Why Babylon 5: Legend of the Rangers Sucked

First, let me preface this by saying that I am a fan of Babylon 5. I found the pilot and first season to be wretched but with signs of what could be a good show, the fifth season to be ten hours of good television endlessly dragged out into twenty-two hours, but the second through fourth seasons are sixty-six hours of absolutely brilliant television. I think J. Michael Straczynski created a fantastic universe, and he mostly did a very good job telling stories within it.

I thought Crusade was awful, and not just the episodes that aired, but the scripts for later episodes that didn't air were also bad. (I saw Starblazers the first time, thanks.) I liked In the Beginning mostly (the sequence with Sheridan, G'Kar, and Franklin infiltrating Minbari space, getting captured, and then being released solely because Sheridan quoted Dukhat was totally nonsensical, but it was otherwise excellent), was unmoved one way or the other by Thirdspace, loved A Call to Arms (go fig', given how much I disliked Crusade), and hated River of Souls with a fiery passion.

Which brings us to Legend of the Rangers.

The Boston Herald said, "the plot seems have been stolen from the trash can of a fired 'Star Trek' writer." A poster on one of the boards I frequent called it, "the final PPG shot to the head of the B5 franchise."

They're both too generous. Legend of the Rangers is the absolute nadir of B5 as a franchise. (Yes, even worse than "Grey 17 is Missing.")

Let me say what I liked first. I liked Terk, the Drazi, who said his name meant we're never having more kids. I liked how he introduced himself as the guy who lifts heavy things.

That was it, really.

I was pretty disgusted with the entire production before the credits rolled. Every line of dialogue came out of the Cliché Handbook, and was delivered in as flat a manner as possible. And then we're told that "Rangers do not retreat from battle."

Say what?

We know what the Rangers were like prior to this movie from the five years of Babylon 5. We know what the Rangers will be like after this movie from the B5 episodes "Deconstruction of Falling Stars" and "Sleeping in Light," from the movie A Call to Arms, and from the series Crusade. Never has this particular Ranger credo ever been mentioned. Yet now it's suddenly become a major tenet of the Rangers.

First of all, it's an overwhelmingly stupid tenet. Not retreating in battle is what leads to, say, Napoleon's disastrous invasion of Russia. Second of all, it's supposed to be a Minbari rule, which is entertaining considering that Minbari do retreat from battle: specifically, the Battle of the Line, when the Minbari backed off of their attack on Earth. Ironically, said retreat was ordered by Delenn, who's the head of the Rangers (something you'd never know watching this movie, by the way, even though, according to "Sleeping in Light," she runs the Rangers until Sheridan's death some two decades hence).

Second of all, what purpose does this rule serve? Besides being tactically idiotic, the supposed plot function is to give a reason for Martel to be given the crap ship. There are about fifteen other ways this could have been accomplished without violating the mission statement of the Rangers. Worse still, once we get past Martel's disciplinary hearing, this tenet is not only never mentioned again, but Tannier, the Minbari who gives Martel a hard time for retreating, then happily recommends retreat when the new bad guys come a-knockin'. Suddenly, Rangers do retreat from battle. Imagine that.

Then we get the not-really-the-Grey-Council. Mind you, it looks like the Grey Council, it acts like the Grey Council, but, according to a post JMS made to rec.arts.sf.tv.babylon5.moderated, it's simply "the High Council attached to the training facility in Tuzenor on Minbar." Mind you, there's never been any mention of this council before, and it would've been nice if this had been explained in the movie itself. Me, I thought it was the Grey Council, which was odd, since Delenn took the Rangers out of the Grey Council's purview.

And then the big exoneration, where Martel is told that he won't be drummed out of the Rangers and have his Ranger cufflinks clipped and have to turn in his Ranger decoder ring, which happens off-camera! Oy.

Before that, we get some of the most laughable staff-fighting choreography I've ever seen as Tannier and Martel have the token Macho Posturing Scene (page 19 of the Cliché Handbook) where the hero beats up the antagonistic character so we can see how cool the hero is. God knows, we need something to show that, because Dylan "Pretty Boy" Neal isn't up to the job. He has all the charisma of a dead fish, all the charm of a dead rabbit, and all the acting talent of a dead cat.

Martel's got to be the least interesting ensemble lead of any recent genre show. We know nothing about this guy, find out nothing about him, and are given no reason to give even the slightest reason to care what happens to him or his boring crew. They all get up to stand around the dinner table that is the bridge set and announce who they are and why they're there, and after that entire scene, I still couldn't tell them apart. This is the most uninteresting crew since seaQuest DSV, and I didn't think a more boring crew than that could exist.

