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Best SF Tearjerkers

31 moments from SF and fantasy guaranteed to make even a cyberman cry

SF and Fantasy’s 31 Greatest Tearjerkers

Kleenex at the ready folks as SFX guides you through some of SF’s most emotionally gruelling moments. Yeah, sure, SF and fantasy’s a genre usually more associated with high concepts, hardware and FX eye-candy, but that doesn’t mean it can’t grab a hold of your heart as well as your mind occasionally.

This was a feature we originally posted last year, created with the help of reader nominations. Since then, there have been a few more candidates, which we’ve inserted into the list based on the kind of reaction/outcry they created in the SFX forum.

SPOILER WARNING: But be warned – by its very nature, a poll like this will contain some spoilery material. However, most of the films, shows and books here are old enough that we’d be shocked if the entries reveal anything new to you. But don’t say you weren’t warned.

Anyway, let the countdown commence, folks!

31 Up
The opening sequence

Okay, Toy Story 3 had its blubby moment, but there was nothing quite so moving as the sublime opening sequence of Up – a perfectly-pitched montage of one man’s perfect life with a loving wife, ending with her early death and his withdrawal into himself. It’s an astonishing piece of storytelling in any medium, but especially bold coming right at the start of a children’s movie. It’s amazing how much it makes you care about the old guy in just a few, economical brushstrokes of storytelling.

Blublines: “Thanks for the adventure. Now go have one of your own.”

Theoden mourns his son

Peter Jackson’s Rings trilogy feels a little under-represented in this list, but that’s because it suffered from split-vote syndrome. There are so many tearjerking moments, fans had too many from which to choose (including all five endings to The Return Of The King , and the bit where Pippin sings for an unconcerned Denethor as his men ride out on a suicidal attack). Perhaps this moment won through, though, because unlike the grand melodrama on display elsewhere, the despair of losing a child is something we can all more easily identify with – if it hasn’t happened to us, then we probably know someone to whom it has. That, and the fact that Bernard Hill gives such a magnificent performance.

Blublines: “Simbelmynë. Ever has it grown on the tombs of my forebears. Now it shall cover the grave of my son… no parent should have to bury their child.”

29 DOCTOR WHO “Earthshock”
Adric’s Death

It’s amazing this had the emotional impact that it did, considering most fans would have cheerfully throttled the irritating Adric given half a chance. But his death was wonderfully judged, so that even his most vehement detractors had a lump in their throats. Part of the tragedy comes from the fact that he doesn’t need to sacrifice himself – the space ship he’s trying to save was always destined to crash (it was what killed off the dinosaurs), making his death particularly pointless. The coup de grace is having the graphics roll by in absolute silence. But you can’t help thinking it’s a far more noble epitaph than the annoying scrote deserved.

Blublines: “Now I’ll never know if I was right.”

28 ANGEL “Not Fade Away”
Ilyria lies to Wesley

In a poignant reversal of the events in “A Hole In The World” this time it’s Illyria who has to comfort a dying Wesley (he’s just been skewered). Being an emotionless demon creature, you wouldn’t think it was a job she’d be best suited to, but in a heartrending display of sensitivity she offers to shapeshift into Fred – Wesley’s tragic old flame – so that he can say goodbye. Sobbing is not just acceptable; it’s the only decent course of action.

Blublines: “You’ll be dead within moments.”
“I know.”
“Would you like me to lie to you now?”
“Yes, thank you… yes.”

Harry Stamper breaks his promise

Roughneck astronaut Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis) sacrifices himself to save the Earth from an oncoming meteor, saving the life of his daughter’s boyfriend in the process. From his little spacecraft, he speaks to her back at base in Huston, telling her he ain’t coming home. She reaches to the monitor screen to touch his tear-stained face. He mumbles something about children being roses in winter. A bunch of grizzled astronauts and ground control staff go bleary eyed. The string section of the orchestra is in danger of meltdown. Michael Bay has created Onion-O-Vision.

