Sunday, June 6, 2010

Some Words on Babylon 5 After Two Seasons

Tonight, Michelle and I finished watching the second season of Babylon 5 on DVD. Now, I've seen the show numerous times before. At least twice completely on TV -- daily syndication/reruns, not the original run of the show -- plus once on DVD years ago. I bought the complete series on DVD for a pretty cheap price on eBay only for it to arrive and be some sort of Asian bootlegs or rips. For the most part, that's not a problem, but on any disc with four episodes plus special features (including a commentary track), the fourth episode (and in one or two cases, the third episode, too) fucks up. Gets choppy, stopping and starting. Too much information compressed or something, I dunno. I've always meant to go back and buy the proper DVDs, but it never seemed like that big a priority since these work a good 90-95% of the time no problem. We've had to skip one or two episodes, but they were pretty minor and unimportant.

This is another in a long line of shows that Michelle and I have watched together. Actually, on our third date, we began the first show we watched together, SportsNight when I came over to her place and brought it with a few other DVDs. I don't remember why it seemed like a good idea to bring SportsNight as something to watch with a girl I didn't know that well -- but it worked out fine. Babylon 5 isn't high on Michelle's list of favourite shows we've watched together. She's liking it fine, but it doesn't match up to the likes of The West Wing, Boston Legal, The Sopranos, and SportsNight. Which is understandable since Babylon 5 isn't a strong show until it gets into season two and the larger story kicks into high gear.

That's the perspective I've been watching it from: the guy who knows what's coming and is picking up on the various clues and hints. It's like rereading a novel and noticing things you didn't see the first time through. An episode like "Babylon Squared" didn't particularly impress Michelle, but knocked me on my ass since I know that J. Michael Straczynski goes back and explains what happened in the third season.

I love and admire the size and scope of the show. In the wake of various HBO shows and Lost, it doesn't seem as impressive for a TV show to launch, conceived as a five-year story -- and then executed as such (with adjustments made along the way). It wasn't the first show with an extended narrative, but I can't think of any on its scale. And unlike a lot of the other shows done with larger stories, this one was planned out in great detail and kept to that plan. It wasn't like Lost, which had a direction in mind, made up some shit as it went along, and then made sense of some of it and left the rest hanging... there are specific clues planted in the pilot episode that are followed up two or three seasons later in Babylon 5.

Beyond the size of the show, what I'm really enjoying is the treatment of alien cultures and characters. There are elements of that 'all of the aliens come from monocultures' mentality that dominates the Star Trek franchise, but nothing as bad as what's there either. As the show progresses, we see more complexities and nuances to each race. More internal struggles and desires. More contradictions.

The best part has to be the ideas of xenophobia and racism, something that Star Trek glosses over. In its quest to be bright and shiny, it really limits itself, while Babylon 5 takes advantage of the flaws in people to drive its stories. Ten years on, there are still humans that hate Minbari because of the war between the two races -- despite Earth winning (in a way that was more like a loss). And it's not something that's just addressed once, resolved, and pushed aside. It's a recurring concept. It isn't the happy future where everyone is nice.

Michelle for the longest time couldn't see any difference between the two shows/franchises. The way I explained it to her was that there's this great episode of Deep Space 9 where Captain Sisko wants to get the Romulans involved in the war with the Dominion and on the side of the Federation. He hires Garak to produce a fake recording of the Dominion's strategists and leaders planning an attack on the Romulans that will convince the Romulan senator that the Dominion intends to break their non-aggression pact. Except it doesn't fool the senator and he intends to go back to his people and expose Sisko for the liar that he is. But, the senator's ship explodes from a bomb planted by Garak. When Sisko confronts him, Garak says that Sisko knew all along that the forgery wouldn't pass and that he hired Garak to get the job done anyway he can, knowing that Garak would go to such great lengths. The episode, told as a log entry by Sisko, ends with him staring at us, saying that he can live with that, showing us that, yeah, winning the war means doing some bad shit, but that's better than the alternatives. For a Star Trek show, that's a 'special' episode. One you see once a season at most. For Babylon 5, that's just how the show is. That tone of cynicism, pragmatism, moral ambiguity... that's what it's about.

But, there's also wonder. There are always moments where characters stop and notice where they are and how amazing it is. Moments of beauty and wonder... I love that.

I've kept things vague for the most part to not spoil things for those who've never seen the show -- and for Michelle since I don't want to spoil anything coming up. And I just felt like talking in circles a bit.

I can't wait for season three, though. Shit gets real. Big time.

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