Babylon 5 is amazing

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.

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4 thoughts on “Babylon 5 is amazing

  1. Umm, hate to call you a “youngling”, but man – you sure try to take all the fun out of CGI that was done 10 years ago and make it sound bad. As for how it was developed – a little program called “LightWave 3D” (i.e Industrial Light and Magic) invented it for sheer processing power back in the day… and it was meant for this sort of stuff. Funny that every space battle since that time has been done on this software now… changing with the times eh?
    As for the writing – it was always superb – and it got better too.. and – if you read the about the author he HAD planned a 5 year drama to unfold… even the shadow war was planned .. and the Vorlons…. all very cool stuff… glad you liked it – 10 years after I did.. 😉 (younglings… lol!)

  2. Now, now. I’m not THAT young. I watched it during its first run — but wouldn’t have been able to see it season to season. I enjoyed the individual episodes, when I could get them, and had a notion of the over-arching story. But my viewing lacked the continuity to actually understand everything that was happening.

    Apparently, the reason the CG looks so bad now is that it was created in 4:3 standard def, while the live shots were actually filmed in wide-ratio HD — even back then. They dumbed the live stuff down to fit on TVs of the day, and planned to re-release it later, fully in wide-screen HD, having re-rendered the CG back out at a higher resolution. Unfortunately the graphic models were lost to time, so when they went to master the DVDs, they had to stretch and scale the original low-quality CG scenes to match the now-used wide-screen Live shots.

    I’ll admit the CG isn’t THAT bad — except when they try to animate in actual people. That looks pretty rough. And you do notice the scaling during the mixed CG/Live shots.

    PS: According to Wikipedia, I wasn’t wrong. They actually did use an Amiga — the famous app Video Toasters — at least in the beginning…

  3. I have been watching Season One on DVD off and on for the past two weeks with Season Two waiting for later in the Writers’ Guild Strike.. I agree that the series was tightly constructed. I think you underestimate the difficulty of delivering good aliens. To his credit, Straczynski fleshed out the cultures behind each of the major races on Babylon Five for the purposes of contrasting different social perspectives. I am quite sure that the visual design and costume design of the aliens was held to a specific level that would underscore precisely those differences. The series creator orchestrated every element of the production with the intent to produce a very specific emphasis for the story being told. Babylon Five may not have as much immediate recognition as other productions for the modern science-fiction audience, but it represents an outstanding initiative in modern science fiction.

  4. You’re right, I imagine coming up with good aliens that are still “human” enough for the watcher to be able to relate to is a very difficult task. And they do grow on you.

    PS: I read your blog. How do you find time to watch TV with all those books you read? I’m lucky if I finish a book every two weeks, and most of my reading is drivel!

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