...with a review of the Babylon 5 spin-off series, Crusade.
Now, I want to be perfectly clear here: I HAVEN'T SEEN ALL EPISODES OF CRUSADE. All of the sweeping assertions I make below are based on having seen six episodes of the series, and having read the script for three more past that. That's a good familiarity with nine out of thirteen episodes - and gives me a good basis from which to speak.
None the less, there could be some real gems within the four episodes with which I am unfamiliar: so I encourage none of you to pass final judgment on Crusade based simply on what I discuss herein. Watch for yourself. Watch all of it. Then decide for yourself. Give it a chance.
For those who do not know: Crusade is the spinoff to a TV series called Babylon 5 . Crusade was being produced by a network called TNT, who began pressuring the makers of Crusade to dramatically change the series about five episodes into the show's production. A production shutdown occurred. There were a series of controversial standoffs...production resumed...but filming on the show was ultimately halted after episode 13 (the series was supposed to have 22 episodes for its first season).
Unless the show generates gigantic ratings, TNT is not interested in resuming production on the show. There has been considerable talk regarding Crusade moving to another network (most probably the Sci Fi Channel), but this is a dubious proposition (still a feasible notion, however - but there are many factors against it). And that brings us to this report:
In attempting to summarize my feelings on the series based on six final cut episodes ("The War Zone", "Racing the Night", "The Path of Sorrows", "The Well of Forever", "The Long Road", and "Patterns of the Soul"), I kept thinking of all the questions I have received about this series over the last few months.
As such, I'm presenting this review not as a stand-alone essay (as I usually do) - but as a series of questions, with my answers being as concise and pointed as possible. Seemed the best way to organize such a a whopping amount of information.
This approach is something of an experiment - hope it works. Here we go:
THE CHARACTERS - do they work?
Some do, some do not.
The usually uber-cool GARY COLE seems oddly out of place in this series. As Matthew Gideon, he's not supposed to be a super-Commander - he's supposed to be bearing the weight of the world and just doing his best to get by. But in Crusade, Cole comes across neither as a commander or Job - he's just a guy trying to get a mission done, who sometimes seems vaguely disinterested in what he's trying to accomplish. This doesn't bring depth to his personality, or gravity to the responsibility the Gideon character holds with his job.
Most of the substance Cole brings to his character comes from the audience's memory of Cole from Midnight Caller and American Gothic. Gideon - as drawn in the epsides I've seen so far - is in many ways a non-entity.
PETER WOODWARD as Galen the Technomage. Very much alive and vibrant, sometimes maybe even a little too much so (there are a few moments when he could have been a tad more understated). Woodward can take even the most mundane line and turn it into something of cosmic significance (I'd die to hear him say something to the effect of: "I've got to go wee wee now, Matthew!" - it would boom forth as being religiously consequential, and funny as hell). But he's good - and his eyes convey a range of emotion and duality for which words can not do justice.
DANIEL DAE KIM as John Matheson: former PsyCorp stoogie who broke into the real world work force after the collapse of the Corps a few years before this series takes place. Kim exudes oodles of coolness as Matheson. He's always on top of things, seems about ten steps ahead of the rest of the cast. Offering-up a rather understated performance, Kim is what I call a presence actor. I.E. someone who doesn't do anything particularly quantifiable on-screen, but just has a feel that is right - and a positive influence over the quality of the whole.
DAVID ALLEN BROOKS as Max Eilerson. Feels like a bitter used car salesman, or a really annoying in-law who just won't get lost.
Basically annoying across the board, the character is neither accessible or sympathetic throughout many of the episodes I've seen. It is also with Eilerson that many of the writing shortcomings raise their ugly heads: he's either not delivering his frequently long-winded lines right, or the lines should not have been given to him to begin with.
It should be noted herein that a few of the Crusade scripts I've read spin Eilerson as a substantially more dimensional character - and someone with more redeeming qualities - than are evident in the episodes I've seen. Since I haven't seen all the episodes (to see how this is pulled off dramatically), I can only conjecture that Eilerson could well be someone that could grow on the audience over time.
