Babylon 5: The Lost Tales

The Spoony One | Jan 18 2009 | more notation(s) | 
Babylon 5: The Lost Tales

A Review by Noah Antwiler

You really want to know why I'm such a surly fellow? Why I sit on the sidelines of endless partisan nerd bickerings like Kirk vs. Picard, Mike vs. Joel, Ginger vs. Mary Ann and deride both sides for their mutual short-sightedness? It's because I belong to a forgotten, displaced minority of sci-fi geeks, long pitied for our inability to let go of the past.

Star Wars? Star Trek? Hah! It's true, at one time I counted myself among the loyal cults of Roddenberry and Lucas, but that was before I discovered the glory of the greatest television program in recorded history: Babylon 5! You want best captain? I got your Captain Sheridan right here. Q has nothing on Kosh, and I'll take Michael Garibaldi over Worf any day. Sure, the guy is a drunk, but he's got instincts and can whip up some mean Italian cuisine. B5 isn't even mentioned in the same breath as those other sci-fi posers. I'm from the old-school clan who still refers to Joe Michael Straczynski as "God Himself" and will utter "praised be His name" whenever even his initials are mentioned.

You don't even know the schism that occurred recently within the ranks of his own fans, when most of them in a stunning display of disloyalty jumped off the bandwagon after his notorious run writing The Amazing Spider-Man comics. Damn cowards. Fifteen years of staunch faithfulness and all of a sudden they turn on JMS (praised be His name) because they don't like Peter Parker having bone spurs and organic web-shooters. Cry me a dang river!

All right, the bone spurs were pretty stupid.

They're floating unprotected in space! Stay close to Galen!

I consider Babylon 5 to be the last truly good sci-fi on television until Firefly came along. That was a ten-year gap. You can imagine why B5 fans are a generally prickly sort, defending a show that hasn't seen regular airtime in a decade aside from irregular runs on satellite and cable. Even Farscape gets network airtime, and don't think that doesn't stick in our craw. We can catch Space Muppets and two versions of fricking Stargate any time but you want Babylon 5, you have to get some DVDs. You're telling me they'll show Lexx and Painkiller Jane, but B5 isn't good enough to work into a lineup. Fantastic.

Imagine my surprise when I heard the news that there was a new Babylon 5 DVD scheduled for release a mere month before it hit store shelves; news that would have set the nerd community ablaze years ago but barely warranted a mention on my own message boards, and didn't even register on the Sci-Fi Wire. It's times like these that make me embarrassed to count myself among the geek community. To think: we traded B5 for Stargate Atlantis and the new Flash Gordon series. It makes me weep.

The Lost Tales is a little hard to describe. It's JMS's (praised be His name) way of developing a new series without actually calling it a series, because the networks still own the rights to the television show, but not the motion picture rights. The general premise is that this disc (subtitled Voices in the Dark) is the first in an anthology, each with a theme, each with character-driven episodes that tend to focus on what's happened to each individual cast member ten years after the conclusion of the television series.

In this case, Voices in the Dark is a skillfully-written two-part episode. The first half features (the promoted) Colonel Elizabeth Lochley as she deals with a threat quite unlike anything the other station commanders have ever encountered. Apparently the station endures, but she's got a crew member locked in the brig who openly claims to be a demon named Asmodeus. It's a hard claim to dispute when the man radiates a field of intense coldness and a foul stench, and can conjure of hellfire and brimstone at will. It's got Lochley weirded out enough to call for a priest to perform the first official exorcism in a hundred years.

Even I'm a little surprised to say that it's good to see Lochley back. I don't think anybody ever really welcomed her character since she was introduced so late in the series. Even then, she was little more than a placeholder to fill the station's chain of command, and was never given anything interesting to do during the series' run. Her episode doesn't tie in to galactic politics or any of the deep signs and portents we're used to, but actually for Lochley that's okay here. It's the first chance Tracy Scoggins has had to shine, and she proves herself well here. Lochley was simply not a part of the overarching storyline and it would have felt wrong to force her into that role.

In fact, I was rather impressed with how quickly the script gave her that elusive sense of importance she'd been lacking until now. There are a few rare moments early in the television series when you see or hear something ominous you know will have an awesome payoff later. I got that rare chill again when Asmodeus looks Lochley square in the eye and reminds her "We will remember you..." It's a bit silly, I guess. I doubt we'll return to her story. But man, that tingle was still there.

Look! It's Captain Sheridan and...those other guys!

