Welcome to Debate Club, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, tackle the greatest arguments in pop culture.
For years, Trekkers have waged an endless debate: Kirk or Picard? The Original Series or The Next Generation? That argument extends to the Star Trek feature films: Which one is best? And where do the Chris Pine movies fit in those rankings?
For this week's Debate Club, we engage in our very own Kobayashi Maru, picking the five greatest Star Trek movies. Yes, it's a no-win scenario, so we'll just tell you right now that Star Trek III: The Search for Spock didn't make the cut. Sorry, there were just other Trek flicks we liked more.
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)
Very much an "OK, let’s right the ship" sequel after the disaster that was Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, The Undiscovered Country feels like a proper send-off for the original cast, reminding us why we love this crew so much.
A product of its time — the early '90s saw a thawing of tensions between rival superpowers the United States and the dissolving Soviet Union — the film imagines a future in which the Federation and the Klingons can bury the hatchet (or bat’leth) and become allies. But there are those who don’t want peace, forcing Kirk and company to do their interstellar-heroes thing one last time. Ignore Star Trek: Generations — this is how William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and the rest of the veteran ensemble deserved to bow out.
Star Trek Beyond (2016)
After J.J. Abrams' overheated yet undercooked Star Trek Into Darkness, new director Justin Lin and co-screenwriter and co-star Simon Pegg made the smart decision to lighten things up a bit and not be so desperately beholden to nostalgia and Easter eggs. The result is the best Star Trek film starring the new cast, with Chris Pine still finding fresh angles on Kirk, the extended cast loosening up and having fun (along with tributes to late cast members Anton Yelchin and Leonard Nimoy) and an excellent villain played by Idris Elba. They still haven't made the follow-up to this film. Maybe they don't need to.
Star Trek: First Contact (1996)
With the baton officially passed to the Next Generation cast, First Contact allowed the new crew to fully assert itself. (Jonathan Frakes, the show's steady Number One, took on directorial duties, and series staff writers Brannon Braga and Ronald D. Moore penned the script.) For Next Generation fans, the film isn't the best Borg installment — "The Best of Both Worlds" rules — but First Contact is among the most suspenseful and exciting Star Trek movies.
Even people who couldn’t care less about Trek can enjoy First Contact for its action and tight pacing. In other words, it was the perfect way to help people fully embrace a new Enterprise crew.
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)
The idea of the gang from the Enterprise traveling through time and ending up in modern-day San Francisco sounds like the last-ditch, desperate Hail Mary for a dying franchise. And then you watch Spock put the Vulcan death grip on an annoying jerk on a city bus and you realize they knew exactly what they were doing all along. Goofy, silly and an absolute blast, The Voyage Home is a Star Trek movie like no other. That's what makes it so thrilling.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
Freed of the clunky exposition and glacial pace of the (still perfectly fine!) first installment, Nicholas Meyer (who hadn't even seen The Motion Picture) came in, redid the screenplay and took the director’s chair. The result was the richest, most satisfying Star Trek film of them all, with thematic complexity, a terrific villain in Ricardo Montalban's Khan and, of course, that heartbreaker of an ending. Star Trek would go off in all sorts of odd directions, some of them satisfying, some of them less so, but The Wrath of Khan works best by keeping it simple. And knocking us over.