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The best sci-fi movie trilogy isn’t in Star Wars, it’s in Star Trek

Star Wars and Star Trek are the two best science fiction movie franchises, with a mighty cinematic legacy between them. But, whisper it, Kirk's adventures win.

William Shatner as Kirk, watching Luke and Vader duel

“If I may be so bold, it was a mistake for you to accept promotion. Commanding a starship is your first best destiny. Anything else is a waste of material.” Star Trek II The Wrath of Khan begins with Spock telling Admiral James T. Kirk that he ought to have remained a captain; that he isn’t suited to his life away from the center chair. Only a few hours previous, Bones had gifted the aging Admiral a pair of antique eyeglasses. His sight is waning, after all, and Jim Kirk happens to be allergic to the future’s cure for diminishing vision.

Jim Kirk is stagnating, and his years are finally starting to catch up with him. So begins Star Trek’s unofficial trilogy: one of the best movie trilogies of all time. Sorry, Star Wars.

The Wrath of Khan, The Search for Spock, and The Voyage Home constitute this trilogy’s installments. While each of the six TOS-era Star Trek movies can be seen essentially episodically, with their own self-contained stories, this trio is best viewed as the three acts of a single story.

That story is one of death, rebirth, and life. In The Wrath of Khan, Spock sacrifices himself to save the USS Enterprise from the threat of Khan. In The Search for Spock we witness Kirk losing everything (his beloved starship, son, and career) in a galactic quest to resurrect Spock. In The Voyage Home, the two simultaneously find the joy in living, once again, now reunited.

William Shatner as Kirk looking at eyeglasses

Come the end of this trilogy, Jim Kirk has been demoted back down to the rank of captain (for disregarding every rule in order to revive his half-Vulcan boyfriend). He sold Bones’ eyeglasses, too: he didn’t need them anymore, having arrested his stagnation by re-discovering the lust for adventure, and for living.

He’s firmly back in the saddle with Spock by his side, which, as Spock had pointed out, is where he had always belonged. With Shatner and Nimoy at the helm, there’s a coherence and thematic richness that eludes the simplicity of George Lucas’ Star Wars movies.

Leonard Nimoy as Spock in Star Trek II

The reputation of the Star Wars movies has, nostalgic tingles aside, been inflated by the influence of The Empire Strikes Back. It’s the perfect middle installment, and one which makes the two movies either side of it appear all the more bullet proof. In the Star Trek trilogy, the inverse is true.

The Search for Spock is undoubtedly the weakest of the three. It’s brimming with brilliant set-pieces (Kirk’s theft of the USS Enterprise, its later destruction, and his fiery battle with Kruge) but it lacks the sharpness of The Wrath of Khan and The Voyage Home. Still, it remains a more successful film than Return of the Jedi, which lacks the bravery to kill Han Solo, and meanders drably toward its ending.

Harrison Ford as Han Solo in ROTJ

But, The Wrath of Khan and The Voyage Home are every bit as good as A New Hope, and Empire. James Horner’s score can come toe-to-toe with John Williams’, and the visual delights to be found in Lucas’ trilogy (Empire especially, which contains a handful of the most lasting images put to film) meet their match in the Battle of the Mutara Nebula.

Star Wars’ original trilogy was a phenomenon. The Star Trek trilogy, though, was only a moderate financial success. Perhaps this, and Star Wars’ broader cultural impact (which admittedly exceeds Star Trek’s, at least in cinematic terms) explains why the Star Trek trilogy is not only unrecognized, but underrated, and underappreciated.

Lucas’ Star Wars trilogy is still a titanic achievement. Empire, especially, is superlative by any metric. The simple truth, though, is that if you’re looking for the best science fiction movie trilogy of all time (with thrilling space combat, astonishing visuals, and unparalleled thematic depth), logic can only lead you to one conclusion. Let’s just not mention the TNG movies.