Saturday 21 April 2018

Babylon 5

It was the dawn of the third age of mankind. . . .

This week sees the end of Pick TV's rerun of the SF series Babylon 5, this being the show's first airing in the UK since its only appearance around 20 years ago on Channel 4. I watched and enjoyed that original run, but this time round I ended up recording about 80 episodes before I watched the first one as I feared that cold reality would ruin my nostalgic memories.

That trepidation is probably warranted. When first shown B5 was popular, although not massively so leading to it being axed and then resurrected at least once and being seemingly on the verge of cancellation the rest of the time. Then there was the alleged nerd war between B5 and Star Trek: Deep Space 9 fans, who both claimed that their series had been ripped off by the other. As I liked both series I didn't have much interest in the debate, although I tended to think that any two shows set on a space station were likely to have similarities.

Once the show ended, B5's fortunes plummeted rapidly. A lot of the main cast died, and all way before their time. The spin-off series Crusade was cancelled before it aired, the six movies weren't all that good, and the subsequent attempts to make more spin-offs or reboots failed. All this, along with a mixture of studio apathy and production mistakes such as losing the special effects files, led to B5 quietly disappearing.

Other SF franchises have grown ever larger or at least remained in the public consciousness, but aside from Sheldon on the Big Bang Theory deeming that B5 'fails as drama, science fiction and is hopelessly derivative', its largely been absent from popular culture. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, its reputation amongst devotees remains. Many rate it as the greatest ever SF series, while others view it as a flawed masterpiece that was ahead of its time. My opinion was the other popular view that it was greater than the sum of its parts.

It was that rare thing of being an SF series that actually contained some SF. It avoided the approach most other shows used that as long as it was set in space and had some robots in it, it could be called SF. Instead, it appeared to have been made by people who had read Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein and Bester. Even better, it was the first SF show, and arguably the first of any kind of TV series, to do something that is common these days of devoting its whole 5-year run to a single, pre-planned serialized story arc.

Unlike every show that came after it, though, B5 was almost entirely the work of one writer, J. Michael Straczynski, to the extent that aside from Neil Gaiman's episode, JMS wrote every episode from the midpoint of season 2 to the end of season 5. This singular vision enabled an extreme level of foreshadowing, plot development and continuity that made the show deeply involving (and impenetrable if you happened upon it in mid-run). So, for example, it's revealed in the very first episode how a main character will die and it takes the whole 5 year run for the full, tragic context to play out. Heck, you have to wait until season 4 to find out why the narration over the opening title credits mentions the third age of mankind.

I guess if the show was being made today the first ten minutes of every episode would be taken up with a 'Previously on. . . .' sequence to help you recall the main plot threads, but B5, aside from a few flashbacks and chunks of exposition, never spoon-fed the viewer. So, with its heady mix of clever storytelling, interweaving plots, complex characters, great twists, memorable incidental music, improbable hairstyles, unexpected deaths and most important, consequences, I ought to have been excited about getting a chance to revisit the show, but I wasn't. That's because of the other stuff, the stuff that got in the way of the greatness.

There's season 1 with the goofy stories in which every week a new alien arrives and for no good reason tries to take over the station armed only with dodgy special effects, but is defeated during a massive punch-up. There's those unconvincing muppet aliens (quite simply the worst idea anyone has ever had). And there's Sinclair. When I first saw B5 I reckoned Sinclair had to be the worst actor ever to appear on screen and his ponderous delivery sapped the life out of every scene he was in, which was a problem as he's the main character.

Even when the alien of the week, the muppets and Sinclair left in season 2 the bad acting continued with guest actors either phoning in their performance or hamming it up like pantomime villains. Even the great Season 3 had Grey 17 is Missing, an episode that was so bad the writer apologized before it was transmitted. Then there's the rushed season 4 with the galactic war that took seventy episodes of rising tension before it finally broke out, only for it to be fought and won between commercial breaks.

And there's season 5 when two popular characters had left and way too much time was devoted to the war of the long-haired, soppy telepaths, which some die-hard fans reckon is so unwatchable they refuse to acknowledge it exists. Even the show's main claim to fame works against it with so many characters making cryptic predictions and having prophetic dreams that by the time you get a resolution, often around four years later, it's hard to remember or care any longer.

With all that in mind I wondered whether to delve back in, but to my relief I enjoyed it a lot more than I expected. As it turned out, B5 is a show that was designed for binge watching decades before the term became popular. Having a seer opine that 'to avoid your fate you must save the eye that does not see' works better when you find out in a week what it means rather than having to wait a year.


In addition, season 1 wasn't as bad as I remembered. I don't think it was down to now knowing about the personal problems the actor who played Sinclair was having, but this time round I enjoyed his stiff-backed approach. The other acting also wasn't as bad as I feared, with the scenery chewing performances being fun along with seeing actors I hadn't remembered were in it such as Bishop Brennan from Father Ted and Citizen Smith's dad. In fact there was a strange overuse of English actors, who all had that odd English accent that's only ever used on US TV shows. Even the weak stories were watchable as they usually had a decent B-plot, or a memorable scene, or something that advanced the arc story.
I'd also forgotten how funny the show is. Amidst all the angst, pain, suffering, self-sacrifice, unrequited love and the epic battle between order and chaos for the control of the universe for all eternity, there were plenty of good jokes. The docking guard stating that nothing ever surprises him any more only for Elvis to walk past, Ivanova somehow keeping a straight face during her boom-shaba-laba dance, the usually verbose G'Kar working on a swearing-in oath for days and coming up with: 'Do you want to be President?' My favourite joke was one that livened up an all-too-familiar scene in which Garibaldi has to get past a guard to break Sheridan out of a cell. Garibaldi tries the novel approach of telling the guard he's been on TV, only to get the deadpan response of: 'I don't watch TV. It's a cultural wasteland filled with inappropriate metaphors and an unrealistic portrayal of life created by the liberal media elite.'

Season 5 was also more entertaining than I'd expected. Although Byron's hair, the singing and the dopey telepaths were far, far worse than I remember. What I did like is that it gave the characters a long goodbye. Most shows cram a resolution to the story along with tearful goodbyes into the final few minutes of the final episode, but B5 devoted several episodes to letting everyone depart in their own good time. The fact that many of the characters' fates were tragic made them all the better.

Just about the only drawback was that the main storyline no longer feels plausible, as it features the follicly-challenged President Clark ascending to power with help from secretive outside forces and then instigating a Make Earth Great Again policy that involves promoting extreme patriotism, starting wars and victimizing alien immigrants. Then he diverts attention away from his fascist agenda by stirring up race hate and social divisions, and sacking anyone who disagrees with him. After which he imposes increasingly dictatorial policies while using state controlled media to support his alternative facts and to dismiss all opposition as fake news. This sort of stuff is just too fanciful and could never actually happen, but then again I suppose it is SF.

Anyhow, I'll stop banging on and leave the final word to G'Kar with his closing speech from season 3, another one of those epic moments I'd forgotten about that got the show its reputation as being the best ever SF TV series:

'There is a greater darkness than the one we fight. It is the darkness of the soul that has lost its way. The war we fight is not against powers and principalities, it is against chaos. . .  and despair. Greater than the death of flesh is the death of hope, the death of dreams. Against this peril we can never surrender. The future is all around us, waiting, in moments of transition, to be born in moments of revelation. No one knows the shape of that future or where it will take us. We know only that it is always born. . . in pain.'