'Wrath of Khan' director reveals how he killed Spock in the 1982 blockbuster
It's been forty years since Spock put the needs of the many ahead of the needs of the few — or the one — in the final moments of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. With the U.S.S. Enterprise's warp drive inoperable thanks to a devastating attack launched by Khan Noonien Singh (Richardo Montalban), Starfleet's most popular Vulcan officer descends into the starship's engine room and absorbs a lethal dose of radiation, surviving just long enough to save the day and say goodbye to his closest companion, James T. Kirk. And no matter how many times you've seen Wrath of Khan in the four decades since the movie's June 4, 1982 release, Spock's passing never fails to trigger tears, whether you're human, Klingon... or Gorn.
The tears were certainly flowing on the Wrath of Khan set when William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy — who had been part of each other's lives since the 1966 premiere of the original Star Trek TV series — played what was intended to be their final scene together. In his 2010 memoir, The View From the Bridge, Wrath of Khan director, Nicholas Meyer, described members of the crew weeping as Spock told Kirk: "I have been, and always shall be, your friend."
The only person who wasn't crying was Meyer himself. Speaking with Yahoo Entertainment ahead of the film's 40th anniversary, the filmmaker says that his job demanded dry eyes and a clear head. "I had to be the audience surrogate and make sure there was nothing in the frame and nothing in the performances that would bounce anybody out of the emotional intensity of what was going on," Meyer explains. "If I started crying, I was going to lose that objectivity! If you are the puppeteer, you cannot be out front sobbing at the performance. You must remain backstage and make sure that the strings do not become tangled."
Not that Shatner and Nimoy needed any puppeteering. For much of the shoot, Meyer says that he worked to break some of the "bad habits" he saw popping up in Shatner's non-Trek work, including the cop drama, T.J. Hooker, which premiered on ABC two months prior to Wrath of Khan's theatrical opening. "I stumbled into a solution of working with him, which was to keep asking him to do scenes again and again," Meyer remembers. "He would seem to get bored, and when he got bored, he dropped all of the 'acting' and just sort of became. He would just be, and that's when his performance got great."
But when it came to Spock's death scene, Meyer says that both Shatner and Nimoy knew exactly what the pivotal scene demanded of them and showed up to set ready to... engage with the drama of the moment. "They were totally there," he remembers. "You know, they had started out as rivals in the early days of the show, but then they sort of realized that they needed each other. So even though they were very different people, they had a genuine friendship."
The weight of the Shatner and Nimoy's shared history adds to the gravity of Spock's death, pushing it to an emotional catharsis that was nearly two decades in the making at that point. And while that history predated Meyer — who confesses to not being much of a Star Trek fan prior to making The Wrath of Khan — it was felt by the crew members who had been part of the Enterprise's long-term mission.
"I looked at my cinematographer, Gayne Rescher, and he was weeping," the director says. "Other people were weeping. I thought, 'What the hell is going on here?' That's how much I didn't understand about this show."
At the same time, it was that lack of personal connection to Star Trek that landed Meyer The Wrath of Khan gig in the first place. Although 1979's Star Trek: The Motion Picture successfully turned the long-dormant TV series into a feature film franchise, Paramount wanted to avoid the behind the scenes struggles — including budget overruns and creative disputes — that plagued the production.
With Star Trek creator, Gene Roddenberry, exiled from direct involvement in the second film, producer Harve Bennett was brought in to steer the Enterprise going forward. After commissioning several screenplays that all crash landed in one way or another, Bennett brought in Meyer to craft a story that would, essentially, save Star Trek.
"When I got involved there were five drafts of a second Star Trek movie, and none of them were related," remembers Meyer, who wrote bestsellers like the Sherlock Holmes adventure, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, before moving behind the camera. "What I wound up doing after consulting with Harve and his producing partner, Robert Sallin, was to make a laundry list of the things we liked in those five scripts. Then I wrote a brand new script fiddling with those different pieces like a Rubik's Cube in order to get a coherent story."
According to Meyer, Spock's death was a key part of each of those five scripts — a pre-condition that Nimoy demanded if he was going to return to a role he was increasingly tired of playing. But the specifics of the Vulcan's passing weren't settled right away. "One of the scripts had a simulator sequence of a fake disaster that appeared on page 45," Meyer recalls. "I moved it to the first scene in the movie, and Spock wasn't in it. Harve and I were discussing the script one morning and I said, 'We should put him in the first scene and kill him off then.' To my astonishment, Harve said, 'That is genius!'"
