TV discussion

Babylon 5 at 25 – Ranking the TV Movies

Our look back at Babylon 5 on its 25th anniversary concludes with a look back at all the TV movies....

Babylon 5 was a hugely influential piece of sci-fi television, telling both an episodic tale of the crew of a multi-racial space station in the future and a number of complex, war-driven story arcs running across the five years of the show.

As it celebrates its 25th anniversary, we’ve looked back at the top five episodes of each season and spin-off series Crusade (which you can catch up on below). And now to wrap up our revist of Babylon 5 on its twenty-fifth anniversary, we turn our attention to the TV movies….

There were several movies made, some attempts to further explore the main story, others attempts and kick-starting the franchise in future directions. While few maintained the quality of Babylon 5‘s second, third and fourth series, there was still some magic to be found. Original pilot ‘The Gathering’ aired way back in 1993, while two TV movies were commissioned between the show’s fourth and fifth seasons as part of the transition to TNT (‘In The Beginning’ and ‘Thirdspace’). Following the completion of the fifth and final season, two further movies were made – ‘River of Souls’ and ‘A Call To Arms’, the latter of which was designed to set up spin-off series Crusade.

Following the cancellation of that series, two more TV movies were produced. ‘The Legend of the Rangers: To Live and Die in Starlight’ had the potential to create a second spin-off and straight to DVD ‘The Lost Tales’ was the first of many planned mini-tales, focusing of individual character stories, that never came to fruition.

And with that brief history of the franchise, let’s look at those movies, from worst to best…

The Legend of the Rangers: To Live and Die in Starlight

This 2002 TV movie was the second attempt by J. Michael Straczynski to create a spin-off series to Babylon 5. Sadly, it was also one of the worst stories in the franchise, certainly in the TV movie range. It takes one of the series’ best elements, the rangers, sticks them on a rubbish ship, the Liandra and fills it with a crew that fails to ignite on screen and are nothing like the noble Minbari and humans we’ve seen before. But it’s biggest crime is the rubbish virtual reality weapons system in what is arguably a hokey, embarrassing action sequence.

However, there are some good elements still – new villains The Hand feels a little like Shadow clones but feel a worthy threat (it’s just a shame they become a forgotten footnote) and it features Andreas Katsulas in his final appearance as G’Kar, so there’s definitely worth watching for that. The fact that it was set before ‘A Call to Arms’ and Crusade meant that a series could have wrapped up that story as well; sadly it ends the on-going story on a whimper…

The Lost Tales

‘The Lost Tales’ were designed to be an anthology series set between the main show, it’s spin-offs and the season five finale ‘Sleeping In Light’. ‘Voices in the Dark’ was supposed to be the first volume. The second would have featured Jerry Doyle as Michael Garibaldi – (sadly his death now precludes that from ever happening) and  Peter Jurasik had expressed interest in playing Londo Mollari one more time. Straczynski had even announced his intention to produce a direct-to-DVD Telepath War story, plus there were rumours of a General Ivanova story, though that may be more fan wishful thinking.

All these plans sound exciting don’t they?

Sadly ‘Voices in the Dark’ was all we got; they’re not bad stories but they lack the impact of other entries on this list. The first part is a supernatural story focusing on a now Colonel Elizabeth Lochley awaiting President John Sheridan’s arrival on Babylon 5. The exorcism gives this installment a delightfully creepy feel. The second linked part sees Sheridan faced with a Centauri prince who will be responsible for Earth’s destruction 30 years in the future.

Guided by a returning Galen, he is faced with a version if that classic question ‘if you could kill Hitler as a child, would you?’ These are a peculiar, introspective set of stories and it is great to visit Lochley and Sheridan again, but they certainly leave you wanting more.

The Gathering

Technically, I already considered this in my look back at the top five episodes of season one, but given that it didn’t make the cut and was also released separately, let’s look at the original pilot to the Babylon 5 saga…

There is a grand ambition to the pilot episode, that sets up Sinclair and the battle of the line, his Minbari heritage and the connection between Kosh and Lyta as she delves into his mind after an assassination attempt on arriving at the station. There is an intriguing mystery as Sinclair is framed for murder and a Vorlon fleet arrives to announce justice.

