“Today is a good day to die.”
So said Worf, more than once, but most of the characters on this list would disagree. Star Trek has seen a lot of death in its fictional universe, and that’s even without counting all the redshirts. Captain Kirk himself has died four times within the franchise (if you include the imaginary Vulcan Death Grip), and in various timelines, we saw (or heard about) the deaths of Christopher Pike, Seven of Nine, Deanna Troi, and Data, to name a few biggies who didn’t make it onto the final list.
Some of these deaths come with drawn-out scenes complete with tears and swelling music; others are delivered with more subtlety, asking us to contemplate deeper concepts. And some are there simply because we miss them. “Death is that state in which one exists only in the memory of others,” said Tasha Yar. Check out the 17 Most Heartbreaking Deaths in the Star Trek Franchise, and have those tissues handy.
17. George Kirk
In the first fifteen minutes of the Star Trek reboot, we meet and then lose George Kirk.
In the Kelvin Timeline, JJ Abrams-verse, Jim Kirk is born in an escape shuttle; less than a minute after his birth, his father is gone, having sacrificed himself for his crew, his wife, and his son. George got to hear his newborn son’s first cries, he said goodbye to his wife, he named his child, and then, in a fiery explosion, he was gone.
The character, the timeline, everything shifted in that moment, and its impact would change James T. Kirk forever. James, born of joy and sorrow, would never be the one we knew in the original series. He was born emotionally wounded, and his path, although it would still take him to the Captain’s chair on the Enterprise, was forever altered and marked by the tragedy at the moment of his birth. George Kirk’s death comes too quickly, as we only get to know him for a few minutes, and at the same time too slowly, as we experience every agonizing moment up to his last.
16. Trip Tucker
Let’s face it, Trip Tucker was the most entertaining character on Enterprise, with Dr. Phlox coming in a close second. Trip was bold and brave and fun. Trip had a sense of humor and a sense of adventure. In a relatively joyless show, he brought that sense of wonder and excitement to his missions, but tempered it with his experience; he was never wide-eyed and naive, he was just a true explorer, who couldn’t wait to go to a new planet, meet some new people, and discover new technology.
In the much-disliked final episode of Enterprise, Captain Archer saves Trip’s life, and then Trip returns the favor … but the cost is tragic. Trip sacrifices himself for his captain and his ship, and we lose the one guy on that early Enterprise we’d actually want to hang out with. Archer gets him to Sickbay and Phlox does everything he can, but we know from the look exchanged between them in Trip’s final moments that it’s over. “Trip would be the first to say it was worthwhile,” T’Pol tells Archer, and she’s right.
15. Amanda Grayson
The first Star Trek reboot gave us better insight into Amanda Grayson, Spock’s human mother, than the series did, but it also gave us her death. We see her taking care of Spock as a child, comforting him when his peers and his culture don’t accept him, and giving him strength. So it makes sense that when the destruction of Vulcan is imminent, Spock races down to the planet to save his parents, along with anyone else he can.
In a heartbreaking moment, we see the ledge Amanda’s standing on collapse just before the transporter beam can get a proper lock on her, and Spock reaches out to her helplessly as she falls to her death. On the Enterprise transporter pad, Spock simply stares at the space where she would’ve been, his sense of loss palpable, as Kirk and Sulu watch in shocked silence. It marks this new Spock as much as George Kirk marks Jim. Spock did everything you could to save her, and couldn’t, and had to live with the knowledge that a few more seconds would have made all the difference in the world.
14. The Horta’s Children
“Pain!” This one is classic Trek, with the story of a monster that isn’t what it appears to be.
A creature is murdering miners on Janos IV, but she’s not a murderer: she’s a mother. She’s a Horta, and Spock’s mind meld with her reveals why she’s been attacking the miners: the “silicon nodules” they’ve been tossing around so carelessly are her eggs.
“Go out into the tunnel. To the chamber of the ages. Cry for the children. Walk carefully in the vault of tomorrow. Sorrow for the murdered children. The thing you search for is there.”
