Richard BiggsBabylon 5Jerry DoyleTracy Scoggins
Babylon 5: The River of Souls
Medium: TV
Date: 8 November 1998
Fictional date: 6 June 2263
Director: Janet Greek
Writer: J. Michael Straczynski
Keywords: SF
Country: USA
Actor: Jerry Doyle, Tracy Scoggins, Jeff Conaway, Richard Biggs, Ian McShane, Martin Sheen, Jeff Doucette, Wayne Alexander, Bob Amaral, Beege Barkette, Joel Brooks, Joshua Cox, T.J. Hoban, Stuart Pankin, Ray Proscia, Nikki Schieler Ziering, Jeff Silverman, Jean St. James
Format: 94 minutes
Series: << Babylon 5 >>
Website category: SF
Review date: 25 March 2009
Welcome to Season 6! Here's a chronology of all the Babylon 5-related TV stuff:
2245-48 - In the Beginning (flashbacks)
2257 - The Gathering
2258 - Season 1: Signs and Portents
2259 - Season 2: The Coming of Shadows
2260 - Season 3: Point of No Return
2261 - Season 4: No Surrender, No Retreat + Thirdspace (film)
2262 - Season 5: The Wheel of Fire
2263 - The River of Souls
2265 - The Legend of the Rangers
2266 - A Call to Arms
2267 - Crusade (13 episodes)
2271 - The Lost Tales: Voices in the Dark
2278 - In the Beginning (framing story)
2281 - Sleeping in Light (Season 5 finale)
up to 1,000,000 - The Deconstruction of Falling Stars (Season 4 finale)
If you put together all the new stuff that follows Season 5, that's almost exactly a sixth full season even without counting Sleeping in Light or The Deconstruction of Falling Stars. Unfortunately most of these are random bits and pieces that don't pay too much attention to each other, being either spin-offs or pilots for abortive spin-offs. I'm not expecting proper Babylon 5 story arcs, but I'm hoping that some of it might at least be interesting.
The River of Souls isn't. It's okay and it has a couple of reasonably well-known actors in it, but it comes across as an unremarkable episode that happens to go on for an hour and a half. It has some good jokes and it passes the time, but you'd never dream of calling it a showcase for the series.
We begin with Ian McShane, veering between accents as if he's drunk. What the hell is this? In some scenes he seems to be trying to sound American and fails more abjectly than anyone I've ever seen in a professional production, while in other scenes he forgets and stays British. However that aside, he's good. I like Ian McShane. Here he's playing an archeologist prying into the secrets of millennia-old alien temples, which in this fictional universe is like walking up to the biggest, nastiest monster in the pantheon and poking it with a stick. He's looking for the secret of eternal life. He's found Soul Hunters, which is stupidity that registers on the Richter scale. He kinda fades away from the action later on (gee), but before that he does get to have fun being unhinged.
The other big name is Martin Sheen, who was apparently offered Ian McShane's role but asked to play the Soul Hunter instead. To be honest, he's okay. Didn't love him, didn't hate him. He does the job.
Meanwhile Babylon 5 is going about its business, but in a rather empty, cut-price capacity. I'm sure the place used to be busier. The budget for these TV movies wasn't generous and this detracts much more than you'd think, since the Babylon station itself always used to be a wonderful, rich place to explore. With a gazillion people and almost as many different species on board, it was easy to give any threat as much weight as you wanted. Not here. We've got too many empty corridors and only a skeleton staff of regulars, since we've moved beyond the series finale and almost everyone's gone. There's Captain Lochley, Zack Allen and nerd boy whose name I can't even remember. Apart from them, Garibaldi's back for a visit and there's a dream-sequence version of Dr Franklin, but that's it. Zack and Garibaldi are fun, but Lochley is still a bit of a wet blanket. Unfortunately she's arguably the lead character.
One detail I noticed though is that Captain Lochley seems to like being hospitable to scary people. She did it with Bester and she does it again here with the Soul Hunter.
There aren't even any aliens! By that I don't just mean the ambassadors. Offhand I don't even remember seeing many extras in alien make-up wandering through the hallways. Maybe the memory cheats or maybe that's simply a comment on the paucity of extras of any stripe, but the results are still a Babylon station that's a bit of a shadow of its former self.
As for the story, there's not much to talk about. The actual threat to the station is fairly forgettable. At some point someone's going to blow the reactor, but for the most part the Soul Hunters actually come across as being fairly reasonable. Are they evil? Not really. What about their victims? Well, firstly we don't see them take any. They're here to reclaim something that Ian McShane stole. This is fine as far as it goes, but the result of all this is a story without real villains, since you can see everyone's point of view and you sympathise. If you're looking for entertainment, you'll be wanting the holo-brothel. No, really. This is clearly the comedic B-story, but it goes a few places that I hadn't expected and JMS is obviously having fun with it. It even gives rise to jokes, especially at the end with the love bat. (That's not what it sounds like.) You couldn't possibly call this film a comedy, but when it wants it's surprisingly good at making you laugh. The only problem with the holo-brothel is that it's a TV version with no nudity, although you do see girls in skimpy clothing.
I like the themes and SF ideas. It's interesting to put the Soul Hunters together with another SF high concept that's even more firmly established in the Babylon 5 universe. This is a story about what it means to die and about what might happen afterwards. Yes, the rationalist argument is expressed. Yo there, Garibaldi. However it's intriguing in itself to see franchise TV SF tackling these kinds of issues, especially in a universe with all the mythology and wrinkles of Babylon 5's. That was good. I'd even go so far as to say that the treatment of these themes is the main reason to watch this film, especially since it's a bit lacklustre on other fronts. The holo-brothel for example provides another means of bringing back the dead, if you give the owner a 3D photograph for recreation as a digital image.
Overall, I thought this was on the mediocre side of okay. It has strong similarities to Ghostbusters, believe it or not, although only on a conceptual level. You could have made a pretty good Season One episode out of it by pumping up the story a bit and bringing back the old cast. I'm not a Lochley fan, I'm afraid. However I will admit that it did well at filling its running time, never dragging or feeling padded, and I like the fact that it's tackling these big themes and ideas. "Faith is good, but sometimes faith is blind." I hope they're not all like this, though.