Saturday, August 13, 2011

Babylon 5: The Final Verdict

If you somehow missed the Babylon 5 rumpus that's been taking place around here for the past week, fear not: all the links can be found right exactly here. Last Friday, I did an overview of the show. Monday was the show's best characters, Tuesday was its worst, Wednesday was its best aspects and Thursday and Friday covered its worst aspects. Today, we wrap up the whole thing.

It occurred to me while I was writing the 'worst things' posts that I might be grading Babylon 5 on an unfair metric. Comparing B5 to the three best sci-fi shows of the 2000s--Battlestar Galactica, Doctor Who and Firefly) inevitably puts it at a disadvantage, and there are all kinds of mitigating circumstances relating to why it stinks at times. Its first four seasons aired on a network (PTEN) that was relatively unknown and probably doomed from its inception, its budget was poor, it was in an era of TV sci-fi that didn't have all that many standout shows, and so on. The best sci-fi shows of the 2000s benefited from ample budgets, well-known networks and better actors than B5 could muster.

I'm not so sure that's an excuse, though. Less than two decades after its release, Babylon 5 looks extremely dated. The bad CGI, the heavily made-up cast contribute to it and the pre-HD cameras contribute to it, but there's a certain look to the footage, sets and in the directing that just stamps the show as old-fashioned. (The camera basically remains at shoulder height for the entire series.) It gained a large cult following and is remembered fondly by many sci-fi fans, but against sleeker, more modern shows it just doesn't measure up.

Ultimately, it's hard to pin the show's faults on J. Michael Straczynski or on extenuating circumstances. The actors are wooden, the directing is ordinary and the dialogue is poor: is that Straczynski's fault, or was it the fault of the era? It's hard to prove one way or the other. Ultimately, though, the only real criteria upon which I can evaluate Babylon 5 is how it looks to me, a fan of sci-fi that came of age in the 2000s.

Viewed purely on its own merits, then, Babylon 5 falls short in most ways. As I've been saying throughout this weeklong review, the show is consistently mediocre. Straczynski often likened his creation to a novel, but it's not an exciting one if that's the case. Bad writing, a lot of bad acting, bad casting, bad set design and stories that took forever to tell drag this show down, and good acting, some good universe-building and a pair of good seasons resuscitate it. I think some of the show's appeal originally lay in its serialization and consistent mediocrity: you could turn on the TV every week and know what you were getting. It wasn't going to be more than occasionally good, but it wasn't going to be horribly bad either, perhaps because there was so little at stake.

If you're a fan of the shows I mentioned at the start of this post, Babylon 5 is probably not for you. It's not remotely in their league. If your standards are lower or you're a fan of '90s sci-fi, then give it a try.

More Or Less Arbitrary Grading Scale
Acting: B-
Set Design: D
Character Development: A-
Average Episode Quality Relative to Itself: C
Imagination: B
Writing: D+
Universe-Building: A-
Good Villains: C- (good in seasons 2 and 3, terrible in 4 and 5)
Good Heroes: D-
Good Characters Who Are Both: A
Series Ending: F
Arc Continuity: A
Character Continuity: D+



Anonymous said...

Well, I thought your reviews were terrible enough that I'm going to comment on them. I don't have a blogspot account so I'll have to do so anonymously, but suffice to say I'm not just a dissatisfied fan of Babylon 5. I've seen the show and I liked it much more than you did, but I also recognize where other shows like Firefly and BSG were far superior to it in many places.

But yeah, your critiques were so bad that I really can't just stay silent and let you dissuade potential viewers because you failed to recognize the point of the series whatsoever.

Andy said...

Dear Anonymous,

Hi! Welcome to my site. Since by your comments, you're apparently going to be a permanent fixture around here, it's good to have you on board.

I'm sorry you didn't like my weeklong review of Babylon 5. I do, however, appreciate your extraordinary restraint in both language and claims in describing my utter stupidity. The comment about my 'masturbatory fantasies' with regards to Firefly and BSG was particularly, how shall I say, cultured. You certainly have a way with the English language that I have yet to even dream of.

Anyway, I was originally going to reply to each of your comments and give you the kind of good, thoughtful, cogent answers you seem to so heartily desire, but then I remembered the first rule of the Internet: 'Don't feed the trolls'.
I do think we have legitimate philosophical differences about how we approach the process of evaluating a TV show, the role of the writers' intentions vs. the importance of the finished product, the importance of providing context for the show, whether subjectivity exists and so forth. I'd be interested in exploring those sometime. For now, though, this is as much food as this particular troll shall receive. Hope it's tasty.

Take care,

Jake said...

