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Babylon 5: An Old Story

02 Jun

Every now and again, you hear that little pearl of wisdom that says that the number of stories in the world is finite, and that certain archetypes repeat themselves time and again with different trappings.

That’s why you can often tell how a story ‘is supposed to go’ in some intuitive way without the story being ‘predictable’ in the sense that it’s boring and a foregone conclusion. Or more pointedly, you get a distinct sense of disjointedness when it doesn’t follow the right dynamics. For me at least, there’s a momentary mental *bzzzt does not compute* experience when that happens.

Naturally, this is subjective, although it seems more definite in some cases than in others, as with my favourite subject to complain about: the slapdash and meaningless ending of Mass Effect 3.

The extraordinary thing is that, earlier this spring, I discovered the true ending of Mass Effect 3! The culmination of a team’s bonding, the final climax of a crisis risking billions of lives, the unification of former enemies in an act of grand defiance.

Unfortunately, it was in a fourth-season episode of Babylon 5.

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To say the least, awkward.

Babylon 5 was already in a strange place. Created by J. Michael Straczynski and airing from 1994 to 1998, Babylon 5 features the crew of the titular human-run space station which, in the wake of a war between Earth and the Minbari civilization, has been created as a neutral port and diplomatic safe zone to encourage interstellar amity.

The human staff and the alien diplomats face down many an interstellar crisis, pirate attack and false-flag stunt, as well as crimes and injustices among the ragtag station inhabitants, especially the proud Centauri and their erstwhile subjects, the Narn. Human politics swings between interstellar cooperation and human-supremacist rabble-rousing. And the mysterious Vorlon race play their games against the ultimate threat, an ancient enemy, the Shadows, looming nearer and nearer…

Wait, hang on. An interstellar community on a commerical/diplomatic space station? Two races, one who once occupied the other, trying to resolve their differences? A threat from darkest space looming ever closer to war, throwing our heroes’ worlds into chaos to pave the way for their coming? This sounds a heck of a lot like Star Trek: Deep Space Nine!

The fact that they ran paralell to each other did raise some eyebrows, and accusations of ripoff run both ways. And I gather that, in the 90s, Trekkies and Fivers were practically at war.

Babylon 5 wasn’t really on my radar at the time, and without the pedigree of Star Trek behind it, it didn’t really escape cult status. Funnily enough, Majel Barrett (aka Mrs. Gene Roddenberry) once guest-starred and one of the recurring villains was the telepathic secret agent Bester, played by Walter Koenig, formerly Chekhov of the Original Star Trek.

First impressions of Babylon 5 were bad, I admit. This was partly because without the aesthetic tradition of Trek or the blessings of Industrial Light and Magic, the special effects look awful. They used CGI in the early days thereof, and all the spaceships appear to be made of plastic. The set design is the definition of retro-futuristic and the makeup effects – well, the first alien I met in B5 looked like this…

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Not a promising start, I thought. Still, in the name of giving it a fair go, I soldiered on. The acting, especially in early seasons was distinctly over-the-top and wilfully campy. B5 generally has a bigger silly streak than Star Trek. The writing also has a weakness for purple-prose speeches. And while it liked to tell stories of cooperation and peace between races, it didn’t really back it up with the kind of diverse casting – only one regular woman at first and one person of colour – that has traditionally been Star Trek’s specialty.

I’m glad I stuck with it, though, because when all’s said and done, Babylon 5 really is a fun show. The trappings may be a bit weak but it has a good heart in it, and while the dialogue – and monologue – took a while to gain some nuance, the actors rise to the occasion. The silliness quotient worked because the acting style was (slightly) more naturalistic, making the characters more likeable rather than making them look stupid. Indeed, one of the attractions of the show is that, to my taste at least, the actors aren’t flawlessly attractive all round, and their feelings and personalities take the front seat from the ‘big ideas,’ something DS9 took a while to get the hang of.

And in certain respects it’s consdiered a somewhat ‘harder’ science fiction show than Trek ever was, although it wasn’t neccessarily very consistent about it. Babylon 5 is based on a classic hypothetical design for space stations called an O’Neill Cylinder, and speculative fiction bigwig Harlan Ellison was the show’s creative consultant.

