TVWise takes a look back at the short-lived Babylon 5 spin-off Crusade.
15 years ago today, Crusade debuted on basic cable network TNT in the United States.
The series should have been a guaranteed hit. It was, after all, a spin-off of the popular sci-fi series Babylon 5, which was created by J. Michael Straczysnki and ran for five seasons, airing a total of 110 episodes and (by that point in 1999) some 5 TV movies.
Crusade focused on the Excalibur, a highly advanced starship manned by the best of the best who were scouring the universe in search of a cure to a deadly virus that was set wipe out all life on earth inside of 5 years. The cast included Gary Cole, Daniel Dae Kim, Marjean Holden, Carrie Dobro, Peter Woodward, David Allen Brooks and Tracy Scoggins.
But a hit it was not. By the time the Gary Cole fronted ensemble debuted on TNT on June 9, 1999, it had already been cancelled and even while there was some whispers that it MIGHT be possible for the series to move to another network, a second season for Crusade was considered extremely unlikely.
TVWise takes a look back at Crusade, the sci-fi hit that never was.
As noted above, Crusade was a spin-off of the iconic science fiction series Babylon 5. That series, created by Straczynski, had been intended as a “novel for television”, incorporating heavily serialised elements to tell one large story over multiple seasons (while common today, this was practically unheard of when Babylon 5 debuted in the 1990s).
It was when Babylon 5 was in its fourth season that the imminent collapse of the Prime Time Entertainment Network meant completing the arc as intended was looking unlikely. At the end of season four, after a lot of rumours and back and forth, TNT stepped in to pick up a fifth season.
Today, TNT is recognised as one of the leading cable networks with hit original series that have included The Closer, Major Crimes, Rizzoli & Isles and (somewhat ironically) Falling Skies. But in the late 1990s, the network, under the direction of Brad Siegel, was best known for re-runs and was only just beginning a push into originals. They decided to start that push with Crusade, which became one of their first originals alongside the similarly ill-fated Witchblade.
The Babylon 5 spin-off had been in development at WB for some time, since late 1996, before official discussions began with TNT. Early ideas for the spin-off included the notion of “empire building”, before quickly pivoting to the idea of a crew hunting for the cure to a deadly virus that the Drakh had released into Earth’s atmosphere.
That said, early versions of the spin-off were vastly different from the one which aired in 1999. Early drafts saw a fleet, consisting of 5 White Stars and the Excalibur, hunting for the cure and featured Babylon 5 characters such as Marcus Cole.
Word soon came down, however, that the spin-off, while part of the Babylon 5 universe, should not heavily mention or reference the aforementioned series. And so only a handful of characters remained from early versions and the Excalibur became the sole ship hunting for a cure.
A Call To Arms
In late 1997 Crusade received the official green-light from TNT. It was around this same time that a decision was made that one of the Babylon 5 TV movies the network had commissioned would be used to lay the groundwork for Crusade. That movie, titled A Call To Arms, would feature the Babylon 5 station as well as key characters John Sheridan (Bruce Boxleitner) and Michael Garibaldi (Jerry Doyle).
The main thrust of the movie would be the Drakh attack on Earth and would introduce the Exclaibur and two regular characters for Crusade: Galen, a technomage; and Dureena Nafeel, a member of the thieves’ guild.
The producers quickly gravitated to the idea of having Carrie Dobro in the role of Dureena, but by Straczynski’s own admission casting Galen was far more difficult. Initially he had wanted to cast Andreas Katsulas, who had played G’Kar on Babylon 5, as Galen, but Katsulas passed on the role. A short while later, Peter Woodward auditioned and was quickly cast as the Technomage.
The Problems Begin
In 1998, after production was completed on Babylon 5 and as the producers were winding down production on A Call To Arms, pre-production got well underway on Crusade, which meant casting the remaining roles. And that was when some issues arose between the parties involved.
There were several key characters that still needed to be cast including Captain Gideon, Lieutenant John Matheson, Dr Chambers and Max Eilerson. By all accounts, the roles of John Matheson and Dr Chambers were quickly cast with Daniel Dae Kim, now of Lost and Hawaii Five-0 fame, landing the role of Matheson; while Marjean Holden was cast as Doctor Chambers, despite having filmed a small supporting role on A Call To Arms.
