Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Cosmic Channel Changer
December 2013

Crusade

Following up on a show like Babylon 5 was going to be a tricky maneuver no matter which way the show's creators went. It was, after all, about as sweeping a sci-fi epic as television has ever produced, involving multiple races and chronicling the course of two interstellar wars. Crusade, in turn, actually approaches the challenge with a concept that seems up to the task.

Central to the plot of Babylon 5 was the effort of allied races to defeat the Shadows, an ancient race that reappeared at the beginning of the series. At the end of the war the Shadows depart, but leave behind many of their servants who are understandably a bit disturbed after spending thousands of years as thralls to the galaxy's biggest baddies. Key among these former servants were the Drakh who, by the end of Babylon 5's run were openly aggressive to the show's heroes and their allies. Their hostility would come to a head in the made-for-TV movie A Call to Arms, in which the Drakh would launch an assault on Earth ending with the planet being infected by an artificial super virus. With only five years until the virus becomes active, killing every person on Earth, the human government decides to dispatch the advanced warship Excalibur to search the galaxy for a cure.

Just in terms of reach and scale, Crusade was not going to be as huge a story as the one told in Babylon 5. That being the case, its more limited scope is one of the things I actually really liked about it. I'm a firm believer that you're always better off doing a good job telling a smaller story than you are fumbling a narrative that's grown too big for its shoes. Babylon 5's events reshaped the face of its entire universe, leaving it in a vastly different place than it began. For Crusade to even attempt a similar feat would have been foolhardy.

The problem that derails Crusade is that it skips over the "well told" part of the job. I will preface the rest of this by acknowledging that many of Crusade's problems aren't the fault of its creators. Like with Babylon 5, J. Michael Straczynski approached Crusade with a plan in mind. Sadly, his plans were disrupted by TNT, the show's network at the time. Hoping to draw in a wider audience, TNT forced a lighter tone onto the show and interjected other requirements like more sex and these dopey gray uniforms that fans despised. The resulting show was inconsistent, saw episodes played out of their original intended order and lasted only a single season before being cancelled. This season, in turn, suffers from being focused firmly on setup. Much of its run was spent establishing characters, rules and plot kernels that, had it gone on longer, might have had a chance to grow. Ending where it did, however, we're left with a stable of mediocre episodes filled with incomplete ideas that desperately needed more time to grow.

The show launches into a middling first episode that assembles the cast and restates what's going on with the Drakh plague, and then presses on into a series of "drama of the week" stories that are often only loosely connected by the overarching plot. This wouldn't necessarily be a problem if it had been handled better. Star Trek, for instance, had only the flimsy justification of the Enterprise's "five year mission" to justify its hijinks, but the stories, characters and writing were solid enough to make up for that. The rapport between Kirk, Spock and McCoy, for instance, felt real and organic. Crusade meanwhile settles for a lot of "tell don't show" storytelling. It explains to us that the main cast is bonding as a family, but offers little in the way of actual interactions demonstrating the connections taking form. Some characters, Marjean Holden's Dr. Chambers and Daniel Dae Kim's Lt. Matheson in particular, never amount to much more than props to deliver a witty line here and a snarky comeback there.

The only characters that really establish a believable connection are Captain Gideon (Gary Cole) and the technomage Galen (Peter Woodward). The two benefit from coming into the show with an existing history - Galen having rescued Gideon after he was left adrift in space ten years earlier. The dynamic of their relationship is an interesting combination of push/pull and give/take. Gideon is indebted to Galen and relies on his unique skills to aid in the Excalibur's mission. Galen, meanwhile, has been exiled from his people and looks to Gideon and his crew as something of a replacement family.

Even being one of the stronger aspects of Crusade, however, the Gideon/Galen relationship still arguably falters for a couple of reasons. First and foremost is the fact that Gary Cole isn't good in the role of Gideon. His line delivery is frequently stiff and he generally just lacks the gravitas that you'd expect from a swashbuckling starship captain trekking his way across the galaxy. Then again, the way he's written, I'm not sure if another actor could have done better.

Gideon is clearly meant to be a modern Kirk; a confident, sometimes brash commander who is able to back it up with skill. Unfortunately, he tends to just come across as petulant and impatient. In one scene, for instance, he enters into a negotiation with a potentially hostile race and immediately calls their diplomat an "ass" to his face. He frequently demands respect from others, constantly invoking his authority as a starship captain, but he rarely comes across as someone you'd actually respect in real life, let alone follow into battle. Compared to protagonists like Sheridan and Delenn in Babylon 5, Gideon is a huge step down and, honestly, makes it hard to invest in the show at times.

Conversely, I enjoyed Peter Woodward's Galen. He's an entertaining mixture of whimsy, wisdom and straight-up passion that, in the least, makes him more fun to watch than Gideon. The problem with Galen, at least in my case, is that the idea of technomages, individuals with a mastery of technology bordering on magical, really falls flat for me. There's just something about it that strikes me as being profoundly silly and whenever it became clear that episode was going to be technomage-centric, a part of me would internally roll my eyes.

I understand what they were going for with Galen and the reintroduction of the technomages. Babylon 5 partook in some heavy and open referencing of The Lord of the Rings throughout its run. Crusade, for its part, drew on Arthurian legend, specifically the search for the Holy Grail. Galen, in turn, is a clear stand-in for Merlin. That said, I never felt like the time focused on Galen did much to progress the story in any meaningful way. Again, had the show continued past its first season this might not have been the case. As it stands, however, I view him as something of a time waster, especially considering the fact that his involvement in the show tends to peter off toward the latter half of its run.

For all I disliked about Crusade, however, there are some bright spots. The show boasts a few exemplary episodes that avoid both TNT's interference and the distractions of the technomages. The Needs of Earth, for instance, did a good job raising the question of what it really means to save a society and whether or not there's more to salvation than mere survival. Each Night I Dream of Home, in addition to playing host to the series' best action sequence, also touched effectively on the theme of sacrifice and the potential price that might need to be paid to save Earth.

My favorite of the series, however, was easily Racing the Night which poses the question of exactly how far you might go to save your race when it appears that all hope is lost. The episode sees the Excalibur arrive at a world void of life but with its cities and technology intact. Among the ruins, they soon uncover what appears to be a graveyard of spaceships which, in turn, leads them to the discovery that the planet's indigenous race isn't really dead, but rather survives in suspended animation beneath the planet's surface. Only one caretaker, Kulan, remains awake to guard over of his people.

He explains that his race was infected by the same plague now threatening Earth. With time running out and no spacecraft available to search for a cure, they opted to preserve themselves in suspended animation. Hoping to still find a cure, they began luring alien ships to their world, vivisecting their crews to acquire new knowledge and technology that might help save their race. Gideon is naturally disgusted by this, but Kulan implores him to consider what he himself might be willing to do a few years down the road when the clock is running short and all of humanity's efforts to save itself have failed. "You speak proud now," he says. "Let us see how proud you are in three years." It's a genuinely poignant moment for a show that's often lacking them, and one that I would rank up there with some of the best episodes Babylon 5, of which there were many.

Sadly, the show only veers wholly into this territory on a few occasions, squandering much of its run on other episodes that should have been filler at best. It's a shame because when all the show's gears are spinning in the right direction, it really works quite well. The fact that it doesn't manage to reach this high quality consistently is something I can only attribute to the meddling of the show's network. Had Straczynski been given the same freedom, respect and control as he had with Babylon 5, I can only imagine that Crusade would be held up today as the wonderful second chapter of a grand story, rather than the lackluster stepchild of a creative mind and boardroom dictations.

Read more by Stewart Shearer


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