Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Babylon 5: Sci Fi TV with a Plan.

 The other day in the car, my wife idly asked me what I thought the best science fiction TV show of all time was. I thought for a long while, because I knew that my knee-jerk answer to the question was Star Trek: The Next Generation, but I wanted to not just respond with the first thing that popped into my head. Upon further reflection, though Star Trek:TNG will always hold a special spot, it has some serious competition in my mind from the new Battlestar Galactica, but I think they are both edged out by another series. Babylon 5. If you want to see the difference that an incredible amount of long-term planning can have on the quality of a television show, you need look no further than Babylon 5. Most shows on TV don't think past their current season, maybe foreshadowing for the next if they get picked up again. This “fly by the seat of our pants” approach is responsible for certain seasons of long-running shows featuring nonsensical plots, characters whose motivations and personalities shift wildly, and, usually, an overall decline in quality.

The start wasn't bad, but to me... this is where it starts to get really good.

Series creator J. Michael Straczynski had seen the impact of poor planning on other science fiction shows he'd worked on, and endeavored to do it differently, to do it right. With proper planning, there is no reason that a science fiction show couldn't both be consistently high quality, but to stay within an operating budget to avoid cancellation. Drawing on elements of politics, religion, science, psychology and philosophy, the world of Babylon 5 began to take shape. Instead of a future utopia, a more realistic vision of a future where petty ambition, greed and political realities sometimes get in the way of what is best for everyone. A more mature vision of sci-fi TV without precocious children, wisecracking robots or cute animals would set the stage for a story of drama, heroism and betrayal.

Babylon 5 is a space station, neutral territory for all races and a center for diplomatic negotiation, shared knowledge and cross-cultural outreach, even among races that have recently been at war. That was the plan, anyway. The first 4 Babylon stations all met with unhappy “accidents” either during or shortly after construction, and even this 5th one is not without its problems. It becomes a center of political intrigue, interstellar conflict and eventually becomes involved in war. The station has hate crimes, homelessness, constant tension between alien races forced to live and attempt to work together, and even the people trying desperately to hold it all together are frequently undercut by their own governments.

The Original cast, circa Season One.

Straczynski's planning is apparent in particular in his approach to writing the long-term characters of the series. Knowing that actors sometimes leave shows, pass away, etc... JMS wrote a “trap door” into each and every principal character so that if the time came, any particular character could be written out of the series without damage to the overall plot. One of these “trap doors” was actually used in the first two seasons when an actress left the series to take a role with the legal/military drama JAG. Fans of the show were also surprised when Commander Sinclair, top man at the station is suddenly replaced at the start of the 2nd season. This decision was made amicably and mutually by the actor and the creative team to strengthen the story in the long run, while still paying off the loose ends created by Sinclair's sudden disappearance from the station.

Each of the primary races on the station is represented by an Ambassador who weighs in on matters of import. Commander Sinclair (and later Sheridan) runs the station and represents the Humans, Ambassador Delenn stands for the mystical and warlike Minbari, Ambassador Londo Mollari represents the decadent and decaying Centauri Republic, Ambassador G'Kar speaks for the savage Narn Regime, and Ambassador Kosh, when he appears at all, represents the mysterious Vorlons. Recent wars between Human and Minbari, and Centauri and Narn set the stage for political tension and saber-rattling, and there is clearly something unusual about the Vorlons, who refuse to discuss their motivations.

Vorlon motivations might have something to do with an ancient evil.
Hint: if you are that mysterious, we know you are bound up in the main plot arc.

The central five-year plot arc is central to everything, and while themes regarding racism, drug use and other social problems are present in the series, they are handled without the allegorical moralizing often found in Star Trek. As of Season Three, Straczynski himself writes every single episode of the show, his final tally as writer coming in at 92 of 110 for the entire series. Plot threads delicately put into place in early seasons come to a head later, setting the stage for war and a whole lot of character development... and we finally find out what those Vorlons are all about. Quite a bit of last-minute maneuvering was required near the end of the Fourth Season, however, as network interference put even the best-laid plans to the ultimate stress test.

Despite solid ratings, the impending doom of network PTEN left the show in a dangerous position with parent company Warner Brothers. Many of the series regulars had contracts that were coming up, and no word on renewal for the final season was forthcoming. Straczynski began wrapping up hanging plot threads under the assumption that the series would not return, and the delay cost the show actress Claudia Christian, who played Lt. Commander Susan Ivanova, the station's 2nd in command. At the very last second, cable network TNT picked up the series, and plans to split the series resolution between the end of season four and throughout season 5 were quickly made. This resulted in new subplots that almost felt like they belonged to a different show in the final season, but the season finales of both seasons four and five neatly wrap up the main story arc.