Every fifty thousand years, the entire Horta race dies but for one, who lays thousands of eggs to create the next generation. Kirk informs the raging miners that she is both intelligent and peaceful. “She had no objection to sharing this planet with you,” he tells them, “till you broke into her nursery and started destroying her eggs. Then she fought back in the only way she knew how, as any mother would fight when her children are in danger.”
13. Ensign Sito
We meet four ensigns, all of whom are waiting to hear about promotions. Among them is Ensign Sito, a Bajoran who was one of Wesley Crusher’s Starfleet Academy classmates and who has had to redeem herself for an incident they were both involved in (but that’s another story). She’s earned the respect of both Worf and Riker, and this gives her the strength to stand up to Picard when he challenges her right to be on his crew. But he’s actually faking her out: he needs her for a stealth mission and wanted to evaluate her courage.
She accepts the secret mission, and succeeds, but at the cost of her own life. “Her loss will be deeply felt by all who knew her,” Picard tells the crew, when he informs them of her death in the line of duty. Her three friends mourn their loss together in Ten Forward, and are joined by Worf, junior and senior officers united in their mourning.
12. Robert Tomlinson
Why is Robert Tomlinson’s death so heartbreaking? What makes him stand out in the pack? It’s the fact that at the beginning of “Balance of Terror,” an iconic first season episode, Tomlinson is about to get married.
In the chapel, the crew gathers for a happy occasion, as Kirk waxes poetic on the happy privilege of shipmasters to officiate at weddings. Angela Martine and Robert Tomlinson are smiling at each other, ready to say their vows. Next thing you know: red alert. The wedding is postponed.
The Enterprise engages in a battle of wills—and weapons—with a Romulan ship. She wins, but with one casualty: Tomlinson. “The boy who was getting married this morning,” says McCoy. Kirk, heavy with responsibility (and in a Janeway sort of moment we don’t always see from him), heads to the chapel to comfort Angela. Her heart is broken, and the crew grieves along with her, painfully reminded of the risks they take every day to themselves and those they love.
K’Ehlayr was only in two episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, but she made her mark. When we first met her, she and Worf already had a romantic history, plus plenty of chemistry, evidence of which returned with he on her second visit, when she showed up with their son, Alexander.
K’Ehlayr was half Klingon and half human, and likely an inspiration for Voyager‘s B’Elanna Torres. She was smart, she was brave, she was strong, and she was a better match for Worf than anyone he got paired with later. She called him on everything, challenged his blind acceptance of the traditions that led to his dishonor, and refused to marry him just because they slept together.
When she was killed, we lost a great female character, Worf lost his soulmate, and Alexander lost a mother. She was murdered by Duras, and left to bleed to death while Worf and Alexander watched, helpless. Worf’s howl, and Alexander’s fearful reaction, said it all: this was a brutal death, unfair and undeserved.
10. Peter Preston
If you went to see Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan when it came out, you were probably confused about why Scotty brought wounded midshipman Peter Preston to the bridge, and why he looked so stricken. But anyone who read the novelization of the movie by Vonda N. McIntyre, or watched the director’s cut or the restored version that aired on ABC in 1985 already knows: Preston was Scotty’s nephew.
When Scotty carries him in his arms to the bridge, we understand that his grief has driven him there, to this grand gesture that makes everyone realize just how much sacrifice had to be made. In Sickbay, after Preston is gone, Scotty mourns for the loss of this idealistic, enthusiastic cadet who was his nephew, and died under his command. “He stayed at his post when the trainees ran,” he tells Admiral Kirk.
Preston’s death foreshadows the greater loss that Wrath of Khan gives us, but it’s the first time we see Scotty get truly emotional; his grief-stricken voice says it all.
Tuvix is what happens on Star Trek Voyager when a transporter accident—a favorite Trek catalyst—combines Neelix and Tuvok into one being. He exhibits strikingly familiar qualities from both, retaining Tuvok’s logic and brilliance, and combining it with Neelix’s warmth and charisma.