But there are a number of things that don’t work quite well at this stage. Ivanova’s predecessor Lt. Cmdr. Takashima is a terrible character and Tamlyn Tomita is plain wooden in her performance. The pacing feels flat at times and the grand station feels dark; plus the noticeable difference in cast members (Takashima, Doctor Kyle and at this stage Lyta) feels disconnected to the rest of the saga. And thank god they changed Delenn’s appearance…

River of Souls

‘River of Souls’ is essentially a look at what Babylon 5 season 6 could have been. This tale features Captain Lochley, Security Chief Zack Allan and Lieutenant David Corwin, showing us what the station was like after Sheridan and Delenn left. Garibaldi makes a welcome return just as an archeologist (Ian McShane’s Doctor Robert Bryson) unleashes orb containing one billion souls of an extinct race.

Naturally, all hell breaks loose when the souls are released and begin to haunt the station, leading to the appearance of the always great Martin Sheen as a Soul Hunter (a race last seen way back in season one). It expands their mythology and presents a terrific twist as the crew learn that the souls being collecting were not a dying race but one that was evolving. It’s a terrific moment and the appearance by Richard Biggs as Stephen Franklin representing the alien race feels forced but adds to the effect of it all.

But there is also a sense of frustration that it has no real connection to the saga. Given that the events of the long rumoured telepath war came before ‘A Call to Arms’, this was the perfect chance to visit that in all its glory, making what we got – ‘River of Souls’ – feel like a wasted opportunity.

A Call to Arms

Now we’re into the top three and the TV movies that are generally regarded as the ‘good ones’. ‘A Call to Arms’ is certainly a dramatic affair, as the Drahk step up their game of revenge; having enslaved the Centauri at the end of season five, they exact their vengeance against Sheridan for the defeat of their masters – the Shadows – by attacking Earth. It is a great set-up for another five year story arc that was sadly never to be.

The new ships, the Excalibur and the Victory, engineered from the Vorlon-Minbari, are great additions to the franchise. Crusade characters Galen and Dureena Nafeel are introduced as Sheridan learns of the planned attack on Earth. Aided by allies Lochley and Garibaldi (Jerry Doyle’s last appearance in the franchise), he uses the ships to defend his home planet in a climatic thrilling battle against a deadly Shadow planet killer.

But it is the final twist that really sets things in motion for Crusade; the planet killer is destroyed but the Drahk have a back-up plan, unleashing a deadly virus that will kill every human on the planet in five years. It’s just a shame that we never saw how it all turned out…

Thirdspace

Like ‘River of Souls’, ‘Thirdspace’ was not a story that needed to be told – in fact coming during mid-season four, it’s a story that kind of feels out of place thematically and chronologically. But it is so good, these criticisms are easy to dismiss. It centres around the discovery of an ancient artefact in hyperspace that literally opens the gates to hell.

Not only does it feature the majority of the season four players, including Claudia Christian’s only decent TV movie appearance as Ivanova, but it has a great mystery too, dripping with atmosphere and tension as people become possessed and they discover too late that the artefact contains a door to a ‘third space. This place, discovered long ago by the Vorlons, holds a violent, telepathic alien species even older and more powerful than the Vorlons themselves.

This is a great story with an action-packed finale as the station finds itself under threat for the alien armada. Sure it doesn’t make a huge amount of sense in the larger narrative – there is no mention of these events during the series, but it is a dark and thrilling tale from beginning to end.

In The Beginning

The first TV movie commissioned by TNT, ‘In The Beginning’ is an epic look at the Earth Minbari war that took place 10 years prior to Babylon 5. It carefully pieces together flashbacks scenes from across the first four seasons – from Sinclair at the Battle of the Line to the death of Minbari leader Dukat, while interweaving a gripping tale of Earth’s first contact with the Minbari and the long and brutal war that followed.

The story follows Sheridan and Delenn from very different perspectives; telling the first contact disaster, Sheridan being recruited to lead a desperate mission with Sinclair after destroying the Black Star while Delenn finds herself fuelled with revenge until the timely discovery at the Battle of the Line that Minbari souls are being reborn in humans.

It is a tale of great tragedy and desperation and looks stunning – the battle sequences are spectacular and you really get a feel for how close to extinction humanity got in those years that preceded the show. This was one story that was worth being shown on screen.

And that wraps up our look at Babylon 5‘s 25th anniversary. What are your thoughts on the show, it’s spin-offs and the above TV movies? Would you like to see it return again in some form – perhaps the long touted cinematic movie? And should it be a reboot or a continuation? Let us know in the comments below…

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