Thursday, March 31, 2011

Why Babylon 5?

As television criticism and analysis expands, it necessarily builds a canon. It's impossible to avoid canonization, for good or for ill. A few shows comprise the Mt. Rushmore of television discussion: The Sopranos, The Wire, golden age The Simpsons, and maybe surprisingly, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Several more exist on a tier just below that: The X-Files, Mad Men, Deadwood, Lost, Star Trek & TNG, Angel, The Twilight Zone, Twin Peaks, The Office, and more - just check the A.V. Club's TV Club Classic sidebar for a decent representation.

One show that's missing from virtually any canon discussion (not including me) is Babylon 5. And, you know, I'm not going to argue that it deserves to be on that television Rushmore - I'm not 15 anymore. But given the typical leanings of critical discussions, being biased towards speculative fiction, serialization, and structural experimentation, I would say that it deserves to be mentioned in the conversation. So here's my attempt at explaining, to all and sundry, Why Babylon 5?

There are three major reasons: it's serialization done right; it's historically important; and it's actually really quite good once it gets going. But first, the Why not Babylon 5?, ably answered by Tasha Robinson, one of my editors at The A.V. Club a few years ago:

Going in a completely different direction, virtually every science-fiction fan I know has taken time to sing the praises of Babylon 5 at me. I spent half the '90s listening to people say it was the best thing on television and that I was really missing out. In this case, I didn't get started at the right time, and now I look at the completed series—all 110 episodes—and see a mountain I just don't have time to climb. Especially since even the biggest fans admit that the first year or two is some rough trekking. As my boyfriend says whenever fans wistfully bring it up, "We'll watch it when we retire, at which point it'll probably be available in pill form."
She's not wrong here, and it's not like I'd recommend watching it instead of the collected works of Wong Kar-Wai or The Wire, if there is some kind of competition for your viewing time. But there's still some element of misconception here. The unspoken but logical idea is that Babylon 5 was built on a five-year plan, that this means that you have to start from the beginning or else you'll miss something, but the beginning kind of sucks. So why start? As a syllogism, this works, but syllogisms can be fallacious, even if their premises appear to be true.

Exactly why that conclusion is incorrect comes from the show's structure and its effective form of serialization. Shows like The X-Files and Lost have given the impression that tightly-serialized shows with plans (or shows that should have plans) begin with a central set of questions, and answer those questions in the finale. This is not the case with Babylon 5. Instead, B5 uses a series of interconnected, shorter-term storylines. The central question of the first season is the mystery of the conclusion of a recent war, with a slow realization that something may bepolitically rotten on Earth. The first question is largely resolved by the start of the second season, while halfway through that season, while the Earth politics move into a different phase of direct subversion when prove arrives that things are, indeed, seriously wrong.

Storylines are introduced and resolved in time spans of roughly half a season to a season and a third. Those resolutions usually lead directly to the next major problem, but, and this is the important bit, this resolution and introduction of problems mean that there are multiple different jumping-in points for the show. The structure is less rigid than Buffy's season long "Big Bad", and it's also more sustainable than the constantly-expanding mythology of other serialized shows like Battlestar Galactica. The show's setting and premise changes regularly, a fact illustrated a seasonally-changing intro, which alters the music, background, and premise narration each year. The first season begins with "The Babylon Project was our last, best hope for peace", for example, a narration which, by the third season, has become "The Babylon Project was our last, best hope for peace. It failed."

Moreover, B5 is lucky in that it's biggest and most important episodes are also generally its best episodes. If you want to skip the dross of the first season - and yes, there is plenty of dross there, sadly - and just watch the five or six most important eps, chances are, you'll also be watching the five or six best episodes of the season. Therefore it's easy to create a list of episodes to watch as well as to skip. You might miss a couple details, but it's written to work around that even without the crutch of the "previously on..." that dominate modern serialized TV.

The final way that Babylon 5's serialization works in its favor is that it manages to avoid the pitfalls of excessive mythology. The "procedural world-building" of its first season establishes the essential boundaries of the "mythology", and over the course of the show, the characters and plot have their influence expand to reach those boundaries. It's anchored in place by an effective use of foreshadowing and prophecy, so that what does happen in the show feels like it was the point, instead of as if the showrunners are making it up as it goes along. The constrast between Babylon 5's use of Londo dreaming his own death and Battlestar Galactica's disastrous attempt to make something out of its Opera House in its finale.

The reason Babylon 5 was so successful at serialized storytelling is part of the reason that it is historically important in television history. It is largely the brainchild of a single man, J. Michael Straczynski (normally called JMS, because, well, you try spelling that), who developed a five-year plan for the story to follow. It wasn't simply a series novelization, but rather a plan that had the flexibility to deal with the apparent cancellation of the show a year early, or contract and other disputes with actors (which happened multiple times over the course of the show). It serves as a pointed rejoinder to all the showrunners who say that it's impossible to plan that far ahead. Granted, JMS ended up writing 3/4s of the show's episode, the bulk of them in a row starting late in the second season, and he perhaps drove himself bald, grey, and insane, in the process. But it is possible.

