One of the earliest nerd complaints I can remember is Captain Kirk’s death in Star Trek: Generations. It was up there with Han shooting first and Bat nipples. Before the preponderance of niche websites and social media these complaints were usually heard in fan magazines or on early web forums or, more likely, on the schoolyard. When something like that reached a large number of people it meant something. It wasn’t as simple as meme-ifying Christian Bale’s Batman voice or blowing up Twitter with reactions to the LOST finale. The complaints had spread like a geeky game of telephone.
When I finally saw Star Trek: Generations it was some time in the mid-to-late ’90s, either rented on VHS or caught on TV one day. I was familiar with the Next Generation crew and I knew about Captain Kirk through cultural osmosis. I also, somehow, knew he died and I definitely knew it was fairly disappointing. When I actually watched it happen I remember thinking it was a little lame. Whether it was due to my unfamiliarity with the character or being set up to think it sucked or just the visual of a guy in his 60’s falling to his death on a rickety old bridge. Either way, I agreed with the ethereal consensus.
It wasn’t until I watched the movie again recently that I grew to kind of love the way Kirk dies. My feelings on the film had almost completely reversed. The bulk of the film, involving the Next Generation crew, was a slog. It was well-acted, but fairly tedious. When Kirk re-enters the film in the third act it breathes new life into the whole thing. It starts bringing together the themes of life and mortality and legacy and, surprisingly for a fairly mediocre movie, it actually earns the death of one of sci-fi’s most famous characters.
I feel like most of the the complaints about the way Kirk died are that it was undignified, anticlimactic and a little cruel. That he should have gone down with an Enterprise or died heroically and defiantly on the bridge of a ship. Those would have been cool too, but it’s hard to argue with a death where Kirk saves millions of lives — including an entire Enterprise crew — while getting in a fight on a rocky planet. As much as Kirk liked being the big swinging dick on the bridge of the Enterprise, he seemed to love throwing haymakers and karate chops at an enemy on a desert-like backlot.
The movie also bends over backwards to make Kirk’s passing as smooth as possible for people. In the prologue of the movie he does “die” while saving an Enterprise, it’s crew, and his old friends Scotty and Chekov. He then gets to spend almost 100 years (well, just minutes to him) in a sort of afterlife, chopping wood and riding horses. Like, they couldn’t have fluffed his pillow or turned up his morphine any higher. How comfortable do you want this guy before he kicks it?
But when it was time to make the ultimate sacrifice Kirk got to do it on his own terms. He gives up a seemingly perfect fantasy for one more dangerous away mission. I think Kirk is a little underrated when it comes to his mental prowess, but he definitely loved to throw down. Allowing him to do that one more time, one last hands-on adventure, is a very fitting way for the character to go out.
Like Kirk said in his final words, “it was fun”.
And for those who wanted Kirk to die on the bridge of the Enterprise, well… they got half of what they wanted.