Science fiction on television tends to fall into a few small groupings; the space epic of shows like Star Trek and its spin offs and the smaller, more intimate shows like Firefly, that seem far more realistic (if a bit less fantastical). As a fan of all such shows, I've followed the ups and downs, ins and outs, and trials and tribulations of a host characters in various settings that were written with varying amounts of care and creativity. One of my favorites from the 1990's was the epic series Babylon 5, a show created by genius writer Joseph Michael Straczynski. The series was set in the year 2257 and detailed the events of an intergalactic meeting place, a sort of United Nations in space, initially designed to be a means to prevent misunderstandings and promote peace. As the series progressed, its focus moved about a bit but the largest arc of shows dealt with the Shadow War.
Warning: The following content has spoilers to the show Babylon 5.
Essentially, two races of highly advanced sentient species; the Vorlons, a secretive race that believed in order and obedience, and the Shadows, a secretive race that believed in chaos and Darwinism, sought to continue their struggle for dominance as they had done every thousand years. Each employed highly advanced technology to further their goals and made alliances with some of the younger races that were ascending into dominance by virtue of their expansion into the Universe. Through several seasons of manipulation and intrigue, the war continued until ultimately concluding in a somewhat unique manner as all the players came to the table. The Babylon 5 series continued with the aftermath of the war and tied up many of the threads started during the five season run as well as the handful of television movies that furthered Mr. Straczynski's vision of the future.
After the fifth and final season wound down, the last TV movie, A Call to Arms, was financed and released by the TNT network. The movie dealt with one of the Shadows' former allies, The Drakh, trying to enact revenge for what they perceived as the treachery of the humans in ridding the Universe of their former masters. In essence, the Drakh used Shadow technology in the form of a deadly virus to contaminate Earth and doom its population to a slow, lingering death. The new Interstellar Alliance commissioned a unique ship, the Excalibur, to find a cure by searching the Universe for remnants of Shadow technology (or anything else) that might help find a cure. The name of this second five year series (ala Star Trek) was Crusade: The Complete Series.
The main cast of the show included the no-nonsense captain, Matthew Gideon, his telepathic first officer, John Matheson, the gifted doctor, Sarah Chambers, the thief with the past, Dureena Nafeel (brought over from the movie), the gifted archeologist, Max Eilerson, and the mysterious technomage, Galen, with appearances by various others from the original series on an irregular basis. Each seemed patterned after some of the more familiar characters of popular culture and the same holds true for the show itself. Few would argue that the "five year mission" could've come from anything other than Star Trek and fans of Japanese anime are quick to point out the similarities between the series and the Americanized version of Space Cruiser Yamato (Star Blazers) with the main cannon of the Excalibur firing a powerful blast that forces a recharge lasting far too long for most military situations and the overall concept of a single ship sent on a mission to save a dying Earth. I'm not going to spoil the show for you by pointing out the rest but fans of Stargate SG-1, King Arthur, and a great many other fantasy shows/books/movies will have a lot to think about as the show borrowed heavily from many sources.
Each episode managed to deal with the usual crisis of the week while developing the characters and big picture at the same time. Fans of the Babylon 5 series will appreciate how some of the events that took place in the series were touched upon as well. From the aftermath of the telepath war in The Well of Forever and The Path of Sorrows, showing how the newly established equivalent of the Psi-Corps could be just as oppressive as anything Bester could come up with; albeit in a more subtle manner; to the routine discussion about the technomages (one of the more interesting groups that were neglected in the original series).
The series didn't just stick to a set script from the original series either, looking at a variety of themes that have all been done to death but showed some interesting insights into the mind of Mr. Straczynski. From the usual "ends justifies the means" to the "common good versus individual freedoms" to the relativistic morals many of the cast displayed in the weekly dilemmas they faced, the show managed to provide a means for viewers to explore their own ideas in relation to the show rather than spoon feed. Mr. Straczynski did use his sly sense of humor (look for some of his recent work on Marvel's Spiderman comic book for even more of his anti-corporate, anti-war outlook) in each of the ten episodes he wrote (out of the thirteen), like in Patterns of the Soul or Racing the Night, but also added his usual touches in other episodes.
What made the vast majority of Babylon 5, Crusade, and the books so interesting was the writing (not the special effects) of both the characters and the situations they found themselves in. Unlike far too many shows of the past, the characters in Mr. Straczynski's universe are virtually all flawed in some significant manner. This allows the viewer to more fully identify with the characters, much like Joss Whedon's Firefly; another show that lasted 13 episodes and was cut down by corporate decision making at its worst. TNT cancelled the show before it even aired; doing everything it could to cut short their contract with Straczynski (trying to make creative changes that hogtied him into a corner by making the show use more sex to boost ratings, more space battles to intrigue the non-fans, and a host of conceptual alterations that reportedly drove him half crazy).
