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.


Digifreak642 said...

So which episodes in season one are essential?

Unknown said...

I rambled about this a while ago:

wsn said...

Yeah I'm continually mystified why Bablyon 5 isn't discussed more when talking about the current state of television.

Thanks for writing this. It needed to be said.

Harbour Master said...

And yea, another Babylon 5 reference summons me. I get any chance I get to drop in B5 references into my gaming articles simply because it doesn't seem to haunt the consciousness of TV SF fans like it should.

I rewatched the whole thing around 2003 with Mrs. HM and the same thing: good when good, bad when bad. And god damn, it all fits together apart from some clunkiness where JMS rewrote Sheridan on top of Sinclair.

Trying to avoid being all spoilery:

And it did some things which were notable at the time -- the season one finale really opened my eyes and I thought, whoa, really?

Plus, even though the ending of the season three finale was telegraphed from the episode start, somehow it rose above it to provide a irresistibly moving climax.

And my altogether favourite line: "If you value your lives, be somewhere else."

I'd still say Farscape does some very clever things too, though, a complete emotional wringer and very fucking major dark at points. It one ups B5 on characterisation and story innovation, if not five-year arc management.

wsn said...

Funnily enough, my favorite line is "Why not?"

Harbour Master said...

There's also "End this." That Delenn, always hogging the limelight.

Unknown said...

Not a big Delenn fan, myself, I thought JMS tried just a little bit too hard when writing her. Really, when I get down to it, I think my favorite line is Londo shouting "Ahhhhhh [character name]!" Especially G'Kar.

D. B. Gallo said...

I'm currently doing a rewatch,

"The avalanche has started, it is to late for the pebbles to vote"

"I am either the emperor or in a good deal of trouble, perhaps both"

"Boom tomorrow, there is always a boom tomorrow"