Friday, 22 February 2013

Happy 20th Birthday to BABYLON 5

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the American SF TV show Babylon 5. Its pilot episode, The Gathering, aired on 22 February 1993, with the first season proper following eleven months later. Never a mass break-out hit, Babylon 5 remained on-air for five seasons and 110 episodes (plus 4 TV movies and a straight-to-DVD movie), not to mention generating a spin-off called Crusade that lasted half a season before being cancelled and a pilot for a second spin-off that never went to series. Not too bad for a show that, even today, most people have never even heard of.

Some of the regular cast of Babylon 5 in its first season: Jerry Doyle as Security Chief Michael Garibaldi, Peter Jurasik as Centauri Ambassador Londo Mollari (with the hair), Claudia Christian as Lt. Commander Susan Ivanova, Mira Furlan as Minbari Ambassador Delenn, Andrea Thompson as Talia Winters, Andreas Katsulas as Narn Ambassador G'Kar and Richard Biggs as Dr. Stephen Franklin, with Michael O'Hare as Commander Jeffrey Sinclair (seated).

Babylon 5 is noted for its structure. The series is arranged like a series of books, with each season having its own name (Signs and Portents, The Coming of Shadows, Point of No Return, No Surrender, No Retreat and The Wheel of Fire), title sequence and musical score. Each season acts as a movement in the traditional five-act structure of a story: introduction, rising action, climax, resolution, aftermath. This gives the entire series a sense of tremendous narrative momentum. Creator/showrunner/head writer Joe Michael Straczynski also layered a number of mysteries into the backstory of the series, giving fans something to discuss and theorise about online (B5 was easily the first show to make significant use of the Internet in building its fan community). However, he also explained and resolved these mysteries long before the end of the show, avoiding the problem of overloading the series resolution with too many elements to support (and in doing so avoided the pitfalls which made the endings to later serialised shows like Lost and Battlestar Galactica so problematic).

The show is also notable for its case of extremely well-drawn characters, all of whom have significant backstories, and how they evolve over the course of the series. Babylon 5 was very much the TV equivalent of A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones in that regard (and, interestingly, Straczynski namechecks George R.R. Martin as an inspiration in an article for Foundation magazine in early 1995, though this was for his earlier work as A Game of Thrones didn't come out until Babylon 5's third season was already over), though Straczynski was moderately less ruthless with his characters. The casting was excellent, and in particular gave long-standing Hollywood supporting actors like Peter Jurasik and Andreas Katsulas some meaty, solid roles to get their teeth into. The show was also praised for its still-impressive (if rather low-res by today's standards) CGI graphics, which allowed the show to have the most visually impressive space battles since the Star Wars trilogy on a tiny budget.

In terms of overall quality, Babylon 5 was conceptually bold and, at its best, was complex and satisfying, with multiple character arcs interweaving around one another and the main storylines of the series in a manner that was occasionally awesome. This was all accomplished at the same time that Straczynski also pursued a number of important thematic elements, as well as bringing in elements of realism to the setting (which was considerably more dystopian than Star Trek's). Babylon 5 was the first space-based SF show to comprehensively explore such issues as religious fundamentalism, substance abuse, alcoholism and political censorship. Other elements were not so lucky, with an examination of gender identification (via a male character - played by a woman in makeup - who would have become female in the second season and then pursued a relationship with the lead character of the show) torpedoed by the technology not being up to the job. A planned lesbian relationship between two lead characters was also ditched when one of the actresses involved left the show.

Unfortunately, whilst Babylon 5 at its best was easily the finest show on TV at the time, at its worst it stunk like weeks-old cheese. Unusually, the fans and writers were in agreement over the weakest shows of the series, and in several cases Straczynski even warned fans that that week's episode might be a bit sub-par ahead of time. This unusual honesty was refreshing, though notably it lessened as the series went along (with the near-unwatchable first half of the fifth season being defended to the hilt by the production team). The show certainly took a while to build its reputation, with the first season being 'variable' in quality and only becoming reliably good in its second year. Even then, good episodes could be let down by the odd jarring line or recycled plot element (the 'assassin/bomber loose on the station' storyline got a bit old after a while), whilst the show's production values were always only a bit above 'acceptable' (though what B5 achieved on a tiny budget was always impressive). Also, the show had a major problem with doing funny comedy episodes, with the show always falling flat on its face when it attempted it (the fact that the two funniest episodes were written by Peter David, not Straczynski, is rather telling).

Babylon 5 was flawed then, but somehow it's strengths shine all the more brightly because of its flaws. It hasn't aged brilliantly, but it's still a show that's worth watching now for its great performances (especially from Andreas Katsulas, Peter Jurasik and Mira Furlan), still-impressively-constructed central story arc and its formidable worldbuilding, not to mention some of the best spacecraft designs and space battles ever seen in the genre.

A Narn heavy cruiser parked alongside Babylon 5 in the episode Walkabout.

Conception and Genesis
Babylon 5 was conceived as a 'novel for television', a pre-planned story with a beginning, middle and end. That story was the creation of Joe Michael Straczynski, an experienced Hollywood scriptwriter who'd worked on series such as He-Man, The Real Ghostbusters, The Twilight Zone, Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future and Murder, She Wrote before becoming executive producer and co-showrunner on B5.

