"Fasten, then zip. You?" "Fasten, zip."
June 17, 2019 3:45 PM   Subscribe

Babylon 5 Is the Greatest, Most Terrible SF Series. Jennifer Giesbrecht takes an extended look at the best and worst aspects of this pathbreaking TV program 26 years after it first aired. Spoilerrific, of course.
posted by grouse (112 comments total) 53 users marked this as a favorite
 
My experience of B5 was kind of lacklustre the first time around, but then my friend said that part of the fun of it was having access to JMS on Usenet the whole time. So what should I do to replicate this experience?

Well, there's always The Lurker's Guide to Babylon 5! This is basically a digest of all the relevant conversations that help give context and backstory and explain the circumstances that created all of those "in spite of" moments.

JMS will happily say that in the pilot he ended up with a Director's Cut and the Director shot some Great Footage and wants to show it all to you, while a good producer will tell the editor to Tighten That Crap Up. So yeah, lesson learned while filming! And now you get this lesson for free!

But also there's a lot of good spoiler-free "just make note of this line, and be ready for it later. It's A Thing." kind of advice. I recommend going through especially the first three seasons with this to hand, as it helps fill you in on things without ruining surprises or spoiling stories.
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 3:58 PM on June 17 [7 favorites]


My experience of B5 was kind of lacklustre the first time around, but then my friend said that part of the fun of it was having access to JMS on Usenet the whole time.

True story: There is a one-hit wonder from the seventies that I enjoy more than most people do because my uncle was in the band.

That does not make it a good song.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 4:02 PM on June 17 [19 favorites]


It was an emotional rollercoaster, that's for sure. Londo and G'kar took turns breaking my damn heart.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 4:13 PM on June 17 [36 favorites]


The weird thing about B5 for me is how I remember the characters and rivalries and jargon so well, but barely anything about the plot itself beyond the bare basics.
posted by I'm always feeling, Blue at 4:17 PM on June 17 [7 favorites]


The writing was so bad - until it was absolutely brilliant - and then would be bad again. JMS couldn't write dialogue, but he could write passages of prophecy or observation that still give me chills to read.

Some quotes from the FPP:
My shoes are too tight, and I’ve forgotten how to dance.

* * *

Understanding is a three edged sword: your side, their side, and the truth.

* * *

The wheel turns, does it not?

* * *

All life is transitory, a dream… if I don’t see you again here, I will see you, in a little while, in a place where no shadows fall.

* * *

It’s all a game—a paper fantasy of names and borders.

* * *

I have seen what power does, and I have seen what power costs. The one is never equal to the other.


* * *

There comes a time when you look into the mirror and you realize that what you see is all that you will ever be. Then you accept it or you kill yourself or you stop looking into mirrors.

* * *

Will you lay down your life—not for millions, not for glory, not for fame—but for one person, in the dark, where no one will ever know or see?
And some of the actors were terrible (it makes so much sense that the guy who played Garibaldi went on to be a right-wing radio host) - except for the aliens, many of whom were brilliant European character actors.

In short - Babylon 5 was a production with contrasts. And so very, very worth watching.
posted by jb at 4:20 PM on June 17 [32 favorites]


Seasons 2,3, and 4 are worth your time. Maybe the first and last episodes of season 1 for some context.

And the show is definitely of mixed quality. But when it hits, it hits.

The tone and content of JMS’s Usenet posts always made me think that if anyone turned a profit on the show it would probably be an anonymous coke dealer somewhere.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 4:29 PM on June 17 [11 favorites]


What she said. A imperfect work of genius where the flaws are part of the genius.
posted by ovvl at 4:31 PM on June 17 [4 favorites]


Yeah, lots of brilliant quotes... don't forget Emperor Turhan:
Centauri Emperor Turhan:
No regrets then?

Sheridan:
A few. But just a few. You?

Emperor Turhan:
Oh, enough to fill a lifetime. So much has been lost, so much forgotten. So much pain, so much blood. And for what? I wonder…The past tempts us, the present confuses us, and the future frightens us. And our lives slip away, moment by moment, lost in that vast terrible in-between. But there is still time to seize that one last, fragile moment. To choose something better, to make a difference, as you say. And I intend to do just that.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 4:34 PM on June 17 [13 favorites]


It used to be on Channel 4 on Sunday afternoons. After a while I realised that I had absolutely no idea what the hell was going on, but I quite liked looking at it (I enjoyed the trivia that the effects were reputed to have been created by a huge number of Amigas running in parallel). I came to the same realisation recently about Star Trek Discovery. It seems I watch space series because I think they're pretty to look at but I'm incapable of following the plots.

I used to like to imagine that Babylon One - our first, worst chance for peace - was a tatty second-hand space station with "Fuck off, alien scum" spraypainted on it by a drunken security guard for a bet. That's about as close as I get to fanfic.
posted by Grangousier at 4:41 PM on June 17 [10 favorites]


I remember from about midseason 3 to midseason 4 being pretty impressive, though I don't know how much even that would stand up these days, when carrying off epic interplanetary war wasn't a new thing. The rest depended a lot on the actors, as was said above the ones played by skilled character actors managed to carry off JMS's less than great dialog, the others were very hit and miss. And far too often the plots were wincingly stupid.
posted by tavella at 4:49 PM on June 17


Strangely enough, I've just sort of landed on this as my next nostalgia rewatch. I haven't started yet, but I already know I may have made a terrible mistake...
posted by Ghidorah at 4:58 PM on June 17


Point of order: Babylon 5 is the greatest, most terrible American SF TV series.

