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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

The glory of Babylon II

Last time I urged all of you (who get the Sci-Fi cable channel in the U.S. anyway) not to miss the opportunity to see the landmark science fiction series Babylon 5 from the beginning and, as an added bonus in letterbox format, beginning Monday, September 25, at 7:00 p.m. Normally, I would just expect you to automatically do what I say, since my taste and judgment by now should speak for themselves. But in this case, I feel compelled to explain why I like this series so much. And why it is worth the time and effort for you to get to know it too, if you don’t already.

In a way, it was a fluke that I caught the series’ original two-hour pilot back in February of 1993 and every episode of the first season in 1994. I became aware of the series through online message boards and took an interest because the special effects were generated on a desktop computer that I was very familiar with and sentimentally attached to—the Amiga. I was an Amiga devotee and proponent for years until I finally gave up and bought an IBM clone to keep myself from being completely marginalized. The computer-generated outer space effects have a lot to do with the effectiveness of the series and make it look like it cost a whole lot more than it actually did. As for the episodes themselves, it took me a good while to see why this wasn’t merely a variation on the already well-established Star Trek universe. It was daunting to have to learn about a whole new set of alien races and become familiar with different sorts of future technology. Also, clearly missing from this series was the Gene Roddenberry idealism about all the strides humanity would have made in the future. And the lead, Commander Sinclair (played by Michael O’Hare), was somewhat stiff and strangely anachronistic, as if he had stepped out of a war movie made in the 1950s.

But for some reason, I kept coming back every week to see one more episode, although I was ready to give it up at any moment if my leisure time became too constrained. Little by little, however, I began to notice touches that were definitely not Star Trek-like. There were hints of a corrupt government on earth. People still read newspapers, although they were personalized and published on demand and then efficiently recycled. Crime, petty and otherwise, was still a problem. There were no transporters or replicators. Cute little kids rarely appeared, and when they did, they often died horrible (off-screen) deaths. Best of all, there were growing hints of some dark menace out on the edge of the known universe. The portents kept adding up, not unlike the way the darkness of Sauron gradually crept over Middle Earth in The Lord of the Rings. By the end of the first season, I was hooked.

And it was a good thing I was hooked because after the first couple of seasons it became a real effort to follow the series. It was syndicated, which meant that it had a habit of changing timeslots, being preempted, and on a couple of occasions changing channels in my local area. Adding to the challenge was the fact that I was beginning to spend months at a time in Ireland, where I didn’t always have access to Britain’s Channel 4, which was the nearest carrier of the series. And Channel 4 was usually (although not always) behind the U.S. broadcast schedule anyway. More than a couple of times I prevailed upon my friend Dayle to tape episodes and mail me the tapes, which I then had to convert from NTSC to PAL. Talk about being a devoted fan. The series moved to Turner Network Television in its final year, which was a godsend. But TNT’s support for the show and its abortive spin-off, Crusade, cooled, and at the end it was showing B5 reruns at 6:00 in the morning.

The best thing about Babylon 5 was how it kept getting better and better. Each episode was more exciting than the last. At least this was the case through the second and third seasons. By the end of the third season, it seemed as though it just couldn’t get any better than that. And, as it happened, this turned out to be true. But that didn’t really become apparent until a second viewing of the series a couple of years later. And, I suppose that is the downside of B5: on an emotional level, it actually peaked three-fifths of the way through. That didn’t mean that the last two seasons weren’t worth watching. There was plenty of momentum by that time to keep up the interest, and some of the best episodes were aired during those last two years. The very final episode, set 19 years after the penultimate episode, was in a class by itself. It is a credit to creator/producer J. Michael Straczynski, who wrote a huge majority of the scripts, that the series had a vision and cohesiveness that no other series to date had achieved.

And that is precisely why Babylon 5 which, at first glance, looked to be a copy of Star Trek, is actually much better than Star Trek. Trek was always just a concept (Wagon Train to the stars, Roddenberry called it) on which individual stories were hung. I once heard a Trek writer at a sci-fi convention admit that the only reason that there is as much continuity in the Trek universe as there is, was because the fans demanded it. The writers were just interested in writing one story after another, one not necessarily having anything to do with the other.

We actually have a wonderful comparison of the Babylon 5 and Star Trek approaches to things, since the run of Star Trek: Deep Space 9 roughly coincided with that of B5. Coincidentally, both series deal with characters from many different planets gathered on a strategically important space station located next to a big hole in space that is used for interstellar travel. (Interestingly, Straczynski had pitched his idea to Paramount, owner of Star Trek, and had it rejected. But DS9 made it on the air first, which made B5 look like it was the copy.) It is a testimony to B5, that in DS9’s final seasons it started lifting concepts from B5 whole cloth, including a two-part episode about a military coup on earth (featuring guest star Robert Foxworth, who had played a somewhat similar character on B5) and a series finale about a messiah-like hero who sacrifices himself to save the universe and winds up passing on to some metaphysical Other Side. But in DS9, these developments looked tacked-on since there was not the same lengthy foreshadowing and development that led to the finale of B5.

So, what further convincing do you need? Watch the series. And thank you, Sci-Fi Channel, for giving new life to a legend.

-S.L., 21 September 2000

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