Thursday, February 21, 2013

Happy 20th Birthday Babylon Five

Yes, some of the subplots wandered off into the tall grass and died, and a chunk of the first season was as agile as cut timber falling onto a concrete slab. That being said, Babylon Five took science fiction seriously enough to give its audience flawed grown-up heroes, real villains and genuine conflict over existential issues like privacy, vengeance, fascism and faith.

I enjoyed it very much.

From IO9:
The Strange, Secret Evolution of Babylon 5
While science fiction literature had long ago matured into a genre fit for adults, science fiction television had stalled in a state of suspended adolescence, dominated by cleanly defined heroes and villains, simplistic plots and storytelling that wrapped everything up neatly at the end of each episode.

Years earlier, television police dramas had found themselves in a similar predicament. Speaking of the evolution of police dramas and their relation to Babylon 5, Straczynski wrote: "[Hill Street Blues] was about the redefinition of heroes; the hero as bureaucrat (Furillo), the hero as ordinary man (Hill and Renko), the hero as psycho (Belker), the hero as sleazebag (Buntz), and that genuinely struck me as the core of that show... that heroes aren't always what we think they're supposed to be, and that there is that spark that can be found in the unlikeliest of places." — (JMSNews 9/28/1992)

More than anything else, the idea that heroes are found in the most unlikely places is what distinguished Babylon 5 from its forebears. But who were these unlikely heroes? And how did their story evolve in the early development of the show?
Next year, when it turns 21, I'll take Bab 5 down to the Zócal and buy it a coupla hot Jalas and find out where the technomages are hiding out.


Stephen A said...

Very true.
I remember the point at which I became hopelessly enamored w/ B5. During the 1st season episode "Signs and Portents" during a dogfight between the station's Starfury fighters and the Raiders, a Starfury has a Raider fighter on it's tail. Within most scifi series, the Starfury would have made a banking turn, a maneuver which would have only made sense in the presence of an atmosphere. Instead, it fired thrusters perpendicular to its trajectory, followed by braking thrusters, and finally a differential thrust of thrusters across it's center of gravity rotating it 90 degrees downward placing the Raider fighter below it and in its sights. This was in perfect agreement with Newtonian physics in a weightless vacuum complete with consistent thruster burns. Which gave this Physicist a complete Nerdgasm. Of
course, then the Shadows showed up one scene later, but I was already hooked.

May B5 retain it's meme for another 20 years! (and yes Princess Celestia is a Vorlon)

monoceros4 said...

Meh. Straczynski had a tin ear for dialogue and when he strayed into comedy the results were...just awful. The show was better when he let other people write some of the scripts but that mostly ceased after the first season as I recall. The other thing I recall was Straczynski's relentless self-promotion online, where he'd explain over and over how wonderful his latest episode was. Thumbs down.

eddie blake said...

well... newtonian physics have been used in anime WAY before babylon 5, in MOST of the real-robot genre, notably in various incarnations of the gundam series and the incredibly well-drawn '84 movie 'macross: do you remember love"

that being said, i LOVED me some babylon 5... that was GOOD tv...

jj abrams should spend a while watching the run..

Roger said...

On the positive side:

It had a whole episode about a dock strike (even if the dockworkers strike leader was an improbably gorgeous blonde and it was all resolved by a piece of bureaucratic legerdemain by the show's Mighty Whitey Sinclair.

Almost ditto for the Mars Resistance episodes (including the improbably attractive blonde revolutionary leader - were there just not any normal looking actresses working TV in the mid-1990s? and the requirement that the B5 lads to come in and actually make the revolution happen).

Ivanova - Tough as nails, hot, Jewish, Russian, Lesbian and IIRC a neo-communist in her youth - seriously what's not to like?

Paranoid politics put at the core of the show - but with multiple conspiracies - Shadows, Vorlons, the fascist president, Psi Corps, the anti-Psi Corps plutocrat - messily screwing each others plans.

An ongoing critique of the media and its role in legitimating power.


Those paranoid politics - British writers Larry Elliot and Dan Atkinson argue in their 1998 book The Age of Insecurity that the net result of the proliferation of left and progressive-influenced anti-establishment TV shows and movies from the 60s onwards actually discredited the state and politics in general and fueled the rise of Thatcher and Reagan - and B5 is a late example of this telling its audience that even in the 23rd century politicians are corrupt playthings of dark secretive forces and only cartoonish acts of heroism can cut the multiple Gordian knots that imprison us.

JMS really does have a tin ear for dialogue and the show really just could not afford decent actors (other than the one-off guest-spots from the likes of Martin Sheen, Brad Dourif and Michael York) so it is often painful to watch.

