Oct 032018
 

“Only one human has ever defeated a Minbari fleet in battle.  He is behind me; you are in front of me.  If you value your lives, be somewhere else.” Ambassador Delenn of the Minbari to Earth Alliance attack fleet, Season 3.


When Ambassador Delenn utters these words after a major space battle, and at a time when it seems utter destruction of Babylon 5 is imminent and despair abounds, one can barely resist jumping on the couch and doing a clenched fist “yeah!”  Which I’m sure you’ll admit is not a common occurrence in TV dramas of any kind, and it says something about the emotional power of this often overlooked sci-fi series. Because Babylon 5 created a world so immersive, storytelling so strong, identification with the characters and narrative situation so remarkably complete, that one felt an energy and emotional connection to its characters, similar to that which Star Trek fans had for Mr. Spock, say.

The show, which ran for five years between 1993 to 1997,  was a sprawling, operatic indulgence in world building, as seamlessly constructed as the Star Trek or Star Wars universes, and positioned itself between the character-driven style of the former and the grand themes of the latter. What it also did, and which is not generally acknowledged, was to point the way towards the golden age of long-form television through which we are now living.

In the years before (and during, and after) it aired, the episodic formula of TV was alive and well and had been the standard for decades. One could watch a series, or jump into it, at pretty much any point and miss nothing.  Characters in such series were often very similar from one year to the next, few showing any kind of massive variation, let alone development. Of course, daytime soaps were plotted over many years, but they ground on in a kind of never ending continuity that replaced old and resolved situations with new ones (or twisted the same old ones into new shapes); in contrast B5 was envisioned from the very beginning as having a five year story arc, to be shown over five seasons, with each season telling the story of what happened in a calendar year.  Long term planning was done at the inception, not as the show went on, and this allowed storylines or character arcs that were set up in Season 1 or 2 to not be crucial, or developed, or resolved, until much later in the series (which fortunately allowed the show to skate over some occasionally weak writing and pacing problems).

In this way it was miles ahead of more popular pop-cultural icons where the creators seemed to make things up as they went along, without a clear end game in sight, and pointed to a viable alternative to episodic television where one could jump in at any time and never get lost.  Eschewing this format and sticking with the long form, J. Michael Straczynski (JMS from here on) plotted out his epic completely, and moved seamlessly towards his conclusion so well that he was able to weather the loss of a lead character in Season 1 and the near-cancellation of the series in Season 4 and still manage to continue the series and bring it to a proper end a year later.

***

To summarize the plot is difficult, but let’s do what we can. Set in the 2200s, the B5 galaxy consisted of various space-faring races.  Humans, of course. An older, and somewhat more technologically advanced race called the Minbari who were deeply ritualized. Two other major races were the Centauri (modelled after a mix of ancient Rome and revolutionary France with crazier hairstyles), and the Narns (humanoids with brown skin and leopard spots who had been conquered by the Centauri and who had only recently won their freedom and were now expanding aggressively).  These two, exemplified by their respective ambassadors, were highly antagonistic towards each other and were joined by a League of Non-Aligned Worlds made up of a number of smaller spacefaring races who in turn provided backdrop, and swelled an episode or two here and there.  And lastly, there were the mysterious Vorlons who were far more technologically advanced than anyone else…but about whom nobody knew much, since they always wore “encounter suits” to hide their appearance and prevented excursions into their own space.

Ten years before the events of the series in 2258, there had been a major war between Earth and Minbar in which almost resulted in the annihilation of the human race before the Minbari inexplicably surrendered on the cusp of complete victory.  At around the same time the Narns rebelled against the Centauri Empire and won their freedom – the two remained bitter enemies ever since, fighting inconclusive skirmishes and jousting for influence and power with the lesser races. After the chaos of the Earth-Minbari conflict, it was decided to set up a space station in neutral territory to act as a sort of United Nations of the galaxy to prevent future carnage. Babylon 1, 2 and 3 were either sabotaged or destroyed, and B-4 mysteriously disappeared twenty four hours after going operational.  At the beginning of the series, then, tensions, while remaining high, were managed in a sort of uneasy, fragile peace.  But gradually that peace was beginning to unravel, and a strange new race of enormous hostility and destructive power (they were appropriately called “the Shadows”) was moving quietly, building allies and interfering in the agendas of the races to deliberately provoke conflict.  Wars large and small were breaking out everywhere, and simultaneously there were problems on earth as a sinister group of (Earth) Government telepaths called the PsiCorps came to power behind the scenes, and Earth began to slide into an Orwellian dictatorship after the assassination of the president at the end of Season 1.