Blakes 7 is the greatest, most terrible SF series in the universe.
posted by Doktor Zed at 5:03 PM on June 17 [33 favorites]


Weird how that article was written seemingly in ignorance of the fiasco that was Season 4 and then Season 5. The show was planned for 5 seasons. Then it did poorly and rumor was it was going to be cancelled after 4, so JMS and the rest hurried up the plot and finished it. And then surprise they had a season 5 afterall, after half the cast had found other jobs, and so they gamely tried to make it work and it was a disaster.

It was too bad. In this era this kind of episodic story telling was very rare on TV. A whole 5 year space opera story planned out, it was gonna be great! All those excesses would have been forgiveable if the orginal plan was as good as some of the hints suggested. The good news is Deep Space 9's people were watching B5 too and started writing longer story arcs as well. And Twin Peaks was a big success, and a bunch of TV shows started doing longer stories. And that's how we got The Wire.

I tried watching B5 again and the visual effects have aged really, really poorly. Campy 70s/80s scifi TV still works because it's kind of fun seeing what they could do with cardboard sets, silver glitter, and flashing lights. Early CGI is nowhere near as charming. Also as good as B5 tried, it was nowhere as creative as the CGI sequences in Lawnmower Man or Johnny Mnemonic or some of the other groundbreakers.
posted by Nelson at 5:07 PM on June 17 [9 favorites]


I still really enjoyed Season 5, and I also love the fact that it ends up really reinforcing the "well fuck, we broke the damn thing, now what?" subtext that probably wasn't intended because JMS loves him some grandiose *~The End~* type stuff.

But Season 5 finally had enough Bester in it to meet your nutritional RDA of Vitamin Bester, and that alone is worth the cost.
posted by Scattercat at 5:10 PM on June 17 [11 favorites]


A lot has been made of how the data for the B5 special effects shots was lost, making their re-creation in HD costly and difficult (the live action was filmed in HD, but the effects were created for broadcast in SD). I'm wondering, in this world of 'deep fakes,' where you can paint one face on top of another easily, why we can't produce software that paints an HD model of a spaceship on top of an SD model, etc., to generate new effects shots?
posted by jabah at 5:12 PM on June 17 [3 favorites]


I watched B5 enthusiastically, the first couple of seasons. I loved the spaceships that obeyed Newtonian rules. (Honestly, that was the main attraction for me. I'll watch zero-g pew-pew until the cows come home.) Londo and G'Kar were colorful characters, played by actors who knew how to chew the scenery properly. The original captain, Sinclair, had a great deep rumbling voice and a gravitas that Sheridan could never equal. (The actor playing Sinclair had serious mental illness issues that forced him off the show after the first season, I later learned. A sad story.) JMS had no ear for dialogue, but I cut him slack for at least telling his story with sincerity and enthusiasm. Sadly, the final showdown with the Big Bad was murky and unsatisfying, at least to me. Things didn't end so much as they just stopped.
posted by KHAAAN! at 5:13 PM on June 17 [2 favorites]


B5 is so good/bad it’s trancended it all and is now securely in that “if I run across it when flipping channels, I am stopping and watching it” tier. For me, that’s the highest compliment I can bestow on a movie or tv show.

I still think they missed the best spin-off possible by not following Lyta and G’kar on their travels. I’d still watch the hell out of that.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:22 PM on June 17 [9 favorites]


And of course there are the elements, um, "recycled" shall we say, from LoTR.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 5:23 PM on June 17 [2 favorites]


I've started this several times, perhaps I'll take Tell Me No Lies suggestion and jump to the second season for my next try. HBO or n'flX should do a remake with the out of work GoT actors and costume designers.
posted by sammyo at 5:35 PM on June 17


in this world of 'deep fakes,' where you can paint one face on top of another easily, why we can't produce software that paints an HD model of a spaceship on top of an SD model, etc., to generate new effects shots?

You probably could. The closest analog is machine learning tools to upscale video game graphics. Bigger problems are that the effects shots were only rendered in a 4:3 aspect ratio. And according to JMS, that the current Powers That Be at Warner Bros hold some sort of grudge and aren't going to let anything interesting be done with the Babylon 5 properties, no matter how much money is in it for them.
posted by grouse at 5:36 PM on June 17 [1 favorite]


JMS couldn't write dialogue

I give everything I'm thinking about watching--EVERYTHING--six episodes to sell me.

The dialogue on B5 was so brain-meltingly awful that I quit after two-and-a-half episodes.

I was literally shouting at the television "NOBODY TALKS LIKE THIS" about six minutes into the first episode. My housemates were concerned that I was going to explode.

To quote a friend of mine (who also quit B5 after two eps) "The dialogue corners like the Titanic."

I know, I know, the plot! The four five-year plan!

