Bruce BoxleitnerMira FurlanJeff ConawayRichard Biggs
Babylon 5: Thirdspace
Medium: TV
Date: 19 July 1998
Fictional date: 2261
Director: Jesus Salvador Trevino
Writer: J. Michael Straczynski
Keywords: SF
Country: USA
Actor: Bruce Boxleitner, Claudia Christian, Mira Furlan, Richard Biggs, Jeff Conaway, Stephen Furst, Patricia Tallman, Clyde Kusatsu, Shari Belafonte, William Sanderson, Kip King, Floyd Levine, Jeffrey Anderson-Gunter, Joshua Cox, Judson Mills, Adam Gifford, Jerry Kernion, Valerie Red-Horse
Format: 94 minutes
Series: << Babylon 5 >>
Website category: SF
Review date: 15 May 2009
Apparently this one's controversial. Some people think it's a thrilling homage to H.P. Lovecraft with a huge cosmic danger, new kinds of cosmic extra-dimensionality and lots of madness and fighting. It does indeed have those things.
Me, I used to think it was the worst bit of Babylon 5. That was then. I've just given it a rewatch and my views have mellowed, plus of course I've seen the first episode of The Lost Tales, so I'm now inclined to be generous and only call it the worst Babylon 5 TV movie. It's less pointless than The River of Souls. I'll give it that. I like the idea of trying to do a Lovecraft story in space, but I can't call the attempt successful.
Of the five Babylon 5 TV movies, this is the only one that's trying to slot back into the show's chronology. The others are all set afterwards, albeit with a lot of flashbacks in the case of In The Beginning. Thirdspace however belongs in Season 4 and furthermore is specific enough about it that it has to take place either before or during episode 409 (Atonement). It's set between the wars and we've got both Dr Franklin and Delenn on the station, plus apparently there are also some changes to Zack Allan's uniform to be taken into account. I got that off the internet. Anyway, when I watched it in sequence as part of watching Season 4, I believed completely that it belonged where it did. Everyone looks right, sounds right and says the right things. Claudia Christian's even back as Ivanova, which is a slight surprise after the kerfuffle of Season 5 but a very welcome one. The reason is simply that this was made at the end of Season 4. Anyway, at least that side of things feels right.
Unfortunately something else would seem to have gone very wrong, because on that first viewing, I hated it like poison. It felt slow, boring and storyless. The first half was okay, with the regulars bouncing off each other much as they always do, but the second half is basically Look At The Big Thing Out There. People go crazy as the scriptwriters invent new dimensions of technobabble for the very alien aliens to jump out of. This backstory is similar enough to that of Legend of the Rangers that I'm surprised they're not officially linked.
You see, everyone can access hyperspace to jump in and out of normal space. This film's MacGuffin is a gate into thirdspace, which should theoretically have sounded so weird and wonderful as to make hyperspace look like a footpath to the village shop. Note that I said "should". The script could perhaps have sold the wonder a little harder. We're told that thirdspace will allow instantaneous interstellar travel rather than travellers having to wait a few days or weeks to reach their destination, which probably doesn't sound particularly revolutionary. Greedy Archeologist gets all excited about the potential for trade and warfare, though, so it's not as if this is a problem or anything. Besides, the important thing is that living on this other plane of reality are unthinkably alien aliens, millions of years old, unstoppably powerful and waiting to destroy all life in our galaxy. What were they doing all that time? Why were they waiting so conveniently on the other side of the gate? Don't ask. It's meant to be Lovecraftian. The Vorlons goofed and stirred them up a little while ago, so now they know about us.
All this is fine in theory. Unfortunately in the context of Babylon 5, it ends up a bit military. The thirdspace aliens have spaceships. Big spaceships that could probably squish us like jellyfish, but spaceships. Similarly when we see one of the aliens themselves, you can tell that the production team have put effort into making it look Lovecraftian, but... it's an alien. This is a science-fiction show. The shock factor isn't electrifying here. It might have been more memorable if we hadn't seen it properly, but had only caught Sheridan's reaction and a glimpse of tentacle.
Anyway, I was calling the story slow. As a standalone movie, it's passable. Watched in the context of a story arc of 45-minute episodes that broke new ground for US TV, it's not. Maybe I might have liked it better if someone had warned me beforehand? Putting it in its proper place should theoretically be the way to watch Thirdspace, but I couldn't recommend doing so without expectation management. "WARNING: this movie is a bit slow and rubbish." That might do it. TNT should put that as a caption on the DVD's opening credits. Alternatively perhaps they could have abandoned the Season 4 thing and set it long after the end of the series like all the other specials, which might have freed them up to do evil permanent things to the station and its crew. Having entire planets devoured or half the regulars' brains blasted out of their skulls would have definitely made this feel more Lovecraftian. However as it stands, we know everything will turn out okay. (Spoiler.) That's an even bigger drag factor on trying to frighten your audience than the "SF TV series" thing.
I've been unkind about the Lovecraftian angle, but there's stuff I like here in an abstract way. The episode fails as horror, mostly coming across a bigger than usual but basically routine Babylon 5 adventure, but you can tell that they were trying. Lyta Alexander gets a telepathic message and goes mad, which is a good look for her since she has the right shaped face for it. No, really! She looks angular and insect-like when she's crazy. I liked the scenes of her writing on her walls. Meanwhile other people on the Babylon 5 station are being affected similarly, which ends up plunging us into darkness and fight scenes, with even blood. That's good. It would have been even better if we hadn't seen it all before. You can imagine the regulars saying, "Not again!" Then there's Ivanova's dream sequence, which I quite liked despite the fact that it's a dream sequence. Lovecraft loved dreams. I generally hate them in my TV episodes, but sometimes life means compromises.
The darkest point of all this madness is a murder. That's something with real potential and I'd have liked the episode better with more of that. Unfortunately it's one relatively quick scene and then the next time we see the murderer, the crisis is over and everyone's being forgiven.
The episode has a minor theme of hubris. It's all the Vorlons' fault, except when it becomes Sheridan and his friends' fault too. They've been given Pandora's box and they can't resist opening it. "Besides, it's mine." A nastier story might have punished him for that, but in the end it gets forgotten.
On a trivial level, the episode looks good. The space battle is fine and there's a CGI spacewalking man which is so much better rendered than the similar efforts in Crusade that it's almost embarrassing. That was the following year, by the way. Londo, Garibaldi and G'Kar are absent, but we do have Ivanova and the rest. Delenn's a bit of a third wheel, defined mostly by her relationship with Sheridan, but that's how they developed her in these later seasons.
I don't hate this episode, but I used to. This time I enjoyed the first half-hour. I was impressed by the cosmic scale of its threat. I was able to sit through it without actual pain and pronounce it undistinguished but okay. I can also see how if it works for you, it might really work. It's good that it's trying to do something new, but sadly the results of this particular experiment would seem to suggest that we were better off with silly space pants.