Monday, April 2, 2012

Expanding The Universe Of Babylon 5: Babylon 5: The Movies

The Good: Generally good special effects, Interesting stories, Good acting, Decent extras
The Bad: Inconsistent character elements, Inconsistent movie quality
The Basics: While a must for fans of the Babylon 5 series, the self-referential nature of some of the movies make this a difficult sell to newbies.

When Babylon 5 moved to the TNT network, they were commissioned to make films to make an event of the move. In addition to recutting the pilot for the television show, the producers were given the chance to make four additional films. They are now collected in one boxed set which is the Babylon 5 Movie Collection.

"The Gathering" is the recut pilot episode for the Babylon 5 series and it is pretty much essential for fans or newcomers to watch before attempting to view the series. Introducing all of the major players in the universe, station commander Jeffrey Sinclair must deal with the arrival and subsequent assassination attempt on the Vorlon ambassador, Kosh. In the process, Sinclair himself becomes a target, inspiring the question that will rule the entire first season of the series.

"In The Beginning" is a prequel movie which tells the story of the Earth-Minbari war. Here we see more than what the series has told us previously, including Dr. Franklin's role, Londo Mollari's interventions and John Sheridan's victory against the Minbari as well as a secret mission to try to end the war.

"Thirdspace" - This problematic sidenote to the main Babylon 5 storyline revolves around the discovery of an immense alien artifact which seems to hold the key to a new form of travel. It telepathically affects many of the crew and threatens ruin on the station.

"The River of Souls" explores the philosophical questions initially raised in the first season episode "The Soul Hunter" by bringing Soul Hunters back to the station. This standalone film is fairly pointed and it makes its point well.

Finally, "A Call To Arms" puts the Earth under attack by the allies of the Shadows as a precursor to the series Crusade, the Babylon 5 spin-off. "A Call To Arms" feels like a Babylon 5 endeavor in terms of characterization and plot, though it works to pass the torch to a new crew.

What works with the Babylon 5 movies is that they flesh out the universe of Babylon 5 exceptionally well. These stories fill in gaps, make richer the known events, and give some opportunities to characters that we have not seen before.

The main problem with these movies - up until "A Call To Arms" is the lack of a credible threat. "The Gathering," being the pilot, is awkward in comparison to the polished look of the rest of the series and the rest of the movies. But, as it is the beginning, we know the universe will not end. Similarly, "In the Beginning" is the story of a war which has a known outcome. Fleshing it out is certainly interesting and while it is perhaps the best of the Babylon 5 films, the story falls mostly along known lines.

The real insult in this department is "Thirdspace." At the height of the action of the fourth season of Babylon 5, the station faces a deadly threat that could wipe out everything. But, of course, it doesn't. Why? Because there's the rest of season four and season five coming. "Thirdspace" is like watching a horror film when one knows there is a sequel and which stars have already been cast for it. The menace is diminished. Therefore, the threat represented by "Thirdspace" is never real. We know no one we care about will die, be altered and there are no ramifications from this on the series. This insults the larger tapestry by diminishing one of the fundamental notions of the Babylon 5 universe; all actions, all choices, here have a consequences.

"River of Souls" works mostly well as does "A Call To Arms." Where "River of Souls" fails to work is - again - in the big picture of the Babylon 5 universe. At the end of the fifth season of Babylon 5, the station is turned over to a new crew. While "River of Souls" gives Captain Lochley the chance to completely command the station, we never see her new doctor, nor any of her new staff that she likely came to depend on.

What keeps "River of Souls" in the winners circle is the acting. Martin Sheen portrays the Soul Hunter with his usual excellence and it's a shock to see such a prestigious actor in a made-for-television movie. He rules each of his scenes and it's easy to see why he was drawn to the role. The truth is, all of the movies have pretty great acting and the characters are interesting, as they always have been.

This set has remarkably few extras, basically each film has an introduction and commentary track.

Who will like Babylon 5 the movies? Fans of Babylon 5. It's a treat that illustrates that this universe J. Michael Straczynski created still has so many more stories to tell. It, as he notes in the boxed set's notes, fills in the gaps and it does it well. But more than that, the first two movies may give people not familiar with the Babylon 5 universe a chance to see if its somewhere they would like to invest their time and money (nothing is lost by watching the first two films, then going and watching the series). I suspect it's a way to get some new people interested in one of the greatest television series' of all time.


For other television reviews, please visit my Television Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the films I have reviewed!

© 2012, 2006 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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