Bleh. No way.
posted by tzikeh at 5:53 PM on June 17 [3 favorites]


Up until starting a recent break flibbertigibbet has been doing a weekly rewatch on Fanfare. Hopefully they’ll start up again soon!
posted by Frayed Knot at 5:53 PM on June 17 [1 favorite]


I remember JMS coming to a local sci fi con and doing a panel on The Real Ghostbusters which he was writing, and at the end he talked about this new show he wanted to do. I'm really glad it happened, but I don't know if I'd do a rewatch. I have a friend who resisted watching when it first aired but is now a superfan. I guess the show feels dated to me like those Zima product placements it had.
posted by Catblack at 6:00 PM on June 17 [1 favorite]


Starting at Season 2 is a reasonable option. Also for the curious, there is an introductory TV movie: 'Babylon 5: In The Beginning', which was kinda designed as an optional filler-in of history backstory for new viewers coming into the arc part way through.
posted by ovvl at 6:16 PM on June 17 [1 favorite]


Season 1 catches a lot of flak for plot and for not having a lot to do with the main arc of the series. But I've always felt that it did a lot of Setting Up, which is thankless but important.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 6:22 PM on June 17 [6 favorites]


The dialogue on B5 was so brain-meltingly awful that I quit after two-and-a-half episodes

I have friends who, although otherwise functional adults, insist that JMS is a great writer. There are at least two different aspects to being a decent writer, and they do not always coincide. I will allow that he can plot grand arcs better than a lot of people in his business but the line-by-line exchanges he really ought to leave to others. Three or four years ago on a Fanfare discussion on Sense8, I wrote this:
The show is, for better or worse, exactly -- even comically -- what the result of a collaboration between Straczynski and the Wachowskis would be. It has the kind of dialogue you might spot in a better McSweeney's piece imagining a collision of these two high-concept creative forces. A representative example of the dialogue, as a new character introduces himself to one of the protagonists :

"I'm Silas Kabaka."

"I know who you are."

"Our reputations precede us. You did me a great service, though you may not even know it. You see, the gang Superpower had been working for me. They got it in their heads they no longer needed me, and in one afternoon, you destroyed whatever reputation they felt they'd been building, thereby saving me from the incumbent messiness of betrayal."



It is hard to imagine a more ham-handed bit of exposition and character reveal. It is unfortunately not hard to imagine JMS pecking that out, then sitting back from the keyboard and nodding in satisfaction.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:25 PM on June 17 [4 favorites]


I never watched Game of Thrones before the Red Wedding. Babylon 5 was my Game of Thrones, I was still in high school at the time. I would sometimes rewatch the final episodes, and my mom asked, why is that music so sad?
posted by polymodus at 6:31 PM on June 17 [4 favorites]


I just re-watched the whole series again a few months ago. Yes, the effects are dated, but that didn’t bother me so much.

Yes, the dialogue was wooden and/or forced at times, and that was more bothersome. Franklin, Garibaldi and Zack especially seemed barely two-dimensional beings, even when we were exploring their inner demons. Sheridan, Deleon and Ivanova were written some groaners, as well.

But the things that really bother me were decisions made about incomprehensible plot developments (or lack thereof) that seemed so ridiculously contrived as to be maddening. Delenn’s transformation to semi-human in her cocoon. Marcus’ rather ridiculously contrived sacrifice to save Ivanova. The infuriatingly constant tease with the Vorlons that was never resolved. The fascinating characters that were introduced in a single episode, then never seen again, like Jason Ironheart, or the Technomages.

Or the ridiculous decisions that were made to jam certain plot lines into an episode. Rather than scrap a space station clearly worth a an enormous amount in salvage, they blow it up, sending shrapnel and debris throughout the area?

Whining aside, though, my pals and I mostly enjoyed B5. Special props to Londo & G’Kar, Vir, Zathrus, the Technomages, the Vorlons, the exploration of the themes of the Psi Corps (including Bester), Ivanova as leader, the nonlinear use of time in showing Sinclair becoming Valen, the prescient technology of data crystals, and the many, many instances of beautiful and philosophical musing on existential themes.
posted by darkstar at 6:46 PM on June 17 [4 favorites]


Nah. Just nah.

This thread made me seek out (unsuccessfully) Harlan Ellison's screed about media interpretations of science fiction being terrible and never getting any better because the fans will put up with any dreck whatsoever.

This was his take in th Seventies and you could mmmaybe say it's better these days, but I'd argue not, and Babylon 5 is an exhibit I'd always submit.

(derail) (And don't get me started on fantasy - the two towers in the film were different from the two towers in Tolkien's book, which is where I stopped watching Peter Jackson movies cause dammit you got to draw th line somewhere.) (/derail)

So, yeah, gave B5 a shot on th advice of some of my more starry-eyed friends, could not freaking stand it, but all discussions of B5 always make me think of Harlan and smile, so there is that.

(Anyone have old copies of F&SF floating about and can find the exact quote? Feel free to provide it.)
posted by halliburtron at 6:53 PM on June 17 [2 favorites]


I finished watching B5 (for the first time, at Mr. Nat's request) within the last year. And yeah, I would often giggle at the truly terrible CG; it hit at a weird time where people *could* actually try to do full CG shots, but that doesn't mean they *should* have.

