Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Crusade: 'The Path of Sorrows' and 'Appearances and Other Deceits' (1x12-1x13)

The series comes to an end with its best episode and a decent one. 'The Path of Sorrows' is the first episode that really hints at a larger world of possibility within the show, an overarching narrative that extends beyond standalone episodes. The show always had elements of that, since it drew on the mythology built up over five years of Babylon 5. That's the show's greatest asset in a lot of respects, we know the details of the Shadows and the Psi Corps, and we can understand references that would just be cryptic babble on other sci-fi shows.

A work like Babylon 5 almost demands a plethora of spinoffs and ancillary material since the universe is so richly detailed. Right from the first episode, JMS seemed to know everything that was going on with the characters and their universe, and over the course of the five years, we learned a wealth of material. I know more about the history of the Centauri Republic than I do about a lot of real nations.

But, the fully developed nature of the universe can present difficulty when making a spinoff. How much can he rely on what already exists, and how much should be new, so that new viewers can pick up the show? Ultimately, I think he finds a workable balance, new viewers could easily watch this and not miss anything. Yet, as someone who's watched B5, I did find myself wishing for more ties to the mother show.

But, before getting into musings on the series as a whole, let me go through these last two episodes. 'Sorrows' wasn't quite at the level of 'Signs and Portents' in terms of redefining what the series could do, but it did give us some much appreciated character background and set up what would likely have been a major theme of the series, the search for forgiveness. All the characters here have some bad deeds in their background, something they need to atone for, and the creature they find tries to help them come to terms with those past trangressions. The episode reminded me a bit of the Firefly episode where we flashback to where all the characters were before they came to the ship. That was a great episode, the brief snippets told us all we needed to know in a more efficient way than Lost's neverending flashback parade.

I liked the way they used the text captions to communicate the creature's pure feeling in a way that couldn't be represented by speech. It reinforces the idea that this thing is just giving the people what they want, like the cave in Empire Strikes Back, you only see what you bring with you. My favorite flashback was Mathison's, which gave us a glimpse of the telepath war. That's a piece of history we skipped over and it was great to fill it in. I would have loved to see a Lyta Alexander cameo, or at least mention, but what we got was great. Galen and Gideon's flashback were a bit more expected, but still well done. In general, I love devices like this, that force the characters to assess themselves in some way. Buffy's 'gimmick' episodes were all on some level about forcing the characters to examine themselves, be it in dreams, music or conversations with dead people. Taking the characters to a more subjective mental place is a great way to get to know them better, to understand the facade they present to the world.

'Appearances' was a less successful episode, one that, while entertaining, contains a lot of JMS's consistent writing problems. For one, the episode didn't have much tension. No one we actually knew was infected, and it was fairly obvious they'd find a way to resolve things in an easy way. That's because JMS almost always gives his characters, at least the heroes, an easy way out. People like Sheridan and Gideon always find some trick or tactic that will let them save the day without hurting anyone. Only occasionally will he force characters to make hard choices, and those are the most memorable moments of the series, the Londo arc or even the standalone in B5's first season where the kid dies. That was a bold call, this is the obvious ending. Because it's so easy, we don't get any satisfaction from the victory. It just goes by as expected. It would have been a more powerful ending to have to kill all the infected people to save the ship.

Another thing that bothered me about this episode was the use of the guy who played Neroon on B5. He looked similar and talked the same way, how can we buy him as a different character? This problem cropped up on B5 too, when they used Wayne Alexander in countless roles. That's fine if he's random alien every week, but once he played Lorien, he became too recognizable to be believable in a different role. I can understand wanting to be loyal to your actors, but it was distracting.

The biggest problem with this episode, and countless others, is that it's tough to make the audience get invested in a standalone hour of TV. The thing I love about the medium is the possibility to tell massive stories, developing characters' lives over years and years. That's what JMS did in the later years of Babylon 5, and even though you do need to set the groundwork, it's possible to have arcs right from the first year. The Sopranos managed to keep running plots going over the first season, and even if there were more standalone stories, they didn't feel as disconnected as these do. JMS should have learned from the first year of B5, that standalones just don't work as well. Even if you're doing a five year arc, put a mini arc in the front of the series to hook people.

Ultimately, the series, while entertaining, is futile viewing. It doesn't lead anywhere, and the characters don't go through much growth. While it's more rewarding on an episode by episode basis than early B5, that doesn't make it particularly worthwhile. I thought Dureena was a great character, and Galen had a lot of potential, but that's pretty much all the show was, potential. It works best as a dessert after B5, giving you a final jaunt through the universe before moving on.

That said, the Lost Tales film could change that. Some of the elements here will likely return there, and maybe that film will tie this series closer to the mythology. I'm eager to see Galen back, and I'd love to see Dureena or Gideon appear in a future film. Though, there's a bunch of B5 characters I'd prefer to see first.

B5 succeeded because of its scope, watching all the pieces of this elaborately constructed narrative fall into place. It was never a show that was about the moment, it was all about the big picture. Yet, with Crusade, all we have is moments, and that's not enough to satisfy.

Next up, I'll finally reach the end of the Babylon 5 universe, with Legend of the Rangers, leaving me all caught up for the imminent arrival of new material. Look for that review soon.


Lee said...

Many, many years ago, the scripts to three unproduced episodes of Crusade were posted to a short lived site called Bookface.

At the time, JMS reported:

"Bookface is ... presenting my last two Crusade scripts, 'To the Ends of the Earth,' designed to be that season's arc-starting episode a la B5's 'Signs and Portents,' and 'End of the Line,' slated as the first-season Crusade finale. This is the best chance for people to find out where the show was going."

Sadly, Bookface's business model proved unsustainable, and the scripts disappeared one day, along with the rest of the site. Them's the breaks.

But it would be nice if there were still some way of getting to read those scripts, eh?

It sure would.

Patrick said...

It sure would indeed, I'll have to take a look, y'know, if I ever came across them or something. It's unforutnate the show got cut down so early, there was a lot of potential, and even if there wasn't anyone as instantly compelling as G'Kar or Londo, most of the characters had greater potential for interest than most of the people on B5.