It’s been 55 years since Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek first boldly went where television had never gone before, and in the decades since the franchise has endured in many forms on both the big and small screen (and beyond). But of all the official live-action incarnations of Roddenberry’s iconic creation, which are the truly stellar entries – and which should never have made it out of Starfleet Academy? Here’s how we rank all Star Trek movies and TV shows to date, from worst to best. (And no, we haven’t counted the cartoons, the fan-made web shows or Galaxy Quest!)
20. Star Trek: Nemesis
The fourth big screen venture for the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation was a bit of a ‘do or die’ situation – and unfortunately, it proved to be the death of the franchise (for that particular crew, at least). A lifeless attempt to make things dark and edgy for the Matrix era, Star Trek: Nemesis proved a colossal let-down for devotees, and of no interest whatsoever to the uninitiated.
Neither Trek-ish enough for fans, nor accessible enough for the uninitiated, Nemesis winds up a whole lot of nothing. Today, pretty much the only noteworthy thing about the 2002 film is that it boasts an early appearance from Tom Hardy as a young, evil clone of Patrick Stewart‘s Captain Picard – but sadly, there’s little here to indicate what a superstar Hardy would turn out to be.
19. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
13 years before Star Trek: Nemesis stopped the series dead in its tracks, this fifth movie starring the original series cast very nearly killed the franchise early. Captain Kirk actor William Shatner has always been notorious for the size of his ego, so given that this film is also directed by Shatner from a story he co-wrote, it’s no wonder The Final Frontier comes off as a monumental vanity project.
While there was some potential to the audacious premise of the Enterprise crew meeting an almighty entity claiming to be God, The Final Frontier is a pompous, overblown mess of a movie, hampered by ham-fisted attempts at humour. Alarmingly, Shatner insisted his contract extend him the same privileges as Leonard Nimoy, so as Nimoy directed two Trek movies, Shatner is still technically entitled to direct one more of his own. Of course, this doesn’t look likely to happen now.
18. Star Trek: Enterprise
Just as the Star Trek series was petering out on the big screen, there were indications that the small screen franchise was also running out of ideas with the arrival of Star Trek: Enterprise (or simply Enterprise, as it was originally known) in 2001. Following the example of the Star Wars movies of the time, this series opted to go the prequel route, taking us back to the earliest days of Starfleet and the first starship to carry the name Enterprise.
The warning signs were there as soon as we heard that abysmal theme song performed by Russell Watson. Despite a decent cast headed by Scott Bakula (Quantum Leap), Enterprise was a tedious, misguided venture which added very little to the Star Trek mythos, and to the annoyance of many fans contradicted a fair bit of the established lore.
17. Star Trek: Insurrection
The cinematic missions of the Next Generation crew had gotten off to a roaring start with their first two movies – but this tepid third outing (the ninth Star Trek movie overall) proved to be a major fall from grace. Commander Riker actor Jonathan Frakes also directs, for the second and last time on a Trek film – but while Frakes’ first may have been a major series highlight, Star Trek: Insurrection is a textbook case of sophomore slump.
In what was in no way a shocking plot development by this point, the film sees the crew of the Enterprise disobey Starfleet’s orders and go rogue to protect the indigenous people of a mysterious planet. As with a lot of Star Trek movies, Insurrection’s plot may have been just fine for an episode of the series, but feels insufficient for a movie. It’s impossible to avoid that been-there-done-that feeling.
16. Star Trek: The Motion Picture
The first big screen outing for the original cast of the cult classic TV series represented a major victory for Star Trek’s creative team, and the fans who’d demanded it. Alas, the whole shebang was almost over before it began, thanks to the bloated, tiresome venture that Star Trek: The Motion Picture turned out to be.
Directed by the legendary Robert Wise (The Sound of Music, West Side Story), the 1979 film is certainly striking aesthetically, with its powerful visuals and operatic score, but when all’s said and done it tells a pretty basic story, and moves at such a slow, ponderous pace that even the most devoted fans are liable to be checking their watches before the midway point.
15. Star Trek Into Darkness
Six whole years before Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, this second outing for the ‘Kelvin timeline’ cast proved that director JJ Abrams has a bit of trouble pulling off satisfactory sequels. A quasi-remake of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the 2013 film casts Benedict Cumberbatch as a figure ultimately revealed to be Kirk’s arch-nemesis – despite the fact that, in this timeline, there’s absolutely no personal history between the two men.
Widely trashed by die-hard Trekkers, Star Trek Into Darkness is without question a messy piece of storytelling which provokes more groans than gasps (notably when Zachary Quinto’s Spock cries “Khan!”). Even so, there’s no denying that it delivers some exhilarating blockbuster action at a fast pace – although many would argue that’s not what we really look for in a Star Trek movie.
14. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
The third movie from the original cast (and the first directed by Spock actor Leonard Nimoy), The Search for Spock marked the first time (in the movies, at least) Kirk and co. went rogue, by ignoring orders and heading out to the experimental planet Genesis, where they have reason to believe their fallen Vulcan crew mate may have literally been born again.
