Sunday, June 24, 2007

Babylon 5: Legend of the Rangers: To Live and Die in Starlight

Back in November, I watched the Babylon 5 pilot. Now, seven months later, I have finally watched the most recent Babylon 5 production, the uninspiring TV movie Legend of the Rangers. Worse than Crusade, worse than the other TV movies, this one does some things well that the show didn’t, but is missing practically everything that was good about the show. It’s a better production, more watchable than The Gathering, but it lacks any real artistic motivation. I see no particular reason for this movie to exist.

I’ll start with what’s good about the production. The effects and visual style are much stronger than what was in the series. The effects were rarely a huge concern for me, once you get into the show’s universe, you just accept that this is what the world looks like and there’s nothing we can do about it. Here, the effects look pretty good, though they still don’t have the realism of a Battlestar Galactica.

A bigger improvement is the visual style. The ship doesn’t look as much like a set and the camera has more energy. The aliens generally look more believable, not just a bunch of masks that were sitting around, and the alien guy with the weird hair was quite cool looking. The director was Mike Vejar, who did a bunch of B5 episodes, and he raised his game here. It’s a moody, atmospheric film. I would have loved to see this level of visual urgency on Babylon 5. The series generally looked almost like a theater prouction, with actors standing on what were clearly sets, this makes it more like real life.

On top of that, this episode is a much more traditionally engaging pilot than The Gathering. That episode was practically unwatchable due to the absurdly bad acting of much of the main cast. Those characters felt like they were written by someone who’d never actually seen humans behave. The characters on this show still don’t feel real, but rather than seeming completely inexplicable, they seem like they were written by someone who’s seen a lot of TV shows. They feel like characters, and at least that’s an improvement over feeling like actors standing on a stage, reading off cue cards. But, they are still far from feeling like real people.

And then gets to the central problem with the work. As the pilot for a TV series, you don’t expect to get to know everyone in depth, but these characters are so undeveloped we have to have a scene where they literally say their name and a vague line about their purpose. But, when you’ve got ten of these in a row, you don’t really remember them. I couldn’t tell you much about the characters from this show and I watched it yesterday. They weren’t memorable at all, and none of the actors brought the intensity that Peter Jurasik or Andreas Katsulas did to The Gathering.

The captain is perhaps the most generic captain character I’ve seen. He dislikes authority, always does his own thing, and oversees a ragtag crew on an old ship that no one else likes, but he has affection for. Am I talking about Han Solo, Mal from Serenity, Jet from Cowboy Bebop or David Martell from this show. He’s the same archetype as Sheridan as well, and like almost all JMS human characters, his only real flaw is that he cares too much about his people and is willing to go off the book. I’d like to see JMS write a really troubled human character, like Londo or G’Kar, because it’s only when we know that someone has the capacity to do bad that we care when they do good. That was the problem with the original series, with Crusade and now with this, the characters have nowhere to go arc wise. If they are already what they want to be, the only problems come from outside, and that’s not as compelling as internal conflict.

The rest of the characters don’t really jump out at you. Now, that’s always going to be an issue with pilot, but this one is 90 minutes, and really, you should care about someone. If the show ended with the ship exploding and everyone dying, I’d probably just be like, oh well, what can you do? JMS’s greatest strength is the way he develops massive plots that affect an entire universe. Watching an episode like “The Fall of Centauri Prime,” it’s profoundly sad because you can feel the weight of an entire universe dooming Londo to his imprisonment with the Drakh. Maybe in three years, someone here would reach that point, but generally speaking, people aren’t going to wait that long for payoffs. It astonishes me that Babylon 5 stayed on the air to even reach that point. I know I wouldn’t have made it through the first episode, let alone the first season if I didn’t have people assuring me it would get great.

In today’s TV world, I don’t think you have the luxury of time that 90s creators did. Shows like Seinfeld and The X-Files took a couple of seasons to find their voice, but when shows like The Sopranos and Six Feet Under are brilliant right out of the gate, it’s a lot harder to get the benefit of the doubt from the audience. And this show does nothing to earn that benefit of the doubt.

It surprises me that JMS would again run away from the greatest strength B5 could bring to a spinoff, its characters. It was great to see G’Kar again, even if he got nothing to do but make some lame jokes and deliver some exposition. The character has so much residual affection that the show picked up any time he was on screen, even though he has virtually nothing to do with the show. Would he even have been a regular? I don’t know, presumably not, but it would have been much worse without him.

But, if you’re doing a show with rangers, why not have Lennier on the ship? We never found out what happened to him and this would be a chance to explore that. If you’re going after new viewers, you could present him as just a troubled older ranger. Just putting a character in the show is about as much development as any of these others got. That’s such an obvious inclusion, and would have really helped get fans hooked on the show, I don’t see why JMS didn’t do it. While I was intrigued by the brief mention of Lyta, who’s gone now, this was so peripheral, the use of Babylon 5 seemed like a cashin.

