Friday, August 31, 2012

Crusade - The Complete Series: Utterly Average Science Fiction Blah.

The Good: Moments of concept and character, DVD bonus features are fine.
The Bad: Awkward acting, Inconsistent character elements, Generally predictable plots, Soundtrack
The Basics: A surprisingly dismal outing in the Babylon 5 universe, Crusade dies a quick death, after wasting thirteen hours of our life.

Before I (potentially) start cheesing people off left and right who might be fans of Crusade, it is worth noting that I am a big fan of Babylon 5. It is one of the series' that has taken a prominent spot in my permanent location and I have positively reviewed the entire series here. In fact, I so enjoyed Babylon 5 that when given the chance to check out the first season of Jeremiah (reviewed here!), I enthusiastically did. Now, years later, I have gotten my hands on Crusade, the first spin-off to Babylon 5 and . . .

Yuck. Just yuck. I know, this is not the most professional term a reviewer might use when describing the quality of a television show but . . . yuck. I stand by my yuck. If anything, I was biased going into Crusade and I made a nightly event of watching the episodes. I was psyched, in part, because I had recently met Tracy Scoggins at a convention and after several days of sitting next to her and chatting, I felt it was time to pick up some other work of hers. Crusade seemed like such a good idea, especially considering it had been years since I had sat down and watched Babylon 5: A Call To Arms, the final film in the Babylon 5: The Movies boxed set (reviewed here!). It helps to see that movie before one sits down and endures Crusade, a thirteen episode television series that was designed to flesh out the galaxy of Babylon 5 and provide a whole new adventure for five years. Prematurely canceled (at least in terms of storyline), Crusade remains an unfinished work and when the opportunities have risen for J. Michael Straczynski to bring some closure to the story, he has not bothered. I can understand; it's hard to get excited about this one.

With Earth under quarantine from the Drakh plague, Earthdome sends its best ship - the Excalibur - into the galaxy on a mission to find a cure. The Excalibur is staffed by a maverick captain named Gideon who has racked up an extensive list of first contact encounters that seems to make him ideal for exploration with this particular mission guiding him and his crew. Gideon is accompanied by a thief, a technomage, an irate archaeologist, and his main crew, which includes a telepathic first officer. With the crew assembled and their mission clear, the Excalibur heads out into the galaxy.

There they discover aliens that take possession of their bodies, technophobes, and an ancient resting place for honored dead. Exploring the galaxy uncovers no shortage of dead civilizations and while exploring for a cure to the plague, the crew of the Excalibur encounters paranoid aliens, religious fundamentalists and PR agents who insist on changing the uniforms so the folks back home have more hope. The ship and crew frequently come under attack or learn about the presence of powerful races that have all died horribly, foreshadowing the fate of Earth if the crew fails in their mission.

Crusade is a fairly ambitious idea, but it is one that fans will have a real difficult time getting excited about, for several reasons. The first is that the viewer knows from the opening frames of the first episode - when the stakes are laid out - that Earth will not die. The entire population will not be eradicated by the Drakh. We know this not because it is too ambitious a premise, but because episodes of Babylon 5, most notably the fourth season's finale, illustrate future events on Earth. So, the viewer knows that the plague is going to be cured; it is simply a matter of how and when.

Second, anyone who does an even preliminary examination of this series will quickly learn that it is in no way complete. This DVD set does not include A Call To Arms, necessitating the purchase of another boxed set just to understand the plot, ship capabilities and to be introduced to the characters of Dureena Nafeel and Galen.

Third, the ambitious idea that motivates Crusade makes little sense and is for a concept that is hardly cinematic. Have you ever wondered why there are no television series' that spend years in a medical community performing trial and error experiments with the goal being to eliminate a virus? It's not great television. Trial fails, trial fails, trial fails, trial fails, trial succeeds, the series ends. Without delving into a melodrama to support such a concept, the television show's idea alone cannot sustain itself as an entertaining premise. But more than that, the overall concept: exploring the galaxy to search for a cure, makes little overall sense. The virus was released by the Drakh, it stands to reason they have stockpiles of the plague somewhere. But the show does not confront the Drakh so directly. Ironically, this also guts the point of what is ultimately the series finale because that episode's premise (running an experiment to actually find the plague virus) makes little sense. For sure, the viewer can understand and accept the idea, but rather than risking lives to see how it spreads, wouldn't it have been just as easy to invade Drakh space, steal their sample and find the virus that way? After all, one of the principle members of the Excalibur crew is a thief!

Finally, the crossover characters from Babylon 5 tend to be treated remarkably blandly. Captain Lochley and Babylon 5 make appearances in multiple episodes (remarkably few considering actress Tracy Scoggins receives second billing right below Gary Cole!), but her role is much more that of a fish-out-of-water and the arc between her and Gideon is surprisingly obvious and she is hardly given enough to do to justify her presence in the episodes.