Well! I'm unfortunately going to inform you that I am probably not a permanent presence on your blog, as you may have noticed by the gulf in-between your response and this one. A response which I wasn't expecting at all, I'll add!

I'm actually only replying because I wanted to make it clear that a lot of the vitriol in my comments was deliberately overwrought, though I gather that probably wasn't very apparent on a medium like the Internet.

I also don't remember what most of my points were beneath the thick lacquer of swearing, insults and internet tough guy posturing, and you've (understandably) deleted most of those posts. I also wanted to reaffirm that I am in fact not a raveous Babylon 5 fanboy who froths at the mouth at the mere hint of a view contrary to my own.

Hopefully this comment doesn't make it seem like I'm apologetic, because I'm not, though in hindsight I wish I'd made insulting you my secondary goal and pointing out what I saw as genuine flaws in your evaluation the foremost one.

If you're interested in having a debate, though, I'm fully willing to do that. Maybe I've misjudged myself and I will end up sticking around to comment on your blog, but only time will tell.

the no longer Anonymous

Andy said...

Hey Jake,

I'm glad to hear that. I did kind of figure something of the kind. You came off more as someone who felt their show had been honestly wronged than an out-and-out troll, so I'm glad to see this as a response.
For the record, though, I really don't think I was being anti-Babylon 5. I don't hate the show at all. It was recommended to me by a friend who kind of billed it as one of the great sci-fi shows there are, up there with Battlestar, Who, Stargate etc, which probably colored my (slightly disappointed) reaction to it. For whatever reason, I decided to make it a project and spent the next three months going through the show (in days of yore when I had time to update this blog consistently).

There was one thing you said that I do remember, though, and that I tried to take into account in my posts; it isn't fair to compare B5 to modern, sleeker shows, but that was and remains my only benchmark or mode of comparison, since I'm otherwise ignorant of 1990s TV sci-fi. It never crossed my mind to evaluate B5 as a stand-alone; that's not generally how I do evaluations. So maybe you did end up pointing out at least one (probably more than one) genuine flaw in my methods.

As for permanent presences, you're welcome to stick around or not as you like. I'll try to be prompt in responding to your comments, and maybe some legitimate good conversation can come out of an Internet dispute. (By the way, I would've gotten back to you sooner after your first comments, but I was out of Internet access when they came in.)


Chrome Spark said...

I have just started to re-watch the series from the beginning. Coming from the position of huge "original" showing fan this re-assessment has been very interesting and at times painful. I do not think the show has aged particularly well. It is also very hard to evaluate something retrospectively pre-new Galactica, etc without it faring poorly. B5's vaunted story arc was not original even at them time. Blakes 7 proceeded it. B5 suffers most in the re-watch department during Season 1. The budget was strained severely and it shows. Seasons 3, 4 and 5 are much stronger when watched today. It is obvious the production departments had more money, more confidence and the cast were at home in their roles. I still think the show has a re-watch value but I can now see why the spin-offs, Crusade and the like didn't get any further. Back when I first watched the series I would have given the overall rating of 8/10. Today, nearer the 5/10 or 6/10.

cyncb said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Stargazer said...

On the surface BSG may seem better. On the surface. I liked the show, but I won't re-watch it. B5 is an excellent show, one of the best stories told on TV. I've lost respect for RDM because he basically ripped off B5. He took B5 and sprinkled a bit of terminator and wrapped it in BSG clothing. JMS fully acknowledges his influences, including B7. RDM doesn't and I lost a lot of respect for him because of that. I fully understand that all stories come from somewhere else, inspired by its predecessors, but it was the way that RDM did it. Give credit where credit is due. Nod to your influences or the people you are taking from. RDM worked on DS9 as well, and we all know that JMS pitched B5 to Paramount first (Paramount, after turning JMS down, came out with DS9, curious timing indeed.) So it makes even more sense why RDM won't admit where he took from.

You said it yourself, you came of age in scifi in the current era, so of course I can see how you wouldn't see the value of earlier works. Most noobs don't. A couple decades from now, you might see things differently. Also, today, scifi is easier to consume for the masses due to the hyper-realism that has been infused in its story telling. So I kind of see the new scifi fan as faux or pseudo scifi fans. A lot of these more current shows will push the scifi element so far in the background to make it palpable for the uninitiated. You may argue that I, as a lifetime science fiction fan, is a bit of an elitist. In that respect, I am. Not to say that a seasoned scifi fan wouldn't have an argument for a pro BSG over B5 view. Honestly, though I respect your opinion because taste is relative, I take the opinion (even those that don't agree with my own) of a seasoned scifi fan more seriously.

