Friday, August 12, 2011

The Worst Aspects of Babylon 5 (Part 2)

We're nearing the end of the Babylon 5 blitz. In case you missed the deluge of B5-related posts over the past week, here are some links: last Friday's overview of the show, Monday's rundown of the best characters, Tuesday's rundown of the worst characters, Wednesday's 'Best Aspects of B5' and Thursday's 'Worst of B5, Part 1'. Today I'll have Part 2 of the Worst Things, and then we'll wrap everything up on Saturday.
The Writing Stinks
I’ve been dancing around this for awhile, but I’ll just say it: The writing, done almost entirely by J. Michael Straczynski, is consistently bad. It is full of clich├ęs, the dialogue isn’t clever (there’s a fascination with light bulb jokes that goes on for way too long), it’s fairly humorless and it doesn’t make you feel for the characters. The best thing you can say about the writing is that it gets the job done and tells you what you need to know in a given episode. The worst thing you can say is that’s all it does. The writing isn’t My Immortal-bad, but it’s serviceable at best. Compare it to Battlestar or Doctor Who or Firefly or even Star Trek and you’ll see what I mean. It’s a handicap to the actors rather than a help.

Consequence: Moral Superiority and Lousy Villains
I wrote the following halfway through Season 4:

“The thing that makes the current B5 conflict so uninteresting to watch is the absolute moral battle lines that have been drawn. Sheridan is what they call a paragon of virtue, a perfect ideal. He stands for Truth, Justice and the American Way, all in capital letters. ______'s side stands for nothing but fucking up other peoples’ shit. There’s no moral conflict because it’s been spelled out in the most explicit terms. Plus, there’s no documentation of what ______ does, how he does it or why. We don’t know how he got to be a police state-type of fellow, we’ve barely met him. We don’t know how he keeps everyone in line, other than through misinformation.

“There’s just such absolute ideological superiority from Sheridan, who sounds like a horse’s ass every time he draws upon it. There are very few moral choices or ambiguities to be found in B5.”

This is part of what I was saying about Sheridan, Zack Allan and Dr. Franklin in the Bad Characters post. They are so morally upright and the villain (in this case especially) is so poorly defined, it makes them unbelievable. There are very few moral conflicts on this show, and most of them feel manufactured (like the one near the end of Season 4 with the telepaths). The only convincing one comes at the end of Season 3, where Sheridan holds Morden against his will. For the rest, nothing. Sheridan and Co. are always right and the other guy is always wrong, period, end of line. This is especially true of the Season 4 villain, an evil cardboard cutout that we almost never see on-screen.

I’m Sorry… You Do What Now?
B5 relentlessly hammers home the theme that its characters are special people. There’s an entire Season 2 episode devoted to making sure that Sheridan and Delenn are the right people in the right place at the right time. But on the level of their jobs, they never seem to have much expertise. This is a minor quibble, but what does Garibaldi do exactly? He’s a good shot and he knows how to ask questions, but he doesn’t possess any skills specific to being a Security Chief. Dr. Franklin lets machines do all the work for him, is rarely seen in surgery and operates as a glorified diagnostician. Everything from mission-critical research to flying starfighters is handled by omnipresent computers.
picture unrelated.
The point here is that nobody really seems like an expert at their job, the way Chief Tyrol is an expert Viper repairman (Battlestar) or the way Wash is a special pilot (Firefly). They don’t have to say ‘I’m competent at my job’, we see them demonstrate their competence. In B5, nobody seems to be that skilled at any job. The emphasis is on having the right people and the right personalities, not their skills, which I find strange.

You Had A Problem? Since When?!
Here’s a fairly typical scenario:

Something traumatic happens to Garibaldi in Episode A. The episode ends, the threat is dealt with and Garibaldi goes back to work. Several episodes go by, during which Garibaldi seems unchanged. Then in episode H, Garibaldi has a nervous breakdown and goes “I’ve been haunted by the vision of my wife’s buttocks ever since Episode A!!”
Seconds before bursting into incoherent rage.
This happens ALL THE TIME. A character has a crisis, then seems totally fine, then tells us that they haven’t been fine all this time, even though they’ve been acting totally fine. I don’t know what to attribute it to, but it’s really lousy continuity between episodes. It feels like the show wants to have the emotional continuity of a Battlestar Galactica, but doesn’t really know how to go about it. This results in a lot of unintentional comedy, as characters have massive freakouts over something they were totally okay with just last episode.

