A Prelude to a Crusade
Written by J. Michael Straczynski
Directed by Mike Vejar
Sheridan’s dreams lead him to a group of strangers who will help him face a new threat from an old foe.
Why episode zero, I probably don’t hear you ask? Well, I wasn’t too sure whether or not to include “A Call To Arms” in this Crusade watch-through, seeing as it’s more of a Babylon 5 movie than a Crusade pilot, but I felt I had to for the sake of context and completion.
Sadly, it’s not a triumph, but then neither is it a failure either – it’s a competent enough TV movie that probably would have benefited from sharing the epic feel given to “In The Beginning” – after all, it could be the end of the world as we know it…
That’s not to say it’s no good, it’s actually a lot of fun, with a reasonably fast pace, a few good twists along the way, and some effective injections of light humour. Just don’t expect much depth beyond the race to discover the Drakh threat and the vague problem that Sheridan’s pals might condemn him to a mental institution, all finished up with the obligatory big battle at the end.
At the beginning, Bruce Boxleitner plays Sheridan as if he’s having a whale of a time – he’s getting back out there from behind the ISA Presidential desk, doing something practical and it’s great to see his reaction to that. At one point he’s like a teenager – sneaking out of the house (Babylon 5), pinching the family car (the Excalibur), and leaving a recorded note – it’s almost like an interstellar Ferris Buehler’s Day Off.
Jerry Doyle returns, with Garibaldi much the same, despite the new responsibilities of family life and running Edgar’s Industries – sadly he never returned for Crusade (plans were apparently squashed by TNT).
The main guest star is Tony Todd and he would have made a bad-ass captain for the Excalibur in Crusade, which I’m pretty sure is why he was cast. I’d imagine many first time viewers who knew of the Crusade spin-off, but not who was cast as the Captain could easily imagine (the awesome) Tony Todd is the guy for the job, thus making his sacrifice more shocking. Although the scene with his daughter makes his death all the more predictable, his line about protecting her from the monsters always gets to me. I know, I’m a big sentimental sap.
The rest of the supporting cast do a good job – Tony Maggio’s Drake seems just to be neurotic comic relief at first before affecting the story later, while the actress playing the pilot of the Excalibur (Marjean Holden) would go on to play Dr. Sarah Chambers in Crusade. Jeff Conaway gets a short, fun appearance which would sadly prove to be the last one he filmed for a Babylon 5 related production.
As with the other TNT movies, it’s in (TV) widescreen and, of course, the show looks so much better for it. I know there’s an issue with the effects to stop the show being remastered and rereleased on Blu-Ray in the widescreen format, but I wish someone would have the foresight to realize that spending that money upfront would result in a huge renaissance in interest, purchases and profit for Warner Bros. I can dream can’t I?
As I mentioned earlier, despite the widescreen, a few things drained the potential for this to be the epic adventure it should be. First of all and probably the biggest issue for me is the music – Evan Chen’s score is a little esoteric – flitting somewhere between orchestral and synth, but doesn’t carry the emotional impact or subtlety of Franke’s grand works (an issue which continues into Crusade as well). The humour, although effective, does serve to decrease the tension. Then we have the Drakh, not the most charismatic or threatening of villains, and their threat is further diminished by being off-screen almost the entire time. The majority of the time the Drakh appear only in the form of their bland spaceships.
Another major factor, in my opinion, is because of the new techniques being tried out here. One of the main goals of “A Call to Arms” production was the implementation of new production techniques, that would then be used on Crusade. As Crusade was to be more of a ‘planet of the week’ show than Babylon 5 ever was, it would require a lot of exterior shoots. However, exterior shooting is very expensive (and sadly, Babylonian Productions always worked with budgets way below shows such as the Star Treks, Stargates, etc.) so it was decided to film exterior locations in the studio. I’m sure the production crew tried very hard to achieve this – they created at least three different worlds in this movie – which is more than most seasons of Babylon 5! However, in my opinion they didn’t fully convince, despite turf being shipped in or giving over whole studio spaces to become rocky plateaus, druidic stone circles, etc. Much like the Star Trek “exterior” sets, something about the exterior work sadly looked ‘stagey’ to me. I’ll stop bitching here for a second though to say the hydraulically controlled shuttle interior is a triumph though.
The final issue for me is that the visual effects simply don’t feel up to par – the quality was always more variable after they ditched Foundation Imaging to bring it in-house and this one is one of the more disappointing occasions. Despite featuring massive fleets and super-sized death machines, all too often the battles feel ‘off’ – more like a video game, with the mass and solidity of the ships not well conveyed. One of the issues is that the scale often feels wrong – the worst example of this is the Shadow Death Cloud / Planet Killer.
We’re told this thing is insanely massive – it has to be to engulf the Earth! Then when we finally see inside the cloud (particularly at the end, once it activates prematurely) it looks like it would barely wrap around Belgium. Of course, I know this work is all being done on a TV show budget, and this TV movie includes a HUGE number of effects and composites shots, but when some don’t work, it serves to pull you out of the story.
I don’t mean to be such a downer on “A Call To Arms”, it really is worth your time to watch for many reasons. I think the issue for me was that my expectations were set so high, and when it didn’t quite live up to them, I couldn’t help but start nitpicking.
Crusade continuity check and notes:
- Galenwatch (because he’s hard to pin down) – Present, in spirit.
- While you could just jump straight into “War Zone” – I think you get more out of the series having watched this first. It provides the full background to the Drakh plague, you meet some of the new characters and get to see the Excalibur in action.
- We meet both Galen and Dureena here for the first time. Dureena comes off better, partly due to more screen time, but she’s also able to help out in surprising ways, with a nicely sarcastic turn of phrase and nicely acted. Galen is only in it for a small time, so it’s hard to get a good idea of his character, apart from his cynical tone, rather convoluted help and cod-Shakespearean dialogue.
- You get a great introduction to the Excalibur, both internally and externally. Overall, I always liked the interior design and the layout – intentionally submarine-like and more high-tech looking than previous Earthforce designs – although we only get to see the conference room, a few corridors and the bridge. As for the exterior, I’ve always been a little lukewarm to the ship design – I like a lot of the early Mayrand concept sketches which accentuated the Vorlon and Minbari influences more than the human tech, but these were gradually smoothed away until we get the somewhat unwieldy-looking Excalibur – it has some interesting design touches, but as it’s rendered an almost uniform light grey. This means it looks a bit low texture and dull at a distance. Nice to see the adaptive armour plating in action, but the “one minute power-down” following the firing of the main gun is such a plot device, it can’t help but annoy a little.
- The ISN news report at the beginning mentions “A ground-breaking ceremony to those who died in the recent telepath crisis…” something which is returned to a little later in Crusade.
Chronological Order Analysis:
- Production order = 0
- Broadcast order = 0
- Continuity order = 0
- Is this episode better in this order? It’s in this location in any order
Naturally, as it’s set before the series, there’s nothing that is out of continuity. Whether or not you watch this before Crusade, it’s always going to be first in the order.
(All images are property of Warner Brothers)