Thursday, December 20, 2007

Nice Tomatoes

Among the many ambitions I secretly – and now not so secretly - harbour, I always rather fancied writing a spot of radio comedy. I’m sure there are some out there who found my Big Finish audios laughable, but being me I’m simply not content to count that particular dream as fulfilled. Meanwhile, others are doing it better than I could, so that’s fair enough. At least I can consider myself rubbing e-shoulders with those that are. Or one of those that is.

Ian Potter knows what I’m talking about. He’s the man – or presumably artificial intelligence, because no organic life form could be that smart, surely – behind No Tomatoes. 6 quarter-hour capsules of aural tickles that aired on BBC Radio 7 this year. That’s right: aural.

Unfortunately, owing to one of life’s crazy-busy spells I managed to miss two-thirds of them on broadcast, but what I’d heard left me keen to listen to the rest. Mr Potter was kind enough to send me the boxed set – i.e. the discs in an envelope. Now, some might think I owe the creator praise for his works. But when you find yourself sitting laughing at your computer screen when all it’s showing is some swirly psychedelic graphics courtesy of Windows Media Player, you have to conclude there’s more to it than that.

Suffice to say, Mr Potter’s tomatoes – or whatever fruits he’s offering in their place – are funny. Each 15 minutes feels packed. It’s the sort of funny that demands you pay attention – on the first installment I had notions of attending to emails etc while I listened, but it was just too easy to miss good stuff. Maybe I’m just rubbish at multi-tasking, but then again I am currently managing to take sips of coffee between spates of typing, and in any case I’m more inclined to believe that the comedy on (figurative) show in this case was of that clever, intellectual and proudly mad species that must be of the family Pythonidae. Some of the highlights for me included a great Sooty sketch, an in-depth discourse on the Laughing Cow, a skit skit, Word Association Tennis and Generic Cop, There are even sly Doctor Who references for the geeks among us along the way.

Here’s hoping he lands another series. As for me, until those ambitions of mine ripen into some sort of action in that direction, my tomatoes must remain a delicate – admiring – shade of green.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007


I know, there's just something very wrong about that title. But what other choices did I have? Babylonathon? B5athon? And Babylon 5 Marathon would just sound so dull. Which would fail to do the experience justice. The journey was, in a word, epic.

And I'm not just talking about length (5 miles long, f'nar f'nar). Although it's clear that this is a case where size really does matter. The show's famous "arc" was always going to be a 5-year mission and the fact that at one point the series faced being cut short delivers a blow like a photon torpedo below the space equivalent of the waterline. In that fifth year, you can't avoid the sense that everyone's walking around on the decks of a sinking ship. On the other hand, thank Valen we had that fifth year. At least, the last few episodes of it anyway. Because an epic of this magnitude demands an ending that will do it justice. Given the show's Lord Of The Rings 'heritage', it's kind of fitting that, rather like Peter Jackson's movie, the series gets several endings and although some of these are scattered around - to be found in the closing stages of Seasons 4 and 5 - and some really aren't up to scratch, the actual concluding episode, Sleeping In Light, rounds everything off so perfectly it makes up for every little disappointment and disruption to the big game plan along the way. It's certainly more fitting than any of the uniforms the B5 crew ever had to endure.

Before we get to the farewell tears, the last time I aired my thoughts on B5 was at the halfway point, right after the station had made the break from Earth in a brilliant three-episode sequence that had to represent the peak of the series at that stage. Surely it all had to go downhill from there? For one thing, I was dreading the rewatch of the Michael York episode (A Late Delivery From Avalon) and in fact we didn't have at all long to wait for that to show up. And as though to prove that some things in life are as reliable as a Volkswagen, yes, it was as bad as I remembered. It's not the worst story ever (that honour may go to Grey 17 Is Missing, featuring Freddy Krueger and a real nightmare of a plot, which follows a little later in Season 3), but its sub-mediocrity is let down by some dreadful acting.

