Join Appellate Judge Dave Ryan as he conducts a detailed autopsy on the final installment of Babylon 5 Universe television. Bring your own latex gloves, please.
"Who are you? What do you want? Who do you serve, and who do you trust?"
The release of Crusade—The Complete Series, J. Michael Straczynski's follow-up series to Babylon 5 (technically, it's not a spin-off), completes the canon of Babylon 5-universe episodic television on DVD. It was a good, long run for Straczynski (who wrote practically every episode of both shows), one that gave us some of the best televised science fiction ever. But sadly, the extremely disappointing ratings for the final season of Babylon 5 (and the Babylon 5 made-for-TV movies) made TNT pull the plug in the middle of Crusade's production, closing our window on this unique future world. What we're left with here, in this four-disc set, is a work-in-progress, an incomplete tale that ultimately is just a shadow (excuse the pun) of what could have been.
Facts of the Case
The year is 2265. The Shadow War is over, and Earth is back to normal, thanks to the heroics of John Sheridan et al. (For further details, please consult the Babylon 5 discs.) Things are just settling down for everyone when the Drakh, the Shadow's subjugated worker race, decide to fill the power vacuum left by the departure of the Shadow race. They attack Earth without warning, and when on the verge of defeat, seed the entire planet with a bio-engineered virus. (For further details, please consult the TNT movie Babylon 5: A Call to Arms.) The virus mutates rapidly, adapting to any species' particular biological makeup in its attempt to do as much damage as possible. Earth scientists estimate that if the virus is left unchecked, all life on Earth will be extinguished in five years.
Since humanity is a spacefaring race in 2265, not everyone was stuck on Earth when the Drakh attack took place. Those who were fortunate enough to be out in space somewhere at that point begin to organize the effort to combat the Drakh Plague. Earth Force (the space Navy) decides to deploy their brand-new, state-of-the-art destroyer Excalibur (built, like the White Star cruisers, with the help of Minbari technology) on a mission to the stars to look for…well, anything that could possibly help.
Sheridan picks a quirky, somewhat unpredictable captain to command the Excalibur: a former Marine (or their equivalent) commando named Matthew Gideon (Gary Cole, Office Space, American Gothic). One of the leading lights in the Earth medical community, Dr. Sarah Chambers (Marjean Holden), will head up the science portion of the mission. Beyond that, Gideon demands that he be permitted to select his core crew. Earth Force caves in to his demand—hence, his old First Officer, John Matheson (Daniel Dae Kim, Lost), comes on board to serve that role on the Excalibur. Matheson is a telepath; the first telepath permitted to serve with Earth Force (after the Psi Corps' disbanding following the Telepath Wars). Gideon also takes a liking to a grubby thief named Dureena Nafeel (Carrie Dobro), whose entire race was killed by the Drakh, and insists that she be permitted to accompany them. Because you just never know when you'll need a thief. In short order, Gideon also recruits a cynical, arrogant, annoying corporate shill named Max Eilerson (David Allen Brooks), who just happens to be a brilliant linguist and archaeologist. Finally, a mysterious Technomage (a group of folks who use technology to simulate magic—they were a popular side story on Babylon 5) named Galen (Peter Woodward, son of Edward Woodward) pops up from time to time. He had rescued Gideon from a disastrous "accident" that befell one of his previous ships, the Cerberus; Gideon had been abandoned in space by the Cerberus, which was promptly destroyed by a mysterious ship.
With crew in hand, and with a little help from the Rangers, Gideon and the Excalibur search the stars for any clues to curing the Drakh Plague. Wacky hijinks ensue.
Watching Crusade generates one emotion: frustration. Not at the show itself, which is about as good as the first half of Babylon 5's first season—but at the twists of fate that left the show stillborn and cancelled before it ever got going. There's a history behind this show, and it ain't very pretty.
The seeds of Crusade's downfall were planted long before its creation. Early in the production of Babylon 5's fourth season, it became clear that Warner Brothers (who funded production of the syndicated show) was not going to underwrite another season. Straczynski, who had structured the show around an elaborate five-year story arc, decided to wrap up that arc by the end of Season Four. At the very, very last minute, Turner Broadcasting (via its TNT network) agreed to acquire the rights to the show and fund production of a fifth season. Which was all well and good, except the show's story arc had been completed already. TNT had indeed bought itself an established franchise, but one that had already told its tale.
Needless to say, ratings for the fifth season of Babylon 5 were not as impressive as people had hoped. Many fans of the show found that the show started to meander a bit, as new plot elements were invented to fill the void left by the end of the main story arc. TNT did not promote the show particularly well, either, even though they had also committed to making several made-for-TV movies set in the B5 universe.
