It's been more than five years since the last new entry in the "Babylon 5" franchise. "The Legends of the Rangers" TV-movie had its own particular crosses to bear. As a "backdoor pilot", it had to introduce characters, setting, and initial apparent conflicts, yet it also had to stand on its own. While criticism of that film was often unfair, it was hardly the best way for the on-screen "Babylon 5" franchise to come to an end.
Plans for a feature film went as far as a script and pre-production, but "The Memory of Shadows" never found its footing and the project was cancelled. When even new novels were ultimately scuttled in 2006, fans had every reason to wonder if the franchise had come to an end. When the announcement for "The Lost Tales" came later in the same year, it was a pleasant shock.
Of course, there was reason to be wary. This project, direct to DVD, is something of a test case for shows without a network and a limited studio budget. Instead of a full-length film, the DVD would feature two stories, largely stand-alone but concurrent, featuring a limited cast. Given some of the limitations and challenges, some fans found it hard to believe "The Lost Tales" would ever come to fruition, at least until the product was in hand.
Some of the initial criticisms of the project have been disingenuous. Many complain about the length; these critics claim that a two-episode release should have been two hours long. Basic knowledge of the television medium corrects this misconception. The standard television episode runs, without commercials, 40-42 minutes, and those episodes typically involve more than one plot thread at a time. Segments on this volume of "The Lost Tales" are each 35 minutes long, only 5-7 minutes shorter, and focus on one specific plot element. So those complaining about the length of the production are being needlessly selfish; the product is effectively two normal episodes with the subplots removed!
Creatively, the challenge of any post-series venture has been one of relevancy. The hallmark of "Babylon 5" was its deeply serialized plot and character arcs. Decisions and events had consequences. Cause and effect played out over the span of seasons. Many fans argue that the weakest episodes had the least connection to the big picture, and for similar reasons, TV-movies like "Thirdspace", "The River of Souls", and the aforementioned "Rangers" can seem extraneous.
With the limited scope of each segment and the inability to plan ahead for long-term story arcs, "The Lost Tales" struggle to justify their existence within the grand scheme. J. Michael Straczynski (JMS, to the initiated) does everything possible to make these stories stand out without unnecessary connections to the original series. Even so, the stories fit within a set tapestry, and understanding the context requires prior knowledge. New viewers may find it hard to understand, for instance, the relationships at play in Sheridan's segment.
JMS must have understood that issue, because in the end, the two stories boil down to concepts that could viably exist without any connection at all to "Babylon 5". Given JMS' experience with the 1980s incarnation of "The Twilight Zone", there is a similar tone and approach. Generally speaking, success or failure of each segment comes down to the core concept.
The first segment ("Over Here") centers on a possible religious crisis on the Babylon 5 station. Colonel Lochley (played by Tracy Scoggins) is still in command after 10 years, having settled in for the long run. One of her maintenance crew appears to be possessed by a demon, so she calls in a priest from Earth. What results is an interesting and often creepy look at the effects of space travel on religion. This entire segment is essentially a three-person stage play with the occasional special effects shot, with an aesthetic not unlike the classic episode "Intersections in Real Time".
The story is intriguing, but two aspects keep it from reaching its full potential. First and foremost, Lochley was a late addition to "Babylon 5" and hardly one of the fan favorites. Her character was one of the least developed, and Scoggins always seemed to struggle with her performance and line delivery. None of that has changed. If anything, Lochley is still generic enough that it's difficult to understand why this situation has meaning for the character. Since the segment focuses on Lochley, one might assume that the events should hold personal meaning.
On top of that, as explained, the "possession" and everything surrounding it doesn't quite mesh with the "Babylon 5" universe. While the events and ideas themselves can be incorporated into the tapestry of the franchise mythology, this is ultimately a story that just happens to take place on Babylon 5. In the end, that keeps the story from reaching its full potential.
On the surface of things, the second segment ("Over There") resolves that issue by dealing with political issues that pertain specifically to the Babylon 5 continuity. Certainly the details tie into a few open questions from the series and its successors. Still, the core concept is more generic: "if you could knew Hitler as a child, knowing what he would become, would you kill him to save millions?". Everything that happens to President Sheridan (played perfectly by Bruce Boxleitner), as prompted by technomage Galen (played by the equally perfect Peter Woodward) comes down to that philosophical question.
It becomes a balance between letting the core concept dictate the setting or the setting informing the core concept. In this case, the situation with Centauri Prince Vintari is staged in a manner that sometimes overlooks elements of the series' continuity to present the key point about the young man's future. The threat Vintari is meant to represent pales in comparison to the threat posed by the Shadows from the original series or the "planet killer" from "A Call to Arms". The final solution also introduces certain continuity complications, but serves the core concept more readily.
These concerns make it sound as though the writing was a major issue; in the end, that's not true. For an ongoing anthology series set in the "Babylon 5" universe, either story would have made a solid, compelling episode. The stakes are simply raised based on the ephemeral nature of the format. When these are the only definite entries for the project, one is left wanting material that couldn't have been applied to any other franchise. This is why the Sheridan entry works better than the Lochley entry (aside from the disparity in popularity).
The majority of the performances are solid. While Scoggins does struggle with her part, it's no different than her struggles on the series. Boxleitner and Woodward, as noted previously, stepped right back into their roles as if no time had passed. The guest stars were all on top of their game. Special mention goes to Teryl Rothery, who has never looked better, even in all the time spent on "Stargate SG-1".
Visually, the Babylon 5 station has never looked better, and the virtual sets are leaps and bounds above the original series. Some of the green screen work is a bit rough, but to a certain extent, it fits the franchise. Straczynski doesn't have much experience as a director, beyond the series finale of the original series, and sometimes the lack of experience shows, especially in the Lochley segment. The score by Christopher Franke is far better than the score for "Rangers", more in keeping with his best work.
Overall, given the many challenges (specifically, budget), this is a good beginning. There's certainly room to grow, especially in terms of linking the stories more directly to the characters and the Babylon 5 universe, but the concepts were strong. Hopefully the sales for this volume will justify a future installment, so this won't be the last statement on the franchise.