Babylon 5 is Alive Posted by: Dale Franks
on Tuesday, December 26, 2006
I don't watch TV much. Most of it is complete crap. There are a few exceptions, of course. I think the new Battlestar Galactica is one of the best shows on TV. It's often uneven, and it's very dark, but it can also be very entertaining, and often explores complex moral issues. I watch NCIS, mainly because I like Mark Harmon. And, despite the fact that it can become a transparent mouthpiece for whatever liberal pieties are current, I enjoy Law & Order a lot, too.
But there is one TV show I absolutely adore, even though it's been off the air for several years now. It is also the only television show for which I've bought every episode on DVD. That show is Babylon 5.
This last week, The Lovely Christine and I began watching the entire series on DVD. And it is as good as I remembered.
B5 is a science fiction TV show, and sci-fi is usually a genre that TV doesn't handle well. There have really been only three successful Sci-fi franchises on TV: Star Trek, BSG, and B5. And BSG wasn't really a success in its initial incarnation.
Briefly, B5 is the story of the Babylon 5 space station in the years 2258-2263. This five-year period becomes a turning point in human history, ushering in the dawn of the Third Age of Mankind. Under the command of Commander Jeffrey Sinclair, and, later, Captain John Sheridan the station become the central locus of the events that change the galaxy forever. And, unlike the original Star Trek, B5 completes its five-year mission, giving you the whole story from beginning to end.
There is something different about B5. A couple of different things actually.
First, B5 is the only series that was conceived from the very beginning as having a 5-year story arc. Most television is episodic, with very few b-plots that stick around from week to week. B5 on the other hand, tells a single story that stretches across five year. There are events that occur in Season 1 that aren't resolved until Season 4 or 5. Most television operates under the assumption that the viewers aren't patient enough to follow a multi-week story line, much less a multi-year one. But B5 is the show that proves that an audience can have the patient for long-term payoffs.
Second, unlike most television shows, you have no assurance whatsoever that the main characters will survive the episode. B5 regularly killed off regular characters throughout its run, and did so intentionally. Every single character on B5 was written with a trap-door, to allow them to be jettisoned as necessary. Although usually—though not always—the characters are jettisoned at the end of the season, rather than mid-season.
Third, B5 often defies the standard conventions of episode writing. For instance, in the first season, an assassination plot against the President is discovered. Usually, the TV convention is for the heroes to foil the plot at the lat minute. In B5, the President gets whacked. There's a reason for that, of course, but you don't learn it until well into the next season.
Don't get me wrong. B5 isn't perfect. Budget constraints required the use of CGI animation, rather than model miniatures, and in 1994, when B5 started, some of the CGI was...iffy, although it improves quite a lot as the show progresses. Indeed, by the end of Season 4, B5 produced the most complex CGI shots ever done up to that time, with combat sequences that include literally hundreds of ships in frame.
The lead character in the first season—the first of the major characters to be taken off the show—is Commander Jeffrey Sinclair, played by actor Michael O'Hare. Mr. O'Hare is a fine stage actor but was a little wooden in the Sinclair role. I think it's because he was used to getting far more rehearsal time as a stage actor, and the crushing work schedule of episodic TV—12 hour days, 7 days a week, for 22 weeks—just left him too frazzled. So his replacement by TV pro Bruce Boxleitner as Captain John Sheridan in Season 2 is a relief. And, of course, in Season 2, the story arc really takes off as well.
The pace of Season 1 is also a bit slow, and frankly, some of the Season 1 episodes are eminently forgettable. After having seen the entire series before—although it's been a few years—the whole process of being re-introduced to familiar characters and establishing the story's universe during the first season is a bit laborious.
Also, there's the problem of Londo's hair. They didn't get it right until Season 2. In Season 1, it's just atrocious.
At the same time, some of the Season 1 shows are fantastically entertaining and thought provoking. For instance, there is one Season 1 episode where the station's doctor wants to save a dying alien child by performing a medical procedure that deeply offends the religious and cultural beliefs of the parents. The conflict—and anti-TV ending—that follows is pure gold.
Michael O'Hare aside, B5 has some very bright spots in the acting, in that two of the main characters were played by veteran American character actors, Andreas Katsulas and Peter Jurasik, and a third is played by Yugoslavian film and TV actress Mira Furlan, all of whom turn in outstanding performances.
B5 is proof that television can produce exciting, entertaining, complex drama. During its five years on television, first on the short-lived Prime Time Entertainment Network, then on TNT, B5 won several awards, including three Hugos. And, even though the whole series cost $90 million to shoot, DVD sales alone have raked in $500 million.
If you are looking for something unusual, compelling, exciting, and thought provoking, I heartily encourage you to log on to Netflix or Blockbuster and add Babylon 5 to your queue. Be advised, you really need to start with Season 1, and watch the episodes in order.
One of my favorite B5 episodes is when a news organization is looking back (maybe 100 years later?) at the B5 years and giving it a negative spin. I find myself thinking of that from time to time and wondering how much of history we actually get right.
There are a few episodes in which we get to see the anti-B5 news organization (controlled by the Earth government) spin events for us. I always enjoy those as well.
I was disappointed in the post B5 effort of Crusade. I was interested in the fate of Earth after that last battle (I won’t spoil what happened), and I feel very unfulfilled. The follow-up B5 movies were good, but Crusade didn’t do anything for me.
Vir, Vir was the BEST...and in the end Emperor. The Centauran women were HOT, the bald look worked for them...
Mr Garibaldi as a computer program was quite marvelous...it may ahve been in the episode JWG references. Long dead he managges to hijack the InfoSystem broadcast bad information and bring down a nuclear attack on his captors. He was great, IIRC, the "bad guys" are fleeing from a nuclear attack, I’m sure Garibaldi was greatly amused.
B5 was great. In actuality, the most successful attempt to make a Lord of the Rings like storyline set in a SF universe. Every element of the LOTR was represented there. But what was great about it is that he went much further than that original basis.
I loved B5, and I’m not typically the type to love a sci-fi TV show. But the Lord of the Rings comparrison is apt. B5 was very organic. Yes, it’s set in the future and in outer space, there were no fantastical transporter beams, or magic shields. When the station came under attack, giant steel doors closed over windows and everyone crapped their pants and prayed like hell.
Unfortunately, there are several members of the original cast that have passed away in the real world.