Posts Tagged ‘A Call to Arms’

I am aware that writing in anything approaching detail about Crusade and its associated ephemera probably constitutes a waste of effort, for this is a series which is little remembered and less liked (although, and this may well be clutching at straws, doing so will at least set a precedent which will let me write about Hammer House of Horror at some future point with a little more self-respect). There was a whole raft of (broadly speaking) space opera TV shows which launched round about the turn of the century – this one, Enterprise, Firefly, Farscape, Andromeda, Lexx – and while some of them were more successful than others, none of them really had the impact that their makers were probably hoping for (I am astonished to learn, by the way, that Andromeda had the longest run of any of these series). This kind of honest-to-God starship drama seems to have gone entirely out of fashion, possibly as a result, which I think is rather a shame.

Crusade itself crept onto UK screens in the much-coveted (I lie) middle-of-the-night spot. Literally, about 3am – presumably the tiny amount Channel 4 could recoup from selling advertising meant it was more profitable to show Crusade than the test card. Lord knows how much they paid for the rights; probably a pittance. This was a train which everyone knew in advance would never be reaching its destination, or even the first stop along the way.

Observe the happy, smiling faces of a bunch of people who’ve just learned their show’s been cancelled before the first episode even got transmitted.

Compounding the problem, in a slight case of history repeating, the broadcast of Crusade was not preceded by the TV movie which sets up its premise (just as Babylon 5‘s first UK broadcast omitted The Gathering). JMS insists that A Call to Arms is a Babylon 5 movie, not the Crusade pilot per se, which seems very disingenuous to me.

I suppose he has a point in that only a couple of the Crusade regulars actually appear in the movie, and they are somewhat indicative of the tone of the series: there is a beautiful female thief and a wily, enigmatic sorcerer, and if this suggests to you that Crusade has much stronger fantasy overtones than the parent show, I would agree.

It all starts in fairly traditional B5 style with President Sheridan off to inspect some new warships the IA has been building since the end of season 5 (several years have passed in-universe). Garibaldi is along to give him another B5 regular to talk to. However, he is mystically contacted by a renegade Technomage, Galen (Peter Woodward), who shows him visions of a planet devastated by a Shadow superweapon and shows him the faces of a group of individuals he needs to gather to avert a terrible threat to Earth…

Well, Galen has many interesting powers, but key amongst them is a total mastery of Plot Contrivance – how else does he know all this? How else can he be so enlightened as to who to get Sheridan to bring along? Why, come to that, are the Drakh expending so much energy against Earth, a planet which effectively stayed neutral during the final Shadow War? If Galen is so clued-in to Drakh doings, why hasn’t he found out about their ongoing manipulation of a major planet like Centauri Prime? That said, the Drakh clearly have the same gift, as the project manager on the new ship site is one of their agents (his name is Drake, which is surely a bad move on the part of the Drakh – it’s a bit like the Shadows firing Morden and hiring someone called Shardow to work for them: not exactly subtle). Quite what Drake the Drakh agent has been doing is unclear, but his presence is very useful when the plot needs to be unravelled and Jerry Doyle needs something to do to justify his appearance fee.

It goes on in this vein most of the time. Tony Todd, an actor with a certain presence, makes what’s essentially an extended cameo appearance, but doesn’t get what you’d honestly call prime material to work with – he’s fourth or fifth banana in terms of plot significance and essentially just there to put a human face on a contrived self-sacrifice that resolves the movie plot. But not the ongoing plot – for the Drakh contrive to infect the Earth with a sort-of Five Year Flu, which will kill everyone on the planet, only not for five years.

It’s initially suggested this long delay is because the Drakh don’t really know how the Five Year Flu works, but later on we learn it behaved exactly the same way when the Shadows used it in the previous Shadow War (the one in the 13th century). Whatever the truth, this gives Earth a handy breathing space during which time a cure can be rustled up, the process of which can theoretically be covered by a weekly TV series.

Or so the theory went. The actual Crusade series is… well, first off, I haven’t seen it all yet. I caught the first three or four episodes during the UK transmission, basically lost interest, eventually bought the run on discounted VHS box-set out of a vague sense of loyalty to the B5 brand, never actually popped the cellophane on them, and didn’t really give it another thought until I picked up the complete B5 box last Autumn.

Anyway, nearly a third of the way in, I’d say that Crusade is a show it’s possible to like, in an indulgent sort of way, because it’s a curious mixture of a few really good bits, a lot of bad and/or baffling ones, with a sprinkling of just utterly weird moments: not entirely unlike Blake’s 7, but with less of a sense of humour.

Most of the episode plots don’t sound very special on paper and could potentially be rewritten to suit the Trek series of your choice fairly easily. I’m watching the series in JMS’s recommended viewing order, rather than that of actual transmission, and so for me the first four were Racing the Night, The Needs of Earth, The Memory of War and The Long Road.

