Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Babylon 5

One of the great things about the original Star Trek series was that, in addition to having well written episode scripts, the characters were played out with such passion. Ok, I know sometimes it turned into overacting, but I'd rather it go that way than become flat and boring. I'm sure I'm not the only one to notice that the next generation series that followed had an acting style that was a bit more cerebral. I guess you might expect that from a captain with a Shakespearean training background. The next few spinoffs continued this trend and the script writing degraded until DS9 finally began to convince me that the day of good sci-fi serials on television were over. That was until some friends at a gathering told me about Babylon 5.

At the time I was hanging out with a church group in Burbank that had connections to nearby Hollywood. Many of them worked in the entertainment industry. The friends I mentioned above actually knew Mike Straczynski, the creator of Babylon 5, from a previous project. It was only a few weeks into the story, so I began watching, and my faith in television sci-fi serials was once again restored. While DS9 and Voyager were rehashing old material, this show featured a completely original set of characters and script ideas, and these characters actually had some blood running in their veins. The first episode I watched featured an almost hysterical in-your-face argument between G'Kar and Mollari. The acting seemed pretty good and even the alien makeup was pretty convincing. I became hooked. I watched every episode during its initial 5 year run and left the Star Trek spin-offs squarely in the dust.

There were five main ambassadors that formed sort of a council of worlds at that space station, all of them very different. The lizard-like Narn were an oppressed people with issues from the past, the Centauri were high society and its ambassador a conniving politician, the Minbari a peace loving race of philosophers, and the Vorlons were a mysterious ancient race with advanced technology yet difficult to understand and communicate with. The humans ran the station, led by the station commander Jeffrey Sinclair, who I thought was a likable character. But Sinclair only lasted one season and he was replaced by John Sheridan, played by Bruce Boxleiter (yes, the Tron guy), who took some warming up to. Sinclair disappears for unknown reasons and comes back at the end of the series as a key character, but I always wondered if they re-wrote the story to accommodate the original actor's departure. I still can't tell. Then there are several station personnel like Garibaldi, the security chief, who I always liked a lot. He was such a no-nonsense tell-it-like-it-is kind of guy. Other regular characters would come for a season or two and then go, but were always interesting. There was an agency called Psi Core which enlisted telepaths and trained them to use their gift for the good of society, or at least their definition of it. A regular Psi-cop on the show was played by Walter Koenig (Chekov).

The entire 5 year series has several story arcs that provide continuity. The main one involves sightings of mysterious shadow vessels that leave destruction in their wake. The explanation at the end of the series I thought was quite disappointing, like you've been led up to believe something horrible will happen and then everybody just shakes hands and goes home, but that does not take away the effectiveness of what led up to it. Another arc involves a past war between the Minbari and Earth that was mysteriously cut short and is tied up with Sinclair's relationship to their race. In addition, there were many one-off episodes that featured an isolated story, and these were often well written, interesting, and the whole series had a darker twist than you might encounter in the Trek world. It was rather addicting.

There is another thing that fans usually like about Babylon 5 which is its creative space ship designs. No models were used, only CGI, and to be frank, most of the computer generated images did not look very convincing. The thing that makes them stand out is the work that went into designing the CGI models. The space station itself is a rotating segmented monster of a structure with elaborately detailed features. All of the different races have unique ship architectures which just look kind of cool, even though they often don't seem like they would hold together in real life. It all looks pristinely clean but you just appreciate the work that went into it.

After the show's run ended, I saw ads for some spinoff mini-series, but they were on cable so I could not access it at the time. However, the entire cast was replaced for the follow-ups so what would be the point anyway? If you haven't seen this series and you like a good long running science fiction serial that actually entertains, you might just give the pilot a watch and see. Just make sure you've got the original series.


  1. Hello.

    Just got into your blog from LAMB (I am a fellow member). I'd hate to start with us disagreeing :( but I have an agenda on two fronts!

