Babylon 5 Revisited

It was the dawn of the third age of mankind, ten years after the Earth/Minbari war. The Babylon 5 League was a dream given a forum.

Moderator: lorien1

Babylon 5 Revisited

Postby lorien1 » Fri Nov 14, 2003 7:33 pm

From Amazon.co.Uk
Babylon 5 Revisited
by Gary S. Dalkin



The epic sci-fi series Babylon 5 was a unique experiment in the history of television. It was effectively a novel for television in five seasons, consisting of 110 episodes with a clear beginning, middle and end. Amazon.co.uk looks back at the successes and shortcomings of this "last best hope" for TV sci-fi.


In the Beginning
As the opening narration of the first season of Babylon 5 recorded, "the Babylon Project was a dream given form". The dream came to J Michael Straczynski while taking a shower one day in 1987, and before the pilot episode, "The Gathering", aired in 1993 he spent six years finding a way to bring his dream to television.

Straczynski was a TV veteran whose writing credentials included the 1980s' revival of The Twilight Zone (1985), Murder, She Wrote (1984-96) and children's shows such as The Real Ghostbusters (1986) and Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future (1987). Despite its catch-penny title, Captain Power was significant in bringing an on-going story to American television science fiction at a time when the concept was unthinkable to the networks. Straczynski's experience on the show also suggested the then-embryonic world of digital special effects would soon be capable of realising much more complex and realistic effects on a television budget. Both these strands of thought would make possible a show such as Babylon 5, the scale of which proved literally unimaginable to the minds of many television executives.

Eventually Straczynski secured the support of Warner Brothers, and so was launched the most ambitious drama in network history. A novel for television in five seasons consisting of 110 episodes with a clear beginning, middle and end, Babylon 5 did not fit any pre-existing conception of network TV, being neither a TV movie, mini-series, nor a show designed to run indefinitely, continuing for season after season with no particular direction until eventual cancellation. Yet Babylon 5 redefined network TV to the extent that today virtually all credible shows, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997) to 24 (2001) have to have their own "arc". It also proved that truly epic-scale science fiction vistas could be realised for television using CGI, something impossible with model effects on a TV budget and production schedule.


--------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Babylon 5 redefined network TV to the extent that today virtually all credible shows have to have their own "arc"
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------


In the Shadow of Star Trek
Yet when B5 first aired it was widely dismissed as a cash-in on the latest addition to the Star Trek universe, Deep Space Nine, a show which appeared on screen with far greater fanfare at almost exactly the same time, and which shared the premise of an SF series set on a space station. In-fact there was room for both, and as the series developed it was clear that B5 was very much its own creation.

Which is not to say that Babylon 5 completely fulfilled its potential or met all its goals. The realities of the ruthlessly commercial world of network television saw to that. Nor is it to say that it is the best show there has ever been. There have been many programmes, mini-series and self-contained television films which attained a higher standard over a shorter, usually much shorter, and less ambitious run. Yet at its best and despite all its flaws Babylon 5 was an unparalleled television phenomenon.

So what is Babylon 5?
Babylon 5 is a complex tale of political intrigue and war centred around a five-mile-long human-built space station during the years 2257-62, extending epochs of time into past and future and involving many races, civilisations and star systems spread across untold light-years. At the heart of the story is the struggle of the Human, Centauri, Minbari and Narn races, their conflicts with each other and attempts to forge a new and lasting peace, and their battle as the Interstellar Alliance against the ancient power of darkness known as the Shadows. Within this canvas are subplots of labyrinthine internal conflict, including the rise of a dictatorial Earth government and Babylon 5's part in a civil war against the homeworld. Entire cultures and religions are portrayed and plot threads range from the personal to the mystically transcendent, from the mysteries of alien dead worlds to the daily dilemmas which face the leading characters. Of these there are many, the most central being Commanders Jeffrey Sinclair (Michael O'Hare) and John Sheridan (Bruce Boxleitner), Lt. Commander Susan Ivanova (Claudia Christian), Security Chief Michael Garibaldi (Jerry Doyle), Minbari Ambassador Delenn (Mira Furlan), Narn Ambassador G'Kar (Andreas Katsulas) and Centauri Ambassador Londo Mollari (Peter Jurasik).


--------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Entire cultures and religions are portrayed and plot threads range from the personal to the mystically transcendent, from the mysteries of alien dead worlds to the daily dilemmas which face the leading characters
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------


J Michael Straczynski was a longtime fan of science fiction and fantasy in all mediums, not just TV or movies, and what made B5 unique was that he attempted to infuse it with the qualities of the best of written science fiction and fantasy. Written SF is often a very different thing from its often average screen incarnations, being more idea-based and able to build over many pages detailed and coherent alien and future societies in a way not usually possible on screen. In the SF community this is referred to as "world-building", and is one of the great pleasures of the genre. Into these imaginary worlds writers then cast stories of considerable narrative, personal, political, social and philosophical complexity. With epic-scale inspirations such as The Lord of the Rings and Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy, Straczynski sought to bring some of this depth to television.

