Star Trek’s Best Movie Confuses Most Fans

By Chris Snellgrove | Published

star trek wrath of khan

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan blew fans’ minds when it first came out, and it is typically cited as the best example of the old rule of thumb that only the even-numbered Trek films are good. We love seeing Kirk and Khan square off as much as the next geek, but the countless fans who have cited this “rule” have it completely wrong. The weird truth is that The Wrath of Khan isn’t really a Star Trek-style adventure at all, and its success has conditioned fans to hate films that hew closer to Gene Roddenberry’s vision.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture

star trek worst

To understand what we’re talking about regarding The Wrath of Khan, we need to revisit Star Trek: The Motion Picture. This big-budget blockbuster follows perfectly in the formula of The Original Series (it’s basically an adaptation of the classic episode “The Changeling”), but critics and audiences alike found the movie a bit too slow-paced in a post-Star Wars world. Accordingly, The Wrath of Khan was made on a smaller budget and focused more on action than adventure with a movie that was basically one long naval battle between Kirk and his old foe, Khan Noonien Singh.

Star Trek III: The Search For Spock

star trek iii spock

Again, we love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan so much that we’re practicing our “Khan!” scream as we write, so what’s our beef with this film? In short, this movie conditioned Star Trek fans to care more about the films when they departed from the classic formula that made The Original Series so great.  This is partially evidenced by fans disliking Star Trek III: it was a film about seeking out new life (the resurrected Spock) and exploring a strange new world (the Genesis planet), but because it wasn’t an action film like The Wrath of Khan, fans rejected it.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

leonard nimoy

That Star Trek film was followed by The Voyage Home, another movie that eschewed the classic themes and tone of The Original Series. For many years, this remained the most successful Trek film for the simple reason that it was a broad comedy filled with one joke after another. It lacked the action of The Wrath of Khan, but like that earlier film, it appealed to audiences and critics alike because it was so different from what everyone thought Star Trek could be.

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier

star trek v

Next comes Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, and the less said about that stinker, the better. Still, as bad as William Shatner was at directing this movie, the film did adhere closely to the kinds of stories franchise creator Gene Roddenberry had spent years trying to tell. In fact, Roddenberry was very hurt that Shatner had created the same kind of “Star Trek meets God” film he had never successfully gotten Paramount to create.

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

star trek fan theories

That brings us to Star Trek VI, a sequel that is often erroneously compared to The Wrath of Khan (mostly because of the cool space combat). This movie also deviated from the classic Trek formula to deliver a kind of spy thriller that very explicitly channeled contemporary Cold War anxieties. The fact that it ditched the formula didn’t matter to audiences, and after the last of the classic Trek films came out, the rule of thumb that “only the even-numbered movies are good” had become part of our collective pop culture canon.

The TNG Films

That’s the rub, though: the even-numbered movies are good films, but they aren’t good Star Trek films. This pattern continued with The Next Generation’s odd-numbered films: Generations and Insurrection are both considered weak sauce by the fandom, but they mostly get a bad rap because they deliver (gasp!) stories about exploration and discovery instead of action and violence. Meanwhile, the even-numbered films were attempts to recapture the spirit of The Wrath of Khan, with one action film (First Contact) being good and another (Nemesis) being a disaster.

The Odd-Numbered Films Are True Trek

There you have it: as good as (most) of the even-numbered Trek films are, they are successful largely because they deviate from the formula that made The Original Series such a success. Instead of dunking on those odd-numbered films (except for The Final Frontier–no defense for this stinker), fans need to accept these movies for what they are: the kinds of stories that made us fall in love with the franchise in the first place.