It’s funny how the brain works. I remember hating River of Souls and loving A Call to Arms. I can’t say my feelings have flipped, but I can say that one was better than I remember it and the other was weaker. But B5 doesn’t excel at long-form story telling so I can’t be too upset; I knew this. This movie is interesting because instead of the A-plot, B-plot, I found myself noticing the chapter breaks and ironically they happen very near the half hour giving us 3 relatively even parts.
First, let’s talk about placement. Sheridan says the war has been over for 6 years and it’s the 5 year anniversary of the Alliance, which puts us around 2267. The opening mentions that the Telepath problem already happened (which is a shame that we never got to explore that story line) but that makes this the latest episode in the series barring Sleeping in Light.
So the chapters as I wrote them: Act 1, the Vorlon wannabes. Chapter one introduces us to the mystery using a technomage. “I’m not allowed to tell you more.” Why not then? This isn’t Spock not telling his younger self something because he wants to see a friendship manifest. There is no value in keeping this a secret. This is, “hey, your planet and everyone on it – possibly including Franklin and Susan and all the friends you made in the series – are on a planet that will be wiped out if I don’t tell you to shoot the little thing Dureena notices. But I’m not allowed to tell you more so here’s a hint: go to the planet that may or may not be called ‘They’re-all-dead-dave’ and see if you can figure out what to do next!” Act 2: En Route to B5. After the hints are laid out, Sheridan realizes the best place to go is B5 because Tony “Candyman” Todd (Captain Anderson) will go there too. (Here I find a fun little link to Buffy the Vampire Slayer as I learn about the planet Xander Prime. No relation?) This gives us half an hour to continue the story and give Captain Anderson a daughter that he vows to protect from the monsters. Very Star Trek in that we can predict what this means for the poor man! (I do admit that when Captain Anderson finds out about where the Drazi keep smuggled goods, I laughed when he said that the only thing of value he carries is his watch!) Act 3: We’ve got company. This is where it all kicks in and goes heavy on special effects. I love the fight sequence, but specifically it’s the scenes of Sheridan and Anderson mouthing “fire” while the images cut back and forth over the battle. The brief sequence gives the impression of a great battle. The music is also very strange here and depressingly not the composer we loved from the main series, but the music is strange and alluring enough to keep me interesting. Anyway, as it happens, things don’t go as planned…
There’s still a bunch of things to unpack in this before exploring the epilogue. The story opens with Michael and John eating together. They are clearly friends. But I was always bothered by one bit of Sleeping in Light when Franklin asks if Garibaldi will come to see John in his final days. Michael says they may not have always seen eye to eye, but they are friends. When John steals the ship, Michael doesn’t consider that there might be a good reason! Instead, he doubts his friend. I do wonder if that might have had an impact on their relationship or if it was a precursor to other similar disputes. It doesn’t appear to have any impact, but you never know! (I realize that had more to do with production than story, but one has to find ways to make it fit!) I thought the ship was great looking but I couldn’t understand why, before the Victory loses weapons, did the good guys have to target only one spot? There were two viable targets and two powerful ships. Did Anderson have to order the death of his whole crew or could they have planned better? Will anyone hold Merlin (I mean Galen) responsible for those deaths? “Hey, if you had just told us…” When Garibaldi works out the Drake was the bad guy on the ship, how does he get SO FAR from the gun-wielding Drake just by getting out of his seat?! And when they are first taking the Excalibur for a test flight, they say to ease out of space dock, but there’s a space-suited dude floating right outside the window. Did he get a shock when the thing left or did they call out and say “get out of the way!” Hey, inquiring minds want to know! What if that were you? Wouldn’t you want some warning?!?