This is, unfortunately, an all too common trait in a lot of B5 episodes. As mentioned previously, the majority of the regulars range from outstanding to dependable, and even those who start out a little questionable, like Claudia Christian as Ivanova, mature nicely into their roles to become a core part of what is essentially a strong cast. Notable exceptions would be Richard Biggs as Dr Stephen Franklin who, if anything, grows even weaker in the light of his journey to 'find himself' (Walkabout) and Jerry Doyle as Garibaldi who, although he continues to deliver his bargain-basement Bruce Willis as ever, grows quickly tiresome during Season 4, and that's even when you know his character's behaviour is not his fault but the product of some Machiavellian Psi Corp personality modification. Maybe I'm just unforgiving, but somehow I just found it a poor excuse for just how aggravating his character became.

Still, ahead of that we have the clever (especially as it had to be rewritten to accommodate the change of B5 commander from Sinclair to Sheridan) War Without End, an excellent bit of payoff to the "timey-wimey" Babylon Squared episode from the first season. And everything in Season 3 builds towards the gasp-worthy moment of Anna Sheridan's return from the abyss and Sheridan disappearing off for his Gandalf-like plunge into his own more literal - or is it? - abyss on the Shadow homeworld of Zha'dum. A finale that leaves us impatient for the next season - luckily never very far away when you're rewatching these things on DVD. Even on a rewatch, though, it was surprising how keenly that next season was anticipated and it just served to confirm for me that, at this stage anyway, the epic is a compelling one.

That season, the Fourth, is the one with all the behind-the-scenes question marks hanging over it - will the show even get its fifth season? - and so while it takes on a greater importance, we also know that from there on in what we are seeing is a compromise. Every episode comes under closer scrutiny, because with JMS' 5-year arc ™ effectively pared down to 4 we expect there to be no loose flab, no unnecessary stand-alone padding episodes. And if the result is not exactly bare bones, it can at least boast supermodel levels of streamlining and wastes no time marching out on that catwalk from the word go.

Indeed, it comes as a bit of a blow that the big climax of the whole Shadow-Vorlon war arrives no more than six episodes into the season. Six. Bloody hell, I thought, I don't remember it being quite that soon. Sheridan has barely had time to make his - dramatically triumphant - return, transformed and bringing a wizard-like alien in tow just to reinforce those Gandalf comparisons. Then the shhh... Shadows and Vorlons really hit the fan.

What we get is a cracking two-parter (The Long Night and Into The Fire) with some seriously ominous stuff going on, the two sides deploying their respective planet-killer weapons, and delivering enough jaw-dropping, oh-my-god moments to persuade us we are really headed somewhere BIG. Unfortunately, I don't think we quite get there. Just as when I watched it the first time around, I was left with the sense that we were missing a third part in there somewhere. As it is, the tail end of that particular tale seems anticlimactic and a tad too easy. There's no sign of the advanced alien weapon, down on Epsilon 3, of which so much had been made in earlier episodes - vaunted, in a tucked-up-your-sleeve kind of way, as B5's ace in the coming War. And there are other indefinite somethings missing, somewhere in the middle-to-end stages. Given the nature of the War's resolution, it was always going to be a gamble, and I'll certainly afford JMS the benefit of the doubt that he could have pulled it off if he hadn't been, er, hamstrung by the studio-enforced "diet". It’s as though that supermodel chowed down on something really (ful)filling only to 'purge' it all from her system before the show. There’s the idea of a hearty meal but at the end of the day you’re left with a hole. What we get on screen never quite outweighs the curiosity as to what might have been.

Added to which, six episodes into the season - six! - we're left wondering what on earth is left to tell.

Storytellers aren't supposed to loiter much after the climax - only as long as it takes to roll over and have a quick smoke. Credit where it's due though, once the War is done, Season Four lets up very little steam and JMS is ready to go again with, it now becomes clear, the part of the story that really counts. With those meddling aliens out of the way, it's all about how the mortals resolve their problems on their own. Post-war is lent greater weight than the War and that's a brave decision - one that we might question, but one that - I think - pays surprising dividends through the remaining course of the season.

