I always knew the day would come and I’d be stuck. We’ve had Babylon 5 on the Junkyard now for some 3 years, covering 110 episodes, 13 episodes of Crusade, and the half dozen movies. We finally arrive at the last of them, The Lost Tales, for which we waited until after Crusade due to the inclusion of Galen. Now, as I write my final words on the subject, I’m a bit choked up. It takes place 10 years after the start of the Interstellar Alliance. This is significant: A Call to Arms took place 5 years after the IA started, which means the Drakh plague has been cured. Just last week I wondered about the outcome of that event in the show and speculated on how reality might mirror art. We can only hope that 5 or even 10 years from now, Covid will be as distant a memory.
But what of the story? We open with Lochley, now 9 years on Babylon 5, having achieved the rank of Colonel. She summons a priest … but waits until he’s on board to ask if he can perform an exorcism. Seems like that should have come before he arrived! What follows is a drama about a demonic possession. It’s talky and has little action, but it’s surprisingly engaging. Little nuances from the actors elevate it. The possessed Simon Burke remains in a straight jacket the whole time and yet delivers a powerhouse performance, dripping with menace reminiscent of Dr. Lector in The Silence of the Lambs. It’s amazing because the stark scenery doesn’t help and is frequently noticeable, like in Lochley’s quarters, but that doesn’t take us out of the intense story. The episode gives us a chance to speculate about the place religion has in our lives once we go to the stars. Will priest be a dying breed? Will space travel really leave “nothing to show for your faith” once we get out there? The demon, Asmodeus is a hitchhiker who wants to get out to the stars because he has been trapped on Earth. Lochley figures out that with “heaven above and hell below”, these creatures can’t leave Earth of their own volition and she sends him back to be excised there. It’s a bit of an anticlimax, but there was little else they could do to resolve this and the outcome manages to be surprisingly strong. There will come a day when the earth will be destroyed and the demons will be destroyed forever. A fascinating idea, to say the least!
The second story takes place while Sheridan is heading to B5 at the same time. He’s going to be interviewed but, after the events from the series, is not fond of journalists so he makes the trip uncomfortable for the reporter. Barring a surprisingly sexist moment where the reporter indicates the camera is on her lapel near hear breasts because the producer said it guaranteed the interviewee would look at the camera a lot, this offers little. Actually, the moment she tells Sheridan about the location of the camera, he sits down and doesn’t face her. Considering she fails to turn her own body to have the camera face him, she’s probably going to get fired for a lackluster interview!
The final part picks up smoothly from the second; it’s hard to even distinguish that this was intended to be 3 minisodes. Galen appears to Sheridan in a dream and tells him Earth will be destroyed in 30 years because of the actions of a Centauri. Galen the Unknowable Guesser seems to have knowledge of the future, like he’s a rogue Time Lord. He tells Sheridan that one of the ways to stop the destruction of earth is to kill that Centauri. Cleverly, the writing does succeed by making this Cartagia’s son, just to pack more of a punch! Where this fails as an episode is that Sheridan considers it. I’d go so far as to say it also fails in painting Galen as a very ruthless character. Perhaps he’s intended to be an antihero but his actions are far from heroic and he almost corrupts Sheridan in the process. Thankfully, Sheridan realizes that Galen said “ways” and opts for another path: the path of kindness. He extends a hand of friendship, even of fatherhood, to the young Centauri in the hopes that it will avert the future. I’m pleased to say that Sheridan goes out a hero… unlike Galen the Morally Ambiguous!
Even with my gripes about the final movie, it is stunningly entertaining. I found myself captivated from start to finish and maybe it was because of the opening. I mean, the dark, drab and even empty sets were a letdown and the green screen was too obvious too often but even those things just faded into the background. Seeing Lochley and Sheridan again was great. Seeing one of those classic space battles was also really fun; a mainstay of the series. But what really roped me in from the start and had tears welling up in my eyes was that opening with G’Kar’s quote. We start with the destruction of the station, and then rewind time. The images of the characters are superimposed over that gloriously beautiful piece of music by composer Christopher Franke as G’Kar says:
I believe that when we leave a place a part of it goes with us and part of us remains. Go anywhere in this station, when it is quiet and just listen. After a while you will hear the echoes of all of our conversations, every thought and word we’ve exchanged. Long after we are gone, our voices will linger in these walls…
To round off our B5 journey, the DVD of The Lost Tales comes with a mini-comic book. It’s 3 pages long and features Franklin and G’Kar heading out beyond the rim together. It’s a beautiful homage to two of the heroes of the show who died too early; they are forever sleeping in light.