Meanwhile, I really like Dureena and the idea of having a thief and a mage gives this a very epic-fantasy quality to it. Except they don’t really interact much… yet. Well, not until the end. Epilogue: What’s it all about. The Drakh didn’t destroy earth but they “poisoned the well”, dropping a biological virus on earth that will leave it a dead world in 5 years. (Things that make you go hmmm…) But Sheridan commissions a Crusade. With the newly developed Destroyer (called Excalibur, mind you), a magician and a thief will team up and go in search of a cure. Sounds like a cool idea for a new show. But as much as I love B5, I have to say this is based on a flawed premise. Sheridan believes there’s a cure out there… but the only races as old as the Shadows all left with Lorien to go beyond the veil. Only the Shadows and the Vorlons were left barring some hold outs yet we saw them leave together. So what makes John think there are answered out there? Faith? Or a magical guy who talks in Vorlon-like riddles?
In some ways, Babylon 5 reminds me of Sherlock Holmes stories by Conan Doyle. The novels are fun, but they don’t hold up nearly as well as the short stories. That’s B5; the movies are fun, but they don’t hold up to the series. But do I love them anyway? The answer is elementary, my dear reader. ML
The view from across the pond:
When I’ve watched an episode of Babylon 5, I sometimes find it interesting to have a root around the internet for contemporary comments from J. Michael Straczynski. One thing I found about A Call to Arms was his insistence that it was not a pilot episode for Crusade, and yet just about every website that mentions A Call to Arms nowadays states that it was. In retrospect you can see why people would draw that conclusion, as it introduces some of the main cast of Crusade, but more importantly it does feel like the start of something new, and by the end a new five year mission has been established (yes, another one of those). This is a departure from the previous Babylon 5 movies, which were either set within established continuity, or in the case of The River of Souls felt more like a coda to the main series.
A Call to Arms feels different in more ways than that though. The special effects are definitely a step up from anything we have seen before, with an incredibly impressive space battle. Those faces coming out of the rocks are a really cool effect. The incidental music is also a departure from anything that went before, and apparently that’s because it’s the new composer for Crusade. There was a bit of a fuss about it among fans at the time, but then again fans of anything tend to be resistant to change. I think JMS was absolutely right to try something new. It’s a qualified success, occasionally intrusive, and at one point sounds like there’s building work going on next door to the studio, but when it works it’s excellent, and at least it’s a different approach.
As for the story itself, well, I’ve said this for every movie and it still applies here. JMS can’t pace a story of this length. Once again it’s a 45 minute episode stretched out to an hour and a half, and once again the first half is tortuously dull. Once Sheridan gets on with the business of visiting Daltron 7 things start to spring into life, and the final half hour is an exciting race against the clock and then a big battle to try to save the human race. Interestingly, Sheridan only partially succeeds in that endeavour. He stops the planet from being destroyed, but he is unable to prevent the release of a biological weapon. This is clearly set-up for Crusade, because the plague is not adapted to attack humans, but will eventually mutate and prove deadly, within about five years. As this is biological warfare from a race that is far advanced of human abilities, it’s going to prove hard to cure. I found a question that was asked of JMS at the time: to paraphrase, would a virus that attacks a different species actually mutate over time to attack humans? JMS’s reply was that he had consulted experts and yes, it was a realistic storyline. Shockingly, we now live in a world where we don’t need to ask that question.
This movie felt like a big step away from the main series, with only four of the original cast, and only Sheridan and Garibaldi had much to do in this one, although Lochley is always a fun character. As for the new Crusade cast members, they were a mixed bunch, with only Carrie Dobro making much of an impression as Dureena Nafeel. She was paired off with Sheridan for the important part of the story, and they made a great duo. There is an edge to her character that made her a lot more interesting than the others, although the idea of a “thieves guild” was unintentionally amusing. Maybe I’ve just read too much Terry Pratchett.
I think I would have to put this into the same category as Thirdspace: badly paced but reasonably good entertainment in the end. It’s not up to the standard of The River of Souls, but it’s certainly a class above the tediously predictable In the Beginning. All in all, these movies have been a bit of a let down, and I had hoped for better to round off the B5 story. Maybe that will be rectified by the last one. They had to have made a special effort for that, right? RP