And if we're talking courses, then the entree has to be the civil war and Sheridan's "march" on Earth, with the side dishes of Garibaldi's shenanigans and Sheridan's capture, which results in one of those interrogation episodes that JMS seems so fond of: Intersections In Real Time. This one's not as overtly Prisoner-esque as Comes The Inquisitor, but it's far more successful for my money. As well as all that, you have the cheese and biscuits of the Centauri-Narn situation and Minbari politics. And it’s all washed down with a glass of unrequited love between Marcus and Ivanova, surprisingly sweet despite the fact that Jason Carter as the very model of a modern English Ranger is something of an acquired taste. If that’s not enough, there’s the Shadows’ leftovers to polish off and everything basically culminates in a single breathtaking shot of one of those Earth cruisers bursting through a fireball, which is like one of those cinematic belches that make you feel like you’ve dined really rather well.

It’s really only the after dinner mint of The Deconstruction Of Falling Stars which fails to satisfy. Although creative in its efforts to look ahead 100, 1000 and 10000 years, it’s too nutty by half and plays too fast and loose with the series’ future history, managing at times to illustrate that a) all our heroes' efforts are not nearly as successful or significant as we’d hope in the scheme of things and b) JMS is not always at his best when attempting comedy.

Thankfully they had at this stage already filmed a proper ending for the series – the aforementioned Sleeping In Light – but they had also – at last! – been given the green light for a fifth season and so that actual closing chapter is nudged 22 episodes down the waiting list. Originally – for some reason that escapes me right now – I only watched the first three or four episodes of Season Five then caught that final one. So this time around I was curious to see what I had missed. The unfortunate answer is, not much really.

Turns out, all the loose flab that was lipo-sucked out of Season 4 has been transplanted right into the middle of the final season. Providing curious counterpoint to this, the theme music – it changes every year to better capture the pervading mood – is perhaps the most stirring yet for this the least stirring of seasons. There are some minor gems along the way: The Corps Is Mother, The Corps is Father - a neat little examination of life in the Psi Corps which, if only it had been made in a more informed age, might have been given more of a CSI treatment (CSI-fi?). (Ouch.) But the pregnancy has come to term, JMS' real baby has been delivered and you can see the stretch marks. Most especially in the way it Sheridan and Delenn an absolute age to twig that the forces doing their best to spark a war between the various governments of their precious new Alliance are the Drakh, one-time allies of the Shadows. Delenn has met these people and they are so far and away the only suspects, you end up shouting at the screen as the idea fails to occur to anybody for what seems like countless episodes.

Of course, they may only seem countless because many of them feature Byron and his psionic hippy cult. I used to play the Traveller RPG and there was fun to be had from either playing a sneaky telepath or joining in the spirit of the zealous anti-psionic prejudice that was a feature of that universe. I guess the experience also gave me cool ideas of the kinds of elements that would make for a really neat telepath war, should anyone ever attempt to depict one in a movie or TV series. All B5’s version achieved was to bring all those old anti-psionic prejudices bubbling back to the surface. Dear god, they’re a painful bunch. Is it the writing? Is it Robin Atkin Downes as Byron? (Even if he looks like a refugee from a shampoo commercial, he’s really not worth much, let alone “it”.) Unfortunately this all comes to a head in the episode where Byron’s brigade all strike into a hymn, a veritable Kum Ba Yah moment when you pray for B5 security to take them all out in a sci-fi Wako. More unfortunately, your prayers will not be answered and these people are around for an excruciating while longer after that.