When they determine they can fix the transporter, the decision of what to do next falls to Janeway. She has a responsibility to her officers, to do whatever she can to save them, doesn’t she? But then what about this new person she’s facing? It’s a murder that comes with a moral conundrum: is he a transporter accident, or an individual?
When she decides that her loyalty is to Tuvok and Neelix above all, she effectively sentences Tuvix to death. She can’t dress it up: Tuvix will exist no more if she sends him back through the transporter, and he makes it extremely clear that he doesn’t want to go. When the EMH won’t violate his “do no harm” oath, Janeway is forced to administer the isotope to him herself. Judging by her face at the end, the memory of her act will haunt her for a long time.
8. The Salt Vampire
The enemy. A monster. But the last of its kind.
This was the first episode of Star Trek that ever aired, and it set up a monster-of-the-week template that fortunately never took hold. But like many a Star Trek monster, there was more to this one than met the eye.
This monster can transform itself into anyone, so for the past year or two, it’s been playing the role of Nancy Crater, who just happens to be an old flame of McCoy’s. It’s been living with Nancy’s husband, who knows what’s going on and was hoping to hide its true identity. But the creature is desperate, and kills a couple of crew members, then pretends to be one of them to get on the ship.
In the end, it attacks Kirk, and poor, already distraught McCoy has to kill it to save Kirk’s life. Why they didn’t just offer it salt and send it back home, we don’t know. The poor thing just lies there on the floor, dead, its race gone … and it could have coexisted peacefully if they’d only passed the salt.
7. Edith Keeler
This is one of Star Trek‘s all time greatest.
McCoy get injected with a crazy-making drug, then jumps through a time portal and changes history. Kirk and Spock go after him, and arrive in New York City during the Depression. They meet Edith Keeler, played by the lovely Joan Collins, and Kirk falls in love with her, more deeply than he’ll ever fall for anyone else in the history of the series.
Spock tells Kirk that Edith must die to preserve history, and Kirk doesn’t want to hear it. But fate will prevail: Kirk and Edith are on a date when she mentions McCoy, and Kirk runs across the street to tell Spock. McCoy steps out just then, and in the middle of their happy reunion, Edith crosses the street to reach them, just as a truck bears down on her. McCoy leaps to save her, and Kirk realizes he must stop McCoy and watch the love of his life die. He can’t do both: he holds McCoy back but turns away, his eyes shut.
“I could’ve saved her,” McCoy says. “Do you know what you’ve done?”
“He knows, Doctor,” Spock says. “He knows.”
6. James T. Kirk (twice)
Captain Kirk is dead. Long live Captain Kirk!
“I take it the odds are against us and the situation is grim?” William Shatner’s Captain Kirk asked Captain Picard in Star Trek Generations. With those words, we knew he was back in action, ready to help Picard save millions of lives. The superpowered team stopped Soran and prevented the destruction of the planet, but at a cost, and fans who’d been following Star Trek for almost 30 years watched their hero die in the process. It was the passing of the torch, and one that many fans weren’t ready for.
Along came a reboot with a new cast, and in Star Trek: Into Darkness, fans had to watch Kirk die all over again. This is a younger Kirk, one who–unlike the older version–still fears death and is vulnerable enough to say so. Chris Pine makes the death believable and deeply emotional, and Spock’s tears as the two say goodbye bring it home.
5. Tasha Yar
When Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered in 1987, one of its more progressive elements was the ship’s female security chief. Tasha Yar, we learned, had had a terrible childhood, dodging rape gangs and fleeing violence and anarchy. Starfleet showed her a better way of life. As a security officer, she kicked ass, ran her team (including Worf, who had nothing but respect for her), and was still multi-layered. We saw her angry side, her sexy side, her compassionate side, her ruthless side… she was the first of her kind in terms of female Star Trek characters.
But Denise Crosby, who played her, decided to leave the show during the first season, anticipating that most of the stories were going to center around the big three: Picard, Riker, and Data. So they killed off Tasha Yar, and had her die at the hands of an alien who simply wanted to amuse himself. It was over in an instant.
