Sunday, November 7, 2010

Ryan Watches A Motion Picture #74: Babylon 5 - Season 1 (1994)

I'm sure some of you know this series well. It's a TV series that's held in pretty high esteem by a great many, myself included.

This review will be for two sorts of people. One is the sort that has seen some of the first season and said to themselves "this is a piece of shit and I hate your guts J. Michael Straczynski" and stopped watching. The other is the sort that say to themselves, every year or so, "I should probably get around to watching that crazy Babylonia 18 show that my nerd friends talk about too often."

The concept is this: Babylon 5 is earth's greatest achievement - a massive space station in distant and neutral space built to function as a centre of commerce and diplomacy between the various alien races of the galaxy. Lots of politics, fantastic character drama, and, about 2 seasons in, grand and poetic space opera of the best kind. Probably 70 percent of the series was written all at once as what creator Straczynski calls a telenovel, and benefits greatly from having had a start and finish already intricately planned by the time the pilot hit the airwaves.

Babylon 5 tries very hard not to be Star Trek, and does pretty damn well in its goal. B5 isn't afraid to give you alien races that are much more alien than your average Trek alien. Communication between alien cultures is often very strained. There's a large mantis-like insect that's top gangster in the shady areas of the station, and a tentacle-faced Cthulu-type alien that only eats decaying food because they evolved from a scavenging animal. In general, the skull shapes and faces of the alien races are a bit more varied than you're used to in other shows.

This doesn't always make for a good first impression however. You have to get over your initial knee-jerk this-is-not-like-startrek reaction and adapt to the different flavour. Star Trek has had a monopoly on sci fi television for so long that any series that isn't Star Trek wears its invisible shackles. If you had caught any episodes of the series during its run in the 90s, you probably saw a dude with hair like a paper fan and changed the channel. On its surface, and because of season 1's terrible budget, the show can look pretty silly at times. The CGI stuff didn't look good, and the sets looked dreadfully cheap. Michael O'Hare's lead act as Captain Sinclair is embarrassing, and he manages to ruin almost every scene that reaches for emotional force. Once he leaves in season 2, the series takes a serious upturn. So season 1 is pretty terrible, but there's enough important information and character set-up that unfortunately makes it necessary to watch. Now and again you'll get a winning episode, one that hints at the bigger picture to come in later seasons, but for the most part season 1 is comprised of forgettable little one-offs.

So: Placing the 'recommended' tag on this review was a strange decision, but for the awesomeness of what is to come, it must be so written. And the fan hair will grow on you once you realise how fucking awesome Londo Mollari is.

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