Blublines: “Grace, I know I promised you I was coming home.”
“I… I… don’t understand.”
“Looks like I’m gonna have to break that promise.”


The entire last quarter of the movie

You can imagine the pain parents had to go through: they take the little’uns to see this light and frothy fantasy movie, then have to comfort them through the trauma of watching one of the main characters – kooky Leslie – cop it. Some felt that the movie was hideously manipulative and schmaltzy; others just went with the flow and bawled like babies at the raw emotion of it all. The entire last quarter of the film is an emotional rollercoaster, with as many highs as lows, as Jess comes to terms with his best friend’s death and recreates the fantasy land of Terebithia in her memory.

Blublines: “Next time we should invite Lesley to go. She would like that.”

Sam remembers who he is and does the decent thing

“Swan Song” was supposed to be Supernatural ’s final episode, before the show had an unexpected sixth season foist upon it. Okay, it’s odd to feel miffed when a show you love so much gets more episodes (there’s no pleasing fandom, is there?) but “Swan Song” is such a perfect final episode, it feels slightly weird knowing that it isn’t. Not that that lessens its impact too much. The culmination of showrunner Eric Kripke’s five-year apocalypse arc, it’s typical of the show’s unpredictable style that the end of the world isn’t prevented by a huge battle, but by a toy soldier. Sam is possessed by Lucifer, but chance glimpse of a childhood plastic trooper stuck in the ashtray of the brothers’ beloved Impala brings back a torrent of memories in a montage of exquisite intensity. No true fan could hold back the tears.

Blublines: “Endings are hard. But then again... Nothing ever really ends, does it?”

George’s Redemption

A rare uplifting moment in this list as George Bailey discovers that his life has not all been in vain and he runs through a snowy Bedford Falls in a state of infectious euphoria. You’re in floods of tears, but they’re tears of unadulterated joy. Have something/someone ready to hug if you’re watching it.

Blublines: “Hello Bedford Falls! Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas movie house! Merry Christmas Emporium! Merry Christmas you wonderful old Building and Loan! Hey!”

Thumb up

Sacrificing himself to destroy the T1000, Arnie melts in a vat of molten metal and so do our hearts.

Blublines: It’s a purely visual moment

22 TORCHWOOD “Exit Wounds”
Tosh and Owen finally talk through their feelings

Yeah, we all know that Children Of Earth put us through the emotional ringer more times than is strictly healthy, but Torchwood was an old hand at gutwrenching tragedy. The second season ended with the death of not one, but two regular characters. Tosh is stabbed by Captain Jack’s insane brother and lies bleeding to death on the floor of the Hub. Owen is trapped inside a nuclear facility about to go into meltdown. As they await their fates, they talk to each other over their communicators, and it’s so, so painful to watch.

Blublines: “Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t keep screaming!”
“Because you’re breaking my heart.”


Optimus Past His Prime

We’re talking the animated movie here, not the Michael Bay version. Optimus Prime is fatally wounded by arch enemy Megatron in a battle for AutoCity. The dying Optimus reaches inside his chest, extracts the Matrix Of Leadership and passes it to Ultra Magnus. The he dies, the lights going out in his eyes. And a million teenage boys suddenly discover their feminine side and wish they hadn’t watched it with their mates.

Blublines: “Soon I will be one with the Matrix.”

20 DOCTOR WHO “Journey’s End”
Donna’s fate

Donna doesn’t die, but her fate is just as tragic. Forced to wipe her memories to save her life, the Doctor robs her of everything – every experience – that turned her life around. She saved the whole of reality, but now the most important thing in her life are Hello and office gossip. Donna didn’t die, but the Donna we loved did.

Blublines: “I was going to be with you… forever. Rest of my life. Travelling in the TARDIS. The Doctor Donna. Oh! Oh, but I can’t go back. Don’t make me go back. Doctor, please, please don’t make me go back.”

“I’m back!”

