Farewell to Spock: Notes on the poignant denouement of ‘Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan’

March 6, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
March 6, 2015

After hearing that actor Leonard Nimoy, famous for portraying Mr. Spock from Star Trek, had died last week at age 83, I did the same thing as many thousands of others, and perhaps hundreds of thousands of others: I watched this clip from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

If you’ve never seen that movie, and if you care nothing for the Star Trek franchise, then move on; this blog post will be of no interest to you. If you like Star Trek but haven’t seen The Wrath of Khan, then by all means bookmark this page and put off reading the rest of this blog entry until you’ve watched the entire film.

(Yes, friends: There be spoilers ahead.)

If you’ve seen the movie, then you know the grim climactic details that I avoided spelling out in my post about the afternoon I went to watch Star Trek II in the movie theaters.

During the climactic battle in the Mutara Nebula, Admiral James T. Kirk literally outmaneuvers Khan Noonian Singh (Ricardo Montalban), laying waste to his starship. Enterprise orders Reliant to surrender and prepare to be boarded, but its hails go unheeded; Khan is defiant to the last.

The mangled villain, the only person left alive on the devastated Reliant’s bridge, drags himself to a control device. Using his last reserves of strength, Khan triggers the Genesis Device. The marvelous new scientific invention — which, like many innovations, can be used as a weapon — begins counting down. Upon detonation, in just four minutes, the device will begin restructuring every molecule within its range. To put it plainly, Genesis will wipe out the nebula and everything in it.

Kirk (William Shatner) gives orders to exit the nebula at top speed. But the Enterprise has been badly damaged in its two encounters with Reliant. With its warp engines inoperative, the heroes’ vessel limps away on impulse power alone.

In between frantically requesting updates on the elapsed time and the distance from Reliant, Kirk asks the engine room how long it will take to restore the warp drive. But engineering is in shambles, and there’s no reply.

Chekov (Walter Koenig) announces that Reliant is 4,000 kilometers astern with about 30 seconds remaining in the countdown. Kirk’s son, David Marcus (Merritt Butrick), a pacifist and one of the lead Project Genesis scientists, wrings his hands anxiously.

“We’re not gonna make it, are we?” helmsman Sulu (George Takei) asks in a calm baritone. Kirk looks searchingly at David; the younger man just shakes his head.

But moments earlier, Kirk’s longtime first officer, Spock, wordlessly left the bridge. While the command crew quietly fretted, the Vulcan used his famed nerve pinch to overcome the objections of Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) and began tending to the warp core despite the deadly levels of radiation that pervaded the inner chamber.

With only seconds remaining, a crewman announces that warp power has been restored. “Bless you, Scotty,” Kirk murmurs before instantly segueing into an urgent command: “Go, Sulu!”

Enterprise leaps away from Reliant. A moment later, the Genesis Device detonates, wiping out the crippled ship and eradicating the matter around it. As the heroes streak away, the nebula is transformed by the Genesis wave.

David’s mother, Carol Marcus (Bibi Besch), the head of Project Genesis, steps onto the bridge. She and others watch the screen, enthralled, as a new planet forms before their eyes. Wordlessly, without tearing her gaze from the monitor, she crosses the bridge. David reaches out to take her hand.

Kirk activates the intercom. “Engine room,” he says. “Well done, Scotty.”

McCoy answers, his voice shaken. “Jim, I think you’d better — get down here.”

“Bones?” Kirk asks.


Kirk glances toward the science station. Spock’s chair is empty. “Saavik, take the conn,” the admiral orders as he stands and makes his way to the turbolift.

The new planet continues to take shape as Kirk races through the corridors and enters the engine room. He slides down a ladder, runs around a console and comes up short, staring into the inner warp drive chamber. After a moment, he steps toward it.

“No!” McCoy cries as he, Chief Engineer Scott (James Doohan) and another crewman move to block Kirk’s path. “You’ll flood the whole compartment!”

“He’ll die,” the admiral says.

“Sir!” Scotty cries bitterly. “He’s dead already.”

Kirk looks him in the eye. Then he turns his gaze toward McCoy.

“It’s too late,” Bones mutters grimly.

Kirk sags. The three men let go of him. Kirk steps up to the transparent wall of the warp chamber. His friend’s body is slumped by the far wall.

Kirk calls out the Vulcan’s name. The walls block the sound. He steps to the side and calls again.

Amazingly, Spock begins moving. He stands with difficulty and straightens his uniform. Then Spock takes a few halting steps toward Kirk. The left side of his face has been ravaged by radiation. He bumps into the transparent containment wall separating him from Kirk.

The half-human, half-Vulcan scientist addresses Kirk formally, calling him “admiral.” But he comforts the agonized human, saying, “I have been, and always shall be, your friend.” Then Spock lowers himself to the ground and falls silent.

Kirk slumps in defeat. The camera pulls back on an image of Kirk leaning against the glass wall against which Spock’s corpse is resting. And thus concludes the battle of the Mutara Nebula.

Cut to a flag-draped torpedo casing — Spock’s coffin — being lowered onto a track in front of the assembled officers and crew of the Enterprise. Kirk gives this brief, moving eulogy:

We are assembled here today to pay final respects to our honored dead. And yet it should be noted that in the midst of our sorrow, this death takes place in the shadow of new life, the sunrise of a new world — a world that our beloved comrade gave his life to protect and nourish. He did not feel this sacrifice a vain or empty one, and we will not debate his profound wisdom at these proceedings. Of my friend, I can only say this: Of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most — human.

The department heads are arrayed around Kirk. There’s a gap to his left, the spot that Spock would normally occupy. Officers listen quietly. Young Lt. Saavik (Kirstie Alley) observes solemnly. The tightly wound half-Vulcan, half-Romulan has let her hair down for the first time that we’ve seen; a tear on her cheek catches the light. Carol and David Marcus stand alongside the torpedo’s path; a look of sympathy is etched upon her face. Scotty begins playing “Amazing Grace” on his bagpipes as the torpedo moves down the rails to the launch tube. The tube closes.

Cut to the exterior of the Enterprise — a mostly static shot, but a thoroughly beautiful one nonetheless. The orchestra takes over — here composer James Horner inserts a few bars of John Newton’s old Christian hymn — as Spock’s funeral torpedo streaks out of its tube. In the next shot, a blaze of light traces the black coffin’s path toward the Genesis planet. And, just as Kirk said, we see the sun rise over this new world. This shot is much fuzzier than the one we just saw, much less convincing. It’s a poignant image nonetheless.

Spock was dead, truly and irrevocably dead, after having made one of the most heart-rending departures in all of science fiction. And yet, as the intervening years would show, there was still more to his story…

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