Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Babylon 2.5

As a Christmas present, I bought my wife a complete set of Babylon 5 DVDs, the whole five season arc. I mention this not to boast about my generosity, but only because one of the many advantages of married bliss is that I get to watch these things too - and now that we've reached the halfway point, I thought I should mark the occasion.

Rather like me, it's surprising how old it is now, and there's no denying it has dated, but I'm still enjoying it this time around. It's the CGI, a key part of what helped it stand out in its day, that prohibits it from aging entirely gracefully. Now, it's not glaringly awful or anything, it's just that there's an arcade - or early console - game feel to much of it and now it seems more like an interesting stylistic choice than a limitation of technology. Luckily, the visuals are backed up by some gorgeous design work, with a tremendous amount of inventiveness and creativity on display, and the angel-fish Minbari warships are as beautiful as ever, no matter how much better they might be rendered today. To say nothing of the success of the Shadow vessels that, despite only a relatively few appearances thus far, are already a haunting presence and more than just enemy ships, they make for one of TV sci-fi's more memorable monsters. The thought that has gone into the cultures that built the various ships is all there on the screen.

Storywise, one surprising aspect is how often some crucial arc element has been introduced much earlier than I remembered. Of course, I'm much more conscious of and on the lookout for it all, but it's always nice to encounter some minor detail I'd forgotten. On the other hand, it does reinforce the sense that the show is due to largely run out of story by Season 4. I am hoping though that Season 5 will prove me wrong when we get there - I missed chunks of the final season the last time around, and I'm definitely looking forward to discovering what extras it has in store for me there.

Like Doctor Who, it's ham-strung somewhat by irregulars - and the occasional regular - more wooden than the sets, but the majority of the regular cast range from dependable to outstanding. Commander Sinclair is not as bad as I recalled, but Sheridan is a significantly greater presence on screen and his predecessor is all too easily forgotten - again. Claudia Christian really improves from, I think, TKO (truly awful episode unfortunately not sufficiently redeemed by a very emotional thread for Ivanova) onwards, although much more so when she's serious - she doesn't do goofy well, and I'm fairly sure even the alien for whom she faked an orgasm in Acts Of Sacrifice remained privately unconvinced. Surely the most painful scene in Babylon 5 until Michael York turns up? But Andreas Katsulas, Peter Jurasik and Mira Furlan (and even Bill Mumy and Stephen Furst) bring their respective aliens alive with very human performances. Garibaldi is just a cut-price Bruce Willis, but he has his moments.

At the lowest end of the character spectrum you do get non-personalities like the pilot, Keffer - B5's Alan Carter, I guess - whose appearances are thankfully few and whose entire point of existence is his death at the 'hands' of a Shadow ship. And sadly I find it hard to be at all interested in anything to do with Dr Stephen Franklin. I think they needed a medical officer with a bit of spark and, I don't know, va-va-voom - more of an ER doc, and maybe they would have done if the series hadn't predated ER.

At the time, I also recollect thinking it was a fair depiction of an sf military, but in these days of Battlestar Galactica, that side does lack edge - although to be fair, the show's obvious Lord Of The Rings roots as well as the visuals confirm that what we're being served is a more colourful fantasy treatment. Which is not to say it is all light and fluffy. Far from it. There's the (apparently obligatory) sprinkling of standard Star Trek fare (A Day In The Strife), but even those are usually mitigated to some degree by some strong character thread and a stab at giving the story a fresh twist, and when it gets to the big stuff it delivers in spades. And if individual episodes fail, it's as often down to overambition (GROPOS) as just being plain poor (Comes The Inquisitor). And then you have offerings like Passing Through Gethsemane which, as a sci-fi examination of capital punishment, has two-and-a-half-million tons more to say than New Who's Boom Town. At least.

For me though, the highlight so far has to have been the three-episode sequence, at this the halfway point in the third season, where the station breaks away from Earth. It's as dramatic and loaded with punch the air moments as I remember, and when Delenn comes riding to the rescue, ready to kick ass and send those Earth cruisers packing, that - I'm pretty certain - is when Sheridan finally realises he has the hots for her.

Overall it's the ambition that impresses most. That and the mythology, because no matter how much of it is actually borrowed, it has been moulded here into something new and there's a great sense of a full universe having been created here, with plenty of scope for other adventures and events we haven't seen. A real playground for the imagination - and I like those. It's a singular achievement and for the most part retains that sense of an epic novel - one I've definitely enjoyed 're-reading' so far. But I'll be sure and tell you what I think when I get to the end for a second time.


Stuart Douglas said...

B5 is not a series I've ever watched and it's too spaceshippy for J to want to watch, but ambitious is always good so it'll have to go on the pile of 'dvds to be watched when there's no-one else in' (which sounds dodgy than it's meant to :)

SAF said...

Lol. Yes, try not to get it mixed up with your 'other' DVDs... ;) Your To Watch list must be fairly extensive by now. But if you do ever give B5 a go, it'd be interesting to hear views from someone who didn't watch it way back when. I'm probably being kinder to it because I enjoyed it the first time (although it was by no means an instant hit), but it's hard to know!