Speaking of which, that bridge design made nothing resembling sense. One thing I've noticed is that the bridges on B5 ships have a tendency to be "anti-Trek" designs. By that I mean that they seem to be consciously avoiding making their bridges look like Star Trek bridges. The problem is, Star Trek's bridge design is pretty darn good and none of the ones I've seen on B5 were anything to write home about. This one is the worst. Everything's centralized in one console? Where's the sense in that?

Then again, if we want something really ludicrous, we've got the method of firing weapons: the weapons officer goes into a VR chamber and fires the weapons by throwing punches and kicks. Uh-huh. So we've got weapons that only fire when someone throws a punch, which means that it's got a considerably slower response time than pressing a button. What happens when she sneezes and accidentally blows up one of her own ships? What happens when she gets tired? What happens when she gets a muscle cramp? Plus, what good is a weapons firing mechanism that only allows you to see what's in front of you? Multiple simultaneous views aren't possible, because it's limited by human sight.

It may look cool, but so does Seven of Nine's catsuit, and this is about as practical.

Then we have Yet Another Frelling Uber Menace. They're supposed to be even worse than the Shadows. I'm reminded of the scene in Blackadder Goes Forth where Blackadder and Baldrick are captured by the Germans and threatened first with a fate worse than death, and then again threatened with "something even worse." Blackadder raises an eyebrow. "A fate worse than a fate worse than death? Sounds pretty bad…" That line was played for laughs, and I took it about as seriously as I took this, because after a certain point you reach diminishing returns. The Shadows were fantastic villains, the ultimate antagonists. Why is it necessary to try to outdo that, especially with something that is obviously on a smaller scale than B5 was?

What's worse, they're pretty unimpressive so far. I mean, the Shadows had lackeys like the Drakh. The Drakh infected Earth with a plague and did icky things to the Centauri ruling structure. The Hand (which, for the record, is considerably less menacing a name than the Shadows) has lackeys that fall for a trick that was hoary when the Greeks pulled it on the Trojans, and worse, they fall for it twice! The first time was bad enough (why didn't they just scan the stupid thing?), but the second time it only worked because they were too stupid to figure out where the communication originated from?

And what exactly were the stakes here? What, exactly, did Martel accomplish? He didn't overcome anything personal, since he was exonerated for the previously nonexistent crime of retreating from battle off-camera before the first half-hour ended. So what happened that was of anything like consequence here? What was the failure cost?

In "The Gathering," something was at stake (the fragile peace represented by the station). In "War Zone," something was at stake (the future of humanity). What was at stake here?

By the way, "The Hand" is only one of the nomenclature problems. Martel is given the same first name as Sheridan and Delenn's son, the second-in-command is named Dulann, the antagonist is named Tannier. You'd think JMS would try just a bit harder to come up with some new names. (Though I suppose we should be grateful that this hero doesn't have the initials JMS…)

There's no sense of the overall universe here. B5 was always about a big galaxy full of lots of wondrous things. There was a sense of being part of something larger. I never got that sense here, though. Everything was completely insular. There was no feeling of what life was like elsewhere in the B5 universe, not even on Earth (where many of the protagonists are from, and which has just finished a big telepath war), which is something its predecessors were able to convey with much more success.

Even poor Andreas Katsulas was floundering. He's either spouting platitudes or acting like some kind of flamer ("Kiss kiss"? Puh-lease…). By the fifth season of B5, G'Kar was almost Buddha-like, but in LOTR he's been reduced to a fortune cookie.

Speaking of platitudes, was it really necessary to say "We live for the one, we die for the one" nine times in two hours? Five of those were in the first fifteen minutes. And never once is it ever explained to any potential new viewers what, precisely, that means.

This didn't even feel like B5. Dulann is apparently "a little" telepathic, which is an appallingly imprecise term in a universe that takes telepathy so seriously (especially in a setting so soon after the Telepath War). The Interstellar Alliance has gone from an economic consortium to an organization that "keeps the peace" (funny, I thought that was the Rangers' job). Tuzenor doesn't look anything like it did when we've seen it before, nor does it look like any Minbari architecture we've seen before.

I really hope this doesn't go to series. And if it does, I seriously doubt I'll be watching.

[First posted on sff.people.krad at SFF.net on 21 January 2002.]

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