Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky had a mysterious and prophetic dream in which Captain Kirk, Captain Sheridan, and Captain Crunch battled for control of the galaxy. Oddly, the music for the dream was by the Captain and Tennille.
"I've never left the Babylon 5 universe."—J. Michael Straczynski
Ok, I missed Babylon 5. True, it did sometimes get bombastic. The special effects were inconsistent, and the DVD releases do not serve them well. The show's first and final seasons were weak. Crusade was a missed opportunity, and I was very disappointed by Legend of the Rangers. The telefilms were a mixed bag. You have heard me say all these things before, in long and detailed reviews on this very site. But for all that, I miss the show. When it was firing on all cylinders, it was one of the best science-fiction shows on television. You could get wrapped up in its characters, their ups and downs. The story had scale—a sense of the majestic—and creator Joe Straczynski could mix grand themes and intimate character to make great drama. It was space opera, and it had all the strengths—and excesses—of an opera.
But it also came to an end, and its cast and crew moved on to other projects. The fans remain loyal though. And Straczynski remains loyal to them. And Warner Brothers senses a potential franchise (especially since rival Paramount has left a vacuum between Star Trek projects)—and franchises mean money. Fans + restless creator + marketable franchise = Babylon 5: The Lost Tales.
The Lost Tales is a proposed series of direct-to-DVD films intended to expand the Babylon 5 universe and feel out the market for any larger-scale B5 projects. The first release is a pair of short episodes (about a half-hour apiece), loosely connected and titled "Voices in the Dark."
Beginning with a voiceover from the much-missed Andreas Katsulas (just as the series began), JMS wants to make you feel like little time has passed. Sure, Elizabeth Lochley (Tracey Scoggins, who seems rather worn down), who ran the Babylon 5 station when we last visited in Crusade, is now a colonel, and eight years have elapsed since the main series ended. But "Voices in the Dark" picks up the Babylon 5 universe as if we never left, without exposition and without warm-up. Imagine this is just another episode of the show. Newcomers will not feel welcome.
Lochley opens the show with a talky scene with a space-roaming priest (Alan Scarfe): she needs him to perform an exorcism on a potentially possessed crewmember. After all the alien possession incidents on the station, nobody thought to check with a xenobiologist first? The crewmember spouts a lot of portentous stuff about "we who fell" and renewing "the fear you thought you left behind." Then hellfire engulfs the station. Enjoy it, because it is the closest you will get to an action scene in the entire first story.
"Voices in the Dark" is definitely a writer's show and not a director's one. JMS is in love with the sound of dialogue: nobody ever seems to stop talking. I don't think more than three seconds passed during Lochley's episode without a dialogue exchange or worse, an endless monologue. Even my wife, a bigger B5 fan than I am, begged for somebody to shut up already and do something. JMS does move the camera around quite a lot compared to the old show, but he limits his compositions to medium shots (not that there are too many options inside a space station). He sticks to some of his favorite themes. The first tale is about the problem of religious faith among the stars. Why is there evil, and why would a God allow it? Unfortunately, it depends on our sympathy for a priest we have never met before and who feels like a stock character. Lochley is merely a bystander (not that she was ever a fully developed character on the show). The "demon" makes philosophical speeches, but there is no imperative to drive him out if we know nothing about the man he is possessing. The result is an intellectual puzzle without any anchor in the characters. Actually, there are only three characters—and practically nobody else on the station. Was everybody on vacation that week?
The second story features Interstellar Alliance President John Sheridan (Bruce Boxleitner) traveling to Babylon 5 to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the new galactic order. So that there isn't a break in the constant talking, he gives an interview, ostensibly to help us catch up on where the other characters are. (For the record, Londo Mollari is in "a dark place," G'Kar and Dr. Franklin have gone "beyond the Rim," and Delenn is stranded on an island with some plane crash survivors.) Technomage Galen (Peter Woodward), last seen giving everybody a hard time on Crusade, shows up with another dream and lots of gravitas, as he is wont to do these days when JMS needs to kick-start a plot. This time, he gives Sheridan a vision of New York under Centauri assault. Can our hero avert the disaster by assassinating the future Centauri emperor (played by Keegan MacIntosh with an accent borrowed from Pavel Chekov)?
The story has more tension than the Lochley one for several reasons. First, Sheridan is a more interesting character—and more active. There is less talking and more acting. There is a clear direction to the story, and Prince Vintari is more colorful and immediately dangerous than the generic "demon" so easily talked into submission by the chattering Lochley. As usually irritating as Galen is, Straczynski recasts the technomage in a sinister role, presenting Sheridan with a genuine ethical dilemma: if you know someone will one day become a tyrant and kill millions, could you justify killing him now?
The second story also gets outside for some actual spaceship action. Overall, the special effects are kept to a minimum through the whole film. The detail work on the virtual sets has improved, but the compositing is pretty obvious: this is a low-budget operation with characters clearly standing in front of green screens.
Rather than the usual commentary track, most of the extras consist of interviews. Instead, we get Straczynski paired up with Boxleitner and Woodward for separate interviews, plus Scoggins on her own. All these segments are filmed on-set and include behind-the-scenes production footage. JMS also includes a series of short interview segments, called "fireside chats" (sans fireplace), during which he answers basic questions about the B5 universe and the "Lost Tales" series. A series of production "diaries" hosted by JMS chronicle the Vancouver production from conception to design to shooting. JMS gripes that nobody wanted to go with his original plan to make the movie with sock puppets. I say, more sock puppets! Most important for the fans: heartfelt tributes are offered by JMS, Scoggins, and Boxleitner to the late Andreas Katsulas and Richard Biggs, whose characters were crucial emotional anchors on the show.
I get the impression that Straczynski is keeping his expectations low for this series. After getting burned on Crusade (which had such potential, but was slapped around by network suits) and the Rangers movie (which honestly was a watered-down repackaging of the B5 universe to appeal to a broader demographic), it seems as if JMS just wants to pen what amounts to B5 short stories, as opposed to an actual feature film. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with an anthology format like this, but it just feels like he is spinning his wheels, like he and Warner Brothers just want to keep the franchise going until some dreamt-about revival down the road.
It is not such an odd wish. I can guess at what Straczynski is thinking. After the cancellation of the original Star Trek, fandom was kept alive for a decade with new, modestly budgeted infusions of product—the animated show, novels, toys, and so forth—until critical mass was reached and a major new project could be launched (a planned television show that was reconfigured into a movie series). The Babylon 5 novels have stalled, planned computer games never arrived, and even a collectable card game had only a brief shelf life. If nobody else will carry the baton, JMS has to do it himself. The creator must turn auteur, writing, producing, and directing what almost feels like a homemade fan movie: small sets, small casts, limited special effects. To make up for the technical limitations, JMS unveils a love of words, endless speeches and exposition and character confessions. He seems to have forgotten how to show and not tell. I have my fingers crossed that he will remember.
In truth, I am glad to see Babylon 5 back. I've never been a fan of Lochley, and Galen needs a muzzle. The Sheridan story is quite engaging, although you have to wade through the Lochley story to get there. But half a comeback is probably better than nothing. Babylon 5: The Lost Tales suffers from a little rust, signs of disuse and neglect. But I have confidence that JMS can rediscover the voice for this show (even if that means cutting back on some of the dialogue and trusting his actors to carry the story). Future installments may actually return this show to its proper place.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Interviews with J. Michael Straczynski, Bruce Boxleitner, Tracey Scoggins, and Peter Woodward
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