Babylon 5: The Lost Tales was going to be an anthology series of direct-to-DVD features. JMS wrote, produced and directed this first one, Voices in the Dark, then announced he wasn't going to do any more because Warner Bros wouldn't increase the budget. Thus until they let him make a Babylon 5 feature film (hahaha), it looks as if this is going to be the franchise's last gasp.
It contains two episodes, adding up to 75 minutes. Over Here is the first, starring Colonel Lochley and a supernatural problem on Babylon 5. Over There is the second, starring Sheridan and Galen (!) as they escort a member of the Centauri royal family to a 10th anniversary celebration of the Interstellar Alliance.
Now it must be admitted immediately that these episodes look cheap. They were made for $2 million, which bought some flashy CGI, a very few sets and a tiny handful of actors. However that isn't their problem. Over Here in particular could obviously have been glossier, but that wouldn't have addressed the fact that it's boring. It's possible to do drama without special effects, you know. It's called the theatre. All you need is good actors and... ahhh, we've found the problem. It's called J. Michael Straczynski. I'm full of respect for the man as a writer and producer in the cut-throat world of US television, but the man simply doesn't understand acting. He casts wooden blocks and gets annoyed when studios point this out to him. The annoying thing is that I like his story for Over Here, but JMS was absolutely the wrong director for it. The performances don't breathe and the camera doesn't even seem interested in the actors, weaving and ducking around them as if we're underwater. Admittedly there's a story reason for this, but the results are almost unwatchable.
The story is basically The Exorcist in space. That's a strong idea... if you're me. JMS has always had a philosophical bent and I love the idea of exploring how our religions would fare in a science fiction future. I was predisposed to enjoy this, but equally there are lots of people who'd disagree. Had this been directed by Hitchcock and starred the best actors ever born, I'm sure there are plenty of people in the audience who'd have still tuned out. Nevertheless this should theoretically have been the perfect story for this kind of project. You've got your bad guy locked up. He's not going anywhere. Go in and talk to him.
Unfortunately it stars Tracy Scoggins as Lochley, of whom I've never been exactly fond but until now she'd always at least seemed competent. Here she's terrible, not to mention looking mummified. Meanwhile the priest (Alan Scarfe) fumbles his theological discussions so badly that I started wondering if they hadn't had any rehearsals, while the possessed man (Bruce Ramsay) is at least having a bit more fun but struggles as badly as everyone else with these dialogue scenes that seem to go on and on. JMS is not an actor's director. Furthermore he's trying to bring the show alive visually, but the only things he can think of to achieve this are tricks. The camera movement will make you seasick. The CGI is amazing, but then JMS goes into denial about the budget and has the characters walking down a corridor, despite the fact that the results make 1970s Doctor Who look lavish and they've only forked out for one (1) extra. Great Scott, man! If you don't have the money for proper sets, face up to the fact! Admit to the audience that you'll be getting theatrical and just put all the Scoggins-Scarfe conversations in a single room. Besides, skill and imagination can work wonders even in the simplest of shooting conditions. There's a Doctor Who episode called Midnight which might be relevant to this discussion.
There are things I like about Over Here. I like the fact that the theological puzzle has an answer. I like the basic concept. I like the fact that this is the last time I'll be watching Tracey Scoggins. That's it, I think. Otherwise this is an exercise in horrible acting and direction, taking a script with potential and making it look dull and flabby.
After that, Over There is a huge improvement. It stars Bruce Boxleitner and tells a strong story with a powerful central question. If you had the chance to kill Hitler as a child, would you do it? Galen (yes, Galen) comes to Sheridan and tells him that a certain Centauri prince will one day turn Earth into a blasted wasteland, thus presenting Sheridan with a horrible dilemma. Should he kill the guest he's supposed to be escorting to safety?
All this is great. I like the story and I like the actors. I seem to like Boxleitner more every time I see him, while Peter Woodward gives his usual mannered performance as Galen and this time manages to get away with it. He's an appalling actor of course, but sometimes that doesn't matter when he's laying it on this thick. Fortunately the script doesn't call on him to be anything but snotty and superior. There's an ISN reporter who's okay, but I really liked Keegan MacIntosh's turn as Prince Regent Dius Vintari. He's dangerous, but young and almost sweet. You completely believe that he'd turn out to be a genocidal monster, but he's also enthusiastic and sufficiently guileless in his relationship with Sheridan that it's genuinely hard to know what you'd do.
As for the production, it's obviously inexpensive, but it keeps moving and I soon forgot about the budget and got involved in the story. Besides, the CGI really is lovely.
Overall, it's definitely a shame JMS decided not to make any more of these. If he'd written to suit his production limitations and handed over the shooting to real directors, I'd have been delighted to be able to keep buying and watching them. Next was to have been a Garibaldi episode, by the way, with perhaps one for Londo in the works. Yes, the two we got look cheap, but that wasn't the problem.