There has, historically, been the saying that ODD-NUMBERED Star Trek movies are bad, but even-numbered ones are good. This long-standing notion was discarded with the last two films: "Nemesis" (No. 10 -- a stinker) and the reboot (No. 11 -- a winner).
However, I always struggled with the odd/even paradigm because of the No. 3 on our countdown -- "Star Trek 3: The Search for Spock."
Now there are some key reasons why "TSFS" might not make the cut in some people's minds, and I understand them. The film is not without its shortcomings, which include:
"TSFS" is sandwiched between the two best films in the franchise: "Wrath of Khan" and "Voyage Home." Often times the second installment in a trilogy feels weak compared to its bookends (the writers of the Lord of the Rings films called "Two Towers" their "neglected child"), and in this case, virtually any movie would struggle to compare to "TWOK" and "TVH."
2) Production values.
"TSFS" has some pretty weak production values, with some less than impressive effects shots. (No. 4's budget was 50% higher than No. 3.) The scenes on the Genesis Planet look corny, the space cantina scene is no Mos Eisley, and a lot of the costumes have a distinctly "It came from the 80s" vibe.
Yeah, I'm gonna complain about this now. Kirstie Alley was terrific as Spock's protege, and it was a disappointment that she didn't return for the character's two subsequent outings (because the studio offered her _less_ money, even though she was a bigger star now). While the replacement actress, Robin Curtis, was fine -- and good enough to come back as another Vulcan in two "TNG" episodes -- but it would have helped the film the original could have continued.
Now, having said those things, I still like "TSFS," and I place it higher than "TVH." And the reason I do this is because, when it comes to the "legacy" criteria of my countdown, nothing beats "TSFS." Ahem:
So Klingons are the signature alien race of Star Trek (yes, they even edge out Vulcans), and "TSFS" is where the Klingon model was finalized. "TSFS" gave us:
a) The look. Klingons did appear with head ridges in "The Motion Picture," (see right) but those guys looked more like Calibos from "Clash of the Titans" than what we would come to know as Klingons. Kruge (see below) and his crew sported the head ridges, hair, and armor as the first standardized "new" Klingons.
b) The language. The real Klingon language you may have heard jokes about on "Family Guy" or wherever was created for this film by Marc Okrand. And since the franchise has shown off its Klingon-speaking chops whenever anyone would listen. Moreover, "TSFS" introduces the signature Klingon word - qapla! - which is translated as "success" when Kruge uses it, though I think idiomatically it should be translated as "victory."
c) The ship. After the Enterprise itself, no Star Trek ship is as instantly recognizable as the Klingon "bird of prey," which was first created for "TSFS." Actually, arguably this ship is ubiquitous than the Enterprise because it has appeared in virtually every iteration of the franchise ("TOS" films, "TNG," "TNG" films, "DS9," "VOY," "ENT") while no individual version of the Enterprise has.
d) Etcetera etcetera. "TSFS" also featured the first appearance the Klingon "daktag" knife and targ (wolf-like dog), and established the Klingons as warriors more like samurai than as a metaphor for the Soviet Union.
Now, in his autobiography, "I Am Spock," Leonard Nimoy says that the bad guys for this film were supposed to be Romulans, and he changed it to Klingons. Had that been left unchanged, I think Romulans would have become the signature race of the franchise, not Klingons.
"My God, Bones. What have I done?"
"What you had to do. What you always do. Turn death into a fighting chance to live."
- - Kirk and McCoy, as the fiery Enterprise plummets
This spirit is summed up in the closing lines:
"What you seek has not been done since ages past, and then only in legend. Your request is not logical."
"Forgive me, T'Lar. My logic is uncertain where my son is concerned."
- - T'Lar and Sarek, on the request of fal-tor-pan for Spock
"My father says that you have been my friend. You came back for me."
"You would have done the same for me."
"Why would you do this?"
"Because the needs of the one outweighed the needs of the many."
- - Spock and Kirk
"TSFS" includes some of the best one-liners in Star Trek, such as:
"That green-blooded son of a bitch! It's his revenge for all the arguments he lost."
- - McCoy, on realizing he is suffering from a Vulcan mind-meld
"Don't get smart, tiny."
- - Sulu and Security Guard
"Don't call me tiny."
- - Sulu, after knocking out a security guard who called him "tiny"
- - Kirk, to Kruge
"Fine, I'll kill you later."
- - Maltz and Kirk
"That's what you get for missing staff meetings, Doctor. Gentlemen, your work today has been outstanding. I intend to recommend you all for promotion... in whatever fleet we end up serving."
- -McCoy and Kirk
"How many fingers do I have up?" (Makes a Vulcan hand salute)
"That's not very damn funny."
- - Kirk and McCoy, in McCoy's cell
There are some other highpoints of "TSFS" -- like Uhura's "Mr. Adventure" scene, the hijacking of the Enterprise, and the connection between "TOS" episodes "Amok Time" and "Journey to Babel" and the "ENT" "Forge" trilogy. Despite some of its shortcomings, it's a worthy successor to "Wrath of Khan" and a linchpin part of the trilogy that gave the original crew such a lofty reputation while laying the foundation for "TNG" and all that came after.