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At the Helm of the Enterprise – John Scalzi Ranks Star Trek‘s Directors

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A question from e-mail:

Now that you’ve had your fun mocking Star Trek, maybe you can settle an argument I’m having with a friend about who is the best Star Trek movie director. He says it’s J.J. Abrams, because he saved the franchise. I say it’s Leonard Nimoy, because Star Trek IV is the best Star Trek movie. Which of us is wrong?

That’s easy: You’re both wrong.

This is a conveniently coincidental question, because the actual best Star Trek director has just released a book on the subject. It’s called The View From the Bridge: Memories of Star Trek and a Life in Hollywood, and it’s written by Nicholas Meyer, who directed Star Treks II and VI. If you’re a Trek fan, it’s well worth picking up, because Meyer does a fine job dishing the backstage dirt on the Trek flicks and his involvement therein. It reminds us that long before Abrams swooped down to save the Trek universe, Meyer did it first — and a lot more cheaply.

So where do Abrams and Nimoy stack up on the list of Star Trek movie directors? Well, as it happens, I have a list right here.

1. Nicholas Meyer
Meyer was brought in to save the Trek franchise after the bloated snoozer that was Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and was given just $11 million (less than $30 million in today’s dollars) to do it. He whipped up The Wrath of Khan (the actual best Star Trek movie). Well done him. Then for good measure he wrote the screenplay for Trek IV, the second best Trek flick, and closed out the original cast movies with the better than average Star Trek VI, which he wrote and directed. Face it, if Meyer hadn’t been around, there wouldn’t have been a franchise for Abrams to resurrect.

2. Leonard Nimoy
For someone who plays a presumably emotionless character, Nimoy had a surprisingly light touch as a director; it’s worth noting that his most successful movie as a director was not a Trek flick but the comedy Three Men and a Baby. Nimoy’s lightness made Star Trek IV the most fun Trek to watch, and also made Trek III — which he also directed — click by at an agreeable pace.

3. Jonathan Frakes
Frakes directed Star Trek: First Contact, inarguably the best of the Next Generation movies, and did it with a rather more cinematic style than most of the Trek flicks had to date. He also helmed Star Trek: Insurrection, for which he did as well as anyone could have done with a script that felt like a leftover from the series slushpile. Yes, making silk out of a sow’s ear counts.

4. J.J. Abrams
Granted, he did reboot the franchise and make people love it again, for which geeks everywhere owe him huge thanks. But, you know: Give me $150 million and license to do whatever the hell I want with Trek continuity, and I probably could have managed it, too — without argin’ fargin’ “Red Matter.” He deserves props, but I’m waiting to see what he does with the follow-up before moving him past Frakes.

5. Robert Wise
The only actual Oscar-winning director in the batch, Wise had directed the seminal The Day the Earth Stood Still, so on paper, having him try his hand at Star Trek: The Motion Picture didn’t seem like a bad idea. But, man. Was that movie ever slow. I’m inclined to think it’s not all Wise’s fault, but in truth his somnolent direction didn’t help.

6. David Carson
Yes, I know: Who? He directed Star Trek: Generations with the faceless competence of television direction, from whence he had sprung prior to this, and to which he’d return afterwards.

7. William Shatner
Admit it: You’re surprised he’s not last on the list. But to his (weak) defense, the dude’s an actor. No one seriously expected him to direct Trek V competently. To which you say, “Yeah, but what about Nimoy and Frakes? They were actors, too.” To which I say, “Huh? What? Come again? I’m sorry, I can’t seem to hear you.” Moving on.

8. Stuart Baird
Stuart Baird, on the other hand, had directed movies before: U.S. Marshals and Executive Decision, which were blandly cromulent. So his complete faceplant on Star Trek: Nemesis earns him the anchor position here. Not only did it kill Trek movies for seven years, but also Baird’s directing career; he’s not directed since.

Arguments over the rankings? That’s what the comment thread (and our groovy movie list) is for.

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Winner of the Hugo Award and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, John Scalzi is the author of The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies and the novels Old Man’s War and Zoe’s Tale. He’s also Creative Consultant for the upcoming Stargate: Universe television series. His column appears every Thursday.

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