It is widely believed (by aficionados and casual fans alike) that the films of the Star Trek series have a surprisingly consistent tendency to alternate between being good and, well, less good. The trend is that the odd-numbered films are on the "less good" side of the range. It is sometimes referred to as the "Even/Odd Rule" or, in the words of the creator of this node, "Odd numbered Star Trek movies suck."
Of course, "good," "less good" and "suck" are not objective terms and are ranges of opinion unto themselves. That is to say that not all even-numbered Star Trek films are regarded as classics of the genre while every single odd-numbered movie is thought to simultaneously rival Plan 9 From Outer Space for the title of worst movie ever. However, the fact remains that (with exceptions I'll get into later) the odd-numbered films were generally not received as well as the even-numbered films.
The individual writeups for each respective movie delve into what various noders thought about the films. Here, I've gathered general summaries of the critical and fan reaction to each film, as chronicled by user votes and compendia of reviews by film critics on some of the most popular film websites. All statistics are accurate at the time of this writing.
- Star Trek: The Motion Picture (sometimes referred to as "Star Trek I" following the release of its sequels) was released in 1979. It has a rating of 50 per cent at Rotten Tomatoes. Its current user rating on the Internet Movie Database is 6.2/10, with a total of 22,218 votes. Its initial critical reception was underwhelming, and it is currently known for being the film that features a giant cloud.
- Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was released in 1982. In contrast to its predecessor, it is widely considered to be one of the best Star Trek films ever. It currently has a rating of 90 per cent at Rotten Tomatoes and 7.8/10 (32,011 votes) at the Internet Movie Database. It is arguably the most quotable of the Star Trek films (Khaaaaan!) and begins a three-film story arc culminating with Star Trek IV.
- Star Trek III: The Search for Spock was released in 1984. It has a rating of 76 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes and 6.5/10 at the Internet Movie Database (19,587 votes). It was not universally loathed but was generally thought to be disappointing in the wake of Star Trek II, which was a hard act to follow. It also involved some bad dialogue (as in when Kirk disposes of the main antagonist. Tell me I'm wrong).
- Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home was released in 1986. It has a rating of 84 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes and 7.3/10 (23,117 votes) at the Internet Movie Database. It was described as being a return to the dynamic of the original TV series, with a more lighthearted tone and a social message (in this case, about endangered species).
- Star Trek V: The Final Frontier was released in 1989. It has a rating of 21 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes and 4.9/10 (18,207 votes) at the Internet Movie Database. It is regularly cited as the worst of the Star Trek films involving the original cast, if not the worst Star Trek film ever. It features too many atrocities to mention (so let's just stick with Uhura's fan dance and Spock's rocket boots).
- Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country was released in 1991. It has a rating of 81 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes and 7.2/10 (20,883 votes) at the Internet Movie Database. It is generally regarded as a solid return to form after the horror that was Star Trek V. This was the final film appearance of the entire team from the original series.
- Star Trek: Generations (colloquially known as Star Trek VII) was released in 1994. It has a rating of 48 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes and 6.4/10 (23,665 votes) at the Internet Movie Database. This film featured the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation was well as William Shatner, Walter Koenig and James Doohan from the original series. Without getting into spoilers, a plot point towards the end angered a lot of Star Trek fans.
- Star Trek: First Contact was released in 1996. It has a rating of 92 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes and 7.2/10 at the Internet Movie Database (41,193 votes). Some of the comments posted at Rotten Tomatoes even suggest it's one of the two or three best films in the entire series. It was also praised for being accessible to non-Trekkies, though others disagree.
- Star Trek: Insurrection was released in 1998. It has a rating of 54 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes and 6.4 (24,050 votes) at the Internet Movie Database. The biggest compliment I've been able to find for this one is that it's "not terrible." Faint praise, much?
And the crux of the trend appears to end here, as Star Trek: Nemesis, the tenth film in the series, was also thought to be dismal with a rating of 36 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes (but 6.4/10, with 25,471 votes at the Internet Movie Database). That said, the film does have its defenders who say it is superior to any odd-numbered film.
Throwing a further wrench in the maxim, the 2009 "reboot" film (Star Trek XI) received widespread praise (95 per cent rating on Rotten Tomatoes and 8.4/10 (74,163 votes) at the Internet Movie Database).
However, some conspiracy theorists apparently believe that the well-received 1999 film Galaxy Quest (an extremely thinly veiled Star Trek parody) somehow counts as the tenth Star Trek film, causing Star Trek: Nemesis and Star Trek (2009) to be the 11th and 12th films in the series, respectively, thus allowing the trend to continue properly. But that would be
highly illogical downright nutty.
How the trend, which held up for films I-IX, came about and kept going is anyone's guess. It seems likely that after producing a poorly received film, those involved felt compelled to step it up for the next one, then perhaps rested on their laurels after experiencing success. Morwen says "I think it's more likely that the expectations for the first film were incredibly high, and it couldn't meet them - but it lowered expectations for the second, which was good. So there was an ongoing roller coaster of audience expectations that never really balanced out."
Again, not all of the odd-numbered films are necessarily thought to be of the same caliber. Some are simply thought to be inferior to the even-numbered films as opposed to truly awful pieces of cinema. Star Trek III is no Star Trek II, IV or VI but it beats the living daylights out of Star Trek V any day.
There are other sites that profess to offer proof of the trend, including one that points out that, at the time of its writing, the average Internet Movie Database score for every single one of the series' odd-numbered films (save for Star Trek XI, which had yet to be made) was lower than the average score for even the lowest-ranked of the even-numbered films (Star Trek X beating out Star Trek III by one tenth of a point). That one does not take into account the reactions of film critics, whose opinions must obviously be taken with a grain of salt.
It's also commonly argued that the ST:TNG films were not meant to be numbered in the same way that the original series films were, and that they may therefore somehow be exempt from the trend. That said, it seems to continue until Star Trek X, which is debatable. In any case, it is certainly thought to apply to the six films based on the original series.
The cosmic ballet goes on
The release and success of the 2009 "reboot" has led to questions about whether or not a new numbering system should be adopted. Without getting into spoilery details, the film is not a remake of any of the existing films and doesn't succeed Star Trek VI in terms of storyline despite the fact that it involves the original characters, leading some to question whether giving it a number that comes after all of the Next Generation-era films' numbers makes sense. Nonetheless, it is popularly referred to as Star Trek XI. kalen says "There is another argument you don't mention but perhaps have encountered: all other Star Treks are sequential from I. The reboot, therefore, is properly numbered "Star Trek 0" and is thus not part of the "even/odd" thing at all. Or, slightly differently but with the same logic, the reboot is "I" all over again, and this time it's going to be evens that suck... :)"
It has been widely reported that the main cast of the 2009 Star Trek film have signed on for at least two sequels. Following the current numbering system, the next film (which the Internet Movie Database lists as "Untitled Star Trek Sequel" and suggests will be released in 2011) will be Star Trek XII, which the writers of The Simpsons once hilariously suggested would feature the original cast and be called "Star Trek XII: So Very Tired."
According to the even-odd rule, that film would still probably be better than Star Trek V.
"The cosmic ballet goes on" is a line from the classic Simpsons episode "Marge vs. the Monorail" spoken by Leonard Nimoy as part of his legendary guest appearance as himself, in Springfield to be the grand marshal on the ill-fated monorail's maiden voyage: "A solar eclipse; the cosmic ballet goes on." (Random traveler: "Does anyone want to switch seats?")