Some of the best characters didn't even appear until later seasons.

I loved the show throughout its run, as it had a very low number of mediocre or poor episodes (none at all after Season Two) and I never felt that the series creators were making things up as they went along. I'd have liked to see the version of the show that could have been, without the realities of network television intruding, but was satisfied with what I got. As for whether or not it was the best science fiction show of all time or not... that is up for debate. What do you think? How does it stack up to Battlestar Galactica, the many incarnations of Trek, Stargate... even Doctor Who? Let me know your thoughts down in the comments.
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7 comments:

Timothy said...

I would invite you to go back and watch Babylon 5 again with a more discerning eye and watch how it plods along until it either handles things in an all-of-the-sudden manner or morphs them into different situations. Yes, JMS did a good job of keeping to his Bible (except that Season 4 had to accommodate two seasons worth of plot because B5 was going to be cancelled) and Bruce is plain fun to watch. But B5 is over loved (so is Sci-Fi's BSG for that matter).
At its best B5 was almost great. I would still say that the best episodes of DS9 (for those who watched the Dominion War arc) were better. Farscape is another show (with huge swings in terms of story and production quality) where, at its best, was one of the best shows on television. And I would still rank Invisible Man above it (because the dynamic between Hobbes and Fawkes was superb).
But B5 was part of the last great wave of syndicated scripted "action" shows. That was a good era, even if not all of the shows were gems (Time Trax anyone?). And it does ask the viewer to get involved in the big story, which is lacking in too many programs.
I'd go top 10 for B5, but probably not top 5. I'd have to think about it. God knows I'd want to see some old Quantum Leap and Voyagers episodes to see if I'd want them on the list.

Bard said...

I just finished watching Babylon 5 on DVD, and I liked it for a lot of the very reasons you mentioned. My favorite SF series is TNG, however, but for entirely subjective reasons. While Babylon 5 has a lot of grittier "social" dilemmas (drugs/racism/etc.), I find TNG has more "philosophical" dilemmas (just as one example, using Data to explore how we define the term "human" or even "sentient life"). I don't think the latter questions are inherently more or less valid than the former, just personal preference. I also like, as a rule, the more episodic nature of a show like TNG but that's also just a matter of individual taste. In literature I prefer short stories to novels. That being said, I agree with you that of all the shows I've watched that involved a continuous long-term story arc, Babylon 5 did it very well.

Alpha said...

"and we finally find out what those Vorlons are all about."

Ha, I kept reading 'Voltrons'.

The Angry Lurker said...

It wasn't bad but at times it frustrated me (that's probably just me), TNG was good but now dated, I'm a Stargate fan but again cannot watch the early shows any more, Firefly was a favourite but Stargate Atlantis held my interest quite well but not many liked it.

Zombie Ad said...

Not seen it. I so need to catch up on my Sci-Fi TV.

Wymarc said...

I have always been a fan of Star trek and for the longest time I would have said that TNG was the best on TV (though I did love X-Files). I have to use the past tense though.

Back when TNT picked up the rights for Babylon 5, way back when, I made a point of watching them all in a row. I was sold from about the seventh or eighth episode and have never looked back.

The fact that the important events remained important consistently is what made it for me. The Cardassian (spelling) in TNG was often not talked about for episodes in a row and then OMG it is the end of the world again.

I loved the who foreshadowing "There is a hole in your mind" that was done. You can say the effects were cheesy and the fact it used actors from other series may have cast it in a bad light but overall the best scifi series IMHO...

but what could have been with Firefly!

MTDagney said...

I agree B5 is the best of SciFi TV. I've always liked Star Trek and delving into philosophical issues but our understanding of the characters and their growth/evolution is far more limited despite many more episodes. In most of Star Treks the "enemies" are villains and rarely shown points of view... The main characters are "good" with idiosyncrasies to give them 3-dimensions but not flaws and failures to the level of the real world. Most characters are good or bad or bad turned good or good turned bad with very few straddling the gray area (which in the realworld is where most people/countries are). Rarely is there a turn of events or series of things that make you rethink your position on who is good/bad or characters that are good but bad/flawed or flawed but good or... Just the notion of what/who is good or bad is philosophically equal to anything on Star Trek. Firefly may have given B5 a run for its money if allowed to progress as envisioned though also (in its short run) it relied on having clear villains/bad guys with no remorse about killing (reapers,...). However, the main characters have the depth of not being perfect/very flawed, there's great humor, a non-utopia world/point of view, incredible writing, effects, and music... So sad about networks not knowing how to handle these epic stories thus they too become flawed from their exposure/being subject to the real world.

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