Babylon 5 #129: The Legend of the Rangers: To Live and Die in Starlight

"What did you tell them?" "Four true things." "That's all?" "Try to find one true thing in this economy." 
IN THIS ONE... A Ranger crew fights the agents of an ancient evil called the Hand. G'Kar guest-stars.

REVIEW: Set three years after Babylon 5 (and two before Crusade), The Legend of the Rangers was meant to be a pilot for a new series in the B5 universe, housed this time at the Sci-Fi Network. I'm going to come right out and say it, it's too bad it wasn't picked up. Of course, by 2002, the franchise was well past its prime and had probably shed too many fans of the original. Even if Legend's first outing hadn't been very promising, it would still be worth the viewing just to see G'Kar again. No surprise: He gets all the best lines. But that outing IS promising, much more in fact than Crusade's in fact (we're talking War Zone here, I bear absolutely no ill will towards Racing the Night). In terms of ships, the Liandra is at the opposite end of the spectrum from the Excalibur, a small rust bucket, old, cursed and haunted, with a compact crew and always, always, always a sense of desperation about it in every exciting action sequence.

When we met the Rangers, they were already a Minbari-human composite, but the show adds a Narn and our first-ever Drazi cast member in the mix (a lovable lug). Even without these additions, one of the major themes is that of understanding another culture. Right away, our human hero David Martell, is on the outs with his order because he put more stock in living for the One than dying for the One (and one would hope the actual series wouldn't have used the slogan quite as often), an ideal that is very Minbari and exemplified by his rival Tannier (meant to be the guy found to be not ready in Learning Curve, but played by a different actor; it doesn't seem right that he would now become a captain). If the Rangers and the Alliance are to survive and thrive, they must, as G'Kar intuits, embrace those differences and let go of certain traditional interpretations of Ranger dogma.

G'Kar is only really here to give the potential new show his blessing, and I think its characters deserve it. Dylan Neal looks and sounds so much like his fellow Canadian actor Paul Gross - a personal favorite - that I immediately took a shining to him, but then, Martell cut from the same maverick cloth as Sheridan, something the irreverent G'Kar amusingly reminds his commanders all too willing to expel him for surviving a battle. Martell shares a bantery relationship with his first officer Dulann which isn't unlike Gideon's and Matheson's, though more familiar. This is a small team on a small boat. Hard to keep the distance of command, the ones who served together before are friends first. Dulann is, for lack of a better word, psychic, and can see into people's souls, and one might wonder if the ghosts of the doomed Liandra would have continued to communicate with him in the series. After all, there's still their multiple murders to be solved. Sarah is the tactical officer, a fatalist pretty overtly based on a certain Klingon in the same job, a job that in her case requires her to go into a VR bubble and engage in ship-to-ship combat personally. This is either awesome or silly, depending on how you look at it. Awesome because it makes the space battles different from anything else we've ever seen, silly as when she starts screaming and throwing a tantrum along with those energy blasts. The other members of the team are rather more sketched in than fully realized, but we have Malcolm the atypically easy to intimidate covert ops officer, Kitaro the cocksure navigator, Na'Feel the badass and fairly funny Narn engineer, Firell the demure healer, Tafeek the first contact specialist who tries and fails to calm some diplomats down by promising them closet accommodations, and Tirk the dumb and brawny security Drazi. I know they all had something to offer thanks to that one ceremony where they must say who they are, where they're from, and some cryptic truth about themselves. Nice icebreaker, I suppose, but as Christopher Franke's music swelled  - yes, he's back! - I found myself surprisingly moved by the whole thing.

Along with Franke, B5's premiere director gives us dynamic action and always something interesting to look at. The production design gets Crusade's idea of a "submarine" right for the first time; the Liandra is a claustrophobic space where one can feel every hit (just look at the mine field scene for some of the scariest damage ever shown on a space opera show). And the effects are just beautiful - the difference just a couple years make. As for the plot, it's predicated on an ancient evil (yes, another one) rising from the dark dimension where it was banished (no, probably not Thirdspace, another one), with agents in dark, creepy ships (no, not Shadows or Drakh). Derivative? Perhaps. But Legend of the Rangers means to avoid the irrelevance of B5's 5th season while tapping into what made the first four years of the series so interesting. Even the mechanics of the plot admit using the same plan twice can work wonders. Over the course of the tele-film, the Liandra gets into several battles, hides inside the tail of a comet, is ambushed again and again, and survives by the skin of its teeth. Desperate and exciting is how I would describe its action beats, with a dash of humor (BOOM!).

ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WORMHOLE:
Sarah even uses the Klingon phrase "Today is a good day to die", though Martell can't help mocking it.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High
- The value of any pilot is whether or not it would have gotten me to watch a full-blown series. "To Live and Die in Starlight" would have, yes. It's a fun and kinetic action adventure series, with a great guest star and lots of potential. In the grand scheme of things, it's a little pointless, and that's too bad.

7 comments:

Ryan Lohner said...

The only thing I've ever heard about this one is that it's the one part of the franchise that EVERYONE agrees is best left forgotten, so this was quite a surprise. I'll definitely be checking it out now.

Although if G'Kar was meant to appear more often, Katsulas' lung cancer would have made for some big complications toward the end of the show so maybe that's a blessing that it wasn't picked up.

Siskoid said...

Cast photos from the time don't include Katsulas, so I'm guessing he was only there to perform the baptism.

Timothy Brannan said...

I HATED the VR ship to ship combat. I thought it might have been cool when I heard about it, but it looked really stupid.

This is I have to admit the best review I have ever seen for this show.

Cradok said...

The one thing B5 related that I cannot comment on, as I've not actually seen it. I own it, but it's still sealed in plastic. Part of why I've not watched it is that I know G'Kar is there, and I don't want there to never be any more G'Kar to discover, and part of it is timing and apathy. It was never shown on TV here, and wasn't available on DVD for quite a while, so I didn't get it until after Lost Tales.

LiamKav said...

I picked up the big B5 boxset from Amazon for about £40, that contains pretty much everything (although for some reason the UK version uses the original verison of "The Gathering" rather than the SE"). I've also not seen this. I'm currently two episodes from the end of B5 and wondering whether I can cope with the spin off stuff, or if I should just get to SiL and stop.

LondonKdS said...

I'm extremely surprised that you're so lenient with this after what I thought were surprisingly negative responses to some of the main show episodes.

First of all the conflict about "dying for the One" is a shocking example of a previously positively-depicted organisation becoming unbelievably stupid or evil just to make the protagonist's "rebel" status sympathetic. We're seriously expected to believe that the Ranger code of honour bans retreat under any circumstances, even inevitable pointless death? That's stupider than the Klingons at their most absolutely cartoonish, and makes it astonishing that the organisation has supposedly survived for thousands of years.

I also thought that the weapons interface was one of the stupidest things I have ever seen on an SF TV show - what is the point of a weapons system that leaves the tactical officer utterly exhausted after every engagement. It seemed to me to be a blatant and verging-on-offensive attempt to appeal to the lowest common fanboy denominator of the Buffy/Alias audience who were only interested in wanking over the hot girl doing ninja moves.

And after the Shadows and "Thirdspace", it's yawn-inducing to have yet another ancient powerful evil force that for some reason nobody has mentioned before turn up out of nowhere.

Siskoid said...

#controversy

 

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