The Search for Spock isn’t the most sophisticated Star Trek story ever told, and at times it gets a bit melodramatic, particularly in the conflict with Christopher Lloyd’s villainous Klingon Kruge. Even so, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable entry in the series, with strong performances and writing, and some stunning visuals.
13. Star Trek Beyond
At the time of writing, this third ‘Kelvin timeline’ movie looks likely to be the last outing for the reboot cast (and sadly it was among the last completed works of latest Chekov actor Anton Yelchin, who died before the film’s release in 2016). This is a real shame, as Star Trek Beyond showed signs of the new crew getting back on track following the missteps of Into Darkness.
Directed by Justin Lin (Fast & Furious) and co-written by Scotty actor Simon Pegg, the movie again emphasises high octane action, but not at the expense of story and character. Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto and Karl Urban in particular really demonstrate how well they’ve grown into their roles as Kirk, Spock and Bones – it will be a pity if this is the last we get to see of them.
12. Star Trek Generations
This 1994 movie marked a significant turning point for the Star Trek series: the passing of the torch on the big screen franchise, from the original crew to the Next Generation. Opening on the apparent death of William Shatner’s Captain Kirk in a bizarre interstellar energy ribbon, Generations then leaps 78 years into the future when the ribbon is encountered once again, this time by Patrick Stewart’s Captain Picard and the crew of the Enterprise-D.
While it has that same ‘basically an extended TV episode’ problem that many of the Star Trek movies share, Generations works not only as a transitional moment for the series, but as a heartfelt rumination on ageing and mortality; and of course, it carries a particular emotional wallop thanks to the final fate of Kirk.
11. Star Trek: Discovery
The seventh small screen Star Trek series and the second to be set before the original series (at the show’s beginning, at least), Star Trek: Discovery has proved to be one of the most divisive and controversial entries in the franchise. The first iteration of Star Trek in which the Captain is not the lead, the series follows the chequered career of Sonequa Martin-Green’s science officer Michael Burnham, as the experimental starship Discovery boldly goes forth not just into uncharted space, but also backwards and forwards in time.
Noted for its more adult tone (it’s the first Star Trek to feature use of the F-word) and progressive politics, Discovery is undeniably chaotic in its storytelling, and it plays a bit too fast-and-loose with the existing timeline. Even so, it boasts one of the strongest casts the franchise has ever had (including Michelle Yeoh, Doug Jones, Jason Isaacs and Anthony Rapp), not to mention the highest production values of any small screen Star Trek.
10. Star Trek: Voyager
The fourth Star Trek TV show was in some respects a significant move forward, as the first iteration of the series with a female lead in Kate Mulgrew’s Captain Kathryn Janeway. However, Star Trek: Voyager also took something of a back-to-basics approach, as the fledgling crew of a new starship are accidentally sent through a wormhole to the deepest reaches of uncharted space, thereby inadvertently sending them on a voyage of discovery similar to that of the Enterprise in the original series.
Voyager’s premise may have been familiar, but the series proved rewarding viewing thanks to the strong performances, and a unique tension among a crew comprised of inexperienced Starfleet officers and former members of anti-Federation rebel group the Maquis. Voyager also enjoyed occasional crossovers with characters from The Next Generation, and introduced some fan favourite characters of its own, most famously Jeri Ryan’s reformed Borg drone Seven of Nine.
9. Star Trek (2009)
Seven years after the critical and commercial failure of Star Trek: Nemesis, director JJ Abrams was enlisted with an unthinkable task: to make Star Trek cool and accessible to mainstream cinema audiences. Against all odds, 2009’s Star Trek proved successful in this, taking us back to square one with a re-imagining of how the Enterprise crew got started – and, in a smart move, establishing that the events we’re witnessing are part of a parallel, ‘Kelvin’ timeline distinct from that of the original series.
It took guts to re-cast the original Star Trek crew with younger actors, but this risk paid off, particularly in the casting of Chris Pine as James T. Kirk. Pine’s star-making performance carries clear echoes of Shatner, but the charismatic leading man succeeds in making the part his own, and the chemistry of the cast goes some way to helping us overlook the often rickety plot.
8. Star Trek: Picard
26 years after The Next Generation ended and 18 years after his last Star Trek movie, Patrick Stewart surprised everyone by returning to the role of Jean-Luc Picard in an all-new series in 2020. While it’s not set in the same time period as Star Trek: Discovery, Star Trek: Picard follows a similar path, taking a darker, more mature tone than earlier shows, as the long-since retired Captain of the Enterprise is lured back into space for personal reasons.
Star Trek: Picard’s take on Starfleet and the Federation is very far removed from the idyllic future society envisaged by Gene Rodenberry, but it resonates with the politically conflicted times in which it was produced. The show brings us stunning visuals, strong writing and compelling performances – and of course, it’s a joy to see Stewart reprise his signature role at the ripe old age of 80, with as much passion and vigour as before.
7. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
In a series that’s renowned for taking us to far-off worlds in the distant future, one of the most beloved entries instead takes place almost entirely on Earth in what was then the present day. The second film in the series directed by Leonard Nimoy, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home is by the far the most light-hearted and literally grounded movie to star the original Enterprise crew, who are forced to travel back in time to 1986 in search of the now extinct humpback whale, whose distinctive song might just save the future.
The Voyage Home might come off a little heavy-handed in its environmentalist message, but it’s also the most genuinely funny Star Trek movie ever made. In many respects an old-fashioned screwball comedy, the bulk of the film’s humour derives from the culture clashes between the space explorers of the future and the salt-of-the-earth citizens of 20th century San Francisco.
6. Star Trek
At last, to the TV show that started it all in 1966, sending the Starship Enterprise and its crew on a five year mission of exploration and discovery, boldly going where no man (as they put it then) had been before. Though never the hugest ratings hit, Star Trek captured the imagination of audiences and became one of the first media franchises to build an obsessive fan following; and in presenting a multi-ethnic crew working side by side as equals, it was one of the most forward-thinking TV shows of its time.
We know some of you will be unhappy that the original Star Trek doesn’t even make the top five of our list, but let’s be frank: as groundbreaking as it was, time hasn’t been especially kind to the show in many respects. The sets, costumes and special effects look extremely dated, the performances are often absurdly theatrical (yes, we mean you Shatner), and as progressive as the attitudes might have been for the time, there’s no avoiding the constant overtones of sexism and racism today.
5. Star Trek: First Contact
The second big screen outing for the Next Generation crew surprised everyone by proving to be one of the best Star Trek movies of them all. Directed by Commander Riker actor Jonathan Frakes, Star Trek: First Contact again plays the time-travel trick, taking us back to the late 21st century immediately before humanity first encountered alien life. Even more significantly, it utilised arguably the scariest Star Trek villains of them all: the Borg.
First Contact has it all: it’s funny, it’s exciting, it’s visually spectacular, it has a strong story and characters, and it’s also one of the most creepy and suspenseful tales ever told in the Star Trek universe. In addition, it sports some wonderfully quotable dialogue: Mr Worf’s cries of “Captain! Earth!” and “Assimilate this!” are worth the ticket price alone.
4. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
Premiering whilst The Next Generation was still on the air, Deep Space Nine was the third Star Trek TV show. It took a radically different approach by not boldly going into space, but for the most part staying put on a space station on the fringes of Federation territory. As the station plays host to a wide range of refugees from various war-torn planets, the series plays heavily on themes of racial and political turmoil.
Deep Space Nine has long been the subject of some controversy as it hit screens almost simultaneously with sci-fi show Babylon 5, which hinged on a very similar set-up. Nonetheless, the third Star Trek series (notable for casting the franchise’s first black lead, in Avery Brooks’ Benjamin Sisco) proved to be one of the most intelligent and gripping shows the franchise has yet produced.
3. Star Trek: The Next Generation
It’s hard to imagine now that, when Star Trek: The Next Generation first arrived, both the core Star Trek fanbase and TV network Paramount were for the most part hoping it would fail. Few people believed that Star Trek would work without the same old beloved cast from the original show, so the idea of boldly going ahead in the timeline and introducing a new, more advanced Enterprise with an all-new crew seemed borderline sacrilegious.
Happily, everyone soon changed their tune once Star Trek: The Next Generation took off in 1987, and quickly won over old and new fans alike with its more sophisticated take on Gene Roddenberry’s imagined future universe. The series stands as firm proof that not giving the fans what they want often proves to be the better move creatively; no two ways about it, Star Trek as we know it wouldn’t exist today if The Next Generation hadn’t happened.
2. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
By 1991, the original Star Trek cast were on the cusp of their 60s, The Next Generation crew had been warmly embraced by TV audiences, and the world itself was going through real changes with the Cold War coming to an end. With all this in mind, the classic Enterprise crew ventured forth on one last mission with Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country – and it proved to be a tremendous note to go out on.
Hinging on an uneasy truce between Starfleet and their age-old adversaries the Klingons, The Undiscovered Country explores the problems of political progress, and the difficulties facing the old guard as a new order takes hold. On top of all that, it’s also enormously entertaining, with a wonderful bad guy turn from Christopher Plummer, a compelling ‘whodunit’ mystery, and a plethora of literary references.
1. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Can anyone really dispute that 1982’s second cinematic outing for the original Enterprise crew is the absolute pinnacle of Star Trek? Developing on storylines established in the classic series (yet still totally accessible to the uninitiated), Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan discards the slow, chin-stroking approach of the first movie and instead hurtles headfirst into an exhilarating space opera, with Kirk finding himself under attack from his old enemy Khan, Ricardo Montalban’s genetically engineered super-villain.
As well as piling on the expected interstellar action, The Wrath of Khan is also genuinely scary at times (those ear-invading parasites!), and it reaches hitherto unseen emotional heights for the series. Almost four whole decades later, the film still embodies everything we want from Star Trek, and stands proud as the gold standard by which everything else in the franchise is measured.