Thursday, February 27, 2014

What I'm Watching Now: Babylon 5 (The story continues and conclusions)

In many ways season 5 of Babylon 5 had a different feel from it's proceeding seasons. While seasons 1 to 4 were rocketing towards a building conclusion, season 5 felt (as I mentioned last time) much more open and unresolved. That was because network changes had opened the possibility of spinning the series off into a franchise much in the same way "Star Trek the Next Generation" had been. Season 5 was very much "Book 2, Chapter 1" in the Babylon 5 franchise; it had a new villain (The Drakh), new characters and a new direction set in the same universe.
After the series conclusion TNT network produced and released four Babylon 5 TV movies and started work on the first spin off "Crusade". Over the past few weeks I have watched the four movies, Crusade may be on the cards for a later date and will get it's own article if I do. The movie quality was actually much better than I remember...

Movie 1: In the Beginning
I remember this one being incredibly anticipated at the time of its release, and it doesn't disappoint for the most part. The story of the Earth/Minbari war reuses a fair bit if footage from the series but adds enough extra material to make it a very worthy watch. The SFX production is some of the best the franchise has done, with the battle of the line a truly epic event. (We are talking hundreds of ships on screen at once) Some of the story additions are a little suspect as is often the case with prequels, Sheridan, Franklin and G'kar going on a secret mission, meeting a Ranger and getting captured by the Minbari for example probably would have changed the way the characters interacted in the Season 2 opener. (Like I'm pretty sure Franklin acted like he was meeting Sheridan for the first time in that ep)
 But it is a well paced and interesting story despite being one who's great secret (The reason for the Minbari surrender) is well covered by the series. Enough other character moments are in there to keep it entertaining, allowing the viewer to look past the inevitable nature of the story's resolution. The movie is framed in a wonderful way as well, the story is told by Londo to two children in the Centari royal court as he awaits seeing Sheridan and Delenn (and G'kar) during the flash forward in Season 3's "War without end" 

Movie 2: Thirdspace
The second movie is a stand alone adventure focusing on the themes of ancient Lovcraftian horror in the Babylon 5 universe. What makes it doubly awesome is that all the alien designs were done by Wayne Douglas Barlowe , possibly my favorite Sci Fi artist. It's a good solid SF story, and it is also good to see Ivanova back on screen (she has a tiny part in In the Beginning as well) in a major way. Sheridan also preempts Picard in the Next Gen movies by boarding and destroying the evil super weapon at the end.

Movie 3: River of Souls
River of Souls is a weird one, and not a film I had good memories of. On a re-watch many years later it actually stands up better than I remembered it. A story expanding on the Soul Hunters of the first season of B5 this film not only features Martin Sheen but also Ian McShane (TV's Lovejoy and Al Swearengen from Deadwood) who really does steal the show. This is also very much a debut for the "Nu Crew" of the station, with Garabaldi the only old main cast appearing as himself. (Franklin appears in a vision had by Lochley)

Movie 4: A Call to Arms
Effectively the pilot for the spin off "Crusade", A Call to Arms is a very odd movie. No strictly bad, but it has a very different feel than the series and movies that came before it and I do feel that is to it's detriment. It follows John Sheridan, aged and still president, stealing the new Alliance battleship Excalibur (From the alliance) to combat an attack on Earth by the Drakh who have deployed the only remaining Shadow Planet Killer to the task. New incidental music, a very different style of direction and editing as well as a new cast of characters. (Of which two and one minor character make the jump to Crusade) As a movie it lacks a lot of the tension that Babylon 5 was able to create at its high points, and I'm not sure if that is the writing or the new score's fault.

"A Call to Arms" was the set up for the first spinoff series "Crusade". It ends with the Drakh spreading a plague over the Earth causing it to be quarantined. The highly advanced plague will kill all human life on Earth in 5 years, setting up for the Yamatoeque quest of the Crusade TV series.
(The sadly ill fated TV series, as it got almost half a season..)

There have been two other Spin off attempts over the years, currently nether has been successful at getting Babylon 5 back on Television. Legend of the Rangers was a pilot that failed to get picked up, depicted a rag tag crew of Rangers facing off against a mysterious foe "The Hand" aka the aliens from Third Space. While the Ranger series is a nice idea, the idea of a "rag tag bunch of underdogs" who also are part of an elite quasi religious order didn't hang together well imho. (That and the really stupid VR battle bridge that the ship had, that required the helm officer to punch and kick to fire ship weapons. No wonder that class of vessel was discontinued)

The third and most recent was "Babylon 5: The Lost Tales" a pair of short episodes set in the B5 universe. The Lost tales aren't bad, but they are low budget and sit strangely in the continuity of the show. Like all the attempted spin offs the Lost Tales lack the dynamic tension that Babylon 5 was able to build up over its first four seasons.

Currently there are no concrete plans for more Lost Tales or other B5 spin offs, there is a strong online campaign; Free Babylon 5, to get the original series back on Television. Babylon 5 is a bit of an unremembered precursor to today's very cinematic television, along with Twin Peaks and the X files it was part of Genre TV's coming of age in the early 1990s. The multi season story arc, the "5 year plan" and the heavy use of foreshadowing as a dramatic device were very much introduced to genre TV though Babylon 5. Shows like Lost, Breaking Bad and Battlestar Galactica have very much followed in the footsteps of Babylon 5.

I for one hope that we see more shows in the Babylon 5 universe in the coming years, we already have a large comic book, roleplaying game and novel based universe to fill in all the gaps of the original series but one longs to see Babylon 5 revisit the small screen again. At this stage 20 years on the main cast is probably too old, and has a number of notable absences now, for a direct sequel to the series. But I for one would not object to something "Next Gen" style, some time in the future in a new universe. Very much what Legend of the Rangers was going for, but a little more grounded in presentation. At the very least a remastered version of the series would be amazing.

Till next time