Sunday, April 22, 2007

Crusade: 'War Zone' and 'Racing the Night'

Just a quick note, I’m watching the show with this order, there’s so many floating around, and I can’t really judge for myself which is the best until I’ve seen the show. But, it was recommended, and I’ll roll with it. Onto the series…

The spinoff is always tricky territory. How can you simultaneously please fans of the original series, and create something original that can attract new viewers? This conflict seems to be at the core of JMS’s issues with TNT during the production of the series, and it’s also a tension inherent in the series itself. After a five year journey through Babylon 5, do we have the energy left to invest in another five year saga? Does JMS? We’ll never know for sure, since the show was cut down before its time, but I’ve still got a ways to go, and so far, I’ve been pleasantly surprised with how Crusade’s been going.

That said, I don’t know that Crusade would have ever grown into a show as strong as Babylon 5. I think there’s a basic flaw in the premise, which is pretty much the same as Star Trek and most other sci-fi shows. While the Drakh plague provides a structural element, a goal, it doesn’t change the fact that the series’ premise will inevitably lead to a threat of the week, which will presumably be dealt with in the episode, and then left behind. While there can be interpersonal growth, I don’t think we could ever have the sustained build of the Narn/Centauri War or the Shadow War. Babylon 5 provided a center for action, and even when things spread across the galaxy in the later seasons, the characters weren’t on the move, they were in developed places where story could be built.

Now, it’s obviously difficult to assess a series from two episodes, after two episodes I wasn’t a fan of Babylon 5, but I could see the potential for something great. Here, I think the series is pretty good, but I don’t know that it could ever be much more than that. The strength of Babylon 5 was never the standalone plots. It was the way narrative arcs crescendoed over seasons, leading to these massive battles like ‘The Long Twilight Struggle’ or ‘The Fall of Centauri Prime.’ That’s what made the series special for me.

The other thing that made it special was two characters: Londo and G’Kar. Right from the first episode, they outshone the makeup and created fully believable, charismatic, morally ambiguous characters. As I mentioned many times in my reviews, the human characters very rarely captured my interest, primarily because they lacked any real sort of moral ambiguity. It’s early to say, but so far, nobody’s jumping out with G’Kar/Londo potential.

Galen would be the obvious point of interest, and was set up well in A Call to Arms, but so far, he’s been there just to be ambiguous and intercede at a crucial point in the story. He reminds me a lot of early Kosh, but having him do stuff like save Gideon in ‘Racing the Night’ makes it difficult to justify his lack of involvement at other times. I’d rather see him fully involved, but with some limits on his power. He is the most charismatic character here, and I want to know more about him, but I worry that he’s going to be used as a crutch for the writers.

Captain Gideon has a bit more attitude than Sheridan or Sinclair, and Gary Cole is certainly a stronger central presence for the series than Michael O’Hare was. I think JMS learned a lot about writing believable characters during his time on Babylon 5, and this show feels much more real, and much fresher than the early days of Babylon 5. That makes sense, it was six years later, but it’s also a result of his growth.

The other character I’m most interested in so far is Dureena. She’s the most morally ambiguous figure, and is a type we haven’t seen before in the B5 universe. I’d like to see her relationship with Galen further developed, in ‘Racing the Night,’ we find out that she wants technomage training, and I’m guessing that she would have become Galen’s apprentice if the series had went on. I’m getting a very Jedi vibe from Galen, and I think it would have been cool to explore his techniques in a more in depth way. As it is here, she’s mainly in an action role, which works fine. She’s definitely a post Buffy heroine, particularly reminding me of Faith.

One of my major issues with the first two episodes, if any episodes can actually be called first in this screwy ordered series, is that they both feature a variation of JMS’s obsession with archaeological digs, and ancient cultural objects found via excavation. This showed up occasionally in Babylon 5, showed up a lot in the TV movies, and now returns again. It seems like the premise of the series will allow JMS to rely a bit too much on the random ancient civilization plots to provide material for episodes.

The production value throughout was a lot higher than most Babylon 5 episodes. Effects have come a long way, and ‘Racing the Night’ in particular had a lot of impressive sequences. However, I think there’s more stuff designed just to show off the effects, like Gideon’s ride through the city. The best effects moments in B5 were the ones that actually forward the narrative, here JMS is using them more for spectacle, and the effects aren’t good enough to justify that.

The weakest effects are the Drakh in ‘War Zone,’ looking like really lame costumes, and the PPG blasts aren’t much better. Having the major foe be so goofy looking takes you out of the world of the story. But, in general, it’s a big improvement from even the best work on Babylon 5.