Also inspired by the Arthurian legends, with Babylon 5 itself cast in the role of Camelot, Straczynski brought a mythic resonance to the show, an epic saga of the struggle between good and evil, light and dark, with a small group of often deeply flawed heroes taking a stand against the coming of the night.

That there was no network committee to take day-to-day decisions meant B5 truly was the brainchild of one man. Straczynski entered the record books by writing over 90 of the 110 episodes, although this did result in some chapters falling below his own highest standard. Yet the consistency of vision gained by this personal control more than compensated. As Straczynski has said, it was quicker for him to write an episode than to give it to a freelancer, explain the entire history of the show then edit it afterwards to ensure continuity. As such, B5 can seriously claim to have, in effect, an "author": it really is a television "novel".

Problems and Solutions
Of course B5 wasn't perfect. The acting was of variable quality, ranging from the superb characterisation of Andreas Katsulas as the reptilian Narn Ambassador G' Kar to rather more hammy performances by less distinguished actors. It also suffered from occasionally over-ripe dialogue, and alien make-up ranging from the exceptional to the perfunctory. However, the major problems with B5 all stemmed from the demands of network TV.

The first season begins with a series of largely individual episodes with self-contained stories, and several of these are among the worst in the entire saga. Mediocre early instalments such as "Soul Hunter" and "Infection" only reinforce the idea that B5 is a poor fan's Star Trek. Then, at the end of the first season, Warner insisted Straczynski replace lead Michael O'Hare with an actor of more general appeal. It was either this or have the show cancelled. O'Hare's departure could have caused enormous continuity problems. That it did not was due to Straczynski having what he called a "trap door" for every character, a contingency plan for writing them out and still bringing the story back on track. As such, the arrival of replacement Bruce Boxlietner (a much bigger name than O'Hare on American TV) strengthened the show. Boxlietner lacked the darker depths of O'Hare as an actor, but brought a Clintonesque charisma to the Commander's office which lent weight to later seasons.


--------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Mediocre early instalments such as "Soul Hunter" and "Infection" only reinforce the idea that B5 is a poor fan's Star Trek
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------


A more significant problem was Warner's continual prevarication over whether they would give the go-ahead for a fifth season. So late was the network in finally giving the green light that Straczynski had to work on the presumption they would not, and consequently condense the most essential elements of the material intended for the fourth and fifth seasons into the fourth season alone, leaving some subsidiary plot elements over should there be a fifth season. The result was a powerhouse season four, climaxing both the monumental Shadow War and building to a rousing finish with the war against President Clarke's dictatorial regime on Earth. The downside was that season five could never live up to this peak, and story lines that would have made powerful counterpoint to the main narrative had to take centre stage. While effective in their own right the Telepath War and aftermath of the Shadow War on Centuri Prime never attained the heights of season four. Likewise, the decision by Claudia Christian to leave when the renewal for season five was in doubt damaged the show. Tracey Scoggins, best known as Monica Colby in Dynasty (1981-89), came in as an obvious replacement, but was given little characterisation and appeared in only around half the episodes of the season, failing ever really to make her mark.

Epitaph for an Epic
Nevertheless, with astonishing production values and special effects capable of presenting vast space battles and alien worlds on a budget a mere fraction of shows such as ER (1994-), B5 broke ground in every way. B5 told intricately developed stories, which gripped the imagination and created characters, human and alien alike, about which the audience could genuinely care. At its best, through the later part of the second season and all of seasons three and four, it was simply unrivalled: exhilarating, chilling, breathtakingly edge-of-the-seat television with the desperate-to-know-what-happens-next quality of the finest popular fiction.


--------------------------------------------------------------------------------
B5 told intricately developed stories, which gripped the imagination and created characters, human and alien alike, about which the audience could genuinely care
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------


From comedy to tragedy and all points in-between, Babylon 5 took risks. It sometimes failed, but it was a living, breathing enterprise which hit moments of startling dramatic truth and in the end proved as overwhelmingly moving as the finale of another modern television war masterpiece, Band of Brothers (2001). When viewed in totality, Babylon 5 remains television's finest 80 hours of science fiction, a breathtaking, compulsive space odyssey with a scale and imagination that truly deserves the epitaph "epic".
Image"Hope Is All We Have.Do You Have Something Worth Living For"
User avatar
lorien1
Recruit
 
Posts: 305
Joined: Mon Jul 14, 2003 1:11 pm
Location: Scotland

Return to The Babylon 5 League

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 1 guest

cron