Why Babylon 5 is the Worst Best Thing in Televised Science Fiction – Ever

And so it begins…

Telling someone you love Babylon 5 is a powerful admission, since to the uninitiated,  the show is nearly indefensible.  Only “those people” are fans of Babylon 5; there are no casual fans of B5.

I remember first seeing it in passing, or maybe just the “next time…on BABYLON 5!” – possibly in late afternoons amid Highlander reruns, and perhaps the primary memory I had of glimpsing into that universe was a hearty “what the fuck?”

A slice of Babylon 5 is a bizarre and disorienting thing – absurd costuming and set design, paired with an overwrought, synthy score – like some sort of space-elf battle music – and the sense that every character on the show is standing with their finger over “the button.”  It’s fucking intense.  It looked a little too intense for me, at the time, and frankly, it just seemed a little silly.  So I…ahem…just went ahead and watched the rest of whatever Highlander or Star Trek TNG episode I had on without giving it a lot of thought.

But alas, I did in fact watch it, many years later, in its entirety, over the course of about a month or two.  Five seasons.  Twenty two episodes per season.  Several feature length movies.  All of it.  My entire life became watching that show, and everything else was just the stuff I was doing until I was able to begin watching the show some more.  I can’t even imagine how devotees managed watching the original releases, a week between episodes, months between seasons.  It barely seems fair.

And this is a hard thing to explain to someone who’s just seen anywhere between five seconds and ten or so episodes.  Here’s why:

Acting – the acting isn’t universally bad, and in fact some of the actors are quite good.  But a lot of it is almost painful to watch.  Theatrical would be one way to describe it.  Completely ridiculous would be another way.  There aren’t many well-known faces, and I’m not sure anyone on the show even looks like a television star.  Certainly that was never a barrier for Star Trek, but there is definitely an “also-ran” quality to the people up on the screen.  The B team.  The main character of the show in the 1st season is perhaps the biggest culprit.

Writing – the dialogue is completely over the top at almost all times.  The sense of humor in the show is also very flat, though it grows on you.  That combination of stilted, theatrical talkity-talk and goofy jokes makes the show seem like the most aggressively uncool thing that has ever been on television.  That’s a strong statement.  It is also an accurate statement.

Effects – this was the first show to utilize digital for all of its visual effects, and it shows, and it’s not necessarily a virtue.  Time has not been kind to the effects on B5.

Set Design and Costuming – They really went for it.  There’s the joke that aliens on Star Trek are all basically humans with some altered coloring or slight differences in their bone structure.  That’s really true, but trying to really alien-ify your characters can lead to some pretty ridiculous looking things.  And then of course the early 90’s set designs, which couldn’t have possibly seemed stylish even at the time, are truly awful now.  The future that B5 would posit is faux-painted.  Everywhere.

Storylines – I think it’s fair to say that many of Babylon 5’s one-off storylines were pretty awful – kind of second rate Star Trek moralizing, though with a bit of an edge that must have seemed fresh at the time.

That’s the broad strokes, but there are some other specific challenges that seem like they would cripple other shows.  They lost multiple main characters through the course of the series, changed networks between the penultimate and final seasons, and the show-runner/head writer wrote nearly all of the episodes.  That last bit alone seems pretty staggering.

All of this is a tough pill to swallow, especially in the early going – but there are little seeds sown in the first season that give you that tickle in the back of your brain.  A story is introduced, a statement is made, a relationship conflict is sparked – and you get that unmistakable sense that “this means something.”

I don’t know a lot about television production, but I can gather that the combination of selling advertising space over a period of years, in an environment where dozens of people are collaborating to put a show together on a set schedule, balancing a budget, while corralling a group of actors, makes it all but impossible to produce a show that can make a promise and then deliver on it.  And we’ve seen shows labor to unpack their mythology only to see it crumble – The X-Files, Battlestar Galactica, Heroes, Lost – to name a few.  It’s enough to make you not really give a shit when you see a show attempting the pretense of a serialized story.  You know they can’t and won’t deliver.  Once bitten, twice shy.

And this is why Babylon 5 is probably the greatest science fiction show that has ever been, and maybe ever will be – because it all meant something.  The promise was kept.

How do you mitigate mediocre acting and semi-silly writing?  You take a group of characters through an intense transformation over the period of five seasons and deliver them all to a satisfying place that honors their journey and their choices.

Are all of the dum-dum plots for standalone episodes absolved by planting even a single detail of the master plot within them?  Yes, a thousand times yes.

And how much attention can you pay to the sets, the costumes, and the effects, when you’re dying to see how it all unfolds?  Over time?  Less and less and less.

