By piggybacking the plotting from sci-fi series “Babylon 5,” which recently completed its run, the premiere episode of spinoff “Crusade” offers the sort of complex narrative clutter of a solid fourth-season “X-Files” mythology episode. Fans of the old show should be delighted; new recruits may fear they’ve missed too much. Still, based on the ambition and flair of the first episode, the series easily could expand beyond its “limited series of 13 episodes”; the pilot, rather like another famous sci-fi series, posits the potential of a five-year mission.
“Babylon 5,” which itself enjoyed a five-year run of original episodes — beginning in syndication and ending on cable — was a rare example of a series that was peaking in terms of fan acceptance just as its production schedule was coming to a close. “Crusade” seeks to rectify that oversight with a new bid for the fan base, picking up where its predecessor spectacularly left off — an invasion of Earth by the dreaded Drakh that includes the release of a virus that will kill everything on the planet within five years unless an antidote can be found.
“Crusade” opens with Capt. Matthew Gideon (Gary Cole) quelling a mutiny on his own ship only to return to witness the devastation from orbit. Gideon, who’s something of a maverick, is assigned to helm the state-of-the-art spacecraft Excalibur and scour the known — and unknown — universe in search of a cure for the Drakh plague.
The exposition is a bit dubious in setting up the premise. Given the dire consequences of failure, why is this considered, as one character puts it, “a highly political situation”? It actually seems pretty unambiguous. And why dispatch just one ship to find a remedy? Why not spring for two — or a hundred?
Nonetheless, Gideon quickly assembles a crew and goes planet-hopping. Characters introduced include loyal second-in-command John Matheson (Daniel Dae Kim); alien-culture expert Max Eilerson (David A. Brooks); Dr. Sarah Chambers (Marjean Holden); and Dureena Nafeel (Carrie Dobro), an alien with a major chip on her shoulder: Her race was destroyed by the Drakh.
“Babylon 5” regular Elizabeth Lochley (Tracy Scoggins) will join the series in a later episode. Another character, Galen (Peter Woodward), was introduced in the earlier series’ finale; he’s something of an irksome enigma, given to philosophical blandishments, but capable of untold powers. You get the feeling that if he really wanted to, he could clear up this whole mess in the space of an episode.
No one outside of Cole is given much chance to perform beyond spouting exposition in the pilot. Cole, best known for the TV series “Midnight Caller” and his extremely witty work in “The Brady Bunch” movies (and, more recently, in “A Simple Plan” and “Office Space”), seems a bold dash of subversive casting. He doesn’t physically suggest the macho go-getter his character is supposed to be, and gives a more reflective performance than one might expect. His approach to his character — working against the usual expectations — is intriguing and unfailingly sympathetic.
Tellingly (and only a little cynically), the series already has established its catch phrase, and a damn clever one it is: “Who do you serve and who do you trust?” The appropriate response? Any variation of “I’m not sure.”
Tech credits are spectacular — all involved with the special effects and design of the show have done exemplary work belying the average TV production budget. Clean lensing by Frederick V. Murphy and appropriately rousing music from Evan H. Chen are gravy. One quibble, however: Whoever designed the villainous aliens’ heads obviously worked hard to convey a sense of evil, but they merely look goofy.