Babylon 5 #115: A Call to Arms

"You're asking the impossible." "Then I am asking the right person."
IN THIS ONE... The Drakh attack Earth with a Shadow death cloud, and only Sheridan and his team, aboard a new ship called Excalibur, stand in their way.

REVIEW: The most relevant of the B5 movies (unless you count The Gathering), A Call to Arms manages to give us a full adventure set 4 years after Season 5 that's really meant to set up the Crusade spin-off. It will introduce several members of the its cast, the new breed of ship it will use, and by the end, the quest that ship will be on. But I don't want to judge any of that - at least, not in that context - until I get to Crusade (which is just tomorrow, folks, not much waiting). In the context of this film, the Excalibur has an interesting design and characters like Galen and Dureena do their jobs well enough. It all comes across as the start of a D&D campaign as well, and I'm less enthusiastic about that. Beyond the ship's Arthurian name, the techno-mages have returned, and Dureena belongs to something called the Thieves' Guild, and various characters are brought together "magically" so they can go on a quest together. Magically and not, obviously. The visions Sheridan gets are dumped into his head via the Intersect (any Chuck fans in the crowd?), but same difference.

None of the movies beyond In the Beginning used all the main characters, but this one seems particularly bare. Sheridan's the hero, but there's not even a glimpse of Delenn; Garibaldi is forced to trail a rogue Sheridan for most of it (though it's fun how little he empathizes with his cowardly employee); and Zack and Lochley man the station, no one else required. I'm not complaining about a guest-star like Tony Todd, he's always great, and he's someone who's final sacrifice you can feel. Not a star at the time, but interesting to see him here is Carlos Bernard who would play Tony Almeda on 24 (he's the guy with the glasses; didn't recognize him at first because he doesn't speak in a constant whisper). But Dureena the super-thief (she of the weapons gag), and Todd's Captain Anderson and his crew are scarcely replacements for tried and true B5 characters we actually want to see. So is it up to the villains to sustain interest? The Drakh will probably never be more than bargain basement Shadows, but so long as they're using Shadow technology, they're a credible threat. We revisit the devastating planet weapons from the Shadow War, in particular a death cloud that destroys all life on a planet. Cue big battle in Earth orbit, etc.

So why didn't I feel the excitement of the Shadow War or the Earth Civil War, which this battle tries to combine? Familiarity breeds contempt, perhaps, but I don't think that's it. The sound design certainly has something to do with it. The atonal, discordant music used throughout the telefilm is distracting and irritating, but takes the air out of the space battle completely. There's something about the new ships that makes fight choreography a little hard to understand - I got lost in all those horizontal lines - and a murky null-field as a backdrop is, necessarily, murky. It's not bad exactly, but it's nowhere near the level of Thirdspace's final battle, and there's a relative lack of urgency when everyone stands around while a WMD bears down on Earth and lets Dureena talk and talk. Some good moments, certainly, but my attention wandered (to things like the tantalizing mention of the "telepathic crisis", which surely refers to Lyta's revenge on the PsiCorps).

ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WORMHOLE: A Call to Arms is also a Deep Space Nine episode title. Tony Todd has, of course, played several roles in Trek, including that of Worf's brother and of the grown-up Jake Sisko. Babylon 5 contributor Peter David created adventures for a Starfleet crew on a ship named Excalibur in the New Frontier novels (which, come to think of it, is more B5 than Trek in approach). As for taking an untested and unready ship out of spacedock, that's really Captain Kirk's jam.

I'll concede it's a Medium-High if you're going to watch Crusade, but it all left me a little cold, to be honest.


LondonKdS said...

I can now talk about my theory about President Clark's attempt to killsat Earth, which is that he was under the control of a Drakh Keeper, that it was the first attempt by the Drakh to attack Earth, and that his bizarre "scorched Earth" message was the only way his own mind could sneak a message past the Keeper.

My big problem with the "Excalibur" ship design is that it is so blatantly a homage to the "Liberator" from Blake's 7 (there are so many other blatant similarities to Blake's 7 in Crusade that they can't all be coincidences), and that the Crusade DVD included a special feature on the design process that never admitted that.

Siskoid said...

That tracks. Damn Keepers!

As for Blake's 7, it's specifically mentioned by JMS in the commentary track, so no, it's certainly not a coincidence.

Anonymous said...

Goddamn, I really like that about the "scorched earth" message; that recontextualizes things in a really good way. President Clark probably started out as a selfish power-hungry asshole, sure, but by the end of the show he wasn't in control of himself.

LiamKav said...

I've never seen this, so I'll have more to say when I get to it in a week. I do rememeber the idea behind changing the composer, and how much everyone hated it. Did they use Frake or Chan for Crusade?

Ryan Lohner said...

My biggest impression of this one was that I'd never quite realized how important a part of the show's formula Christopher Framke was. His bold, lush orchestrations made him kind of the Michael Giacchino of his time, and added a huge impact to the show. Any other composer's work would probably feel wrong after that, but the tinny and discordant work here seems especially insulting.