Straczynski conceived of the show in 1987. A huge fan of authors such as J.R.R. Tolkien, Isaac Asimov and Frank Herbert and TV shows like Star Trek, Blake's 7, Doctor Who and The Prisoner, he'd previously been working on two separate SF projects. The first was a small-scale, personal show set on a space station and focusing on characters. The second was a big, epic story told on a huge canvas. One day - whilst in the shower according to Straczynski - he hit on the idea of combining the two into a single show, with the potentially ruinously expensive big story told through the (much more affordable) lens of the space station setting. Originally he planned two five-year shows, Babylon 5 and its immediate sequel, Babylon Prime, but whilst working on the show's first season realised this was over-ambitious and conflated the two into a single, five-year storyline.

Straczynski's pre-planning and recruitment of respected producer Douglas Netter allowed Babylon 5 to be presented to studio execs with detailed costings, which suggested the show could be made for not much more than half of the budget of the then-on-air Star Trek: The Next Generation. Key to this plan was for the show's special effects to be completely computer-generated, eschewing the then-standard expensive and time-consuming use of motion-controlled cameras and models. Early CGI pioneer Ron Thornton (himself a veteran of British series such as Blake's 7, for which he built spaceship models in the final season) used a Commodore Amiga computer equipped with a Video Toaster plug-in card to produce an impressive image of the Babylon 5 space station orbiting a planet which wowed execs. However, most were still wary of the show, believing that there was only room for one space opera franchise on TV and that was Star Trek. Paramount themselves turned down the project in 1989 (the source of Straczynski's later grumbles when the superficially-similar Deep Space Nine was announced two years later).

In 1991, Warner Brothers agreed to develop Babylon 5 as a TV pilot. Straczynski was surprised: during the pitching session, he shattered one of his teeth and got through the rest of the session slightly spaced out on painkillers and ice. But Warner Brothers liked the idea and got behind the show with enthusiasm. SFF magazines, keen to see a non-Star Trek show on the air, also gave the project plenty of early coverage. Even computer magazines leap aboard, thrilled at seeing affordable home computers (the Amiga was huge around 1989-94, especially in Europe) being used to generate special effects for a Hollywood production. All of this enthusiasm was nearly wasted when Warner Brothers wobbled upon hearing that Deep Space Nine was in development, but they held the course and got the pilot onto the screens.

Their faith was rewarded: Babylon 5's pilot pulled in impressive ratings, got favourable reviews and sold gangbusters when it was released on VHS and LaserDisc for rental and sale a few months later. A first season was commissioned, which started airing in January 1994, with some modest cast changes (and impressive upgrades in CGI hardware). The final episode aired on 25 November 1998.

15 comments:

Mazarkis Williams said...

Ivanova is always right. I will listen to Ivanova. I will not ignore Ivanova's recommendations. Ivanova is God.

LisaR said...

We loved that show here! In fact, my younger son is named after John Sheridan and Michael Garibaldi. Can't believe it's been over 14 years since the last episode.

Doug M. said...

Happy birthday indeed! The best scifi show NOT on American's TVs since 2003. :(

Netflix had it very briefly, but alas...

A.J. said...

I watched the pilot and bits of episodes when B5 first aired, but I never really got into it. I did always remember the scene with the ant, though, and the fact that you would never have seen that on Star Trek. Years later, my brother-in-law convinced me (it wasn't hard) to watch the first season with him on DVD. I then bought all 5 seasons and plowed through them. Babylon 5 is now the standard by which I judge TV shows, and most modern shows are found wanting.

yellowdingo said...

I loved the CGI because I saw Netter Digital's work on Hypernauts.

Bob Milne said...

I had such trouble getting into the series when it first aired, finding myself hung up on the "shininess" of the computer animation. It was just too clean, to perfect, to . . . well, digital.

I have found greater appreciation for it in reruns, but it's been a while since I watched more than a scattered episode here and there.

Jaime Huff said...

A big chunk of the cast will be at the Phoenix ComiCon. I can't wait to see their panel. Love, love, love B5!

Michael B said...

Babylon 5 is brilliant. It's to me what Star Trek was to my Dad in the 60s.

Ghost said...

I remember when I saw the first episode and thought it was a letdown. Man, that was 20 years ago. My god, I feel old.

Adam Whitehead said...

Netter Digital produced HYPERNAUTS but Foundation Imaging did the actual CGI (in one case getting a file mixed up so a single frame from HYPERNAUTS wound up in a S3 episode of BABYLON 5 by accident). Foundation did Seasons 1-3 of B5 and Netter Seasons 4-5. Frankly, I find Foundation's of much higher quality, especially in the composition and direction of CGI shots. Netter's tended to be a bit more incoherent.

Anonymous said...

Best show ever made. Just as you say Pat, the fact that every mystery had a pre planed solution, elevates this above shows like Lost and Battlestar, that suffers for their lack of though out solutions.

Alex Walsh said...

I've always thought season 3's Severed Dreams was near enough untouchable when it comes to space battles. Must rewatch it and disappoint myself :)

doike aleman said...

Hi. Amazing review of an amazing series. I´m currently watching B5 for the first time ever. SFX have aged, obviously, but the history stands. I don´t remember why I hadn´t seen it before. I tried the pilot twice, but I guess I was spoilt by too many, more elaborated CGI in shows that came afterwards. This time I was patient, I gave the show an honest shot....and now I can´t stop. The story and the characters are pretty amazing and I just want more.
Curiously I hadn´t tried B5, biased against the aliens, I guess, but now Delenn and G´Kar are by far my favourites.

I hope someone in Europe decides to make an anniversary con somewhere.
Faith manages

Anonymous said...

WATCH, the TV channel in UK/Ireland is starting a complete re-run of the entire series from today :)

Anonymous said...

The TV channel WATCH in UK/Ireland is starting a complete re-run of the series as of today! 5 pm GMT every weekday