Some of the effects are still quite good though-- or are the shoulder puppets made with practical effects instead of CG? Those things really creeped me out.
posted by nat at 6:53 PM on June 17


I will never be able to say if Babylon 5 is a good show or not. It's just too tied up in who I was when I was in high school; an impressionable nerd looking for a grand story. I fell in love with the show and taped reruns off my tv. Such a weird, long thing. I still love it, but if any of my friends are like "hey, should I watch Babylon 5?" I have to be totally honest that I just don't know.
posted by clockbound at 7:06 PM on June 17 [5 favorites]


If it weren't for B5, Star Trek would probably still be doing episodic television.
posted by entropicamericana at 7:09 PM on June 17 [10 favorites]


Funny that you should say that, halliburton. Did you know Ellison was a consulting producer for B5, and occasional voice actor for it? (The original snarky AI after they reboot the station post-secession, and Zooty.)
posted by stevis23 at 7:28 PM on June 17 [16 favorites]


I've rewatched this show three times, which is twice more than I can say for any other show. Each time has been with a different person, and I think the general consensus with us has been:

1) Season 1 is terrible, but too many episodes are necessary in order to skip it. At best you can cut certain ones out. It's easy to find fan lists that are fairly consistent in terms of telling you what you can skip here. There's one or two in season two you can (and should) skip, but in general the show takes a marked uptick in quality once you hit the last episode of season 1.

2) If you're not hooked after the end of season 2, I would say it's likely not worth bothering with the rest.

3) The show had a much weaker bench than, say, DS9, so that the acting highs are often propped right up with acting lows, even in the same episode. Neroon and Na'Toth are very pleasant exceptions.

4) The music is terrible. Beyond terrible. Dated even when it aired, it now only gives the viewer the worst of 80s synth and fake drum excess. It often undermines the scenes it should be supporting.

5) The effects are often bad, especially in season 1. In part this is because of the age of the show, but in part it's because of a famous snafu by Warner, briefly mentioned by the article in the footnote, where they lost the masters for all the digital effects and so even at DVD resolution they look terrible because they can't be done at a proper modern resolution (which is why there's no blu-ray of the show; the filmed parts would look great, but the digital effects would degrade even further by comparison).

6) The dialogue is often clunky: speechified and overly expositional. Sometimes it's hilarious, and once in a while beautiful, but you definitely need to take the good with the bad. One of my co-watchers observed that sometimes the dialogue is bad, but the actor sells it anyways (99% of the time he was referring to Londo). Overall there's both plenty to quote and plenty to groan at, which is an odd combination.

7) The journey of Londo and G'Kar across the entire show is superb. It especially strikes me as I write this in the wake of GoT's terrible ending, so heavily faulted because so many of the character beats didn't feel at all warranted or earned. Watching G'Kar move from angry, petty bully through the various painful stages of wisdom he acquires, or Londo move from embittered washup to arrogant powermonger to where and how he does, and how they interact with one another as they cross paths with each other in their slowly but steadily-changing lives again and again--it's really a tribute to the long view that Straczynski took, which shines even when the short-term dialogue does not. Some of the moments in their arcs are decent on their own, but outright shine because you feel the weight of two or three steady seasons of logical development behind them that you've rode along with.

8) The ending always makes me bawl, and the cynic in me just says that's because the frustration that was season five is over but the romantic in me knows it a really lovely scene.
posted by Palindromedary at 7:38 PM on June 17 [26 favorites]


Exactly what clockbound said. I'm too tied up in loving it when it aired, with my boyfriend at the time and all our friends totally into it too, to have any real way of untangling if it's actually a good TV show or not. I loved it unabashedly then and I have seen every episode multiple times, but I still don't know if want to re-watch it. I think I may just let it sit as a shining jewel in my memory, without turning it to coal by watching with 2019 eyes.
posted by gemmy at 7:39 PM on June 17 [4 favorites]


“I hope the future will be like Star Trek, but I’m afraid it’s going to be like Babylon 5.”
We have a club on Fanfare for Star Trek, and after writing enough about the topic to fill multiple volumes? I'm the exact opposite.

Star Trek has had some truly wonderful moments, some very important things to say. I think it's worth examining in immense detail, (obviously, as I am doing so), but it's missing a couple things Babylon 5 was willing to do:

- Challenging the status quo.

On a meta level, B5 was an important step forward in serialized storytelling for genre fiction on TV, and it's difficult to overstate what that meant to me when it was actually airing.

Within the text, Babylon 5 was about challenging dysfunctional existing orders: governments were toppled, organizations rethought and Sheridan tells what amount to the gods to leave everybody alone now. it. My favorite line in the finale was, "It taught us that we have to create the future, or others would do it for us."

I find that value to be important. (I only wish JMS' worries about fascism hadn't been so spot-on.)

- Giving me the likes of Londo and G'Kar (and Vir and Morden and Kosh and...)

I still quote Babylon 5. Plenty of the dialogue was clunky as fuck, but the gems persist. I loved all those characters. Well, most of them: Zack was just sorta there. But it was fun watching them change over time.

Anyway. B5 is a classic, warts and all. I've seen it all the way through maybe 5 times - it is to me what LOTR is for a lot of people, I suppose.
posted by mordax at 7:53 PM on June 17 [21 favorites]


I was in high school when this started, and I thought the pilot was not particularly good, and was bored through most of the first season. But there weren't that many sci-fi shows on at the time, so I watched anyway. Second season improved, and I was in college by then. A friend turned me onto the Lurker's guide, and I also discovered UseNet.