When it came time to develop a "sequel" to Babylon 5, both Straczynski and TNT wanted to make the show more action-oriented than its predecessor. As Straczynski put it, Crusade was designed as an action show with politics, instead of a political show with action (like Babylon 5). To launch the show, TNT produced a full-length television movie entitled Babylon 5: A Call to Arms, which introduced the Crusade characters and the Drakh plague. Straczynski decided not to make a traditional "pilot" episode for the show, figuring that the movie contained enough backstory and exposition and that it was better to just jump straight into the storytelling. Production commenced in 1998.
After five episodes had been produced, the honeymoon ended. TNT officials hated the show, and wanted Straczynski to add more sex and violence to the series. Angry words were apparently exchanged between the parties, Straczynski may have threatened to pull out of the project entirely, and TNT eventually backed down. Whatever happened (details are sketchy), the end result was a compromise. TNT wanted, and got, Straczynski's agreement to make a "true" pilot episode for the show; a show whose script would be subject to TNT's direct oversight. In exchange, he retained creative control of the rest of the show, and got an increased production budget. (TNT also insisted that all of the "new," post-argument episodes air before the "old" original episodes.) Production re-commenced with the pilot, and some redesigns (including new uniforms).
However, not all reconciliations last. This one lasted until the thirteenth episode (out of 17 planned), when TNT made it clear that they would not fund the production of any additional episodes of Crusade, effectively canceling the series. TNT did pay for the completion of the existing episodes—but that was it. What was unusual about this cancellation is this: Crusade was cancelled before it had been aired. Before a single rating point had been tallied, before any fanboys had lit up the internet with "glaring" plot holes and technical gaffes, and before any main characters had their agents threaten to pull out unless they got more pay, the show was dead. That has got to be some kind of record. And remember—this wasn't a new, completely-done-from-scratch series; it was a continuation of an established broadcast franchise.
In any event, thirteen episodes of Crusade were produced, and are now available in this DVD set, with soundtracks remixed into Dolby Digital 5.1 surround. As discussed above, there are two distinct clusters of episodes here, thanks to the mid-stream course correction imposed by TNT. I'll call them the "TNT Era" and the "Straczynski Era"—it seems appropriate.
The TNT Era
• Episode 1: "War Zone"
• Episode 2: "The Long Road"
• Episode 3: "The Well of Forever"
• Episode 4: "The Path of Sorrows"
• Episode 5: "Patterns of the Soul"
• Episode 6: "Ruling from the Tomb"
• Episode 7: "The Rules of the Game"
• Episode 8: "Appearances and Other Deceits"
The Straczynski Era
• Episode 9: "Racing the Night"
• Episode 10: "The Memory of War"
• Episode 11: "The Needs of Earth"
• Episode 12: "Visitors From Down the Street"
• Episode 13: "Each Night I Dream of Home"
I should note that I watched these discs with a completely blank slate—I hadn't seen the series when it first aired, and I didn't know any of the sordid details of the show's production history until I listened to the commentary tracks included here. But even with zero knowledge, I knew something was a bit…off. First, there were a couple of atypically glaring continuity errors—for example, Gideon and Lochley go from horny-teenager level petting in one episode to cautious early-stage flirting in a later episode. There's also a temporary plague inoculation technique that's first used and then discovered. Of course in hindsight, this is explained by the TNT-mandated airing order of the episodes, which didn't conform to the production order. But for those who don't know, it's a bit off-putting.
But more importantly, there's a marked and substantive difference in the quality of the storytelling between the two episode groups. The TNT Era episodes aren't bad, per se (except for the pilot), but the sudden jump to the Straczynski-controlled early episodes, which have the same level of quality and intensity in their writing as his Babylon 5 episodes, jarringly highlights the negative impact that TNT's meddling had on the show. Hence, the frustration. Had Straczynski been left alone to make the show as he saw fit, the transition from Babylon 5 to Crusade likely would have been seen by fans and critics as smooth and consistent. The Straczynski Era episodes truly left me wanting more. But that isn't what we got. Instead, a clearly inferior pilot episode turned off the fanbase, and the TNT-afflicted early episodes just weren't up to B5 snuff. Of course, by that point it was all a dead issue anyhow; TNT had cancelled the show long before that. But oh, what could have been…
I hesitate to pass judgment on the actors in this show, because the hassles associated with its production really hindered the writers' ability to properly develop their characters. Even so, the majority of the cast are exemplary in their performances. Cole is a highly underrated actor to begin with, and Gideon is a horrendously complex character. The pairing of the two is perfect. The other standout in this limited sample of episodes is Peter Woodward. Galen is a larger-than-life kind of character, due to his immense knowledge and power. Woodward walks the fine line between "dramatically intense" and "utterly hammy" very well, and makes Galen more charming that he reasonably should be. The remaining cast members aren't given any real chances to shine, but definitely showed promise.
