Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Lost and found

It might have been a reasonable assumption—given how many times I have touted on these pages the late, great science fiction TV series Babylon 5—that soon or immediately after the release of the first new B5 video content in half a decade, I would, like, you know, write something about it. So what’s my hurry? After all, it’s only been more than a month and a half since the straight-to-DVD release of the first installment of Babylon 5: The Lost Tales. Hey, I just hate to be rushed.

The truth is that, strangely, I didn’t rush to get the first DVD, called Voices in the Dark, at the earliest possible moment. I waited patiently until it was released in the UK, which was about a month after the US release, so I only saw it about three weeks ago. I think that I didn’t want to build it up too much in my mind. After all, it has been 8.8 years since the end of the Babylon 5 series proper, with the broadcast of the series finale, “Sleeping in Light.” And it’s been 8.7 years since the last made-for-TV Babylon 5 movie (that was directly linked to the series), A Call to Arms. And it has been 8.1 years since the end of the B5 spin-off series Crusade. And it has been 5.7 years since the original airing of the made-for-TV movie cum failed new series pilot The Legend of the Rangers (or, to use its technical full title, Babylon 5: The Legend of the Rangers: To Live and Die in Starlight). When you add up all the pent-up waiting/hoping/anticipation built up during all those years, well, you can see that there has been an awful lot of pressure built up to rest on the shoulders of a 75-minute featurette.

The first problem, in discussing Voices in the Dark, is how to characterize it. Its runtime is on the low end for being considered a movie, although it is on the long side to be considered an episode. But it really is an episode in the sense that it arguably doesn’t stand alone as an artistic work the way a feature film is meant to. I’m not saying that someone who isn’t already familiar with the vast Babylon 5 lore couldn’t get anything out of it. But it seems to be made for the existing fan base first and foremost. Or maybe second-most. It actually seems to be made for the pleasure of series creator J. Michael Straczynski, and I mean that in a totally good way. Anyway, it is clearly meant to fit into the vast virtual jigsaw puzzle that is the Babylon 5 mythos more than it is meant to stand alone as an isolated entertainment. Moreover, it has the familiar A story/B story structure typical of B5 and most other hour-long TV series. The odd thing is that, rather than switching back and forth between the two stories, as is normal, the two stories are presented consecutively. This is a vestige of the original plan, which was to release three mini-episodes per DVD, but wound up evolving into two not-quite-as-mini-episodes.

Now, you might be asking, who cares if it is a movie or a TV episode or what? Well, it matters because we have difference expectations for a movie than for a TV episode. Revisit in your mind the various Star Trek feature motion pictures and then compare them with even the best of the various Star Trek TV series. There are different production values and, more importantly, different narrative expectations. A movie needs to be a complete and full work in its own right, no matter how connected it is to another medium. And, especially in the case of the science fiction genre, we expect a higher level of excitement and spectacle and action. Despite a high level of CGI effects that testify to the growth in software tools since JMS and his crew first unwrapped the Amiga-powered Video Toaster in the early 1990s, The Lost Tales makes no move to provide us with a special-effects extravaganza with a cast of thousands.

In fact, that is what is most TV-like about The Lost Tales. The whole thing features only a half-dozen main characters (only three of whom actually figured in the B5 and/or Crusade series), with just a handful of additional supporting players. And so much of the stories is dominated by talking that, at times, the project nearly feels like an adaptation of a stage play. In fact, I will go further and say something that, eerily, I unwittingly foreshadowed seven weeks ago. There is something downright Bergmanesque about Voices in the Dark. The first story involves a priest being brought to the titular space station, perhaps to perform an exorcism. (The actor who plays the priest is Canada’s Alan Scarfe, whose other recent DVD release is Sarah Polley’s film Away from Her, in which he plays Julie Christie’s husband.) But it’s not a spooky shocker. Instead, it is a thoughtful meditation on the nature of belief in the supernatural, faith versus knowledge and whether there is still room for belief in God (and by extension the Devil) in a world dominated by science. The second story is a drama spun out of an ethical dilemma: if you somehow could have foreknowledge that someone, in the future, would be the cause of countless deaths, would you be justified in killing him? These are not the sorts of stories to entice potential new fans hungry for battles with space blasters and swooshing star fighters. This is more for connoisseurs of serious science fiction who want a thought-provoking experience.

Whether this satisfies every dyed-in-the-wool B5 fan is a pointless question. While we enjoyed the various stories throughout the series run that posed similar weighty questions, what we most remember are the epic storylines involving galactic empires and clashes of various planets. It was unlikely that a limited format like this would be able to feed that hunger. But there was something else that fans were looking for as well. This is the first B5 story since the untimely passing of two prominent cast members. How would this be handled? In the end, it was handled deftly and sensitively and, really, in the only way it could have been. The two characters, G’Kar and Dr. Stephen Franklin (played by the late and much missed Andreas Katsulas and Richard Biggs, respectively) were said to have gone off “beyond the rim,” which has by now become well established B5-speak for “a better place,” “the wild blue yonder,” “the great beyond,” etc. For those of us who have been around for the entire ride (as well as many others, of course), it was a powerfully emotional moment and well worth the cost of the DVD all by itself.

So in the end, how does Voices in the Dark rank? Obviously, for B5 fans it’s a must. For others, it may or may not be of interest. But how does it rank for the B5 fan? If I were to make a ranking of all the B5 episodes, I suppose it would fit in the middle somewhere. It doesn’t compare with the best episodes of the series, the ones that pushed the five-year story arc. But it’s still compelling drama, with the added benefit of filling in some narrative cracks in the overall B5 story. Moreover, it treats the fans with a fair amount of respect in that it is not the least exploitive of their loyalty. Indeed, with this first DVD in the series, it is JMS who has demonstrated his loyalty by clearly not grasping for a new or bigger audience with overt commercial appeal. Or, more to the point, he has been loyal to himself. After some bad experiences with certain TV networks, he waited until he had the clout to do stories he wanted to do to please himself, without compromise.

As a fan, one cannot be anything but grateful for this DVD. As a viewer, one may or may not be thrilled with it. But one thing that cannot be denied is that it is absolutely brimming with integrity.

-S.L., 20 September 2007

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