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Babylon 5: The Lost Tales

Babylon 5 was our last, best hope. It failed. But we all know that story already – it was told over five years of excellent television. Now it’s ten years later. Ten years since the world changed. Babylon 5 is a place for beginnings… and endings. Here’s hoping Babylon 5: The Lost Tales is a beginning for a new run of one of the best science fiction shows to grace television, and not a short-lived ending. Even among the most devoted fans of “Babylon 5” there is a difference of opinion of what direction the show took after it’s five year story arc ended. To some, the made-for-TV movies were interesting ideas presented in a more fleshed out format. Others saw them as watered down B5, with more action at TNT’s behest. To some, “Crusade” was a promising concept shut down far too soon by a network that wasn’t aware of what it purchased. To others, it was an aborted attempt at recapturing B5’s greatness that was shut down just in time. Some loved The Legend of the Rangers: To Live and Die in Starlight, the potential Sci-Fi Network pilot. Others rejected it forthwith. It’s amazing that a show could rally these people together, then divide them over opinions of what shape the show should take next.

Regardless of your feelings on the Babylon 5 follow up projects, just about any fan of the show should enjoy Babylon 5: The Lost Tales. Rather than move things into an extended format, like the movies, or introduce new extended plot concepts, like “Crusade” and Legend of the Rangers, The Lost Tales are basically two more episodes of the show. Together the two tales are titled “Voices in the Dark” and they have the look and feel of episodes we’ve never seen before, only set ten years after the events of season five of “Babylon 5”. With each new episode (or tale) following a character we’ve already met, there’s no need for lengthy character introductions or setups, something that may have burdened the other Babylon 5 spin-offs in some people’s eyes (although, frankly, not mine).

The first of the two episodes, subtitled “Over Here,” picks up with Colonel Elizabeth Lochley (who was a Captain the last time we saw her). Ten years later and Lochley (Tracy Scoggins) is still the commanding officer of Babylon 5. In a Babylon 5 first, Lochley thinks someone on the station is possessed by a demon and has requested a visit from a Catholic priest. The result is an episode that not only deals with the possible presence of true demonic forces in the galaxy, but some interesting conversations between Lochley and the visiting Father Kelly (Alan Scarfe) about the place of religion once mankind has extended into space.

The story is a return of one of the elements that made “Babylon 5” so interesting but didn’t get much of a chance for exploration in the spin-offs: ideas of spirituality, philosophy, and theology. I’ve always had an admiration for J. Michael Straczyinski’s ability to handle that kind of subject matter despite his atheism (or maybe because of it). It’s clear Straczyinski has thought out how mankind might react once the Universe has been explored and no heaven or hell has been found, and here he makes a pretty good case for it, as well as a presented reminder that religion isn’t necessarily just about the tangible and the seen. It’s good to see Straczyinski waxing on this kind of subject matter again, however fans who didn’t care for “Babylon 5” episodes that were more overt about discussing matters of religion might be put off, making it’s placement at the beginning of “Voices in the Dark” a little curious.

The second tale, subtitled “Over There” sees John Sheridan (Bruce Boxleitner), President of the Interstellar Alliance and former commanding officer of Babylon 5, on his way back to the station to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Alliance. While dodging a pushy reporter and waxing poetic about changes over the ten years, Sheridan is contacted by Technomage Galen (Peter Woodward) about another threat to the future of Earth. Galen offers a solution Sheridan finds questionable, however Sheridan was never one to be pushed around, leading the former Captain to start thinking about his own solutions.

Of the two stories, this is the stronger tale. Boxleitner and Woodward step back into their characters like comfortably worn coats and instantly it seems as almost no time has passed. Sheridan’s demeanor has gotten a little gruffer with time, although his sympathetic side remains as well, and Galen continues to revel in being both sympathetic and a tad bit sarcastic. There are many gems of dialogue fans of B5 will add to their lists from Stracyzinski’s capable pen, making clear he had to write more tales simply because there was more for these characters to say.

The second tale takes time to catch viewers up on most of the major characters of “Babylon 5.” Even though we don’t see any of them other than Sheridan, Galen, and Lochley, we hear the names of many of the characters and find out where in the universe they are. This is more touching for some, particularly Citizen G’Kar and Dr. Stephen Franklin, both of whom are played by actors who have passed away since “Babylon 5” ended.