MARJEAN HOLDEN as Dr. Sarah Chambers. Attractive in a cute librarian sort of way, Holden is thoroughly unconvincing as the chief medical officer / researcher on Excalibur. One episode ("Each Night I Dream of Home" - for which I've only seen a rough cut) features Holden in many scenes with original B5 doctor Steven Franklin (Richard Biggs). While this criticism isn't entirely fair given Bigg's well honed familiarity with the Babylonian universe, these sequences go a long way towards accentuating how uncompelling the Chambers character really is. Little depth, little sense of who she is...what she's all about...or even what her capabilities are.
She may someday be the person who develops the cure of the dreaded woofus which is plaguing Earth - yet she is completely unknown to us. Perhaps this is because not enough attention was paid to her character from the outset. Perhaps Holden simply can not convey the natural, subliminal depth which is required to make a character memorable. Perhaps there was a deliberate decision made somewhere along the line not to have a "memorable ship's doctor" a-la Star Trek.
Either way...by the very nature of her position and responsibility on the show...she is an integral character who will be little more than a pleasant stranger to us by the time Crusade's initial 13 episode run expires.
CARRIE DOBRO as the cat-eyed Dureena Nafeel. Dureena quickly emerges as one of the main triumvirate of crew members (alongside Galen and Gideon). Dobro successfully walks a very dangerous line in Crusade - on shows like this there is always an immediate danger when introducing butt-kicking female characters. There's a danger of the character falling into a one-dimensional "warrior queen" motif; a danger of the character falling into the "I'm butch - and that validates my femininity" school of thought; a danger that being stand-offish and pushy somehow will morph into a statement about female equality. It is one of the oldest traps in the history of SF, but Crusade manages to avoid it nicely.
Much like Woodward's Galen, Dureena is...quite simply...a lost soul - and Dobro makes us believe that. For all of her bravado and "in your face" retorts, she is a person who has feelings, emotion, hopes, fears, loves, hates, and just wants to belong. She is an accessible character who could shine brightly if the show is given a chance to progress. She is also the kind of chick a guy would love to take out on a date - 'twould be a rush seeing what kind of trouble Dureena could get herself into when you least expect it.
TRACY SCOGGINS: reprising her Elizabeth Lochley from Babylon 5. You don't see her in the series as much as you'd expect given her second billing in the opening title sequence. She's the same old Lochley - always a character I rather enjoyed, due in no small part to the fact I've had a crush on her since meeting her in Dallas last year.
Seriously though, I've always felt she was quite good in the Lochley role, and seeing her in Crusade provides a certain level of familiarity and comfort - elements TNT apparently tried to quash by encouraging Straczynski and Co. to distance this show from too many associations with B5.
Lochley seems smitten with Gideon, they're a fun enough couple whose relationship could be interesting in the future.
All in all: Kim, Doboro, and Woodward go a long way to grounding the cast with a level of accessibility and believability which might not exist without there presence. Perhaps one reason the show is...as indicated above...so uninvolving is due to the fact the three share so much screen time with character who simply do not resonate. After all, this is science fiction. If the audience doesn't believe the people on screen actually believe what they're doing and saying - then effective storytelling becomes difficult at best.
Which CRUSADE episodes have I seen ?
"The War Zone" - Earth is attacked by an alien species called the Drakh, which unleash a plague on our planet. Five year incubation rate before the plague ups and destroys every living thing on Earth. A spaceship...the Excalibur...is manned, and dispatched into deep space - where it is believed a cure to the plague can be found.
"The War Zone" more closely reflects TNT's vision of what Crusade should be. The episode was filmed after the initial shut-down mentioned above, during which money and time were heaped onto the series in an effort to make the show look and feel better.
Indeed, the look of Crusade post "TNT changes" is dramatically improved over the original appearance of the show. The black uniforms are spiffier, the sets are more complex and sophisticated in appearance than later in the series (when the original look of the show will be seen).
But for all the visual realignment and texturing, "The War Zone" doesn't pull the audience into its story. This was, ironically, the intent of the episode - as TNT wanted a more traditional "introductory episode" which would enable viewers to become accustomed to the setting and cast of the series. The original series opener, "Racing the Night", simply jumped right into a story in mid-stream.