Season 3 rolled around, and it rose up into the top 5 of the shows I was watching at the time (alongside DS9 and Voyager, Highlander, and Xena), peaking after the turn in Severed Dreams when things became really serious. Season 4 maintained that, then came the disappointing season 5 (albeit for the known and understandable reasons). Buffy started around that time too, so B5 had certainly dropped off my top 5 list, but it had already earned its place in my forever pantheon.

Criticism of the writing (particularly the dialogue) is totally fair. That said, it is worth mentioning that JMS personally wrote nearly every episode (per Wikipedia Straczynski wrote 92 of the 110 episodes of Babylon 5, including all 44 episodes in the third and fourth seasons) which is pretty amazing.
posted by Pryde at 7:54 PM on June 17 [3 favorites]


This essay is a real labor of love about the TV show, but I'm not really sure who its for. The intro drops hints as if it's introducing it to new viewers, but the rest is a soup of references. Somewhere around the middle the author apologizes for getting all polisci 101,but I'm not actually sure when she did! Telling me the show translates The End of History into space sounds great, but I'm not aware that The End of History anticipated that fascism was going to come back and take over. There's a lot going on in the essay that makes me want to take another crack at the show instead of just reading synopses and watching clips on YouTube, but the thread of the whole case gets a bit buried.
posted by Going To Maine at 8:01 PM on June 17 [3 favorites]


The Centauri one is my all-time favorite lightbulb joke, though.
posted by ckape at 8:04 PM on June 17 [4 favorites]


I was not interested in the show when it originally aired; I ended up binging seasons 1-4 back in 2011 or 2012 when someone I was dating suggested it as she wanted to talk about the show while I watched it. I enjoyed it as a bingable show, Londo and G'Kar kept me in it as much as anything. Mostly I came here to note that like I enjoyed sense8 the way I enjoy a candy bar and I was bummed that it got cancelled.
posted by MillMan at 8:04 PM on June 17 [1 favorite]


Well, I enjoyed the hell out of it when I discovered it on DVD (I saw some commercial for B5 once on TV and was all, "Why is there a vampire" (Londo) "on a sci-fi show?"). It's a grand project. I like that JMS plotted the hell out of it and had escape routes and plans and adjusted those plans when things had to change. JMS did a lot of stuff I wish modern day TV writers would or could (not sure if they could at this point) do.

Nowadays it looks cheesy, but man, it's a show that made me laugh and think.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:06 PM on June 17 [4 favorites]


I picked it up in season 3 or 4, when TNT had the rights and was showing weekday reruns of earlier seasons I could tape on my programmable VCR and watch when I got home. I think that helped since I didn't have to wait long stretches for often mundane "twists."

I think I like it less than the author of the Tor article overall, and would quibble on a lot of points, but basically I think she got it right: Enough strong points despite the mess.

If it weren't for B5, Star Trek would probably still be doing episodic television.

There were so many shows experimenting with serialized story arcs at the time (presumably because of more people like me with our programmable VCRs able to catch up on missed episodes) that this has always seemed unlikely to me.

Especially with DS9, since the approach was so different--I doubt Ronald Moore could stick to a coherent plan for more than a half dozen episodes before wandering off in a different direction. Even the ambitious DS9 arcs seemed aim to explore what they wanted to explore and then moved on.
posted by mark k at 8:10 PM on June 17 [1 favorite]


Especially with DS9, since the approach was so different--I doubt Ronald Moore could stick to a coherent plan for more than a half dozen episodes before wandering off in a different direction. Even the ambitious DS9 arcs seemed aim to explore what they wanted to explore and then moved on.

Some of that was to satisfy the powers to be at CBS/Paramount, who were making serious money with Star Trek and Star Trek TNG, which basically reset after every episode so they could be watched in any order in syndication (both original and re-runs). They didn't want to kill the cash cow that they had so they treaded lightly in to the continuing story lines until the last season where they just went for broke.
posted by jmauro at 8:21 PM on June 17 [1 favorite]


There's so much the show got right, even with the limited budget and sometimes clunky dialogue. Just a few things that come to mind that aren't in any particular order.

I loved that the show's opening narration and music changed from season to season. It was a small thing but made the show feel alive.

There were very few times when I felt the characters weren't true to themselves. Very few times when their reactions were forced to a script's needs and not what would seem natural for the character. JMS was very good at keeping his characters consistent and letting them do what they would do. As opposed to, say, GoT.

And if a character needed to deliver important information to another character, they did so. Sure, sometimes the information was obfuscated in prophetic language. But there was rarely the sort of all-too-typical contrived interruptions that happen in other shows that prevent the people from sharing information with each other the way real people would. Characters were allowed to be adults, and reasonable ones at that.

I watched the series in 2003 as it came out on DVD. 9/11 was fresh in my mind. The final episode of Season 1 really stands out (in a good way) in how it depicted a terrorist attack which would change everything about Earth's government. The characters were utterly horrified watching it live on their 23rd century version of television. But they didn't do the usual Hollywood thing of loudly proclaiming their defiance or screaming revenge or jumping into their fighters to shoot at random things. Instead, they sat down in the bar. Watched the footage loop over and over again on Future CNN. And just talked quietly. Sadly. About what this meant to them. About what this meant for their country. For their future. Which is exactly how I and the people in my life experienced 9/11.