I don't recall much about the film itself, honestly, but it does contain my all time favorite bit from a JMS commentary, with his take on Boxleitner's oddly giddy performance on Sheridan's answering machine. "Hello, I'm as mad as a Hatter."

The TNT execs were an improvement over PTEN pretty much by default, but they still threw their weight around at times. JMS' true plan for Crusade was to show that there was still trouble on Earth, digging into the Telepath War repeatedly promised by B5 and showing other conspiracies within EarthGov. But, in a scene I like to imagine as being exactly like the one in Seinfeld where the NBC execs crack up over the "hit and run driver becomes your butler" plot, that concept proved a bit too nebulous to TNT, and they were skittish about the show not having a more concrete hook until JMS threw out pretty much as a joke that there could be five years to find a cure for a plague. In fact, he planned to have the cure be found halfway through season 2, by which time the show would have hopefully become a big enough hit that they would let it go on its own momentum and let him do what he actually wanted with it.

As for Crusade itself, this is pretty much where I step off. I've never seen the show and never really been that interested in it. My only knowledge is that Gary Cole and Daniel Dae Kim were in it, and Cole also wore his character's distinctive ring in Office Space. I'll keep reading and I might comment if an episode's story strikes me a certain way, but this is the end of my advanced knowledge. I hope I've made this a richer experience with these behind the scenes details, and Babylon 5 will always hold a place dear to my heart, both for what it was and what it tried to be. JMS became more in demand in Hollywood than ever after the success of Changeling, and I really hope he's able to give us something of this caliber again. The TV landscape these days is certainly much more conducive to it.

Madeley said...

Thanks to Ryan, Liam, and everyone who's added info in the comments section. I knew some but by no means all of the behind-the-scenes stories on B5, and it's been really interesting reading about them.

I remember enjoying A Call to Arms when I first watched it, and then never watched it again. And never felt the urge to revisit, either, which probably says something about exactly how Medium the rewatchability is for me.

Looking forward to seeing Siskoid's view of Crusade, and the remaining "movies". Crusade was a BRUTAL disappointment to me when I first watched it. I think Gary Cole is great, and was super excited about having him join a Babylon 5 show, only to watch in horror at how it turned out. Maybe it's aged well? Maybe?

I've only seen a little of the Lost Tales episodes, and my god they looked like the freaking cheapest things I've ever seen filmed, possibly in JMS's garage.

Siskoid said...

Thank you so much Ryan for taking this journey with us and giving us loads of insights.

And Liam, and Madeley, and Cradok, and LondonKdS, and everyone else who invested so much of themselves into the comments. You guys were great and I hope the blog can continue to appeal to your interests.

No spoilers on Crusade, Madeley, but I'm a couple episodes in, and while not yet "horrified", I was equally happy to see Gary Cole in it, and he's the best thing about the show right now. The music from A Call to Arms has, sadly, carried over.

LiamKav said...

I believe there's also a horrendous mess regarding what order to watch Crusade in. From what I understand, TNG ordered a big shakeup of the show a few episodes in, including changing the uniforms and stuff. They also messed with the airing order, so there's actually about 3 ways you can view it. (I also understand that JMS really railed against this, and there's some rather pointed/childish digs thrown at TNT.)

Siskoid said...

I'm aware of this and have seen the various orders, but I'm going for broadcast order because that's what I've done since the beginning.

LondonKdS said...

Are you going to do "The Lost Tales" and "Legend of the Rangers" as well?

Not that you should feel forced to, they're neither of them particularly good as far as I'm concerned.

Siskoid said...

All of it. No stone left unturned.

Cradok said...

Man, apparently I liked this more than everyone else, in that I actually liked it. And the music. Tony Todd was great, and it was nice to see him in a role where he's allowed to loosen up a bit. I didn't mind the relative lack of B5 characters, seeing as it was a 'transition' movie. Thanks to the entire premise of Crusade, it was pretty common knowledge at the time how the movie ended, but that bitter end still worked, which I guess is what JMS keeps talking about, it's not what you know is going to happen, it's how it happens.

I do have problems, though. As mentioned, Evan Chen's music for the actual climactic battle is lacking. He gets better at that through Crusade, but of course never gets up to Christopher Franke levels. And I was never a fan of the Victory-class. 'White Star Destroyer' brought to mind something big and bulky, but small and sleek at the same time. What we got... wasn't that. And the main weapon is dumb. And the Drakh spy in the shipyard being called 'Drake' is even dumber.

Couple of bookkeeping issues to round out; New Frontier, with its Excalibur and her crew of misfits, actually launched in summer of 1997, and it was remarked upon when he was announced that Peter David was writing for Crusade's Excalibur and her crew of misfits. Also, your Crusade DVD set is probably missing the commentary by JMS on 'Racing the Night'. The first pressing had it, but he demanded it be removed after it was edited to remove some criticism of TNT. I don't know where one might go to actually find that commentary, though.