Never mind, to amuse us there is Day Of The Dead, an episode by Neil Gaiman, featuring Penn and Teller as B5’s very own Beavis and Butthead. And it’s not nearly as good as that sounds. I couldn’t help feeling there might have been some point to this episode if the series hadn’t lost Ivanova. Tracey Scoggins as Commander Lochley is competent enough, but she’s a substitute and we all know it. And it’s all the more obvious here, when selected characters are revisited by dead folks – for one night only – and the fact that there was something worthwhile to be had from having Marcus turn up for Ivanova. Ivanova’s in-story reasons for her departure feel like a natural enough decision on her part, but in this episode especially her absence is staring you in the face. I’m not sure such a thread would have saved this episode, but it would have lent it something.

Fortunately, in addition to interrogation scenes, JMS appears to be a fan of unrequited love and this year it’s the turn of ever-loyal Lennier who has doted on Delenn even as she fell bony-crest over heels for Sheridan. Tied in with threads related to the Ranger and the hunting down of the Drakh, this actually quite touching tale offers us the first genuine surprise of the fifth series and – not entirely coincidentally – it’s at about this point that things begin to pick back up towards where they darn well ought to be.

The previous year events converged on Earth, this time it’s the Centauri homeworld. More war. But it’s not mere repetition and the overall resolution is generally satisfying, even in spite of the fact that – by now – we have known for some time, by and large, how things are meant to pan out. Fair warning though, there’s a lot of doom and gloom involved. But it’s just that kind of ‘dark matter’ that’s needed to lend the conclusion all that weight and substance that has been missing from much of this last season.

There’s a little thread about a gift from Londo that Sheridan’s son is supposed to open on his eighteenth birthday, which seems to have been left dangling. But it’s not noteworthy enough to spoil the ‘occasion’. When the lights go out on Babylon 5 for the last time, those are your memories – of times shared with (at least some of) the characters. It’s your journey that has come to an end. And it’s been quite a journey, for something set on a station.

That’s part of its achievement right there, that impression of a real mythic ‘voyage’ that Deep Space Nine entirely failed to capture with its own stationary antics. Favourable comparisons with one of the degenerate offspring of the Star Trek franchise are faint praise, but perhaps faint praise is, in the end, what Babylon 5 merits. Like Sheridan after his allotted twenty years, it shows its age – especially in the graphics, although as I stated previously, with the exception of some decidedly dodgy composites, I found it possible to embrace that as a sort of stylistic choice. The designs, after all, are often beautiful, and it is as much a part of the B5 brand as the epic storytelling. That storytelling – with the similar exception of a few decidedly dodgy episodes – would be something to shout about (indeed, it was, the first time around), if only that Fifth season wasn’t such a poor shadow of its four predecessors. That, come the end, would have to be my chief grumble and, just as with that resolution of the Shadow-Vorlon War, as (mostly) impressive as Babylon 5 manages to be, its legacy is married to a lot of wondering as to what might have been. On the whole it's a great series - a monumental achievement, even - but left to develop according to the original plan it might have been greater.

Of course, given JMS’ professed love of British sci-fi (evidenced in those Prisoner-ish episodes, as well as a spaceship allegedly paying homage to Blake’s Seven’s Liberator), it’s perhaps only fitting. With most of our best sci-fi output produced in times of limited budgets and a ‘more innocent’ age, that feeling of “what might have been” should be familiar to us all.

So if anyone’s considering embarking on a B5 marathon of their own, it might help to bear that in mind. That, or do what I did originally, and skip most of the middle of Season Five!

Finally, a couple of warnings. One, according to a friend, the picture quality is improved on Region 1 format. That particular recommendation came somewhat late for me, as by then I had already bought three of the seasons in R2. (Also, as a side issue, but this I felt must be something related to the master tapes, there were quite a number of scenes that appeared to switch between film and videotape for no good reason – or, at least, some odd reasons unknown to me!) Two, and perhaps most importantly, if you do watch the series on DVD, don’t linger on the main menu for too long. As a feature common to all seasons, they present group portraits of the main characters morphing into one another. The cycle of transformation from Ivanova to Marcus is possibly the most horrific to watch but there are others that are almost as warped and cruelly hypnotic. This may not feature on all releases but you have been warned!