In The Conversation:
-The music isn’t very good or very memorable, and it’s kind of used as a blunt instrument. You know exactly how you’re supposed to be feeling because the violins tell you it’s an emotional moment.

-Straczynski’s enormous plot arcs move maddeningly slowly, although this shouldn’t be unfamiliar for recovering Lost fans like myself.

-Because we rarely leave the station in the first two seasons, it’s hard to get a sense of the greater outside universe. This does change in seasons 3-5, as more of the characters venture outside, but it’s a little off-putting early on.

- B5 tells, it doesn’t show, particularly with regard to characters’ emotions. Straczynski doesn’t let the actors show you how the character is feeling, he writes in huge info-dumps where the character tells you exactly how he feels today.

Not Bad, Just Weird:
For some reason, whenever a character has a minor wardrobe change, it’s made into a big honking deal in the show itself. Sheridan’s beard, Delenn’s hair, the new B5 uniforms, Security uniforms, G’Kar’s eye color, etc. are all played up much more than you’d imagine them being. It’s not a bad thing, just a quirk.


i_was_like_you said...

I'm starting to think you wrote the whole review prior to watching the show at all, just after deciding to do a grudge review of the whole thing.

"For some reason, whenever a character has a minor wardrobe change, it’s made into a big honking deal in the show itself. Sheridan’s beard, Delenn’s hair, the new B5 uniforms, Security uniforms, G’Kar’s eye color, etc. are all played up much more than you’d imagine them being. It’s not a bad thing, just a quirk."

Those were big honking deals in the show itself, represented by what may seem to be a minor wardrobe change. Delenn rewrites her DNA to become half human, which gives her hair. G'Kar loses an eye in a terrible scene; it gets replaced with a cybernetic one. The uniforms, like any uniform change, are indicative of an entire ideology change, signifying toeing the party line.

I thought I was speeding through the show while painting miniatures, but at least I stopped to digest them, instead of regurgitating nothing but Wikipedia entries. We can read those ourselves.

What I really think that you're guilty of, in your review, is trying to compare a show from the 90s with Battlestar or Doctor Who or Firefly, which, while they all have their strengths and weaknesses, they're better judged against each other. Leave B5 to comparisons with Star Trek the Next Generation or even Deep Space 9 (the reason why B5 used a changeling net instead of a Changeling race, a la Odo).

Unknown said...

I suspect you watch video the way my daughter does, half the time looking down at her laptop screen while doing homework, and periodically checking her cell phone. I can SEE her missing a ton of nuance, and some pivotal scenes. She uses her ears to clue her in on the action - violins, emotional, ah, lost love, got it, next! And she misses subtleties of character development, plot building and emotional depth. One huge tipoff that you're doing the same thing is that you're clueless how a character goes from here to there, seemingly out if the blue. And you say it happens "ALL THE TIME."

As far as not living in their space, did you miss the cockroach scene? The scene where Sheridan cooks? Where Lyta gets a pizza? Sheridan rides the El? The merchant disappears? The repairmen do their jobs? Oh yeah you did mention that one -- so now your complaint seems out of the blue.

Regarding people not having expertise, it's there in the writing. You'd rather have flashbacks to flight school?

The importance of being "right person at the right time," and how the concept of moral purity can be compelling is precisely one of the reasons why this Sci-fi show differs from all the rest - it's epic. If you want to compare B5 to something else, compare it to the Bible. B5 is about a battle between the forces of good and evil, about an ancient omniscient being, a chosen race, pagans and foreigners, a sacrificial son (imbued with the spirit of the omniscient being, btw), and discipleship. There's even Eve/Mary in there, both the source of shame, and the protector of the salvation of her race. And heck, I know it wasn't planned, but in Sinclair I'm seeing a forenner of the Pure one - who dies and rises from the dead. Did you miss the part about the angels?

Anonymous said...

seems like you watched the show with your eyes above says, you missed all the tell tale truths that make the show an epic. By the way you compare this to all the new shows, remember this show was made over 20 years ago.....

Leparsdon said...

i thought I was the only one who thought this show was awful. I've seen grade schoolers write better stories and dialogue that JS. What a joke.

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