Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Best Aspects of Babylon 5

Good afternoon! If you're just tuning in, we're midway through a weeklong super-review of the TV show Babylon 5. Last Friday's preview of the show can be found here, Monday's post on B5's best characters here, and Tuesday's description of the worst characters here. Today, we tackle the best things about the show. Thursday and Friday will be posts about the worst things, and then we'll wrap it all up on Saturday.
Good Acting
B5’s cast, while accomplished, can’t compare to the David Tennants and the Nathan Fillions and the Edward James Olmoses of the world. It’s full of duds, including some of their biggest ‘stars’, and a lot of those duds’ on-screen time is a total waste of your patronage. But, surprise surprise, they have a lot of good actors/actresses putting in time as well. Peter Jurasik and Andreas Katsulas are golden whenever they’re on screen, and both get a ton of time and storylines in all five seasons.

Aside from Lennier, Ivanova and the frequent guest stars I just mentioned, B5 brings in dozens of outside names every season. I can’t think of an episode that didn’t feature at least one one-off or recurring guest star, and a lot of the time it’s pretty effective. Wayne Alexander, who plays several of these roles, was a recurring favorite of mine.

Racial Psychologies
This is primarily a Season 1 and 2 thing, but one of Straczynski’s better moves was giving each major species its own background and personality, and having them manifest through that species’ ambassador on B5. Londo dreams of the vanished days of his once-great Republic, and sets horrible plans in motion based on those dreams. G’Kar’s race was repressed by Londo’s, and his species is still looking for its place in the universe. That’s evident in Katsulas’s acting. A lot of the humans are veterans of the Minbari War, a war they only won when the Minbari surrendered (they were about to win), and they’re still visibly freaked out about it. It's good casting, acting and writing all together.

The Big Ones

Like I said in the beginning, the series is primarily composed of mediocre episodes,  but every now and again comes a spectacular one. Babylon 5 doesn’t futz around with time travel much, but those episodes are some of the best. The culmination of the Shadow War in Season 4 is a kick-ass episode, as are a number of episodes in Seasons 1 and 5 (the Jewish one in S1, the fighting one in S1, the one in S5 where Garibaldi and Lochley bonk heads, etc). If you have the patience to sift through the crap, there’s some gold underneath.

Season 1, Season 5
In fact, those might be the show’s two best seasons. Season 1 featured Michael O’Hare instead of the wooden Bruce Boxleitner, and Season 5 got a lot of things right that hadn’t worked previously. It expanded some characters’ roles and scaled back others, gave Lyta Alexander a personality and introduced Robin Atkin Downes (“Lord” Byron) and Tracy Scoggins (Elizabeth Lochley). It’s perhaps an indictment of Straczynski’s inflexible arcs that his show’s best seasons were largely free of the series’ two longest-running storylines, but what can you do? Babylon 5 was best when it was universe-building, and that made up the meat of S1 and S5.

The Offbeat Episodes
Most of the B5 episodes followed a pretty specific formula. Station is hanging out, outside force/person/technology enters the station, someone wants to capture/speak to/negotiate with said force/person/tech, mayhem ensues. According to Wikipedia, Straczynski’s ideal show differed from the Star Treks of the time by having the universe come to the station, not having the station go and explore the universe.

I’m fine with that formula. But once or twice a season, the creators would try something completely different. It could be a news report on the state of the station, or following around random maintenance workers we’d never seen before, or taking a snapshot a million years in the future. All of these episodes served as a welcome change of pace, and most of them were pretty darn good.

A Bigger, Older Universe
 This is my favorite of the good things, and just about the only thing B5 has that sets it apart from the rest of TV sci-fi. You know how in Doctor Who, there’s a sense of the future being wide-open and full of wonders and practically infinite? Babylon 5 does a similar thing with the past. It has a wonderfully pervasive sense of age, of ancient wonders and fallen species and a history that far predates human experience. Any show can say that there’s been civilization millions of years in the past, but Babylon 5 makes you feel that sense of age and the unknown, of ancient mysteries and hidden treasures. That, I feel, is B5’s most distinctive and best feature.

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