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'Star Trek' headed to another frontier

The biggest selling point of "Star Trek: The

The biggest selling point of "Star Trek: The Video Game" is that players can choose to play as either Spock or Kirk, and the two characters are side-by-side for the entire journey. Credit: Paramount Pictures

Preparing to go where hundreds have gone before, the makers of "Star Trek Into Darkness" have assumed a burden of history: Nearly half a century of TV and movies, countless characters, story lines, spaceships, planets, alternate universes, goatees, Tribbles. A cultural landmark. A media phenomenon. And perhaps the most ferocious fan base currently at large.

So when producer-director J.J. Abrams is asked whether he feels he "owns" the franchise -- after the hugely successful "Star Trek" reboot of 2009 -- he raises the shield.

"I don't feel like I own anything," Abrams said good-naturedly from London, where a media blitz was under way to promote what is now the 12th movie founded on a show that NBC canceled 44 years ago after three seasons. "But I do feel like I'm the current tenant in a really well-built home and I'm responsible for its upkeep. We may redecorate a little bit. But it's bigger than all of us, and we're grateful to live here."

An earlier time

A futuristic fantasy absorbed with its own past, "Into Darkness," which opens Thursday, actually takes place in an earlier time than almost all the previous "Star Treks," save one: The hook in Abrams' 2009 prequel -- scripted, like the new movie, by sci-fi vets Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman ("Transformers," "Cowboys & Aliens") -- was that the original Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) came back, changed what had come before and allowed the fresh-faced young crew of the Enterprise to embark on a destiny-free trip into the final frontier. It also relieved Abrams and company of having to deal with continuity -- conforming to a narrative history that would, if it were mapped out, resemble the schematic for a TV set.

"The first 'Star Trek' movie," Abrams said, referring to the 2009 film, "essentially established our 'Star Trek' series as a parallel, interesting universe. It doesn't deny what came before but doesn't require us to adhere to it. It basically says it exists, and whatever and whenever you want to use any of those past elements -- characters, relationships, technology, anything -- they're available. But there's no mandate that we engage with or track any of the stories that are taking place elsewhere."

And yet ... when the seemingly unconquerable John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) starts terrorizing the Federation (the benevolent union of planets that commissioned the original Enterprise), it opens a Pandora's box of unsavory history that touches on past "Star Treks," other Mr. Spocks (Nimoy makes a cameo, of course) and previous movies.

"I can't talk about it," Cumberbatch said from London, although he hadn't really been asked. "Really. Plus, it's much better to go to a movie and have the story unravel without knowing a lot of things." He did offer the thought that the complexities of the John Harrison story did reflect, to a certain extent, recent American foreign policy and that the Harrison story was anything but simple. "One man's terrorist," Cumberbatch said, "is another's freedom fighter."

Looking for laughs

Zachary Quinto, who said he had never been told he looked like Mr. Spock (even though his resemblance to the character in the first film was its best sight gag), agreed that comedy was a big part of "Into Darkness." The bits of familiar characterization that pop up throughout the movie -- for instance, Dr. McCoy's exasperation ("Dammit, Jim, I'm a doctor, not a torpedo technician!") and Chekov's measured warnings about Kirk (played again by Chris Pine) and his tactics ("I voudn't adwize it, Captain") -- will generate laughs. And they are from a script immersed in "Trek" lore.

"What you do is learn everything, then forget it and try to make it a character story," said Orci. "Then the stuff you forgot starts to leak back through. But our goal is to pitch a story that doesn't require you to know anything about 'Star Trek.'"

Quinto, for one, agreed. "It's exciting for us to be involved with something that has the potential to far outperform the first movie, which did really well domestically but not so much internationally," he said. "I think they've really been building a campaign in parts of the world that don't have a traditional interest in this kind of genre or this particular story -- which is very American in its origins -- to relate to it." But while "Into Darkness" will appeal to "longtime, die-hard 'Star Trek' fans," he said, it also will connect with people who just love movies and storytelling.

"It has this large-scale, visually stunning, tent-pole blockbuster air about it," the actor said. "But it's anchored by human connections, relationships, interpersonal drama, and I think that's what sets J.J. apart from other directors."

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