And speaking of the post-9/11 world, that was another thing the show got all too right. How the powers-that-be on Earth used the terror attack, and later events, as an excuse for war abroad and fascism at home. Presented as something that didn't happen overnight, but rather as slow changes. Some changes that might even seem reasonable in the context. But all add up to something terrible at the end. Culminating in the episode of Sheridan's interrogation and torture at the hands of Earth authorities. When you keep in mind that Earth's government just a few years prior was a rule-of-law republic with extensive freedom, that episode becomes even more powerful. Showing how even the ordinary people will go along with the evil and participate in the corruption. Watching this show in the Bush years felt like it was a prophecy.

I liked that the show was willing to get meta at times and pull the camera back. There are two episodes presented as documentaries from an Earth-based news network. One that's a straightforward 60 Minutes style quick overview of life at the station. And then one later where straightforward footage is twisted into anti-B5, pro-fascist propaganda. There's also the episode focused on the lives of janitors and those who lived below decks. Or the episode that's completely set within the ranks of the PsyCorps.

Speaking of the below decks, I liked that the show was willing to show the future is not evenly distributed. That even this pristine space station, run by well-meaning officers, still has poverty. People down on their luck who don't have the money to leave. The show sympathized with this desperation, and never treated those people as faceless or disposable.

Each of the arcs resolved themselves fairly solidly. All the prophecies came true in satisfying ways, even when the prophesy seemed absurdly unlikely at the time. Perhaps this part shouldn't be a big deal, but too many shows fail at sticking the landing. BSG or GoT or Lost might have had bigger budgets and much better actors, but they failed at this.

Time travel was treated as a remarkable event. A one-off singularity. It was not something that routinely happens when the scriptwriters were out of other ideas.

It's a minor detail, but I liked how the show treated gay marriage seriously. Two characters are being sent to Mars to spy. Mars is apparently popular with honeymooners. These two male characters are pretending to be newlyweds as their cover. This is treated as funny, but only because the two characters don't particularly like each other and are constantly squabbling. Gay marriage is never the focus of the jokes, but is instead treated as something normal, or even boring. That was a nice touch for a mid 90's show.
posted by Teegeeack AV Club Secretary at 8:56 PM on June 17 [30 favorites]


Poor Claudia Christian -- she was so cool as the machine gun toting alien spider possessed super hottie stripper who rocked The Hidden and then became in B5 the over stuffed shirt sonambulist whose acting was as stiff as her uniform -- what a waste of a career that was.
posted by y2karl at 8:59 PM on June 17


The journey of Londo and G'Kar across the entire show is superb.

These are two incredible actors at their peak who play off each other well and it is worth watching the series for their interactions alone. I just rewatched up to the point the Fanfare rewatch thread is out, and it’s still amazing and makes me cry. Both of their arcs are also insanely well written. JMS was shit at “episode of the week” dialogue, but the big stuff? He got that right.
posted by corb at 9:01 PM on June 17 [16 favorites]


Hello! I'm vaguely aware that Babylon 5 was a movie and/or television program and that's what you nerds are talking about. I miss my mom and don't have kids of my own to bother, so I'll just remind you that there's water in the fridge, it's just a tv show (probably!), and I'm downstairs if you need me.
posted by wreckingball at 9:06 PM on June 17 [4 favorites]


Mr. Morden : What do YOU want?

Vir Cotto : I'd like to live just long enough to be there when they cut off your head and stick it on a pike as a warning to the next ten generations that some favors come with too high a price. I want to look up into your lifeless eyes and wave like this.

[waves]

Can you and your associates arrange that for me, Mr. Morden

posted by cirhosis at 9:12 PM on June 17 [47 favorites]


The entire series was on Hulu, before it had a pay tier, the first time I was breastfeeding (2009), so I watched it all for the very first time while up with a tiny voracious dictator. I'm still mad Ivanova was written off and I will forever think of the show fondly, although I remember almost nothing of season 5 and I don't know if that's because it was incoherent or if that's because I was direly muddled from sleep deprivation. I COULD go rewatch it but I almost don't want to, the first watch was so perfect. Maybe when Mini McGee is in his teens and can watch it with me for a second time. :)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:18 PM on June 17 [1 favorite]


Poor Claudia Christian

No one's ever going to accuse Claudia Christian of being a great actor. But, she kinda turned her acting weakness into a strength by playing a stiff career military officer. One who expected a predictable career with predictable decisions made easy by her training, but then got something completely different. And she got to have her on screen portrayal completely unsexualized. A competent officer whose competence was never called into question by her gender, and was never forced into some inane fan service.

Complaining that her attractiveness ("hottie") wasn't the main focus is utterly ridiculous and kinda offensive.
posted by Teegeeack AV Club Secretary at 9:19 PM on June 17 [34 favorites]


Peter Jurasik/Londo should definitely be in more stuff. Casting directors get onto this.
posted by Damienmce at 9:52 PM on June 17 [3 favorites]


Yeah Ivanova was badass. This discussion reminds me that my sister also watched B5 with me, and Ivanova was one of her favorite characters.
posted by polymodus at 9:53 PM on June 17 [7 favorites]


(I was more a Delenn / Kosh person myself. Siblings are alike yet so different.)
posted by polymodus at 9:54 PM on June 17


No one's ever going to accuse Claudia Christian of being a great actor...

You are projecting, sir.

