Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Signs and Spoilers - First Season Bablyon 5 Review

I was going through Google Groups reviewing old posts that I made on usenet. I found one post from October 1994 containing a review of The First Season of Babylon 5 -- and here is the review:

Now that Chrysalis has been aired, I felt it was time to look at the entire series of Babylon 5 so far. I won't summarize the season or Chrysalis : a more complete summary than I would possibly create is at The Lurker's Guide after all. Just like the caterpillar bears little resemblence to the butterfly, yet its fate is built into the creature from the start, Commander Sinclair ends the episode declaring that "nothing is the same anymore" and it is clear that the show has been leading to this point from the very beginning.

Chrysalis features multiple story threads, all equally important to the show, advancing each character forward into an uncertain future. Threads that started all the way back in the pilot episode are tied together and expanded at this point. The season which began with a Narn attack on a Centauri base and the election of a president, ends with the destruction of a Narn base on behalf of the Centauri and the assassination of the president who was elected at the start. In between these events, we've been introduced to each of the characters, learning their strengths and weakness, and the mysteries that surround each one.

So how does B5 as a series rate? It is not perfect. There have been elements of weak dialogue, some weak actors, and some weak sets. The strengths of the series, however, far outweigh the weaknesses. Delenn and G'Kar are two of the finest aliens to appear in media Science Fiction; well acted, both alien and believable. Londo is surprising -- the character at first appears to be a parody, a strutting peacock teetering on the absurd, but this appears to be a slight of hand to hide a darker fate.

The long term themes of the series are entertaining, uncertain, and disturbing. This is what makes the series interesting -- what is Kosh, what are the Shadows? Who is Morden? What is behind Dukhat, Valen, and the culture and history of the Minbari? Why is it the dawn of the third age of Mankind?

It is rare to find a television show that encourages questions of this nature, and it's why I can rewatch episodes of Babylon 5 again and again and gain new insights and enjoyment. After an episode, past episodes gain new light, and new elements appear. The creators of the show are willing to take risks that other shows may not; I don't know what Babylon 5 will be like in a year, something that makes it fascinating to watch and speculate about. The alien species are multi-dimensional; just as there are multiple types of humans in personality and belief, not all of the aliens are the same either, and each alien is not just a series of stereotypes.

Another thing that distinguished Babylon 5 in its first season is that it hasn't shied away from controversial subjects. Capital Punishment in Quality of Mercy, labor relations in By Any Means Necessary, Religious differences in Believers and the nature of the soul in Soul Hunter. And in each case, rather than providing answers to the questions it raised, it left them for you to sort out. The audience is taken seriously, and the assumption is we can handle these issues.

The best episodes are those that deal with the main plot line of Babylon 5 -Signs and Portents and Chrysalis. Both have the strong presence of Ed Wasser as the Shadow representive Morden. For what we assume is a "big baddie" he is underplayed, reserved, polite, eerie...and therefore very creepy. He's fascinating to watch, and is the highlight of both episodes. S&P has the advantage that it isn't a cliffhanger, and I can't fairly grade Chrysalis until it is followed up on in the next few weeks. Both episodes, of course, ask more questions than they answer.

And that may be a problem. The primary failure of Twin Peaks was that once the questions were answered, there was little to keep the series going, and the new questions that replaced the old questions were weak. Evaluating Babylon 5 is a continuing process -- until the show is complete, I don't think a complete opinion can be made; if the payoff is weak, the previous episodes will be seem to be a setup for failure. If the payoff succeeds (which the few we've seen have so far) the previous episodes will be even more amazing.

Where is Babylon 5 going? I'm not sure. It's clear that this a show where almost anything could happen; something I haven't seen on SF TV since Blake's 7. I expect characters to die -- Garabaldi's fate has been previewed in Babylon Squared, and somehow I expect one of the ambassidorial assistants or Ivonova to meet a nasty fate as well. And someday, BOOM.

So let it begin. I'll be there.

And I was. Babylon 5 improved a lot after the first season -- seasons 2, 3 and 4, in particular, are all some of my all-time favorite SF television. And while I think the last season was by far the weakest, the payoffs for many of what was set up in the first season were there, and worth going back to.

I was intrigued to re-read this review of mine, because I've been saying that ABC's new series Lost could also potentially have a Twin Peaks problem, as it's not at all clear what that show will be like once the mysteries are resolved -- and if they even can be resolved. One of the advantages of the Babylon 5 series had is that there was always a sort of fixed end-point; though that was also part of the problem -- the last season of Babylon 5 became anti-climatic in many ways as it tried to tie up loose ends, and also had some last-minute additional subplots due to some production issues...


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