The decision to recast these iconic roles cuts against decades of conventional wisdom that audiences would riot if anyone but William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley appeared onscreen in Starfleet garb. That was one of the reasons the franchise's minders decided in the mid-’80s that Star Trek's future lay in creating new shows and new characters. And while the original show's first two descendents—"The Next Generation" and "Deep Space Nine"—were well-received, they were followed by "Voyager" and "Enterprise," series that even hardcore Trekkers had difficulty generating much enthusiasm for.
Meanwhile, the franchise's big-screen ventures were losing steam with each installment, culminating in 2002's Star Trek: Nemesis, which grossed an anemic $43 million—the lowest box-office take of any Trek feature. Three years later, "Enterprise" aired its last episode and the Star Trek brand appeared to reach the end of its 40-year mission to explore the final frontier, seeking out new life and new civilizations. To make the series relevant again, Paramount knew they needed to find someone who loved science-fiction, if not necessarily Star Trek; someone who knew how to tell stories that balanced compelling drama with kick-ass action; and someone who could make a movie that would appeal to Trekkers and non-Trekkers alike. In short, someone exactly like J.J. Abrams.
Paramount first approached Abrams with the idea of taking the U.S.S. Enterprise out of mothballs shortly after the release of his debut feature, Mission: Impossible III. "I was interested in the challenge,'" he says, on the phone from California, adding that he initially signed on only as the film's producer. His first decision as the Enterprise's new captain was to take Star Trek back to basics, which for him meant a return to the conflict that defined the original series—the occasionally fractious friendship between a man of action (that would be one James Tiberius Kirk) and a man of logic (Vulcan scientist Mr. Spock). "For me, Star Trek was always about Kirk and Spock," he explains. "I know there are huge fans of 'The Next Generation' and the other iterations of it, but to me, it was a Kirk and Spock story and [the writers] extrapolated other series and movies from that fundamental idea."
To devise the right story to re-launch the series, Abrams assembled a brain trust of friends and frequent collaborates that included his “Lost” co-creator Damon Lindelof, “Fringe” exec producer Bryan Burk and M:I scribes (and the writers of both Transformers movies) Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman. "It was a great balance between people who knew the material and those who couldn't care less about it," Abrams says. "For example, Robert is an obsessed fan, whereas Bryan had never even seen Star Trek before."
Working closely together, the group conceived a plotline that restarts the story from scratch, while also paying homage to the mythology that fans have grown up with since “Star Trek” hit the airwaves in 1966. "My approach to the entire movie—from the writing, to the casting, to the wardrobe—was to take the spirit of what was written 43 years ago and tell that story through the prism of what is relevant and right for today. I didn't want the props to look like they were taken off the prop shelf from 1966, I didn't want the design to look like we were [copying] what had been done, and I didn't want the cast mimicking the original actors. This story needed to feel like it was cut from the same cloth, yet be its own film entirely."
As a way of linking the old and new Treks, Abrams enlisted the services of Leonard Nimoy (so far the only member of the original cast who has a confirmed appearance in the film, although rumors of a surprise Shatner cameo still abound on the Internet) to reprise his career-defining role, playing an elderly Spock, who travels back in time to advert an attack by an evil Romulan warlord (Eric Bana) that would alter the course of the future. In the past, Spock crosses paths with Jim Kirk (played by Chris Pine), fresh out of Starfleet Academy and taking part in his first mission aboard the Enterprise under the command of Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood), the character that, as every self-respecting Trekker knows, preceded Kirk as the ship's captain in the original series as well.
Also on board are such recent Starfleet grads as communications officer Uhura (Zoë Saldana), helmsmen Pavel Chekov (Anton Yelchin) and Hikaru Sulu (John Cho), and Kirk's pal in sickbay, Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy (Karl Urban). Last, but certainly not least, there's young Mr. Spock (Zachary Quinto), a half-human, half-Vulcan junior officer who is a stickler for the rules and regulations that the rebellious Kirk gleefully flouts at every opportunity. To say the two don't get along is an understatement; when an attack leaves Pike disabled and Spock in charge of the ship, he seizes the opportunity to deposit Kirk on a remote planet, as far from the action as possible. It's here that Kirk encounters the older version of Spock, as well as a brilliant engineer with a broad Scottish accent named—what else?—Scotty (Simon Pegg).
Believe it or not, that's only the tip of the iceberg in a story that contains numerous plot twists as well as pedal-to-the-metal action set-pieces. "The movie is a lot," Abrams says gleefully. "The goal for me was to make the movie equivalent of that ride at the amusement park you've just gotta go on. I didn't want people to feel like this was anything other than an exciting, fast-paced ride. At the same time, I didn't want it to be shallow and empty. We've all seen movies that are filled with action and spectacle and are ultimately devoid of any heart or meaning. The beautiful thing about this script is that it has wonderful emotional through-lines. At its core, it's about this group of people that barely know each other and go through this massive adventure together and, at the end of it, emerge as a kind of family."