February 21, 2016
Crusade: "War Zone"
The Earth has been struck by a deadly alien plague. While not designed to affect humans, the plague will continue to rapidly evolve. Within five years all human life on Earth will be dead. To search for a cure, Captain Matthew Gideon (Gary Cole) is given command of the state-of-the-art starship Excalibur and dispatched to find a cure at any cost. Before his mission can begin however, he must follow a distress signal that may lead to a crashed spacecraft full of Drakh - the species who unleashed the virus.
After TNT purchased the broadcast rights to a fifth and final season of Babylon 5, they soon commissioned a spin-off series. Set five years after Babylon 5, the series would be set not on a space station but a roving starship. Its crew could have a variety of science fiction adventures while searching for a cure to save the human race. Sadly the series that creator/producer J. Michael Straczynski wanted to make and the series TNT executives wanted him to make were starkly different. The relationship between producer and broadcaster deteriorated. Interference in the creative process compromised the series badly in Straczynski's eyes. Internal research undertaken by TNT found that Babylon 5 fans did not watch other TNT content, and viewers of that content did not watch Babylon 5. All in all it became apparent the series was a very poor fit for the station, and it wound up being cancelled before a single episode made it to air. The original order for 13 episodes was fulfilled, but despite attempts to re-sell the show to other stations (notably the Sci-Fi Channel) Crusade was over before it began.
I have watched 110 episodes of Babylon 5 and five made-for-television movies. What are another 13 episodes between friends? Crusade is a widely maligned series. Babylon 5 fans seem to generally dismiss it. General SF television fans often did not even bother giving it a chance. Certainly I tried this first broadcast episode back in 1999 and failed to make it through the entire hour. It is fair to state that my expectations are low.
Perhaps these expectations helped, but I found myself quite enjoying "War Zone". It's far from perfect television, but it sets up an ongoing storyline and introduces a cast of characters. It is by no means must-see television, and it certainly feels more superficial than Babylon 5 in terms of ambition, but it is watchable and generally entertaining.
Gary Cole has always been a very watchable actor with a very relaxed, matter-of-fact persona, whether it's as the villainous Sheriff Buck in American Gothic or unwanted Vice-President Bob Russell in The West Wing, and he brings a lot of that easy-going persona to bear on Captain Gideon. Future episodes will show whether or not he gets much in the way of back story or depth, but for now he is an appealing protagonist with plenty of potential. Daniel Dae Kim, later to co-star in Lost, plays his second-in-command John Matheson. The character is a telepath working for Earthforce in the aftermath of the much mentioned but never seen Telepath War. The character seems a little less appealing than Gideon, but Kim is a solid actor and does bring a certain strength to the part. With other supporting characters like Dr Sarah Chambers (Marjean Holden) and Max Eilerson (David Allen Brooks) it seems a little too early to judge them.
Two characters slip over into the series from the previous Babylon 5 TV movie "A Call to Arms". Carrie Dobro returns as the alien thief Dureena, who feels a bit more subdued here than she was when she first appeared. Peter Woodward also returns as the technomage Galen, who gets to be nicely mysterious but remains tediously hammy and over-the-top.
As for the plot? The influence of TNT is keenly felt. The episode begins with a punch-up among refugees terrified of getting infected by the Drakh plague. It climaxes with a shoot-out between humans and Drakh. In between there are a few brief space battles and dogfights. The action quotient is significantly higher than the average episode of Babylon 5, and since Straczynski's strength as a writer is in well-considered monologues and moments of character this does largely leave the episode outside of his field of expertise. It all winds up feeling rather generic.
Still, it has a beginning, middle and end. It entertains in broad and general strokes. It introduces a reasonably watchable cast of characters. It sets up a story with which to move forward. It is true that it is all too generic and mediocre, but there's a skeleton here that the writers can flesh out and develop. It's up to future episodes to capitalise on that promise - if they manage it.