Earth has been quarantined and only those in space can save humanity, but they only have five years to do it.
What They Say:
2267 A.D. The battle is won, the war may be lost. After fending off the fierce attack of Drakh combatants, Earth faces an unseen yet even greater foe – a microbial, biogenetic plague that will destroy all life on the planet in five years if a cure isn’t found. Crusade follows the race against time to find that cure – an urgent and hazardous quest that sends an Earthforce expedition across the reaches of space to explore technologies more advanced than Earth’s. Leading this high-stakes archeological mission is a starship of the new Interstellar Alliance, the Excalibur, and its crew drawn from the Alliance’s elite troubleshooting corps, the Rangers. With 7 billion lives at stake, action and courage against insurmountable odds must prevail in this Crusade.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
When it came to the mid 1990’s, it was an interesting era for science fiction, and the two big boys of the time came in the form of Star Trek: Deep Space 9, which was caught in the middle of the end of The Next Generation and Voyager, and Babylon 5. Because the two series were so similar, it naturally drew a lot of fan made controversy where each side was pitted against each other in the same way we had Star Wars versus Star Trek arguments. While I didn’t get into Babylon 5 until its second year, I became an ardent fan of it as well as a huge, huge fan of Deep Space 9 once it started getting into more serialized storytelling. I’ve tend to avoid comparing shows to other ones because there’s so many things involved with how a show is made, its intended audience, budget and so forth, that I always like them to stand on their own. So with that in mind, I don’t hold one up against the other, though there are exceptions.
Crusade is one such exception, and that’s largely because it was a spinoff series from the hugely popular Babylon 5. At the end of Babylon 5, there were a lot of issues with the final season because of the network, casting, ratings and so forth and that season ended up being rather weak in my mind, which is why I went into Crusade back in 1998 with an open mind, even if it was being accused of using story elements from other franchises, including anime science fiction series, seemingly wholesale. In fact, Crusade found itself in even more controversy that Babylon 5 in a lot of ways because the network was so involved in it, made so many changes to it during its short thirteen episode run, that if you were paying attention to all that drama, you’d be more entertained by that than the show itself. With the distance of time, now some thirteen years after it went off the air, I found myself with the box set I bought in 2004 on my shelf, still wrapped, and decided to see how it would handle if I jumped into that without having watched Babylon 5 since its original airing.
Babylon 5 gave us a large storyline to work with that had teases early on and really began to hits stride in the second season. Crusade has an advantage from the get go in that we’re already familiar with this universe, but it changes things up with the recent event of the Drakh virus that was unleashed on the Earth and the quarantine that’s placed around it. While we have a familiar universe, the key players are kept to the sidelines and only a couple of very minor appearances overall come from the Babylon 5 series. The headliner for this series is Gary Cole as Captain Matthew Gideon, a man who has the rough and tumble kind of experience to him. They’re experiences forged out of difficult times, which we see early on in a flashback that shows him stranded in space all alone. This reinforces easily why he has a no man left behind mentality, something that definitely puts him in some difficult situations along the way.
Because of his time spent as an expeditionary captain, he’s brought back to lead the charge on board the latest special class spaceship that’s been built, the Excalibur, in an effort to visit various worlds and civilizations to try and find a cure. With help from the Rangers that populated Babylon 5, and with a surprise or two of his own along the way, he takes the ship and his crew to numerous dead worlds and encounters with some less than friendly civilizations that are either ambivalent about what’s happened or are interested in seeing humanity die off. With the Exaclivur having to do less than savory things, while still trying to adhere to regulations, he’s the proper pragmatic person to be the captain as he’ll ruffle the feathers, but will have his ways of smoothing them as well. At least where he thinks it’s appropriate to do so in order to further his overall goal of saving mankind.
