Saturday, August 11, 2007

"Babylon 5 - The Lost Tales"

Warning: Spoilers
(spoilage factor: a couple of small spots of mold that have to be pared off a block of cheese before grating it on your pasta)

It took a few solid days of hunting around at several local outlets of big entertainment store chains to track down an exceedingly rare copy of the recently released “Babylon 5 – The Lost Tales” (only to stumble on about five million copies in Costco just the other day – D’oh!). But the search was worth it. (And no, I’m not saying that as someone who’s gone on record as being a B5 fanboy -which I have)
These latest installments (the presentation, “Voices in the Dark” is actually two separate shorts) in the B5 canon take place in 2271 – 10 years after the founding of the Interstellar Alliance, 9 years after the end of Season 5, and 10 years before John Sheridan’s death and the destruction of the station.
In fact, the film opens with the destruction of B5, and as the clock winds backward to place us at the time these stories are set, we’re treated to part of Citizen G’Kar’s farewell to Sheridan from his departure in Season 5, accompanied by a simple B5 melody from Christopher Franke. I can’t think of a better way to take us back to the B5 universe than to use this bit of dialogue where the soft, low tones of the late Andreas Katsulas remind us of the lasting effect of people and places upon one-another.
And with that, we’re into the first of the Lost Tales: “Over Here”.
Shortly before B5 is to host the 10th anniversary party for the founding of the Alliance, station commander Elizabeth Lockley (now having risen from Captain to Colonel) has to deal with a staff member who’s having some sinister issues – nothing she can’t solve by importing an old Catholic priest from Earth. But as the two confront their demonic adversary, they realize the stakes are higher than the salvation of one man’s soul.
All in all, “Over Here” was a good story. But it wasn’t a Babylon 5 story. Certainly the wrestling with philosophical and theological issues and the feelings of the individuals trying to navigate this territory is standard fare for B5. And the fact that Lockley understands her way out of the problem and avoids the two narrow choices that her adversary attempts to impose on her definitely keeps it in the pattern of a major B5 showdown. But the set-up, the drawing-out of the plot and the final resolution didn’t feel like one of Straczynski’s typical B5 installments. No. This felt more like a short story from one of the old authors from the Golden Age of SF – stylistically and structurally it had more in common with the feeling of the neat logic of an Asimov yarn.
And in a different facet, Tracy Scoggins’ delivery of Lockley’s checkmate speech channeled pure Captain James T. Kirk. That’s not to say she made the mistake of a Shatner-esque delivery, rather there was a word choice and intensity and self-satisfaction that ol’ Jim woulda used in putting some alien posing as a Greek god in his proper place of intergalactic irrelevance. More of a sneer than, say, Sheridan’s exasperated “Now get the hell outta here!” to the Shadows and Vorlons at the end of their war. Fitting for Trek, a bit out of place for B5.
“Over Here” and its presentation of the threat of demons and damnation would also seem to offer some continuity problems within the canon, given that the pre-history of the galaxy that came out in the Shadow War indicated that most of mankind’s conceptions of demons and angels were the result of deliberate tampering by the Vorlons who wanted to program humans to be their allies on an instinctual level. Where does that leave room for the demons dreaming of the stars in “Over Here”? In fact, wouldn’t Lockley put even less faith as it were in her opponent’s demonic claims, given that she’s probably read all the files about the Shadow War and the dealings with the various First Ones? Wouldn’t her own experiences with high technology and advanced alien races predispose her to deal with this problem from a secular approach as opposed to theological?
That being said, “Over Here” is still a fine piece of science fiction in the style of the old school, if not strictly speaking that of B5.
Meanwhile, the second half of the presentation, “Over There” has us riding alongside President John Sheridan, on his way to the party at B5, dogged by a pesky reporter, his own shadows of melancholy about his future, and the sudden reappearance of the Technomage Galen, who brings a dire warning. It seems a young Centauri prince who Sheridan will meet along the way to the celebration could be a major threat to Earth if his grand aspirations come to pass in the decades after Sheridan’s death. And Sheridan has a difficult choice in how to best ward-off the potential devastation.
Unlike the first offering, “Over There” is pure B5. The plot, the balance of logic and heart, its fit into the canon, the behaviour, recollections and knowledge of the characters - everything in this feature makes it immediately recognizable as an episode (albeit a short one) of Babylon 5. And a good episode at that!
There might be some fans who would be tempted to criticize “The Lost Tales” for being too small – for having shorter stories and for featuring only three major characters from Babylon 5 and Crusade. But I think the limited scope of these stories is actually their strength. What we get out of it by only following one or two of the major cast members at a time is an incredible focus on their personalities and their crisis – something that would run the risk of being watered-down or outright swamped if the stories needed another half-hour or hour each to bring in the other major characters and properly flush each of them out so that they wouldn’t be short-changed. No. In this instance of storytelling, simpler is definitely better.
Others might point out that the digital special effects are a bit spotty at times – the animation of the background in B5’s hanger seems a bit clunky and the timing of the rotation outside Lockley’s porthole seems off. But that’s really getting into serious nitpicking. Let’s focus instead on what has a bigger impact – let’s focus on how great all the exterior digital effects look. B5 itself is rendered in exquisite detail that we as viewers could only have dreamed of when the series originally ran on TV back in the late 90’s. Same for the Starfuries. For the most part, Straczynski’s special effects crew has given us a work of art to look at.
And the feature is packaged nicely with a bunch of worthwhile extras. Straczynski’s fireside chats range from mildly interesting to downright hysterical and he gives a nice tour of the behind-the-scenes development of the project. There are also some really touching moments in the memorials for Andreas Katsulas and Richard Biggs (Dr. Stephen Franklin). This extra is the part of the whole production where I wish there had been more cast members available to share their memories of these two fine actors.
I seem to recall once running across a fan site that said “Sooner or later, everyone comes to Babylon 5.” (I can’t recall if that was actually in the series itself – I’ll have to have another watch of the series sometime soon to check, not that I need an excuse or anything). In seeing what J. Michael Straczynski has put together for “Voices in the Dark”, I’m hoping that sooner or later more installments to “Babylon 5 – The Lost Tales” will be coming.
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