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Who do you serve, and who do you trust?

This is one of a series of articles I wrote for The Coalition of Awesomeness blog some time ago. The blog has since gone to an unfortunate (but very awesome) grave so I thought I’d share it here.

Those were the focal questions of Crusade, the Babylon 5 spin-off/sequel series that was cancelled before it even aired. I don’t know what the answers to those questions would have been, but I’m pretty confident that the show’s creator, J. Michael Straczynski (JMS), would not have answered “TNT” to either question.

TNT was the network that aired what little there was of Crusade. They had bought into the franchise by airing the final, fifth season of Babylon 5, saving that show from premature cancellation, and backing a few TV movies in that universe. From what I understand, the relationship between JMS’ Babylonian Productions and TNT was great – that is, TNT was pretty hands off with the established B5 universe. When they started production on Crusade, however, they suddenly wanted to get in and mess around – presumably trying to make the show better. In doing so, though, they killed it. Dead. Destroyed. They asked for costume changes (forced them, really) after a bunch of episodes had already been produced (and, since they weren’t produced in order, forced the writers to come up with reasons why the costumes were changing back and forth). They asked for more action and more skimpy female outfits. They asked for a womanizing captain… basically they asked for a lowest-common-denominator testosterone-fest, when they had bought a slow-burn, intelligent, epic.

On the other side of the fence, JMS and team were fighting against the studio to keep what they could of the awesomeness of the show – they gave in on the costumes, for example, to keep the captain’s-sex-conquest-of-the-week out of the show. In the end, the battle between the two sides showed in what was aired… a disjointed mess that struggled, and failed, to achieve continuity.

Like Firefly, Crusade was saddled with episodes aired out-of-order, which made it impossible for fans to follow the thread. But, again like Firefly, when you put those episodes back in order, things improve. Unfortunately, unlike Firefly, re-ordering the episodes isn’t straight-forward. TNT had messed around with things so much that the proper order to watch Crusade episodes is still debated among fans. There really is no way to avoid all of the continuity problems. If you fix the costume continuity, for example, you may get a personal shield that is used before it’s invented. So even on DVD, you can’t get a true feel for how the action and character development was supposed to build.

You can get a sense of it, though, and if you have the background of Babylon 5′s successful story-telling behind you, you can see how it would have taken off.

Babylon 5 was a ground-breaking show in that it was the first American sci-fi show to have a continuous, pre-planned, 5-year story arc. It had a beginning, a middle, and an end from before the first script was even written. Changes were made along the way to deal with issues that cropped up during production, but it was essentially the story that it was meant to be. And it was awesome.

If you had watched just the first 17 episodes, though, you’d see some intriguing stuff, but could be excused for thinking it was just another sci-fi show. Those episodes are primarily stand-alone, with a bit of a connective mystery B-story behind them on first viewing. It’s only in the final 5 episodes of the first season that the entire plot turns upside-down and you begin to realize that those 17 episodes are the setup for something different. If you go back and watch the series again, many of those 17 episodes are shown to have rich clues and integral story points that you wouldn’t know you were catching the first time around. Heck, even by the third season you’re seeing references to things that happened in the first season and realizing that the individual scene you’re watching was really set up 2 years prior in what seemed like a stand-alone episode. At the end of the first season finale the lead character, Commander Sinclair, sums up the situation perfectly in four words: “Nothing’s the same anymore.”

With Crusade, we saw 13 produced episodes. Even with all the interference, there were moments of brilliance, and the opening threads of multiple mysteries. Picking up 5 years after Babylon 5 ended, the Earth has been attacked with an alien bio-weapon for which there is no known cure. Quarantining the entire planet, the Earth works with the Interstellar Alliance to send a crew in search of a cure before Earth is lost.

The Excalibur

The Excalibur – a new ship combining Earth-tech with advanced alien technology – is led by Captain Matthew Gideon to search the galaxy for a possible cure left behind when the most advanced races left the galaxy. Gideon is a bit of a rogue who is willing to break the rules to accomplish his mission. Galen, a mysterious technomage who has a history with Gideon, is not an official crew member, but participates in missions to help Gideon and further his own agenda. Dureena is the last of her race and the crew’s “thief,” who is frustrated by her inability to discover Galen’s secrets. The Executive Officer is a telepath – the only one in the military – who’s not allowed to use his ability, the doctor is extremely talented (but blandly acted, unfortunately), and the archeologist is incredibly self-centered and just as incredibly good at his job (and would probably have come out as one of the most complex and satisfying characters had the show continued, I think).

So you watch these 13 episodes and you think, “oh, it’s a quest show. Some of these characters are pretty interesting. I could catch it every once in a while and not miss much, because it’ll all just keep resetting as they continue to fail finding the cure.” And based on those 13 episodes, you’d be right.

But that’s wrong. Oh, so wrong.

A few scripts were written and not produced. For a while they were available online. I’ve read them. One was the first season finale. By the end of that, nothing’s the same anymore.

There were also some books based on the Babylon 5 universe. One set was the “Technomage trilogy” in which Galen is the main character and you find out a lot of things you’d probably have gotten in Crusade. By the end of that, nothing’s the same anymore.

On the earliest printings of the Crusade DVD set, JMS did a commentary (removed at his request subsequently for breach of contract because the part where he criticized TNT were removed) that provided some hints as to where the show would have gone. That made it clear – you weren’t watching the show you thought you were watching.

We still don’t know everything about where the show would have gone – they’re saving that for the script books that will someday be for sale – but we do know some things.

  • The cure would have been found in the second season of five planned seasons.
  • Earth would have been discovered to be running its own secret program, continuing to use Shadow technology (on which the plague was based, and which they weren’t supposed to have in the first place) for its gain.
  • Gideon and the crew would be fugitives.
  • Gideon would have been killed by a sniper in the first season finale.
  • Gideon’s consciousness would have been saved and he’d have been resurrected, after a fashion.
  • Dureena would have become a sort of revenge-bent technomage-ish character and would have come into conflict with Galen.

(Some of these revelations parallel Babylon 5′s story to a degree, but I think each instance would have had substantial differences.)

JMS also said that the arc of the show would be in broad strokes similar to the Biblical book of Job. In fact, and I don’t know why I didn’t notice this until just now, the central questions of the show (who do you serve, and who do you trust?) completely reflect that book. The show would have been epic – and totally different from its mild quest-like beginnings.

Of all the shows I’ve watched that have been cancelled, I’m most upset about Crusade and Firefly. They are the only show cancellations that have caused me to have long-seated ill-will toward the host network – not because of the cancellation itself, but because of the way the network “handled” the property – by which I mean interfered with it to the point that it was never going to succeed. For Firefly we had the solace of the movie Serenity. For Crusade, our only solace will be the script books.

I must echo Dan’s son: TNT, you smell of cheesy feet.

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