My teenage sf-nerdom didn’t really tail off until ’97, so it’s a bit of a surprise that I didn’t give more attention to this critical darling of sf fandom. To this day, there’s a fairly significant group who consider this the best science fiction show of all time. Back in the day, I watched the tv movie and the pilot, and maybe one or two other episodes…and I really didn’t enjoy what I saw. Now, I’m working my way through the whole series (thanks Netflix Instant Viewing!) and I can see exactly why I didn’t like it. However, just maybe, with this episode, I’m starting to see why it’s so beloved.
The overall series takes place in a space opera setting dominated by races which are often at each others’ throats. The plume-haired Centauri are the old colonial overlords of the spot-headed Narn, and humans have recently fought a long, losing war with the mystical bald-headed Minbari. And then there are the mysterious Vorlons, whom few have ever seen because they wear bulky atmosphere suits. In an attempt to establish galactic peace, these five races have created a sort of League of Nations dispute-resolving body that meets on a human-controlled space station called Babylon 5. However, this Alliance is highly controversial, and the first four Babylon stations came to bad ends.
The show is the brainchild of J. Michael Straczynski , who wrote an overwhelming number of the series’ episodes himself and came in with a detailed plan of its overall arcs. The heavy foreshadowing and intricate maneuvers that JMS’s plan made possible are what really sets the show apart from others. “The Coming of Shadows,” an episode from the second season, is one of several turning points that progresses the multi-season arc in some major ways. A mysterious force known as the Shadows has been manipulating some of the characters since season one, and here it provokes an all out war between two Alliance members – the Narn and the Centauri – as the Centauri emperor dies. In a sub-plot, B5’s former Commander (from season one) sends a message that he is preparing a resistance to fight in the dark times that are to come. The fact that the show would change its lead for the second season (Bruce Boxleitner comes in and does a decent job) is another example of its boldness.
In other words, it’s an episode that plays to the show’s two biggest strengths – intricate long-term plotting and the aliens’ diplomatic intrigues. At a time when serialized television was virtually non-existent, Babylon 5 rewarded careful viewing in ways that influenced Buffy, Lost and the Battlestar reboot. The second season also shows some significant improvement on the show’s weakness – those problems that kept me from watching it when I was in high school. Frankly, the production values in the first season are terrible, even for a low-budget syndicated show. The show was one of the first to eschew model effects in favor of cgi, which doesn’t look much better than some of the stuff kids younger than me were doing on their home PCs around the same time.* The make-up is okay (you can tell from my description of the aliens that it’s fairly simple). Worst of all are the acting, directing, and editing – you don’t really appreciate how well these things are typically done on television until you see them done really badly, as on the first season of B5. We come into shots too early, the camera-work can be lazy, and the actors are so wooden that it can be painful to watch. Things do get much better in the second season, but problems still abound. So, the question is: is an intriguing sf story worth wading through a terrible production? I guess I’ll check back on how I feel about that when we cover a season three episode for the next Dramatic Presentation Hugo…
I feel like I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in here somewhere. The show ran concurrently with Babylon 5, and shares a lot of the same themes: set on a space station, war with a shadowy alien force, focus on long-term alien diplomacy with religious overtones, and a whole host of smaller similarities. JMS had pitched his space opera to Paramount, so it’s certainly possible that something sketchy happened here. There’s enough circumstantial evidence to arouse suspicions. On the other hand, JMS’s indebtedness to Star Trek is very clear, and B5 is really a synthesis of ideas from the first two Trek tv series anyway. And, the shows are very different once you get past some of the basics. DS9 has far better production values and much more interesting characters, and for my money, it’s the best sf show tv has ever seen. It didn’t win any Hugos and was beaten head-on by B5 twice. DS9’s “The Visitor” is much better than “The Coming of Shadows,” in my view, as is Twelve Monkeys, but I won’t deny that Babylon 5 is beginning to look like a show deserving of Hugo recognition. Maybe I’ll take an opportunity to talk about DS9 in depth down the road sometime.
*to be fair, some of these kids work at Pixar and Disney now.