Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Nostalgia Factory - Memories of Shadows


During the spring of 2011, I mentioned I was about to re-watch Babylon 5; a science fiction soap opera series from the 1990s. A friend of mine commented that he is almost frightened of watching the series again, for fear that it might have dated and hasn't got the same impact. He wasn't the only one; several people I know who loved B5 expressed doubts about the series getting an 2011 airing and I concluded that the main problem with watching the series again is that during the 1990s many of us were already aware of its faults and the years are likely to have exacerbated them.

I had sat down at the computer a few weeks prior to this and started writing an appreciation of B5 (I was toying the idea of replacing the comics blog with one that discussed cult TV) and a few thousand words later I had run out of steam. The reason was simply because it had been so long since I'd last watched it, I was worried that I was remembering things wrong or simply getting facts wrong. The obvious thing was the watch them all again, this time on DVD rather than video cassette and taking all the fears in the opening paragraph in hand I sat down and began J. Michael Straczynski's magnum opus yet again (my 3rd time). By the time I was halfway through the viewing many ideas I'd had about the series had radically changed. What had started as a tribute to a fantastic series began to deteriorate into critical crucifixion... Watching it had not been too wise a decision; I should have been left with my memory.

If you have a couple of hours to spare, you should go here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Babylon_5 and follow many of the links; that way I won't have to bother explaining what the story behind the series is; but essentially it is about a giant space station in neutral space that acts as the pivotal point in three massive interwoven plots - the struggles of Earth, the Centauri/Narn War and the return of the Shadows. There are other stories being told, but they all act as subplots - despite their links to the main stories.

I always believed that if it had been watched by more than a handful of people, it might have been heralded as one of the most ambitious and conceptually staggering TV series of all time - it could have been the Game of Thrones for the 90s - but after watching most of the series again, I now believe that it wasn't a huge hit because it just wasn't that good.

Don't get me wrong; I love B5. It's one of my all-time favourite TV shows and there are elements of it that are just simply awe-inspiring; but on the whole it's just a badly put together mishmash of bollocks. I have always believed that J. Michael Straczynski (JMS) had a sheet of paper with the story written out, but when you sit and watch three episodes a day, every day, until you've watched the entire thing, you realise that unlike some TV series that are continuing stories, there's a feeling that at times he was making it up as he went along. It was a bit like a comic book in that it didn't go anywhere in a 'we're going loads of places' kind of way - the illusion of change is never more obvious than by watching B5 back-to-back.

There are about a dozen episodes which, watched in context, would struggle to be bettered, but in general it was substandard Star Trek at best. This is perfectly highlighted by the fact that if you took all the pertinent story parts and got rid of the rest of it, JMS could quite easily have told the entire story over just three 13-part series'. The main stories could still be entwined and wouldn't lose anything in the shortened delivery, but what you would get rid of is the attempt to make the supporting cast interesting through having them get involved in their own solo adventures, which did nothing to advance the characters or the story. I know that TV series that were made then had the express intention of being successful enough to last a minimum of 7 years - for syndication - but some of these episodes were so weak they were painful to watch.

The general consensus among fans is that season one is the worst, but I believe this is a false impression given by the seven or eight real stinker episodes, many of which shouldn't have got over the desk of the Warner executives who were pulling the purse strings and would eventually be responsible for making this series even more shambolic than it was prone to be. There are also episodes that are quite excellent and progress the plot at an alarming rate, which juxtaposes with episodes that do absolutely nothing but inhabit the world and inhibit the story and take up valuable air time.

Three of the most pivotal episodes for the main stories take place in season one and there are half a dozen more that are pretty much essential viewing. Season One is essential viewing, even if you have to put up with stories that Star Trek would have even given a read through.

The problem with two of the three main stories is that they are unbelievably contrived and are full of contradictions. The struggle for Earth relies on a number of things conveniently happening and quite a few heavy handed bits of symbolism. Too much is made superficial, while the viewer is expected to believe aspects of the story with no real explanation as to why. There is, possibly because of budget restraints, the feeling that there were a number of red herrings and quickly wrapped up subplots that suggested to me that had there been a cast-iron guarantee of 5, 6 or 7 seasons then more would have been made of them.

The other problem was Earth's own struggle really only became the focal point after the story which should have ended the entire series. However, this would have failed if had been done this way for a number of reasons; most obvious being the utter dissatisfaction of the US viewers regarding the climax of the major story. I'm being annoyingly and deliberately cryptic; let me elucidate...