Over the course of the five seasons, all major and many minor characters were drawn into the great war that the Shadows unleashed, and their personalities and lives were altered in often surprising, unexpected ways. The ambitious Centauri ambassador Londo Mollari became Emperor but found redemption, his mortal enemy G’Kar became a revered spiritual leader, the Minbari ambassador Delenn changed her genetic makeup and found love, and the station Captain became a commander, a general and a statesman. The station Doctor found humility, the Commander of the station unrequited love, the Security Chief became a businessman. And such developmental arcs were not limited to the small “main” cast, but given to many other smaller roles that in other shows would have not received such depth of treatment (as G’Kar notes presciently in season 1, “Nobody here is exactly what they seem.”) The Vorlons and the Shadows have their rationales, twisted as they may be.  Alfred Bester the PsiCop is a smirkingly evil sort-of villain played by Walter Koenig (better known as Ensign Chekhov) has appalling yet also rational reasons for what he does; Talia Winters the telepath reveals a depth of humanity not immediately evident; Vir Cotto grows from a bumbling idiot in the first season to his boss’s conscience (and later, emperor himself); a throwaway Narn character from an earlier episode becomes G’Kar’s bodyguard, and later disciple. A Minbari warrior leader utterly opposed to Ambassador Delenn proves to have greater depths than suspected.  And so on.

All this is played against a technological setting that actually makes sense. Faster than light travel is accomplished by the use of “jump gates” or “jump points” which serve as conduits to hyperspace, a concept so ubiquitous in science fiction that one can hardly fault the creators for not looking for something more original. Babylon 5 creates gravity for itself by the use of rotating sections, which is scientifically sound. Medicine, weapons, computers, spacecraft and communications are similar to our current world, just made a little more advanced for the setting. Time travel is treated with respect and is organic to the story, not just some quick one-episode trick. It’s perfectly believable all the way through.  Moreover, there is a backdrop of galactic history here — of empires risen and fallen, of old races and young ones, differing cultures, religions and mind sets — that is nicely integrated into the overall tapestry of the core story.

Babylon 5 suffered by being – inevitably – compared to Star Trek,  the other sci-fi TV series that dominated the channels at that time.  ST: The Next Generation copied the episodic format of the Original Series (as did Star Trek Voyager which premiered two years later); and in concept B5 was more like Deep Space 9, which was often thought to be a rip off of B5.  To some extent the B5 Universe is different in conception and execution from that more famous creation, however.  The emphasis was on grand movements of galactic history and the shift of people’s characters over time; of politics, religion, fanaticism, rise, fall, strength, weakness, honour, love, hate, good, evil.  And indeed, the B5 characters were more flawed, much less noble, made mistakes, suffered enormous tragedy, in a way the many other universes simply never explored. The social constructs were grittier and less rosy; war was considered almost a normal state of affairs, as was poverty and prejudice; and the different races had distinct personalities and religious beliefs that were fleshed out over a long period. Even the special effects and production design were different, giving the show a look and feel that quite original (though by today’s standards, primitive). In its examination of smaller, greater and even galactic themes, it pushed the boundaries for science fiction in ways that had not previously been done, and if it had been, then nowhere on this scale or (I argue) this well.

Certainly there is a derivative feel to the series.  Behind the sweep of storytelling of empires rising and falling, wars won and lost, characters suffering love or loss or death, lie the great archetypes of our historical storytelling tradition.  The hero on a quest, the lady fair, the venerable teacher who dies, evil villains and creatures and deeds most foul.  Reality while adhered to, often takes second place to visual momentum: I mean consider the Shadow vessels – in no way can they be termed logical in design (one wonders where the crew, if any, bother to sit, or where they fit into the fighters), but man, just look at them.  They are instantly recognizable as evil, and may actually be the scariest warships ever seen on TV.  So, who cares about the practicality?  They work at the level of our subconscious race memories, where we fear the darkness and creepy crawly spiders.

