Thursday, 1 April 2021

Babylon Burning Bright



Babylon 5, a seminal space opera instrumental in popularising long-form storytelling, has a new lease of life on iTunes, Amazon (affiliate link) and HBO Max.

As I've written previously, the sci-fi series will always be synonymous with undergraduate study and culminated in a letter (co-written with friends) published in Starburst magazine around the time I first saw my name in print in Dark Horse Comics' Classic Star Wars.

Nick Smith, our US-based stellar scribe, goes on a mysterious mythic quest in deep space.

Guest post by Nick Smith

"Life’s full of mysteries," says Commander Jeffrey Sinclair (Michael O’Hare) in the ‘90s space opera Babylon 5. One of those mysteries is, why doesn’t the show get more love?

Warner Bros’ Babylon 5 has a lot going for it – likeable heroes, mysterious aliens, galaxy-shaking secrets and political shenanigans. Its imprimatur can be seen in more recent shows like 2004’s Battlestar Galactica and The Expanse. But unless you’re a hardcore fan, chances are B5’s slipped off your radar if it was ever blipping there in the first place.

By the time Babylon 5 premiered in 1993, TV audiences were used to glossy space operas thanks to Paramount’s Star Trek: The Next Generation. The latter was so popular that it spawned its own spin-off in the early ‘90s, Deep Space 9. B5 and DS9 were both set on space stations, featuring the interaction of different aliens who didn’t always get along, energized by a rivalry to match that of Warner Bros. and Paramount.

The show does seem dated, with a more leisurely pace than we’re used to in our fancy new-fangled shows and computer-generated space vessels that look… computer generated. Nevertheless, thanks to the amiable acting and ambitious writing, B5 deserves a revisit and HBO Max apparently agrees, as it’s currently streaming a remastered version of all five seasons.

According to Warner Bros., the episodes have been scanned in 4K from the original Super 35mm negatives, cleaned up, colour corrected and released in 4:3 HD. That means we can see Sinclair’s impressive eyebrows comin’ at us in Hi-Def; marvel at the great makeup job on aliens like the Soul Taker, who really looks like he has a jewel embedded in his forehead; and cringe at some of the regular, human makeup, now you can see the (lack of) blending around the eyes or a wee bit too much blush on the cheeks. And that’s just the guys.

Babylon begins with its vaguely ponderous pilot episode The Gathering, introducing main characters like Sinclair (Michael O’Hare), Michael Garibaldi (Jerry Doyle), Londo Mollari (Peter Jurasik) and G’Kar (Andreas Katsulas).

Show creator J. Michael Straczynski seems concerned that the general public will be turned off by sci-fi, so he includes a murder mystery plot and a courtroom drama (Sinclair accused of the mysterious murder).

The story serves its purpose of familiarizing us with different alien races and indicating the tension between them. The Minbari fought the humans but surrendered at a pivotal moment in the war; G’Kar and Londo have an inculcated hatred for each other that might take, oh, five years to work through.

There’s a sense that the story would be better if it stuck with one trope instead of three but Straczynski knows what he’s doing – he is, after all, the author of my well-thumbed copy of The Complete Book of Scriptwriting – a Save the Cat for space heads.

After The Gathering, the show quickly improves, with a more relaxed cast, more fluid camerawork and tighter editing. There are some fun aliens like N’Grath, who puts the ‘man’ into praying mantis. CGI creatures were not really feasible back in Grandpa’s day so we get good ol’ fashioned practical BEMs instead. The humanoid alien makeup is great, as evidenced by formerly mentioned, gem-headed Soul Hunter – more on that bad boy in a moment.

Episode two highlights the rivalry between G’Kar and Londo and introduces a few new characters, including Lt. Commander Susan Ivanova (Claudia Christian) and psychic Talia Winters (Andrea Thompson). Like Sinclair before her, Ivanova will grow on the audience and all the characters become likeable over time.

Episode three features the Soul Hunter, who represents an immediate threat to the Minbari and becomes the second ‘killer on the loose’ in the show so far. Tellingly, the Hunter is not an out-and-out monster; he wants to save souls. The rest of the series develops in a similar manner, with sympathetic villains and moral dilemmas explored in fascinating arcs, with pay-offs begun in the pilot (Sinclair is told he has ‘a hole in his mind’) leading to a satisfying conclusion.

J. Michael Straczynski wrote the majority of the episodes, taking a grown-up approach to space stuff. I admired him. I really wanted to like his saga and I read about it religiously in DreamWatch Bulletin magazine [I miss the fanzine and not solely because my words were reprinted in its pages - Ed]. But it was hard to follow Babylon 5 on British TV, partly because of its scheduling on Channel 4 and also because I was in university at the time, spending my time with ne'er-do-wells like a certain Mr John Hood!

So, it’s great to be able to see this epic streamed in order without interruption, showcasing Straczynski’s masterclass in story development, inspiring sci-fi fans and providing a new best hope for some quality entertainment.

What are your favourite memories of Babylon 5 or are you discovering the series for the first time? Let me know in the comments below.

2 comments:

  1. Loved Babylon 5 and it’s story arc across the 5 seasons. It really kicked on for me from
    season 2 when John Sheridan took over as Commander and the Shadows started to feature more and more. Definitely an underrated programme.

    ReplyDelete

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