I’ve loved taking this journey through the B5 universe and sharing it with Roger and my friends at the Junkyard. And it has been a heck of a journey. I hope our words will linger in the walls of the Junkyard for a long time… Entil’Zha Valen. ML
The view from across the pond:
Babylon 5 had an interesting afterlife, which could be seen as a series of false starts. It was the show that wouldn’t die, or perhaps more accurately the show that couldn’t live again, after the original series came to an end. The frustrating thing, having watched everything that came after the end of the fifth season, is that the false starts actually had a huge amount of potential, and the reasons they didn’t succeed seem to have little to do with the programme content and more to do with external influences. Here is another case in point. This was to be the first in a series of straight-to-DVD episodes, and a writers’ strike in the US and some wrangling over budget was apparently why it never progressed after the first one, despite excellent DVD sales. That’s a shame, because The Lost Tales is brilliant. Like Crusade, it’s another tantalising prospect of what might have been.
Considering the budget for this must surely have been lower than a television production, it looks really slick, with the most impressive visuals B5 ever achieved. The station has never looked so pretty. More importantly, we get two great stories here, linked together by a diplomatic event, which Sheridan is returning to attend.
The first half of this might just be my favourite story from any Babylon 5 episode. I love all that creepy possession stuff, and it’s fascinating to see B5 doing a straight-up psychological horror episode. It turns out JMS is brilliant at that – he should have done more of it. So we have a lot of familiar tropes from the horror genre: the coldness, the bad smell, the possessed man talking in a creepy voice, moderated down to an impossible low, demonic tone; the mind games played with a priest, whose own soul is in jeopardy; the challenge of faith. But JMS also subverts the genre in a couple of very interesting ways. Firstly, the usual crisis of faith runs in reverse. Father Cassidy is refreshingly honest about the doubts all priests sometimes experience, and this has been exacerbated by a future world where man has reached for the stars and failed to find angels there. Encountering proof of his faith is actually a challenge to his doubts rather than a challenge to his beliefs, and it takes a while for him to get even close to accepting what he is seeing. Secondly, the idea behind the possession is very clever, explained in terms of a god who allows evil in the universe and uses it to “keep you from getting too far off your leash”. What happens to Simon Burke is a demonstration of the “hand of darkness”, in order to “imply the opposite”, and bring people back to faith.
“Sometimes God uses what we in our narrow frame of reference may think is evil, only to achieve a greater good.”
It’s an absolutely fascinating theological debate and, credit where credit’s due, JMS never backs away from it. Most sci-fi writers would have felt compelled to shoehorn in a sci-fi explanation for what’s happening, but JMS plays the horror straight. There’s enough wriggle room for a sci-fi interpretation, but there’s nothing in this episode to lead us by the hand to a more prosaic conclusion.
Cassidy and Lochley find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place, and find a third way, which in my opinion is what all writers should do when they present us with two bad choices. This links the two episodes together very nicely, because Sheridan also finds a third way when faced with another unpleasant choice.
I have far less to say about the second episode than the first. It’s not that it isn’t good, but nothing could live up to the first episode, and this is simply another version of the child-Hitler debate that crops up in time travel sci-fi a lot. I figured that out in half a second, but JMS spelt it out for us anyway:
“Once upon a time, back on Earth, Adolf Hitler and Genghis Khan were just small boys playing with toys and growing slowly, slowly into monsters. If either of those candles had been extinguished at an early age how many millions of lives might have been spared?”
Vintari isn’t a little boy, but he is a very young man who is finding his way in the world and finding himself. I also spotted the third way for Sheridan in an instant: instead of killing him, or allowing him to live on and kill billions, why not try to change him? But the surprise was the way Sheridan decided to do that, by winning his trust and then basically adopting him as another son. That was a lovely idea.
Watching all of B5 has taken a couple of years, and it took me a long time to get much out of it, but in the end it turned out to be a very enjoyable and interesting viewing experience. It’s not quite up there with the true greats of sci-fi, but I’m very grateful to Mike for introducing me to the wonders of B5. I ended The Lost Tales in a melancholy mood, disappointed that something with so much potential didn’t continue, and with mixed feelings about finally reaching the end of a long journey.
“Babylon 5 is a place of beginnings and endings. I wonder which this will be.”
Sadly it was an ending, but what a great beginning it could have been. RP