She went from embittered stripper to mega-scary alien in The Hidden, and showed more range in a few scenes in one short sci-fi B movie than all she did in Babylon 5. I thought her turn in B5 was a bit of a career killer.

You should check out The Hidden, which is.one of the greatest B movies of its kind. I suspect Kyle McLachan's turn as an FBI agent from another planet led to his starring role in Twin Peaks. Would that Christian had such a progression in her career -- she deserved better. She had a greater potential than she was ever allowed in B5. But your point is taken, all the same.
posted by y2karl at 9:55 PM on June 17 [1 favorite]


If it weren't for B5, Star Trek would probably still be doing episodic television.

That this statement is just thrown out there apparently straight-faced--without considering, for example, that soap operas have been doing epic, sometimes decades-long storylines for about as long as they've existed--is one of the problems that I have with getting into this series, in that so much of the consideration and discussion of the series is steeped in both the overweening regard for the ineffable genius of JMS and the inevitable comparisons with Star Trek, especially DS9. Some of the latter is inevitable, just because of Trek's longevity and the sheer amount of material that the franchise has produced--pretty much any and every space opera series will be put up against it--but a lot of the B5-DS9 comparisons are done with this weird vindictive edge about how anything that the latter had that was worth anything was stolen directly from the former. I've only watched one episode, the very first, and while it was interesting enough, it in no way compared to "Emissary", the first DS9 episode. That doesn't mean that I'll never watch it, but honestly, there's a lot out there competing for my attention--I've had The Expanse recommended many times--and TFA does a good job of encouraging my picking it up again by celebrating the show's actual virtues; the Star Trek comparisons seem relevant, at least.
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:58 PM on June 17 [5 favorites]


After the show ended, my subconscious would continue on and had ideas for seasons 6, 7, and 8, at least.

This show was my everything in college and got me through a lot of dark times. Londo's speech about being cute is one of my favorite things ever.

"Everybody's cute. But in purple, I am STUNNING!"
**passes out**
"He has embraced his inner self!"

Also, nobody ever listens to poor Zathras.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 10:56 PM on June 17 [15 favorites]


Hello! I'm vaguely aware that Babylon 5 was a movie and/or television program and that's what you nerds are talking about. I miss my mom and don't have kids of my own to bother, so I'll just remind you that there's water in the fridge, it's just a tv show (probably!), and I'm downstairs if you need me.

Don’t be afraid to love or hate. Your life will be richer for it.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 10:59 PM on June 17 [2 favorites]


I'm of the mind to say that it's easy to criticize the series from our post The Wire/Sopranos/Mad Men/Breaking Bad/etc. perspective, but I also remember just how terrible most TV was at the time. And how B5 was strikingly different in its era, despite being hampered by an almost random broadcast schedule and lack of backing from the network. Throughout college, we had regular viewing parties similar to what's been done with Game of Thrones in a way that was different than anything else being broadcast at the time (aimed at that demographic) because people wanted to keep up with the plot.

It hasn't aged well but I think it helped move the ball down the court in ways that paid off for other shows. I'd suggest that early DS9 is no better with age and had less of an effect on the industry.

and was never forced into some inane fan
service


And even subverted it in her on-screen sex scene.

The good news is Deep Space 9's people were watching B5 too and started writing longer story arcs as well.

Possibly more than just that, given the strongly felt accusations of plagerism at the time.
posted by Candleman at 11:29 PM on June 17 [6 favorites]


I remember JMS coming to a local sci fi con and doing a panel on The Real Ghostbusters which he was writing, and at the end he talked about this new show he wanted to do. I'm really glad it happened, but I don't know if I'd do a rewatch. I have a friend who resisted watching when it first aired but is now a superfan. I guess the show feels dated to me like those Zima product placements it had.

My introduction to Straczynski was when he took over as the host of Hour 25 from Harlan Ellison. I remember him talking a lot about the show he was working on, which featured adult, serialized storytelling and groundbreaking CGI special effects. Of course I made a point of seeking out and watching an episode of that show: Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future. Friends, it was not good.

So, years later, when Straczynski was plugging his new serialize/CGI show, I was skeptical, but I watched about a season and a quarter with my wife before I finally bailed out. She kept watching and would occasionally try to get me to rejoin her. Apparently, that's just about the time the show finally gets moving, but I felt like I'd already sunk too many hours into it.
posted by The Tensor at 11:33 PM on June 17


Funny that you should say that, halliburton. Did you know Ellison was a consulting producer for B5, and occasional voice actor for it? (The original snarky AI after they reboot the station post-secession, and Zooty.)

I did not know this, stevis23, but it is a beautiful fact and literally made me LOL.

And I sure do love that MF is (among many other things) a space for frank exchanges of view and sweet how-we-met stories re: arguably terrible media which we love/hate/have strong feelings for.
posted by halliburtron at 11:46 PM on June 17 [1 favorite]


I've had The Expanse recommended many times

Seriously the best sci-fi television made aside from TNG (honorable mention In The Pale Moonlight).

Acting. Combat (@ 11:09).
posted by Ryvar at 11:47 PM on June 17 [7 favorites]


Oh boy. Babylon 5 is my wheelhouse. I loved it to death as a nerdy teen, even though back then I could already recognize its numerous flaws.

