"TNG" premiered in September 1987 under the nervous premise "Could lightning strike twice?" Paramount was not sure they could pull off a sequel to a show that'd been off the air for 18 years, and only has a small (but loyal) fan base. Remember, the film franchise started by basically picking up George Lucas's slop in the post-"Star Wars" sci-fi frenzy of the late 70s. What could similarly give the Trek franchise enough confidence to risk a second weekly series with a mass audience?
The answer to that is No. 4 on my list: "Star Trek 4: The Voyage Home."
Now let me preface this by saying that I don't particularly like "ST4." I don't think it fits well within the canon. Yes, I know that the time "slingshot" effect had been used three times before in "The Original Series," but I still don't time travel stories, because they completely destroy dramatic tension. (William Shatner actually says the same thing in the DVD commentary to "ST4.") Because if you can travel through time, then when you screw something up, you can say:
- Hey, did that Klingon kill your son, Kirk? Let's go back in time and save him!
- Hey, did that super-human madman kill a bunch of scientists and steal the Genesis Device? Let's go back in time and fix that!
- Hey, did that redshirt get killed because he didn't duck in time? Let's go back in time and save him!
See, I'm of two minds where the "legacy" aspect of "ST4" is concerned, because on the one-hand:
a) Released in 1986, "ST4" was, unadjusted for inflation, the most successful installment of the film franchise until the reboot. This movie is the one that was most successful with a mass audience because it's easy to understand and it uses a lot of humor. Without the success of "ST4," studio executives probably would not have been confident enough to start a sequel TV show less than a year later, which also had the broadest mass appeal of any Trek series. And without "TNG," the franchise would have disappeared 20 years ago.
b) The events in "ST4" had virtually no effect on subsequent movies or TV shows, unlike movies 2, 3, and 6. As said earlier, no one ever uses the slingshot effect again, no one ever talks about whales or the probe, and Gillian never reappeared anywhere. The only reference ever made to "ST4" is a line in "ST6" where the head of Starfleet says to the President of the Federation "Those men [Kirk and McCoy] have literally saved this planet," and frankly at that moment he could have also been talking about when they saved it from V'Ger. For the franchise's most successful installment, it's bizarre that they never tried to return to it. (Note: there's an episode of "Enterprise" where they passingly quote a Vulcan philosopher mentioned in "ST4" -- but that's about it.)
You might point out that "ST4" established that Starfleet Headquarters (and the Academy) are located in San Francisco, a point that's heavily referenced in many subsequent episodes. However, this was actually established in "The Motion Picture," not "ST4." So you would, in fact, be wrong.
Now the exception to my point b) would be the reboot, which includes "ST4" as one of its four prime influences (the other three are "Wrath of Khan," "Journey to Babel," and "Unification.") The first act of 2009's "Star Trek: The Star Trek" takes its cues from "ST4," showing a Vulcan training scene reminiscent of the one in "ST4" and showing that Kirk was, indeed, from Iowa (which "ST4" established).
So I'm torn on "ST4," but because of its pivotal role in advancing the franchise, it has to be on the list. Moreover, it's ridiculously well made, with a great screenplay, believable special effects on the whales, a fun soundtrack, and humor. "ST4" is also pure science-fiction -- there's no villain, no fighting, and a phaser is fired ONLY ONCE: when Kirk locks the doctors in the closet.
The best part of the film is the way they share the action. Yes, Kirk and Spock are the stars, but because there was no villain, the filmmakers had more time to show attention to the other seven members of the crew, who all enjoy more screen-time and character-moments than ever. These include:
- Scotty "burying himself" in the part of the plastics engineer (OK wait, this is also where they introduce the term "transparent aluminum," a phrase that would be used subsequently).
- Sulu flying a helicopter and saying "San Francisco ... I was born there."
- Chekov, a Russian, facing off against an Naval officer while innocently unaware of Cold War politics. (Note: "ST4" also continues the trend of Chekov's tendency to get screwed.) This movie is also where the term "nuclear wessels" was coined.
- McCoy mocking 20th Century medicine ("the g--d--- Spanish Inquisition").
- Uhura didn't get a lot (nothing to compete with "Mr. Adventure" in "ST3" or the fandance in "ST5," but she is the one who isolates whale song at the beginning.
This is another way in which the film's invisible, but strong, legacy can be felt: "TNG," DS9," and "VOY" all featured ensemble casts rather than following the "TOS" model of focusing on just a couple main characters. This is another reason why "TNG" was so successful and popular is that they were following the model set by "ST4," even if no one ever followed its details. "ENT" would return to the "TOS" standard of only three truly main characters, but even then Hoshi Sato got way more character development than Uhura ever did.
So "ST4" -- mass appeal, humor, ensemble cast, spawned "TNG." Some would insist that it should be higher, but I will argue that the No. 3 spot should be reserved for .... (cliff hanger!)