Babylon 5: A Dream Given Form

It was the dawn of the third age of mankind, ten years after the Earth-Minbari War. The Babylon Project was a dream given form. Its goal: to prevent another war, by creating a place where humans and aliens can work out their differences peacefully. It’s a port of call, a home away from home for diplomats, hustlers, entrepreneurs, and wanderers. Humans and aliens, wrapped in two million, five hundred thousand tons of spinning metal…all alone in the night. It can be a dangerous place, but it’s our last best hope for peace. This is the story of the last of the Babylon stations. The year is 2258. The name of the place is Babylon 5.

In the world of science fiction TV, Babylon 5 is generally considered the first of the modern* story-arc series. It’s a genuine departure from the “Wagon Train to the Stars” paradigm that Old Trek created. I don’t think we’d have had Buffy The Vampire Slayer and the Battlestar Galactica reboot without it and Deep Space Nine to convince the studios that genre audiences had long attention spans and an appetite for moral complexity.

For me personally, Bab 5 was the the TV series of my mid-twenties. I watched it as I settled into married life and into the strange rhythms of being an expat. I watched it as my professional life and a good deal of my interior life fell apart. I watched it as I built both back up and started to become who I am now.

And then I never watched it again.

But I realized this past November that I wanted to go back through the whole series, to see how it looks to a 40 year old. I’ve grown up enough, and seen enough of the real world, to more deeply appreciate the themes of failure and redemption that run through it. And I’ve become more aware of the technical side of storytelling; another thing I’m doing right now is reading Learn Writing with Uncle Jim. Straczynski planned the series as a novel-length story, and I’m interested to see the techniques he used to tell it.

Or perhaps it will be pyrite: fool’s gold. Perhaps the Suck Fairy will have visited it in the 16 years since it first aired.

It also strikes me that it might be amusing to blog this process. I’m not planning on going episode by episode, but rather tackling it in somewhat larger chunks of plot. I don’t know how many of my friends are fans, or have seen it, and might be interested in discussing it. But I thought it might be an interesting thing to try.

SPOILER POLICY: This is a TV series from the last century. I’m not going to put entries behind the cut, or discourage digressions and side discussions in the threads. If you haven’t seen the series and don’t want to know what happens in it, scroll on by. I’m not going to reveal things I remember but haven’t yet seen again. I may foreshadow them—for instance, mentioning how terribly sad Lennier’s placid innocence makes me feel—but I won’t reveal things out of sequence in my write-ups. But I don’t have a problem with people doing so in the threads.

We’re already about halfway through the first series, so I have some catching up to do. I’ll post the first-episode reflections tomorrow, but I wanted to start with a few general observations.

First of all, I notice that the main characters are now my contemporaries. In 1996, I identified with the juniors: Vir, Lennir, Na’Toth, Ivanova‡, Dr. Franklin. Characters like Delenn, Londo and G’Kar were additionally alien to me because they were older.

But now the junior characters look young and rather gormless. In the meantime, I’ve discovered in myself a deep and unexpected affection for Londo, a lot less alarm at G’Kar, and a kind of collegial affection for Sinclair. I’m interested to see how this changes as first two evolve.

On a more cinematic level, I have to say that the special effects hold up better than I feared. The CGI stuff doesn’t look bad to my inexpert eyes, and the alien makeup is still plausibly transformative (once you accept the premise that all intelligent life is roughly humaniform). The set is nicely grubby and workmanlike. The only place that really creaks is when live action and CGI mix; the bluescreening is awful.

The off-duty human hair and costumes are often dreadfully dated; fluffy perms and blouson jackets really are the future of the past. But apart from the leatherette panels on the crew uniforms, the on-duty costumes and alien clothes are well-designed and made from reasonably classic materials. The individual tastes of each species are well-represented, from the proto-steampunk Centauri to the oddly Khan-esque Narn. And I still want Delenn’s wardrobe.

Overall, I’d say the accidents of the show don’t damage my suspension of disbelief. I’m willing to relax into the story.


* Blakes Seven did it a generation earlier, but in Britain and with worse special effects†.
† possibly redundant phrasing there
‡ My particular aim, back in the 1990′s, was to grow up to be Susan Ivanova. Looking at the work I do now, I see that somewhere in the intervening years, I’ve pretty much achieved that.§
§ Now I can go on to my next goal, which is to grow up to be Cordelia Vorkosigan.

Index of Babylon 5 posts

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Originally posted and discussed on Making Light.

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