There’s a distinct sense of ‘Not with a bang…’ about the very last two bits of Babylon 5. Here we are entering the realm of the niche, if not outright obscure product. Normally I keep track of series that I like as much as B5, but as recently as eight months ago I was totally unaware of the existence of The Lost Tales.
I did vaguely know about Legend of the Rangers, though: a movie produced for the Sci Fi Channel (or whatever it calls itself these days), which is clearly a very thinly-disguised pilot for a new series. As spin-offs go, it seems rather more comfortable with its identity as a piece of B5 than Crusade ever did: not only does it retain the title of the parent show, but there are Narn and Drazi main characters (I nearly said regulars). Present to give the whole series the right sort of imprimatur is Andreas Katsulas as G’Kar.
There’s nothing especially innovative about the plot, which concerns the doings of the crew of a Ranger ship. The captain is in a spot of disgrace after refusing to die pointlessly in futile combat (this is apparently written into the Ranger Code, which leads one to wonder exactly how this organisation has lasted a thousand years) and so he and his associates have been assigned a starship which is a) falling to bits and b) haunted. Seriously.
The piece of cake mission they are assigned turns nasty when Near-Omnipotent Aliens From The Dawn Of Time turn up and start trying to kill the dignitaries they are escorting. This seems to have been a favoured trope of JMS’s, when you consider the Shadows, the Thirdspace aliens, and so on – there’s dialogue here suggesting these particular aliens are much worse and more powerful even than the Shadows themselves, which begs the question of why we’ve never heard from them before. Maybe they’ve just been bigging themselves up in their publicity.
The convolutions of the plot are not especially surprising, but Legend of the Rangers scores over Crusade in nearly every department – it looks good, the characters are interesting, and in places it is genuinely funny. Even the main character, who starts off looking like another bullish JMS space-jock, turns out to be rather engaging, and his relationship with his Minbari first officer has a definite Kirk-Spock vibe to it. Parts of it try to be innovative and just end up being weird – the fire control systems of the ship work by the weapons officer jumping down a well into a holodeck and doing aerobics in free fall. This, frankly, is silly, and only really works here because the actress involved (Myriam Sirois) is as agreeably lithe as she is. But on the whole this movie showed promise and I’m mildly surprised nothing else came of it.
The Lost Tales is another pilot which ended up going nowhere, but on this occasion JMS wielded the axe himself. It’s a direct-to-DVD movie consisting of two linked stories focussing on characters from the original show. The first of these is, to be honest, so bizarrely unlike anything else in Babylon 5 as to make one want to strike it from the canon. Faced with an apparent case of – and I kid you not – demonic possession, Lochley calls in a priest, thinking an exorcism may be needed. What follows is mostly three people in the same room talking to each other about extremely convoluted theological matters, pepped up only by some inventive direction (JMS again).
I was waiting for the scene where they figure out that the ‘demon’ is actually an alien entity or something to do with psi-powers being misused, but no: there’s no evidence that this isn’t something genuinely supernatural. This is at odds with nearly everything previously implied about religion in Babylon 5, and this – rather than the painfully low budget or the glacial, talky plot – is what really makes me dislike it.
The second story is better, not least because it has Galen in it (who seems even more of a slippery, ruthless customer than he did during Crusade). Galen indulges in his favourite hobby of giving Sheridan a glimpse of a looming apocalypse, in this case a devastating Centauri attack on Earth in a few decades time. Sheridan can avert this, says Galen, but the only certain method is to kill a teenage Centauri noble before he ascends the imperial throne.
We’re in ‘would you kill Hitler as a baby?’ territory here, of course, and when I say the story is ‘better’ that isn’t the same thing as saying ‘it’s great’. Once again you can sense the lack of budget acting as a drag-anchor on the whole undertaking, even though there are more characters and more effects in this segment of the movie. The resolution is not particularly surprising, but at least the performances are good.
The Lost Tales did well, but apparently JMS was fed up with having to squeak out B5 spin-offs on tiny budgets and declared he wasn’t going to do any more unless he was given more cash to work with: and the studio declined. Which leaves us where we are today, with occasional rumours of a theatrical B5 movie, but nothing concrete (as yet).
JMS said that all the spin-offs really achieved was to cheapen the legacy of the original TV show, and I tend to agree, as everything from In the Beginning on has a sort of bitty, half-baked, thrown-together air about it. If you really want to see something special, and powerful, and hugely influential, you should watch the original TV series, particularly the first three seasons or so. Going back to it has been, on the whole, a very pleasurable experience (even if discovering that late season 4 dragged quite as much as I recalled was a bit of a blow). I’ve been intermittently quite rude about Joe Stracszynski throughout this project, but the fact remains that this is ultimately all down to him. One of the best SF TV shows of all time, and one of the most important TV shows of any kind: nice one, Joe.