Babylon 5

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 Donnie Darko 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 to really understand the plot; it filled time, occupying us while we waited for his creaking 1541 to finish loading Wasteland already (oh, crap, did it freeze again? -sigh-).

Much later, while browsing the glut of cable channels some lazy afternoon, I caught half of a Crusade episode. 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 Gathering. 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 Beginning--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 officers never 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 watching again.)

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.

Babylon 5 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 into strengths.

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; this 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, B5'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 is 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 experiences.

That, perhaps, is the best summary of Babylon 5: half-myth, half-experience.

And oh, what an experience.

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Last Updated: 2004.08.15 [Typographical fixes only.]