Season 5 - other than the Neil Gaiman-penned Day of the Dead episode (which perhaps because it directly plugs into my own losses is not just the best B5 episode but one of the best TV episodes ever) and Sleeping in Light (which was made in S04) it along with the Farscape Peacekeeper Wars and Buffy seasons 6 and 7 shows that sometimes its best for geeks to not get what they want and that sometimes we just have to accept that good things die and move on.

The execrable cash-in movies (although keeping your friends gainfully employed is not in itself an ignoble thing) and Crusade - even I never finished the latter.

Despite all of which I am very much tempted to watch it all over again (although this time I might actually end it at Season 4 with Sleeping in Light and pretend S05 never happened at all)

MarkGisleson said...

I came to it late after reading a review that talked about a lead character going from likable to Nixonian over the course of the show's story arc.

I thought they meant Bruce Boxleitner and it wasn't until Lando went full Nixon that I realized what was going on.

Best non-Josh Whedon TV SF ever.

eddie blake said...

DID londo turn nixonian? to me, molari was in a series of ever smaller boxes that were imposed on him after he answered 'what do you want' to the wrong person...

he ALWAYS tried to do what was best for centauri, even with a keeper stuck on his shoulder.

when did nixon do ANYTHING that wasn't for the benefit of nixon?

bluepillnation said...

There's no doubt that JMS's writing lent itself more to monologue and oratory than dialogue, but that was almost part of the charm.

One of the things that always bugged me about Star Trek - especially TNG - was that the crew of the Enterprise were almost universally cloyingly nice to each other for the vast and sweeping majority of the time. B5's semi-dystopian outlook felt like a breath of fresh air by comparison. Personally I'm not convinced by Elliot and Atkinson's argument - the idea of Hollywood as a hotbed of liberal and progressive thinking is a fallacy now as it was then, and B5's "shadowy forces" only got a look-in through the death of more moderate and even radical agents of government who were explicitly shown to be working for the common good. Isn't one of the tenets of science fiction to use the setting and story to hold a mirror up to the way things are?

It's fairly common knowledge that B5's cast ran the gamut from conservative-libertarian (e.g. Boxleitner and Doyle) to card-carrying liberal-progressives (e.g. Jurasik and the late, great Andreas Katsulas) in terms of personal political views. What I find interesting in retrospect is that the characters they played tended towards their actors' way of thinking. Boxleitner's Sheridan got things done with individualistic "cartoonish acts of heroism", for example - but to my mind the most interesting character arc was that of Katsulas's G'Kar, who not only went from an almost comic villain to the new spiritual leader of his people, but achieved that goal (and freed Narn) by inspiring Narn society from the bottom up.

As a fellow worshipper at the altar of Ivanova, I concur totally with the above, except to say I think her orientation was actually bisexual. She loved both Talia and Marcus but in both cases was unable to admit it until too late. Whether it was because JMS was more consistently clued-in to the character or whether the wonderful Claudia Christian found ways to improve on the script, I always found Ivanova's dialogue to be consistently above-par, not just in terms of the show but of TV during that era in general. Regarding pioneering LGBT issues in TV, it's worth pointing out that the Delenn character was originally intended to be male, and the half-human transformation in "Chrysalis" was also intended to change Delenn's gender. This aspect was not nixed due to cold feet on the part of WB, JMS or Mira Furlan, but simply because the audio technology required to process Furlan's voice to a more "masculine" sound was not up to the job at the time.

One last note - having been dragooned into following "The Big Bang Theory", I note that one of Sheldon's reasons for disliking B5 was because it "fails as science fiction". I was all ready to get wound up about it until I realised that the character is using it to justify his opinion that nothing can come close to his beloved Star Trek. :)

bluepillnation said...

And another thing... (sorry)

Londo being Nixonian? I can actually see some parallels. Prior to his "What have I done?" moment when he realises what the Shadows have in mind, like Nixon he has a habit of assuming that what's good for him is by nature for the good of his people. Morden in effect becomes Londo's equivalent of Kissinger - using Londo's personality flaws to manipulate him into using his power for Morden's own ends and convincing him that the destructive path he's being guided on is for the ultimate good of Centauri.

The latter part of Londo's arc (under the Keeper's power) could be read as a parallel to Nixon post-Watergate. He has the power he wanted, but it's in name only and he's forced to watch the destruction of everything he worked for while being powerless to stop it.

Pamela Merritt said...

Arguably the first science fiction series to have character arcs at all.

And those first glimpses of the Hubble images in such a context!

There were layers; maybe thin ones, but they bled through and influenced the spine of the story.