Review: ‘Star Trek Into Darkness’ one of series’ best

Quick – think of a franchise where later entries are among the best.

Maybe Doctor Who; maybe Sherlock Holmes; maybe 007, who’s taken on new life with Daniel Craig.

But for “Star Trek,” there are no maybe’s; this series is as strong as ever after nearly 50 years.

Yes, “Star Trek into Darkness” is a dandy new installment in the stalwart series. Vigorous, smart, handsome and well-acted, it rings some fine changes on the legendary “Trek” mystique.

Indeed, whoever came up with the “alternate timeline” idea for the 2009 reboot was something of a genius.

Both these latest films concern the early days of Kirk, Spock and the original Enterprise – “prequels,” as it were, to the trail-blazing series that ran on TV in the late 1960s.

Yet these new tales seem to occur in a parallel universe, an alternate timeline with the same characters but different events – similar but not identical to those in the original show.

I don’t profess to understand this well and it’s problematic that these two films don’t make it clearer; or maybe I just go brain-dead when I hear the unlikely phrase “parallel universe” – the same way others shut down at “science fiction,” “time travel” or (gulp!) “Star Trek.”

Yet the alternate storyline does allow the writers to incorporate all kinds of classic Trek material, including Nurse Chappel, the tribbles and the classic 1967 episode “Space Seed.”

Best of all is the way this new entry reframes the cathartic climax of 1982’s “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” which many still feel is the best “Trek” film.

I remember a non-Trekkie expressing surprise over how powerful Spock’s death was in that film; it was a bracing reminder that despite all the gadgetry and complicated plotting (both omnipresent in “Into Darkness”), “Trek” always keys on personality and relationship.

Here, I relished the way this new story shows Kirk (Chris Pine) his own weakness and fallibility, teaching the young captain to reign in the cockiness that often puts his crew in jeopardy.

Solid acting brings out this human element in “STID,” including standout work from Pine, plus Zachary Quinto as Spock, Simon Pegg as Scotty and Bruce Greenwood as Admiral Pike.

But the key here is the villain played by Benedict Cumberbatch (of British TV’s recent “Sherlock” update). He’s astoundingly fierce, and so charismatic that, like those in the film, we sometimes find ourselves sympathizing with him – only to have these feelings crushed with stunning brutality.

I loved the film’s insistence that it isn’t his genetically engineered intelligence or strength people want to use – it’s his savagery, so fully on display that he may well emerge as the strongest villain in “Trek” franchise history.

Though “STID” features some weak dialog, the plot clips along sharply, while the action scenes are swift and exciting.

Can’t say it goes where no one’s gone before; but it sure goes boldly, and sets us up for a host of “strange new worlds.”