Ah, Babylon 5. Series creator J. Michael Straczynski (“JMS” to fans) pulled off the impossible by creating a five-year long “novel for television.” Epic in scope, with various characters and subplots, all tied into a single storyline, planned in advance from day one. Although he faced cast changes, low budgets, and the constant threat of cancellation, Babylon 5 miraculously made it to the end of its fifth year. To keep interest in the franchise going, producers also funded a group of made-for-TV movies filling in some gaps in the series’ lengthy, complicated history. This was followed by the crash and burn of the cancelled-before-it-aired follow up series Crusade.
That brings us to this final entry in the Babylon 5 televised canon, Legend of the Rangers. It was intended to be a rollicking week-to-week adventure show, as opposed to the interwoven narrative of the original series. We’ll never know, because the project never got beyond its 90-minute pilot, which aired as a made for TV movie in 2002 with little fanfare. Now on DVD, it’s time to see if JMS’s curtain-closer lives up to its “legend.”
It’s the future. After being rocked by a couple of cataclysmic wars, the galaxy is finally settling down to enjoy some peace, thanks to the newly-formed Interstellar Alliance. The job of maintaining this peace falls to the rangers, the Alliance’s sometimes-secretive force of elite warrior-priests. David Martel (Dylan Neal), a ranger captain, violates a sacred ranger law in order to save the lives of his crew. For punishment, he’s taken down a few pegs and given command of the Liandra, a run-down clunker of a ship with a crew of misfits. Martel’s first assignment is simple—accompany a newer, more impressive ranger ship to an archeological site in the middle of nowhere. Along for the ride is Ambassador G’Kar (Andreas Katsulas, The Fugitive) with a group of high-ranking alliance dignitaries. Naturally, all hell breaks loose. A group of never-before-seen aliens attack, leaving the Liandra damaged, helpless, and alone. Now it’s up to Martel and his new crew to find some way to escape their mysterious pursuers with almost no resources at their disposal, except their wits and their courage.
Okay, picture this: A heated space battle breaks out, and the heroic captain calls for a return fire. The tough-as-nails female weapons officer responds by entering a sphere-shaped virtual reality room. She floats in mid-air in the center of the room, with images of the battle all around her. In this scenario, she’s in the place of the ship, and she fires the weapons by moving her arms and legs toward the enemy ships. What this looks like to viewers’ eyes is that there’s a giant woman floating in space, shooting laser beams out of her fists and feet in order to destroy opposing vessels.
Now, story-wise, this makes a certain amount of sense. Considering that the rangers put so much emphasis and training on physical combat, it’s plausible that they would find a way to work this into their ship’s defensive technology. But when we see it on the screen, it looks absolutely ridiculous. This is true of Legend of the Rangers as a whole—it’s filled with great ideas, but marred by poor execution.
Dylan Neal does a fine job as the captain out to prove his worth, and he certainly looks the part. Unfortunately, there are times when JMS’s script has the feel of going through the motions. We’ve already seen captains Sinclair, Sheridan, and Gideon outsmart an overwhelming enemy in an unconventional way. So, when Martel does it here, it’s less of a clever twist and more of a “Yep, this is another Babylon 5 script, all right” feeling. Some of JMS’s clever observations are present in the dialogue, but overall there’s not a lot that’s new here.
Take the characters, for example. Along with the noble captain, there’s the loyal first officer, the battle-hardened weapons expert, the sneaky security guy, the upbeat computer tech, the spiritual doctor, the resourceful engineer, and the childlike yet super-strong alien (his job description: “Lift heavy things”). These are the usual stock character types that appear in every sci-fi “ship show.” If Legend of the Rangers had gone on to last 100 episodes or more, I have no doubt JMS would have explored each of their characters and their backgrounds in depth. But as a stand-alone movie, the supporting cast never gets a chance to shine. The exception to this is Katsulas as G’Kar. Although he does very little in terms of plot, Katsulas is a delight to watch. It’s clear he truly understands this character through and through, and we know just what he’s thinking with only a look or a brief word.
In vast, sprawling, tales like the ones in the Babylon 5 universe, continuity can be both a blessing and a curse. When applied well, continuity can enhance a story and make it seem bigger than the sets and costumes on screen. If it’s overused, though, creators run the risk of confusing and alienating newcomers. Legend of the Rangers relies on a lot of pre-knowledge from viewers. Here, there’s no definition given of who the rangers are, who the various alien races such as Minbari and Narn are, and who the oft-mentioned “One” is. On the other hand, in order to take the story in a fresh new direction, unresolved plotlines such as the Drakh plague go unmentioned. This has me wondering just who the target audience is here. In trying to appeal to both newcomers and hardcore fans, this pilot doesn’t quite seem to reach either group’s sensibilities.
It’s still Babylon 5. There are rangers, familiar aliens, jumpgates, space battles, groovy CGI, and all the other usual trappings fans have come to expect from JMS’s creation. If you’ve always felt at home watching the series and its follow ups, you’ll feel at home here as well.
The picture quality here is razor sharp. Colors are bright and vivid, with deep, solid blacks. The CGI space sequences especially stand out, with incredible detail and color. The 2.0 track is serviceable, but not as immersive as it could be. As far as extras are concerned, this disc is as empty as the cold vacuum of space.
Is this really the end for Babylon 5? Who knows? To this day, rumors persist about a possible theatrical film, which may or may not be called The Memory of Shadows and may or may not feature Galen, Crusade’s “technomage” character, as the main character. Meanwhile, JMS has a sweet new gig writing for Marvel Comics. But once this “spider-totem” business of his has run its course, perhaps he will revisit B5. One never knows. In that spirit, Legend of the Rangers remains a mere hint of what might have been. Despite some of the intriguing ideas presented, it’s only a footnote to the franchise as a whole.