Sunday, August 19, 2007

Babylon 5: The Underpopulated Tales

Ten years after its cancellation -- and after multiple novels, a spinoff animated series, and an attempt to revive it as a TV series -- STAR TREK came back to life as a series of movies.

Ten years after its conclusion (it was broadcast in its entirety, not canceled) -- and after multiple novels, a spinoff TV series, and an attempt to create another (which did not move beyond the pilot stage) -- BABYLON 5 has returned in the first of a planned series of stand-alone movies.

BABYLON 5, the TV series, pioneered the use of computer-generated virtual sets, which enabled it to show vast space battles and alien worlds far beyond what its syndicated-series budget would permit. The CGI occasionally looked cheesy; but the strength of the story and dialogue by creator J. Michael Straczynski, plus some excellent acting, carried the show through its visual rough spots.

All of those aspects are magnified in BABYLON 5: THE LOST TALES. Straczynski, who both wrote and directed the two episodes that make up this first volume, has crafted two strong tales that draw on the storylines of the TV series (including the future-history that JMS set up, extending 1,000 years past the period in which the series takes place); yet that are stand-alone episodes that don't require knowledge of complicated story arcs to appreciate.

But the budget is a concern. That budget is likely smaller than the one for the TV series. Indeed, JMS has stated that he directed these episodes to show future directors how his vision could be realized within the limited budget.

CGI has come a long way in the years since the B5 series ended; and it shows. The graphics are more engaging and realistic than in the series. On the other hand, it is clear that just about everything on the screen -- except the actors, their clothes, and the parts of their environment with which they interact -- are mere pixels. We don't get a matte line around the actors, as with older technologies, but in closeups we are often very aware that the actors are not part of the computer-generated environments behind them.

The other way the budget limitations manifest themselves is in the number of people onscreen. A friend of mine is fond of pointing out that when the MAN FROM UNCLE TV series went from black and white to color, the many extras that used to inhabit the city scenes disappeared; the money that would have went to hiring extras had gone to the color photography. Likewise, in these episodes, space is underpopulated. We have three actors from the original series (Bruce Boxleitner, Tracy Scoggins, and Peter Woodward); about four other speaking roles; a bunch of voices over intercoms or radios; and a couple of nonspeaking extras who walk by. That's it. No shots of the more populated parts of the space station or the starships. The budget for hiring more actors is limited (as, perhaps, is the space in the green-screen-walled studio). Space is a lonely place.

Nevertheless, THE LOST TALES is a lot of fun. Please buy the DVD, so the producers can afford to populate the planets.

Babylon 5: The Lost Tales starring Bruce Boxleitner, Tracy Scoggins, Teryl Rothery, Bruce Ramsay, Peter Woodward, Alan Scarfe, Keegan Macintosh from Warner Home Video on DVD - Widescreen, Original Aspect Ratio - 1.85

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