Yar had anticipated her death, and left a holographic farewell message for her friends. If the scene where she delivers her final goodbyes to her tearful crewmates doesn’t make you shed a tear, you’re probably made of stone.
4. Jadzia Dax
This death is doubly unfair. One: Terry Farrell, who played Dax on Deep Space Nine, wanted less screen time and fewer work days, and figured that with their current cast of nine regulars and about a dozen recurring ones, the show would be able to manage it. But producers refused, despite granting many of the male actors the opportunity to take time off for other projects.
Second, Jadzia deserved better than to die that way. Gul Dukat attacked her, then stepped over her lifeless body callously. They could have sent her to Trill to heal, they could have come up with a reason to explain a temporary absence, but instead, they made it her end. Dr. Bashir saved the Dax symbiont, but could do nothing for Jadzia, and Worf was forced to mourn another lost love. Sisko, too, was bereft, along with the rest of DS9’s personnel.
One episode later, as the final season started, the Dax symbiont returned in the form of Ezri; Jadzia would not be seen again. Daaaaaax!
3. David Marcus
We meet David Marcus, Kirk’s only son, in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and in the course of that movie, we watch him go from hating his father to respecting him and then, really, loving him. Then the next movie came in and there he was again, with the father-son relationship even better than it was, and we see that Kirk is as proud of his son as David is of his dad. But tragedy strikes when the landing party David is in gets captured by Klingons, and in an effort to show how serious they are about their demands, they tell Kirk they’re going to kill one of the people on the surface. They don’t choose David–and let’s face it, weren’t we all kind of hoping it would be Saavik?–but David jumps in to save the others, and is killed, brutally, for his troubles.
The effect of this on Kirk is staggering. Gutted, he falls backwards with the weight of his loss, and as all Trek fans know, this loss will change him forever. He may get his mojo back, but the loss will follow him, as the events in Star Trek VI will be deeply affected by the tragic loss of his only son.
2. Jennifer Sisko
The first episode of Deep Space Nine is probably the best premiere episode of any of the Star Trek series. It opens during the fight with the Borg at Wolf 359, and we meet its star, Benjamin Sisko, moments before loses his wife Jennifer in the battle. He has to be forcibly pulled away from her, and his grief, played with tremendous depth and intensity by Avery Brooks, is overwhelming.
Later, when he encounters the Bajoran Prophets, he tries to explain what life is like for beings who live in linear time, explaining how we move on from one moment to the next. But they keep showing him Jennifer’s death, the most painful moment of his existence. “You live here,” they keep telling him. At first he doesn’t get it, but eventually it sinks in. “You live here,” they say repeatedly, meaning that when Jennifer died, he stopped moving forward. It’s something anyone who’s lost a loved one understands in a heartbeat, because your life gets changed irrevocably, and that moment of loss can define you for far too long. Sisko does begin to heal, with the help of the Prophets and his son Jake, but Jennifer’s loss will continue to definite him in its own way. “You live here,” as he sees her die again and again… it defines heartbreaking.
This is the one that broke Star Trek fans’ hearts. This isn’t from Star Trek Beyond, when future Spock’s death is revealed to young Spock, but from The Wrath of Khan. We all know what happened. Spock saved the ship, but exposed himself to lethal radiation. “Are you out of your Vulcan mind?” McCoy asked him. “No human can tolerate the radiation that’s in there!” But it’s Spock, so he went in anyway.
Kirk ran to his side, their hands on the glass as they said their goodbyes. We wept with Kirk as he watched his friend die. We wept for Spock and his sacrifice. We can watch that movie 100 times (because, let’s face it, it’s the best of the bunch) and we still cry when it happens. Spock as a character embodies everything Star Trek stands for. Infinite diversity in infinite combinations. Acceptance. Diversity. Science. Exploration. Friendship. Adventure. And ultimately, sacrifice. Even now that we know what happens next in the rest of the movies, we still feel that death acutely, and watching it now, knowing that Leonard Nimoy is gone too, it packs an even bigger emotional wallop than it did the first time.
Star Trek: Discovery, the newest Star Trek series, premieres on CBS All Access in May of 2017.