In its influences, some are quite clear. Christian motifs are quite obvious, and plentiful. JMS took much inspiration from the Lord of the Rings: the Third Age, the Rangers, the Shadows, Lorien, Zahadum (a play on Khazad Dum), as well as a hero who falls to death there and is revived by a greater and older power, the uniting of two long sundered branches of life by a marriage in the present (like Aragorn and Arwen)…and with many other small details that are a wink to Tolkien.  There are also references to Arthurian legend, as in the naming of Mr. Morden, Exacalibur or the episode “A Late Delivery From Avalon”. JMS named his series after the Baylonian creation myth and the conflict between order and chaos, not only in the show’s title, but in the opposing philosophies of the two great older races. Shakespearean quotations are sprinkled throughout. The great machine of the Krell from “Forbidden Planet” is winked at. A nod to Alfred Bester’s novel “The Demolished Man” is there for those who are familiar with sci-fi and Earth’s slide to a surveillance state echoes “1984” quite obviously.

***

If the show had weaknesses, one of them was certainly the lengthy setup in Season 1 which required far too many standalone episodes that did not always fit neatly into subsequent seasons, and the loss of Michael O’Hare to illness forced the removal of his major character and replacement with the talented Bruce Boxleitner, who at first seemed too boyish for the role but inhabited it so well it’s impossible to think of anyone else doing it. Season 5 had a tacked-on feel mandated by the show’s near cancellation  in its fourth year, so JMS had to truncate several storylines and telescope others. Claudia Christian, another major character, left the show at this time, and all these issues meant that some continuity was unavoidably lost.  Essentially, Season 2 through 4 were the core of it all, and remain the most watchable, the most riveting — with 1 and 5 more like essential bookends required for full understanding but not as enjoyable. The important thing to understand is that individual episodes might be problematic, but taken as a whole, there is a remarkable sense of JMS knowing exactly what he was doing every step of the way.

I also argue that for all its pacing problems — certain aspects of the long story take too long to set up and are resolved too quickly, or unsatisfactorily, though fortunately the whole remains strong – that the series managed to maintain coherency and consistency under these pressures, and still manage to deliver on 90% of what its creator envisioned, is some kind of miracle in modern TV entertainment. Unfortunately, unlike the other two franchises mentioned, B5 never really succeeded in becoming a touchstone of modern culture.  Perhaps this was because it was too ahead of its time, and in its own way, perhaps even too quirky.  Producers feared to alienate audiences who could not come in at any point and know what was going on (as they could with Star Trek).  B5 was a show that required continuous viewing over a long period in the days before Netflix and DVDs and binge watching whole seasons.

The show did however spawn a number of TV movies (the best was a prequel called “In the Beginning”) and even a spinoff series called Crusade, which was cancelled before it even went on TV, though thirteen episodes had been filmed and eventually aired in 1999.  Babylon 5 had a life in comics, novels and games, the last of which it could be said to have influenced rather more than any of the others.  But nowadays I think it’s been relegated to a second tier production that lives on in occasional syndication but without the cultural impact I felt it could have had if, say, it came out now (which is unlikely). Another twenty years, it’ll be forgotten except by older fans.

It’s possible that a show like Babylon 5 may never be made again.  Star Wars and Star Trek can work within their visual and cultural parameters precisely because of their near unassailable position  in pop culture and the collective consciousness of the audience.  But other sci fi series have a harder time of it.  Battlestar Galactica went the route of realistic “hard” sci-fi and was one of the better ones, partly because of superior special effects and partly due to a solid multi-year story arc with a clear ending.  “The Expanse” is another, perhaps even better – it’s also long-form in nature. But Babylon 5, with its grand themes is less on a level with those, lacks their hard-core engineering reality – it’s part of a myth pool, and cheerfully plunders mankind’s darkest fears, its earliest legends, its most powerful and enduring stories, to weave a complex tale of its own. The shakiness of its special effects to modern eyes, its occasionally poor writing, and its failing in comparison to other sci-fi series, should never blind one to either the trail it blazed for TV sci-fi, or the overall narrative excellence it displayed.  I still think it’s one of the best of its kind ever made, and maybe that’s why I watch it without regret, shame or apology every few years from start to finish.  My family regards this exercise in self-indulgence with a sort of he’s-at-it-again patience, but what the hell, it’s just that kind of experience.


Some references and additional notes

Apr 012013
 

One of the pleasures of watching BBC TVs 2010/2012 show “Sherlock” is the sly, tongue in cheek references it makes to the canon of Sherlock Holmes; another is the sheer length of each episode…ninety minutes per; and a third is the precise casting of the eponymous lead and the Doctor. About the only thing I grumble about in this well-written, well-acted TV series is the fact that the Brits don’t seem to understand that a season should not be three episodes a year – even Life on Mars and its follow up had more.  And for someone as iconic as the Baker Street ‘tec, with multitudinous adventures both direct or merely alluded-to…well, there’s no shortage of material here.

