Beyond the 19 films and TV shows that make up official on-screen “Star Trek” canon, there are quite a few more efforts that could, philosophically, be a part of this list.
There’s the rich legacy of officially licensed novels and comic books that brought the characters to life in print form. There’s the technology invented by production designers that eventually became real-life wizardry. There’s the 1999 film “Galaxy Quest” — technically a parody, but spiritually one of the best “Star Trek” movies ever made.
There are the vibrant fan communities that, even during the franchise’s many dormant periods, ensured that “Star Trek” would never actually die. And there are the many real-life scientists and astronauts whose passion for boldly going into the real depths of the unknown were inspired by a show born from the pitch “‘Wagon Train’ to the Stars.”
It’s all thanks to the below, both good and bad. Ranking films alongside TV shows isn’t the easiest task. A seven-season series will have far more opportunities to develop characters and narrative. The tradeoff, however, is that a film has less opportunity for embarrassing moments like “Spock’s Brain,” “Sub Rosa,” “Profit and Lace,” “Threshold” and the “Enterprise” series finale.
Thus, we seek balance. In tribute to the classic archetypes established by Gene Roddenberry in 1966, this list was formulated using a blend of Vulcan hard logic and human gut instinct.
Hopefully, Kirk and Spock (in all of their many iterations) would approve.
19. “Star Trek Nemesis” (2002)
So badly executed that it brought the “Next Generation” film franchise to a grinding halt, “Star Trek: Nemesis” does a lot of bizarre things to these beloved characters: Picard becomes an adrenaline-fueled action hero. Troi is subjected to a full-on sexual “violation.” Data gets replaced by a substandard new model at the end, and Worf can’t hold his liquor. It’s not the only film on this list to commit the sin of trying to rip off the best bits of previous “Star Trek” films, and a very young Tom Hardy is actually pretty well cast as a mysterious villain with a strong connection to Picard (you actually hear him enunciate when he speaks!). But director Stuart Baird’s antipathy for the franchise is pretty apparent in every frame.
18. “Star Trek: Enterprise” (2001-2005)
“Enterprise” tried. It launched with big promises about a new stripped-down approach to space travel, a proven leading man in Scott Bakula and a whole new era of “Trek” history to explore. But by stepping back in time, “Enterprise” brought a weirdly xenophobic attitude to a franchise built on acceptance and unity, and it didn’t help that from the very first episode, Vulcan first officer T’Pol was treated more like eye candy than the Spock equivalent she was theoretically meant to be. At the end of Season 2, “Enterprise” took a big chance by engaging with post-9/11 culture, creating an allegorical tragedy on Earth that militarized the crew, and Seasons 3 and 4 are a distinct improvement over the first years. But that didn’t stop the show from limping to a tragic end with arguably the worst series finale of all time. Also, if you have forgotten about that opening credits sequence, let us remind you: “Enterprise’s” placement on this list is no accident.
17. “Star Trek Into Darkness” (2013)
Leaving aside J.J. Abrams’ mental mind games during the lead-up to what we all suspected would be a “Wrath of Khan” rehash, there are so many moments of “Into Darkness” which have us questioning basic logic and sense. And when you watch the film knowing that Abrams’ next big gig would be “Star Wars,” sequences like the trench run on Kronos begin to make a lot of sense. In the end, the best critique of this film was written by Josh Fruhlinger and Mallory Ortberg: “‘Star Trek Into Darkness’: What Came Next, by Dr. Leonard Bones McCoy.” (Though we’ll also add that that tribble just looked weird. How hard is it to get a tribble right?)
16. “Star Trek: Insurrection” (1998)
“Insurrection” is not a great movie, by any stretch of the imagination. It is pretty bad. But to be honest, it feels more like “The Next Generation” than many of the other “TNG” films — a rather silly installment of “TNG,” to be sure — and puts more emphasis on character than others in the series. Again, it is not good. The best ideals of the Federation feel betrayed, too much of the film is devoted to the crew acting like teenagers and Worf gets a pimple. But it is also not the worst.
15. “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” (1979)
If we were to say that there is one truly outstanding element of “The Motion Picture,” it would be this: Uhura is rocking a truly amazing — and natural — ‘do (for which she had to fight). It’s fun to imagine how exciting it must have been for longtime “Trek” fans, to see all their favorites return for a new adventure in an era that well predated our current age of constant remakes. Unfortunately, this movie is slow and while containing many intriguing ideas — Isaac Asimov himself gets credited as “special science consultant” — never really succeeds on an execution level. It takes 34 minutes for the Enterprise to leave spacedock for the first time. That is too many minutes.