Racing the Night and The Memory of War both revolve around the investigation of mysterious dead planets with dark secrets; one ties into the Five Year Flu (there’s a flashback in which the Shadows actually appear; I found myself bizarrely pleased to see them again), the other to the Technomages. Neither of the secrets is particularly difficult to guess even while watching the episode for the first time. The Needs of Earth is a sledgehammer-to-the-cranium-subtle exercise in commenting on cultural vandalism and the value of art, with one of those cod scenes where an alien hears Mozart for the first time and instantly realises how wonderful human beings are. (I suspect if we ever do make contact with extra-terrestrial intelligences, as a species we’re going to feel very silly about this sort of thing.) The Long Road is more of a character piece about the ethics of terrorism (with a typically great guest spot by Edward Woodward, who effortlessly acts everyone but his own son off the screen) and the kernel of an interesting idea about the unintended cultural effects a superhuman guardian has on those under his protection.

The main problem Crusade has – hang on, one of the main problems Crusade has is that most of its characters are uninteresting cyphers. Most square-jawed heroic starship captains in the American mass-media tend to be cut from very much the same template (lest I start to sound too harsh, the same is probably true of the British ones, it’s just we have far fewer of them – I suspect Dan Dare still qualifies), and it’s really down to the actor to give them a little personality and humour. Captain Gideon of Crusade, portrayed by Gary Cole, comes across as a cynical, intolerant jerk, and is very, very hard to warm to in the slightest. Remarkably, he is still marginally more engaging than most of the other characters – his first officer has no discernible personality beyond occasionally retreating to his cabin to search his soul about the right way to use his telepathic powers (which he never actually seems to do, by the way). The mission’s chief archaeologist is essentially a colossal prick – it may be that over the planned five years JMS intended to do something with him rather in the vein of his development of G’Kar or Londo, but they were both interesting and charismatic individuals from their initial appearances. The archaeologist is neither. Everyone else is just a bit dull – with one exception.

The star of the show, for me, is Galen the Technomage, who qualifies on both the counts mentioned above. Peter Woodward really is a find for this sort of JMS-led space opera, as he has a presence and a style of vocal delivery that actually allows him to put across JMS-bibble in a way that makes it sound thoughtful and occasionally witty. Woodward is probably the best actor on the show full stop – he might even have managed to make Marcus Cole a plausible character, but we’ll never know. Unfortunately, he’s only in six of the thirteen episodes, and I’ve watched three of those already. Grim times ahead, perhaps.

‘I am a mystic, and this is my -‘ Hang on, I did that gag talking about Grail. Bother.

Crusade tends toward small casts, mainly I suspect because this is a show palpably being made on a very small budget: some of the CGI is excruciatingly poor, and this really hurts a show which visits other planets on a daily basis (something early B5 never did). Still, I’m a British viewer of a certain age, so poor special effects don’t bother me that much. What is a persistent irritation is the music for these episodes (also the TV movie), which has no sweep or drama, seems remarkably low on melodic content, and generally sounds like a strange amalgam of ring-tone, muzak, and you-are-on-hold tune.

One can’t imagine Crusade‘s backers at TNT being delighted with much of this, and one of the pleasures of the show is trying to spot where the dead hand of the network is exerting its influence over JMS’s scripts. Well, there’s a crowbarred-in fistfight in one episode, a flying-motorbike chase in another (this really does break the bank CGI-wise), and The Needs of Earth has…

Well, there’s no way to be delicate about this: The Needs of Earth has a subplot about alien porn. It actually opens with the captain watching alien porn in his office (this does not appear to have been quite as rigorously edited for content as JMS claims), and when a visiting crewmember justifiably expresses surprise, he says he found it on a data chip given to him by the prick-of-an-archaeologist. This is apparently true, rather than a half-assed excuse made up on the spot, and the captain proceeds to make various judgmental insinuations about it to the prick-of-an-archaeologist throughout the episode (what a guy: I can imagine Sinclair or Picard doing exactly the same). There’s also a bit where he distracts some bad guys by playing the alien porn through their equipment. Given that the episode revolves around the entire cultural treasurehouse of an alien civilisation being stored on a set of data chips and under threat from a variety of Space Taliban, I was bracing myself for the denouement where there was a mix-up with the chips and the Space Taliban had their brains melted by the alien porn, thus resolving the story, but no: this episode was not nearly brave, or funny, or clever enough for that, it was just a little bit weird instead. Which I suppose sums up everything which is ultimately wrong about Crusade as a whole. Four down, nine to go…

Your reward for reading to the end: some hot Pak'Ma'Ra action! I'm sorry, this is the lowest quality picture I could find.

Your reward for reading to the end: some hot Pak’Ma’Ra action! Be grateful you can’t see what’s going on here in more detail…

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