For me, placing BSG and B5 side by side on the quality and originality of the story itself, B5 wins hands down. B5 was so well planned, every time you re-watch, if you pay attention with an intelligent eye, you will see all kinds of story elements you didn't catch the first time. Like something that happened in season 3 was planted in season 1, etc. BSG, though it started strong, fell away in the second season to a knock-off of a much more complex B5 story. And it suffered from the poor planning on RDMs part as well as the fluff he added that had no purpose of progressing the story but to just fill the time. I will say, however, that there were some good choices in regards to BSG. Like changing the reptilian creators of the cylons to humans (ala terminator), a much more tragic fate. Turning some key characters into females and the casting of Olmos and Sackhoff were good choices as well.

Anyway, my two cents. Always encouraging anyone to watch and read more scifi! =)

*wanted to fix typos so I deleted and reposted.

Andy said...

Dear Mr. Stargazer,

First of all, thanks for reading and commenting. It's good to see that this post is still drawing people in--it's one of the most popular things I've written, actually, so that's always gratifying.

Second of all, I think you missed my point. It's not that I don't see the value of earlier works; I do. I quite enjoy old-school Doctor Who or Star Trek (Kirk and Picard both), and I'm as at home with the Terminator or BSG franchises as anyone. I would certainly not say, as you are implying, that I'm new to science fiction or do not have perspective on it. My point was that you (presumably) and the rest of the people who watched B5 when it was on TV, watched it in an age where this was... I don't want to say state-of-the-art, but I imagine it was fairly typical of low-budget sci-fi. It must have been normal for shows to have many of the traits (relatively static camera, primitive CGI, etc.) that have mostly vanished in modern sci-fi shows. It is hard for me to evaluate B5 as a piece of television the way it would have been evaluated by critics at the time, because the state of the art has changed. You were able to view it in the moment, as it were, and it seems like that contributed to your more sympathetic take on it. I'd go so far as to say--as one of the above commenters pointed out, yea these many months ago--that it is unfair to judge B5 against modern sci-fi shows, because the show just appears hopelessly dated.

However, you don't seem to be defending the show's production values. You seem to be focusing on the overarching story of the show, and there is one place where we can agree and maybe even have some discussion. The story of B5, while perhaps not as original as you're suggesting, was one of its strongest points. Straczynski created something that simply is not done anymore, as far as I know: a huge, pluralistic universe with all kinds of alien cultures, with diplomacy and war and trade and plenty of intrigue. I always felt that he did a terrific job building a unique Babylon 5 universe with all kinds of clever little quirks and Easter eggs. And while the story could move with maddening slowness at times, by and large I did appreciate it. B5 fell short in many ways, but grand ambition was not one of them.

As far as comparing it with BSG, I don't think there is much of a comparison.... not because I think that one show wins by a landslide, but simply because their foci and the way they were planned are so different. B5 had good characterization for the most part, but the show was driven by Straczynski's overarching storyline, which was planned way in advance. BSG was heavily driven by its characters and character development, to a much greater extent than B5 (in my opinion). And as I'm sure you know, large parts of it were essentially made up on the fly. It's hard to stack them against each other because they're just so different. I really don't see your notion that BSG's story is a "knock-off" of B5, though. The scale, the interaction between races, the setting, the sci-fantasy of B5 versus the hard sci-fi of BSG, the way the stories were conceived (is it really fair to knock BSG for a lack of narrative continuity, given the way it was produced?) all of these factors and more make them very hard to stand up against one another.

Thanks for reading, once again--it's good to have different perspectives around the blog!



Stargazer said...

Hi Andy,

Well I guess we can agree to disagree. It is good to have a broad discussion. Sometimes I can get protective of the shows I love. Doctor Who is perfect example of old versus new debates. Anyway, just to add a bit more…

Personally, I think JMS is one of the better writers out there. His strength is character development. I cared for all his characters, beautifully flawed and three dimensional at a time when it that wasn't done on television. RDM tried to accomplish the same thing but failed, and a lot of it came across as mass produced cookie cut outs of other shows, mostly B5.

He took all of the same story elements of B5 and tweeked the details to fit the BSG universe. Even the ships looked like shadow ships. The living ships, the human(oid) navigator, the telepathic connections, the attempt at flawed characters. He even had his version of Garibaldi (Colonel Tigh) and the Night Watch (New Caprica Police).