But move beyond these issues, watch the show, and tell me that if you have even the slightest interest in Holmesia, that this is not a brilliant recapturing of the spirit of the famous consulting detective and his faithful sidekick. Updated for the modern world, complete with smartphones and texting instead of hand-delivered notes, or London cabs instead of hansoms, delivering sly winks at the iconography at every turn, it’s a treat for anyone who has worked his way through the literary Conan-Doyle canon. I adore this kind of clever construction.

The series opener is a good example of what I mean, down to the title itself: “A Study in Pink.” Watson, recently discharged from the army after being wounded in Afghanistan (the show nudges the ribs in having Watson limp, yet stating his wound was actually in the shoulder – the wound alternated in Doyle’s stories too) is looking for digs, and is introduced to Holmes by an old friend.  It’s in the first meeting and the subsequent conversations that you see the impact that a modern sensibility has on the show: Holmes’s rapid fire delivery, the decision to show his deductions as little texts on screen, his lanky uncoordinated movements and his barely concealed disdain for the lesser mortals who are not quite as sharp as he is. Benedict Cumberbatch, now better known in 2013 as Khan from the second Star Trek reboot (good acting and a workmanlike effort, but one soon to be forgotten…Montalban has a lock on the character, sorry), to my mind made his bones here as an actor to watch even after his work on “Atonement” – observe the body language, the well-modulated voice, the expressions: they’re all perfect for the persona that, over hundreds of films and shows, has taken residence in our collective imaginations.

The writers seem to have a lot of fun upending expectations. The choice of taking the pill from the “A Study in Scarlet” novella, one deadly one harmless, is somewhat reversed here, having a different motivation; the word “Rache” opined by Lestrade in the book as being “Rachel” and dismissed by Holmes as being German for revenge, is here actually referring to a Rachel. Holmes hates the deerstalker hat made iconic in Sidney Paget’s Strand illustrations. Even Moriarty’s plot to discredit Holmes by pretending innocence and that it’s all Holmes’s imagination to create an uber-villain, has echoes of Nicolas Meyer’s “Seven Percent Solution” novel and film (the phrase is referenced several times).  That’s what I mean about the show being clever: it’s got clues and references cheerfully scattered all around it. The blog Watson keeps has playful takes on Holmes’s canonical adventures….I particularly liked “The Speckled Blonde” and “The Six Thatchers”, and the reference to the five pips and to Spock (who may be a relative, if you believe Star Trek VI)

The relative quality of various episodes has a hard time keeping up.  I thought “A Scandal in Belgravia” was well put together – the cat and mouse game Holmes and Irene Adler play with modern technology, as well as their overt and covert relationship were wonderful to watch (although the last five minutes is not actually necessary).  In others: Mycroft is well cast, with delicious dialogue of his own; the ongoing effort of Watson to enter into a romantic relationship is one of the show’s low key humourous delights, as is the running gag of Watson trying to tell everyone he and Holmes are not gay.  And I was intrigued with – how could I not mention the arch-enemy? – the take on Moriarty, who is seen as an evil genius, yes, but less of the old school, genteel, Brit steel, and more of an American warped-genius psycho mentality.  Maybe it was necessary to take the good doctor in a different direction, but perhaps for a character as well known as this one, veering off course might not have been the best way to go (he is neither referred to, nor really gives the impression, of being the “Napoleon of crime”).  However, that’s minor…you kind of have to enjoy the spectacle of clever people facing off against each other in a battle of wits each hoping to be a step ahead of the other.

I’ve long believed that Spock, Sheldon Cooper and House MD (the last probably more clearly than any) are incarnations of the concept of the driven genius so well exemplified by Holmes.  All shy away from, if not actually despise, interpersonal relationships; all are genius-level professionals lacking external interests outside their area of focus; they are always the smartest people in the room, running rings around the merely average intellects surrounding them.  I could mention Hercule Poirot, Lord Peter Whimsey, Adam Dalgleish, or even the many other smart detectives shown on American television (CSI springs to mind), but it’s the coldness and haughty, sneering demeanours covering a certain well-concealed, rarely-revealed (and even more rarely acknowledged) humanity that sets the detective, the Vulcan, the physicist and the doctor apart.

