SUN VALLEY, Calif. -- The original headline for this article was supposed to be, "Look Ma, I'm a Zombie Crew Member!" It was to be an amusing read about the morning this past January when an intrepid TV critic dragged himself out of bed at 5 a.m. to experience life as an extra on the set of a television show.
|Makeup artist Corey Davidson prepares Rob Owen for his scene as a zombie crew member. (Scott Pierce)|| |
Just my luck that I arrange to be on the only series in memory to go into production and get canceled months before the first episode hit the airwaves.
The series in question is "Crusade," a sci-fi action adventure spun off from the cult hit "Babylon 5." With 13 episodes completed before the ax fell, TNT will air "Crusade" as a "limited series" beginning at 10 p.m. Wednesday.
Filmed at the same hot tub factory-turned-studio as "B5" and springing from the imagination of "B5" creator J. Michael Straczynski, "Crusade" was supposed to be "the next big thing" in television science fiction. Instead, it's the next big nothing.
This is the story of the show's creation, potential and untimely death, and one reporter's attempt to break into show business. I'll tell you right now, it won't have a happy ending.
Early morning trek
Beep-beep, beep-beep, beep-beep.
The alarm on my watch goes off at 4:45 a.m. Despite less than six hours of sleep, I'm still a little jazzed as I set out for the set of "Crusade" with Scott Pierce, a TV critic from Salt Lake City, who joins me in getting suited up to appear as an extra (a.k.a. "background artist").
It's still dark as we pull into the cul-de-sac of an industrial office park where the "Crusade" studio sits. To look at it, you wouldn't know this is where a TV show is made. We wander to the back of the large warehouse-like building and are instantly spotted for what we are: "Oh, are you the reporters?" asks an assistant director.
I get more alert as we head to the trailer where costumes are kept. On "Crusade," the costumes aren't otherworldly; they're jumpsuits, like something you'd see worn by an Air Force pilot or an astronaut.
I was handed a dark green jumpsuit and a pair of black boots and headed to "my trailer." Yes, they treat the press well at "Crusade." We were each given an unoccupied trailer dressing room. One thoughtful crew member even put a piece of tape on the door with my name and "Galactic Gazette." I've been on enough TV show sets to know this is unusually kind treatment.
I change into my jumpsuit and read the patch on one arm: "Above the foe, triumphant we fly." This is too cool.
The boots I'm given aren't rugged. In fact they feel like slippers with rubber soles. They're not designed for hiking; rather, they're supposed to look good while making as little noise as possible on the soundstage floor.
There's only one thing missing from my uniform: a name tag secured to my jump suit by Velcro. As the wardrobe people search for a tag, I christen myself Lt. Vel Cro.
| ||In the July 28 episode of "Crusade," you'll see Rob Owen, right, as the zombie crewman behind guest star John Vickery, center, who plays a human possessed by an alien being. (Netter Digital)|
It could have been a contender
"Babylon 5" spent its first four seasons suffering comparisons to "Star Trek," hidden in its foreboding shadow in the mainstream media and fandom. But J. Michael Straczynski's space-set soap opera of political machinations, character drama and destiny finally began to break through the clutter just as the five-year story he'd always planned came to an end.
After four seasons in first-run syndication with iffy chances of renewal each summer, "B5" found what seemed to be a savior in TNT, sister company to "B5" producer Warner Bros. First the network bought the rights to "B5" reruns, then funded the show's fifth and final season as well as several TV movies.
Things seemed just ducky. As TV critics were questioning the vitality of the "Star Trek" franchise, "Babylon 5" garnered a new cachet. Suddenly there were "B5" magazines, books, even action figures.
"All science fiction gets more than sci-fi fans," said TNT senior vice president of programming Lisa Mateas in January 1998. "What does Hollywood do when they want to cast a wide net? They make a sci-fi movie."
Straczynski had the whole "B5" saga mapped out for 1,000 years before and after the five years of the series, but he didn't want to do a sixth season. That wasn't part of the plan. TNT wanted more, so Straczynski came up with "Crusade," a spin-off set in the same universe after the events in the last season of "Babylon 5."
After an alien race releases a plague upon the Earth, the "Crusade" crew zoom around the galaxy in search of a cure. They've got five years before its effects become lethal, perfect for another five-year series that could explore the complex universe established in "Babylon 5."
