I like Crusade. This isn't ironic. I genuinely and honestly think Crusade is good. This surprised me since everything I'd heard or read on the subject had led me to expect watching it to be an exercise in masochism. Nonetheless my episode-by-episode journey went as follows:
- 1st. I enjoyed that! I'm looking forward to the next one. (Some dreadful acting, though.)
- 2nd. Rubbish!
- 3rd. Rubbish!
- 4th. That was an improvement. Of course the plot resolution is far too obvious and the CGI is risible even by Babylon 5 standards, but hey.
- 5th. Just a second. That episode was good.
...and after that, I enjoyed them all. Episodes 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 and 13 all went down nicely, so perhaps my chosen watching order happened to have hit me up front with all the worst episodes. Alternatively, maybe I'd got acclimatised to the acting.
You might be wondering why the watching order should be up for grabs. This is where we get on to the subject of TNT. This review isn't going to make them look too good, but it's worth pointing out up front that they aren't Satan. They're the network that rescued Babylon 5 at the end of Season 4 and stopped it from being cancelled. It's thanks to them that the show got extended with TV movies, put into reruns on a national network and broadly advertised. Even if we just focus on this series, half a season of Crusade is obviously better than nothing at all. Right, that's enough being fair.
TNT were also morons. They wanted to lose all Babylon 5 references because that would confuse the audience. They wanted fist fights, a brothel holodeck, technobabble ("to make the ship sound more advanced") and lots of "horny aliens" that wanted sex with humans. JMS tried to take his name off the credits.
One specific consequence of all this is that there's no correct order in which to watch these episodes. It can't be done. TNT's demands included the following:
- (a) change the uniforms
- (b) shoot a pilot episode, which JMS hadn't done because they'd already had a backdoor pilot with Babylon 5: A Call to Arms
- (c) everyone in the pilot must wear the new uniforms
Unfortunately JMS had either already finished the next run of scripts or was incredibly bad at rewriting to remove continuity problems. In story terms, this meant insisting that chapters 6-13 of your story must precede chapters 1-5. Five grey-uniform episodes had already been shot by this point:
- The Needs of Earth (101)
- The Memory of War (102)
- Racing the Night (103)
- Visitors from Down the Street (104)
- Each Night I Dream of Home (105)
After that, the black-uniform episodes are:
- The Well of Forever (106)
- The Long Road (107)
- War Zone (108)
- The Path of Sorrows (109)
- Patterns of the Soul (110)
- Ruling from the Tomb (111)
- The Rules of the Game (112)
- Appearances and Other Deceits (113)
When showing the episodes, TNT simply ran the eight black-uniform episodes first, then the grey ones. Episode 14 was to have featured a "laundry accident" that let the crew go back to black. The most elegant solution to all this uniform nonsense would be to ignore it, but unfortunately the changeover is a plot point in Appearances and Other Deceits. The consequence of watching in TNT's recommended order is that Dr Chambers invents a nanotech virus shield after we've already seen her using it, while Gideon and Lochley have sex in The Rules of the Game but then are merely friendly and a bit flirty in Each Night I Dream Of Home. The DVDs show the episodes in this order, by the way.
Personally I watched in the order recommended by The Official Babylon 5 Chronology, which solves the grey uniform problem by putting those episodes in a block in the middle. Works for me. Unfortunately this seems to mean starting with the worst episodes in the entire show. Joy.
Basically TNT didn't want a Babylon 5 show at all, having discovered that there was hardly any overlap between Babylon 5's viewers and the network's target audience. In the end they cancelled Crusade before they'd aired even a single episode.
Leaving aside all this nonsense, what of the regular cast? Well, it's a JMS show, so they suck. There's one person I like in Gary Cole (Captain Gideon), who's done good work in all kinds of things and is a proper leading actor. If you watch him, he's always doing more than anyone else. However of the others, Marjean Holden can't act, Tracy Scoggins is theoretically a regular cast member as Captain Lochley (gyaaah) and David Allen Brooks rubs me up the wrong way as Max Eilerson, but he's not without his own kind of screen presence. Carrie Dobro has a certain amount of energy, but if she's not careful she can be upstaged by her own cleavage.
