Sleeping in the Dark

In addition to 300, the home video release I was most looking forward to last week was a new taste of the Babylon 5 universe. The first of what creator J. Michael Straczynski hopes to be a series of direct-to-DVD releases called The Lost Tales, the debut disc is titled “Voices in the Dark.”

As the first B5 release centered on the original cast since the series ended nearly nine years ago, I was thrilled. Babylon 5 had a huge impact on my life; not only did I find it immensely moving and entertaining, but it taught me a lot about how to tell stories. In fact, at my current job I regularly use B5 as an example of how to introduce an interesting plot twist or move the story in an unusual way. As far as I’m concerned, JMS is a master storyteller, a fact made clear by his run writing The Amazing Spider-Man and other comics.

I’m a true fan, of both the B5 universe and JMS himself. That’s why writing this post is so disheartening.

(Semi-spoilers after the break.) 

“Voices in the Dark” is not a B5 episode. I mean, technically it is… but in practice it isn’t. Not only is it lacking the magic of the original series, it almost literally put me to sleep.

The story is divided into two parts centered loosely around the same event: a celebration of the tenth anniversary of the founding of the Interstellar Alliance. The first chapter focuses on Colonel Lochley, B5’s commander, who has requested the presence of a priest. A crewman appears to be possessed by a demon, and she doesn’t know how to solve the problem. Lochley and the priest confront the allegedly possessed man, who frightens them with some fiery CGI effects. The three of them talk a lot, and… well, that’s about it.

Oh, the dialogue is spot on — JMS can use a sci-fi setting to debate the relevance of religion as well as anyone. But the subject of demonic possession has been the basis of entire novels and feature films, and is far too deep to flesh out in the half hour devoted to it here. There is an interesting take on the whole business which is nicely intertwined with some classic B5 themes, but it’s just not enough to drive a story in which nothing freaking happens.

The second chapter of the tale centers on President Sheridan, portrayed by the ever affable Bruce Boxleitner. Sheridan is returning to B5 for the anniversary celebration when the technomage Galen (a main character from the spinoff series Crusade) warns the president that the young Centauri representative coming to the party will one day grow up to lead a devastating attack upon Earth. Galen urges Sheridan to fake an accident that causes the young boy’s death, thus protecting our planet’s future.

This one almost has something happen. Sheridan has to decide whether letting the kid die for something he hasn’t done yet is the right thing to do, and at least we see them flying some star furies. There’s no denying that it’s great to see Sheridan again, once more arguing with himself about right and wrong. But I’m sorry, it’s just not enough to save this snoozefest.

“Voices in the Dark” simply doesn’t stand on its own. It feels like two side stories stuck together, both missing the major storylines that carry the action along. Look, I’m not some caveman who thinks sci-fi must involve lasers and explosions in order to be enjoyable. Some of my favorite B5 moments are the quiet ones, when dialogue and acting alone carry the emotion over to the viewer. But aside from the moving references to the journey beyond the Rim taken by G’Kar and Dr. Franklin (both actors passed away in the last few years), there’s little emotion to grab onto.

Sure, the special effects have improved tremendously over the original series. The effects in B5 look incredibly dated by today’s standards, and “Voices in the Dark” features modern techniques that look spectacular. But fancy shots of the space station’s exterior can’t make up for the lack of anything we can sink our teeth into.

Part of the problem is that this corner of the B5 universe feels empty. We see only three characters we care anything about: Sheridan, Lochley, and Galen. The rest of the cast is tantalizingly shown in the intro graphics, but only brief dialogue references are made to them. I realize that this production was made on a tight budget, but the fact is that a big part of what made Babylon 5 so memorable is the ensemble cast. We want to see Sheridan and Delenn together; we want Garibaldi cracking wise; we want Londo picking on Vir; then we want all of them in a room together arguing with each other. In “Voices,” the bustling space station of the original series seems like a ghost town.

Admittedly, I wouldn’t feel this let down if my expectations weren’t so high. This is the first new B5 nugget in years, and it felt like a shadow (pardon the pun) of the original. As side stories supporting a larger plot, either chapter of “Voices” would be fine. Put together, they’re just two rather flimsy pieces looking for a meatier center.

The diehard fan should absolutely buy this disc, for no other reason than to convince Warner Brothers that JMS should be allowed to make another one. But I fear that “Voices in the Dark” will do little to win new converts to the B5 universe. Hopefully the next chapter in The Lost Tales will be better able to do just that. And hopefully I won’t have a problem staying awake through it.

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