Review for Crusade: The Complete Series
It’s hard to countenance now, but there was a time when Babylon 5 fans and Star Trek fans were mutually exclusive. For ten years of television, two series, Star Trek was all about boldly going, setting forth in a starship, and exploring strange new worlds week in and week out. Then along came the third series, Deep Space Nine, and suddenly they are station bound, staying put each week, slowly developing a major story arc that grew more and more epic. That Deep Space Nine came out around the same time that Babylon 5 was produced was catnip to armchair conspiracy theorists. They both had characters called Duk(h)at, they both introduced a hero ship halfway through, and they both had war arcs. It was all so much nonsense of course. Babylon 5 and Deep Space Nine are wholly different and both eminently enjoyable. But I have to admit that my own inner conspiracy theorist is tweaked when I think about the short lived Babylon 5 spin-off Crusade. For in J. Michael Straczynski’s follow up series, he had a hero captain in a starship, boldly going to explore strange new worlds, week in and week out. It seems turnabout is fair play.
In the Babylon 5 movie, A Call to Arms, President Sheridan narrowly averted the Earth’s destruction at the hands of a Drakh armada and a planetkiller weapon, but in a fit of pique, the defeated Drakh seeded Earth with a genetically engineered Shadow plague. The only upshot was that it would take around 5 years for the disease to adapt to humans and become fatal. That gives Captain Matthew Gideon and the crew of the Excalibur that long to find a cure out there amongst the stars.
All 13 episodes of Excalibur are presented on five discs from Warner Brothers. It turns out that Excalibur was totally Firefly’d when it was originally broadcast, with the episodes in the wrong order. That broadcast order is how it’s presented here. J. Michael Straczynski has offered an approved viewing order that can be found with the aid of Google, but I’ve cut and pasted it beneath the disc listing for your convenience.
2. The Long Road
3. The Well of Forever
4. The Path of Sorrows
5. Patterns of the Soul
6. Ruling From the Tomb
7. The Rules of the Game
8. Appearances and Other Deceits
9. Racing the Night
10. The Memory of War
11. The Needs of Earth
12. Visitors From Down the Street
13. Each Night I Dream of Home
J. Michael Straczynski's Order
1. Racing the Night
2. The Needs of Earth
3. The Memory of War
4. The Long Road
5. Visitors from Down the Street
6. The Well of Forever
7. Each Night I Dream of Home
8. Patterns of the Soul
9. The Path of Sorrows
10. Ruling from the Tomb
11. The Rules of the Game
12. War Zone
13. Appearances and Other Deceits
Crusade is presented in the original 4:3 regular aspect ratio. It hasn’t had the widescreening process applied that Babylon 5 has. That means that the live action footage lacks the filmic clarity, but it also means that the effect sequences don’t get the zoom and crop treatment that renders them at an even lower resolution. Given that Crusade relies even more on digital effects than Babylon 5, that’s probably a good thing. The show then gets the usual NTSC quality that you’d expect from a US show of the period, rendered a little softer in the transfer to PAL format. Crusade is watchable enough, but it takes a good few episodes to get used to the low quality, primitive CGI.
You have the choice between DD 5.1 Surround English, and DD 2.0 Stereo French, with optional English, French, Dutch, and Arabic subtitles. The English audio is good enough, the dialogue clear, the surround essentially a stereo track up-mixed and given a little more space. I have to say that I never clicked with Evan Chen’s comparatively dissonant soundtrack, especially after Christopher Franke’s symphonic work for Babylon 5. Still, it does give the show a somewhat alien appeal.
The discs present their content with static menus. All five are presented in a standard sized Amaray with two hinged panels holding four discs and one on the rear. The inner sleeve has an episode listing.
Disc 1 has an audio commentary on episode 3, The Well of Forever with Peter Woodward (Galen), Carrie Dobro (Dureena Nafeel), episode director Janet Greek, and writer Fiona Avery.
Disc 3 has a commentary on what was originally the season opener, now episode 9, Racing the Night with J. Michael Straczynski.
Disc 5 has a couple of featurettes, The Making of Crusade which lasts 14:27, with interviews with the cast and crew, and Forging Excalibur, a 5:43 look at how they brought the ship to the screen.
The first time I watched Crusade, it was in broadcast order, and at the vagaries of Channel 4’s scheduling. It was a mess, with no overall arc, no clearly defined characters, and no real sense of what the show was really about, other than the mission statement in the opening credits. I dismissed it as a poor successor to Babylon 5, and better off cancelled. This time I watched it in the writer/producer J. Michael Straczynski’s recommended order and almost all those criticisms are addressed. It may be a nightmare of disc swapping, but you do get the idea of the arcs that were developing through the show, the character growth through the episodes, and a sense of direction for the story. It’s not perfect, continuity is still a mess (the studio stopped production halfway through and insisted on a pilot episode to bring the band together), so costumes are all over the place, and events don’t actually occur chronologically, but you can see what Crusade was meant to be.
In the extras, Straczynski says he was inspired by RPGs when developing the show, a quest to save humanity from the Drakh plague with the suitably named Starship Excalibur calling to mind the epics. You have the warrior captain, the (techno)mage, the thief, the healer, disparate characters coming together for common cause, but all with their own histories, their own pasts that colour their interactions, and draw questions about their motives.
Gary Cole’s Matthew Gideon is an unlikely captain of a starship, more Captain Quirk than Kirk, but he still exudes the leadership qualities and strengths that the character needs. The mysterious Galen is a strong part of the show, particularly early on, and he’s more of a challenging, antagonistic energy for the characters to bounce off, always keeping his cards close to his chest. Alas, you can see studio interference begin to bite as Galen makes fewer appearances towards the end of the run, while Babylon 5’s Captain Elizabeth Lochley makes a few appearances instead (despite Tracy Scoggins being given full star billing in the credits). I must say that I liked her character more in Crusade than I did B5. Then there is the archaeologist/linguist Max Eilerson, who quickly became my favourite character, and has the strongest arc through the episodes, and you can really see the character develop.
Alas the series never got a long enough run to develop the other characters as fully. Still, there are plenty of good episodes in its run of thirteen, and no real stinkers, although for the first four, Crusade very much is a show trying to find its feet. It very much apes its spiritual forebear Star Trek for those episodes, and I even have ‘Too Trekky’ written in my notes for The Long Road, although that does have the multi-layered performances of father and son Edward and Peter Woodward, both playing technomages. Once you get to episode 12 (or 5), Visitors from Down the Street with its delicious X Files parody, Excalibur’s firing on all thrusters, and the show finds its identity.
The first time I watched Crusade, I wasn’t impressed, but this time I really got the sense of a missed opportunity. In the extras Straczynski also mentions the direction the show would have taken in subsequent seasons, and you can’t help wondering what we missed out on. Just as Season 1 of Babylon 5 showed little inkling of the epic that it would become, there are just a few hints here that Crusade might have been even better. Alas we’ll never know. It isn’t the first time that meddling from suits has killed a show and it probably won’t be the last, but at least this time around I actually enjoyed Crusade.