The Shadow War - for years regarded by many as possibly the most outrageous storyline for a TV show, ever - is actually ruined by its expediency. Whether it was the network's fault or not, the subplot that resonated with fans the most was not Earth's struggle or even the quite perfect Centauri/Narn war, but the return of an ancient race who seem intent on causing chaos wherever they went. It took a series and a half to get the Shadow War going and, sadly, the build up was all the fun. Strangely, I believe JMS always intended to have 'the war to end all wars' as an anticlimax, allowing him to wrap up the Earth story as the climax of the series; the problem was once the war actually started all cohesion of story disappeared; the situation escalated through a series of events that on hindsight either made no sense or were contrary to things we'd been led to believe.

With the series in danger of being cancelled, JMS had to wrap up the Shadow War in a handful of episodes when he had intended to make it almost the entire season; so what you got was three years of flirting and then a premature ejaculation. The Shadows were one of the first sentient races in the universe; they came after Dorian, the first and along with the Vorlons remained in 'our' space while the others went 'beyond the rim' of space and into a higher plain of existence. The Vorlons remained reasonably visible and emanated this mystic and power that even the Min'Bari (arguably the most powerful of the remaining races) feared. Used incredibly sparingly by JMS, the Vorlons, especially Ambassador K'osh, embedded themselves into the hearts of fans - they were a mystery wrapped in an enigma and seemed to do nothing but speak in cryptic riddles. The Shadows on the other hand had been hiding for millennia, ever since the last time they decided to start a conflict - when the Min'Bari were a young, reckless, race. Much is hinted at about the last Shadow War, generally in negative and hushed tones.

It soon became clear during the series that K'osh was training the commanders of B5 for an coming conflict, while a creepy human called Mr Morden was inveigling his way into the lives of the easily corruptible aliens and offering incentives supplied by his associates - the Shadows. This was essentially the sub-text of most of the first 2½ series. The humans and aliens dealing with what the universe sends at them, while all the while something essentially political is happening under the surface. Handled by someone like Aaron Sorkin you would have The West Wing. Once the humans force the Vorlons to make a stand everything goes tits up and you realise that K'osh was the only reasonable ancient being left in the universe...

As I said, fans hated the end of the Shadow War and that was because it wasn't smash, bang, wallop enough. They expected the show's entire budget to be spent on the most dazzling special effects ever, and to some extent there was a lot of impressive battle vistas created (for the time); but while the end was quite daring it still owed a lot to the presence of a deux ex machina. In the end, the Shadow War made little sense, it worked really well as a Cold War, but it relied heavily on tissue paper thin coincidences when it became a full scale war. Two of the oldest races in the universe ended up being portrayed as spoilt children who were refusing to allow their younger siblings to go their own way. Philosophically it's a great idea; but in a space adventure it doesn't work, especially when the premise becomes so fragile it's masked by dollops of schmaltz. I remember suggesting on a Compuserve forum many many years ago the spoilt children theory and getting a personal response from JMS; that alone generated a lot of chitter-chatter from the nerds.

The problem was to wrap it up quickly a lot of it had to take place between episodes and 'behind the scenes' but that's where they failed because with the show in serious danger of being cancelled, I think die-hard fans would have preferred to have seen the Shadow War and the Earth Civil War running parallel to each other; just for the chance to have a juxtaposition of the perspectives of war. In the end, the Shadow War fails because the premise is actually too flimsy and because it wasn't designed (as it would be today) to be watched like a box set; there are far too many jolts between episodes, too many alleys that have had a light shone down them but weren't explored and way too much potential that was never fulfilled. I think, to be honest, it could have been written better.

G'Kar and Londo
On watching the series again, one story stands the test of time quite superbly. The Narn/Centauri War featuring the two characters who stole just about every scene they appeared in - Londo Mollari and G'Kar. The two starred in their fare share of duff episodes, but as the series went on, the greatest pleasure derived from the personal journeys of these two charismatic creatures. If the series ultimately is about destiny, then no other characters are a better example of how destinies will be fulfilled or how friendships are formed, or how redemption is achieved. Peter Jurasik and Andreas Katsulas were both renowned stage actors, both appeared in film and TV semi-regularly and if the rest of the cast's acting was sometimes... a bit am dram; these two hammed it up so perfectly you could have been watching some bizarre pantomime on acid. When you hear the term actors chewing up the scenery, that's exactly what these two did when they had the screen together.

The thing that makes the Narn/Centauri War so good is the way it is deeply rooted in both the other stories, either through direct involvement or by just having links to them. The Shadow War would never have escalated so fast if it hadn't been for Londo; it might never have been won if not for G'Kar; just this involvement led to the civil war that freed the Narn and one storyline couldn't exist without the other. There are also links to Earth and its struggles and things needed to be established because of the part the Narn (G'Kar) and Centauri (Londo and Vir) play in the ultimate ending of the story.