It should be noted that Babylon 5: The Lost Tales benefits greatly from advances in technology since the series took place. Most of the sets are virtual, but don’t look much different than the series did, and the space sequences are amazing as always. Only scenes set in the docking bay really appear to be actors talking against an inserted background, so this is noticeable in both tales, but only for a brief amount of time. Most of the time the picture looks just as good as the series, if not better.

If I have one complaint about this new approach to revisiting an old series, it’s that the station doesn’t seem busy enough. Although exterior shots show Babylon 5 surrounded by a variety of alien vehicles, we see very little foot traffic inside. Granted, Lochley’s story takes place largely in private sections of the station, and Sheridan’s is mostly on board his Minbari cruiser, but the sense of galactic scale that existed throughout the series is absent here. They are personal stories, but it feels a little emptier than even the more personal episodes of the series.

Babylon 5: The Lost Tales is a welcome window back into the lives of the characters we followed for five years, with the feeling of just another episode of the old show, rather than the grandeur or disappointment of a movie length story. It’s a chance to revisit with old friends, catch up on where they’ve gone in ten years, and then the window closes as the credits role. Like all visits with old friends, it’s far too short and leaves a strong desire for more time. Hopefully The Lost Tales will reseal the gap fans felt over previous spin-offs and prove popular enough that future visits won’t be too far away. Babylon 5: The Lost Tales is a direct to DVD release, designed as such from the start. How the disc sells will likely influence the chance of there being future volumes of The Lost Tales so Babylon-fans, this is the time to put your wallet where your mouth is: you’ve been complaining for years about wanting more. Go out and buy this. If “Jericho” fans can send in packages of peanuts to a studio, the least you can do is go out and purchase a DVD.

As a DVD release, this is a fairly balanced package. It lacks some of the standard things I’d expect from a DVD: commentary track, deleted scenes, etc, but as a fan of the series I know there are probably good reasons for this. With Straczynski behind both the writing and direction of the DVD, I can’t imagine there was much on the cutting room floor. Also, the writer-turned-director tends to be self-deprecating in interviews, so I’m not sure a commentary would provide much of what fans would want anyway.

Instead the disc contains quite a few featurettes that serve as the bonus material for the release. The material is divided into four primary categories: Interviews, Memorials, The Straczynski Diaries, and Fireside Chats. Series creator J. Michael Straczynski is heavily involved in all four categories and serves as the lynchpin that brings the set together.

Although presented in that order, I recommend starting with The Straczynski Diaries, which are ultimately a series of making-of featurettes hosted by JMS. Of the half-dozen diary entries, some have been released online prior to the release of The Lost Tales, so they are a bit of a promotional tool. Most exciting is JMS’s attempt at telling The Lost Tales using sock puppets to decrease costs for Warner Brothers (although ultimately the studio was the one who nixed the idea). Included among these diaries is Joe’s Sock Puppet Director’s Cut of a scene between Sheridan and Galen.

Interviews are rather straight forward interviews with the three previous Babylon 5 actors involved in these two tales. JMS interviews Boxleitner and Woodward, adding a rather zany tone to the interview, while Scoggins is more of a solo interview. The reason I recommend watching The Straczynski Diaries first should be made clear here: JMS shares the Galen puppet with Woodward in their interview, although Woodward isn’t quite as enthusiastic about the idea s JMS might have though.

Fireside Chats are a series of straight questions for JMS written by fans that explain the process behind the creation and the rationalization of The Lost Tales. Less humorous than the other sections, this is where the creator’s love for the universe he created really shines through. He feels that, where each of the spin-offs carried their own feeling and vibe, The Lost Tales shares the feeling that the original series did – the same sentiments I myself tried to express above. I definitely agree.

Finally, the Memorials pay tribute to Andreas Katsulas and Richard Biggs, the two members of the Babylon 5 family who have passed away. Initially I had hoped these would be the montages of key character moments skillfully assembled by John Hudgens and shown at conventions (they aren’t – the assumption is that rights issues may be involved). Instead these serve as reflections by JMS, Boxleitner, and Scoggins, on their time with the actors and how they were influenced by Katsulas and Biggs. They are incredibly touching reminisces of how brilliant the two were during their time on Babylon 5 and sad reminders that we won’t see their characters again.

As much as I’d love to see The Lost Tales sell in record numbers to ensure future tales set in the B5 universe, my own integrity wouldn’t let me recommend this unless it was a decent DVD release. It may not be the pinnacle of accomplishment, but this is a well assembled DVD, containing the spirit of the original series along with the lighthearted humor and respect for the cast and crew involved, making it a must have for any fan of “Babylon 5”.