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Posts Tagged ‘In the Beginning’

So, the initial batch of Babylon 5 TV movies. These are, as a little thought might lead you to expect, curious beasts, and difficult to generalise about as a group – some are deeply tied into the grand story of the original series, others are of necessity required to stand alone. Joe Straczynski has gone on record saying that none of the peripheral projects, like these and the other spin-offs, did anything but cheapen the legacy of the original show. I’m not sure I’d go that far, but it’s a near thing either way.

The first movie of the bunch is In the Beginning, which tells – in considerably more detail than we ever got to see in the weekly series – the story of the Earth-Minbari War, one of the main elements of backstory for the first couple of seasons.

Now, the immediate problem with this as a premise is that it’s going to be most appealing to people who’ve already watched the show and know a bit about the war in question already, and so most of the audience is going to know the story in advance. This is not a good recipe for drama, and so JMS works hard to build in lots of little shocks and revelations about the regular cast and their roles in the conflict, even if this sometimes comes at the expense of plausibility and good continuity.

So we learn that, as well as Delenn, both Londo and Sheridan are directly or indirectly to some extent to blame for the starting of the war, and that many of the characters first met many years before it was initially suggested. A lot of this they just about get away with, but I really am surprised we never got a scene where Sheridan and Delenn fondly reminisce about their very first meeting and her attempt to have him shot.

It looks very nice and there are some well-mounted sequences, but as the story nears its conclusion it really turns into just a simple recap of events, which the faithful will already know, and which new viewers will likely find go past a bit too quickly. Here the problem of knowing the end in advance really shows its teeth. In the end this particular movie has a lot of curiosity value but is by no means essential.

On, then, to Thirdspace, which is set at some point during season 4, but exactly when is a somewhat fraught question, as it is apparently almost impossible to find a moment when everyone’s in the right uniform and on the station as depicted here. This is a proper standalone story, though informed by the show’s wider universe. Coming home from a routine mission, Ivanova discovers a massive alien construct floating in hyperspace. Believing it to be potentially valuable or useful, Sheridan has it towed back to Babylon 5 and starts to investigate it, with the help of some passing xenoarchaeologists. Unfortunately, the presence of the artefact is having a very strange effect, first on Lyta, then on many of the station’s inhabitants…

JMS says this is his attempt to do a Cthulhu Mythos story in the Babylon 5 universe, to which I can only say ‘Hmmmm.’ There’s certainly a hint of At the Mountains of Madness in the initial set-up of the story, and the way in which the station’s inhabitants are afflicted with bad dreams certainly rings true to Lovecraft. However, a few dream sequences aside, the horror of the artefact is always floating off in the distance somewhere – it never envelops either the audience or the characters.

The way the story develops is also authentically very non-Lovecraftian, although I perhaps sense the dead hand of JMS’s network backers in this. The Cthulhu Mythos is quite short on fist-fights, and the idea of actually giving battle to Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones is laughable -and yet the climax of the story boils down to a lengthy brawl on the station and a massive space battle against encroaching aliens from another dimension. Everything is finally resolved by Captain John ‘Nuke ‘Em’ Sheridan reaching for his favourite brand of warhead again. Nice idea, very dubious execution.

'Take that, Nyarlathotep! Get that stitched, Ithaqua!'

‘Take that, Nyarlathotep! Get that stitched, Ithaqua!’

One thing you can say about  Thirdspace is that it at least looks fairly lavish: The River of Souls appears to have been made on a much more restricted budget. Set six months after the end of the series proper, this is another standalone story (though one which reuses the Soul Hunters from early in season 1).

You would have thought the people running the station would by now have instituted a blanket ban on any brilliant-but-maverick xenoarchaeologists being allowed to visit, as when they do it almost inevitably leads to disaster. Alas no, and so we have what’s a close cousin to a Wandering Loony story, with Ian McShane rocking up as someone who’s just pillaged a Soul Hunter crypt. Funding his operations is Garibaldi’s corporation, and so the man himself turns up to ask him just what he’s been up to. But the relic McShane has stolen is not what everyone thinks it is, and things become even more involved when a Soul Hunter turns up demanding his property back.

Playing the Soul Hunter is Martin Sheen. Martin Sheen! Possibly the most distinguished actor ever to cake himself in prosthetics and wobble strangely across a soundstage. To begin with, Sheen’s performance just comes across as incredibly mannered and affected – but then it sinks in that Sheen is genuinely trying to play this alien being as an alien being, not just a fantasticalised analogue of a German, or a Russian, or someone Japanese, which (let’s face it) is basically what most screen aliens essentially are.

The story itself is decent but a bit underpowered. There’s also what initially looks like an unconnected B-plot about Lochley and Allen having trouble with someone operating an unauthorised holo-brothel on the station. This, frankly, comes across as a bit crass – Tracy Scoggins has to cram herself into a pink basque, there’s what appears to be a joke at the expense of SF critic John Clute, and it’s all a bit leery. It does connect up to the main story with the Soul Hunters eventually, but I’m still not sure it does enough to earn its place.

None of these movies is especially accomplished, with River of Souls in particular only being lifted above mediocrity by Martin Sheen’s performance. But they’re all fairly watchable and by no means as bad as the worst episodes of the parent series. Is JMS being a bit hard on them, then? I’m not sure – but I’d say his judgement was bang-on about Crusade and the associated movie, which is what’s up next.

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