Saturday, November 6, 2010


You know, I really believe that science fiction should be fun.

I recently wrote a post about the cancellation of SyFy's Caprica. I think part of the reason why Caprica got cancelled was the fact that the show was just no fun.

Fun is one aspect of science fiction on tv or in the movies that i really like. A series can be serious and bleak, like Syfy's Battlestar Galactica, but it can still have its fun aspects. Fanboys (and fangirls) can still get excited about cylon vs. cylon fights and how many vipers engaged how many cylon raiders, or even quieter character moments where a subtle look changes everything, as long as the show as a whole is entertaining and rewarding.

A show that I thought was a tremendous amount of fun to watch was BABYLON 5.

BABYLON 5 was conceived and, for the most part, written by one man, J. Michael Straczynski. He envisioned a science fiction epic for television - a story arc that would take five season to tell properly. It was old-fashioned space opera set in a huge galaxy filled with alien races in conflict, humans, telepaths and fleets of FTL capable ships, yet told in a way that would be entertaining television. What Straczynski wanted was a show that would do for Science Fiction what Hill Street Blues had done for Cop shows.

Babylon 5 was a game changer in many ways. Aside from the five year story arc, it was the show that introduced CGI effects to the world. Ron Thornton, whose company Foundation Imaging had earlier worked on crude computer graphics for a show called Captain Power had made a breakthrough in imaging, losing the "computery" feel that most computer graphics had at the time. Looking back now the effects for Babylon 5 are crude, especially in comparison to the effects on Battlestar Galactica or Stargate Universe, but, honestly, neither of those shows have dared to depict the scope and grandeur that Babylon 5 achieved back in 1994.

The excitement and the Sense of Wonder and, above all, the fun of science fiction that used to be redolent in the science fiction pulps up until the 60's, was all there. The show was saturated with it.

It wasn't perfect. The production values were not as high as other shows (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Seaquest), the performances were not exactly Emmy quality and the writing was uneven -- sometimes absolutely brilliant and sometimes downright clunky.

But there were moment when it all came together beautifully. Never more so than with the story arc of one of the characters, Londo Molarri, played by Peter Jurassik. Londo was an ambassador to Babylon 5 for the Centauri, a race that closely resembled human beings but with several distinctive differences. The Centauri were once a great race whose time had come and gone. At the start of the series Londo is a drunken, gambling middle aged functionary dreaming of the glory days of a fading empire. As the series progresses, though, Londo gets an opportunity to help his people regain their place in the univrse. In the process, though, Londo makes some very bad choices, including declaring war on a rival civilization, the Narn.

The war progresses to its inevitable conclusion, the orbit bombing of the Narn homeworld. There is a moment about halfway through the series where Londo watches in absolute horror from a ship in orbit as it hurls bombs to the surface, all but wiping out the Narn race.

It is moment like that which make Babylon 5 a series that is worth sitting through. There are many others which mean little to a casual viewer but have tremendous impact for those who watched the show from the beginning to the end.

Although not as flashy, well-written or well acted as other shows, (not to mention being regularly maligned by Dr. Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory) Babylon 5 avoided cancellation for five seasons (a notable accomplishment in the world of SF TV) and it can be held up as an example of a show that was, as its creator intended: "good science fiction as well as good television."

The series is availabe on DVD as are several made for TV movies, although there are a few of those that really should be avoided, particularly one called LEGENDS OF THE RANGERS... don't go there.

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Kal said...

This is one of the major science fiction series that I have not seen a single episode of. I think once I get through the single seasons of 'Earth 2' (I am a big fan of Yancy Brown) and season one of 'Dark Skies' that I will dive into Babylon Five. It's been sitting here for awhile. Then we will have another thing to talk about.

Paladin said...

Awesome post, M.D.

I've not caught any of the Babylon 5 episodes. My TV watching time is pretty sparse, and the length of the series has discouraged me from starting it. Last thing I need is another series to get caught up in. Your description makes me want to anyway, though.

Jaquandor said...

I tried watching B5 a few times, but something about it always put me off. I should try again, though; this was in the 90s, when my tastes were still forming.

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