Reviews are futile. Distilling the
experience provided by a two-hour movie into text is impossible, at
least with any degree of accuracy. A twenty-hour game? You're lucky
if you remember enough to provide a genuine gestalt for the
experience. How, then, does one go about reviewing a five-season show? If
defies simple description, then how does one go
about describing seventy-five hours of visual experience?
Well, one can try.
I never watched Babylon 5
when it was on the air; at the
time, video games enamored me more than noninteractive
entertainment, and what little science fiction I caught on
television took the form of Deep Space 9
, watched with a
friend of mine late at night. I hadn't seen enough DS9
really understand the plot; it filled time, occupying us
while we waited for his creaking 1541 to finish
already (oh, crap, did it freeze again?
Much later, while browsing the glut of cable channels some lazy
afternoon, I caught half of a Crusade
I found the production quality mediocre, and the show
jabbered on about some "Drakh plague" for which I had no context.
It sure seemed to be going somewhere, but I knew not where it came
from or in which direction it aimed.
Eventually, however, I picked up a DVD with the pilot movie, The
. I don't remember if a friend suggested it or if it
was an impulse buy; I do
remember reading enough online to
know that watching the other side of the disc--In the
--would ruin major plot elements. [I still haven't
watched it, actually.]
I sat down and watched the pilot.
It was good. The production values were a little weak--remember, my
core television experience with SF consisted of Star Trek
where budgets were magnitudes larger--but the characters were
interesting in a way that Trek
quite managed. The aliens were still disappointingly
anthropomorphic, but at least they sported more than ridged noses.
And just what the hell was in that encounter suit anyway?
When the first season of Babylon 5
came out on DVD, I
ordered it immediately. People warned me that it was 'weak,' a mere shadow of
the show to come, but I had heard enough to know that the show
built upon itself in a careful way, planting seeds that only came
to fruition much later. That's the sort of thing guaranteed to
hook a geek like me. (Pander to my attention to detail and you make
me feel superior; a show that makes me feel superior is worth
So I watched. In fact, I watched most of the entire first season in
a marathon weekend, for one of the DVDs had a scratch and I needed
to make sure that it didn't ruin the episode. It did, of course,
and I had to ship the set back having watched three-quarters of the
shows, with the DVD player bombing in the middle of a key plot sequence.
Upon receiving the second copy, I watched the whole thing
in another weekend.
I planned on keeping it a 'me' show, to watch
when my mother wanted to love Raymond like everyone else or do
whatever the hell sitcom-watching folks do.
I got the second season. Another scratch, another marathon viewing
session, another bad set; another ship-back, another marathon.
I decided it was time to get my mom in on the show. Mainly so I
could watch it all over again.
tells a story. It has a definite beginning,
middle, and end, and even the "one-off" shows manage to slip in a
detail or two that end up coming to fruition one, five, or thirty
episodes down the road. A year passed between the pilot and the
first episode of the show; said first episode manages to explain
the change of staff without skipping a beat. Between the first and
second seasons, the show loses its main character; it manages to
not only make up for it, but actually incorporate the resulting
changes into the story as a whole. The static location, the low
budgets, the variable nature of episodic television contracts--all
things that have managed to ruin lesser shows--were transformed
Yes, there are monster-of-the-week episodes. Yes, there are epic
space battles with explosions. But it's all done at a level I've never seen
before, a level beyond that of prosthetic foreheads and reset buttons
which cause characters to forget the lessons they learned last week. That
really powerful device you saw early in the first season? It plays
an integral part at the end of the fourth. No, I'm not kidding.
I've had a number of people comment to me that they couldn't get
into Babylon 5
because they'd miss an episode and get lost.
With DVDs, that's never an issue, since they're all in a handy box
on your shelf. Or, in our case, on the coffee table awaiting a time
when we can watch two or three shows in a row.
[I must make a quick comment on the boxes: they are cleverly
designed, much nicer than the standard foldouts for DVD boxed sets,
and have managed to scratch four of my five seasons in shipment.
Ugh. I had to ship back two, and one still skips, albeit in a part
of an episode where it's not a real issue. Whoever designed the
cases needs to refine it a bit more.]
The show has its issues. JMS tends to purple prose, where
characters sound like they're quoting from a Shakespearean tragedy
instead of living in reality (well, as real as a massive space station
in the twenty-third century gets). Part of that is
style, I'm sure, but sometimes it comes off as silly. The
production quality steadily increases throughout the lifetime of
the show, but it never reaches the level of Star Trek
is entirely the fault of the studio, but it is distracting sometimes. And the first and
fifth seasons pale in comparison to the hard-hitting mega-arc in
the second, third, and fourth seasons. Indeed, the fourth season is
effectively a science fiction novel. Missing any episode would be
equivalent to skipping a chapter in a book: you may know the names
of the folks, but you'd have a hard time figuring out just what the
hell they're doing.
That's just me being curmudgeonly, though. Like The X-Files
's weakest episodes still entertain more than the vast
majority of the crap television shows nowadays, and there are a
number of episodes that managed to surprise even a jaded SF fan such
as myself. I cried like a baby during the last episode, which I
think was part of the goal, but throughout the series Babylon 5
managed to take me through damn near the whole range of human emotion.
And like any good science fiction, that's what Babylon 5
about--humanity, its strengths and its weaknesses, its variety and
its commonality, its emotion and its logic. The various races are really warped reflections of
ourselves, and the show acts as a stage upon which these aspects
can strut, reading their lines and showing their flaws and bringing
out the best in themselves and the rest. It is epic, but it is
deeply personal; the stories resonate both as myths and as
That, perhaps, is the best summary of Babylon 5
And oh, what an experience.
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