Second in command is Daniel Dae Kim, who didn't impress me here but is actually a highly successful actor who's had big roles in major shows. He does everything that's asked of him, but unfortunately he's being asked to play a by-the-book career officer with no detectable personality, who pretty much says "yes sir" for thirteen episodes. Kim could have done more to make the role memorable, but he also never lets the side down.
Finally there's Peter Woodward (Galen). Wow, oh wow. He made me hate The Long Road with a fiery passion, but on coming back to it later I realised that I couldn't quite dismiss his performance as merely awful. Yes, he vandalises what should have been a show-stealing role. You don't believe for a moment that this man could really exist as any kind of human being. He's outrageously mannered and fake, but at least he's consistent about it. That's Galen. I'd never in a million years call his performance good, but eventually I didn't mind him. Sometimes he's even slightly entertaining.
It's time to go through the episodes in the order I watched them.
1. WAR ZONE (black)
It's the pilot! This episode might contain the worst acting in the show, with even Gary Cole losing his way from time to time. You'd blame this on first night rustiness if it weren't for production order making that impossible. Off-screen tensions affecting things on-set? A speed-written script, churned out under the gun under orders from TNT and pretty much thrown in front of the cameras? I dunno.
JMS hates this episode, since he can only see all the wooden exposition and clunky stuff that he was forced to add in by TNT, but I actually quite enjoyed it. The dodgy CGI is... well, it's a Babylon 5 spin-off, isn't it?
2. THE LONG ROAD (black)
Gyaaaaaaah. Galen, oh Galen. In an episode bristling with wooden performances, he seemed worse than all the others put together. (I wasn't yet acclimatised.) Amusingly Peter's real-life dad turns up (Edward Woodward) and is pretty poor, yet is made to look like Sir Anthony Hopkins by the catastrophe around him. At least he's putting something into his dialogue, even if it's not always appropriate. The best performance in the episode is actually the Earth Forces lieutenant who only gets a couple of scenes and gets captured.
On top of that, this is a story with little involvement for our heroes and driven by idiot plotting. The story could been fixed at any time had the Earth forces simply stopped being cretins. Couldn't Gideon have pulled rank on them or something? I lost patience with them. We also have wildly unbalanced power levels, with the local yokels being like bugs under the feet of the Earth forces, who themselves don't stand a chance against Edward Woodward's technomage. Everyone's spitting into the wind. For a few minutes I thought it had a powerful ending, but it promptly gets retconned.
There are the seeds of a theme here. Edward Woodward gets called a terrorist, but in fact terrorists are exactly what the Earth forces have turned the peaceful locals into. There's a message buried in this story about self-righteous Western forces overreacting to any incident and bringing about their own destruction by being unable to see any point of view but their own. Unfortunately it's the locals who learn the valuable life lesson and have the sententious eye-rolling speeches at the end. Sigh.
3. RULING FROM THE TOMB (black)
Lochley shows up! She's on assignment to Mars to look after a conference, but more importantly she's being a complete twonk. Judging from the accusations she's throwing around, I'd be tempted to diagnose dementia and/or paranoia. She'd pick a fight with herself if there wasn't anyone else. The only compensating factor is that everyone else is equally pig-headed.
Holden is almost monumentally wooden as Dr Chambers. Check out the conversation between her and Dr Nutcase. He's good. He also might as well have been talking to a wall.
This week's theme involves religion, with a Christian fundamentalist cult who think we all deserve to die for our sins. "He's the reason I decided to become a priest." This could have been good if it hadn't been so heavy-handed, especially in the concluding "moral of the story" discussion. The characters might as well have climbed into a pulpit. Amusingly a bomb starts its countdown from 666, which might perhaps be a clue that the voices in Dr Nutcase's head are really the Devil. At times it's groanworthy, but at other times I liked all this. The story also takes care to give Gideon something clever to do.
