek a major change for the franchise. There are great moments in the film, but they’re interspersed with action sequences that would be more at home in another franchise.

The lower middle:

Leaving the weakest films behind we’re now approaching the middle of the road. All of the next four films have great moments – and a smattering of issues. They are, however, better than the ones we just looked at.

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984)

The original USS Enterprise was destroyed in The Search for Spock.

For some reason, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock is the first film with The Original Series’ cast that I can remember watching. It’s possible I’d seen others while very young, but if so I can’t remember them. Because The Search for Spock is the middle part of a trilogy, I think some aspects of it were confusing in that first viewing!

I’ve mentioned a number of times on the blog, but my introduction to the Star Trek franchise, in the early 1990s, was The Next Generation. It wasn’t until later that I was introduced to The Original Series, and this film may well have been my first point of contact with its crew. So on a personal level, I think I have more of a connection to The Search for Spock than I otherwise might!

There’s a great villain here – Kruge, played by Christopher Lloyd of Back to the Future fame – and his relationship with Kirk, particularly in the latter stages of the film, is genuinely interesting. The death of David Marcus was also something shocking an unexpected for a Star Trek film of this era – particularly as he was a returning character from The Wrath of Khan.

The main thrust of the plot is somewhat convoluted, however. The idea of a death-and-rebirth narrative is interesting, but it’s also one which can be complicated and difficult to get right – as The Search for Spock shows in places. It also works to undermine Spock’s sacrifice in The Wrath of Khan, which was the emotional crux of that film. That’s not to say I want Spock to stay dead considering some of his subsequent appearances, but an immediate (or almost-immediate) resurrection can make a character’s death or sacrifice lose some of its impact, and I’m afraid that definitely happened here.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)

Scotty interacts with a 1980s computer while Dr McCoy looks on in The Voyage Home.

Time-travel stories are among my least-favourite in Star Trek. The mechanics of time travel are inconsistent across the franchise, with it being shown to be both something routine that starships are capable of as well as something technologically difficult or impossible to achieve. I also dislike stories where the crew travel to the present day, as I feel in every single case where it’s happened the stories have become dated.

The basic premise here is interesting, though, and it’s a great example of how Star Trek can use its science fiction setting to highlight real-world issues – in this case, the issues of pollution and a loss of biodiversity in the oceans. While the whale-probe was, I felt, visually uninspired and seeing the crew in the mid-1980s after travelling back in time dates the film considerably, there were some fun moments.

Scotty interacting with a 1980s computer was funny, as was the line about changing the timeline by giving someone the formula to make “transparent aluminum”. The franchise has always had a sense of humour, and after the very serious tone in both The Wrath of Khan and The Search for Spock, it was a welcome change to see a film which brought back these lighter moments.

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

Sulu, Kirk, and other bridge crewmen in Into Darkness.

In the months before Star Trek Into Darkness released, there was rampant online speculation about Benedict Cumberbatch’s character. Many fans correctly guessed that “John Harrison” was actually legendary Star Trek villain Khan, so going into the film having read all that the revelation didn’t surprise me as much as it should have.

However, Star Trek Into Darkness is, in my opinion, a decent homage to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan that manages to celebrate elements from that film without going too far and crossing the line into copying and ripping it off. Considering JJ Abrams would later cross that line – twice – in the Star Wars franchise, I’m thankful that he didn’t do so here.

Many of the issues I mentioned with 2009’s Star Trek are still present, but the Khan story always worked well in an action setting so I think that aspect of it, at least, can be forgiven. And despite the fact that we haven’t known this version of Kirk and Spock for very long, Kirk’s “death” in the Enterprise’s engine room was still an emotional hit in the same way Spock’s had been in the original.

Star Trek Into Darkness aimed to be a spiritual successor to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and it did largely succeed. While it’s definitely the lesser of the two, it was a significant improvement over Star Trek, and remains for me the high-water mark of the JJverse trilogy.

Star Trek Beyond (2016)

Beyond’s release was overshadowed by the death of Anton Yelchin.

