Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Cosmic Channel Changer
August 2013

Babylon 5

Babylon 5 is one of the best and most underrated sci-fi television series ever made. Taking place several hundred years in the future, the show begins ten years after the Earth-Minbari War, a devastating conflict between humans and the Minbari, a powerful alien race. The result of a cultural misunderstanding, the conflict almost ends with humanity's extinction and, in the aftermath, it's decided that a place needs to be established for the various alien races to meet and resolve their differences peacefully. The result is the space station Babylon 5. The show begins shortly after the station's debut and follows it as it weathers conflicts, civil war, and the re-emergence of the Shadows, an ancient race hell bent on sowing destruction and carnage throughout the galaxy.

Starting in 1993 and running until 1998, Babylon 5 originated from writer J. Michael Straczynski's desire to create a quality sci-fi show that told a clear and defined story. Whereas it's not uncommon for shows to sometimes make things up as they go along, Straczynski had the entire arc of Babylon 5 planned out from the get-go and maintained a tight grip on its reins throughout its five season run. His guidance would include working as a producer and writing the vast majority of the scripts (92 out of 110).

The result of his extensive involvement is a show that's cohesive and rarely wastes its time. While many episodes, especially early ones, sometimes rely on a "creature of the week" format, most contain some element of world building or character development that leads somewhere later on. Straczynski's preparation was so deep that it arguably saved the entire show in some places. For instance, he built "trap doors" into each character so they could be removed from the story should an actor decide to leave. This would come into play most prominently at the end of Season One when actor Michael O'Hare, who had previous played the series' protagonist Jeffrey Sinclair, departed for personal reasons. Straczynski's planning allowed for this cast change to play out more naturally than it might have had there been structure in place to deal with it.

Babylon 5 also benefits from the writing just generally being good. Despite being focused on the fixed location of the titular space station, it's nonetheless an epic and wide-reaching story. No small part of this comes from the clever implementation of Babylon 5 as a center of diplomacy and, in turn, turmoil. Many of the show's primary conflicts naturally find their way to the "neutral" station. Likewise, the bulk of the cast's primary players are ambassadors and political leaders directly involved in its biggest events. The conflict between the Narn and Centaruri for instance, a major plot thread throughout most of the show, plays out largely off stage. We're given a direct line to its progression, however, through the Narn and Centauri ambassadors G'Kar (Andreas Katsulas) and Londo (Bill Mumy), both of whom work and live on the station. Katsulas's G'Kar is especially effective in this role, serving as a fantastic proxy for the viewer to understand both the rage the Narn feel toward the Centauri, their former conquerors, and their agony when the Centauri repeat their conquest in Season Two.

Other performances also help to highlight Straczynski's excellent writing. Bruce Boxleitner's Captain Sheridan, the replacement protagonist for O'Hare's Sinclair, possesses a down-to-earth sensibility that belies a sense of authority and command that's legitimately impressive. Mira Furlin, in turn, owns her role as the Minbari ambassador Delenn, in one moment being warm and serene only to transform into a powerful, passionate commander in the next. More often then not Furlin steals the show when she's on screen. Delenn, in turn, is easily one of the best female characters you'll find in any show of any genre.

While the remainder of the cast does an overall fine job, there are some weak spots. Claudia Christian as Susan Ivanova and O'Hare's Commander Sinclair are sometimes a bit stiff. There are also spots where character development feels a bit inconsistent. G'Kar and Londo are bitter enemies up until Season Four at which point Londo starts acting more sympathetically toward his rival. Some of this can be attributed to the situation they're in. Londo has returned home to find that his race's new emperor is an insane dictator. Seeing his ruler's cruelties for what they are, he can't help but feel for G'Kar, a prisoner of said despot, as he's tortured for the madman's amusement.

Even so, there is still a tangible feeling of the plot being rushed at points. It's a swiftness owing largely to Straczynski's decision to condense some of the later story points in Season Four. This was done to compensate for the impending collapse of PTEN, Babylon 5's network at the time. Unsure of what its parent company, Warner Bros, would do with the show after PTEN floundered, Straczynski decided to bring the bulk of the series' primary arcs to a close so it could end gracefully if it wasn't renewed.

While arguably a prudent move, it had the side effect of leaving little else for the series to explore when Warner Bros approved Season Five. Season Five, in turn, isn't bad, but often feels like an unnecessary brush stroke added to a finished painting. Its central conflicts just tend to feel a bit humdrum when the prior seasons dealt with things like genocide, civil war, and galaxy-spanning conflicts threatening all civilized life.

These flaws don't lessen the overall effectiveness of the show, however. While possessing a few rough edges here and there, it succeeds in telling a story that, boiled down to the simplest terms, is just plain epic. Events feel weighty and big, and it does just a great job of putting across how they affect the show's universe both on the greater stage as well as the personal one. On some level you know the good guys are going to win in the end. That said, the show manages to strike a good balance between viewer expectation and real world grit. Victories come, but at a price. Often the characters in the show are changed by their experiences and not always for the better.

Sadly, the Babylon 5 universe never expanded enough beyond the original show to obtain popular longevity. It would spawn several books, made-for-TV-movies, and even tabletop RPGs, but most of these have been forgotten as time has passed. The series Crusade (a story for another time) would make a go at spinning off from the main show but it was short-lived, lasting only a season. In the end, the core of the Babylon 5 universe would be Babylon 5 the TV show, and it sadly hasn't received any American air time since 2003. It's a shame because overall it's a great and consistently enjoyable science fiction series. In fact, two decades since the series beginnings, I would still place it head and shoulders above most other shows to come about since.

Read more by Stewart Shearer


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