When all was said and done, neither opening episode is particularly effective. They are poorly paced and may be rather off-putting to virginal viewers who are tuning in to the show just to see what it's all about.
"Racing the Night" - originally the first episode of the series, pushed deeper into the series when TNT decided they wanted a new, introductory first episode for Crusade. The Excalibur encounters a dead world and an abandoned city. Turns out, the people on this world have encountered the same plague Earth now faces, and have developed some questionable ethics in their effort to find their own cure.
Much like "The War Zone", "Racing" is alienating and awkward. A few nice moments between Gideon and Galen endow the episode with some much-needed heart; many of the planet-based FX border on cheesy. Difficult to imagine someone getting "hooked" by this episode.
"The Long Road" - Excalibur is called to a hot-spot where colonists on a planet are falling ill due to Terran mining efforts which extract material aiding in the development of a Drakh plague vaccine. Edward Woodward guest stars as an outcast Technomage (a Babylon 5 race which simulates the effects of magic through technology and science) who leads the colonists in their standoff.
Talky and a tad slow, with a few nice moments between the Woodwards. A Technomage-generated apparition (meant to terrify travellers) looks like a Disney sing-along character, the FX people dropping the ball yet again.
"The Well of Forever" - the Excalibur goes on a trip to a mysterious place known as The Well of Forever, which exists somewhere in hyperspace. a) The world looks like a big pretzel; b) Excalibur gets humped from behind by a giant space creature; c) one of the characters (with a past in a Nazi-like organization of telepaths called Psy Corps) gets violated by an operative of the organization - who shows up to test the character's loyalty and commitment to not intruding on other people's privacy with his telepathic powers. Guest stars Michael Beck (The Warriors).
"Well" is an interesting premise predicated on one fundamental flaw: when all is said and done, the potency of the story hinges on both a series of anti-climaxes. As such, it fizzles. It's got one sweet element and idea, but the promise of how the journey to The Well of Souls might profoundly affect our main characters (something Galen promises will be the case) is never fulfilled - and only passingly addressed by Galen after the fact.
Awkward blocking of FX sequences at The Well diminish the magic of being there: protracted waist-up shots of Galen surveying the surrounding feel very much like a weatherman standing in front of a green screen. Awkward.
A premise in need of better execution.
"Patterns of the Soul" - Excalibur is sent to fetch colonists believed to be infected with the plague before they can spread the disease to other planets; Dureena discovers she's not the last of her kind.
Excellent performance by guest star Brian Thompson, well written by Fiona Avery and strongly directed by Tony Dow. The first of two episodes which really begin to demonstrate Crusade's overall potential, the other being:
"The Path of Sorrows" - Excalibur recovers an abandoned creature on a deserted world, but in doing so are forced to re-live their most painful memories and fears. Guest stars Garry Graham (AlienNation TV series).
As a whole, IS THE SHOW GOOD?
The quality of Crusade is wildly variable.
Many of the episodes feel awkwardly paced and are peculiarly unengaging - depsite having basically interesting premises. Sometimes this is a product of the writing - through many of the episodes there is a sense that Babylon 5 / Crusade creator J. Michael Straczynski is working so hard to have his work feel Straczynskian that the end product often feels disingenuous or imitative.
I level much of the blame for the show's lifelessness towards the post-production arena: the editing of these episodes often seems too loose: many of these episodes would benefit greatly from a tightness, crispness, and "pop" which simply is not evident either photographically or editorially.
There also seems to be either a lack of coverage - or non utilization of coverage - on several occasions throughout the episodes: there were many moments I felt a need to cut away to someone's reaction, but such a shot simply was not there ((Glen Note: "coverage" is a quantity of footage...filmed from many different angles...which can be used to build a scene in editing - .i.e. reaction shots, close-ups, etc.))
This gives many episodes a slightly cumbersome feel - and often goes a long way to diminish the sense of urgency and "oomph" which so often made Babylon 5 so addictively compelling. In itself, this feeling is wholly incongruous with the idea that we're on a mission to save the Earth, and are under a hard deadline. In turn, this creates a certain "who cares" quality to many of the proceedings.
