Blogging Babylon 5–Season 1

So if I am going to officially blog about a show instead of just musing about it in a blog, it might as well be one that went off the air a decade ago–that way, I have few competitors and no pressure to perform. The mere novelty of someone writing about it ought to be bring praise, in a keeping-the-dream-alive sort of way.

So it was the dawn of the third age of high-speed Internet access, and I learn about from a helpful online friend at Northern Attack and my idle time hasn’t been the same since. I’d always sort of been aware of Babylon 5 when it was on TV, but I never heard about anyone watching it. If it was on when I was in college, well, we had no cable connections and relied entirely on the Pacific Ocean to be our antenna. It got past me. And then some people at the Skeptic’s Guide forum were comparing the best sci-fi television series ever, and this one came up. Considering that the first two seasons were available for free, online, at a site endorsed by the production company and network (as opposed to in the murky gray areas at the edges of cyberspace with Chinese subtitles), and that there was a writers’ strike, I started watching it.

Now, Febo at SGU suggested that one start with season two, watch seasons three and four, go back to season one, and then watch everything in order through season five. It was probably a good idea that I didn’t follow. Season One was very, well, silly. First of all, it looked strange. I don’t want to say that it looked cheap, because it didn’t, but it looked like Ugly Betty in space. That’s a very hard thing to watch, unless it is a program that is explicitly spoofing the colorful world of high fashion and magazine publishing. Don’t get me wrong–I love Ugly Betty! But aliens in gold brocade walking through purple-lit hallways is hard to stomach. But like the Borg, I adapted–I mean, Danielle Rousseau is in it! I love Rousseau on Lost and had already vowed to watch her in anything. Plus I’d looked her up online once and read all these amazing and horrific things about what had happened to her for speaking out against genocide, and she became immediately twice as interesting.

I focused next on how badly everyone acted, as a skill, not a behavior. The actors playing humans, anyway. The aliens were taking their roles quite seriously and doing a rather fantastic job. Probably not a coincidence is the fact that they are all European. I started to get the impression that the European alien actors felt extremely privileged to be a part of this ensemble on a show that had a lot of money and prime time timeslots in the United States, and that the European director could recruit excellence. In contrast, the Americans human actors are terrible, as if they floundered about getting people to commit to a Star Trek knock-off and could only find stand-ins and extras. The thing is, these actors are professionals with resumes, who probably are good at acting, but they are being told not to, or no one is paying attention, or they feel silly addressing aliens with such silly accessories. (Londo’s hair? Come on!)

And then there’s Winnie Cooper with no hair at all:

I was still intrigued, though, by the fact that the director of the show, J. Michael Straczynski, had intended the show to be a novel on TV and had been given permission to develop a five-season story arc. I love TV these days, with the long stories and the complicated plots. Perhaps Babylon 5 wasn’t the first to have a fixed end date, but I don’t remember watching anything like it at all. 24 was the first show I noticed to be crafted in the long-term, and I was hooked season one! So to discover something with this device so much older makes me feel a little bit like a media archaeologist, without actually knowing anything about the history of television or the craft of producing a show.

It was about 75 percent of the way through season one that I figured out exactly what made the show so strange. It felt like watching a stage show, and the actors were interacting with each other as if they were on stage. Either I’m used to it now, or everyone has fallen into their roles, or else they know enough about future story arcs to know how to act them out, but it’s less uncomfortable to watch. I’m definitely going to watch all the episodes.

Still, even with careful planning, there’s some sloppy details. I forgot for long periods of time that Sinclair had a deep love romance with Catherine, Planetary Surveyor Extraordinaire. I forgot she’d become a millionaire. In fact, I had so forgotten about her that I was starting to see Sinclair have a thing for Ivanova, who wears way too much eyeliner in every single episode. I think it’s funny that Garibaldi can tease/threaten Ivanova about the coffee plants she’s growing on the basis of scarcity of space and luxury vegetables, yet the space station has a hedge maze.

Then again, I love G’Kar and his assistant, Na’Toth. I love Londo and Garibaldi’s scenes together, and I was very moved (in a manipulative, sentimental, totally constructed TV way) by the episode where the parents reject a surgical procedure that will save their boy’s life, and kill him after the boy undergoes it anyway. I am finding the mysteries sufficiently intriguing, and I am enjoying making predictions about what plot elements will reappear. For example:

  1. Will Londo be reunited with his beautiful little Dancing Girl?
  2. What is the hole in Sinclair’s head?
  3. What’s up with that planet that requires a person to inhabit its core?
  4. What’s the prophecy the Mbari are so concerned with?
  5. What’s behind the mask of that one ambassador whose name I forget?
  6. How could they build one of these space stations in ten years, much less five?
  7. And some other stuff I can’t remember right now.

