Archive for February 3rd, 2011

A second look at Babylon 5

The first time I watched Babylon 5 was in the ’90s. I didn’t particularly like it back then. The first season was so bad, that I didn’t really bother myself seriously with most of its episodes. This last month I decided to actually re-watch it on streaming Netflix, and this time to actually pay attention, to try and figure out what the hype is all about.

So, the first season is as terrible as I remember it. Even more terrible than I remember it, I’d say. It has aged really bad tech-wise, the dialog is horrendous (its creator, JMS, was its only writer too, he wouldn’t let anyone else help with dialog), the audio feels like it was recorded by a kid on its karaoke machine, and the episodic premise is boring. There are a few “setup” scenes, but overall, the first season and part of the second season are without salvation. The fans usually blame the show’s low budget, but for me it’s the horrendous monologues & dialog.

The show only picks up at the end of the second season. It has a mostly tremendous third season, and an “good enough” fourth season. It’s fifth season was completely unnecessary, since all the major plots are resolved at the end of the 4th season. Make no mistake, the dialog, audio, and technology remain pretty bad throughout the series. But the CGI get better with each season, and the plot becomes highly serialized, with the highest point in the series being exactly in the middle: Season 3, Episode 10.

What makes Babylon 5 great is its serialized plotting and themes: the coming of age of entire species, the political games played, how media and public opinion is manipulated, how information is king, citizen privacy, how dictatorships rise, etc. These themes appear throughout the series, and shine in some episodes so much that make Babylon 5 one of the best sci-fi TV shows of all time. It’s social commentary at its best. The show is definitely better than its nemesis, Deep Space 9, but in my opinion the technical/filmmaking details stop the show short from making it timeless. Unfortunately, they matter too.

Personally I would like to see a remake/re-imagining of Babylon 5. Just three seasons, 18 episodes each (Feb-May). Make the aliens more alien, rather than humans in weird costumes. Inter-weave the various plots: Shadows, alliance, dictatorship, telepaths, Mars, plus new ones, like the military angle, and the role of corporations. Get to the point: first season starts with the various conspiracies and setup, second season sees the first battles, dictatorship rising and taking hold, declaration of independence, Centauri occupying Narn, and third season sees the Shadow war won in the first 1/3 of the season, with the rest of the items resolving by the end of that season. No episodes about Babylon 5 twenty years in the future, no humans 1 million years in the future bullshit, no Lorien and “coming back from the dead” crap, not so much religion and excellency on Minbari. Instead, make the alien worlds more believable, more brutal, and don’t make everyone so hard-cut good or bad. Make technology more believable too: we see people in Babylon 5 reading normal newspapers, while even today we know this isn’t going to be for much longer. Bring in some robots and paper/implant/holo displays too. I mean, that’s 2261 we’re talking about, make it look like it.

And for God’s sake, let someone else read the script before you give it out to your actors.