Thursday, 26 December 2013

Babylon 5

A little digression, since it's Christmas.

We've been rewatching (and introducing James to) the wonders of Babylon 5, as Watch are currently reshowing all 5 series at the moment. (They're currently paused partway through Season 2 for Christmas and will restart on Jan 6th.)

It's always fun rewatching something - you notice things, especially forward references to things you now know are going to happen, that you didn't notice before, for example. It's also worth remembering that Babylon 5 did something that, really, no episodic SF series had done before (you could make an exception for Blake's Seven, but certainly no US series), namely moved largely away from the Mystery/Alien Of The Week format that the likes of Star Trek had used into having an overarching plot that ran through its episodes - in fact, the term 'story arc' is pretty much Babylon 5's fault.

To be fair? Season 1 was a bit 'Alien Of The Week' to start with, but about half-way through it starts to warm up, and by the time you get to 'A Voice In The Wilderness' parts 1 and 2 it's really starting to roll.  Season 2 manages to fairly seamlessly cover for the illness of Michael O'Haire (Commander Sinclair) who had to leave the series for really quite sad health reasons, and from then on it's a roller-coaster of tangled plot threads and character interactions. Season 5, IMO, is marred a little by both the loss of Claudia Christian (Commander Ivanova) due to what I think is most fairly described as some bungled contract negotiations, and the fact that it was touch and go whether it was ever going to be made (which makes the last episodes of both Seasons 4 and 5 a little awkward, and forces a bit of a race to wrap up threads in Season 4, and then fill space in Season 5).

It also makes some of the first really serious use of computer generated effects, using the Commodore Amiga, the Video Toaster card and Lightwave 3D, rather than model shots. Certainly if you watch them now you can see how far we've come since (the way exploding ships leave no debris behind is particularly obvious), but the show managed scenes which would have been impossible any other way.

In all honesty? I'd forgotten how good it was.

There are both wargaming and RPG tie-ins with the series: Mongoose produced both two editions of an RPG and the 'Call To Arms" ship combat game. Both are now discontinued, I assume because they no longer hold the license. I'd love to get my hands on lots of both, but dear oh Lord, they're expensive. Copies of various RPG books are going on Amazon for well over 50 quid a shot!


  1. I've always enjoyed B5 but have never religiously watched it all the way through. I would like to rewarch but just can't imagine I'd have to time (also suspect the wife wouldn't enjoy it greatly either and we do most of our TV watching together!)

  2. I love B5, got my wife into it and she got mad at Season 5 and refused to watch any further. She hated the change of captains between Sinclair and Sheridan and then loved Sheridan more....the female captain pushed her over the edge. I still have to get the Rangers movie and the Untold Stories.

    Wow, if you had posted this about oh 6 months back or so, I had a copy of Babylon Wars starship game with a bonus heavy Narn cruiser and the league of unaligned Worlds book and also the RPG book as well.....sold it for cheap. Also some guy got a great deal on about 5000+ B5 CCG cards I had.....

    1. One of the highlights of my youth was getting drunk with the guy that played Garabaldi (Doyle) at a con playing black jack with a bunch of people for friends was in shock when we was waiting for the van we carpooled over in was being fixed and he casually came over and chatted with me while he waited for his limo the the airport. My friends just stared and went WTF.

  3. I watched about half a dozen episodes when it first came out and could not bear watching it any further. But over the years, all my friends recommended it so I have borrowed some DVDs and have been watching it over the last few months. I am halfway through season 5. I agree with your season summaries. You can really see where season 4 was the compressed planned season 4 and 5 (if case it did not get renewed). Season 5 just seems like the leftover 'filler' stories they had planned for the original Season 4 and 5 and then they tacked a story arc over it.

  4. Still my favorite SciFi series of all time. Deep Space 9 is alleged to be a copy (rather than the other way around), which may be true. Doubtless, after B5 came out DS9 and other shows started finding their own arcs to drive the story forward. The existence of this show changed SciFi in many positive ways. (If nothing else, that you can succeed without the words "Trek" or "Doctor" in our title.)

    That said, everything after Season 4 seemed to detract rather than add to the show. Tales of the Rangers and Crusade were almost painful to watch. (Crusade's cast was Dungeon's and Dragon's in space, including a Mage and Thief...ouch.)

    Oh, and Alfred Bester ranks as one of my favorite villians

  5. I was never a huge fan, but I did catch several episodes while in college. The Ambassador Garibaldi gave the best line ever that has kept in my memory.
    " What do you want now, you moon faced assassin of joy!" ;)
    I think it was that actor, his lines, costumes and the whole villainous good guy/ greasy politician vibe that had me tuning in. ;)

  6. Love B5 I remember watching it on TV and still enjoy it on repeat. Despite its age I think it is doing quite well, and the effects look surprisingly good given how simplistic they are compared to more modern efforts.

  7. Great post Mike. I've never bought into the idea that JMS was an intellectual giant, but in televised SF he was an innovator and having the support of Harlan Ellison gave B5 a lot of its merit. The acting in B5 was sometimes wooden but there was some significant chemistry and great characters - Londo and G'Kar were always fun to watch. At times the stories could be tragic and profound, and the show had a lightness of touch that mainstream SF series, like Stargate, usually lacked. B5 deserves to be remembered and remembered well.
    Hoping you and yours had a joyous holiday and wishing you all the best for the new year.

  8. B5 is my all-time favorite SF series. Yes, it had problems after season 4 but I think JMS was far more sinned against than sinning. Claudia Christian mentions it in her autobiography and says it was down to bungled contract negotiations. Still and all, it has some of the few TV episodes that ever left me gaping at the turn of events. A piece of trivia. B5 aired on Channel 4 in the UK, and kept to consistent broadcasting times. It helped the franchise gain enormous ground in UK fandom. JMS was so grateful he wrote the scripts so all important messages to the station began to come in on channel four.


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