let’s watch tv: babylon 5

At this festive time of year it’s fair to assume that most of our readers will have a bit more spare time than usual over the next week or two. Furthermore, more than a few of you will get those newfangled “TV sticks” (a slightly better term than “dongle” to my mind) as holiday gifts, or get somebody to pick up your Netflix or Hulu or Amazon Prime subscription for another year. So if you find yourself in need of some media to stream, allow me to offer you a recommendation. Forget the peppermint bark and binge on Babylon 5.

I just finished it today, via the old fashioned medium of DVD box sets borrowed from a generous friend. I haven’t exactly binged, but I watched every episode of six seasons over a few months, and the experience might have been even better if I’d moved a little faster. Babylon 5 was made to binge. I remember watching most of the first 4 seasons as it was broadcast back in the 1990s, liking it, but giving up on it in inertia. Today I can’t imagine why I did that, but that’s because I was able to follow the complex plot and appreciate all the little nuances of the character development without long waits between episodes and even longer ones between seasons. (Yes, the 1990s hair styles haven’t aged well, but don’t let that hold you back.)

For those who are entirely unfamiliar, Babylon 5 is a fairly serious science fiction novel told in the form of a space opera television series. Forget all the stupid debates about whether or not it is better than Star Trek. It is not the same thing as Star Trek, which is an open ended series of movies and TV shows that share world building and a common alternate history. Babylon 5 is a single story with a beginning, a middle and an end, with all the twisting story lines, foreshadowing, hints, plot hooks and actual changes to characters’ lives that you expect from the better kind of novels and so seldom find on television.

Set on the deep space station of the title, this story concerns itself with the lives of a group of people from widely different cultural backgrounds (they’re all aliens, really, including the humans), all of whom happen to be going about their business there when suddenly a great big ball of history rolls over them. (Bad luck, that.) Some of them will die, some of them will become great figures, good and bad, none of them will go on unchanged. These characters are rather extraordinary, first for being different from each other in more than looks, but also because they have genuine inner lives and well developed personal philosophies which actually influence their decisions and shape the plot and eventually affect the history that they are making. There are plenty of space ships and space battles and weird aliens with weird beliefs (including the humans), but there are also great romances and doomed romances and several truly epic friendships that will move you to tears if you are sensitive to that kind of thing. (Don’t watch the last episode without a handful of tissues that’s for sure.)

I was both glad and sorry to see the end of Babylon 5— glad because it was awfully good, sorry because I know there will never be any more of it. My generous friend probably wants his DVDs back, and he can have ’em any time, and thanks very much. But until then, I think I’m going to start over with season one now that I know how it all ends, just see the way they build the story. That’s not something you usually do with a TV show. Consider it a very high recommendation.

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9 Responses to let’s watch tv: babylon 5

  1. Sean K. says:

    I am in total agreement with you. We started watching B5 back when only a few episodes had aired, and we were hooked. We then not only watched each episode as it aired for the next 5 years, but taped them all for keeping. Some years after the end of the series we bought the DVDs on clearance and got rid of the VHS.

    It is definitely one of my favorite TV series ever, and probably my favorite science fiction series. The writing was hokey sometimes, and I didn’t like some of the performances, but so much of it was very different from the way sci-fi was done on TV before.

    It’s probably time to re-watch it soon.

  2. Pam Bliss says:

    Interesting. I certainly agree about the hokey factor, although as you know I have a high tolerance for corny stuff. And yes, there were several extremely wooden performances. But Londo and G’kar are first class characters, and several minor roles were filled with great skill. Bester, in particular, is a really excellent villian. And you, Ambassador Kosh, are as creepy as heck, sir.

  3. Wolfie says:

    My reply to the “wooden performances” remark is always the same- they used B- and C-grade actors because they couldn’t afford anyone else. B5 was produced on a budget that was in the range of 10 to 20% of a typical Star Trek Next Gen (or DS9) episode. On the other hand, they cast remarkably well, making some fascinating choices. Delenn, especially, was a bold reach. Unable to afford an actress of stature in the States, they went to the former Yugoslavia to get a well-respected TV actress, whose differences in acting style from the US cast really played up her alien-ness (Delenn is also unique for me, because she was always a fascinating character, a great character, and yet I almost never agreed with her, and often times actively hated her.) Casting Londo and G’Kar with veteran character actors, the strongest they had in their stables, was a masterstroke as well. This series, more than anything else, was the Londo n’ G’Kar show.

    As for “hokey”, keep in mind that the series was almost entirely written by one person… including every single episode of season 3, and it’s very hard to get everything perfect on a tight schedule. I’d also say, just for myself, that Next Gen had about ten times the number of plot holes and inconsistencies, and they had a team of supposedly crack writers working on that show.

    It’s sad how many of the original cast have passed away. Andreas Katsulas (G’Kar), Richard Biggs (Dr. Franklin) and Jeff Conaway (Zack Allen) have all shuffled off this mortal coil.

    B5 was a labor of love, a big project that, against all odds, was actually completed. It’s the television equivalent of Cerebus the Aardvark (without all of the blatant misogyny.)

    • seakingdom says:

      Indeed, much of it was JMS himself laboring away at the scripts, and I certainly don’t think that there were any major, or even many minor, plot problems. I mainly referred to some of the dialogue (and at his worst he still did far better than I could have written).

      The great thing about the show was that its quality was so good so much of the time despite the low budget, etc. It also did things that had not been done in other TV shows, some big, like a same-sex relationship (however short lived), and some small, like showing people in bathrooms (likely Harlan Ellison’s influence).

      Add to that RIP list poor Michael O’Hare, whose struggle with mental illness during the show was only revealed after his death a couple of years ago.

      And yes, Bester was a great character. There were a number of characters in the show about whom my opinion changed over the series, in some cases swinging 180 degrees. 🙂

      • Wolfie says:

        Wow, I hadn’t heard that Michael O’Hare passed away… 😦 I had the opportunity to talk with him at some length at a con about 15 years ago, and he was a genuinely warm and low-key sort of guy.

        Adding again to the RIP list, and this is one i knew of but just plain forgot… Tim Choate, who played Zathras, died in a motorcycle accident back in 2004.

    • Pam Bliss says:

      I agree with you about Delenn. The same acting style that worked so well with that characterization would have fallen flat if she had been a human, but the slightly off center quality made her seem genuinely alien. And yeah, she was a difficult person at best, to be polite about it.

  4. 1971wolfie says:

    I also want to give an additional shout out to Bester, who was the bestest heavy ever. What I liked the most is that he was remarkably smart and crafty… and as a result, none of the “good guys” could ever get the best of him. Sure, he suffered temporary setbacks, but in the end he was there, fat and happy and well-positioned, with everything that he wanted and cared for pretty much intact. I love love LOVED the fact that he messed so terribly with Garibaldi, and yet there was no “Garibaldi gets off an awesome quip and shoots him / blows him out an airlock” moment. He meddles, but he never overreaches. This is a realistic characteristic of a smart individual, and as far as I know this treatment of a “bad guy” (including making him, at times, remarkably sympathetic) is unique in the annals of television.

  5. Pam Bliss says:

    Yep– a smart bad guy who “wins” the story– a rare sighting. Bester is awesome. He certainly got the better of Garibaldi. Although now that I think about it, Garibaldi “wins” too, ending up rich and happy with a family after all the angst he went through, much of it of his own making.

  6. Pingback: new year’s eve post | a cartoonist in Kekionga

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