With Gideon setting the lead, the rest of the cast falls into place pretty easily. His second in command is a telepath named John Matheson who helps bring in elements from the telepath/psi corps war that occurred between the two series and he plays the generally by the numbers career officer who knows how to play the game. The ship gains a necessary component when they push Interstellar Expeditions to lend them Max Eilerson, one of their more gifted archeologists that can help with the dead worlds and alien civilizations they come into contact with. Of a similar nature, they also have Dr. Sarah Chambers as their main specialist to help deal with the virus and tracking down potential cures. The series does bring in a couple of interesting characters, such as Dureena, a woman that’s the last of her race who was sold into slavery as a child and is a master thief that’s able to get into anywhere. The one that I liked the idea of the most, but had a hard time dealing with as an actual character, is the Technomage Galen that has a connection to Gideon from his past, a connection which has kept him from going with the rest of his kind into hiding when the Shadow War began to heat up.
Crusade wants to take a similar but different approach to how Babylon 5 told its stories. While it obviously goes with the idea of seeking out the adventures whereas most of the time they came to Babylon 5, it also lays it out plainly that it will take the five years to actually find the cure, or four years and change with some fallout to be dealt with. That means that it’s going to work similar in that the first season would be about introducing the general concepts, familiarizing us with the characters and nuding in some of the larger story themes along the way. Because of this, the thirteen episodes that were produced are fairly standard kinds of episodes that feels like an extension of Babylon 5 with a slightly different spin on it.
Going back to the series after all this time was an interesting experience, especially when you disconnect all the drama that was associated with it from its production and how TNT interfered with it. The requests for more sex and violence, the costume changes and so forth aren’t as glaring in a way, but they’re still there. Science fiction programming has changed a lot in this time, especially with special effects, but in the acting as well. As much as I like Strazcinsky’s writing in general, it has a bit of that Lucas effect to it in retrospect here, perhaps more so with this series, because the acting is a bit more wooden as well. This was from an interesting period of science fiction on TV and so few shows really do the big in-space kind of material. When you look at the various Star Trek series over the years, the Battlestar Galactica’s and so forth, Babylon 5 and Crusade do feel somewhat out of place. But that’s also what’s a draw because it wants to do things differently but is largely constrained by budgetary issues.
Crusade doesn’t exactly come across as camp, but it’s straddling that line at times while wanting to play with bigger issues. But it’s also dealing with the fact that it has to deal with being in the early phase of a potentially larger run. A lot of what’s here does feel similar to how Babylon 5’s first season was when it comes to establishing the setting and the characters, but the added pressure is there of having the search for the cure going on. They’re not just going through their careers and service, they’re trying to save humanity. And while you do expect military discipline to kick in even at this time, especially at this time, There are moments of urgency to be had, but a lot of this loses the impact of the moment because of the five years they have and because the missions at times are too political and the larger context feels like it’s missing.
While there is a certain woodeness to the series that’s part and parcel of the time, production values and writing, the actors do manage to have some great moments. Gary Cole really has fun with this role though you can tell he’s frustrated by the behind the scenes production. Daneil Dae Kim as Matheson shines as the young officer who has his issues but serves admirably. Carrie Dobro as Dureena has some awkward episodes for awhile, but once her hairstyle changes, she really gets into the role and starts to feel more earthy. The one that I liked the most was the main carryover from Babylon 5 as Tracy Scoggins reprises her role as Captain Lochley and appears in several episodes. She knows who she is but still doesn’t fit into the series too easily, but there’s a confidence to her performance that helps it to show the path for the others to take, to try and push through the sometimes hokey dialogue and make it work.
If Crusade had run for five seasons like it wanted to as a television novel of sorts, I have little doubts that everyone would have grown well into their roles and we would have seen extensive back stories brought in and a larger overall series of themes to tie it all together. Babylon 5 worked well in that regard and Strazcinsky has done it pretty well with a lot of his comic book writing in the years since. These first thirteen episodes offer a good deal of promise, but they have a hard time holding up well and it’s not a show that’s easily accessible without the Babylon 5 foundation behind it. That’s both good and bad in some ways. I definitely enjoyed going through it again without the wait between episodes and the knowledge during the original airing that it had already been canceled, which made it hard to connect with. I do think a lot of the criticisms at the time, especially with it being tied to certain anime series in theme and visuals, are overblown. Not entirely unjustified, but not worth the scathing criticism it often got. Crusade is filled with uneralized promise and is one of those shows where I’d love to see this universe explored again with some sort of new series.