Second, Babylon 5 was the first space opera not named Star Trek to succeed in any long-term fashion on American TV. The Stargates and Farscapes and Andromedas and perhaps even Battlestar Galacticas of the world owe it for demonstrating that it was possible. Alongside The X-Files and the Star Trek spinoffs, it helped create fertile soil for the speculative fiction and serialized storytelling boom of the 1990s and 2000s.

Finally, its technology was exceedingly important. In a world before Toy Story, it was the first series to utilize computer graphics technology for its special effects. These early stabs at it are occasionally laughable, but the improvement over time helps to show how CGI took over the science fiction industry.

The argument against that, of course, is that "watching it improve" implies that it started badly. And, unfortunately, that is true, in more areas than merely the SFX. Over the course of the series the CGI improves yes, but so does the writing, so do the actors, so does the makeup - really, everything gets dramatically better, which is most notable about halfway through the second season, much like its fellow SF travelers Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Star Trek: The Next Generation. I will grant that it can be difficult to wait that long for shows on DVD to actually grow the beard, but honestly? It's worth it. Babylon 5's initially slow plot development gains huge amounts of momentum as the different seeds it plants start to bloom, and by its third season, it can get about as compulsively watchable as dramatic television gets.

I don't just say this as a former fan. Indeed, I specifically avoided watching Babylon 5 pretty much since its ending for two reasons: first, that I was pushing away most of my high school interests (didn't listen to They Might Be Giants for several years either), and second, that I was scared that it would be bad and I was a dumbass teenager. When I eventually did rewatch it, I was surprised and pleased to discover that it was much as I remember - good when it was good, bad when it was bad, and extremely well plotted. But you don't have to take my word for it - the Renaissance Poet watched it with me, unencumbered by nostalgia-covered glasses, and she thoroughly enjoyed it as well.

Perhaps its greatest qualitative achievement was its creation of two powerful, dynamic, scenery-chewing characters in the rival ambassadors Londo and G'Kar. Over the course of the show, both change goals and demeanor multiple times, and, like Wesley Wyndham-Price, king of dynamic television characters, both do it in a manner that seems natural to their characters. Foreshadowing helps as well - it's clear that this is intentional and part of their character history and future.

I mean, it may not be for everybody. The authorial voice is much stronger than in most TV shows since there was really only one writer for the bulk of the series, and if you don't happen to like that voice, it's hard to get into the show. Yet JMS does improve over the course of the series, particularly in terms of comedy. The whooshy electronic new age-style music can be a little bit dissonant, but I think it becomes one of the show's greatest strengths over time, much like Battlestar Galactica's Middle Eastern flairs in its soundtrack.

Babylon 5 is worth being in the conversation as television studies and criticism expand, not merely an afterthought like it has become. And I will happily continue to make that argument on the Internet as often and effectively as I can. Dammit.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

New Computer

I used my last computer from 2006 until last week. It was serviceable, given that it was a slapdash affair when I put it together - a barebones system with cannibalized parts from my previous computer, which suddenly stopped working (in retrospect, it was likely the power supply, the one thing I didn't check at the time). Anyway, the last computer got me through Bioshock, Fallout 3, Left 4 Dead 2, and more, surprisingly given that it was probably something like 2004's finest. But it wouldn't run Dragon Age: Origins, or Fallout: New Vegas, and in the straw that broke the camel's back when I was offered a review copy, Shogun 2: Total War. My hard drive was also filled to the brim, and my wireless flaky as hell. With my tax return showing a decent amount of numbers, it was time to treat myself.

I had a few things to consider, and they didn't all work together well. At all. First, I wanted something energy efficient, in order to soothe my bleeding heart, and hopefully not destroy my electricity bill either. I'd also have preferred to have parts not made from blood cadmium or whichever, but that's unfortunately far too difficult to research. On the other hand, I wanted power - enough to play new games for three years or so. Happily, the rate of technology has slowed down over the last decade, so this is actually pretty possible to do. More good news - newer technology in chips and in video cards indicates that they're actually better than previous models at lower power usage, even when they're more powerful overall, because they do a better job of lowering energy using when not being used at full force.

Of course, the bigger issue is money. I didn't get that big of a tax return. Unfortunately, since the newest of those more-efficient pieces of hardware had the best efficiency, I'd have to figure out how much money to spend on bleeding-edge stuff now, which is "not very much." I also wanted to avoid doing too much computer-building, since that can be a pain in the ass, but I left it as an option.

