Star Trek Guide

How Star Trek Fans Reacted To Spock's Death (Badly)

It may seem strange now with over 30 years of hindsight, but Star Trek fans did not react positively to Spock's death in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Widely considered the best cinematic offering in the Star Trek franchise, The Wrath of Khan reintroduced Ricardo Montalbán as the titular villain from the original TV series. In a dramatic, nail-biting finale, Khan activates Genesis, which will create a new planet and swallow the Enterprise along with it. In a heroic act of self-sacrifice, Spock suffers fatal radiation poisoning in the course of repairing the ship's warp drive, allowing his crew to escape at the cost of his own life. The final act is peppered with highly emotive scenes, including a final farewell to William Shatner's Kirk and a funeral where Spock's casket is ejected into space for one (apparently) final voyage.

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As everyone now knows, of course, The Wrath of Khan was very far from Spock's last appearance in the Star Trek franchise. Leonard Nimoy returned for the follow-up and would go on to star in the next trilogy of big screen releases. Furthermore, Spock would briefly pop up in Star Trek: The Next Generation and then time-travel into J. J. Abrams' movie reboot to create a brand new continuity for subsequent films to play around in. To a 1982 crowd, however, Spock's fate looked far more uncertain and the prospect of Star Trek with one less set of pointy ears provoked a strong reaction.

During production on The Wrath of Khan, a script leak accidentally revealed to fans that plans were afoot to kill off Spock and the news did not go down well. The DVD commentary for Star Trek's second movie outing reveals that threatening letters (this was before the days of Twitter, back when disgruntled fans had to really make the effort) had been sent into Paramount expressing their unhappiness at Spock's potential demise. Advertisements were taken out imploring the decision to be reversed and newspapers reported that Nimoy's family were even receiving death threats from annoyed Trekkies.

In response to the negative reaction, The Wrath of Khan director, Nicholas Meyer, placed a fake-out death at the beginning of the film, with the Kobayashi Maru scene intended to fool fans into thinking Spock's leaked "death" had already played out, only to be hit with a sucker-punch when he kicked the bucket for real at the very end.

Many Star Trek fans were left upset by Spock's death, assuming it was permanent. Firstly, the Star Trek sequel was lucky to get made. Star Trek: The Motion Picture was an expensive outlay for Paramount and performed below the studio's expectations. A follow-up was made on a far tighter budget and while the success of The Wrath of Khan paved the way for the future, cinema-goers weren't to know how big the film would become. More pertinently, there were widespread rumors that Nimoy was done with Star Trek, supported when the actor refused to sign on for a third film unless he could direct it. While reports that Nimoy also insisted his character was killed off in The Wrath of Khan have since been debunked, rumors persisted at the time, perhaps sparked by the title of the actor's 1975 autobiography, I Am Not Spock.

For better or worse, the volatile fan reaction when Spock's death first leaked ensured the character's Star Trek future. Nimoy began speaking openly about potentially appearing in Star Trek III around the time The Wrath of Khan was released and the actor also sowed the seeds for his return during filming. As a late addition to The Wrath of Khan, a moment was added where Spock mind-melds with McCoy and says "remember," thus setting the stage for a comeback. Despite protests from Meyer, attempts were also made to soften Spock's death scene with a more uplifting tone as a direct result of test screening criticism.

It's often claimed that the advent of social media has given movie fans a direct route to criticizing film and TV development in real-time, as seen previously in the run-up to Star Trek: Discovery, but the case of Star Trek's Spock death proves that this practice was around long before that.