There are moments in which Crusade shines: most notably in "The Path of Sorrows" (written by Straczynski, directed by Michael Vejar). There is a sense of style and connectivity here between writing, execution, and performance which...more than any of the other episodes...strongly indicates Crusade could well work if it somehow manages to survive the TNT imposed apocalypse it now faces.
Alas, the other episodes seen do not accomplish this. While BY NO MEANS DO I ENDORCE TNT'S HANDLING OF THIS SHOW, a few of the episodes did prompt me to actually see this series from the network's point of view. In other words - given the odd pacing and generally uneven feel of many of these episodes - I was able to step back and see why TNT would want to spunk it up a little. Honestly, I have to believe their desire to breathe passion into the show was probably more correct than not . It's how TNT wanted to go about doing so that is the problem:
Crusade doesn't need more sex or Aaron Spelling melodrama. Beautiful people and compromising situations are not required to make this series work. The problem with Crusade isn't in its essence- it's in the show's execution. That's a difficult delineation to make, and an even more slippery beast to tame. Knowing what I know of network executives and the way many of them think, it's easy to see why TNT felt the show needed fixing in some way, but it's also easy to see why their lack of familiarity with (and understanding of) the genre lead them to make the wrong conclusions - and approach the show's shortcomings in a roundly improper manner.
How are the VISUAL EFFECTS ?
Some of the space-based effects are quite effective and striking, although there is a bizarre paradox manifested in many of the show's effects sequences.
If I understand correctly, Crusade is employing software which lends a certain "photo realistic" quality to its CGI effects. This results in various zooms, camera moves, pans, and a depth-of-focus that gives one the feeling they are actually loking at a model instead of a CGI construct.
While these efforts have resulted in some interesting visual dynamics, I think they have backfired to some extent: with all of the "photo realism" being dumped into the CGI , ships often look like shoddy miniatures on wires. In fact, they are focused (and move) very much like miniature planes in a Japanese Godzilla movie. This doesn't mean you can literally see wires, or anything like that. But there's a certain unconvincing "smallness" to some of the craft - which serves to rather sharply pull the viewer out of the moment.
Rendering of planetscapes is generally marginal to poor. The abandoned city in "Racing the Night" looks no better than a "cut scene" (a segue scene between game play levels) from a Playstation or Nintendo 64 video game. Some planet shots on "The War Zone" stick out like a sore thumb.
There are moments of wrenchingly ineffective CGI Drakh in "The War Zone", which evoke the old Land of the Lost days of Sid and Marty Kroft. In the same episode, you will see some of the dumbest make-up to come your way since the geniuses at Star Trek decided every alien race in the universe is in need of a nose job - there are some Drakh warriors in the episode that are just plain bad looking. I'll just let you check these guys out for yourself. I can't imagine the silliness of these dudes weren't detected on-set: perhaps by the time The Powers That Be realized they simply were not going to work, it was too late to turn back. But, ouch.
A lot of hype went into selling Crusade's visual effects as being "next level" - with virtual sets and a capacity to have a wider variety of wild and exciting settings. While the FX in Crusade are numerous, they don't go a long way towards convincing viewers that we've jumped onto a new level of attainment. In fact, I'm not entirely convinced the FX in Crusade outclass even the fifth season of Babylon 5, or Crusade's TV launch movie, "A Call to Arms".
Some of Crusade's FX simply suck. Most are okay - and a a few of them are magnificent (further accentuating the let-down of the FX which don't work). Rarely do they equal or surpass the quality of its progenitor series. A statement which can be also made about Crusade as a whole.
Does Evan Chen's MUSIC get any better than it was in "A Call to Arms" ?
If you're a Babylon 5 fan, you're probably aware of the firestorm of criticism and controversy surrounding the replacement of long-time B5 composer Christopher Franke with Evan Chen.
Many people did not like Chen's music in the Crusade launch movie "A Call to Arms". In fact, many people hated it. Chen's music in the series varies from inoffensive to thoroughly intrusive. In some of the earlier episodes (early as in shot and assembled, they in fact will be aired later in the episode rotation), it is clear Chen simply doesn't know when to shut the hell up - he is constantly inserting his bizarre rhythmic tonalities into sequences which would have been best served by silence or subtlety.