If there was ever a TV series that force-fed the viewer a concept they hadn't tuned in to watch it was B5 and the Narn/Centuari War was a masterpiece in political writing; it was the sharpest and most focused writing in all the series and on hindsight you got the impression that JMS enjoyed this story line more than all the others and that might be because it couldn't exist without the story and the story couldn't exist with Londo and G'Kar. Andreas Katsulas was the most recognisable human playing an alien since Spock, his death ultimately destroyed any chance of us ever seeing him in lizard skin again.

What of the Min'Bari, ever present throughout the story but not really included in my theory that there was only really three stories. This ancient race had its own stories - their civil war and the part played in the original Shadow War, which of course was ended by interference from the future*, creating a strangely beautiful paradox. But the Min'Bari were really no more than catalysts for all the other stories; the series started with them really having finished their stories and was really only focusing on the resonance from those big events; their civil war almost felt like an afterthought - Oh shit, we need to do something else with the bone heads. There was also the feeling that they were a bit like God's mate Dave in a Machine rather than this deus ex machina race of aliens they tried to portray themselves (or were portrayed) as. JMS was always very quick to point out that regardless of how hard the people of Min'Bar were, they were small beans for the Vorlons and other ancient races. Don't get me wrong, the Min'Bari play a massively pivotal role in the series, but you kind of realise that from the off-set and when you understand the significance of the two part World Without End you realise that it was all destined so you focus on the other stories. The Narn and the Centauri were really the grey (race) the Min'Bari styled themselves as - standing twixt the light and the dark - but they were actually pretty much whiter than white aside from a very small percentage of mad bastards floating about who were probably there only to give the race something we (the viewer) could identify with.

The oft used analogy that B5 is just a distortion of Earth's history using a major race (or an amalgam of two) as a representation of different alien races is probably correct. You could argue that Earth is America/Russia; Centauri would be the Roman Empire mixed with the British Empire; the Narn could be Israel and the Jews. The Vorlons could be the Chinese and the Shadows would be a kind of Nazi, because of their ideological ways, but scant regard for life. Human history in a microcosm and the reason it lasted as long as it did was because it used flamboyant ideas around that historical anchor point.

* Every SF series seems to do its own time travel story, it's almost a pre-requisite, and B5 was no different and with a couple of minor gripes they pull it off possibly better than any other TV show, but that might be because it takes place within a period of time rather than trying to be clever with the future. Way back at the end of the first season there is an episode called Babylon Squared and if I had to pick a favourite stand alone episode I'd probably pick this one despite it being nothing more than one huge enigma. I think I'd choose it because I think even now it is so far ahead of its time that our sophisticated SF dramas of the 21st century still haven't cottoned on. Very simply (and despite the necessity of having to change it because of budget and cast problems), Babylon Squared is a episode to set up something else in a future season. It is people witnessing time travel from the position of not really understanding it; it also suggests that at some point in a future episode this particular episode will suddenly make even more sense. That happens and you marvel at the skill in writing a time travel story that doesn't create a paradox (or if it does it manages to shut the loop) and that the creators of this series have the faith and the foresight to do something like this, so blatantly, and kind of tie themselves into a fixed, linear, story. Of course, things changes between this episode and how they concluded it and you have to give JMS 9 out of 10 for the almost seamless way he wrote himself out of a corner.

Over the last few years there has been a growing movement to have the series 're-imagined' like Battlestar Galactica and with special effects much cheaper, perhaps JMS's initial idea, which was stymied by the lack of advancement in technology, could be realised. I think if HBO or Showtime wanted to do a SF series with the kind of gravitas given to Game of Thrones or Dexter then a remake might work, especially if JMS was given a guarantee of five, six or seven series to tell the story he originally wanted to, the way he would have liked. But would they want that? Would today's TV execs want a McG or a Whedon to re-invent a TV series like B5 and, more importantly, would it be the concept only they use? The reason I suggest this is because after all of this and deciding that perhaps it wasn't that brilliant after all, the thing that made B5 stick in my head and the heads of so many others was essentially the entwined story/stories. If this hadn't have been the case then we would have watched Deep Space Nine. If B5 was brought back it would have to bring the original story with it or come up with a story that, conceptually, beats the original. I'd say they would struggle with that.

In conclusion, I can think of a few good reasons to recommend it but these are totally negated by the faults. If you can live with the poor FX and the poor acting and the really cheesy fillers, there is a cracking story, much of which will ultimately leave you empty because of the fact budgets and uncertainty meant things got forgotten or went unanswered. The fact that it makes it to 5 series and tells an entire story is a fantastic achievement, but sadly, don't let that fact influence you.

The majority of the above was written at the end of the summer of 2011. I have added bits to it, tidied it up, taken out some of my fabulous sentences that obviously I must have known what I meant when I wrote them (but probably left a few in that I still remembered) and I've updated it slightly. 

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