Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Retrospective: Babylon 5: The Lost Tales / Voices In the Dark


Overall: An uneven, but promising start: 5 out of 10

Babylon 5: The Lost Tales - Voices In the Dark is the first installment of the Lost Tales, direct-to-DVD series, a spin-off and continuation of Babylon 5. It is written and directed by series creator, J. Michael Straczynski. My first impression of the two stories (loosely gathered together as Voices In the Dark) is that Straczynski suffers from being too aware of his story, while directing it. There are no frills in these episodes. No prop that wasn't absolutely needed for the shot. No extras that aren't required (a lone Minbari wandering the halls in the background of one shot is almost a shock). Straczynski hits all the beats of his story with the precision of a long-range artillery gunner, but we're left without any sense that the story is connected to the larger concerns of the station and the Alliance.

But, this isn't a negative review. Overall, I'm glad to see B5 back on the screen, and even the characters that I didn't like from the series are a welcome sight. The station is newly overhauled for high-res CG rendering, and it shows. The graphics are all stunning. The virtual sets are masterful. There are hints at what has happened to our favorite characters who don't appear (including knowing nods to those whose actors have passed away). This is Babylon 5 of the quality that we came to expect from the TV show, but updated chronologically and technologically for the modern TV audience.

Over Here

The first story, Over Here, centers on Lochley (now a Colonel), a priest and a maintenance worker who may or may not have a problem requiring said priest. This story feels like it runs about 15 minutes too long. It also lacks one thing that Straczynski is well known for: a balanced, and unbiased view of religion. The story leads the viewer to one and only one conclusion which Lochley drives home in her final log entry. As a fan of the show, this seems deeply troubling, but that might be the desired effect. I'll cover this a bit more in the spoilers section, below.

Over Here features two excellent guest actors, and if you buy this DVD for no other reason, the performances in this story should be the one. They do evoke the sense that the series tried to convey of a somewhat troubled humanity trying to find its new place among the stars, and they do so in a single, small room with very few visual effects to fall back on. For the most part this story is just a conversation.

The directing, on the other hand, is the least impressive aspect of this story. As both writer and director, Straczynski has no one to tell him that the script won't shoot well. There are a number of scenes that feel wasted, and the hand-wringing scenes at the end feel as if the characters are trying to explain their decisions to the audience, rather than work through them for themselves.

As the first installment of B5 since the fifth season (or the movies if you count those as part of the series), this is a disappointment, but be sure to read the spoilers below once you've seen it. I think Straczynski has plans for the elements set up in this episode, and I don't think all is as it would seem.

Over There

Over There is the second of the two stories, and takes place roughly immediately after the first story. It follows President Sheridan, a reporter (who appears only briefly), Galen the technomage, a Centauri who is in line to the throne and Colonel Lochley (only in the second half). This story has two things that I think fans have wanted to see again for a long time: Galen and Starfuries. We get to see space battles (albeit very briefly) and a city on Earth ... If you recall the series, you'll know that an Earth city appearing on-camera is usually not healthy for said city.

The pacing is much better in this episode, though it suffers even more from the feeling that this is the story as it was remembered, years later, and not as it happened. Again, there are very few people in the background, and again it is the appearance of a Minbari extra (two, actually) that drive home the emptiness of the hallways and rooms we're herded through. Boxleitner brings Sheridan back just as we remember him. He's calm, measured, somewhat impish, but always ready to shout down those whose motives he deems unethical.

Galen's technomage character is as much an enigma as ever. Effortlessly bypassing the President's security (something I would have like to have seen discussed), and appearing to him several times. Galen's wispy, almost lyrical lectures get a bit thick at once point, but Woodward is up to the task of putting a human face on the overwrought technomage.

Spoilers

Ok, now it's time to get into it. Please don't read on unless you've watched the episodes.

Over Here

The first story, Over Here had better be setup for the rest of the series. Straczynski has never endorsed a religion on the show, and here he does so with gusto. Now, being a long-time fan, I see a human inhabited by a powerful entity, capable of displaying illusions across the spectrum of senses, and spouting religious dogma... my first thought is: Vorlon. This is further driven home by the fact that someone looking an awful lot like Kosh appears in the opening credits. Of course, Lochley sees this through her own religious filter (and recall that she wasn't present for the Shadow War), so we should not be shocked that she fails to reach the same conclusion. As the introduction to the idea that there are powerful beings trapped on Earth, this is an interesting story. On its own, it's a rather disappointing violation of what we fans thought were the ground-rules.

There's also the exposition toward the end of the first story. There's no reason at all for Lochley to have wanted to explain her reasoning to the entity. There's no reason for them to have even entered the room. It felt horribly pointless and anti-climactic. It doesn't help that Scoggins is unconvincing as the domineering leader of a military installation.

Over There

The second story, Over There (and what is with these names, anyway?) helps us to understand more about what's been going on in the B5 universe. We now know why Vir is in line to the throne. We know that Galen is communicating with the technomages again (if we believe him). We know that Franklin and G'Kar are out, exploring beyond the rim together (a nod to the two actors who passed away recently). These are all elements of the B5 storyline that fans have wanted some answer to, and I think it bodes well for the series that Straczynski realizes that these revelations are important to us.

The all-to-brief space battles and destruction of New York are welcome returns to the sort of galaxy-shaking upheavals of the original series, and the Starfury sequence reminds us that this was the series that knew how a ship should move in space.

Conclusion

Now that Straczynski does not plan to direct further episodes, I think this series has a shot at being as good as the orignal B5. It's not that he's a bad director, it's just that he doesn't seem to handle the split-duty of writer and director well. It's also clear that the budget for these episodes was not terribly large, another attribute that will hopefully be rectified in future installments.

It's an uneven, but promising start to what I hope to be a long and interesting series.

The future

As I've said, JMS needs a director. The original series had Janet Greek (And the Sky Full of Stars, Signs and Portents, Chrysalis, The Coming of Shadows, and many others of the series' early, best episodes), Mike Vejar (Comes the Inquisitor, War Without End: Parts 1 & 2, and many others of the series' middle, best episodes) and David J. Eagle (Severed Dreams, The Very Long Night of Londo Mollari, and many others of the series' later, best episodes). These three would make a formidable team for future installments of TLT. What I think they brought to the show was an ability to take the really crazy stuff that JMS wrote and bring it together into a coherent episode with enough of the "the world" behind it to make it feel real. TLT needs that if it's to continue to do well. I think JMS knows how to pull this rabbit out of his hat. He could write a Point of No Return or Chrysalis for TLT, but he must swallow his pride and admit he needs help from someone who can temper his vision. If he cannot, he'll be our modern-day Heinlein: a brilliant author who won't let his work be edited by those who know what his audience truly wants and what's just self-indulgence.