In Chen's defense, I would have to say that the assertions recently made by Straczynski on various Internet venues are correct: I agree with him that Chen's music was indeed improving as the series went on. Whether this was simply Chen maturing as a composer, or someone in the post production process actually figuring out how to use his score, remains to be seen.
I kind of like some of the ideas Chen is playing with: tonalities and instrumentalities which sometimes create a surreal or disquieting sensation very similar to Bebe and Louis Barron's score for Forbidden Planet. None the less, it's hit and miss for the most part- with definite signs of improvement spread throughout.
Since TNT only produced 13 episodes (even though they were contractually obligated to produce 22) - WILL CRUSADE CONTINUE ELSEWHERE ?
It could, but don't count on it. Many factors are against it, but there are always...possibilities.
Does Crusade DESERVE TO LAST ?
I must confess being disappointed by Crusade. On the one hand, it's a series which is completely different from its predecessor - so expecting it to have the same defined personality is rather unreasonable. Reversely, based on these six episodes, I can find no discernible (organic) personality to Crusade - and believe many viewers may have trouble finding elements to wrap their hearts and brains around.
I understand that most series require a certain amount of time to reach their full potential - but I had somehow hoped Crusade would be immune to this phenomenon.
Firstly, I was hoping Babylonian Production's time-tested production formula would result in more consistent programming. This was not the case.
Also, it is my belief that Crusade needed to kick-ass right out of the gate to maximize the potential of it running beyond the 13 episodes now in the can. It does not kick ass, and the fact that it doesn't may well be the death knell for a series which might someday have achieved a greatness not always evident in the show's opening episodes.
Crusade is a show that could have worked better than it did. It is a show which still has many stories to tell, and vast room for improvement, enhancement, and excitement. There are many conceptual threads the show could still explore - I understand the 14th episode of the series would have introduced viewers to the fabled Straczynski "story arc" which would have been a driving concept for many future episodes. I do not know what this arc is, by the way.
Crusade should still be allowed to happen - but only if it is re-approached. While many of these initial installments seem lackluster and peculiar, Crusade does have innate potential. So, I see possibilities in the series, but I'm not sure the show's complexion and chemistry would be entirely healthy if left as is. As such: if the show goes on, I think it would benefit tremendously from quite a few changes. But what I think about the future doesn't matter right now, as such concerns are irrelevant if the show has no future.
While I feel Crusade (as is) has many shortcomings, the greatest frustration in Crusade's possible demise is that we might not be allowed to experience the series further: to ascertain over the long run whether the show is simply a concept which resists solid telling, or the product of an over-extended imagination in need of regrouping and regeneration. Both are intriguing mysteries.
There is a grand irony in all of Crusade's recent misadventures: its treatment by TNT is the kind of treatment usually afforded higher profile series on major networks: the series'summary dismissal by a network which previously claimed to support it; execs making all the wrong moves while trying to "fix" something (resulting in flying the project into the ground); the sudden turnaround in the network's commitment to the series. This being so, it might genuinely be said that Babylon 5 has "arrived". It's now "real" - and is facing "real" issues pertaining to its very survival. B5 is not just the obscure "little show that could" anymore. It's a show being subjected to the same hell so many other productions go through.
For my money Babylon 5 and Crusade were killed as soon as Joe Straczynski and his gang embraced the very powers their production company stood against for so long. I am not blaming him, I am not calling them sell-outs, I'm not even saying Babylonian and Warner Brothers did the wrong thing by trying to keep their product on the air by moving to TNT. But for all intents and purposes, the shows were...simply...beaten down by an unfriendly and illogical corporate system the likes of which B5 had not previously faced - the mentality and system which murdered so many series before Crusade, and will continue to do so for a long time to come.
All of these ugly politics kind of makes one miss the golden days of B5: when rogue producers were out to make their little show - no matter what the cost; when impassioned fans sweated out renewal season by season & battled the local TV stations which constantly threatened to drop the series; when a little show called Babylon 5 was one of the strangest, deepest, most inventive shows on television.
Yes, these network machinations do make one miss the good old days of B5. Its disappointing spin-off does as well...