It's never great to watch a beloved science fiction hero die — but sometimes a memorable heroic death can help turn a science fiction story into a real epic. And some science fiction characters are unforgettable and bad-ass precisely because they died in a memorable way. Here's our list of the dozen greatest deaths in the history of science fiction. With some spoilers, natch.
12) Searle in Sunshine.
Okay, I may be the only person who really loved Danny Boyle's blazing space opera about a doomed crew trying to reignite the sun. That's okay, I can be right all on my own. I especially love the way the character of Searle, the ship's psychiatrist, surprises you in his final moments. He's kind of a prurient asshole for most of the movie, obsessed with looking into the sun with as little filter as possible. He's a pretty terrible therapist. But when the chips are down, he knows he's the most expendable crewmember. When four crewmembers from the Icarus II get trapped on the wrecked ship Icarus I, with the airlock damaged, Searle agrees to stay behind so the rest of the away team can get back to the Icarus II. He helps blast the others out the airlock, then exposes himself to the sun, dying the same way as the Icarus I's crew.
If you're going to be a creepy therapist, the least you can do is self-immolate to save the rest of us.
11) Woody in Mission To Mars.
This is a pretty terrible movie overall, but a fantastic death scene. Our heroes have to abandon their vessel. And then Woody, played by Tim Robbins, leaves the others and launches himself at the Resupply Module (REMO), but after he attaches the line from the other astronauts at the REMO, he keeps moving towards the planet. His wife, Terri, wants to go after him, but Woody knows she'll die in the rescue attempt. So he takes off his own helmet and dies of depressurization rather than let her die for him. (Thanks to Meredith for the suggestion!)
Runner up: Speaking of depressurization deaths, Graeme really wanted me to include Cally's death from Battlestar Galactica. But I didn't really think her death was awesome. Sorry, G.
10) Graham in "The Sleeper Wakes" by H.G. Wells.
One of Wells' weirdest stories involves a man known only as Graham, who sleeps for over 200 years and wakes to find that he's not just the richest man in the world, but actually the owner of the entire world. He eventually discovers that the White Council, which governs in his name, is oppressing everyone, and he helps a revolutionary named Ostrog to mount a revolution. But afterwards, Ostrog starts oppressing people just as badly as the White Council had. So finally Graham gets mad. This time, it's personal — he gets into an airplane and rams a whole bunch of Ostrog's air fleet. (Remember, this was written in 1910.) Finally, he rams his plane into Ostrog's, then spirals to Earth, knowing that the revolution will prevail at last.
Runner up: Someone suggested Hari Seldon from Forward The Foundation, but I haven't read that book and couldn't find much about it or track down a copy. Was his death truly awesome? Let me know.
9) The Controller in Doctor Who, "Day Of The Daleks"
"Day Of The Daleks" is probably not on my list of the 100 greatest Doctor Who stories of all time, but it has a few really amazing moments. The greatest of these is where the Controller finally stands up to his Dalek masters. All along, the 22nd century bureaucrat has been fooling himself that he can help the Daleks govern the human race and actually do some good along the way, helping people when the Daleks aren't looking. But after a few chats with the Doctor, he finally realizes you can't work within the Dalek system. He helps the Doctor escape, and when his coverup fails, the Daleks decide to exterminate him. "Who knows?" he says. "I may have helped to exterminate you." Awesome.
Runners up: Various people suggested the deaths of various Doctors, but none of them really jumped out at me as especially cool. One person suggested Adric, and I'll protect his/her identity, to save him/her from the inevitable scorn of the masses.
8) Lt. Paul Wang from Space: Above And Beyond.
"Everybody's favorite tortured bipolar guy," Lt. Wang, callsign "Joker," gives his life to hold off the aliens while everyone else gets away. "This is for you!" he shouts as he pours ammo into the enemy. Commenter oconnellmd suggested this scene, and I can see why.
7) Certain people in Blake's 7, "Blake"
I'm going to show an unusual degree of restraint and not say who dies in this episode. Let's just say it's an incredibly fitting end for the saga, one which makes all of the stuff that comes before seem cooler because it leads up to this. In my write-up on how to discover Blake's 7, I actually advocate watching the last episode first. At the very least, I think this is one spoiler that makes you appreciate the rest of the show more. But don't take my word for it: watch for yourself.
6) Pham Nuwen from A Fire Upon The Deep by Vernor Vinge.