In the end, Babylon 5 fans will have to simply accept that things didn't work out and for all the promise Crusade had that went unfilled, a movie is currently in the works, The Memory of Shadows which will hopefully tie up the majority of loose ends. Straczynski has indicated that the actual theme of Crusade was not going to be five years of searching for the cure (it was planned to be found in the middle of the second season) so much as dealing with the aftermath in general of the Shadow technology let loose upon the Universe and humankind's attempts to harness it for their own purpose. Humanity was the race viewed as having the most potential of the major Babylon 5 races to further the positive aspects of life but also considered the most likely to cause harm due to our various character flaws (this being a thinly veiled reference to the USA for the most part) and how various factions tried to capitalize on the advanced technology, regardless of the dangers involved or the cost of using them, would've been fleshed out in the fullness of time. The show had plenty of flaws (many relating to those of the first season of Babylon 5) but it managed to provide a different taste of Straczynski'' Universe before it slipped into the night.
This DVD release of the complete Crusade series will be important for fans but also has enough material to warrant a rating of Recommended to fans of science fiction in general. The special effects were less impressive, on average, than the better seasons of Babylon 5 but the writing was pretty good and well worth your money. Even detractors of Crusade should note that the occasional guest appearance of series regulars (Dr. Franklin and Captain Lochley being the most notable) helped make it worth a look and the continuation of the B5 Universe enough to give this one a chance. Sure, TNT mucked about a bunch and the resulting show was less pure than B5 seasons 1 through 4 but short of bringing The Passing of the Technomages to the big screen and finishing up the Crusade arc; nothing would've satisfied me either. Give it a chance and you may well find it has seasoned well in the passage of time.
Picture: Crusade was presented in the usual 1.33:1 ratio full frame color that most television is made in, unlike the primary B5 series that was filmed in widescreen. The picture seemed to reflect a lower budget than earlier seasons of B5, probably due to TNT's manner of limiting costs. There was a bit of video noise throughout the episodes and the levels of grain were higher than I wanted to see but it did look better than my recollection of TNT's original airing of the show (and certainly better than the Sci-Fi Channel's later release). I didn't see any compression artifacts but the colors were accurate and the special effects about what I'd expect from the show given all that took place behind the scenes.
Sound: Crusade was originally broadcast in 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround English and that was how the show was presented on the 4 DVDs. The vocals were clear, the music a bit less interesting, and the audio effects in general somewhat less involving than the original B5 series. The directionality was mainly limited to the battle scenes and music but it was acceptable even by today's standards. The dynamic range was no less decent although budget cuts seemed to take their toll on the overall audio experience so don't expect it to be a show you'll use to showcase your expensive home theatre setup. The DVDs included English, French and Spanish subtitles for those who want them but I didn't notice any substantial differences in them to what was said on the audio track.
Extras: With such a rich history evolved over several years, you'd think the extras would've been teaming with greatness at this final opportunity to see the last missing link of the Babylon 5 Universe but sadly, there wasn't a whole lot offered. For me, the two (that's right: just two!) audio commentaries were the best offerings. The first was on the Well of Forever episode and included Peter Woodward (Galen), Carrie Dobro (Dureena), Director Janet Greek, and writer Fiona Avery providing some anecdotal insights to the show. I would've liked it better had they not been treating the opportunity like a chance meeting at a social party for much of the commentary but it was still fun to listen too.
The second commentary was by Joseph Michael Straczynski himself and I was busting out waiting to hear his long promised hammering of what "really" happened to Crusade. He had long made it clear (online and elsewhere) that he was going to tell the whole truth about TNT's actions (and inactions) that led to the series demise but no such material came up! What a gyp! He did spend a fair amount of time reminiscing about the show and I suppose the years of build up made me expect too much but he should've said something substantive about what happened (he kept all the memos I'm told). I would've liked to hear him on more of the episodes too but perhaps part of the deal to get the theatrical movie made meant keeping quiet for now so I'll just wait a little longer, like all the other patient B5 fans have done.
The other two extras were a couple of short features; The Making of Crusade and Forging Excalibur. Making lasted a bit under fourteen and a half minutes with Forging coming in at a bit under six minutes; each providing a few insights by the creative staff (Straczynski and some of the producers for the most part). I'd have liked a lot more than this set of extras; perhaps the un-produced scripts in DVD Rom format for example, but maybe a comprehensive set of extras will come out on their own along with some B5 material when the future movie finally gets made.
Final Thoughts: I think including the movie A Call To Arms would've made a lot of sense in order to fully set up the series but for the amount of episodes and the limited audience this series is going to have, I doubt fans could've truly expected more than this. The technical aspects showed the limitations of the budgets, the writing resorted to making veiled comments about the way TNT was treating the production, and the slice of the Babylon 5 Universe the series handled was admittedly different than what had been the basis for the earlier B5 seasons but all that said, I enjoyed the amount of time I spent with this set and will keep it in my collection along with the other B5 sets that have come out over the last few years.
Here's an episode guide in the order they are presented on the DVDs. Those that have followed the show know that they are not in the original order Mr. Straczynski wanted them (or made them) and some inconsistencies were present because of this fact. I'll list them in the order he wanted them released after the fact so that fans who pick up the set can watch them in their intended order to:
On the DVD:
In their intended order per Mr. Straczynski (as released on the Sci-Fi Channel):