The "Crusade" team enlisted the scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech as consultants. Straczynski wanted to put the science back in science-fiction by getting expert advice on what a planet in a binary star system would look like, when the suns would rise and set, how the suns would cast shadows, etc.
But the pitch that sold the series to TNT had nothing to do with science.
"We wanted to create more of an adventure show and tackle stories we couldn't do on 'Babylon 5,' " Straczynski said.
The key word was "adventure," and the different views on what constitutes adventure became a major factor in the breakdown of "Crusade."
Ministry of silly walks
After a few hours of waiting, absolutely typical for a day player in Hollywood, the call came from a member of the production team. I was wanted on the set. Unfortunately, directions were not plentiful. I was to play a crew member who'd been possessed (or "terraformed," in "Crusade" parlance), thus I was a zombie of some sort.
"So basically, it's kind of like the Borg on 'Star Trek,' " I thought to myself, making a mental note that the concept wasn't exactly original.
In the scene, Capt. Gideon (Gary Cole) has come to meet Mr. Welles (John Vickery), who is also possessed and speaks for the aliens. Cole is positioned on one side of a Plexi-glass window (the zombies have been sealed off from the rest of the ship) and watches as about a dozen zombies enter the scene. Once we're all in position, we're supposed to part and let Mr. Welles through and then fill in the gap behind him.
On the first take, I don't move quickly enough and Mr. Welles almost bumps into me. Worse yet, I looked down at the floor (I was supposed to keep my eyes on Cole the whole time) and walked a little too Zombie-like.
At this point I was seized with panic. I was terrified I'd be asked to leave the set. They told me to just walk normally, but somehow I wasn't sure what that meant. So I practiced walking, something I probably didn't do as a toddler.
We do the scene again, and this time it goes better, but it's tough to see Cole through the glass. I'm supposed to fix my stare on him, but it's not easy on the takes when he's behind the camera.
In another take the camera is positioned behind him, and I could see Cole a little too well.
"It's Mike Brady!" I kept thinking, remembering Cole's role in "The Brady Bunch Movie."
"Don't laugh, don't even smile," I pleaded to myself.
Cole was the consummate actor. The camera was behind him, so he didn't really have to act, but he did. I was the first zombie to round the corner and Cole gave me the ol' looking over. His expression said, "Dear God, what have they done to my crew member!"
After this episode was filmed, he may have wondered, "Dear God, what have they done to my show?"
Not to be
Something happened between the time TNT launched "Babylon 5" and midway through the production of "Crusade." Perhaps the "B5" ratings fell too far (that will happen when you schedule a show as erratically as TNT did) or maybe the network that made its name on TV movies about cowboys decided sci-fi was best left to the Sci-Fi Channel.
Whatever the problem, trouble was brewing.
The first sign of discontentment came after the first five episodes of "Crusade" were filmed. TNT shut down production and ordered new uniforms for the crew and new sets.
According to one Internet posting, sci-fi scribe and "B5" creative consultant Harlan Ellison said TNT was trying to turn the show into "a whorehouse in space."
In January, executive producer John Copeland dismissed any talk of strife.
"Harlan is an angry middle-aged man," Copeland said. "Harlan is somebody who will come up with something to say just to ruffle feathers. Rumors are so rampant, and they have been since time immemorial on the Net. I don't pay any attention to that."
Straczynski came up with a clever way to handle the costume changes. He decided the five episodes already filmed would be sandwiched in the middle of the show's first season. The episodes filmed afterwards would lead into and out of the first batch.
In the episode where I made my "cameo," a fashion consultant is sent from Earth to create new uniforms. Then the five episodes with the original uniforms would air, and in the next episode after those, "the crew will stage a horrible accident in the laundry" and go back to the other uniforms, Copeland said. That episode, which would have been No. 14, was never filmed.
Two more weird things happened that support the theory TNT soured on "Crusade" by late 1998. "Crusade" was supposed to premiere in January, but got pushed back to June, supposedly due to the NBA lockout.
Despite the delay, in January TNT aired the "Babylon 5" TV movie, "A Call to Arms," which set up the premise for "Crusade" and introduced several of its characters. The TNT publicity department sent out review copies of every other "Babylon 5" TV movie, but a cassette of "A Call to Arms" failed to arrive at critics' desks. What made that slight even more odd was that "A Call to Arms" proved to be the best "Babylon 5" movie, superior to others critics did receive for review purposes.
