August 12, 2016

Crusade: "Visitors from Down the Street"

It is 25 August 1999, and time for another episode of Crusade.

The Excalibur picks up a damaged alien escape pod. Inside they find two aliens dressed in late 20th century human suits. They seem to believe their planet has been visited numerous times by humans - despite the two races having never met before - and accuse Captain Gideon (Gary Cole) of participating in a decades-long conspiracy to subjugate and manipulate their world, with the assistance of their own government.

I have always been ambivalent about Babylon 5: I gave it a good shot when it was first broadcast, but a growing number of irritants in the series - mainly the dialogue and acting - eventually drove me away partway through. I completed a beginning-to-end viewing of the series on this blog, and while I came to appreciate the series a lot more the second time around it remains a regularly mediocre show. I had never seen its spin-off Crusade at all, but having finished Babylon 5 itself it did not seem too onerous a task to watch the small number of sequel TV movies and Crusade just to cover the entire franchise from beginning to end. That attempt just got really onerous. I am not sure if "Visitors from Down the Street" is the worst episode of the franchise ever, but it is certainly floating down at the bottom of the barrel.

The episode is based around two critically flawed elements. Between them it is sunk and then some: in all honesty television this bad is not fit for broadcast. The first problem is the simpler one, and probably the one with the greatest effect. It is a comedy that is not funny. It is not even remotely funny. There is always a risk in an inherently dramatic series of relying on comedy to sustain an episode. Funny banter and comedic relief is one thing, actually trying to transform drama into comedy is enormously difficult. The X Files, which first aired in the same year as Babylon 5 and which was still running when Crusade was briefly on the air, did it to great effect in a manner than remains pretty much unparalleled on American television. Mentioning The X Files also leads neatly into the episode's second critical mistake: it is a parody of The X Files.

During the episode Gideon meets Durkani (Josh Clark) and Lyssa (Francoise Robertson), two painfully obvious copies of X Files protagonists Mulder and Scully. Later he meets Kendarr (Harry Van Gorkum), a clear parody of X Files villain the Cigarette Smoking Man. At the episode's climax Durkani even lights and smokes a cigarette, just in case the sledgehammer parallels were not bludgeoned into the audience with sufficient force. In between the viewers are forced to sit through repeated and tedious X Files references, all of them geared for laughs.

It is woefully misjudged. It fails to generate a single laugh. Instead it feels viciously smug, as if writer J. Michael Straczynski wants us to laugh with him at how silly and trite The X Files is. The whole thing left a fairly unpleasant aftertaste. A series as generally mediocre and weak as Crusade to take smug pot-shots at a series as generally strong and critically acclaimed as The X Files is pretty much like shooting cannonballs inside a glass house. If either series deserves mockery it is Crusade, which was broadcast to derisive reviews and lasted 13 weeks before its broadcaster had it cancelled. Then again, with episodes like this there is hardly a need: "Visitors from Down the Street" is bad enough that the series effectively mocks itself. The guest performances are uniformly dreadful, with their weaknesses exacerbated by unusually awful prosthetic make-up. The whole affairs feels remarkably cheap, rushed and nasty - even just in comparison to other episodes of the series.

So here we are, 12 episodes into a 13-episode series. Six of those episodes have been on the good side of mediocre, giving the series a rolling quality ratio of 50 per cent. Admittedly that's a better ratio than Babylon 5 managed with me in its first season, or for that matter Star Trek: The Next Generation. Perhaps with a second season Crusade might have picked up like its parent series and actually improved. Sadly or thankfully, we'll never know.

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