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.