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.

10 Comments »

Glenn wrote on February 3rd, 2011 at 9:46 PM PST:

The reason they tied it up at the end of the fourth season was because they didn’t know whether or not they would get a fifth season until after filming of the fourth season was completed.

But yeah, great show. I’ll have to watch it again myself sometime. I bought the box sets a number of years back. I didn’t mind the first season. I quite liked Sinclair.


ctate wrote on February 3rd, 2011 at 10:39 PM PST:

It’s not even that they “didn’t know”; it’s that they literally were told that they’d be pulled after the 4th season, so JMS scrambled to rewrite and plan to wind up the story arc in that time. Then, partway through the 4th season when they were basically committed to that, the show was revived by being sold to a different network for its final season. As originally planned the season 4 + 5 material would have all been intertwined, and much better paced.

Sigh.


Glenn wrote on February 4th, 2011 at 5:01 AM PST:

Ctate, ok, cheers! That clarifies things!


William Eggington wrote on February 6th, 2011 at 1:58 AM PST:

I really enjoyed B5 at the time. Blew all the other sci-fi shows at the time away. There were a few good movies made after the series ended. You should check those out as well.


Anon wrote on February 7th, 2011 at 10:12 AM PST:

Actually the first season has at least a few different authors (it was the original plan) and that’s why it’s so subpar and disjointed, before JMS saw the light, took the reins and wrote everything himself from season 2 until the end. I think all of season 2 rocks, but you can definitely tell which of the season 1 episodes aren’t by Straczynski.

Still the best sci-fi on TV ever though, and everything Star Trek should have been after TNG.


Mike wrote on February 11th, 2011 at 12:18 PM PST:

This blog would have been fine, until DS9 had to be mentioned. I’ll get back to that. This show is grade A crap all through out. OK acting, substandard CGI (just use models for god sakes), thin story lines. Whats this crap about rise of dictators? Clark blows up the presidents ships and BAM he’s in charge… Wow.. so deep. They tried going for realistic ships, but why would the EF’s ships having spining rectangles? Centrifugal force is at right angles to the spinning force, they would have some wierd effects on that ship! I could go on.. but why…… DS9 on the other hand… after season 3.. perfect πŸ™‚ takeout the ferengi only episodes, and you have an (entertaining) war, great characters, special effects, and garak πŸ™‚ If i forgot anything, feel free to mention. B5 just burns me up inside, too hard to keep writing…. One more things… no Blake’s 7 on top 10 sci fi shows?


zima wrote on February 11th, 2011 at 12:50 PM PST:

How curious – the only time I tried, quite recently, I gave up B5 at the beginning of 2nd season… (and yeah Glenn, Sinclair seemed like an unfortunate loss; even if I couldn’t stand the entirety any longer)

>Make the aliens more alien, rather than humans in weird costumes
Was it ever the case? I’m not sure we can count on it anywhere. Except for “abstract light”/”angels”/etc., the audiences don’t seem to want anything too weird, pretty much expect something they can relate to, something mostly human. That, or mostly mindless (or at least untrustworthy / treacherous / not very bright anyway) monster…
(too bad really – a fully aquatic species could handle tremendous G forces in fighters πŸ˜‰ )

And we can’t forget about allowing the possibility of some inter-species action! (what would Avatar be without it?! πŸ˜‰ …though that can turn out to be a special case, I suspect the smurfs might be a directed means of communication with humans)


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Eugenia wrote on February 11th, 2011 at 4:58 PM PST:

>the audiences don’t seem to want anything too weird, pretty much expect something they can relate to, something mostly human.

And this is very unfortunate, because if there are intelligent aliens out there, they will look nothing like us.

>This show is grade A crap all through out.

Mike, you’re wrong. Babylon 5 is deep. More deep than DS9 in my opinion.


zima wrote on February 12th, 2011 at 9:13 AM PST:

>if there are intelligent aliens out there, they will look nothing like us.

You should know by now ;p that scifi (especially of the popular type) rarely really strives for accuracy in portraying the future; that is rarely its goal. Apart from “commentary on the present, bla, bla…” – being marveled (but without uncomfortable foreignness! And we CAN even build them! Start with a Harrier, remove wings and canopy … it’s just not a very good idea) is typically preferred over striving for boring accuracy.

Heck, when it comes to absolute basics / as far as we can tell, achieving FTL might be very unlikely in this universe … at the same time, lots of scifi wouldn’t really work without it. Most shuns from portrayal and exploration of the ramifications of our speed & scale limits (even when it could be fairly straightforward; in Defying Gravity (horrible all around / it probably took from us the prospect of “realistic scifi” for a decade at least / also in “no FTL” it’s much worse than its inspiration, BBC Space Odyssey Voyage to the Planets) apparently they were scared of opportunities given by gradually increasing distance from the Earth – for example, more and more delayed communication as a very powerful way to portray ever greater isolation and loss of old life, also via frustration and misunderstandings when for some time the crew tries to videoconference in (not so anymore)”realtime”)

There is some hope, thanks to upcoming film adaptation of The Forever War. Of course, its world will still be far from, most probable IMHO, embryo colonization or gradual asteroid & comet hopping (estimated one trillion comets just in our Oort cloud – eventually some groups would hitch a ride with some passing star; that still gives very rapid colonization of the galaxy, in geological terms). The latter probably also mostly via miniature humans in deep hibernation, what we can routinely do already… but it somehow didn’t find its way into scifi (“social commentary” on this one would be funny, on “controversy” in using such helpless souls, which can’t say “no”, for dangerous task of colonization πŸ˜‰ ). Grown ones getting similar (but even “more”?) deal to what is the case now – you’re born at some place, you’re very likely to die near it.

(yes, I don’t take into account mind uploading / magical nanotechnology / etc., those possibilities are IMHO a bit too unpredictable, too paradigm shifting to contemplate…)


zima wrote on February 12th, 2011 at 9:17 AM PST:

>being marveled (but without uncomfortable foreignness! And we CAN even build them! Start with a Harrier, remove wings and canopy … it’s just not a very good idea) is typically preferred

This was supposed to be under “marveled”, I guess the Unicode brakes it…


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