I'm happy that I did keep that option open, because I cut probably 20% of the cost out, and was able to research my parts directly. Here are my specs:

Operating System: Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit
Motherboard: MSI MS-7642
Processor: AMD Phenom(tm) II X4 955 Processor (4 CPUs), ~3.2GHz
Memory: 4096MB RAM
Video Card: ATI Radeon HD 5670
Video Card Display Memory: 2295 MB
Video Card Dedicated Memory: 503 MB
Sound Card: Creative SB Audigy 2 ZS*
Total Space: 476.8 GB
Hard Drive Model: WDC WD5002AALX-00J37A0 ATA Device
CD-ROM Model: _NEC DVD_RW ND-3550A ATA Device*
*cannibalized from older computer

All this was roughly $600. (though I also picked up Windows 7 and some accessories). No new monitor, though, and my current one maxes out at 1240x1040, so I'm not getting the very best resolution. But everything seems to be running well, Shogun 2 is a blast (my AV Club review is coming soon). I hope that this allows me to get more directly into reviews and discussions of current-generation PC games - and lets me play the best mods for the ones which have been out for a while.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

In Which I Actively Invite A Decade-Long Flamewar To My Blog

At some point soon I hope to be getting one of the two "core" game systems: PS3 or Xbox 360. I had been leaning towards the 360, just as I have been pretty much since release. However, given that I don't actually care that much about the specific specs of each, unless a game is REALLY bad on one system, my primary criteria are the exclusive games available on each (including PC games). Since many of the games I'm behind on are available for both, like Red Dead Redemption or Soul Calibur IV or even, if I dare, Final Fantasy XIII, or on PC, my preferred system, the simplest way to judge is to make a list of games on each that I should play. And surprisingly, the list as I think of it is tilted towards PS3.

PlayStation 3:
LittleBigPlanet 2
Demon's Souls
Valkyria Chronicles
Uncharted 1/2


Xbox 360:
Halo 3/Reach
Gears of War

Looks pretty even right now, but in most of the cases I'm more interested in the PS3 games than the 360 games. I will admit to a certain level of ignorance towards indie games, but the biggest of them - Braid - is on PC now, removing a major 360 strength. On the other have, given that I have a Wii, Kinect seems vaguely more appealing than Move, but neither really excite me.

What am I missing here, fellow gamers? Bearing in mind that, as a general rule, I like most genres but only the very best games of most genres, though I'll tolerate more mediocre RPGs or quirky games.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Video Game History - The Elder Scrolls: Arena

I've decided to start excerpting bits and pieces of my book on the history of video gaming in the 1990s on this blog. Today, The Elder Scrolls: Arena, surprisingly the only game of its era to make a game series which has lasted through today.

The Elder Scrolls: Arena was, eventually, a far more successful open-ended game than Darklands, though it was likewise somewhat more buggy than it should have been upon its release. However, it ended up spawning one of the longest-running RPG series to survive past the early 2000's, with four games in The Elder Scrolls main series as well as a several expansions and spinoffs.

Part of the reason for Arena's success was its effective use of modern game technology. It is built off of the Ultima Underworld model, but in many ways surpasses even that classic. For example, melee combat in previous 3D games was accomplished by clicking and holding down the right mouse button, with different attacks corresponding to different clicking locations, like a slash if you clicked from the right or left side of the screen. In Arena, on the other hand, melee attacks are accomplished by clicking the right mouse button and moving the mouse in the direction of the attack, which your weapon follows. The whole process is much more visceral and immersive, and makes the action in the game feel much more like action should. Likewise, the superb sound in the game adds to its appeal - hits land with satisfying thumps.

Arena's huge game world is also a major draw. Unlike its predecessors, travel around town is not accomplished via text menu, but rather, each town exists in its own space, and you can wander and explore throughout, from small villages to major metropolises. You can also wander in the outdoors between towns, but it is not an effective mode of travel. The game world is also filled with books which fill in the history and geography. Some days are holidays, with effects like cheaper magical items or free blessings in temples. There is something magical in Arena and it shows up best when you wander into a new town, discover that it's a major holiday as the snow falls and the game's evocative music plays.

These moments of beauty only really occur in games with huge worlds that put the player in small but important positions, as opposed to building the entire game world around the player's quest. Later Massively Multiplayer RPGs like World of Warcraft could achieve similar effects. The Elder Scrolls series is, in some ways, a predecessor to those MMRPGs, and later games in the series would often be described as “single-player MMRPGs.”

Arena is also creative in ways that many RPGs were not. It offered a spell creation system, which a magic-using character could use by combining the effects of different spells. For example, you could build a spell which caused both paralysis and poison. Its sheer amount of randomized dungeons and semi-randomized quests could keep you busy for weeks without ever having to worry about the main plot, although the simple fetch and escort quests could lose their charm.

Of all the great RPGs of the early 1990's it's something of a surprise that The Elder Scrolls: Arena ended up being the one with the most longevity. Its embrace of new technology and creative ambition certainly made it stand out, and subsequent games have demonstrated its creators' ability to adapt to different technological and business environments. Its first sequel, Daggerfall, surpassed it in most respects, but it's still an eminently playable game on its own.