Star Trek Beyond is the most recent of all the Star Trek films (at time of writing). Director JJ Abrams left the franchise to focus on Star Wars, but his style was nevertheless present. Beyond attempted to move away from the high-octane action of Into Darkness and tell a story which focused on characters and the dangers of interstellar exploration.

There were some great visual moments – notably Starbase Yorktown, described as a “snow globe in space” – and the story did tie into some elements from Star Trek: Enterprise, which was a nice nod to fans. I also noted, in Chris Pine’s portrayal of Kirk, something that felt like a throwback to Jeffrey Hunter’s original Christopher Pike at the beginning of the film, as he deals with the heavy burden of command.

Penned by Simon Pegg, who also played Scotty, I appreciate what Beyond tried to do. It’s clear Pegg is a huge fan of the franchise, and that he wanted to tell a story that would have been at home in The Original Series. There were hits and misses in terms of the story, but he did an admirable job trying to nudge what was in danger of becoming an action franchise closer to past iterations of Star Trek.

One point I greatly disliked was Jaylah. Not the character herself, nor her portrayal, but the name. A homophone for “J Law”, aka actress Jennifer Lawrence, who at the time was famous for her role in The Hunger Games, I just felt that the reference was stupid and unnecessary.

Sadly, the film was overshadowed by the losses of both Leonard Nimoy and Anton Yelchin – the latter having taken over the role of Chekov, and was killed in an accident at the age of 27. While Nimoy’s passing was acknowledged in the film, the filming and much of the post-production work had already been completed at the time of Yelchin’s death, and while a simple message at the beginning commemorated him, some argued at the time that the producers behind Beyond should’ve done something more.

The upper middle:

Now we’ve arrived in the top half – and we’re finally looking at films which are good all-rounders. Any one of these could have broken into the top three, and they’re all films which I’m happy to go back to time and again.

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)

The Undiscovered Country featured an assassination… and purple-blooded Klingons.

According to some rumours, The Undiscovered Country almost wasn’t made following the reaction to The Final Frontier two years earlier. However, the cast did reunite for a final outing – and this film finally saw them earn a decent pay packet for their roles. Gene Roddenberry saw The Undiscovered Country shortly before he passed away – and he hated it. It was a shift in tone from The Original Series, and he felt that presenting Starfleet as a military organisation, and in particular some of Kirk’s anti-Klingon racism had no place in his vision of the 23rd Century.

Regardless, his objections were overridden and what resulted was a much better film – in my opinion – than any other since The Wrath of Khan. Kirk’s portrayal was humanised by his flaws and failings, and the plot was dramatic and tense as a conspiracy within Starfleet – aided and abetted by the Romulans and some within the Klingon Empire – sought to disrupt a budding peace initiative.

The film’s special effects were great – and many even stand up today. The “Praxis Effect” is named for a location from The Undiscovered Country, and has been used many more times in subsequent pictures, which is certainly a testament to that particular visual effect!

The final scenes of the film are especially touching, as it was clear even at the time that this was to be the final outing for the cast. Kirk, Scotty, and Chekov would return in Star Trek: Generations and of course Spock was back in the JJverse, but this was the last time the full cast were together, and the ultimate finale of The Original Series in that respect.

Star Trek: First Contact (1996)

The events of First Contact had a huge impact on Picard.

A lot of people (of my generation, at least) would surely pick First Contact as their favourite Star Trek film. It’s often held up alongside The Wrath of Khan as one of the absolute best, and it’s hard to disagree with that assessment.

Picard is forced to confront the worst moment in his past when the Borg return, hell-bent on assimilating Earth once again. Though defeated in the Battle of Sector 001, the Borg and the Enterprise-E travel into Earth’s past – specifically to the day where humans and Vulcans made first contact.

Sir Patrick Stewart gives what is one of his best performances both inside and outside of Star Trek here, as Picard is haunted and overwhelmed by his history with the Borg. And the Battle of Sector 001 was one of the franchise’s best space battles – the last-minute arrival of the Enterprise still gets me even though I’ve seen it countless times!