Specifically, you didn’t vote for this moment from the Peter Jackson film but from the original book. Sam’s returns home after all his adventures, and one simple bathetic phrase – so charming in its understatement – is enough to make you lot go all dewy-eyed. Or maybe you just realise how many hours of your life you’ve just spent reading the entire trilogy…

Blublines: “Well, I’m back!”

18 DOCTOR WHO “The End Of Time, Part 2”

Goodbye everybody, I’ve got to go, gotta leave you all behind and face the truth

For the first time ever, the Doctor’s regeneration felt like death rather than rebirth. Ten’s final moments were preceeded by a gloriously self-indulgent montage of the Doctor going back to say goodbye to all his old mates The hard-hearted said it all went on too long, but most of the audience didn’t care – they were too busy sobbing their hearts out. If you wanted to call Russell T Davies a shameless emotional manipulator he’d probably take that as the greatest compliment. (And yes, it was a close call between Ten’s final TARDIS scene and the moment when he gives Donna’s mum a lottery ticket he bought using a quid he borrowed off “a really lovely man” called Geoffrey Noble, so let’s call this a joint entry.)

Blublines: “I don’t want to go!”

Opening scene

That heart-string-tuggingly overwrought opening scene to JJ Abrams’ Trek reimagining, in which we learn where Kirk’s hero-gene came from, truly puts you through the emotional wringer. At least Kirk Snr had a good excuse for not being there at the birth.

Blublines: “What are we going to call him?”
“We could name him after your father.”
“Tiberius? You kidding me? No, that’s the worst. Let’s name him after your dad. Let’s call him Jim.”


16 QUANTUM LEAP “Mirror Image”
The final caption

Yep – you voted for a caption, but few would deny the bleak impact of Quantum Leap ’s final sign off. It’s made even more poignant by the fact that Sam has just changed history so that his pal Al is reunited with his wife. One minute Sam’s telling Beth, “Instead of starting with once upon a time, let’s start with the happy ending. Al’s alive. He’s coming home.” The next we’re told Sam‘s never coming home. There’s no happy ever after for the man devoted to engineering happy ever afters.

Blublines: “Instead of starting with once upon a time, let’s start with the happy ending. Al’s alive. He’s coming home.”

The final voyage

Kirk and co abandon ship and let the Klingons on board. One detail Kirk forgets to mention: he’s set the Enterprise to self-destruct. In a special FX bonanza the ship truly deserves, she explodes and then burns up in the atmosphere of a nearby planet like a shooting star. Kirk may have found Spock, but he’s lost another dear old friend. And so have we.

Blublines: “My God, Bones, what have I done?”

14 DOCTOR WHO “Doomsday”
Burning a star for Rose

It starts when Rose’s mascara starts running as she leans against the now-closed gateway to another dimension, with the Doctor mere inches away in terms of geography, but a universe away in terms of emotion. It ends with the Doctor burning up a sun to reach across that universe to say goodbye, as a spectral figure on a Norwegian beach. Murray Gold’s melancholic Morricone-esque score delicately holds the whole sequence together like the gossamer surface of a soap bubble, ready to burst at any second.

Blublines: “It takes a lot of power to send this projection. I’m in orbit around a supernova, burning up a sun, just to say goodbye.”

The final few chapters

In a book about time travel, we’re given plenty of foreshadowing of what’s on the cards for temporally-challenged Henry, but that doesn’t make his death any less emotional, as he dies in the arms of his wife. The real tearjerker, though, is the fact that he tells his wife that they she will only see him once again in the timeline of her life – which she does when she is 82 and he is still 43. Much more emotional in the book than in the film.

12 FRINGE “White Tulip”
Walter receives a coded message in the post

Who would have thought a simple line drawing could produce such a synchronised blub from a mass audience? But Fringe managed it with an episode that started out seeming like just another sci-fi time-travel runaround, but ended as one of the sweetest, most human tales the show has yet told. Walter has been feeling guilt about what he did to his son Peter all those years ago, and believes he is being punished, and is looking for a white tulip as a sign that he’s been forgiven, never believing that he will actually see such a thing. Ironically – and touchingly – it’s the “evil” freak of the week (who ultimately isn’t really so evil and is doing everything for the sake of love) who sends Walter the drawing, telling him that it’s time to forgive himself… (and yeah, we know the episode “Peter” is more relentlessly emotional throughout, but for some reason, there’s not one stand-out blub moment – instead we’ll award it an honorary joint twelfth place for overall services to lip-trembling).

