Monday, January 24, 2011

The End of "Babylon Five"

So many television series with ongoing stories fail to stick their endings. I've suffered through a lot of them over the years, and I have to give it to "Babylon Five." This was one of the most graceful ends I've ever seen to a science fiction program. Spoilers ahead.

Season Five was a step down from the seasons that preceded it, but it wasn't disastrous. The first half featuring a storyline about a telepath colony on the station was tedious and predictable, but had some good creepy moments. The second half fared better, reviving some of the major themes and conflicts from Season Four, but it didn't feel like much narrative ground had been gained. The few major events, like the ascension of Londo Mollari to the Centauri throne, were needlessly dragged out over several episodes. Other conflicts that had been previously alluded to and heavily foreshadowed, like the Telepath War, never fully materialized, while the more immediate ones seemed manufactured to fill time.

"Babylon Five" did regain its footing in the final denouement, committing the last handful of episodes to the major characters' farewells as they left the station, one by one. Some of these departures were the natural results of ongoing character arcs, like Ambassador G'Kar's rise to religious icon status, but others were more clumsily orchestrated. The station's doctor, Stephen Franklin, who had just taken on one new job, was abruptly obliged to take on a different one back on Earth. Another character's alcoholism resurfaced out of the blue, requiring him to seek alternate employment. On the other hand there were some interesting twists. Odd characters were paired up, and one had a tragic turn I didn't see coming.

The last episode was a coda that skipped ahead twenty years into the future for a goodbye with more finality. It wasn't as ambitious as some of the other "Babylon Five" stories that hopped around in space and time, but it was a fitting conclusion that still left the door open for more to follow. The creators used it as a chance to bring some old characters back, and to lay in more groundwork for storylines that would never be explored onscreen. A little research reveals that some of these would be used in later tie-in novels and some were meant to be revisited in the "Babylon Five" sequel series, "Crusade," that only lasted a season.

Up until the end, the series was great at leaving us wanting more. There were so many unanswered questions when the final episode was over. The fates of several major characters were left up in the air, and the particulars of many big events were not explored. The Centauri emperor who makes in appearance in the coda is Vir Cotto, confirming the long-prophesied demise of Londo Mollari, but we don't get to see it happen. One of the most important characters who is supposed to figure heavily into the later adventures of the two leads, never appears onscreen at all, though it didn't feel like we lost anything by not seeing him either.

So after five seasons, how was "Babylon Five"? From a narrative standpoint, it came a long way and accomplished more than I think any science-fiction serial on American television managed before it. The special effects were much improved by the final year, though I'm sad to say the music never got any better. The writing and acting were similarly patchy throughout, full of shining ideals and romanticism, but sometimes awfully shaky on particulars with a lot of blind spots as to its own biases. It was definitely science-fiction in the tradition of Asimov and Clarke, full of larger than life characters who represented interesting concepts, but often had little psychological depth. On the other hand, I can see why this was necessary to a degree, as the show dealt in far bigger concepts and ideas than anything else on TV.

Still, I found it disappointing that human characters, like Michael Garibaldi and John Sheridan, were far less complex and multi-faceted than alien characters, like Ambassador G'Kar, Londo Mollari, and even Lennier. There was also certain aura of predestined greatness around the two leads, Sheridan and Delenn, that made them harder to empathize with, though the writers - or really, the writer J. Michael Straczynski who scripted most of the series - deserves credit for recognizing and incorporating some of these issues into Season Four. I'm sorry to say that some of the blame has to fall on the actors, because I've seen similar characters on "Star Trek" and other science fiction series who were realized far better. Next to the very imperfect heroes of "Battlestar Galactica" and "Firefly," certain members of the "Babylon Five" crew are awfully stiff and pedantic.

Today, "Babylon Five" feels a little dated, perhaps because it's such a product of its time and owes so much to older science fiction narratives. Space operas of such grand ambition and with such optimism for the future are out of style. Most of our science fiction has taken on gloomier overtones, predicting all manner of apocalypses and extinction scenarios for the human race. So I appreciated the show for its hopefulness and its faith in human betterment. I like that it's a piece of science-fiction that cares about ideas and ideals as much as it cares about spaceship battles and aliens in rubber masks. There are a lot rough edges and I don't think the series is as good as it's been trumped up to be, but I still found its universe extraordinary and its aspirations very admirable. Science fiction and fantasy shows have found more mainstream acceptance these days, but you still rarely see anything at the level of "Babylon Five."

So I was sad to see it end, and I join the legions of fans hoping that someday, somehow, it might come back in some form. I still want to know what happened to Lennier and Lyta and G'Kar and Bester and Zathras. I still want to know if Majel Barrett's prophecy came true. Until then, I guess, we'll always have reruns.

Now what do I watch next?

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