Monday, April 09, 2007

Babylon 5: A Call to Arms

A Call to Arms brings this boxset of generally inconsequential films to a close by trying to bring some consequence back. This is certainly the most significant film since In the Beginning, giving us a major development in the B5 universe and setting the stage for another five year saga. I’d imagine this movie played quite a bit differently back when it aired than now, when I know that Crusade doesn’t even make it through a whole season, and this thread of the world’s narrative will wind up essentially abandoned.

But, I’m not aware of how things will fail, so this movie does provide an intriguing glimpse into at least a bit of new B5 material. The stuff with Galen is great, and the ending is quite powerful, however, in general, the film is less consistently successful than Thirdspace or River of Souls. Those two films had minimal ambition, and didn’t really go anywhere, but were fun along the way. This one is much bigger, and does take us places, but suffers from a haphazard narrative structure, part of which is the inevitable tension of bridging B5 and Crusade.

From the standpoint of a B5 viewer, it’s a bit frustrating to not get any meaningful character development for the major players. Sheridan has a new hairstyle, but other than that, everything seems pretty much the same. We gets hints about the telepath war, but no development of that, and my general feeling is that things have been in stasis since the series ended. A large part of the fun of this movie should have been catching up with the characters and finding out how they’ve changed, but the majors feel plugged into roles here, with a narrative imposed on them, not arising organically out of their personalities.

I’m not a big car or tech guy. I love computers, but I’m not someone who’ll drool at the prospect of a 2.3 ghz processor, so the lengthy sequence designed to show off the Excalibur didn’t do much for me. I think JMS was more in love with the ship than most viewers will be, it’s not that exciting to be told what it can do. I can see why they did this, to set up the powers and limits of the ship, but it’s not particularly exciting on its own. The power draining main gun feels like a plot contrivance, specifically designed to create narrative tension.

The new characters are more interesting. Galen the technomage has a bit of a Dungeons and Dragons vibe, but he’s got a lot of potential. The dream sequences where he communicates with Sheridan were visually striking, though a bit let down once you see that they’re just on a stage with painted backdrop. Still, he should be a cool character on Crusade, even if his magical powers seem designed specifically to create easy standalone stories. Hopefully we won’t see too many episodes with Galen senses something mysterious, and sends the crew on a cryptic mission.

Dureena is a more interesting character, infused with a moral ambiguity lacking in most of B5’s characters. Other than Londo and G’Kar, everyone on B5 was pretty standup, having a thief on the ship, even one committed to this mission, will create an inevitable tension. I’d like to see her maintain her edge as the series goes on, she’s certainly got some cool fighting abilities, as seen in the thieves’ guild scene. She reminds me of a Whedon heroine, and that’s a character type I always enjoy. She’s not quite there, but she’s certainly more emotionally believable than any of the characters in ‘The Gathering.’

My major issue with the film is that all the narrative action happens because of outside manipulation. Galen sends Sheridan on a mission, he gets a couple of people together, then goes to defend Earth, all based on these visions. I suppose we needed an excuse to have the thief join the team, but there’s no reason this couldn’t have come out of some detective work, rather than a deus ex machina. It was likely designed to show off Galen’s power, but it winds up feeling cheap.

The final battle over Earth was well executed, but lacked the emotional engagement of the fight against Clarke, which it was clearly meant to echo, right down to a ship sacrificing itself to save Sheridan. When that’s over, the ending is a nice segue into future stories, and makes me eager to watch Crusade. In that respect, the movie accomplished its mission, however it could have been a bit stronger.

In the Beginning was filled with continuity porn, targeted at the hardcore fan. This film could have used a bit more of that, throw in a reference to the Drakh control of Centauri Prime, or even just mentions or Lyta or other characters. They got some in there, but I wanted more updates. I suppose JMS might have done more of this in Crusade, but if this was meant to be the farewell to the original B5 crew, I would have liked a bit more.

Still, if the goal is to start a new series, it’s probably not the best idea to get bogged down in references to the past, and had Crusade gone on to a five year run, I imagine people would look back on this movie fondly. As it is now, it’s a solid story, with some really strong bits. I’m certainly glad I watched it, and I’m ready to move on and judge Crusade for myself.


crossoverman said...

A theif and a technomage - it's *so* Dungeons and Dragons! Try to enjoy Crusade.

Chris Patterson said...

Hi Patrick,

Just wanted to post a suggestion as you start Crusade: follow JMS's suggested viewing order, not the original airdate order. The DVD boxset is in the original airdate order. JMS's recommended order is the one listed on the Lurker's Guide episode list, at:

Also, a question: are you going to review the B5 canon novels as well? I would love to hear your thoughts on them someday...