Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Babylon 5: First Impressions

For a long time, I've kinda thought that besides the giant Star Trek franchise, the three great sci-fi TV shows are Doctor Who, Battlestar Galactica and Babylon 5. (I'll throw Stargate in there for kicks, but I just can't get past the ancient Egyptian aliens thing.) I'm in love with the second one and rather enamored of the first one, but up until now I'd never gotten around to Babylon. I recently got through the premiere movie and just now finished the first episode, and I'd like to give some early impressions. 

First Note in Four Days is about what now?

-First of all, the computer graphics are god-awful. They look like what you see nowadays in the behind-the-scenes of a Pixar film, before they've filled in the texture and details of faces and backgrounds, or possibly a N64 video game. The series started out in the early 1990s, so it's understandable, but the graphics are still really bad. You won't find anything like the beautiful wide-angle shots of Galactica and the rest of the fleet, or playing around with textures and lighting, here. 

However, I'm grading Babylon 5 on a massive curve because of what they're attempting to do. Even in just the pilot and the first episode, we see a space battle, fleets emerging out of hyperspace and immense shots of the Babylon 5 space station itself from quite a ways away. It may look awful by modern standards, but what they're trying to do is so far beyond the graphics they had at the time, it's hard not to admire it. 

-The writing has started out as pretty clunky, too. The first episode serves you three stories that are so different--a war between two rival species on Ragash III, space raiders around Babylon 5, friction between a telepath and a senior officer--that you know they're probably going to coalesce, and when they do it isn't much of a surprise. It's also fairly easy to predict what the characters are going to say. That said, it's still early on and it will undoubtedly get better as the writers get more comfortable.

-On the other hand, the high muckety-mucks are going out of their way to universe-build early. In the pilot, we were introduced to four alien empires that humanity maintains diplomatic relations with; in episode 1, we meet (briefly) a huge rogue's gallery of other species, and get personal tidbits about all of the show's main characters. Again, it's clunky; personal anecdotes are sort of dropped into the episode at random, but however forced it felt, by the end of the episode I felt like I knew the officers of Babylon 5 and a few of the alien diplomats a bit better. I also had a decent feel for the central government on Earth, which they drop in as well. It's a lot of information all at once, but it also signifies that the show won't have much dead time. Babylon 5's selling point is its complex plots, after all, and I'm rather excited to see what they come up with. 

-The political-legal-diplomatic climate looks like where the meat of the show will be, something that Battlestar and Star Trek dabble in and Doctor Who ignores entirely. There's apparently an interracial legal framework, within which Babylon 5 is neutral ground that is administered by representatives from all five major empires. The first episode reminds us, however, that just because every race has a diplomatic representative on board doesn't mean there's peace everywhere. We get an unprovoked attack on a Centauri farming colony by a Narn fleet in the first episode. It's definitely an unstable political climate, which I think will make it more fun to watch than simply trying to keep the peace. (The opening sequence's line "Babylon 5 is the galaxy's last, best hope for peace" keeps making me think of Gundam Wing, by the way. Even the announcers sound similar.)

So far, there has been a notable lack of giant space robots.

Overall, I think there's a lot of potential in Babylon 5. As it stands now, after watching the first two chunks of show, I don't like it terrrrrribly much on its own merits. They were decent episodes, but not on the level of a Battlestar or a Doctor Who or even a good Firefly episode. I like it for what I think the series has the capability to do. Let's see where this goes.

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