Worf, who was a regular on Deep Space Nine at this point, did feel like he’d been shoehorned in as temporary captain of the USS Defiant, but that didn’t really detract from things. While I freely admit time-travel is not my favourite premise, because the setting was still in the future – the year 2063 – it didn’t feel awkward in the way some episodes and films do. And seeing humanity’s first warp flight, as well as learning a little more about the events in Earth’s history prior to the founding of the Federation was interesting!

Star Trek: Insurrection (1998)

Insurrection showed us Riker and Geordi as we don’t usually see them!

I feel like Insurrection gets an unfairly bad rap. While it could be argued that there were sillier elements to the film’s “fountain-of-youth” story, I feel like the points people often criticise about some of the behaviour of the main characters are actually the things I enjoyed most.

Picard and his crew travel to the Briar Patch, where Data has malfunctioned and gone rogue, exposing a secret Federation mission to observe a humanoid race. It turns out that the observation mission was simply a cover to harvest the planet’s life-preserving natural wonders – a scheme dreamt up by a rogue Admiral and a race called the Son’a. In what could be considered a mutiny, the crew race to save the planet’s inhabitants.

This kind of story, where a small crew has to work outside of the law to do the right thing, is exactly my jam. I love these kinds of stories – both inside and outside of Star Trek – so Insurrection was great for me. It also marked a change from seeing Picard and his crew as totally straight-laced, giving them freedom to let their hair down a little. It’s primarily for that reason – the crew seemingly acting “out-of-character” – that some people don’t like it, and I do understand and respect that. Sometimes that can be jarring. But in the context of Insurrection’s story, I just feel that it worked. And as a film that wasn’t just an action-fest but that told a story with heart, I feel that it captured perfectly the spirit of what Star Trek has always tried to be. Insurrection is the kind of story that could have been an episode of The Next Generation – which is why I like it.

The top three:

This is it, then! Out of all of the Star Trek films, we’ve arrived at my personal favourites.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

Seeing the Enterprise for the first time in The Motion Picture is one of my favourite sequences in all of Star Trek.

Last year marked The Motion Picture’s fortieth anniversary. I wrote an article to commemorate the occasion – you can find it by clicking or tapping here. In short, The Motion Picture succeeded for me for several reasons. Firstly, as a slower-paced, ethereal story with a message, I feel that it fits in perfectly with what Star Trek is and aspires to be. Secondly, it set the stage for Star Trek coming back into the popular consciousness in a big way, and launched the franchise into the 1980s – the decade which would see several good films and a return to television with The Next Generation. Thirdly, much of the aesthetic of Star Trek, things we consider inseparable from the franchise, had their roots here – not in 1966. The sets built for The Motion Picture would be in continuous use on other Star Trek projects for years afterwards, in some cases right up to the cancellation of Enterprise in 2005.

The Motion Picture succeeded in bringing Star Trek back. And while it may not be everyone’s favourite, if it weren’t for the modest success it enjoyed in 1979 and early 1980 there would have been no more films, and probably no additional series either. Star Trek would have fizzled out and would be remembered today as a cult 1960s show with one failed film. That isn’t the case – and everything that’s happened in the franchise since 1979 has happened on the back of what The Motion Picture did.

As a story, I like that it’s not about defeating or killing an enemy. Instead, the climax of the film is about understanding, merging, and the creation of new life. Star Trek set out to seek out new life – and The Motion Picture showed us that the new life we might discover out in the cosmos could be almost entirely beyond our understanding. But despite that, Kirk, Spock, and the crew managed to bridge the gulf, solve a mystery, and save the Earth in the process.

While The Motion Picture may be, in some respects, dated from an aesthetic point of view (some sets and costumes are very seventies!) I do like some of the visual sequences. When Kirk and Scotty travel by shuttlepod to the refit Enterprise, it’s a genuinely emotional moment to see the ship in all its glory. And the music adds to that. While we’ve come to know The Motion Picture’s theme better as the theme to The Next Generation, it debuted here, as did Star Trek’s “golden age”.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

Kirk in the captain’s chair in The Wrath of Khan.

