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WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABYLON 5? [message #17343] Thu, 27 September 2012 11:34
CyberkNight is currently offline  CyberkNight
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Next year sees the twentieth anniversary of Babylon 5. That may not sound like much; it's hardly a patch on Doctor Who or Star Trek. Ratings on it were never that stellar. It was the television equivalent of "always the bridesmaid, never the bride", and this bridesmaid never even got to keep the dress. It's been bashed endlessly by militant Trek fans, many of whom have refused to even give it a chance. In The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon claims that it fails as both drama and science fiction, and is hopelessly derivative. In Spaced, Tim declares, "Babylon 5's a big pile of shit" when he wants to get fired. Is it? No, it's a sci-fi masterpiece, but only those who watch it will ever know that.

Some of the animosity towards it stems from the show's creator and primary writer, J. Michael Straczynski. You may know him from everything from Spider-Man comics and episodes of He-Man through to movies like Thor and Changeling. Years ago he pitched an idea to create a Star Trek spinoff show set on board a space station, which would be more character-driven. His proposal was rejected, and yet a little while later Deep Space Nine materialised being credited to others, and he cried foul. Whether it was ripped off or not, his statements created some waves amongst the Trek community and when Babylon 5 aired it was seen as a rival. But don't discount its value, nor that of Straczynski himself, who was later offered a job supervising Enterprise. He rejected the offer, and we can only imagine that Enterprise may have succeeded if he'd been at the helm.

In a five-year story arc, each season being a year on the show, Babylon 5 is a space station that has been built as a neutral ground for alien diplomats from countless worlds and is managed by Earth. Earth has recently finished a war against the Minbari, one which the Minbari was on the brink of winning until they mysteriously surrendered. The other three primary races are the powerful but cryptic Vorlons, the once-mighty Centauri who are on the skids, and the Narn, who are as spiritual as they are war-like. Diplomacy may not seem like the platform for riveting viewing, but it really is the foundation for a gripping story.
The primary key is that nothing is what it seems. The Narn initially come across as Klingons and are pigeonholed as the bad guys. As the story unfolds you learn that they're actually an oppressed race who have finally achieved freedom, and their initial instinct has been to lash out at the Centauri who dominated them for so long. The Minbari have their own schemes going on, and the suspicion around them builds constantly. The Vorlons refuse to open up to anybody, preferring to observe. The humans are stuck in the middle, trying to unravel the whole mess.

Anybody who's hoping for quick answers will be disappointed. It's a tapestry and every episode is merely a small part, with characters and plots weaving their threads towards a grand design. The longer you watch, the more you see of the big picture and realise just how glorious and audacious it is. The first season ticks along nicely but is a bit of a culture shock to anyone who's used to the self-contained episodes of Trek. This isn't some five episode story arc, it's five years. The focus is mainly on establishing the universe they live in and the well-rounded characters that occupy it. In fact, if you want to jump in at a more fast-paced period of the story, try the third season and work your way forwards to the end, and then catch up on the earlier seasons.

As the seasons progress and the stories develop, the payoffs are massive. The appearance of the Shadows, an ancient race with ties to the Vorlons, seems like an unstoppable force of evil. The Narns, hoping to abandon their aggressive ways, get blindsided by the Centauri who commit every war-crime known in a bid to become the dominant force in the universe once again. Early mentions of corruption in Earth politics have huge repercussions when it's revealed that a Nazi-style fascist government is now running everything and Babylon 5 has to take a stand against it. The wars that follow are gigantic in scale, with allegiances shifting constantly and no victory coming without hardship. It's more Asimov's Foundation than anything else, and that's a good thing.

Unlike many sci-fi shows, you form a genuine rapport with the characters. Security chief Garibaldi returning to his alcoholic ways is heart-breaking, and Doctor Franklin's drug addiction is equally painful. Romances are sweet and never forced, and not all end happily ever after. Narn ambassador G'Kar's fall and rise is so emotional he's one of the greatest characters ever seen on the small screen. Londo, ambassador for the Centauri, dreams of personal greatness and then dreads it when it becomes true. The torture of Commander Sheridan is one of the most brilliant (and disturbing) hours of viewing you'll ever see. Even recurring figures like unscrupulous Psi-Corps officer Bester, wonderfully played by Walter Koenig, are never just stock characters.

The show isn't all doom and gloom either. The humour is crisp and often ironic. When a merchandise store opens in the station's Zocalo shopping area, the characters complain about being turned into action figures. Londo and G'Kar form an unlikely friendship that's as good as any sparring comedy duo. Delenn's transformation into a more human-looking Minbari results in problems from everything from hair-care to period pains. Every joke is played to perfection, the type of comic relief that any good drama needs to lighten the mood in places.

It's smarter than the average show too, with parallels being drawn to various conflicts that we find in our modern world. No side is ever completely right or wrong, and the solutions to various problems are never clear-cut or obvious. An early episode that focuses on the religions of various races creates an unusual dilemma about what religion to show for Earth. The solution is startling, and initially raises many eyebrows. The show tackles philosophy constantly, and is as eloquent as any thesis offered up. Every culture is explored properly, and the politics is believable.

The effects may have been early CGI, but their initial shoddiness becomes sleek and well-textured as the show progresses. The shots of the emptiness of space were taken from photos contributed by the Hubble telescope, and when astronauts on one Space Shuttle mission wore Babylon 5 caps it shows you the respect that this show gained from the NASA community. The music is simply one of the most stunning scores ever compiled, every episode having its own unique soundtrack. Even the introductions, a new one for every season, are wonderful and bring you into the story by explaining the situation as it stands. It's a show that constantly evolved and never took a step backwards.

Babylon 5 was ground-breaking on many levels. Working with a budget that was microscopic compared to Star Trek, it had to rely on strong writing and good acting to steal the show, and the sets had to be recycled in imaginative ways to cut costs. Straczynski himself wrote a huge majority of the episodes (92 out of 110) so the vision never became watered down, unlike a show like Lost which fell apart at the seams by the end of it. Even the ones that weren't written by him personally were solid, such as Neil Gaiman's episode Day Of The Dead. It was a labour of love for all concerned, and the end result is truly stunning.

It may have been unfairly knocked around by those who never latched on to it, the bad punchline to a sci-fi TV joke, but it's a richly-detailed production that deserves respect. If you've never seen it, or have and discarded it early on, give it a fair chance. Don't dismiss it too early. Then maybe when the 20th anniversary rolls by next year you can join in the celebration of one of the best genre television shows of all time. o-babylon-5.html

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