Pham Nuwen is animated by the Old One, a super-powerful artificial intelligence, and he dies fighting the Blight, another super-A.I. First Pham downloads as much of the Old One into his brain as possible, overclocking his human brain by containing this massive superhuman intelligence, which will inevitably destroy him. And then he launches the Countermeasure, an advanced weapon which moves the boundaries of the Slow Zone far enough to enclose and destory the Blight. But the Countermeasure also has the effect of terminating Pham at the same time:
The Countermeasure's writhing had slowed. Its light flickered bright and then out. Bright and then out. She heard Pham's breath gasp with every darkness. Countermeasure, a savior that was going to kill a million civilizations. And was going to kill the man who triggered it.
Almost unthinking, she dodged past the thing, reaching for Pham. But razors upon razors blocked her, raking her arms.
Pham was looking up at her. He was trying to say something more.
Then the light went out for a final time. From the darkness all around came a hissing sound and a growling, bitter smell that Ravna would never forget.
5) The T-800 in Terminator II.
After Arnold Schwartzenegger's T-800 helps Sarah and John Connor defeat Robert Patrick's mean T-1000 by blowing it up and knocking it into molten metal, Arnie knows he has to go too. If there's anything left of the T-800, the technology could be used to reconstitute Skynet and bring the badness down on our heads. So Arnie gets Sarah Connor to lower him — slowly — into the molten metal. He gives a thumbs up as he descends to his robo-fondue doom. (Thanks, Annalee!)
4) Biggs from Star Wars.
I was seriously considering making Obi-Wan the coolest death from Star Wars, but really, screw that guy. First of all, as he points out himself, he comes back a thousand times more powerful afterwards. And secondly and more importantly, he's kind of a big martyr, as everyone points out in the awesome parody Hardware Wars. And Biggs doesn't have any super Force powers, or the ability to come back a thousand times more anything. All Biggs has is a X-ing, a can-do attitude, and an awesome porn-stache. And he's the greatest wingman ever, taking enemy fire and blowing up so that Luke can nuke the death star and get all the glory afterwards. And look how stoic Biggs is in this deleted scene from Episode IV, telling Luke he may never come home again because he's off to join the rebels:
When does baby Biggs get his own episode of the Clone Wars cartoon? Preferably with a little baby mustache?
3) Spike from Cowboy Bebop.
Martian bounty hunter Spike Spiegel gets into a duel with his former best friend, Vicious after Vicious' Red Dragon gang has killed Spike's girlfriend Julia. Spike finally decides to face the past with Vicious that he ran away from three years earlier, and he storms the Red Dragon headquarters, killing a bunch of its members as he climbs. Vicious manages to slash Spike with his katana, but then Spike shoots Vicious dead. Spike comes down the stairs, wounded and weakened, to face all the remaining members of the Red Dragon. Spike makes a gun with his fingers and says "Bang"... then collapses. Most people seem to assume Spike dies of his wounds, and it's not hard to find tons of people online listing this as one of the coolest death scenes in all anime, or all Asian films, let alone science fiction.
2) Someone from Anathem by Neal Stephenson.
Since this book just came out and it's a bit of a major spoiler, I won't say who dies and how — click here if you've already read the book and/or don't care about spoilers.
1) Spock from Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan.
I'm not putting the pointy-eared green blooded Vulcan first just because I know I'd get lynched otherwise. I'm not even including the death of Spock because I pretty much memorized all the dialog from that scene as a little kid. I'm including it because it's the template of how to do a memorable, important death in a science fiction epic. The movie isn't ABOUT Spock at all, but it still feels as though the whole film has been leading up to his death. A lesser film would have been more clumsy and obvious about giving Spock a bunch of cool moments leading up to his death, and trying to manipulate us into feeling the Spock love before he snuffs it. Instead, we do get plenty of cool Spock moments, including giving Kirk his present and mentoring Lt. Saavik. But it's woven into the rest of the movie, and the film's running theme of the "no-win situation" and the impossibility of cheating death every single time help to set up the death of Kirk's best friend way better than a scene where Spock talks about what he's going to do when he retires and goes back to Vulcan. The result is one of the most amazing moments in Trek history, one of those moments where you can really beleive Trek is a sweeping saga instead of just a zany adventure with green women and Saurian brandy.
Runner up: I can't believe I left out Roy Batty in Blade Runner, as various commenters have pointed out. Especially since I went on a whole tangent about Roy's amazing death scene in my rant about why there shouldn't be a BR sequel earlier in the day. Suffice to say the Roy Batty death scene is definitely one of the all-time classic, and easily up there with Spock's.