The Wrath of Khan needs no introduction. For many fans, this is the best film that the franchise has to offer – and arguably it’s the best story featuring the cast of The Original Series. Supervillain Khan returns, having been exiled by Kirk in Season 1 of The Original Series, and he’s determined to have his revenge.

The maroon uniforms that debuted here are among the franchise’s best, and aesthetically the film looks amazing. Some moments have been dated somewhat by the passage of time, but the recent 4K rerelease still held up on my television at least!

Featuring some amazing performances, including from Ricardo Montalbán, who reprised his role from The Original Series, The Wrath of Khan is a classic revenge tale in a 23rd Century setting. There are some amazing twists along the way as the Enterprise is catastrophically damaged, Kirk and his crew end up trapped inside a planetoid, and a project created by Starfleet scientists for the purpose of terraforming is co-opted and turned into a weapon of mass destruction.

The Battle in the Mutara Nebula was arguably Star Trek’s best ever space battle at the time – inspired by classic war films set on submarines, it was a claustrophobic, edge-of-your-seat ride as the damaged Enterprise tries to hide from and battle Khan’s USS Reliant. Both ship designs are now considered iconic in the franchise. The battle still holds up today, even compared to the franchise’s more recent offerings.

Spock’s sacrifice is hard to put into words. Though we now know he survived – after a fashion, anyway – the raw emotional moment of seeing him die in front of his friend, and then be launched into space, is incredible. Both Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner are outstanding here, and while Shatner in particular can be justly criticised for some of his performances in The Original Series, any critic should look at this film and the sequence with Spock in particular before writing him off.

Star Trek: Generations (1994)

Generations saw Kirk and Picard team up.

Dr McCoy made a cameo appearance in The Next Generation’s premiere, and both Spock and Scotty would also crop up in later seasons. However, for the most part, the show trod its own path and stayed clear of The Original Series. This was a good decision overall, as allowing the franchise the opportunity to flourish without its original crew arguably opened the door to its future success. But by 1994, The Next Generation was over as a series – Deep Space Nine and the soon-to-premiere Voyager were continuing in the 24th Century. It was also approaching Star Trek’s 30th anniversary, and so it was decided to bring together the two different eras and tell the ultimate crossover story.

Seeing Kirk and Picard together on screen, working in common cause, was amazing. It’s absolutely one of the high points of the franchise for me personally, as both characters are fantastic. Both Sir Patrick Stewart and William Shatner are on top form, and Kirk’s death toward the end of the film was a truly heartbreaking moment. The early part of the film also explored a small portion of the unseen years in between The Original Series and The Next Generation – an era which, I’d argue, would make for an interesting prequel film or series.

Malcolm McDowell plays Soran, who is a devious and truly impressive villain, and the film ties itself neatly to The Next Generation with the return of the Duras Sisters. Kirk’s death wasn’t the only devastating loss in Generations, either, as we also have to say goodbye to the Enterprise-D after seven years. Just as in The Search for Spock a decade previously, the loss of the Enterprise was a genuinely emotional moment.

Star Trek can tell deeply emotional stories – and Picard’s arc in the film as he loses his only remaining blood relatives, and is then tempted by the Nexus giving him a family of his own is a great example of this. The Nexus itself, and how exactly it works, is left a little ambiguous as of the end of the film, but it managed to avoid the trap of The Final Frontier and stay clear of portraying it in a quasi-religious way, even though the whole story with Soran being desperate to get back can, in some ways, be taken as an analogy for religious zealotry.

As a fan of both The Original Series and The Next Generation, and both captains, this crossover story always feels fantastic.

So that’s it. I managed to get the films into some kind of vague ranking! It wasn’t an easy task, because on a given day I might have a craving to sit down and watch The Final Frontier or Star Trek Beyond, and even though I don’t consider them as good as others in the franchise, they still have enjoyable moments. When films in a series can be so different from one another, it can be hard to pin down which ones are subjectively “better”.

Nevertheless, I gave it my best shot!

The Star Trek franchise, including all films mentioned above, is the copyright of ViacomCBS. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.