Monday, November 22, 2010

Did "Babylon Five" Just Jump the Shark?

This post will contain spoilers for the third and fourth seasons of "Babylon Five," because I've come to the point where I don't think I can talk about my reaction to the show without getting into specifics. I'm up to seventy-two episodes, or about a third of the way into Season Four. I was going to hold off on this post for a few more episodes, but the narrative has come to such a definitive stopping place, there's no better time to put down a few thoughts. For the sake of those curious about the show, however, I'll try not to go into too much detail.

For well over two seasons, the show was building up the war with the Shadows, an old, hidden race of aliens that comes out once every thousand years to wreak havoc and destruction upon other worlds. At the end of Season Three, there was a wonderful cliffhanger that left one major character missing, presumed dead, after committing a kamikaze attack on the Shadow homeworld, and another missing after a major battle. In the first few episodes of Season Four, matters escalated. One of the good guys' primary allies turned on them and started destroying planets that were allied with the Shadows. A great parallel story also emerged, following the former ambassadors from the Centauri and Narn races, now in very different roles, conspiring to remove the Centauri emperor.

And then, just six episodes into Season Four, all the major storylines were suddenly resolved. All the villains were drawn out to face each other in the same massive battle, and the heroes took the opportunity to confront them and convince them to end hostilities. The Centauri emperor was assassinated and the conflict between the Narn and the Centauri, which started the whole war at the end of Season One, was over. It was impossible to escape a feeling of whiplash. That was it? After seventy episodes of watching the heroes struggle to unite so many different alien races into a single united force, they only got one big battle together? After all those speeches about destiny and prophecy and neverending struggle, the biggest enemies in the show just walked out? What are they going to do for another thirty-eight episodes?

Reading up on some of the show's production history on Wikipedia, it turns out that the producers thought they only had to worry about another sixteen episodes, because they weren't expecting to be renewed for a fifth season. This resulted in the initially planned storylines for the fourth and fifth seasons to be combined, resulting in some of these major events feeling rushed. Apparently Season Five suffers the opposite problem, because the writers ran short on compelling plot points. I feel like waving this result at any still-griping "Lost" fans as an example of an intricate five-year plan that turned out to be a double-edged sword. I've really enjoyed "Babylon 5" so far, but even if I didn't know anything about the production issues, the speed at which they've hit the brakes would still leave me apprehensive about the rest to come. The momentum has gone, and I'm in no hurry to finish the series now.

Getting back to the end of the Shadow War, I was very impressed with how nicely the storylines all tied into each other and the amount of tension and drama that they summoned up. The Season Three finale was a special high point because the events of that episode had been alluded to and built up to in so many previous episodes, this added an extra dimension of all those prior references paying off in a big way. This wasn't the first time that this happened on "Babylon 5," or the last. All the prophecies and premonitions around the Centauri emperors are also coming true one by one, and it's fascinating to see how the choices of the characters that would seem to be reacting against these predetermined destinies just keeps pushing them closer to the seemingly inevitable. I've seen similar conceits played out before in shows like "Heroes," but the execution and the timing of the reveals in "Babylon 5" has been exceptionally well done.

The only storyline I thought fell short was the arc that dealt with Babylon 5's Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Stephen Franklin (Richard Biggs) who quit his post and went on walkabout after becoming addicted to stimulants. I was glad that his character got the screen time and attention, but aside from the final episode of the the arc, most of his appearances during this period felt like filler, especially an ill-conceived interlude with a club singer. And then there are the leads, Captain John Sheridan (Bruce Boxleitner) and the Minbari ambassador Delenn (Mira Furlan). I was resistant to their developing romance at first, because it's such a cliche, but Delenn never turned into a swooning alien princess even though she's softened up quite a bit, and Sheridan is still an overgrown Boy Scout, but he's grown on me. Some of the twists and turns in their relationship were awfully manipulative, but in the end I found myself rooting for them anyway. It's not a space opera without a few star-crossed lovers in the mix.

Other characters who haven't been getting enough of the spotlight lately include Commander Ivanova (Claudia Christian) and Ranger Marcus Cole (Jason Carter). However, I do like how some of the minor characters like the telepath Lyta Alexander (Patricia Tallman) and security guard Zack Allen (Jeff Conaway) have been developed. The aliens G'Kar (Andreas Katsulas), Londo (Peter Jurasik), and Vir (Stephen Furst) remain my favorite characters, especially in light of their recent, awkward alliance. It's also been fun identifying the parade of guest stars, including Melissa Gilbert, Bryan Cranston, Robert Englund, and a surprise visitor from the "Star Trek" pantheon: Majel Barrett, wife of Gene Roddenberry.

And on that note, I have to reiterate that based on what I've seen so far, "Babylon Five" is definitely up there with the best of "Trek" on every level. It has different strengths and a different sensibility, but it has the same sort of hopeful spirit about it that is missing from much of science-fiction today. I'll take rubber mask aliens and off-color CGI spaceships over Yet Another Nuclear/Environmental/Biohazard Apocalypse any day.

1 comment:

  1. I absolutely adore Babylon 5 and watched it first time around. I am currently working my way through the serious again, just finishing season 2. I pretty much agree with your post, which was an enjoyable and thoughtful read on the topic :)

    I always liked Sheridan over Sinclair, the later not really being that great an actor. This is the best Sci-fi series on TV ever :)