14. “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier” (1989)
“Final Frontier” is easily the “TOS” film subject to the most mockery, and honestly, that’s earned to some degree. The boys go camping! Uhura dances sexy with fans! Kirk exclaims, oh so memorably, “What does God need… with a starship?” Why does it rank above some of these earlier entries? For one thing, there’s some fun character stuff. But to be completely honest: camp value.
13. “Star Trek: The Animated Series” (1973-1974)
For those mourning the cancelation of “Trek” in the early 1970s, animation studio Filmation was there for you (for better and for worse). While the animation was relatively crude, there’s a level of delightful anarchy to these two seasons, which even include a few sequels to “TOS” favorite episodes. Honestly, “The Animated Series” might be the most consistently, absurdly funny of any media on this list. Which isn’t the only criteria we’re using to judge, but does bear noting.
12. “Star Trek Beyond” (2016)
There are some big “Trek”-worthy moments in this film, most especially the establishment of the Yorktown station as an encapsulation of the Federation at its best. And the way in which the film pays tribute not just to Leonard Nimoy’s memory, but the entire original “TOS” cast, is a tearjerker for any loyalist. But it’s unlikely there will ever be universal consensus on “Beyond,” as its stunt-driven action sequences feel out of sync with the more philosophical elements of its story. “Beyond” is undoubtedly a fun ride, with some strong sequences, but at this point we have doubts about its depth.
11. “Star Trek: Generations” (1994)
This attempt to pass the baton from one generation to the next was just plain, y’know, weird. Beyond moments like Picard on a sailing ship and Kirk on a horse, this surprisingly emotional dig into the secret desires of Picard and Kirk didn’t feature a ton of action, beyond destroying the Enterprise (again), fighting the Klingons (again) and the sight of three 50-plus men having a fistfight on a catwalk. No one was truly well-served by this installment except William Shatner and Patrick Stewart (who does turn in a nuanced performance). But perhaps the focus was something of a benefit in the long run.
10. “Star Trek III: The Search For Spock” (1984)
“The Search for Spock” is a lot of different movies at once. Its best moments definitely come during its caper phase, as the supporting cast really comes alive to steal the Enterprise and save their friend. Spock’s accelerated rebirth on the planet Genesis is a bit clunky, but how it plays to the ongoing narrative is as important as all the Klingon-based drama that ensues. The old theory used to be that odd-numbered “Trek” entries were the most disappointing. That no longer stands, but when it did, “Search For Spock” was arguably considered to be the best of the odd-numbered lot.
9. “Star Trek: Voyager” (1995-2001)
There’s no denying that “Voyager” launched with one of the boldest premises of any “Trek” franchise to date: By marooning its crew in a completely unknown sector of space, the show had the potential to develop a whole new approach to “Trek” on television. But while there were a number of standout installments, “Voyager” never really rose to the challenge, telling too many familiar stories and failing to embrace the stark reality of its setup. (How many shuttlecraft did that ship have on board, exactly? Not to mention photon torpedos?) The introduction of former Borg lady Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan) in Season 4 gave the series new life, and some charming character work did take place. But over the course of seven seasons there were many failed opportunities.
8. “Star Trek” (2009)
First things first: There’s something to genuinely admire about the fact that when presented with the opportunity to create a whole new take on Kirk, Spock, McCoy and the rest of the gang, J.J. Abrams found a way to do so while also preserving the decades of “Trek” that had come before within the narrative. This new, young and modern take on the Enterprise and its crew is a marvel in this regard, and also it’s a watchable, engaging film without that associated history. Does it truly capture the essence of “Trek”? Many nerds have spent many hours debating this question. But this new crew ushered in a new era for the franchise.
7. “Star Trek: First Contact” (1996)
“TNG” has always had its sweet spots — time travel, the Borg, the quest for human advancement — and “First Contact” touched upon all of those elements. Easily the best of the Picard-led films, this journey back to humanity’s darkest moments just prior to discovering warp drive has some solid bits of comedy (James Cromwell’s turn as inventor Zefram Cochrane is quasi-iconic). But it also gives Picard some real catharsis following his experiences with the Borg. “First Contact” represents the best balance “Star Trek” ever found between Picard, the mature and steady captain we remember from the TV show, and Picard, the violent action hero emphasized in later films. Balance is a beautiful thing.