Character arcs that begin in the 1st season are paid out in the 5th season, in ways that were unimaginable – except that you saw that last scene in the 1st season – and so your mind is blown.  The show delivers a timeline that extends one million years into the future, and thousands of years into the past – in a way that not only makes sense, but seems integral to the reality of the story.  And the reality of the story is the kind of epic space opera that has only ever existed in books.  B5 has scope for days.

In Babylon 5, where you end up retroactively justifies every challenge of the journey.

And that’s why, when the last episode is playing, you will cry.  Oh you will cry – sad to see these people you came to know making their goodbyes, knowing your time with them is over.

You’ll cry like someone stole your lunch money.

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6 Responses to Why Babylon 5 is the Worst Best Thing in Televised Science Fiction – Ever

  1. apocalypseweather says:

    Man, it’s so true. Whenever I have to defend my B5 love to a nonbeliever it’s always with this slightly shameful “and I know it’s cheesy, and I know it’s dated…” but at the same time, what I’m really thinking is, “BEST PLOT EVER! GOOD VS. EVIL VS. AMBIGUOUS MORALITY!” And the non-believers will just sigh and shake their heads, and they’ll never know. They’ll never KNOW, Matt, and that’s so sad for them! But us — we know. And our lives our enriched for it.

  2. Linda says:

    I’m so glad that I made B5 our ultimate relationship test. I thought, “If this guy can make it through this series and its movies, I may have to marry him.” And I did. It paid off didn’t it? 🙂 I have a vague memory of you calling in sick to work as well. Then there was the running out and buying season 5 just to exchange it for season 1 drama…not to mention the TV broke in the middle of an episode and you drove to your house and took the TV your roommates were using. Good times…B5 saved my life, but I won’t get into that story now.

  3. diana2261 says:

    I still maintain, the only show* to’ve ever gotten this non-watcher to demand that we watch the next episode immediately. My 2 favorite moments: announcing at the end of the first episode how much I hated my soon-to-be favorite character, and my husband’s quiet goggling as he re-watched the pilot movie with me (my first time, his second) and heard the throwaway line that’s revealed to be plot-worthy not until the middle/end of Season 2…

    *Farscape just did the same thing to me, last night.
    Me: “Where’s [Character B]? They didn’t show them at ALL in that episode! Their plotline’s still hanging wide open!”
    Husband: “…do you want to watch the first 3 minutes of the next episode?”
    Me: “…yes.”
    conclusion: Character B lives. We will watch the remaining 46 minutes tonight. 🙂

    • Matt says:

      OMG, you’re so right about both shows. I’m telling you, wait until the end of the series for Farscape’s “eeeearrgghh-whaaaaaatttt?!!!” moment.

  4. DaFunkyBeats says:

    I’m glad I found this article. I was feeling nostalgic & had just finished a few weeks of bingeing DS9 & Voyager… so I thought I’d take a chance on B5.
    I have to admit… I thought I was missing something. “Really?? They made 5 seasons/movies of *THIS*?!? Okay, okay… this was just the pilot. It (acting/dialog) *has* to get better in the main series”… I thought to myself. But, sadly… no. At least… not yet.
    Granted, I can forgive the CGI… because, well… I know what was available back then… and for a TV show, it isn’t all that bad. It’d certainly be great if they released a remaster Bluray set w/ newly rendered graphics. But who knows… that might ruin part of the charm.
    The one thing I can’t forgive though… is the acting. I’m up to S01E20 and there have been moments when the soap opera-esque acting punctuated by the overly used synth-scores have made me want to cringe. It seems like a table read through for some, rather than embracing their character and making it believable. And other times it just seems like they are completely uncomfortable with some of the goofy dialog, I give the creator props for writing 90% of the episodes… but I also think that may have been a weakness as well. But the mere fact that there’s soooo much content… I guess I’m hooked.

    • mattllavin says:

      You’re so right about the acting. It’s so bad with some characters — I’m looking at you, Sinclair and Garibaldi! But others seemed to really get their characters right way, like Peter Jurasik (Londo) and Andreas Katsulas (G’Kar). Ultimately I just don’t think they had a very strong talent pool to draw from. And then, even where they got fine talent, they proceeded to put some really labored and sci-fried words in their mouths.

      But but but! I won’t spoil it, but the acting does improve in season 2. And then, after a while, it begins to expand in your imagination and become the whole universe of ideas and relationships that it is for the creator/author/director/auteur — JMS. You will start to CRAVE his naked metaphors and his overtly-Shakespearean machinations. You won’t understand this about yourself, and you won’t always like yourself because of it, but you will CRAVE IT! 😉

      Btw, the AV Club did a pretty great episode-by-episode guide for the show — way more in detail than I would have ever gone. Recommended:



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