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Star Trek has been a successful franchise for over 50 years, and while it has always had a home on television first and foremost, Star Trek has continued to be important on the big screen as well. We've seen 13 big screen outings called Star Trek, but those 13 films have had three separate casts and been part of two unique timelines.
So which block of Star Trek movies is truly the best? We'll break down each part of the franchise, look at the good and the bad, and try to figure out which one is the real winner.
Star Trek: The Original Series
The first run of Star Trek followed Captain James T. Kirk, played by William Shatner and his crew of the starship U.S.S. Enterprise. Kirk was frequently counciled by his Science Officer, Lt. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and his ship's Doctor Leonard, "Bones" McCoy. The series that spawned the films saw the Enterprise on a five-year mission to explore the galaxy.
Following the original run of Star Trek on television and its unfortunately short run of only three seasons, the cult popularity of the series and television reruns kept the Star Trek name out there, and the series actually became more popular over time. This led to Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979, a film that saw the original cast make their return to the bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise. This was followed by Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan in 1982, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock in 1984, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home in 1986, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier in 1989, and finally, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country in 1991.
There's a familiar pattern in the early Star Trek movies that even the most passionate Star Trek fans will admit is true: the odd numbered films aren't very good. The first Star Trek movie barely feels like the Star Trek fans know and love. It's an odd film that sees the Enterprise crew investigating a nebulous cloud in space, and things never make much more sense than that.
Of course, following that film, we got one of the most popular Star Trek films ever made, The Wrath of Khan. Ricardo Montalban chews all of the scenery as the villain and is a large part of why the movie is so good, but the rest of characters feel more comfortable as well. It also has the most heartbreaking ending in the franchise.
The original series films are a mix of everything. There are some awful stories and some great ones. Some that could have been good, but don't quite get there, and others that are better than they deserve to be. When the adventure is worthy of the characters, the original run of films work, and when it's not, the movies falter.
Star Trek: The Next Generation
20 years after the original Star Trek went off the air Star Trek: The Next Generation brought the franchise back to TV. This series starred Patrick Stewart as Captain Jean-Luc Picard, and while the basic premise of the show was the same, the new Enterprise in on an ongoing exploration of the galaxy about a century after the events of The Original Series, The Next Generation found its footing by focusing on character-driven stories rather than intergalactic adventure.
In 1994, the Next Generation crew would take over the film franchise with Star Trek: Generations, a film that actually included some of the Original Series cast, but was still ultimately a TNG movie. That would be followed by Star Trek: First Contact in 1996, Star Trek: Insurrection in 1998, and then Star Trek: Nemesis in 2002.
The thing that made The Next Generation great as a series largely made the movies a much tougher sell. You could never give a broad cast like this enough to make them feel well used in a two-hour film the way you could over the course of a TV season. As such, the entire run of TNG films largely failed to find an audience among fans or critics.
Having said that, there is one major exception, in that Star Trek: First Contact isn't simply the best of the Next Generation movie, it's one of the best Star Trek films of the entire franchise, I would argue its contention as the best Star Trek movie ever made, and as such, the TNG era of films can't be ignored.
Star Trek: Reboot (Kelvin Timeline)
While the first two segments of the Star Trek film franchise have their foundations in television, the newest ones do not... at least, not directly. The new Star Trek movies take us back to the era of James T. Kirk, Spock and McCoy, but rather than being a simple reboot or a direct sequel, the first film actually establishes that it is taking place in an alternate timeline. On the day of Jim Kirk's birth, an alien ship from the future travels back in time and alters the events of the past, allowing the new movies to create new stories while still leaving the original series of films as part of "canon."
The first Star Trek film arrived in 2009 It was followed by Star Trek Into Darkness in 2013, and then Star Trek Beyond in 2016.
The alternate timeline idea was a pretty gutsy movie for the Star Trek franchise, but it has to be said that it largely works. In fact, it's what makes the first movie work at all. The actors, like Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto and Karl Urban, are all able to channel their 1960s counterparts and give the characters a life of their own simultaneously. Having said that, some decisions just didn't work, like trying to do their own version of Wrath of Khan with the second movie. It's the sort of decision that vividly reminds you that this was done before and done better back then.
Having said that, the new Star Trek does allow the rest of the bridge crew, Uhura, Sulu and the rest, to be much more fully realized characters then they ever got to be in the original run of movies, so there is something of great value that the new movies add. The entire reboot cast is solid, and the movies actually let them all show that.
The Original Series Vs The Next Generation Vs The Reboot
It can be a little difficult to compare the three different corners of the franchise. If nothing else, they each have a different number of movies to their credit, and the newest franchise isn't officially dead yet, though things aren't looking good. Still, there are a few places that can be compared.
It's hard not to love The Next Generation cast above the others. They really were so incredibly good. Of course, as stated, they rarely had a chance to prove that in the movies. The Original Series movies were almost always focused exclusively on Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, and the rest of the crew usually had little to do but mind their stations. The reboot franchise has done a little something to fix this, especially most recently in Star Trek Beyond, a movie that's better than the box office leads one to believe.
Of course, the Original Series films focusing on Kirk, Spock, and McCoy work because William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and Deforest Kelly were a legitimately great trio.
The Original Series has more ups and downs on the whole, but that's also at least partially because they had more chances. The odd/even see-saw is true, as Movies 2, 4, and 6 are great films while 1, 3, and 5 are not. And The Final Frontier deserves special consideration as quite possibly the worst Star Trek movie ever made.
As mentioned earlier, Star Trek: First Contact is the shining beacon of the Next Generation films. It's one of the best, but the other three are pretty well panned by a lot of critics, and for good reason.
The reboot franchise is generally viewed as being pretty good, though I would argue Star Trek Into Darkness is a pretty serious mess. and even the 2009 Star Trek, while it's better than many feared it would be, is still only a "good" movie, not a great one, as many would claim.
In the end, it's difficult to not give the win here to the original run of films. Everything that the reboot movies have done well, they largely owe to the Original Series cast. If I was including the television work here, I might be willing to give the nod to The Next Generation, but on the big screen alone, the stories just aren't as good on the whole.
We certainly haven't seen the end of the Star Trek franchise on the big screen. We might still see a fourth entry in the reboot franchise, and Quentin Tarantino has made comments that he'd like to make a Star Trek movie, so this debate certainly isn't over. But at the moment, the originals are still the best.