July 15, 1999
By Franklin Harris
There comes a point when you give up hope, when you know that a television show with great potential just isn't going to measure up.
Five episodes in, that time has come.
"Crusade," J. Michael Straczynski's follow-up to his groundbreaking science fiction series, "Babylon 5," isn't just not good, it's bad.
TNT, the cable network broadcasting "Crusade," is billing the show as a 13-episode miniseries. It wasn't intended to be that. Rather, Straczynski envisioned it as a five-year novel for television, less structured than "Babylon 5," but still with a definite beginning, middle and end. Halfway into the first season's production, however, it became clear that Straczynski and TNT's executives had different ideas about what the show should be.
Accounts differ as to what TNT wanted and what Straczynski was (or wasn't) willing to give, but there is no questioning what happened next. TNT and Straczynski parted ways, and Straczynski shopped his creation around to other networks. The Sci-Fi Channel expressed interest, but with its 1998-99 television budget already allocated, was unable to pick up the program.
With nowhere else to go, "Crusade" closed up shop. Warner Bros., the show's owner, halted production, and TNT placed the 13 completed episodes on its schedule as a "limited series."
We will never know how good "Crusade" might have become in time. Straczynski could have had a second classic on his hands. Unfortunately, we do know that the episodes TNT allowed Straczynski to produce are mediocre at best and unwatchable at worst.
What is wrong with "Crusade?" Oh, where to begin?
First, with the exception of "Crusade's" star, Gary Cole, who portrays Capt. Matthew Gideon, the acting is uniformly bad. Peter Woodward, who plays the Technomage, Galen, affects his lines as if classical Greek drama were still in style. The rest of the cast is in danger of being chopped into lumber.
Next, viewers used to the impressive computer-generated special effects of "Babylon 5" will find the effects on display in "Crusade" disappointing. While some of "Crusade's" alien landscapes are nice to look at, other effects are just plain cheesy. The laser blasts used in the first episode's fight sequences, to cite one glaring example, appear only one step more advanced than those of the original "Star Trek."
Thirdly, there is the matter of music.
Under normal circumstances, a television show's background music is barely a consideration. It's usually forgettable. But if "Crusade's" music were even that good it would be a vast improvement.
Composer Evan Chen's dissonant, atonal theme music is so grossly out of place that it undermines the scenes it's meant to enhance. Whereas fans rushed to buy soundtrack albums of Christopher Franke's "Babylon 5" theme music, only a sadist would subject himself to Chen's noise.
Ultimately, however, "Crusade's" biggest failing lies in its writing.
After writing almost every episode of "Babylon 5's" five-year run, Straczynski seems burned out. You can hardly blame him for needing a rest. You can blame him for not taking one.
Some of Straczynski's defenders blame TNT's interference for the low quality of the "Crusade" episodes aired thus far. But by Straczynski's own account, TNT wanted "Crusade" spiced up with gratuitous sex and fisticuffs, neither of which is evident in the first five episodes.
Given the sometimes shaky writing even during "Babylon 5's" final season, the fault for "Crusade's" uninspired scripts likely lies with Straczynski and his fellow writers.
As it is, "Crusade" plays like a game of Dungeons and Dragons, complete with its own wizard (Galen, who uses technology so advanced people mistake it for magic) and thief (Dureena Nafeel, forgettably played by Carrie Dobro). Even the show's premise is recycled, as fans of the Japanese cartoon series "StarBlazers," which, like "Crusade," features a lone ship on a quest to save Earth, well know.
And speaking of being recycled, two of the first five "Crusade" episodes, "Well of Forever" and "Patterns of the Soul," manage to rip off each other. It's a bit much to think of them as two separate episodes, as they are actually the same story slightly rewritten and set on different planets.
"Crusade's" characters are stereotypes who act in unrealistic ways and benefit from unbelievable coincidences. Maybe archaeologist Max Eilerson (David Allen Brooks) would have become something more than a human version of a "Star Trek" Ferengi in time, but with only eight episodes to go, we'll never know. And I can't think why we should care.
If the second half of "Crusade's" aborted first season was going to be anything like the first, this series was doomed to early cancellation anyway.