Star Trek II not only has the honor of the best Star Trek film ever—a tight revenge plot whose special effects hold up today—but it not coincidentally contains the best and most powerful scene in the franchise’s expansive oeuvre, and not least because of the performance of Leonard Nimoy, who came to the end of his long life on Friday. In it, Spock dies. For fans still holding onto the harmless and dreamy experiment in applied liberalism that was the original 1960s series, this was a shock.
Not just a shock because moments before it had you thinking No way a major hero dies, but because of the deft sleight of hand director Nicholas Meyer performs. The slow ratcheting of tension—will they get out of there?—the small, heartbreakingly stoic look Spock gives as he makes his decision to fix the warp core, fatally, by hand; and then, after he bathes himself in its bright poisonous radiation, the cut back to the bridge where we have to wait for William Shatner’s Kirk to find out what happened.
There are few love affairs in popular culture like the one between Kirk and Spock that seem to rocket to a level for which the word bromance is a callow insult. They needed and complemented and liked each other to the utmost. With McCoy they formed a triumvirate of the human condition: courage, reason, compassion. But everything in the end could be found in the primary duo.
The death scene was so powerful and lasting—just try to recall Spock’s attempts to comfort Kirk (“Don’t grieve … I have been, and always shall be, your friend”) without getting a little teary—that J.J. Abrams’ second entry in his rebooted series attempted to create its twin. Though Spock of course came back to life, the story dominated Star Trek III, IV, and even V. From then on, it seemed, the franchise centered not on two people, but on one.
Spock was the most important character in Star Trek. He cast his long shadow over every following edition. I came of age in the Next Generation era but his guest appearances there had the weight of a descended saint. Before Winona Ryder as Mother Spock so plaintively reminded us in the reboots, it was easy to forget or never know that his character was only half Vulcan. During the original series, the flashes of his famously in-check emotions seemed to come out as sub-human, angry, and barbaric. But careful watchers understood that his reserved but mindful demeanor could not be fully explained as merely an alien bearing. It was dignity, one impossible to fake.