“KHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAANNNN!!!” — last night was the first night I ever saw Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan in a theater, thanks to some bemusing local weekly film fest. Every other film I caught onscreen shortly after its release — and yes, that includes the first one in 1979, when I was eight and when despite what so many others said, I wasn’t bored but actually quite fascinated by the long, meditative stretches of film time Robert Wise and his editors spent on the nature of the huge alien ship confronted by Kirk and crew. It’s no less an indulgence than, say, Kubrick’s trip through the monolith in 2001, and to my mind captured the sense of how beautiful and weird the universe can be perfectly — I was already a massive astronomy buff, Star Wars had blown my mind at six years old, and somehow between the two balances of fantasy and fact was this movie. More fantasy, obviously, in the same way that Cosmos was much more fact, but like that TV series, the film helped codify a dream and desire of Whatever Is Out There that is still strong with me. NASA just launched its latest probe to Mercury, and I’m already impatiently awaiting the seven years to pass for its arrival.

But again, that was the first Trek film. Khan was an equal but different favorite for me, and as I noted was the one film I missed in the theaters at the time. My mom was an appreciative Trekkie of sorts from the days of the original show, so quite why she and I didn’t get around to seeing it in 1982 is unclear — I think it had to do with the two months or so revolving around a complicated and lengthy cross-country move that early summer eating up the family’s free time. But we had already grown to love cable and HBO in particular, so the following year when Khan appeared on TV I ate it up, watched it again and again and again — revelled in all those little details which at the time bespoke an impossible future but now happily stand revealed as limitations of computer desk technology or hairstyles of the time and place. I don’t mind them, they’re unavoidable, and the point still remains that for that place, that mindset, they were THE FUTURE — and that mattered more for me than anyone’s seemingly spurious complaints about how the characters were stilted and the acting dull or whatever.

And really, all that type of complaint holds up less well than the similar ones which can be aimed at Star Wars, say. Set aside The ShatnerBot and the various non-roles most of the rest play — not to mention some dumbass performances from the supporting crew (that one surfer dude who is Khan’s assistant/bootlicker, please) — and actually just about everyone has at least one really good moment if not more. Kelley gets in plenty of dry zingers for McCoy, Koenig burbles a bit but actually captures a sense of horror and fear near the start worthy of the setup — those ear-invading creatures freaked me out then and the scene is still squirmworthy now, a bit of Alien-style body disruption in miniature, Doohan gives his bluff character a brief but agonized sense of loss given the death of a young assistant (though in the stupidest editing move EVER the literally five-second snippet that was filmed which indicated said assistant was also his young nephew — and which would have perfectly explained the anguish Scott felt — was left out of the theatrical release, only restored later for video), Takei and Nichols are far more secondary but still are there, at least.

And credit to Bibi Besch, playing an old flame — and more — of Kirk’s. She and Shatner nail it in their all-too-brief scene together on their own, two middle-aged adults contemplating what did and didn’t happen in the past, and totally avoiding what nowadays would have been some sort of excuse for reconciliation or more — the two have their own lives and one nice thing about the following movies was that they continued to lead them separately, without regrets.

And if Shatner chews the scenery, well, Ricardo Montalban is right there with him — an interesting acting job when you think about it, he essentially had to step back into a literal one-off of an acting job in character and make said character work both for those who knew the backstory cold and for those like me who didn’t — I hadn’t seen the original episode at the time (and it’s to the scriptwriters’ credit they disposed of the needed information in a smart, quick manner). Montalban’s character is supposed to be an arrogant, cruel SOB with charisma and by god, that’s what you get — he may be in love with his own voice and intellect but there’s no reason for him NOT to be (and when he tones things down, unsurprisingly he’s actually more chilling).

Shatner himself actually gets more than a few moments where director Nick Meyer clearly told him, “Look, you can talk quietly and not declaim, and it will still work.” And it does — reflections on mortality and futility and regret that may not be stunningly original in content or delivery but which suit the character and the situations just right, soliloquys at points less directed at the invisible audience Shatner always seems to aiming at than at himself, a character brought up short and now trying to fight back. It’s to Shatner’s credit that he can actually make the conclusion of his eulogy to Spock a quick, perfect study of someone on the verge of collapse, emotion bursting out in fits and starts but without turning into a grotesque.

While the advantage of Spock is that you can autopilot it nicely enough with the right sense of underplayed acting and good scripting, the luck of Nimoy, of course, is that he ended up with The Death Scene, one that still works because a simple device — two friends who are literally separated by a clear wall of minimal thickness, only one is unavoidably going to die. All Nimoy had to do was stay in character and deliver those lines on the nose, and damned if he didn’t. In many ways the rest of the films that followed shouldn’t have — all entertaining in their own ways (the fifth one unintentionally so, of course), but while money and demand and that same sense of pleasurable comfort that similarly informs the James Bond cycle made certain their existence, in retrospect Khan would have been a fine way to bow out, and had it been the only film of them all would have allowed the original franchise to end on a particularly bold note.

So it was a fine evening, a good way to finally say I’ve seen them all in the theater, a little geek trophy to myself but also an object lesson as to how and why the movies can work beyond their trappings. But that all said:

…some things still defy explanation.