Rather strangely, Crusade has a remarkably inconsistent crew, even for a young series. Gideon, naturally, is in all of the episodes, but Galen flits in and out, as do Dureena and Max. Dr. Chambers similarly bounces between being one of the lead characters and being relegated to a complete nonentity.

Even though the series is rather limited and the characters seem to appear and disappear for stretches throughout, it is handy to know who the principles are. In Crusade, the main characters are:

Captain Matthew Gideon - A cold, risk-taking commander of the most powerful ship in the Interstellar Alliance, he was once abandoned in space and rescued by Galen. Devoted to saving Earth, he has agreed to scour the galaxy looking for clues that might lead him to a cure for the emerging plague. He has a strange relationship with an entity kept in a box in his quarters, which might be a parasite or an ancient race,

Lieutenant John Matheson - A telepath who survived the Telepath War, he is open about his abilities and more or less restricted from using them. Matheson saves the crew by projecting images into the minds of invading aliens to disarm them, but otherwise serves as a support to the captain when Gideon leaves the ship,

Dr. Sarah Chambers - the ship's physician and an adept research scientist, she and Eilerson clash frequently, though they come to find merit in one another,

Max Eilerson - An expert in communications and archaeology, Eilerson works for Interplanetary Expeditions. Sarcastic and deeply gifted, Eilerson is a grudging member of the crew and often puts profit before the welfare of the ship,

Galen - A technomage (one who uses technology to simulate the effects of magic) of great skill, he once rescued a dying Gideon. Now, he joins the captain and Excalibur on its mission whenever he feels like it and he and Dureena strike up an intriguing friendship based on the fact that both are the only members left of their kind,

Dureena Nafeel - a thief and a powerfully intuitive member of the crew, she seeks to learn Galen's ways, largely because she wishes to extract revenge upon the Drakh,

and Captain Elizabeth Lochley - she shows up from time to time, like when the Excalibur docks at Babylon 5. Despite not wanting to get into any form of serious relationship, she and Gideon clash, until they realize their passions for one another are not merely aggressive.

The characters seem to have their moments, but with such a small cast of characters, it quickly becomes a weird collection of undertows that compel them to pair off. Gideon and Lochley, Galen and Dureena and Eilerson and Chambers all develop friendships with a strong romantic undertone or (in the case of the captain and Lochley) an actual romance. Strangely, for such a small group of characters, they are presented in such a way that it is difficult to care about them. For example, there is never a moment when Matheson is in any jeopardy such that the viewer actually cares whether the character lives or dies.

As for the acting, there is quite a range there as well. Marjean Holden isn't given much to wow the audience with and if she is attempting to, she fails. Far too often, she seems like she's uncomfortable in the setting or mouthing the technobabble. Similarly, Daniel Dae Kim, who is usually one of my favorites, manages to portray Matheson surprisingly blandly.

Scoggins, David Allen Brooks, Peter Woodward and Carrie Dobro each give their best in their roles as Lochley, Eilerson, Galen, and Dureena, respectively. Galen and Dureena are instantly interesting characters and Woodward and Dobro (who both appeared in A Call To Arms) flesh them out well in Crusade.

Gary Cole stars as Matthew Gideon and unfortunately, this is not the best part he has ever had. In fact, while his character on the fifth and sixth seasons of The West Wing (reviewed here!) was often criticized as boring, Cole never actually played the character that way. On Crusade, he is more listless than cerebral, more bland than contemplative and more dull than driven. Cole has the ability to be charismatic and intriguing and he fails rather significantly at that in the role of Gideon. Instead, watching him episode after episode becomes more and more painful, even to fans of the franchise!

Even more painful is the soundtrack. Evan H. Chen provides a distracting electronica soundtrack that is often at odds with the visual sensibilities of the series.

But more than that, Crusade feels like it is distracted from its own mission, like when it takes a break for the penultimate episode to do a spoof of The X-Files. On DVD, Crusade looks good and includes a commentary track on two of the episodes. As well, there are two featurettes, one on the making of Crusade and one on how the Excalibur was designed. None of these bonus features are worth enough to bump the series up into the territory where I could recommend it.

Fans of Babylon 5 seem to be split on this show: I came to it psyched about the concept and ready for something new and instead I found a wandering, listless, very obviously science fiction series. At least, now that I've seen it, I'll know any allusions to it in subsequent Babylon 5 universe productions, but I'll be even more happy that I can save some shelf space when I get rid of this.

For other works with Daniel Dae Kim, please visit my reviews of:
Spider-Man 2


For other television reviews, be sure to visit my Television Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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