One point on which B5 and DS9 were undeniably in lockstep was that both were pioneers in the development of mythology-arc television series. Straczynski sketched out the story of the whole series and while there are a number of seemingly unrelated subplots – the Centauri/Narn conflict, the Mars independence movment, the manipulative behaviour of the Psi Corps and the Vorlons – they all end up being interconnected, but in ways that don’t become immediately obvious. Indeed, for my taste, B5 did it better than many shows that came after it. My problem with shows like Lost (with which B5 shares an actress, Mira Furlan) or the new Doctor Who or Game of Thrones is that they lead you on with constant foreshadowing until the lack of payoff just frustrates me into losing interest. Babylon 5 makes you wait but provides lots of small victories and side stories to make every episode more than just a chunk of an interminable prologue. DS9‘s Dominion War arc was similarly structured and also very effective. Babylon 5’s benefited from being about three seasons shorter, but DS9 had fewer sub-threads whereas B5 occasionally seemed to put them in as a way of making the story more complicated for complication’s sake, and one or two of them simply faded away.

The thing that really charms me about Babylon 5, though, is its sheer, unrelenting pluck. Michael O’Hare, the leading man, had to leave after season one due to serious mental illness, but he stuck it out through what, I gather, was pretty brutal suffering to see that the show got a fair shot. The new lead, Bruce Boxleitner as Michael Sheridan, managed made a distinctive character of his own. Peter Jurasik could do the venal goofball aspect of Ambassdor Mollari or make you tear up with equal skill. Mira Furlan channeled her frustration with the chaos in her home country into Ambassdor Delenn’s speech to her planet’s rulers in season 3 – she apparently read the speech and asked Straczynski ‘So when did you go to Croatia?’ – and it becomes genuinely difficult to remember that the affably psychopathic Bester and the guileless Pavel ‘nuclear wessels’ Chekhov were played by same person! Across the board, the cast gave 110%, and that makes up for a lot in my book. Having wrapped up its main arcs in Season 4, it was unexpectedly handed another season and some more cast changes, and still manages to tell a good and emotionally charged story, if a somewhat less interesting one.

I was cognizant of the rivalry between Babylon 5 and Deep Space Nine when I started. And indeed, the similar brushwork is pretty suspicious. But as the show developed, by far my strongest impression was that if I were to go check, I’d find that Drew Karpyshyn and Casey Hudson, lead writer and director of Mass Effect, were Babylon 5 fans. Replace ‘telepathy’ with ‘biotics,’ ‘Babylon 5’ with ‘the Citdael’ and ‘Shadows’ with ‘Reapers’ and there’d be little left to do before they’d be almost the same. And because the basic framework of the kind of ending lots of people agreed they’d expected Mass Effect 3 to have is in fact in the resolution of Babylon 5, I kind of wonder if Hudson deliberately derailed ME3’s plot because he was afraid of being accused of ripping off Babylon 5.

Probably not, though. To this day the bizarre bait-and-switch execution of ME3 baffles me. I think they could have gotten away with it. B5 is still a cult phenomenon, so not many people might have noticed. But consider this: Babylon 5, Deep Space Nine and Mass Effect share all of these uncanny-to-suspect similarities, so much so that there’s almost a one-to-one match in some aspects of the worldbuilding and character ensembles, and all of them are still good! They’re all dealing in themes of unity in difference, the cost and agonies of war, and the value of life in all its forms, but each one does it in a different way, builds a different world around them, has its own distinct nuances and variations and, most importantly, its own set of memorable characters. Similar stories don’t have to cancel each other out, as long as each makes the narrative its own. These three each paint on the same canvas and you get something special from all of them. If Casey Hudson had let the narrative run its natural course, Mass Effect would stand unblemished beside them, and we all might have been on the same page, as it were.

Anyway, this is supposed to be about Babylon 5. It’s certainly earned its cult status and is worth a shot if you enjoyed either of its brothers-in-narrative above. It lacks the serious-mindedness of Deep Space Nine and interactivity of Mass Effect, but it has charm – never a feature to be underestimated – solid writing, a well-planned arc and really phenomenal acting. And it heartens me that, regardless of commercial or cultural success, the story these three share can occur so many times and remain beautiful.

So, the acting is great, the characters charming, the story is classic, the special effects are rather delightfully quaint…

The name of the place is Babylon 5.

Or the Citdael.

Or Deep Space Nine.

Any of them will do.

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Posted by on June 2, 2014 in Television, Video Game

 

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