Written by J. Michael Straczynski
Directed by Janet Greek
The crew of the Excalibur come together to begin their quest for the cure to the Drakh plague.
My memory was that this episode was weak – no surprise, many first episodes are. Unfortunately it’s worse than that, this episode pretty much stinks. I really want to love and embrace this show, but this is painful to watch. I know, I know, JMS wrote this script under duress and naturally didn’t make much effort, but boy does it show. Sadly I can’t review an episode for what I want it to be, or what it could have been, only by what we, the viewers, see on-screen.
It’s hard to know where to begin. There’s so many issues here, but it boils down to one thing – with this episode, TNT get exactly what they wanted. The first scene of the entire series is one of the most pointless fistfights ever put on film, just like they wanted. The rest of the episode that follows is stuffed with clunky exposition, artificially injected action, broadly written characters, cheesy dialogue and clichés abound. The simplest description I can make is that it’s written more like a children’s show.
You have to assume this is kind of the point JMS is trying to make. It ticks almost all the boxes of what TNT wanted Crusade to become and shows how hackneyed, predictable and clichéd a series it would have been if they’d followed all the notes. It makes that point, but it’s at the expense of the viewer – It’s like cutting off your own nose to spite your face. There’s still some good dialogue peeking through, like a diamond in the muck, as though JMS wanted to let everyone know he’s still in there somewhere.
It seems the rest of the cast and crew got the message that JMS was doing this episode through gritted teeth, and treated it in the same fashion. The acting at best is passable, the effects are lacking, and the direction flaccid despite being an action episode conducted by the usually effective Janet Greek
The story itself is exactly what you’d expect from the first episode of an ensemble cast show – getting the team together, then giving them a problem to overcome to bond them all together. While part of you can’t help but think that it’s interesting to see how everyone came together, in the end it’s just as predictable as you imagine. You end up feeling that if you’d not seen this episode, you wouldn’t have missed much you couldn’t have surmised later. Which is just the idea JMS had tried to implement when the original plan was to premier with “Racing The Night”.
It has to be mentioned that despite everything, the episode is really quite ambitious in scope, so at least there’s that. We start at the Earth orbit battlefield, swing by Marsdome, stop off at the unnamed world near where Gideon was rescued, then proceed to Ceti 4 for another space battle with the Drakh and another battle montage set to music and no other sound – once in a while these are fine, but it was becoming something of a Babylon 5 cliché.
The CG is sometimes pretty bad – whether it’s a case of penny-pinching to not spend money on an episode that they didn’t want to make, or they just didn’t have time for the complexity of this episode, it’s simply not very good. I remembered the CG Drakh looked bad at the time, but now they look shockingly unreal:
I realise they were trying something new for TV here, and they get kudos for trying, but the technology just wasn’t there yet. In fact, doing fully CG figures rarely works now in big budget blockbusters, here we’re in pure uncanny valley territory. The CG landscapes vary in effectiveness, passable at a distance and/or with a little haze, but once they get more close-up they look worse and worse.
For some reason they chose to keep the Drakh masks with glowing eyes for the soldiers. These still look as ridiculous as the did in the Babylon 5 episode “Lines of Communication” – the actual Optic Nerve-designed Drakh prosthetics are awesome, why wouldn’t they stick with those? Plus, the weapon design looks extremely unwieldy. So, in the end the Drakh look a bit cheap, cheesy and not threatening enough. The dialogue their leader spouts is pure cliché and sometimes the Drakh feel like they’d be more at home on the set of a Power Rangers show.
Most of the regular cast at least try to put in some kind of a performance. As you’d expect, Gideon takes the lion’s share of the screen time, and while he actually looks a little unsure in his role from time to time (maybe done on purpose as he has a new ship to command), he comes across as a decent, hard-nosed-but-fair kind of captain – yes, he’s very much the “renegade captain” trope, but Cole’s insouciant approach suits the role well.
In one of the best scenes, Gideon reassures Matheson he’s the right man for the job, despite some people’s concerns over him being a telepath. The acting that goes into that scene alone is what pushes this episode up a grade to a “D+”… just.