Balter never moved me, and the infusing of his humanizing traits lacked believability. I think that was mostly due to the poor planning. There were too many plot holes, and it was too heavy handed with the Christian/Mormon themes, as well as using biblical devices like the one God choosing the least of men (Balter) to save humanity. Whereas JMS kept the spirituality broad, encompassing many beliefs as well as fictional ones. For me that was more realistic than 12 worlds encompassed by only one religion. I get why some people would like that though, but I felt that the spirituality in B5 was far more meaningful and carried a greater depth.

I could say that BSG and B5 are separated by loads of money and almost two decades. That given the same amount of money today that BSG had to produce his story arc, JMS would blow RDM out of the water. But that doesn't do anything. I will say that for me, as it is now, with its shoe string budget, B5 has more heart and depth than BSG.

Now I like BSG, don’t get me wrong. I watched it to the end. I wouldn’t have done that if I didn’t like it, or if it didn’t interest me. But it is a one-timer. Meaning, watching it once was enough. I have no desire to re-watch it again. That is how much on the surface it is. No real depth. B5, I can watch over and over and find new things to love about it.

Anyway, two more cents. In the end, to each his own.



Stargazer said...


You can't compare productions. Cgi was new when B5 came out, set design - they had no money! I compare the stories because that is the only thing you can compare.

One more thing...BSG is not hard scifi. BSG is soft scifi also known as character based scifi.

Hard science fiction has real science in it that has been extrapolated to an end. There is a high level of accuracy that hard scifi adheres to.

People coming back from the dead, telepathic angels, Cylons digging up there own bones...if it wasn't so late, I'd think of more.

A good example of hard science fiction, George Landis comes to mind.

Anyway...I'm sleepy.


Andy said...

I guess I just don't see the similarities, except in the broadest detail. BSG's characters, the setting of the show, the story elements particularly ...they just aren't anything like B5 to me. The atmosphere is different, and while the characters and settings are strong on both sides, most of the traits you mentioned in BSG just don't pass the eyeball test as having been borrowed.Sure, they both begin life as bald enforcer-type alcoholics, but beneath the exterior there are very few similarities between Tigh and Garibaldi, just as one example (think of what they're driven by, of who they are as people, of the way each character is portrayed). Maybe I don't see it because I don't want to, and maybe you see it because you want to, but... eh.

We're definitely in "agree to disagree" territory with watching it over again. I've watched BSG three times through, and each time I've found new perspectives from which to approach it, new things to love about it. I barely made it through the run of B5 once, by contrast, and part of that was because I swore up and down beforehand that I'd watch the whole thing (pure stubbornness at work). It just got slower and more predictable the further you went. Am I glad I finished it out? Sure, but I wouldn't do it again.

I was going to gripe about hard and soft, but I got the exact definition wrong the first time around, and it ain't worth it to argue. :-) I definitely feel the protectiveness aspect of it too--"What?! Battlestar isn't the Greatest Of All Time?! Type type rage rage type rage graaah"--but yeah, subjectivity and good discussions are things to be appreciated. I'm glad of this one.



Stargazer said...

Lol…type type rage, now that was funny. I appreciate your attitude, especially since I might have come off as a little snobbish at first ;). We can probably go multiple rounds of counter pointing each other and still never agree. But sometimes that is the point and the fun.

Now who’s the better Doctor, Tom Baker or David Tennant? Just kidding. You can blog about it. ;P.

It was nice talking to you.

- Ms. Stargazer

Andy said...

Pleasure's all mine, Ms. Stargazer (my mistake!)



Anonymous said...


You said don't feed the trolls, but it seems to me that what you write makes you the biggest troll of the lot.

Andy said...

Always a pleasure, Anonymous.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review, for some reason I got to thinking about G'kar and ended up here (I haven't watched the show since it originally aired). I do, however, find it strange that nothing was said about the overarching plot itself - to me the show always seemed like what you'd get if LOTR and 1984 had a baby in outer space. I also recall there being one major "scene" ripped straight from Orwell.

I don't think, however, that a comparison between BSG and B5 is fair with almost a decade between them... DS9 would have been a better measuring stick. But that's just my opinion.

That being said, it was satisfying at the time... but if I was to re-watch it I would certainly cherry pick the episodes. There is no doubt in my mind that you're correct when you say that it hasn't aged well lol.

Bruce C. Miller said...

You may have noticed a sudden surge of commentary on these old B5 columns. Someone found (remembered?) them and now Claudia Christian started sharing them on Facebook.

My take on all your work? A lot of it boils down to a matter of taste. Your reasons for disliking Sheridan, for example, are reasons I liked him, but those reasons only work when his character gets compared to G'Kar or Londo; if he was supposed to carry the whole series by himself, it would have been just as sad as you made it to be.

Still, at least you didn't dismiss it as worthless.

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