    1)Protecting DS9: The first two seasons were certainly TNG-Lite (or TNG Redux, what have you) but, as time went on, DS9 became a powerful series that defied the Roddenberry conventions (or chains, in some cases) and, in my opinion, is the best science-fiction show on television.

    Also, over time, it has become almost prophetic and timeless, especially with what is going on in the USA. It ages well and stands the test of time. Just my opinion :)

    2)Babylon 5 as Legend

    I also was hooked to B5 and noticed that as long as the story continued from week to week that I found myself obsessed with the larger, main elements while ignoring the major flaws of the program.

    I have no issue with the dated visuals or any of that (or the low budget which makes the show look terrible at times. . .that can't be helped) but I do have a problem with JMS and his story. Great, epic story, don't get me wrong. But by taking full control over it, JMS lacked the ability to have perspective and things just got a little too crazy.

    I feel like I can't put what I want to say in words at this moment but, upon a rewatch two years ago, Babylon 5, unlike DS9, does not do well over time. Was it my nostalgia setting up expectations it couldn't live up to? Maybe. But the show just doesn't seem as good as it once was when I was younger.

    Anyways, I'd hate to pimp out my own site but I have extensive reviews of DS9 and B5 on my site. Give them a read, if you want, and maybe my perspective will be more clear.

    Enjoying your website! Sorry to start off on a 'bad' foot!


  2. Hi Will
    No need to fear, I welcome debate from anyone actually interested in this kind of stuff. I will defer to you on DS9 since I abandoned it quite early and did not stick around to see what it would it would become. You're the second person who I've read who says there's something there so I may yet check it out one day. And we probably agree more on B5 - I was not looking for more than just something better than what was on at the time. I agree, once you know the story, the interest wanes. But it was a good deal more creative than what you normally see on the tube.
    I'll definitely check out your blog site. Cheers.

  3. Christopher RoweMay 5, 2011 at 4:41 PM

    I've always been a fan of Startrek but never seen B5 until 3 years ago, and watch it a second time recently. I didn't mind the effects either! The story alone was brilliantly written! Even when the networks tried to cancel the show each season. The climatic build up of season 3 was like no other Scifi show STILL TO THIS DAY, not even Battlestar 2003 can match it!

    Yes, BSG and V is a good remake, but after witnessing Kosh's death, Emperor Molari's 'keeper'(shoulder bug) situation, the epic ship battles, the Psi Core, Sheridan's tactics and Sinclair going back with B4 to the beginning and becoming Valen, I was fanatically and emotionally hooked!

    It is very sad that so many ignorant people don't want to bother watching the show and get to know the characters and scenario beyond Season 1. I've noticed that B5 doesn't seem to age over time, it still looks like a new show.

    I'm also glad to see JMS as the main writer of the Thor movie!
    ...FireFly would have been a good run too...

  4. Well expressed my friend. You have good taste - I just started checking out Firefly and also think it is a stand-out series for TV land. I was planning to see Thor but did not realize JMS was a main contributor. Now I have another reason besides trailers to think it will be a decent flick.
    Live long

  5. Firstly i must admit i have an agenda as well. i really love the story of b5 (the politics). In my opinion the story re imagines a future Earth were we still trying to find ourselves as oppose to the highly moral people of the federation. Earth while advanced is not omnipotent, the earth star ships (omega class) look mean,un-mannerly yet with a brute strength. Maybe i am rambling but i love the fact, that earth for all its strength still has some character flaws, that some characters aren't afraid to challenge.That blind loyalty to Earth or particular administrations can lead to ominous outcomes. (forgive the political addition here) mirrors real world politics very eerily . greetings from Trinidad and Tobago

  6. I have to agree with you. It doesn't matter how advanced man becomes, he will always have the same character flaws and there will always be politics. B5 is much more realistic on that count. On the other, the more idealistic Earth future imagined by Roddenberry had its advantages. It lures audiences into a false sense of security by making all the bad guys into aliens and then writing stories about the same problems we have here on earth just with a different set of characters.
    Greetings also from Los Angeles (I love the World Wide Web)