Aboard a monstrous and gloomy interstellar cruiser part Death Star, part Mordor the man who would be the next captain of the starship Enterprise finds himself under fire from bald, blue-tatted alien brawlers. At the moment, James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), the hotheaded, horndog hero of Star Trek, is still a fresh-faced space cadet. At his side is his young half-human, half-Vulcan BFF, Spock (Zachary Quinto), looking quintessentially Spocky with his black bowl cut, slanting eyebrows, and blue smock. Here on the set of director J.J. Abrams' $150 million bid to bring Gene Roddenberry's beloved sci-fi world back to the big screen, the two geek pop icons have infiltrated a Romulan warcraft only to see their mission explode into a raging phaser fight. No longer are their signature Trek weapons boxy plastic toys, but sleek silver gizmos with spring-triggered barrels that revolve and glow in the transition from ''stun'' to ''kill.'' Problem is, every time Kirk raises his newfangled ray gun, the barrel revolves too early. Or too late. Or not at all. Giggles and unprintable curses fly. Someone lightens the mood with a quip: ''Most illogical, captain.''
For cast and crew, it's a fleeting and fixable frustration. But a busted phaser is the least of the challenges Abrams faces as he attempts to reenergize a franchise that has clearly lost its zap. As embodied by the short-lived late-'60s TV series starring William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, Star Trek inspired rabid fandom (they're called Trekkers, please, not Trekkies), and was once the definition of smart sci-fi. The series subverted America's cynical Cold War culture with its rich vision of a peaceful future and a weird, wonderful universe worthy of joint exploration. But since the box office peak of the original film series in 1986 (Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home), the Trek brand has devolved into a near-irrelevant cultural joke, likely to inspire giggles and unprintable curses from even its most ardent supporters. After a succession of contrived TV spin-offs (the last, UPN's Star Trek: Enterprise, mustered only a feeble 2 million viewers in its final season) and mediocre features based on the best of the bunch (Star Trek: The Next Generation), even people who'd built their entire careers around Trek could see the writing on the wall. ''Star Trek,'' says Leonard Nimoy, ''had run its course.''
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