LiamKav said...

First time watching this, so let's see how it goes. I shall post my thoughts unedited, partly out of lazyness, and partly because no-one will care 3 weeks after you put up the original review. :)

- Oh god is that the music, really? I'd always heard it was different, but yeowch!

- Hey, Garibaldi FINALLY gets on board a White Star! Only took him until after his series had finished.

- Lochley doesn't get a "Captain" credit, but Sheridan gets his "President" and Zack gets his "Security Chief".

- The lighting seems different than the series. Harsher. Makes the whole thing look a lot more modern.

- "Mars born" and "Earth Natural"? Check your privilege, Mr President. I'm sure Mars born people LOVE the implication that they're not "Natural". It'd be like if you had a "Black British" and a "Natural British" category.

- This sweet chilli chicken I'm eating is quite nice. No, you can't have any.

- Everyone needs to go back and watch ST:TMP again. THAT is how you do a ship reveal. Hide enough at the start that we can just about make it out, but conceal enough that we are aching to see more. The initial shots of the ships in dock was just confusing. I had no idea what I was looking at.

- "Things were so much simpler back on Babylon 5." Aside from being a really clumsy transtition, is Garibaldi really saying that dealing with a slightly officious engineer is more complicated than waging a war against an ancient evil whilst having to keep their operations secret from their increasingly fascist government? Dude has a real short term memory.

- Oh god, this music again. It's like that episode of Friends where Ross plays his "wordless sound poems." ( I keep expecting scenes to end with an explosion.

- This guy is wearing sunglasses inside, in a low light area. He's a dick.

- Garibaldi and Sheridan have changed into their "boys on tour" jackets. I have no idea wh they couldn't have worn them from the get go, since they are supposed to be vaguely incognito.(Sheridan's actually has a little ISA logo on, which is adorable. Like when a WWE wrestler wears one of his own t-shirts.)

- Finished dinner. Put a washing load on. Made a cup of tea. (I told you this would be blow by blow.)

- Ooh, nice transitionfrom the Excalibur bridge to the alien planet.

- Oh, it's one of those "main character can't tell everyone else what he's doing so they suspect that he might be crazy" plots. I hate those. You're the president, John! Just say that it's classified, or that you'll tell everyone when they arrive. No need to act all weird.

- Sheridan's kept his art skills secret for the past 5 years, hasn't he? Thank god when they hand out visions they never give them to people who can just draw stick figures.

- Yay, Tony Todd!

- So, Lochley looks exactly the same. Zack looked exactly the same. How comes Sheridan is the only one who seems to have aged in the past 5 years.

- Lochley and Garibaldi discuss whether Sheridan is losing his mind, with Lochley saying that the two faces could be "random chance". One, I'll grant you, but the other person phoning you up and saying "looking for me"? THAT's "random chance"?

- Why is Sheridan having trouble convincing Lochley? And why would it be so hard to convince Earth? Was no-one recording the shot of all the Drakh ships? Is the say so of the President of the Interstellar Alliance not enough?

- Sheridan's slightly mad answer phone message is fun, but odd. Has he just recorded it? If so, why's he in his suit, rather than the leather jacket he was wearing before and after it? If it's his normaly recording, did he do it after having his first drink in 6 years?

LiamKav said...

- "There's no sense belonging to a secret group if you tell everyone about it." I like Dureena.

- Oh god, I've just got Drake=Drakh. Also, this guy walked up to Garibaldi and pulled a gun on him whilst surrounded by Rangers? Good show, elite fighting force.

- I was waiting for a reveal showing that Earth HAD managed to pull a load of ships together. And they had. But without Franke's music it was just... flat.

- In fact, that applies to the whole battle. Comparing this to the last time there was a huge fight above Earth, there's just a big lack of urgency. I'd love to hear this film with the music rescored.

- And we end with a plug for the spin-off. Which I might watch. I'm curious about a comment on the AV Club, which calls War Zone an episode that seems to have been written "purely out of spite". Or maybe I'll go back to by TNG blu-rays. Hey ho.

Siskoid said...

Liam, I'm enjoying your Nitpicker's Guide / play by play of your chores. So don't say nobody cares.

Being president makes you age precipitously. Just look at Obama.

If it's any comfort, I didn't get the Drake Drakh thing either.

I think Crusade would have been better if I'd used the "revised order". The last episodes, all supposed to fit first are WAY stronger than the ones broadcast in almost random order, I say almost because there's a pattern there: It's like TNT went out of its way to make the show confusing and cancellable.

LiamKav said...

"It's like TNT went out of its way to make the show confusing and cancellable"

One story is that TNG were "memo"-ing JMS to death. The other is that JMS does not like to be memo-ed and was more concerned with showing the middle finger to TNT than he was in writing the show. Personally, I've never subscribed to the theory that some networks TRY and get their own shows cancelled, so I'm going to go with "clash of egos on both sides that couldn't be resolved."


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