At end, though it’s all about Holmes’s genius and Watson’s everyman persona, and their relationship.  I’ll be the first to accept that the season two closer handles their friendship awkwardly at best (in contrast, the conclusion of A Study in Pink was written just perfectly).  I enjoyed Martin Freeman’s Watson expressing his ongoing exasperation with Holmes’s superiority complex (I was reminded of the way Leonard and the boys always groan “Nooo” whenever Penny asks Sheldon a question they know will result in a long winded and confusing answer), and attention should be paid to the interaction between Holmes and the shy pathologist Molly, to say nothing of his relationship with Mrs. Hudson (“Unthinkable. If she leaves, England will fall”) and even Lestrade, who grudgingly respects him.  Speaking for myself, the various conversations between and with the doctor and the detective remain the heart and soul of the show, as they were in the books and all the other films.  The cases are just convenient backdrop and set decoration for that.

These matters showcase something I’ve always felt: a show’s writing is the key, and it must be about more than just explosions, chases, murders and everything tied up in a bow at the end.  To take up residence in our imaginations, a film or a show must have heart, must involve us in the characters, their inner lives and turmoils, make us feel for them, care for them, cheer for them. Sherlock may be uneven at times, but it’s overall quality of writing, direction, dialogue, music, production design and characterization is a cut above the ordinary, and I look forward to see what the Brits come up with for the world’s foremost consulting detective in the next three episodes. After all, as even Conan-Doyle found out, you just can’t keep the good detective dead forever.

Apr 012013
 

Every now and then I get an idea and just run with it.  This is an adaptation of an essay I put together which briefly explored several themes I thought intriguing. And what the hell…I like the arts as well as rum, so why not?

***

As Mulder and Scully, “The Third Man”, “Babylon 5,” “Lucas,” and so many others have showed us so many times, unrequited love is probably the most heart-rending of them all. Done badly, features or shows which do not honour the underlying depth of such feelings are sentimental tripe. Done well, and one watches something luminous unfold.

If I had to chose a movie that stayed with me for long past the day I saw it first, then it would have to be the South Korean piece “3-Iron”. I’m not entirely sure why they called it that, since the club in question is not the central motif, except perhaps in an obscure sense. Critic James Berardinelli suggests that the main male character’s undervalued and overlooked persona make the analogy to golf’s possibly least-used club somewhat inevitable, but I think that may be overanalyzing.

In essence, this gentle film shows what pacing, mood and atmosphere can do to elevate the humdrum into something more special, perhaps even artistic. The journey and travails of the young man and the battered wife have a sense of timelessness about them – it is no stretch to imagine this as a silent movie. To western eyes it is also a very strange story, since the way the youth goes into houses and stays there (in spite of the things he does while in residence) strike a sense of discord in a society more used to people vandalizing and tearing up a home they enter without permission.

Be that as it may, at the very end, the woman, seemingly reconciled with her husband, says “I love you,’ and the way it is said, how it said, make the emotion of that perfect moment nothing short of magical.

And to me, I immediately saw that scene mirrored in another film abut outsiders: “Dirty Pretty Things”, which is not so much about a young Turkish immigrant and a West African one in the streets of London, trying not to get deeper into the quagmire of an organ theft operation, as about survival at the bottom rung, in a hostile, skewed world, where viciousness and cruelty are the order of the day. There again, in a scene of uncommon sadness and power, the two main characters say goodbye at the airport, moments away from parting forever, and then, almost unheard, she admits her feelings before turning away.

Which brings me to the third, and to my mind, one of the strongest animated films ever made (number four in line behind “Princess Mononoke”, “The Incredibles” and “Grave of the Fireflies”), “The Iron Giant,” where Hogarth Hughes delights in the strange mechanical object he befriends in the woods of Maine, at the height of the Communist scare in 1957. While the film makes a strong case for not jumping to conclusions about others and holding back an instinctive urge to destroy what we do not understand, the core of it all is the relationship between the kid and his robot (whose origins are never really spelled out, though the DVD gives some hints of the civilization from which he came). And as in the other two films noted here, at the end, when the giant leaves (for reasons I will leave you to discover), there is a swell of emotion, of sadness, of poignancy, and when Hogarth says “I love you,” there isn’t a dry eye in the house.

I agree that “E.T”. was wonderful, that moment in “The Empire Strikes Back” was great, and that there have been dramas out there which have pulled the heartstrings and misted the eye. It’s something about the backdrop, the fullness of the characters and the story, which make these three films stand out. Forget seeing the latest blockbuster. For three unsung, quiet and overlooked films about the nature of unrequited love, look no further than these