Lochley's episode has reportedly turned a lot of fans off for being preachy. The decline of faith is a central focus here. Not many people believe in the divine as technology has marched onward and humanity has colonized the stars. Religion struggles to survive as space, the final frontier is explored and we find only void awaiting us. Does faith lose relevance as science explains those things we could only attribute to God centuries ago? Personally I don't care if the episode is preachy as long as the matter is respectfully handled, and it is. I'm not a religious sort, but I'm grateful for the chance to find out who Colonel Lochley is. It helps that the episode is superbly acted by everyone involved, as this material could easily have degenerated into camp and scenery-chewing given the wrong actors.

The second half reintroduces us to John Sheridan, longtime president of the Interstellar Alliance. He departs from his base on Minbar, due for a reunion on Babylon 5 when he starts having vivid prophetic visions brought to him by the inscrutable and impatient technomage Galen (veteran of the failed and mostly-crap B5 spinoff series Crusade). He warns Sheridan that the Centauri Prince Regent, his guest, will in thirty years become Emperor and wreak untold destruction upon Earth. He gives Sheridan the chance to avert this genocide by providing the opportunity for an "accident" that will prevent the nightmare before it begins.

I found this episode to be a little weaker of the two, if only because I could never fully appreciate the Galen character as much as others seem to. We never find anything out about the technomages, what they want or how they can do what they do. This is by design, of course, but it's a little frustrating to know that Galen only now reveals that he can see at least thirty years into the future, never mind how. This might have been useful to know during the Shadow War. And if technomages are sworn not to interfere in such matters, why now is he attempting to alter future events by telling the president to discreetly assassinate people? Of course, that's assuming Galen really can see the future, and isn't just screwing with people, which is entirely possible because Galen is, overall, a smartass with nothing better to do.

The real question posed here is, if you could have killed Adolf Hitler as a child-- someone who hadn't yet committed any crime, but would set into motion untold atrocities in the future-- would you? My question: if you could punch Galen in his smug bald head, how many times?

Anyway, Bruce Boxleitner's performance is a comparatively complex one. His relationships with the other characters are very complicated, given his position of authority, and he's mentally worn thin by the constant responsibility of maintaining the alliance and his own rapidly-diminishing mortality. Peter Woodward is also effective as Galen, but it's amusing to watch him speak with Straczynski in the DVD's special features, as even he says he knows nothing about his own character's background, desires, or drives. Woodward is basically relying only on his natural charisma and sheer guesswork. If you ask me, it's inexcusable for a director to leave an actor hung out to dry like that. How is an actor supposed to do a good job if he has no clue who he's trying to portray?

The homecoming to Babylon 5 is very bittersweet, however. The now-deceased actors Richard Biggs and Andreas Katsulas are dearly, dearly missed. One almost feels like it isn't Babylon 5 anymore without G'Kar and Doctor Franklin. The characters refer to them as having gone "beyond the rim, out there...somewhere," which is a classy way of giving them a sendoff, but going back feels like ripping open old wounds. In many ways, they'd become the heart and conscience of the series. It's just not as fun anymore without them.

I smell a Photoshop contest coming!

Likewise, while these episodes were well-done, they seem empty. I understand that these episodes are meant to focus on individual characters, but B5 like a lot of science fiction had charm because of its ensemble cast and their unique interplay. JMS is doing the best he can, but he may have written himself into a dozen corners. I don't think he ever sincerely planned to return to B5. At the end of the series most of the characters went their separate ways and said their final goodbyes. But even so, no Delenn? She's his wife.

It's also empty in other ways. The computer graphics are leaps and bounds better today than they were when the series was new. So good, in fact, that it makes the old CG look downright childish. And it's so good that almost the entire series is filmed in front of Vancouver's biggest green screen. I'm sure it saved a lot on production costs, but no matter how good your chromakey work is, when you do this much of it the show looks fake and vacant. What few actual sets they use are barely serviceable blank walls. There's barely even any furniture! Most of Sheridan's half of the episode is filmed in the middle of a completely black room occupied only with a pair of small chairs, because the Minbari are "minimalists." Uh huh.

The other interview segments on the DVD make it clear that JMS does not intend for this to lead into a resurgence of the television show. "Hell no!" he says to the question. This attitude annoys me a fair bit. It's painfully obvious that Joe is highly resistant to the idea of pitching a new series because he wouldn't retain full creative control over it. And that's understandable; his work is a disaster when networks meddle with it. He's been bitten several times before with the criminally-bungled Crusade series, the failed Legend of the Rangers pilot, and the blink-and-you-missed-it conclusion to Jeremiah.

Yet, as good as this DVD was, and don't think I'm not grateful, what's the point? He just wants to bring in old actors from the show to fiddle around in front of a green screen for a while? There's no money in this. It's just barely above a Brady Bunch reunion in terms of credibility. If he's not building up to something greater with all this, why bother?

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