This show barely even seemed to take place in the B5 universe. Minbari looked very different from what we’d seen, and this just didn’t jive with what we’d seen in Crusade. It makes no sense to undermine the central conflict of the show, the Shadow War, by presenting this new foe who claim to be so much tougher than the Shadows. Either those guys are lying, or JMS has completely screwed up continuity by inventing a major foe who never are mentioned in any of the other post series stories. It makes no sense.

So, let’s say they’re trying to reinvent the universe, cater to a new audience. Then why do they end the show with a trip to Babylon 5, without explaining the significance of the station. This is clearly meant to be a big dramatic moment, but if you were watching the show for the first time, it wouldn’t work at all. That implies that the show is targeted at previous viewers. But, in that case, why not really cater to them and give us more classic characters and not screw with the Shadow mythology.

While I liked the shooting style, I think the ship was quite poorly designed. It feels like a submarine, and the constant darkness makes the show feel claustrophobic. I’d have liked to see at least a couple of windows. The Excalibur was a much better looking vessel. I actually liked the first time they did the virtual reality weapons thing, the second montage was just overwhelmingly goofy, with her over the top expressions revealing the underlying goofiness of what was going on.

Ultimately, it was a watchable film. Everything was put together competently and the story flowed in a logical way. It felt very much like a pilot made to satisfy a network, full of action and attitude having younger characters. JMS seems to have abandoned everything that worked about B5, in favor of basically making the show TNT wanted from Crusade. There’s no intellectual subtext to anything here, it’s just straight up action and I see no future here. It’s better than a lot of first season episodes in terms of enjoyment, but it’s also completely superfluous and lacking in any kind of substance.

And from the point of view of developing the universe, it gives nothing really notable to the fans. I think the Lost Tales project is a much smarter way to do things. I don’t really need another series, but I’d love another hour with Londo, Lyta and others. So, it’s probably for the best this didn’t go to the series, and instead the universe got the chance for a new reboot.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy is that this is the final appearance for G’Kar. I feel like the greatest piece of the story that’s not yet told is how G’Kar got to the point where he killed Londo and the keeper. I imagine him and Vir as part of a small rebel organization fighting to liberate Centauri Prime once he finds out what happened with Londo. Their relationship was what made the series great, and it would have been incredible to see G’Kar finally realize why his friend has changed and go back to the planet to save him in the only way he could. I wish JMS had covered that in one of the TV movies or instead of one of the countless goodbye episodes at the end of the show. And now that Andreas is gone, we’ll never see it.

I’d be curious to see some interviews with JMS about the goals behind this project, and where it would have gone in the future of the possible series. All I can find is one anecdote where he talks about how a Colts/Patriots playoff game caused the show’s ratings to fall below expectations. But, this feels like such an odd, troubled project, I can’t imagine what was going on with him that led to its creation.

Well, it’s been a long journey, and it’s not over yet. I’m now caught up and ready for the Lost Tales film. I have to say, Sheridan is probably the character I’m least interested in following up on, we know everything about him. But, hopefully this will succeed and lead not only to a wide ranging series of B5 films, but also similar projects for other series, like, perhaps, just maybe, Buffy. B5 changed sci-fi TV with its introduction of long form arc based storytelling. Maybe it will change things again by opening direct to DVD as a legitimate vehicle for continuing cult series.


Chris Patterson said...

Hi Patrick,

While I agree that B5:LotR had some problems, I don't believe that it was out of line with the status of the universe as we last saw it in B5.

With the Shadows gone and the new Alliance struggling to maintain control, the next generation of Rangers would be stretched very thin across the galaxy. It seems logical to me that young Rangers would be pressed into command too soon, leading to situations such as these.

For more detail, see my old usenet posting on Google.

Jacob said...

Yeah, but that's no excuse for lazy acting and writing. Unlike "Crusade", which at least seemed to be going somewhere, there just wasn't a compelling reason for this to exist. At all.

I really hope that his time writing comics has helped JMS recharge his batteries, because Lost Tales really needs to be more like "In the Beginning" and less like "Rangers".

Patrick said...

Yeah, the issues I had with it being out of the universe were less important than the major narrative issues with the film. It's just completely inexplicable to me how this film was made since it feels so totally generic. "The Gathering" wasn't good, but at least it felt unique and full of potential, this one, not so much.

Angie said...

Part of G'Kar's story has been told in the third part of the Centauri trilogy. I strongly recommend reading the canon books, they're quite good, easily outperforming all of the movies except ITB.