Blublines: “If God can forgive me for my acts, then maybe... it's in the realm of possibility that my son, possibly, may be able to forgive me too.”


Departed Friends

Many voted for either Wash’s death or Book’s death, but to be honest, both these events are so sudden and random, they’re more shocking than tearjerking. It’s not until the funeral at the end of the film that viewers really get the chance to grieve, and this touchingly simple, silent, understated ceremony is a moment of tragic beauty.

Blublines: No dialogue, but there’s a very moving firework

10 BABYLON 5 “Sleeping In Light”
JM Straczynski switches off the lights

As JM Straczynski’s five-year plan came to an end, the show’s creator himself appeared as the technician who threw the lever which shut down the lights on Babylon 5. It’s a move that could be construed as a tad self-referential, but actually comes across as very moving. You hope he got off before the ship exploded, though. Meanwhile, Delenn has to say goodbye to her dying husband Sheridan, who goes for a little “Sunday afternoon drive”. The final shot of her watching the sun come up with a ghostly Sheridan at her side can leave even the most cynical viewer with – ahem – something in their eye. Sniff.

Blublines: “As for Delenn, every morning for as long as she lived, Delenn got up before dawn and watched the sun come up.”

ET goes home

Curmudgeonly old actress Beryl Reid once said of ET that she, “found it hard to become emotionally involved with a Hoover attachment.” She was one of the few. For the vast majority ET was a triple-Kleenex experience. When he died it was bad enough, but then he got better. Then his folks came to rescue him in a finalé of unashamed schmaltz. Our tears are both of happiness – because ET has escaped a Roswellian fate – and sadness, because Elliott has lost the best friend he’s ever had. But he’s a better person for the experience, probably. And Spielberg has you so in the palm of his hand you don’t even upchuck when the departing spaceships paints a cheesy rainbow across the sky.

Blublines: “I’ll be right here.”

8 ANGEL “A Hole In The World”
Fred is scared

Fred is dying in Wesley’s arms, having been infected by demonic force. She’s trying to remain stoic. Wesley’s trying to say the right things. But his voice is cracking, and so is Fred’s resolve. With the words, “Why can’t I stay?” the gutsy, feisty Fred is gone, and there’s a scared little girl in her place. It’s heartrending to watch. TV heroes aren’t supposed to break down in the face in their death.

Blublines: “I’m not scared. I’m not scared. I’m not scared. Please. Wesley. Why can’t I stay?”

He is Superman

He wanted to be Superman, even though the military treated him like Atomo, the Metal Menace. When the townsfolk of Rockwell are threatened with nuclear apocalypse, the Iron Giant sacrifices himself to save them, launching into orbit to draw the oncoming missile away. As he reaches the edge of space he strikes a Superman-in-flight pose… and smiles in the face of his impending destruction.

Blublines: “You are who you choose to be.”


Buffy’s sacrifice (again)

Buffy had a habit of dying, so you’d think the emotional impact might wane after a while. Not when you’ve got Joss Whedon orchestrating the audience’s heartstrings. Buffy sacrifices herself for her sister, and Spike’s horrified expression says reflects what we all feel. And the bittersweet engraving on the gravestone is guaranteed to open the floodgates: “She saved the world. A lot.”

Blublines: “Dawn, listen to me. Listen I love you. I will always love. But this is the work that I have to do. Tell Giles I… Tell Giles I figured it out. And I’m okay. And give my love to my friends. You have to take care of them now. You have to take care of each other. You have to be strong. Dawn, the hardest thing in this world is to live in it. Be brave. Live. For me.”