When the January TV critics press tour came around, TNT listed a "Crusade" panel as part of its plans. Straczynski and his cast would appear before critics to answer questions about the new show. At the last minute, TNT canceled the panel, with publicists saying the network wanted to wait until the July press tour. But that made no sense if "Crusade" was set to premiere in June. Networks want to get the most press before a new series premieres, not a month later. (Straczynski later said the canceled press conference was his fault. He told TNT executives he planned to call them "idiots" in front of the press. "Suddenly it was canceled," Straczynski said in an interview last month. "Quelle surprise.")
At this point, TNT had decided it didn't want to have anything to do with "Crusade." Warner Bros. attempted to sell the show to the Sci-Fi Channel. Straczynski says Sci-Fi was interested but had already committed to several new programs in 1999 and didn't have the budget to finance another.
By mid-February, production was shut down. Straczynski posted an announcement to the official "Babylon 5" Web site alerting fans to "Crusade's" demise.
What went wrong?
Fault is hard to place in this web of battling parties.
From the TNT perspective, "Crusade" failed because of an egomaniacal producer who wouldn't listen to anything network executives had to say.
In Straczynski's mind, "Crusade" failed because of interfering TNT business people who "wanted the ship to be boarded by horny aliens on a regular basis."
The truth lies somewhere in between.
Straczynski says TNT never told him why production was shut down 13 episodes into a 22-episode order.
"They never communicated a specific reason except to say it may not be right for their audience, which is based around wrestling and westerns," he said. "I suspect we could not give them what they wanted, which was 'Baywatch' meets wrestling in space."
He described notes that were "not only bad story telling but in many cases morally repugnant. They said one of the characters should become a sexual explorer who always has sex to better understand new species."
He also suspects the series got caught in a power struggle between TNT's sympathetic Los Angeles creative office and the nefarious suits in Atlanta, the network's corporate headquarters.
Scot Safon, TNT's Atlanta-based senior vice president of marketing, said the show just didn't live up to Straczynski's original pitch: an action-oriented, dramatic adventure series.
"The scripts were very intelligent and well-rendered but extremely heavy on the talk and light on action," Safon said. "Joe was providing an adventure of the mind, and the network expectation was that it would be more visceral. That kind of back and forth between a network and a creator is part and parcel of what happens every day in Hollywood."
But Straczynski, who had free reign on "Babylon 5," would hear none of it.
"They went over the first five episodes and tried to give notes on those," he said. "They were on one side of the table, and I was on the other side. They went to turn the notes over and I said, 'No. No to the first, no to the second, no to them all.'
"They're used to doing in-house productions, so when the word 'no' was used, they had to have someone come in to explain it to them."
As a marketing guy, Safon was not intimately involved in the back-and-forth between Straczynski and TNT executives, but he was the only TNT executive willing to be interviewed for this story.
"I don't think it was the nature of Joe's deal with us that he would consider all input and agree to none of it," Safon said. "The actual execution was the flash point here. The creator and the network had fundamentally different expectations in not only what the end product would be, but what the process would be."
For his part, Straczynski said neither "Crusade" nor further "Babylon 5" adventures will air on TNT. He points to the rescheduling of "B5" for 7 a.m. Saturdays as "a concerted effort to kill the show out of spite." But he's hopeful the ratings for "Crusade" will be strong enough to interest the Sci-Fi Channel in funding future seasons.
Safon isn't as pessimistic.
"The network thinks the show is good," Safon said. "I've told Joe, let success be your best revenge. TNT didn't take away his final cut [on the episodes filmed]. I'd love for the second part of this story to be how Joe Straczynski and TNT figure out a way to get 'Crusade' back in production."
A star is born?
Whatever the future of "Crusade," I may still get my 15 seconds of fame when the episode "Appearances and Other Deceits" airs July 28. I'm the No. 1 zombie crew member walking toward the camera in one scene and shivering in a corridor a few minutes later.
Actually, the two scenes kind of conflict. In the first, I played it like I'm under a trance and incapable of speaking. In the second, I'm mouthing how cold it is to my friend Scott Pierce.
Two different acting motivations, two different scenes, two different points of view. Given the differing interests that derailed "Crusade," that's somehow appropriate.