The roles of Captain Gideon and Max Eilerson would not be nearly as easy to cast. Unlike today when cable can attract top acting talent, getting “big name” actors to work on a cable series was nearly impossible. And a big name actor was exactly what TNT wanted for the role of Gideon.
Around this time Gary Cole emerged as the frontrunner for the part of Captain Gideon. Straczynski’s top choice, however, was British actor Michael York, who had guest starred on Babylon 5 during season three. The studio rejected the notion of casting York and instead the lead role went to Cole.
For the role of Maximilian Eilerson, Straczynski wanted to cast David Allen Brooks. TNT was opposed to casting Brooks as they wanted a “young and sexy” actor for the part. Just as Chris Carter had done for Gillian Anderson on The X-Files some years earlier, Straczysnki fought hard for Brooks and was able to convince the powers that be to cast the actor.
It was around this same time that TNT did something of a 180. After insisting that Crusade could and WOULD have nothing to do with Babylon 5, the network suggested that Tracy Scoggins, who had starred as Elizabeth Lochley on Babylon 5’s final season, should reprise the role on Crusade.
Production Begins….and stops
With the regular cast in place, Crusade began production on its 22 episode order in August 1998 with what was intended to be the show’s third episode, The Needs of Earth. TNT began pushing back on elements of the series from day one, issuing what were often confused notes on episodes, with input coming from both TNT’s LA hub and the main office in Atlanta.
In late September, with 5 episodes in the can, Crusade was to go on a one week production hiatus. TNT extended the hiatus from one week to three. The extension was ostensibly to allow for the construction of new sets and the design of new costumes.
Around this same time a network memo leaked online in which TNT was demanding more sex and action in episodes. TNT also mandated the creation of a new episode which would show the crew coming together. This episode would be the first to air rather than Racing The Night, which had been intended as the series’ opener. This change also meant that Crusade would not debut in January 1999, one week after A Call To Arms aired, as was originally intended.
With New Uniforms, Production Resumes
Production would start up again with the Janet Greek helmed episode The Well Of Forever, with the new costumes and sets in place. The costume change necessitated the creation of an episode that would connect the first 5 produced episodes using the grey uniforms and future episodes that would utilise the new black uniforms.
Production progressed apace on another 8 episodes, even as Joe Straczysnki was battling on an almost daily basis with TNT on the content of episodes. The network’s marketing division then received a report which stated that the audience for Babylon 5 were not watching TNT’s other programs and those watching TNT’s core programming were not watching Babylon 5. It was then, shortly after the production of episode 13 that the network shut down production on Crusade. Officially the show went on a hiatus, which continued to drag on for months.
Sci-Fi Attempts To Step In
Well into 1999 it became clear that TNT had no intention of resuming production on Crusade and that the back-nine episodes of the season had been cancelled. Warner Bros. and JMS then set out to find a new home for the series, with Sci-Fi being one such possible home. The network had, however, already allocated its budget for 1999.
What followed? TNT refused to release the Syndication rights to Babylon 5, the options on the cast began to expire and Gary Cole had lined up a new job – Crusade was dead, several months before it would even air. Ratings (projected or otherwise) didn’t even enter the equation, though when TNT finally aired Crusade in the Summer of 1999 as a “limited series”, the Babylon 5 spin-off did solid numbers for the network – averaging a 1.3 HH rating.
A multitude of factors led to the demise of Crusade, but by all accounts it can be boiled down to two key points. 1) that TNT had no real vision of what or where they wanted to be with their push into originals and 2) contradictory notes coming from LA and Atlanta. (The network had also allocated a rather paltry budget of just under one million dollars per episode, roughly half of what other analogous sci-fi series were produced for.) A result of which was that a sci-fi series with a lot of potential was cut brutally short.
Even so, new Crusade content has emerged in recent years, with Synthetic Worlds Publishing releasing unproduced scripts from the series ranging from a three-parter dealing with the abduction of Dureena Nafeel to an episode that would have seen the return on Walter Koenig’s Alfred Bester to a script from actor Peter Woodward, earmarked for a second season which would never materialise.