By Geoff Boucher
February 22, 2013 at 09:17 PM EST
Credit: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images; Zade Rosenthal

It’s a crisp January day in 2012 at the Sony Pictures lot in Culver City, Calif. The massive set for Star Trek Into Darkness is still under construction, but on a quieter corner of the lot stars are aligning in front of the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. The wardrobe department has fittings scheduled throughout the day, and midmorning has brought together seven of the new-era Enterprise crew: Pine, Saldana, Karl Urban (Dr. “Bones” McCoy), Simon Pegg (chief engineer Montgomery “Scotty” Scott), Anton Yelchin (Ens. Pavel Chekov), John Cho (Lieut. Hikaru Sulu), and Bruce Greenwood (Adm. Christopher Pike). There are high fives, hugs, and laughs all around. “We’re like a bunch of theater-camp kids, a bunch of oddballs,” says Pine. “The genius thing about J.J. is that if you’re going to make a movie all about this family, it’s a lot easier to pick a group that actually enjoys each other’s company.”

The original TV cast was considerably less touchy-feely — their feuding was even spoofed in the 1999 cult hit Galaxy Quest. Star Trek first hit TV in 1966. It was created by Gene Roddenberry, who (according to lore) pitched it as “Wagon Train to the stars.” Roddenberry, a decorated WWII bomber pilot, envisioned Buck Rogers for a Peace Corps era. The series centered on the United Federation of Planets and a military-like Starfleet, but this navy was driven by a Cousteau-like thirst, not a Napoleonic hunger.

Though it was beloved in some circles, the ratings never materialized. William Shatner’s voice-over may have promised a “five-year mission,” but the Enterprise ran out of power in the third season. In the years that followed, however, something strange happened. Reruns and fan conventions transformed Star Trek into a new type of cult success, and novels widened the universe. Then, in 1977, the Starfleet universe benefited from a supernova called Star Wars.

It’s no secret that some hardcore Trek fans think Star Wars is an entirely different sort of animal. They don’t think Star Wars should even be called sci-fi: Despite the spaceships and robots, George Lucas’ universe is rooted in the mysticism of the Force and an epic struggle between good and evil, making it an inheritor of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth and (even more) Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom, as opposed to occupying the purer river of sci-fi that began with H.G. Wells and Jules Verne and by the 1960s found new tributaries in the off-world visions of Roddenberry, Arthur C. Clarke, and Stanley Kubrick. Still, there’s no denying that the success of Star Wars was a boon to Trek. Hollywood quickly wheeled anything with a spaceship out to the launching pad, including 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

A string of mostly solid hits followed, but 10 years ago the franchise was dead in space for a second time. 2002’s Star Trek: Nemesis was the biggest flop in the brand’s big-screen history, with a $60 million production budget (which may have doubled with marketing and other costs) and domestic box office of $43 million. That abject failure led to the consensus that it was time to try something new. Bad Robot swooped in and became Paramount’s co-producer. Abrams was originally reluctant to direct the movies himself: He’d seen Trek when he was a kid, but he related far more to farm boy Luke Skywalker than anybody he saw on the Enterprise bridge. Ultimately, he came around. ” ‘To boldly go…’ If you can get past the cliché and make it real and relevant, there’s something very exciting about that,” Abrams told this reporter in 2009. “This is not Star Wars, which happened a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. This is us and our future.”

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