None of that is the real problem, though. The very worst thing about this episode would be the Gideon-Lochley flirting, which made me want to hurt things. Oh, and at one point the script actually draws attention to the fact that we're wasting time on our protagonist's leisure activities while more important things are going on (i.e. religious fundamentalists with bombs).
4. APPEARANCES AND OTHER DECEITS (black)
I liked this story. They foreshadow the plot resolution far too obviously, but it's a nice SF take on Invasion of the Bodysnatchers. They even do the Scream, which is something you don't always get done right in proper Bodysnatchers films. There also also two characters who could be read as parodies of TNT executives, which is how JMS leads us into the costume change. One of those is Mr Welles, a character who'd appeared in Babylon 5's season 2 finale: The Fall of Night. The same actor had also had the recurring role of Neroon. I liked him.
However this episode has a sequence of the second-worst CGI I've ever seen. The worst was also in this series, but that wasn't supposed to be real. I actually laughed at the screen.
5. THE MEMORY OF WAR (grey)
After the preceding four black-uniform episodes, this just felt different. It's hard to describe. Less Trekky, I suppose. The characters' actions seem to have more weight, the alien stuff seems more alien and the technomage seems cool for the first time. It has pace, it could be called exciting and even the CGI's better. Cool cityscape. And why's Gideon talking to a box?
6. THE NEEDS OF EARTH (grey)
I loved this episode. Not just liked, but loved. For the first time, here I was reminded of the strengths of Babylon 5. There's a clever old man with strong beliefs who could argue ethics with Gandhi. There's an alien race of scum, whom I really hoped we'd see again at some later date, just to crush them into the dirt. (Sadly we didn't.) There's a hard moral question to answer. There's even an evil bastard ending, which I liked even before they went and topped it with Gideon's brutally unsentimental dismissal of their final prize. "Nothing useful, then."
Again it feels un-Trekky. Our heroes conduct an illegal raid to spring a fugitive, with one of their weapons being a disc of alien cross-species porn confiscated from Max Eilerson. (Unfortunately the girl in the video is wearing a breast band.) This episode has so much story that towards the end I started wondering if my DVD was faulty and had moved on to the second half of a two-parter.
7. RACING THE NIGHT (grey)
I liked both Max and Galen here, plus extra points for this week's Doreen Cleavage Factor. This is the episode with an expensive-looking big space battle, which looks impressive enough to make you wonder if there were two different CGI houses at work on this show. Personally I found the battle a bit boring, but I liked the nasty truths that were uncovered afterwards and the resultant ethical issues. Another strong episode.
8. VISITORS FROM DOWN THE STREET (grey)
It's the X-Files deconstruction! I chose that word carefully, by the way. It's neither a parody nor a homage, but instead an affectionate counter-argument to the basic implausibilities in the show's (let's face it) silly premise. It's taking the piss out of alien paranoia by making us the aliens. I laughed. Their version of the Cigarette-Smoking Man is annoying, but apart from him, the episode is respectful and accurate. I love the fact that the show did this and I love the fact that they did it so faithfully. This is the kind of playfulness which makes a show so much more interesting.
In addition to that, there are also some nice effects shots of the Excalibur's inner workings. Pods, tech, travel whatsits, etc.
Finally I loved Gary Cole's last word on having done something likely to cause civil war on an alien world. "There are probably some who'll say that by doing this, we're interfering with their culture." "Probably. Screw 'em."