Rather than go with a shocking early death a la Psycho, though, Meyer decided to take a cue from a thematic idea that shares a name with another Alfred Hitchcock picture. "Spock's death ultimately isn't an act of sacrifice — it's lifeboat ethics," he explains about how he hit upon the sequence of events that sends Spock into the Enterprise's radiation-filled engine room in the film's climax. "If a lifeboat becomes overloaded with people then somebody is going to have to go overboard if the sea is anything but calm. Like Spock says, 'The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one.' So he decides, 'I'll save the many.'"
Although Nimoy went into Wrath of Khan ready and willing to be the Star Trek cast member that plunged overboard, his resolve wavered as the date of his "execution" approached. Meyer says that the actor, who died in 2015, was "testy and tense" as he prepared to film Spock's death, nagged by "second thoughts" about whether he had made the right decision to exit the franchise that had defined his life and career.
The keepers of the Star Trek franchise felt the same way: After Meyer filmed Shatner and Nimoy's final scene, last minute adjustments were incorporated into the film to pave a way for Spock's return. Those adjustments started with a new scene where Spock uses a mind meld to transfer his katra — the Vulcan word for "living spirit" — to his friend and regular foil, Doctor McCoy (DeForest Kelley).
Also added to the final cut was an epilogue set on Genesis, a previously desolate planet instantly terraformed by the life-giving Genesis Device. As Spock's coffin touches down amidst Genesis's lush forests, we hear Nimoy's voice speaking Shatner's classic Trek lines about "exploring strange new worlds" and boldly going "where no man has gone before."
In his memoir, Meyer describes being infuriated by the attempts to preemptively undo the emotional farewell he had orchestrated for Spock. Discussing those behind the scenes disagreements again now, he confirms that he flat-out refused to shoot the epilogue, which was instead directed by Sallin. "At the time, I protested. I said, 'This is so wrong and so unfair to the people who have invested themselves in this story.' I thought that after we'd wrung the tears out of them, we were just going to say, 'Forget fit, folks! It didn't really happen.'"
Sure enough, Spock's death was swiftly undone in Star Trek III: The Search of Spock, which was released two years after The Wrath of Khan became one of 1982's biggest blockbusters. And Meyer says that he turned down the opportunity to helm that installment, specifically because he wasn't interested in having to bring the character back to life. Nimoy ended up directing his own resurrection, and continued to play Spock in various Trek movies and shows in the ensuing years, making his final onscreen appearance in 2016's Star Trek Beyond.
In the four decades since Khan's release, Meyer's own stance on Spock's return has softened. "In retrospect, I think I was wrong to make such a fuss," he admits. "Once he was resurrected, I just kind of accepted it as fact." Eleven years after killing Spock, Meyer directed Nimoy again in 1991's Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, the final feature film starring the original Enterprise crew. "Leonard was always very pleased that I knew how to write for Spock, which for me was like writing Sherlock Holmes. And, in fact, in Star Trek VI, Spock implies that they're related!"
While he couldn't have realized it at the time, Meyer's commitment to killing Spock established a narrative template that major Hollywood franchises have followed ever since. It's not an exaggeration to say that almost every blockbuster sequel made in the past four decades models itself either after The Empire Strikes Back, where evil (temporarily) triumphs over good, or The Wrath of Khan, where a major character dies in the third act only to be resurrected later on — think the Alien or Pirates of the Caribbean series. (And some sequels, like Avengers: Infinity War, find a way to reference both at the same time.)
Even Star Trek itself has gone back to the Khan well: The second installment in J.J. Abrams's rebooted Kelvin Timeline film series, Star Trek: Into Darkness, incorporated multiple elements from Meyer's film, which featured Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan. In the third act, Chris Pine's Kirk — rather than Zachary Quinto's Spock — dies from radiation poisoning, but is swiftly brought back to life by Genesis Project-like restorative properties in Khan's blood. (For the record, Meyer says he wasn't consulted on the Into Darkness storyline, and calls its use of Khan "absurd.")
"I don't believe in formulas," Meyer says when asked how he feels about the larger impact of Wrath of Khan on blockbuster storytelling, as well as his subsequent work, including the forever-timely 1983 TV movie, The Day After. "If I could boil this process down to anything formulaic, I'm not sure it would work and I certainly would lose interest in it. I don't think, 'Who should live, and who should die?' Or, 'There should be this or there should be that.' I never think of the 'should be's.'
"I also don't concern myself with the fans," Meyer continues. "Fans don't know what they want until they get it. Art may be a collaborative process, but it isn't made by committee. That's how I see my job: My assumption always is that if I like it, other people will like it. That's the best I can do."
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is currently streaming on Paramount+. It will return to theaters on Sept. 4th, 5th and 8th as part of Fathom Events and TCM's Big Screen Classics series.