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The Column: Christopher Franke vs. Evan Chen

Warning - Spoilers for: A Call to Arms

With the introduction (and possible demise) of the new Babylon 5 spin-off Crusade, many are discussing its strengths and weaknesses. Its strengths? Good characters, and some very good episodes. Its weaknesses? Some say the CGI isn't quite up to par, and the episodes aren't as good as many Babylon 5 episodes.

The main weakness? In my mind, and many other people's, the music.

Music does a lot for a television show, and a lot for science fiction shows where it often has to accentuate or accompany action set-pieces or emotional defeats or victories. Often, the music is somewhat original for every single show, and it goes on, in the background or foreground, for the entire show length.

So it has to be good.

In Babylon 5, many didn't like Christopher Franke's music in Season 1, and they were in my opinion justified. But it was bearable, and it had a bit of a hummable tune, so we stuck with it. Lucky for us that we did, or else we wouldn't have had the wonderful thundering tune of the Season 3 intro, or the counterpoint of the Severed Dreams episodic music, or the beautifully sad swansong of Sleeping in Light.

Without doubt, Christopher Franke's music followed the path of Babylon 5 exactly. In Seasons 1 and 2, it matured, growing up for the epic storylines that would come in later episodes. Seasons 3 and 4 saw his action music ability tested, and Season 5 asked for more solemn, subtle melodies, unlike the brash and triumphant tunes of seasons past.

Maybe there could have been a better composer for Babylon 5. But I'm more than happy with what we had.

The Next Generation

JMS told us that with Crusade, he didn't just want Season 6 of Babylon 5. It was to be an entirely new show - a new ship, new characters, new setting, new storyline, and of course, new music. Fair enough. Whoever the new composer was, though, would have a tough time filling the boots of Christopher Franke, who'd finished off his Babylon 5 career magnificently with the compositions of his three TV movies and the final few episodes of Season 5.

Maybe we expected too much from the new composer for Crusade, Evan Chen, a relatively unknown asian composer. But when A Call to Arms was aired, there weren't many people who were happy.

I've only just gone and bought the video for A Call to Arms - this was after I'd seen War Zone, Crusade's first episode. I was not impressed. I'd just been watching In the Beginning and Thirdspace, both of which were scripted very well - I was about to go and buy the In the Beginning music CD, as a matter of fact, just for the music that accompanied the numerous defeats suffered by Earth.

A Call to Arms was a terrible blunder. The music started off passably - it was, admittedly, refreshingly different in the first few minutes. But then I realised that Evan Chen simply wasn't cut out for composing the music to set-pieces, like the first time we see the Excalibur, or the battle scenes. All you'd hear during those scenes were some plinky-plonky one-note tunes, neither minor nor major, with no recognisable hummable melodies. What's that about?

There was one point where Evan Chen had the best opportunity to show off his talents; the moment when the Victory rams into the Shadow Planet Killer command node. You'd expect some great sacrificial music, or some thundering tones. Instead, we got a load of disappointing plonks which ripped the atmosphere into shreds.

I was horrified. I was even more horrified when I loaded up the scene in Endgame (Season 4) when Sheridan gives the command for 'Ramming speed,' just as the Victory's captain did in ACTA. Unlike Chen, Franke gives us a real scene-setter for music, some sadly solemn and flowing tunes, intercut with tension when the Apollo appears to save the day. Great stuff.

But all of that made Chen's music seem all the worse.

Perhaps I'm overblowing the situation a little. I know that Chen can write good music - I personally think that the intro title music for Crusade is very good. It might not be hummable, but it is tappable. It's good. Unfortunately, the fact that Chen has showed he can write good music only makes it worse when he writes bad music.

Our last, best hope

Up until when I watched ACTA, I felt that we should give Chen the benefit of the doubt. After all, it's probably the first time he's had to do music like this, and he's bound to get better. Give the guy a chance, I thought.

But we cannot afford to give Chen a chance. We cannot afford to wait for a season or two when he starts sounding good. We need good music now, or else there won't be any Crusade. I am willing to bet a large sum of money that if Franke had composed the music for Crusade, it'd be getting better reviews and better ratings than it is doing now.

When I watched ACTA, it was the proverbial last straw. I stood up, and said 'I can't stand this, this music is utter shite.'

Or at least, I would have, if there weren't other people watching at the time. But my mind was made up. Chen had helped kill Crusade.

Then I had an idea. In the trailer for the UK video of ACTA, there is a trailer for ACTA. It's silly, I know, but there you go. And the trailer for ACTA uses the music from Thirdspace. It works quite well, and I thought this was a good trick. Then I had another idea. Maybe we should get Franke to dub over all of the Crusade episodes produced so far.

OK, it's not going to happen. But it's a nice thought, and I'm convinced Franke would do us proud.

I can understand JMS fully when he says he wants a new sound for Crusade. It makes sense. But we want a good new sound. There no point in having a new sound that sounds crap. Any sound is better than that, old or not.

Alas, we have no time left. There is little time or hope left for Crusade, and we'll never know what might have been. Evan Chen might have become an incredible composer, or maybe not. But in the here and now, in my eyes, the music of Evan Chen just does not cut it. Franke, we want you back.