9. EACH NIGHT I DREAM OF HOME (grey)
Lochley. Damn. However there's also Dr Franklin, in what turns out to be a good final appearance for him. Oddly enough though the Babylon 5 reunion never happens, because they never meet. Putting all that aside though, this is another strong episode, with both action and a powerful high concept. "I want you to infect me with the plague." WHAT? It's only let down by a couple of little production goofs: (a) Gary Cole's goofy jog on to the bridge, and (b) Dr Franklin's brainfart in levering a door way, way higher than necessary. In about ten seconds, anything in the blast zone is going to be flash-fried to about 10000000000 degrees. The correct height to raise the safety door in order to pull your patient to safety is not four feet (as in the episode) but more like six inches, at which point you haul the dude through at warp speed, if necessary lasering off the bits that won't fit.
Moving on... I also enjoyed Gideon's relationship with the senator. "Didn't your daddy ever teach you not to contradict your elders?"
10. THE PATH OF SORROWS (black)
This was going to have been an important arc episode, with flashbacks for Gary Cole, Daniel Dae Kim and Peter Woodward. Cole shows us the destruction of his former ship the Cerberus, the President Clark cover-up afterwards and the way he got that scary Apocalypse Box. Kim's backstory involves the Psi-Corps and the Telepath War, then Woodward gets a lost love and metaphysical speculation about whether or not there's a meaning to our lives. I liked this one.
11. PATTERNS OF THE SOUL (black)
Brian Thompson! Yay! Bloody hell, he's big. This is a story of tough guy colonists who as it happens are also ex-military with some dirty secrets that the folks back home would rather didn't get out. I think I can see which way the show's first story arc was going to be leaning. Carrie Dobro also finds a lost tribe of her people (hitherto all assumed dead), although her race's alien make-up is so understated that I had to take this on trust. You say they're your people? Fair enough, lady. I guess you know best. It's yellow contact lenses and some Native American clothes and beads, basically.
12. THE WELL OF FOREVER (black)
This episode has a Lexx moment in which a hyperspace jellyfish has sex with their ship. It's a nice juicy episode, with Galen playing everyone for his own purposes and Daniel Dae Kim getting an unwelcome visitor. I particularly liked the way that Gideon dealt with psi-dude. The episode suffers a bit from giving emotional speeches to Peter Woodward, but by now I'd built up an immunity. It worked for me.
13. THE RULES OF THE GAME (black)
It's Babylon 5! They're actually on the Babylon 5 station, with aliens and everything! Awesome! It almost felt like an episode of Babylon 5 that happened to include some Crusade regulars, which suited me fine. Lochley's here, but she's okay when not kissing Gideon with saxophone music on the soundtrack. My eyes rolled. No other old faces crop up, mind you, not even Jeff Conaway.
Leaving aside the nostalgia value of getting back to Babylon 5 again, the episode is okay. Max gets an ex-wife, which leads up to him facing down a loan shark who's kidnapped his cat. Be still my beating heart. I can't say I was entirely convinced by the way he finally dealt with that one. Meanwhile Gideon has to deal with self-righteous aliens and their amazingly annoying hand gestures, which could get a bit silly. That was also only okay, but I loved the episode's final solution to its Patronising Alien Bastards problem. That was funny.
I think it's a good show. Lots of people seem to think I'm mad for saying this, mind you. It has its problems, but in Babylon 5 terms it's better than Season 5 and perhaps hovering a bit below Season 1. One of my objections in fact was the general lack of Babylon 5-ness. I'd have liked more of that. There are no Minbari or Narn on the Excalibur and indeed no aliens at all except for Carrie Dobro, who hardly counts. If you're looking to include this in a Babylon rewatch-a-thon, you'd probably want to catch at least the three Lochley episodes and maybe The Path of Sorrows (Telepath War) and/or The Needs of Earth (which comes the closest to Babylon 5's spirit). It hadn't got its story arcs up and running by the time it was axed, but then again neither had its parent show at the equivalent point in its development.
The grey-uniform episodes are better than the black ones, but that just goes to show that JMS knew better how to make his show than did idiot network executives. I like Gary Cole, I like the show's occasionally erratic strangeness (both intentional and otherwise) and I like the way it's following through on its premise. This show was about to go places.