Saturday, November 21, 2015

Crusade: “War Zone” (Babylonian TV, Turner Network Television, Warner Bros., 1999)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Though just about everyone thought Crusade — itself a title fraught with unintended significances these days, given that to the West the term “Crusade” just connotes a major struggle that mobilized a large number of people for an idealistic end, to the Muslim world it’s a reminder of a genuine holy war once waged by Christian Europe against Islam and a word used by Muslim terrorists eager to portray themselves as heroes in a millennial “clash of civilizations” with Christian nations — was inferior to Babylon 5 (the people at the screening thought so, as did the critics at the time, the reviewers and the TV audience, since its ratings were poor and it was canceled after just one season), I found it much more profound and moving. At least part of that was due to its plot similarities to the entire “war on terror” in general and its most recent battlefront — the November 13 attacks in Paris by groups either part of or associated with or allegiance to (the lines between those relationships do get blurred) Islamic State, sometimes known as ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) or ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) or DAESH (which is apparently a transliteration of their initials in the Arabic alphabet and can also be “bent” in its pronunciation to sound like an Arabic slur). The plot of Crusade, which was apparently outlined in a special two-hour episode of Babylon 5 called “A Call to Arms” which was presented as a TV-movie, is that an alien race called the Drakh mounted an all-out assault on Earth, intending to conquer it. Their spaceships were vanquished and they retreated, but they left behind a genetically engineered plague virus that, once it learns how to infect earth organisms — a process Earth’s scientists have figured will take about five years — will destroy all life on Earth.

As a result, Earth itself has been placed under quarantine, and with Earth seemingly under a microbiological death sentence anyway, a number of apocalyptic religious cults have sprung up. They have their disagreements with each other but all subscribe to the deep-ecological notion that humans had become a pestilence on Earth even before the attack and the virus is actually a judgment from God that people have screwed up so badly everyone and everything on the planet needs to die. The two episodes of this very interesting show that were presented last night were the series opener, “War Zone,” and the eighth one, “Ruling from the Tomb.” The gimmick is that while the colony of Earth scientists on Mars are desperately researching the Drakh plague and seeking to find a cure within the five-year (literal) deadline, Earth authorities have also sent out a spaceship called the Excalibur and recruited hotshot space-fleet officer Captain Matthew Gideon (Gary Cole) to captain her. I’ve had a hot crush on Gary Cole since I saw him not long ago in a Lifetime TV-movie called Lies He Told, made in 1997 (two years before Crusade), in which he played an ex-Air Force servicemember who was using his special operations training to support himself by robbing banks, and he’d married (bigamously) to a woman so naïve she kept believing his more and more preposterous explanations about where his money was coming from and what he was doing when he set off and disappeared for days or weeks on end. (That’s a major part of the Lifetime iconography: just about any genuinely hot male on one of their shows turns out to be a villain!) The opening fistfight insisted on by the “suits” at TNT takes place between Gideon and a group of young crew members who attempt to mutiny on his previous ship, and whom he of course subdues easily through what appears to be a combination of upper-body strength and the sheer force of his star personality. Since the ringleader of the mutiny, and the participant Gideon personally slugged, was the son of a prominent Senator in the Interplanetary Federation (or whatever it’s called in this fictional universe), when Gideon is summoned to Mars he thinks it’s to get a dressing-down.

Instead it’s to get a promotion to command the Excalibur, a ship that’s 1.3 miles long (though that’s nothing compared to the one in Babylon 5, which was five miles long), whose mission it will be to hunt down the Drakh and see if they can either capture one alive or find out enough information that they will be able to help the scientists on Mars cure the plague and save all life on Earth. Gideon asks if he’ll be able to select his own crew and he’s told he’ll be able to pick some of them but not all — “We’ve had to make a lot of compromises to get this thing off the ground,” he’s told, in what one “Trivia” poster said might be an allusion to what J. Michael Straczynski went through trying to get the series on the air — and in particular he insists on carrying over his first mate from his previous command, Lt. John Matheson (Daniel Dae Kim — why this obviously Asian actor is playing a character with an Anglo last name is a mystery), and also he insists on hiring Dureena Nafeel (Carrie Dobro), a member of the “Thieves’ Guild” who persuades Gideon she’ll be a useful addition to his crew since she can hack any security system and break into anything. In the opening episode the crew — including Dr. Sarah Chambers (Marjean Holden), one of the crew members forced on Gideon by his superiors (and an odd-looking woman who resembles Mick Jagger in drag) — encounter an archaeological team on a planet on which a Drakh spaceship was forced to land after an Earth attack. Gideon finds a couple of befuddled archaeologists, Max Eilerson (David Allen Brooks), who has somehow managed to learn the Drakh language and talks his way onto the Excalibur crew with that skill; and the much younger (and hunkier) Trace Miller (Alex Mendoza, who in his later career apparently used the name “Zeus Mendoza”). They also capture the captain of the Drakh vessel that landed there, but he invokes the laws of war and refuses to talk — and Gideon is too nice and too ethical to torture or “enhance” him. Overall, “War Zone” was a good and provocative beginning for a series whose central premise seemed to me to be a lot more compelling than Babylon 5, and which promised great things.