6. “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” (1986)
Coming on the heels of “The Search for Spock,” a relatively sober and grim offering, “The Voyage Home” is such a spark of joy for the “Trek” cinematic universe. Known largely as “the one with the whales,” this funny, well-paced time travel adventure wraps up the trilogy of films begun with “Wrath of Khan” while also creating its own delightful stand-alone story. “The Voyage Home” is the sort of movie that, watched at the right age, might make you a fan for life. Not that we’d know anything about that — or about the “NEW-CLEA-AH WESSLES.”
5. “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” (1991)
Where would “Star Trek” be without Nicholas Meyer? It’s hard to say. But the films he directed for the franchise were so important in bringing a maritime feel to Roddenberry’s utopian approach. “Undiscovered Country” brought with it an intriguing political dimension with the quote “Only Nixon could go to China” and Kirk’s complicated feelings towards Klingons. And the sharp conspiracy narrative proved thoroughly compelling — exemplifying the sort of feature “Trek” adventure we would happily have watched for years to come.
4. “Star Trek: The Original Series” (1966-1969)
“Star Trek” in its most nascent form had its flaws, especially when it came to the blunt use of metaphor to challenge issues of the day. But not only did it wear its progressive heart on its sleeve, it told some truly beautiful stories. “The City on the Edge of Forever,” which aired 49 years ago, remains one of television’s greatest accomplishments. “The Trouble With Tribbles” remains a comedic delight. Are we grading the original entry on a curve? Perhaps. But with the 79 episodes filmed during the 1960s, “The Original Series” was able to build a fanbase passionate enough to resurrect the franchise. That doesn’t come from nothing. And even as a modern-day viewer, the show has the sort of heart and cast chemistry today’s networks still crave.
3. “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (1987-1994)
Technically, the most important thing “The Next Generation” did was prove that the “Trek” franchise had potential beyond the iconic characters of “TOS.” Once we figured out that this whole new crew could be just as charming (this maybe took more than one season), “TNG” was consumed with adventures that verged from comedic to heartbreaking to intellectually brilliant. “All Good Things,” the series finale, remains one of TV’s best achievements. But it was built on the basis of seven years of great storytelling.
2. “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan”
Real talk: If “The Wrath of Khan” hadn’t been such a success, would we be writing this list today? Probably not. Nicholas Meyer’s bold approach to the franchise made “Trek” into a crowdpleaser that united newcomers and nerds alike (while crushing a few hearts along the way). Emotional, thematic and game-changing, Meyer found the artistic potential of the franchise at the most necessary moment in its history. Not-great “Trek” films, as we’ve seen, keep trying to chase the highs of “Khan.” They sadly come up lacking, but it’s easy to understand why they try.
1. “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”
Here’s why we put this at the top of the list: “Deep Space Nine” remains the most groundbreaking, boundary-pushing installment of “Trek” to date. For one thing, it was one of the fundamental building blocks that supported executive producer Ronald D. Moore’s journey towards developing serialized storytelling on television: Without “Deep Space Nine,” Moore and co-creator David Eick’s remake of “Battlestar Galatica” (one of the new millennium’s most game-changing series) doesn’t exist.
On its own merits, “DS9” was dark, challenging, smart and inclusive on a level no “Trek” show has yet achieved — especially when it comes to diversity. On an actor level, here’s how many white men were in the cast: three. On a character level: one. (Colm Meaney played Chief Miles O’Brien; Armin Shimerman played the Ferengi Quark and Rene Auberjonois played shapeshifter Odo.) In the tradition that Roddenberry had always inspired, the cast was otherwise entirely composed of women, people of color and aliens, and the stories that were told proved truly unique as a result.
While “Deep Space Nine” took some time to find its footing — the first two seasons flounder a bit — its unique approach to the “Trek” franchise was the perfect bridge between the classic and modern eras. Somehow, the series managed to dig into the realities of life during wartime while also maintaining its optimism during the worst moments these characters faced. Thanks to “DS9,” “Trek” stayed inspirational yet relatable. Its impact is under-recognized, but in 50 years of “Star Trek,” the series represents some of the franchise’s boldest storytelling.
Happy birthday to “Star Trek,” which turns 50 today.