I just finished watching Season 2 of a 13 year-old sci-fi series called Babylon 5. I don’t think I’d be exaggerating if I called it the best sci-fi ever shown on TV.
It doesn’t look that great, at first blush. The acting is pretty cheesy, and the actors all C or D-list people you’ve never heard of. They made the interesting decision in 1994 to go completely CG for the special effects. I imagine they were one of the first television shows to do so, and unfortunately it shows. I remember, even when it first came out, that the graphics weren’t stellar. I’m sure they were rendered on an Amiga or something from its era.
Even some of the alien costumes weren’t that great. There were a few good ones, which even one some awards, like the Narn. But the Centauri were just a species that combed their hair up into a fan, and had slightly elongated incisors. Really, the whole thing looks kind of farcical when you first sit down to watch it.
By the end of the second season, though, you have a better appreciation for just how brilliant the show really is. Like Star Trek, or Stargate, or other sci-fi shows we all know, each episode is a story unto itself. Sometimes its a more character-based drama, sometimes a mystery, sometimes a pure action episode. But the real brilliance is what’s happening in and around the stand-alone story. Throughout season one and two, the writer was slowly putting characters, species, ideas and plot devices into place. None of the seemingly inconsequential minutia in an episode is meaningless — all of it is done for a reason. Hinting at, and teasing you with a grander story line that you only catch glimpses of.
And then season 2 closes with a bang, and pieces start falling together. Its overwhelming the scope of what has been sprung on you, slowly over two years worth of television. Its unlike any over-arching story line in Star Trek — bigger than the Borg, bigger even than the Star Trek movies. Even things you dismiss as accidents, like a character suddenly disappearing from the cast, are not write-outs. The character left because the author had other plans for them…
For example, between the last episode of Season 1 and the first episode of Season 2, the captain gets replaced. Your first conclusion is that they pulled the actor because he was one of the worst on the show (the latter part of that statement being true). But then the new captain arrives and you realise his character had already been set-up — since almost the beginning of season 1. If they had planned on axing an actor, they had been planning it for the entire life of the series, up to this point. Then you find out, halfway through season 2, where the original captain ended up — and you realise his new role had been set-up almost as long as that of the new captain. Nothing is a mistake. Every detail had been thought out and planned-for.
Its like they sat down, before writing a single episode, and planned out 5 years of TV, then weaved it together patiently and carefully. Something that happened last year, suddenly makes total sense this year. And the characters you might have derided as cheesy, or poorly acted, suddenly have significance, because you understand where they were 2 years ago, and they’ve actually grown since then. It makes you wonder if they choose unknown actors, just so they could guarantee they wouldn’t leave for a better offer half-way through the series and mess with the master plot.
And that story-line is not short on ambition, either. That they could take what was obviously a low-budget sci-fi, and build an epic 5-year story — that 9 years after its conclusion still leaves fans begging for more — is what makes Babylon 5 excellent TV. Nothing I have seen before, or since, in any genre, compares with the breadth of what they accomplished with this cheesy little show. If you haven’t seen Babylon 5, and you enjoy Sci-Fi at all, you owe it to yourself to watch this show in its entirety.