The credits of the show were an interesting change of pace from B5. The goal seems to be to provide a lot of quick exposition about the show’s premise, and it does that effectively. I like the tie in to the Vorlons/Shadows, with the questions “Who are you” and “what do you want.” I was surprised to see Captain Lochley in the credits, she hasn’t turned up yet, but presumably she’ll be in a bunch of episodes down the line.

I approached the show as something totally different from B5, so I take references to the universe as a bonus, not an expectation. It was really cool to see the Brakhiri and Drazi back at the beginning of ‘Racing the Night.’ I think B5 ended at the right time, so it’s not like Buffy, where I was desperate to see some more of the characters. Other than Londo, I have no particular need to see the people from Babylon 5. It’d be a nice bonus, but it’s not a necessity. The only character who would really fit on the show is Marcus, but alas, he was cut down before his time.

Reading about ‘War Zone,’ it’s clear that JMS was not happy to have to make this episode. On the one hand, I totally sympathize with his anger at network meddling. He’d proved that he could make a popular show, and if left to his own devices, Crusade would have probably kept a lot of the B5 audience. However, I also think he’s a bit of a petty guy, going back to B5. I don’t know the full story about Keffer back in season two, but it seems like he refused to develop this character and then killed him off just to spite the network. Watching season one, I was thinking that he could have used a Han Solo style character, with some attitude, and maybe he should have used the studio suggestion to his advantage, not done something that was somewhat baffling for a viewer, have this guy around for a while, not develop him, then kill him. You can see similar behavior when he puts in the title at the end of ‘Deconstruction of Falling Stars,’ giving a petty chastising to all the critics who said the show wouldn’t survive.

Now, I don’t know the full extent of the TNT involvement, maybe it was really awful, but I can’t help but think that he could have run with their requests, not just bitched about them. If they wanted him to make an episode introducing the characters, then use it as a chance to give some more in depth characterization. Certainly, these people still had a ways to go in ‘Racing the Night.’ I’d imagine his resistance had at least some part in the show being cancelled. Of course, it’d probably be better to go down with the show he wanted to do then compromise his vision. But still, I think there’s some midground between total rejection and online bitching at TNT, and just accepting their suggestions outright.

All this and I feel like I’ve barely touched on the episodes themselves. I was entertained, but not wowed. I feel like B5, even at its worst, had a sense of purpose and build. Here, it’s good in the moment, but I don’t know that it will all click into something bigger. B5 had a closed universe, a few groups who we got to know in depth. Here, it’s such a big world, I feel like we can never get that mastery. And that’s the ultimate flaw I see with the series as it moves forward. Of course, it never actually did move forward, so it didn’t become a problem. If nothing else, it’s a huge jump in production values and acting from the vast majority of B5.


crossoverman said...

TNT's demands on JMS for Crusade were beyond insulting, not mere suggestions like the addition of Keffer but a change of tone and a dumbing down of the whole premise. You'll notice the meddling further down the line. But JMS has shared other network notes online in the years since - and the network was really trying to sex the show up and dumb it down in other directions.

JMS has given other clues to how the series' arc would have progressed, but don't really want to give any of that away until you've seen the rest of the series.

Patrick said...

I was reading around online, and these notes do seem to be more about killing the show than trying to make it more successful. If they'd seen Babylon 5, they should have known what kind of show they were getting, and not expected something else. I'm sure there's plenty of people who would have given them the show they wanted. It's interesting that Babylon 5 survived for five years on basically non-network, then when he gets to the corporate big time, all it takes is 13 episodes to kill the show.

crossoverman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
crossoverman said...

And in other news:

B5: The Lost Tales artwork!

Colin Blair said...

In Volume 10 of the B5 scripts JMS states that the original concept of the Drakh plague was for it to be a hook to get the network to sign off on the show but he never intended for that the be the actual goal of the show.

In the end, Crusade was the carrot that got TNT to approve season 5 of Babylon 5 so in that sense it was a success.

Patrick said...

Yeah, I'd imagine it would get a bit tiring to spend five years looking for the same thing. Has he said anything about what the series would have been about after finding the cure?

TGL said...

JMS gives some hints in the bonus material and the ACs - the cure would be found in the first half of season three. But on their search they would found evidence, that earth uses shadow-technology or so and so the earth government would try to hunt them down...

Patrick said...

That would make sense, sticking to the same basic structure as B5, and tying it back into the show's mythology. It could get a bit redundant to fight Earth once again, but if done right, I'm sure it would have been cool. Has he said if he's going to revisit any of these themes in the Lost Tales movies? The presence of Galen would indicate some of it will be back.

TGL said...

I know nearly nothing about the content of the lost tales - i'm not sure, if JMS has said much about it or will be before the release.