Review: Babylon 5: Ten years later (more or less)

Don’t be fooled by appearances: I did my time in the geeky media SF fandom trenches. I was one of the very few people who got aboard the Babylon 5 train prior to the pilot, thanks to the fact that I got on the Internet just as series creator J. Michael Straczynski was spreading the word about his new show on Usenet newsgroups (Do I sound old, already?) I did just about everything a high school student could do to see the pilot, and for the next five years kept dealing with inconsistent schedules, faulty VCRs (I still have all of the series, save for one episode, on VHS tapes!) and the changing nature of the Internet to keep up with the series. (The Lurker’s Guide to Babylon 5 was one of the first good reasons to "go on the web".) For years, a good chunk of my mental space was occupied by the series: I could rattle off trivia with absurd ease, and kept wondering where each new piece fit in the overall arc. Don’t look in the Google Usenet archives, otherwise you may find embarrassing traces of me asking dumb questions on the B5 forums.

Once Babylon 5 ended after its five-year arc, I knew I would never be as much of a fanboy as I had been with Babylon 5. The investment in time just wasn’t worth it (especially given how I had, by then, graduated to written SF in a big big way), and my hunch was that no other show would be worth it. Ten years later, it still looks as if I’m right: the new Battlestar Galactical is reportedly getting worse after only two seasons, the new Doctor Who is still up in the air and Lost sounds padded. I grabbed Firefly on DVD and quickly got over it.

Revisiting Babylon 5 seemed almost blasphemous. Would it hold up to the increased sophistication of SF in the past ten years? Would it still deliver the same jolts of wonder than it did the first time around? After receiving the first two seasons as birthday gifts, I realized that I would have to look at it once more.

Six months. That’s how long it took to re-watch the series, at the rhythm of roughly two three-hour DVDs per Saturdays. In some ways, it’s how Babylon 5 was designed to be seen: as a single story built using hour-long dramatic episodes. In other ways, it’s a way of seeing Babylon 5 that highlights some of its worst flaws.

I’m certainly far more demanding in terms of dialogue and internal coherence than I was a decade ago. Though most of Babylon 5 holds up nicely compared to other contemporary series, it doesn’t take a long time for the worst flaws of Michael J. Straczynski’s writing style to come to the surface: a tendency toward lengthy pretentious monologues that mean much less than he thinks. A love for catchphrases ("when the time is right", "blow them straight to hell", etc.) that becomes repetitive. An underlying mysticism that undercuts the facade of his characters’ struggles, such as Sheridan’s whole "brought back from the dead" subplot, still unexplainable after five years. Revisiting Babylon 5 means a whole lot of eye-rolling as the characters keep telling each other mounds of soggy dialogue. At the time, it was a brilliant change from Star Trek (and it’s difficult today to remember how the very concept of episodic TV Science Fiction was entirely slaved to Trek at the time), but we’ve seen much better since then.

The other thing that is likely to drive viewers up the walls when seeing Babylon 5 is what I call the "dumb plot of the week" syndrome. When the series truly clicks, from mid-third season to late fourth season (and again late during the fifth season), it does so in a way that makes individual episodes irrelevant: you can just sit down and watch an entire four-episode DVD and it feels like a sustained narrative. But once the dramatic arc quiets down and the series becomes a collection of episodes (such as most of the first and second season, as well as the beginning of the fifth), it’s annoying to see Babylon 5 threatened with a series of assassination plots, alien attacks, equipment malfunctions or diplomatic misunderstandings. "Oh no! Another groups wants to kill Sheridan! I wonder if they’re going to succeed?"

As far as the SF elements themselves are concerned, Babylon 5’s scatter-shot approach to internal logic can mean more frustration. The extrapolation is strictly comfortable, with little in the way of truly innovative ideas. There is some nanotech, but not enough of it to matter much: the characters still live in the late twentieth century… in space. This is space opera, never cutting-edge SF.

At some point during my marathon, I started wishing for a Babylon 5 remake: All the arc, none of the filler. It should fit in fifty episodes. Maybe in fifteen years…

It’s not as much fun to talk about what has survived the past decade without getting too old. The special effects started out rough, and steadily got better as the series evolved. The all-CGI shots from the latter half of the series still holds up decently, through the integration between live action and CGI still looks problematic.

Acting-wise, it’s a mixed bag. Saddled with unwieldy dialogue, most actors do as well as they can. (Claudia Christian’s Ivanova is the poster girl for that type of uneasiness.) The shining stars, of course, remain Peter Jurasic and the late Andreas Katsulas, as their characters take over and dominate just about everyone else. In retrospect, some characters never take off: Talia Winters is dull, Elisabeth Lochley and Lyta Alexander feels like they’re wasted opportunities, Vir and Bester are annoying half the time and minor characters like Warren Keffler and Na’Toth earn their early disappearance from the series. Fans will forever wonder, of course, about the course of the series had casting changes had not shaken the series, if Ivanova had stayed around for a fifth season or if Sinclair had remained at the helm of the series for the entire five years. Some more grist for the remake mill…

Such a remake (preferably one that would be pre-financed from beginning to end) would probably go bonkers over the type of "virtual environment" techniques gradually introduced near the end of the series –and everywhere else since then. It would tighten the dramatic screws to truly focus of the best parts of the series. It would correct some of the many, many dropped threads ("Area 13", anyone?) that made the early years of Babylon-5 so different from the later ones. It would enhance the sometimes-shabby look of the sets and provide enough flat-screen displays to bring the feel of the show out of the early nineties.

The more I kept going through Babylon 5 for this second time, the more it looked to me as if the best part of Babylon 5’s original broadcast was the community of fans that sprung up around it, even as the nature of the Internet was coalescing, even as we never quite knew if the series would stick around for its planned five-year duration. It was a pretty good time to be a fan, and I don’t regret any of that.

On the other hand, I wonder if the experience is repeatable, and if the series stands alone. Are most of the DVD episodes bought by existing fans looking for another hit of that Babylon 5 goodness? Or is the series making new fans ever today?

Suffice to say that despite most of my annoyances with the series today, I enjoyed this second trip through the Babylon 5 universe. I had forgotten a good chunk of the latter seasons, and so some surprises still had an impact this time around. I certainly enjoyed seeing the characters once more. I realized that a surprising number of quotes from the series had stayed stuck in my mind, some of them even becoming a part of my philosophical lexicon. It felt good to tap my inner fanboy for another lap around the field, so to speak.

But in the end, it’s the nature of looking at the series via DVD box-sets that makes me most aware of the difference between Bab
ylon 5 then and Babylon 5 today. This complete and compressed view of the completed series makes it harder to enjoy as episodic television, and easier to watch as a solid dramatic unit. Babylon 5, to its creator’s credit, was the first series to feel the prevailing winds and try a hybrid structure halfway between episodes and an arc. Nowadays, pretty much everyone can see the way DVD box sets are selling, and the unlimited potential of a complete series as back-list revenue generator. Babylon 5 was watched by an awful lot of people, and I can’t be the only one noting the extraordinary experience of spending six months watching a story made out of hundred of hours of TV.

Which leaves only one question: When will we get to see something just as good, in its own updated way, as the classic Babylon 5?

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