A handful of extras are provided with the set (more than I would have expected for an abandoned orphan like Crusade), including about half an hour of documentaries on the show's production. They're concise and informative—but not as informative as the fan site gossip and dirt pages that a quick Google search will turn up. For the few fans of the show, the gem here is Straczynski's commentary track for Episode 9, the original first episode. He tactfully discusses the trials and tribulations the show faced in production, and gives us quite a bit of detail about where the show would have gone in its planned five-year run. (I was surprised when he revealed the true story arc contained within the show—it wasn't at all what I expected, although hints of it are present in these 13 episodes.) But if you're expecting him to spend 45 minutes ripping into TNT and its programming executives with all claws bared, you'll be disappointed. He's smarter than that. A second commentary track for Episode 3 features cast members Woodward and Carrie Dobro, as well as that show's writer (Fiona Avery) and director (Janet Greek). It's more of a fun commentary; Woodward and Dobro spend a good deal of time teasing each other. It's clear that this cast got along very well, something that usually bodes well for the long-term quality of a show. But again, we'll never know.
The show was shot in a full screen format and is presented as such, but the audio track has been remixed into a fairly good 5.1 surround mix. Again, it's nice that Warner Brothers actually put a little effort into issuing this poor, unloved show. Picture quality is solid, especially given the darkness of the color palate and cinematography of the show.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As was the case with Babylon 5, Crusade can be more than a bit preachy at times. (Even Straczynski admits that in his commentary.) I don't think that's reason enough to avoid the show, but consider yourself warned.
Really, though, the main reason to not watch this show is just to avoid the frustration of watching half a product. The show is functionally incomplete; it's never going to be revived (like Family Guy); its story will forever remain untold. You're just left angry and bitter that it never even got a decent chance. Crusade—The Complete Series is ultimately just a tombstone for an idea that died too young.
All good things must come to an end—but it's sad when that end is sudden and seemingly unfair. Crusade marks the end of our weekly journeys into J. Michael Straczynski's unique Babylon 5 universe; journeys that most fans would have wanted to continue. But instead, the show was a flawed mishmash of Straczynski's intelligent storytelling and network-imposed "suggestions." It leaves no one satisfied: Babylon 5 fans will be appalled at the apparent level of TNT's interference with the show; non-fans will just be confused by the level of detail in the backstory. This disc set probably won't sell very well, either—only the hardiest of B5 diehards will pony up the cash for Crusade. But it was a good show that showed lots of promise for the future. I'm glad I had even this brief chance to stick around in Straczynski's world for 13 more episodes. If only there had been more time.
A final word before the curtain closes on B5 episodic television: it's sadly touching that the final aired television episode of the Babylon 5 / Crusade era centered around Dr. Franklin, as portrayed by Richard Biggs. Last May, Biggs died suddenly from an aortic rupture at the age of 44, leaving a wife and young children. He seems to have been universally loved by his co-workers; Straczynski and the other Babylon 5 cast members have virtually fallen over each other in a rush to tell people about what a nice guy he was. He was a talented actor as well—it's clear that Straczynski had a great deal of trust in him as an actor, since he gave the Franklin character several very difficult subplots to deal with in the final seasons of Babylon 5.
What very few people realized is that Biggs was completely deaf in one ear, and only had 50% hearing in the other. (He was told that he would eventually lose all hearing in that ear as well.) Biggs donated all monies he made from autograph sessions at fan conventions to The Aliso Academy for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, a private school here in California that helps hearing-impaired children learn to overcome the challenges posed by deafness. I have several hearing-impaired friends, including the very young daughter of two of my best friends, and I know how much schools like this help these kids, who don't have to be life-impaired just because they're hearing-impaired. Biggs's steadfast support for such a school is reason enough to mourn his passing.
Take care, Richard—I really hope you're in a happy place now.
Crusade and its cast and crew aren't guilty of anything, so they're completely free to go. The TNT people who botched this opportunity to create quality television are sentenced to watch endless repeats of Cletus Done Got His Hand Mangled In The Cotton Gin Agin, or whatever the hell they show on that network now.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Documentary: The Making of Crusade
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