Debate Club: Which is better, Star Trek II or Star Trek IV?

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Dec 5, 2017, 2:04 PM EST (Updated)

Welcome to Debate Club, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, tackle both sides of the greatest arguments in pop culture.

In this installment, we tag along with Kirk, Spock, Bones and the rest of the Enterprise gang to finally settle a long-simmering Trekker feud. Which is the better movie: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) or Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)?


Roger Ebert famously said that the screenwriters of Star Trek IV "must have had a lot of silly grins on their faces," and, as usual, he had the perfect compliment. It's not just this movie is wonderful and funny and perhaps best captures the optimism and spirit of play of the original series: It's also just silly, in the best possible way. It's the Star Trek film that finally understands that what really made the show work was not the spaceships and the phasers and all the beaming up: It was how much we cared about these characters, how much fun we had just hanging out with them, watching them bounce off each other.

The concept is so crazy – the Star Trek crew just hanging out in modern day San Francisco – that it's one step removed from the Harlem Globetrotters visiting Gilligan's Island. But that ridiculousness is what makes it work. This movie is silly – gloriously so.



A couple years after The Empire Strikes Back set the bar for how to do a darker-toned sequel, Star Trek II upped the ante: "Oh, you cut off Luke's hand and put Han in carbonite? OK, well, then we'll kill off one of our most beloved characters." If Star Trek: The Motion Picture was too ponderous for the average moviegoer, The Wrath of Khan more than compensated, delivering a thrilling, action-packed adventure that pits the Enterprise crew against one of Kirk's greatest foes in the bloodthirsty, vengeance-seeking Khan. Ricardo Montalbán rightly gets all the kudos for his brilliant portrayal of Khan, but the film is also an incredible platform for William Shatner as our swaggering Starfleet captain.

Even at his best, Shatner's always been a bit of a ham, but here, he gives a performance of real depth and gravitas — which is appropriate for a character who's about to learn that, eventually, everybody has to face his own personal Kobayashi Maru. By the film's gut-wrenching finale, not only does he discover he has a son but he also loses his closest friend, resulting in the greatest tear-jerking sequence in all of sci-fi cinema. If Spock's "I have been, and always shall be, your friend" farewell doesn't get you misty-eyed, then Kirk's eulogy absolutely will. Best villain, best battle scenes, best ending: Nothing compares to II.



Just thinking about the phrase "nuclear wessels" makes us laugh. But once you get past IV's loony conceit … well, then you just have a fish-out-of-water comedy without much beneath it. You gotta give props to the creative team for finding a way to sneak an environmental message into a big blockbuster. (The Enterprise crew literally needs to save the whales to preserve life on Earth.)

But as much as we love these actors, nobody's confusing any of them for Peter Sellers or Steve Martin. There's an awful lot of creekiness to IV's comedy, and not much action either. And, not for nothing, but this is the one Star Trek movie that non-Trekkers really like. Sure, it's accessible, but it's also a bit of a self-parody — which is the sort of thing a franchise does when it knows it's running out of gas.


We know this is as inherent problem with all franchises, but still: Doesn't Star Trek II lose a lot of its oomph when it turns out that Spock comes back to life, oh, one week later? Sure, it's not Star Trek II's fault that Star Trek III exists, but the reason people love Star Trek II so much is because Spock dies. Spock dies! Holy s***! Except … nope, not really, thanks to the power of fal-tor-pan, whatever the heck that is.

Star Trek II is the best possible movie made from the existing Star Trek universe, but it also reveals the franchise's greatest weakness: its need to be perpetual, to be episodic, to, essentially, never conclude. The reason Star Trek IV is so fun is that it lets our characters be free from the constraints of their Roddenberry prison. As great as Star Trek II is, all it does is remind us that they're perpetually trapped in them.


The franchise's best action-thriller versus its best comedy. Your preference might depend on your mood, but we're going with The Wrath of Khan. Beyond being an excellent Star Trek movie, it's just a plain fantastic movie, period. The space battles are still incredibly tense, and Montalbán is a bad guy for the ages. And although Star Trek IV is often credited for how funny it is, Star Trek II has some great laughs, too — it's just that they're not as well remembered because the film is filled with shocking horrors (those freaky ear-slug things), thought-provoking themes (are humans playing God by using Genesis?), and really poignant moments (seriously, that ending). That film has everything, and so the choice is easy: Khaaaaan!

Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.

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