When it comes to the question of which Star Trek flick is the best there are many passionately differing opinions. Sure, you could probably say that about any major franchise, but the divisiveness might sometimes seem just a bit more pronounced in Trek fandom because there have been so many distinct eras of the narrative There are fans who hate any Trek after 2002, those who adore the current resurgence of the franchise, those who say the words “Kelvin Timeline” like they were choking on them, and — while their numbers are fewer these days for a variety of reasons — there are still those who say if William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy aren’t in it, it can’t be “real” Trek. With all of that in mind, the folks at Slash Film posted a poll to find out what film in the franchise the fans deem best. By a pretty safe margin, the winner was the second to come out of the shuttle bay doors: 1982’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
For Slashfilm’s survey, just over one-fifth of the responding fans — 21% — said that Star Trek II was superior to the rest of the films. Not too far behind, but not too close either, at 16% is 1986’s Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, the only film to take place chiefly in (what was) present day. Coming in third at 12% is the very first film: 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Just behind that at 10% is the final film to feature the entire crew from the original series, 1991’s Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.
As Slashfilm points out, a lot of what is great about The Wrath of Khan was a direct result to the poor response from fans to 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The first Trek film is often seen as the slowest and most boring, and it lacks a clear, entertaining antagonist. For the sequel, the Trek producers looked to a competitor.
The year the first Star Trek film hit theaters, Nicholas Meyer made his directorial debut with Time After Time — a science fiction film with the simultaneously bonkers and fun premise of science fiction writer H.G. Wells using a time machine to pursue the infamous killer Jack the Ripper. Time After Time was a lot more well received than Star Trek: The Motion Picture, so Meyer was tapped for the follow-up.
For Star Trek II, Meyer not only brought in a charismatic antagonist, he pulled him right out of the original series. Ricardo Montalban of Fantasy Island fame originated the role of Khan Noonien Singh in the 1967 Star Trek episode “Space Seed,” and for The Wrath of Khan he reprised the role. The older Khan is obsessed with getting revenge on Captain Kirk (William Shatner), and steals Starfleet’s U.S.S. Reliant to help him do so. The tense confrontations between the two ships are like something right out of the best submarine thrillers like Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot, and has since been copied many times in other Trek stories. Much more fast-paced and edge-of-your-seat than Star Trek: The Motion Picture — and including the heartbreaking death of Spock (Leonard Nimoy) — Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan earned its spot as the best movie of the franchise and then some.
To see our full rankings of the best and worst things Star Trek has ever done, visit our Star Trek Ranked guide.