Thursday, August 11, 2011

Mayhem Week: The Worst Things About Babylon 5 (Part 1)

Welcome to the week-long review of the TV show called Babylon 5! In case you missed 'em, here are links to last Friday's introduction to the show, Monday's 'Best Characters', Tuesday's 'Worst Characters' and Wednesday's 'Best Aspects of B5' posts. Tomorrow we'll have Part II of 'Worst Aspects', and then I'll wrap everything up in Saturday's post.

That Confounded Bad Acting
Kindly check Tuesday's post for a discussion of said bad acting.
Humans in Suits
Early in the show’s run, creator J. Michael Straczynski made the decision to eschew CGI aliens in favor of human-looking aliens. The choice was a sensible one, because the CGI of the mid-1990s looks awful, especially on a Prime-Time Entertainment Network budget. There’s some sort of Centauri-world bloodsucking thing in Season 1 that proves this particular point. Putting guys in makeup, therefore, was a logical decision.
The problem with this is twofold. One, nobody ever gives any reasons why the Minbari have bony heads, or why the Narn are orange, or why the pak’ma’ra have facial tentacles. They don’t serve any obvious function, so right from the start they feel like semi-random ornamentation. Two, even if the actors look like humans wearing makeup, there’s always the possibility that their bodies are more alien than they look, but this idea is systematically stamped out over the course of the series. 

It’s established that the majority of the ‘aliens’ speak English without trouble, have five fingers, four limbs, bipedal movement, two eyes that see in the human visual spectrum, breathe a nitrogen-oxygen mix, have approximately the same physical strength and vulnerabilities that humans do, think the same way that humans do, and are comfortable with Earth ‘standard’ gravity. This strains one’s credulity a bit far, don’t you think? (The First Ones that we meet are all nonhuman, but they are seen far less often than the human-esque races, probably due to budget constraints.)
I Mentioned the CGI…
I feel kinda bad putting this on here, because it’s really not the fault of the creators. They had in mind a very CGI-heavy show, with lots of space battles and expeditions, and mid-1990s CGI was both expensive and godawful. YouTube videos are better nowadays. But they went ahead with it anyway, and so while the CGI is worse than anything else you will ever see on TV, it’s also a testament to the show’s creative spirit. Hey, I guess that sort of turned into a good thing, huh?
Even the Real Sets Stink
Chalk another one up to a presumable PTEN budget crunch. It seems like a weird thing to criticize, but you know how in Firefly, the characters had a real connection and identification with the ship? How in Battlestar Galactica, the ship is a prison, a symbol and a source of hope all in one? How both ships really have personality and feel like home for their characters? 

B5 doesn’t have that. It sounds picky, but the sets are clunky and featureless and boring. There’s really not much effort to sell the station as someone’s home, as opposed to ‘where alien races meet to hang out’. This holds for all the sets, whether they’re on Mars or on Minbar or on the bridge of some ship somewhere. They don’t look remotely real, and more importantly, they don’t feel real. The actors don’t treat them like they’re real places. It’s like they took one of the worst lessons from Star Trek. (Small exception: the Drazi homeworld, which we visit in Season 5, is incredibly compelling.) 
I Saw That Coming
If someone on B5 mentions that Garibaldi must be having a great time on vacation on Zogblog VII, you can take it to the bank that the next shot will be of a bloody, bruised Garibaldi gasping for air. It’s a fairly predictable show. I’m not going to give away anything, but there’s a particular event in early Season 4 that is meant to be a huge surprise, but it’s just completely unsurprising. Even Season 5 is guilty of this. The viewer can predict B5 without too much effort, and the show doesn’t really make you think. That, to me, is pretty damning.
Speaking of S5…
I like Season 5 the best of all of the Babylon 5 seasons. Like I said before, they get decent acting out of Jeff Conaway and Patricia Tallman, introduce some good guest-stars and have some really great universe-building episodes. But the season itself was spectacularly mismanaged.
Due to a flash-forward in Season 3 and a brief scene at the end of Season 4, the viewer basically knows all the important points about one of the major threats of season 5. I was waiting around for eighteen episodes while the characters stumbled around with this threat, going “I know this! I know this one, dammit! Figure it out!” And when they finally do catch on to what the viewer could see eighteen episodes ago, is there a showdown? Is the evil defeated? No! That storyline and a half-dozen others are intentionally punted, left to be resolved in made-for-TV movies and the spin-off series, replaced by four episodes’ worth of characters saying their goodbyes!

I think that’s a total waste of a season. Wikipedia revealed that there was a lot of confusion with the demise of PTEN and the creators not knowing whether their show would be picked up (it was, by TNT, for Season 5), which might be a root cause of the fractured season. I get that, I do, but surely they could have done better than that. It would be like Battlestar Galactica declining to reveal the fifth member of the Final Five Cylons, wagging its finger at the fans and saying “Uh-uh-uh! You have to watch Caprica to get your answers! C’mon, I’m gonna string you guys out for ALL of your attention span!”

Tune in tomorrow for more embarrassing flaws in the show!

1 comment:

Traxy said...

The show had five seasons planned out from the get-go. When they were about to do s4, it seemed as if they wouldn't get to do a s5, so all the plot that would have spread out over two series instead were crammed into one (s4), and at the end of that, they learned that they WOULD get s5 after all - at which point the over-arching plot of the show was already finished, and they were left with all the little bits left over and had to build on that, which is why s5 is a bit strange.

We re-watched the whole show last year and found it had aged really well - CGI quality and all those kind of "it was a different time in the 90s" things aside. The characters and story are solid, the plotting excellent, the universe really thought through, etc. I watched it back in the 90s but not regularly, so when it was on UK TV last year(ish) it was fun to watch it again from the beginning. I wasn't disappointed in the slightest. :)

For the "humans in suits" argument, you get this with ALL sci-fi shows, realistically. Watching B5, I could actually lose myself in the story and not see them as actors in suits because each species was so fleshed out in-universe that they felt real. One of the reasons I couldn't get into "Defiance" was because the aliens just felt like actors in silly make-up. Sure, the Centauri might look like humans with their clothes on, but it was made clear on several occasions that they would look very different with their clothes off. Their reproductive systems, for instance, are quite - QUITE - different from ours! ;)

There are a lot of things that could be said about B5, positive and negative. For the most part while reading your posts I wonder if we've been watching the same show as some of the opinions feel very strange to me, but on the other hand, opinions are just opinions and the world would be pretty boring if we all agreed with each other all the time! :)

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