I recently watched all of Firefly on Hulu, and was smitten with that program, so it is another benefit that Garibaldi reminds me in many (superficial) ways of Jayne.

The cameos have been pretty funny, too, like Danica McKellar (pictured above), Walter Koenig, and that guy that plays E.B. Farnum on Deadwood. And for all that science and technology have come along quite a bit since 1994, I haven’t noticed any particularly outrageous oversights or glaring assumptions-that-have-been-proven-impossible.

Without really thinking about it I knew that Delenn wasn’t going to spend too much time in a cocoon, but even though I haven’t seen season two yet I have seen images from it. I’m so glad that of all the important physical and metaphysical and prophetic changes that she undergoes while in the Cocoon of Great Significance that one of them includes growing luxurious hair.

So all in all, not a bad twenty-four hours of television watching, especially considering I can drag my laptop throughout the house, including into the bathroom, where I have watched many minutes of programming while taking a shower. But a hedge maze? Really?

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  • nevermore  On August 4, 2008 at 1:16 am

    B5 wasn’t exactly a show with “a lot of money and prime time slots in the US”. Its budget per episode was about 2/3 of the average Star Trek episode.

    As for looking like “a stage show, and the actors were interacting with each other as if they were on stage”, it was intended that way. Same as the dialogue is intended to be operatic drama, rather than “real” drama. JMS started his carreer as a playwright and part of B5 was an experiment of bringing theatrical elements to TV in a space opera. It also shows in the lighting, the setting, the pacing of episodes, and it will become more pronounced as the series continues. Like all experiments, sometimes it succeeds, and at times it fails.

  • Moyra J. Bligh  On August 4, 2008 at 5:00 am

    The difference is not that the aliens are European, because in fact Peter Jurasik (Londo) and Andreas Katsulas (G’Kar) are not (Peter is from the NYC area, Andreas was from St. Louis), the difference is that they all had a lot of stage training and experience.

    Regrettably most of Mira Furlans’ European work is not available with subtitles. The notable exception being “Otac na sluzbenom putu” (“When Father Was Away on Business”) which won the Palme d’Or for Best Film at Cannes in 1985. Pretty much any VHS/DVD rental place with a relatively decent Foreign Film section will have it for rent.

    More info about the availability of her work here:

  • Karen  On August 4, 2008 at 9:13 am

    I should have known that real fans would arrive to keep me honest! It’s funny that I guessed right about the stage show stuff, and not so funny that I guessed wrong about the actors’ origins. Thanks, guys, for making the corrections. I have edited the most glaring errors above.

    Too bad about the Mira Furlan stuff not being subtitled.

  • nevermore  On August 4, 2008 at 10:05 am

    I think you are actually the first person I’ve encountered to notice the stage show approach without it being explained to them, and as early as in season 1. It’s no coincidence that the actors who succeeded right away were those with stage training and experience, as Moyra pointed out.

    You’ve summed up some points remarkably well, concerning the “strangeness” of the series – the screaming colors, the stage show approach complete with occasionally stylised settings, acting and writing,even the soundtrack. It has a very distinctive look, feel and sound that’s not usually seen on TV, and it takes some time to get used to it (some people who never do). But oddly enough, once you have gotten used to it, it’s a trademark and a major factor contributing to the appeal of the show.

    B5 isn’t the easiest series to get into. In addition to said “strangeness” it also took B5 longer than most other series to find its feet, I guess. It took its time for the writing to come to grips with the balancing act between stage and TV dialogue, and the actors with no background in stage acting needed some time to get used to the stage show approach. In addition, CGI technology was in an infant state back then; in the first season they used a network of Commodore Amigas for creating them, and part of the software was only developed for this show. It was also JMS’ first project as an executive producer. But if the show is anything for you at all, by the end of season 2 you’ll know what the fuss and hype is all about.

    PS: That Londo met Morden in a hedge maze is, of course, symbolic. Leading Londo on aberrations is Morden’s intent. The show often works with symbolism that way.

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