Bruce BoxleitnerJeff ConawayTracy ScogginsPeter Woodward
Babylon 5: A Call to Arms
Medium: TV
Date: 3 January 1999
Fictional date: 2266
Director: Michael Vejar
Writer: J. Michael Straczynski
Keywords: SF
Country: USA
Actor: Bruce Boxleitner, Jerry Doyle, Jeff Conaway, Carrie Dobro, Peter Woodward, Tony Todd, Tracy Scoggins, Tony Maggio, Michael Harris, Scott MacDonald, Wayne Alexander, Carlos Bernard, Burt Bulos, Ron Campbell, David Coburn
Format: 94 minutes
Series: << Babylon 5 >>
Website category: SF
Review date: 30 March 2009
That's more like it! This is a pilot for a new series, unlike its immediate predecessors which were merely cheapazoid TV movies. (I'm not counting Legend of the Rangers in that, since it's set one year earlier but was made three years afterwards.) In other words, they've been given more money. However more importantly it's a story that's actually going somewhere, rather than being an extended episode. That's particularly important in Babylon 5, being a show whose unique qualities lie in the sweep of history, empires and galactic civilisations. The likes of Thirdspace and The River of Souls don't really make much difference to anything, but A Call to Arms is a busy little beaver.
1. It's re-establishing the Drakh as the new galactic badasses who are going to squish Earth like a bug if our heroes don't get a move on.
2. It's putting all the pieces in place for Crusade, the follow-up TV series which got cancelled by TNT before its first episode had even aired. Admittedly I've heard unpromising word about it, but its mere existence makes this pilot more dynamic. We've got characters to meet, a spaceship to build and a sense that history is on the move again.
3. It's also trying to play fair by its familiar faces, since this film is being sold to the audience as the latest instalment of Babylon 5 rather than the zeroth episode of Crusade. We've got Boxleitner, Doyle, Conaway and Scoggins, who oddly enough get almost exactly the right amount of screen time. I've really come to like Boxleitner, especially this grizzled version. He's acquired more weight as a performer, but it's still tempered with that boyish enthusiasm. He's centre stage here and he deserves it. Of the others, Scoggins is important in her own way, but kept away from the main action. Conaway gets a cameo, which is fair and he does well with it. Jerry Doyle is as entertaining as usual. I liked all of them, actually.
We begin on the eve of the 5th anniversary of the creation of the alliance, which would make this 2266. Apparently they've managed to keep everything peaceful bar that spot of bother with the Centauri back in 2262, but that doesn't mean Sheridan's not busy. On the contrary, only now is he managing to roll the first prototypes for those new alliance destroyers which he'd been talking about back in the early days. It must take a long time to design a starship. These destroyers are given so much screen time and shown off so lovingly that you just know we'll be spending a lot of time aboard them. They have two kinds of guns: the normal kind which merely kills your enemy and the humongous great nuclear option which needs almost all available power to fire and leaves you helpless for a minute afterwards. They like that one.
However while all this is going on, a technomage with an agenda is beaming stuff into Sheridan's brain. The last time we saw something like this happening, one of the regular cast turned evil for a year. Then there's an alien thief sneaking on to Babylon 5, visions of a possibly destroyed planet and Garibaldi putting the squeeze on a guy who has all the wrong ideas for a career in tech development. All these different plot threads and settings help the story. It feels like real Babylon 5, rather than some cut-price version. What's happening feels important.
Before long, it becomes clear that the franchise has some new heroes. It's an odd thing, the difference between a major guest role and a new ongoing character. There's no reason in theory why there should be any difference between the two, but it's as clear as day that that's what we have here. The only tricky bit is that JMS isn't necessarily setting up exactly the heroes you might think he is. Not everyone gets out of this one alive, which in one case surprised me even though in hindsight it probably shouldn't have. That's good too. The newbies are played by:
(a) Carrie Dobro, over 60% of whose screen credits are in the Babylon 5 universe and whose career seems to have died like a dog after Crusade. She did an episode of something or other in 2004, but that's it. Maybe she prefers the stage? However despite how that probably sounds, I thought she was fine here. She's under alien make-up, for what it's worth.
(b) Tony "Candyman" Todd! Awesome! He's magnificent in that movie and even manages to keep up his dignity in the sequels. He's not quite as remarkable here, but I was still delighted to see him. He has a couple of odd line readings, mind you. Not bad, but odd. However it's not him who's to blame for the following dialogue: "My daughter's out there, Phil. I made a promise to her that I'd protect her from the monsters."
(c) Peter Woodward, son of Edward. Apparently he's a weaponmaster, good with swords.
About 80% of this movie I loved. The only bit I'm not so wild about is the ending. It's not horrible or anything, but it's another space battle in which our heroes are sitting in their command chairs trying to look macho as they say "fire". Space battles are boring. This one is more structured than Star Wars and less inconsequential than Star Trek, but it's still a space battle with cliched dialogue. After that, the last few minutes basically abandon anything that you might recognise as conventional storytelling and basically play a trailer for Crusade at you. "This is the set-up for our new TV series!" Again it's not bad or anything, but it's a bit of speed bump for the audience.
That aside, this film was great. It even looks relatively lavish again. We may not spend much time on the Babylon 5 station itself, but it's as busy and alien-filled as ever when we do. I appreciated that. I'm not saying that this film is Citizen Kane or anything, but for most of its running time it's doing most of the things I like best about Babylon 5, and about as well as one could reasonably expect in a one-off film like this. It's not as stirring as In The Beginning, but I liked it a lot.