Despite only appearing a few times and not having made much impact (for me anyway) in “A Call To Arms”, Galen actually comes across better here. He brings some of the cooler Technomage aspects into play – casually kicking Drakh ass, vanishing a lot, dropping smoke-bombs, quizzing Gideon on his quest, hacking the Excalibur with ease, rescuing Gideon in flashback and generally sneaking around under their noses like a wizardy know-it-all.
The rest of the crew doesn’t get much time to shine, but acquit themselves well enough and show off their main character traits – David Allen Brooks demonstrates Max Eilerson’s smarts, greed and tendency to get good lines, Daniel Dae Kim as John Matheson is stoic and dependable, Marjean Holden as Chambers is strong, decisive and sympathetic -probably the most rounded character. Only Carrie Dobro gets little to do as Dureena. The weakest link has to be the shoehorned in, bad-boy pilot Trace Miller, he’s like a bland James Dean cut-out rebelling against nothing. I know he was forcibly introduced to pacify the TNT executives, but he served almost no purpose for the entire thirteen episode run. Maybe he would have gone the way of that other memorable pilot, Warren Keffer. I can dream…
It’s hard to imagine a first time viewer watching this and wanting to see more, especially if they’ve never seen Babylon 5. I have a hard time recommending anyone watch this – even though I know there’s better stuff down the road. Looking back, the Babylon 5 pilot “The Gathering” and first episode “Midnight on the Firing Line” may be a bit rough around the edges, but they’re sheer poetry in comparison to this train wreck.
Crusade continuity check and notes:
- Galenwatch – Present
- We get our first look at the title sequence, which works quite well, I always liked the swishy-sword/Excalibur gimmick. They’re definitely trying to impart a mythic feel to the crew’s quest, with some interesting darker undercurrents. The theme tune itself is one of the few times I don’t mind Evan Chen’s music, I just never felt his scores fit well.
- On board the ship, we see the Excalibur flight deck, and see its assignment of human fighter-craft on board (both Thunderbolts and Starfurys), something we never saw in “A Call to Arms”. We get a mention that the Excalibur is a mile and a half long, then get to see the cool tube cars that run the length of the ship.
- The ship is now fully crewed and it seems the main ‘team’ roles are filled:
- Matthew Gideon – Captain
- John Matheson – First Officer
- Dureena Nafeel – Resident thief
- Galen – Wizard
- Dr. Sarah Chambers – Chief Medical Officer
- Max Eilerson – Archaeologist, linguist, weekly pain in the ass
- Trace Miller – Ostensibly a pilot, but no real idea what he’s supposed to do.
- While we heard Gideon had the opportunity to pick his crew, we don’t find out if anyone, bar Matheson came with him from his old command. From the way the crew seem at home with most of the systems, we might assume most of the crew were already assigned prior to his arrival – particularly with how accomplished their performance is against three Drakh cruisers.
- This episode features the newer, black explorer uniforms – which was about the only suggestion TNT made that I actually agree with. Although why were the Explorer crew supposed to have different uniforms? They’re Earthforce, and we saw another Explorer Class ship (from the B5 episode “A Distant Star”) had standard uniforms – I know, probably brand recognition and all that.
- This Drakh commander seems quite weaselly, very happy to hide while others protect him, not the calm puppet-masters we’ve seen in the past on Babylon 5.
- We flash back back to the time when the Technomages migrated away from known space – just before the Shadow War (set just after the events of the Babylon 5 episode “The Geometry of Shadows”). At that time Gideon was stranded in just a space suit and apparently Galen rescued him – something we’ll return to in more detail in a later episode.
- The Captain has an unusual, powerful alien object hidden in his room, which seems intelligent, knows many secrets, speaks to him and seems inherently untrustworthy. This is the same situation as the protagonist in Philip Jose Farmer’s novel “The Unreasoning Mask”.
Chronological Order Analysis:
- Production order = 8
- Broadcast order = 1
- Continuity order = 1
- Is this episode better in this order? – Same as the Broadcast Order
Definitely supposed to be the first episode in order, despite being shot later. No obvious potential continuity issues. Although “Racing the Night” has Gideon dream/remember being tasked with the mission on Babylon 5 – but I’ll bring that up in that episode though.
(All images are property of Warner Brothers)