5 FUTURAMA “Jurassic Bark”
Fry’s dog waits (again)

When the first vote came in for this one, we thought it was a joke at first. Then more votes came in, and more and more and more. But come on, this pic alone is enough to have you welling up. It’s Greyfriar’s Bobby with a Futurama twist – Fry has to decide whether to give the dog a clone when his fossilised remains are found. But when he finds out that Seymour must have died 12 years after he left, he assumes that the mutt must have forgotten all about him. Instead, we learn in flashback, Seymour waited for him outside the pizzeria where Fry left him for 12 years. Sob.

Blublines: “I waited for you, Bender.”

4 TORCHWOOD “Children Of Earth, Episode Four”
Ianto’s death

We’re bowing to public opinion here. Personally we though Ianto’s death was hilarious… [pause while the internet breaks down under the weight of distraught Ianto fans going apoplectic]. Seriously, though, Ianto’s death was so tragically pointless. Which is kind of the point. Not that that stopped Ianto fans getting in a right old tizz… Embrace the pain. That’s what drama’s all about! A beautifully painful scene. Remember, it’s better to burn out than fade away.

Blublines: “A thousand years’ time, you won’t remember me.”

Duey is left to tend the garden

A robot with a watering can – surely an image from a Disney kiddie film? It can’t be the final, lip-trembling, eye-misting, duct-troubling scene in an emotionally draining eco-drama, can it? Sure is. Throughout Silent Running , you’re always more emotionally involved with the robots – Hewey, Duey and Louie – than the slightly deranged ecowarrior Lowell (Bruce Dern). Sure, he sacrifices himself to save the last forest in the Solar system, but it’s Duey we feel sorry for, doomed to an eternity of pruning and Joan Baez wailing over the Tannoy.

Blublines: “You know when I was a kid, I put a note into a bottle and it had my name and address on it. And then I threw the bottle into the ocean. And I never knew if anybody ever found it.”

Anya’s rant

Many simply voted for this episode in its entirety, and you can understand why – for 45 minutes it achingly captures the numbness and shock that engulfs you in the immediate aftermath of a sudden, random death (in this case Buffy’s mum). But time and again voters highlighted Anya’s rant, when the emotionally-challenged demon in her selfish innocence perfectly and painfully vocalises the feeling of desperate helplessness all the other characters are going through, but cannot – yet – even admit to themselves. Few dramas – let alone telefantasy series – have ever achieved such raw emotional intensity.

Blublines: “There’s just a body and I don’t understand why she can’t just get back in it… And no-one will explain to me why.”


Spock’s death and funeral

Star Trek was never designed to break our hearts. Sure, something lodged in our eyes as Joan Collins became roadkill in “City On The Edge Of Forever”, but that was a modest crack in the old ticker compared to the sheer emotional carnage of Spock’s death in Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan . It’s a masterclass in audience manipulation that’s genuinely moving, building from the moment we see the Vulcan leave his chair and slip from the bridge of the Enterprise, quietly aware of what he must do, the inevitable sacrifice that will save his ship. The needs of the many, outweighing the needs of the one. By the time Kirk confronts his radiation-ravaged comrade in engineering our eyes are prickling at the human weight of this drama – Star Trek has moved from the epic expanse of the final frontier to two old friends, separated by glass, saying goodbye one last time (or so it seemed – perhaps the franchise should have been braver and ended here… but then as Spock was so fond of saying, there are always possibilities). The stiff military funeral that follows is the capper. Yes, the sight of Scotty puffing on the ancestral pipes summons a smirk if you’re in the mood, but just listen to James Horner’s elegiac riff on Amazing Grace as Spock’s photon torpedo coffin soars to the reborn Genesis Planet. It’s a moment at once grief-stricken and triumphant, the culmination of a movie that’s traded on themes of age, sacrifice, loss and renewal – and the perfect tribute to a fallen SF icon. You can cry. It’s the logical thing to do.

Blublines: “Of my friend, I can only say this: of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most… human.”