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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

The glory of Babylon I

Last year when Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace was released, the movie critics were pretty hard on it. This was to be expected since there is an unwritten rule that the more success a director has and/or the more money poured into a movie, the more the movie needs to be attacked and brought down a notch or two or three. One of the critics who savaged it was Elvis Mitchell, who is now the film reviewer for The New York Times.

I woke up one Saturday morning to hear National Public Radio Weekend Edition host Scott Simon chatting with Mitchell about The Phantom Menace. Mitchell was complaining that too much of the movie was taken up with trivial background information and interplanetary politics. My ears immediately perked up when he drew a comparison in an exchange that went (very generally) something like this:

Mitchell: “Have you ever seen a TV science fiction series called Babylon 5?”

Simon: “No.”

Mitchell: “Well, it’s so full of extremely complicated political intrigue and minutiae that if you haven’t watched the whole thing from the beginning, you can’t make sense of any of it. The Phantom Menace is like that.”

His tone made it very clear that he considered this a bad thing. What an interesting criticism to make of a work of narrative fiction, I thought, and television after all is a form of literature. Would he lodge this complaint about any other medium? For example, would he ever think to say, “What a crummy book. If you skip any of the chapters, it makes no sense.” Or, “What a lousy movie, you come in a half-hour after it’s started and you can’t make heads or tails of it.” I don’t think so. That fact that he apparently didn’t think twice about saying this about a television program speaks volumes about how he, and perhaps most people, regard television as a storytelling medium.

For some reason (probably because there is a TV in almost every room of every house and it is always on), people regard television as something in the background that you should be able to wander in and out of with no problem. Kind of like the radio, where you turn it on and you might get a snippet of news or all or part of a song (or more likely, several advertisements) before you wander off out of earshot. This is why TV seems geared specifically to people with short attention spans. This is why TV news consists so often of quick “sound bites” rather than lengthier analyses. And this is why TV programs are so formulaic: so that you can start watching in the middle of a program and pick up on what is going on immediately because you have seen the same story a thousand times before.

This is why Mr. Mitchell’s putdown of Babylon 5 was to my mind really high praise. This is a series that was conceived as a novel for television that rewarded the viewer who saw it from beginning to end. In this way, it is unique at least in the annals of American television: something akin to a miniseries but much more ambitious and epic in scope.

I am discussing Babylon 5 because soon (Monday, September 25, 7:00 p.m., to be precise) the Sci-Fi cable channel in the U.S. (don’t know about other countries) will begin showing the series anew. If you have never seen it or have seen only bits of it, this is your chance to see it from the beginning. If you are already a fan, this is your chance to see it for the first time broadcast in letterbox format. If you are into sci-fi or are just a fan of good television, I can’t recommend this series highly enough.

While Elvis Mitchell’s words were (unintended) high praise for the program, it is also worth noting that a few years ago Dilbert creator Scott Adams told TV Guide that Babylon 5 was his favorite television program. His reasoning for this was flawless. He told the magazine that any series that could be understood only by regularly consulting various web pages on the Internet had to be great. And it’s true. After watching each episode of the series, I had to immediately consult The Lurker’s Guide to Babylon 5 to understand what I had just seen. Not since Twin Peaks has the Internet been so indispensable to ferreting out, understanding and discussing all the clues, portents, and hidden meanings of a cult TV series. But don’t let this put you off, if it sounds like too much work. It’s not really necessary to go to all this trouble to enjoy the story. It’s just an added bonus for us geeky, compulsive personality types.

Let me just add a cautionary note: If you do start watching Babylon 5 for the first time, keep at it at least through the first season (22 episodes). You don’t realize where it is headed or how all the parts come wonderfully together until somewhere in the second season. During much of the first season, you may easily think you are watching a Star Trek retread. But all the clues and pointers are there from the very first scene of the very first episode to a great epic in the tradition of everything from the knights of the round table to The Lord of the Rings. You just won’t recognize them until you watch the series a second time.

Next time I will go into more detail about why I recommend this series so highly, including its strengths and weaknesses as I perceive them, and even venture into the theologically treacherous Star Trek vs. Babylon 5 debate.

-S.L., 14 September 2000

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