Did you know Ellison was a consulting producer for B5, and occasional voice actor for it?

He appeared in the flesh for about ten seconds, in the season 4 episode "The Face of the Enemy".

they lost the masters for all the digital effects and so even at DVD resolution they look terrible because they can't be done at a proper modern resolution

The DVDs look awful because they royally botched the DVD conversion for any effects shot. It's my understanding that all the effects shots are not only cropped from video, but converted from NTSC to PAL and back, then upscaled everything to anamorphic rez, so there's like four levels of fuckery going on there. And because the show was so groundbreaking with its use of digital effects (one example: first TV show to use virtual sets, see for example the scene where Sheridan chats with Emperor Turhan in The Coming of Shadows), this also fucks with the quality of a ton of the live-action shots.

If you want a reasonably non-crappy-looking copy of the show, well, I'm just going to link this Reddit post. It's the DVD copies run through a digital filter, but it's pretty watchable. I wish WB would just release the original 4:3 broadcast TV masters though.

Without further ado, here's my extremely somewhat abbreviated watching guide. I kept meaning to make this a blog post, but first I'd have to, you know, put up a blog:

Movies:
  • The Gathering: The pilot. Way skippable. Fun fact: The original version had a rockin' score by Stewart Copeland, drummer for The Police. (Here's a terrible quality WAV from Internet Archive.) This version is now lost to the mists of time since JMS later pulled a George Lucas and re-edited it later on with a new score by Christopher Franke. Still not worth it.
  • In the Beginning: Filmed around season 4 I think? Meant as a prequel and introduction of sorts to the series, and it's pretty good, but I still don't recommend watching it before the series because it spoils goddamn everything, or at least the important bits of the Earth-Minbari war, which the series does a nice job of keeping mysterious for awhile.
  • Everything else: Fuckin' awful. Skip it.
Season 1: Mostly awful. Even the episodes I recommend here have caveats. Everything else is eminently skippable. Chris Franke's score is in Full Sparkly New Age mode throughout, which I dig. Effects courtesy of a Commodore Amiga.
  • 1x01 Midnight on the Firing Line -- Terrible, but hey it's the first episode. Sets the scene, you know.
  • 1x05 Parliament of Dreams -- Introduces some secondary characters. Some amusing bits, some character backstory. Kind of cheesy otherwise.
  • 1x06 Mind War -- Must watch. Introduces Walter Koenig as Alfred motherfucking Bester (yes, named after the sci-fi author), the series' best recurring villain (fight me).
  • 1x08 And the Sky Full of Stars -- B5 in maximum cybercheese mode, but this is the first of the series' three interrogation episodes, which JMS is generally pretty good at using as a dramatic device. Some important backstory on Sinclair.
  • 1x13 Signs and Portents -- Must watch. Introduces Morden, the series' second best recurring villain.
  • 1x20 Babylon Squared -- Must watch. I shan't say more.
  • 1x22 Chrysalis -- Absolutely must watch.
Season 2: Much more watchable. I like Sinclair fine, but Bruce Boxleitner's presence kind of classes up the joint. Improved effects.
  • Skippable episodes: The Long Dark, Soul Mates, GROPOS, Acts of Sacrifice, There All the Honor Lies, Knives.
  • HOLY FUCK WHAT DID I JUST WATCH episodes: The Coming of Shadows, In the Shadow of Z'ha'dum, The Long Twilight Struggle, Comes the Inquisitor (interrogation episode #2, possibly my favorite episode of the series).
Season 3: Basically just watch everything. Notes:
  • 3x05 Passing through Gethsemane -- Standalone episode, but it's rather good and Brad Dourif is in it.
  • 3x07 Exogenesis -- The last standalone episode for a long time. Skippable.
  • 3x10 Severed Dreams -- Arguably the best episode of the entire series.
  • 3x19 Gray 17 is Missing -- Probably the series' most infamous A-plot (not even Robert Englund can save it), but the B-plot features Neroon being a total badass so I really can't fault it personally.
Season 4: You know you're just watching the whole thing at this point. I'm just going to say that episode 4x18 Intersections in Real Time is, yes, our third and final interrogation episode, and it's a real doozy, IMO the most daring thing the series ever did. Sadly it's all downhill from there -- I hated the Season 4 climax that follows and I barely even remember what happens in Season 5. So it goes.

(I spent way too long typing this out, but I did it for y'all.)
posted by neckro23 at 2:41 AM on June 18 [29 favorites]


Up until starting a recent break flibbertigibbet has been doing a weekly rewatch on Fanfare. Hopefully they’ll start up again soon!

Wedding season hit hard; it should calm down soon!
posted by flibbertigibbet at 2:46 AM on June 18 [2 favorites]


Babylon 5 makes me overly emotional.

It wasn't my very first fandom (oh Star Trek, my childhood joy), but it was my first Internet fandom.

It was late nights at the only computer lab that was open 24 hours, sitting in front of black-and-white terminals, spending all my time on the official Babylon 5 chatroom.

It was my second year at college when I was incredibly depressed, watching and rewatching the first and second seasons, ignoring everything because this, at least, was something I understood.

It was winning trivia contests with the simple fact that the first person Commander Sinclair introduces in "The Parliament of Dreams" (an atheist! In a display of all the religions of the world, they start with an atheist!).

It was finding fanfiction online and then finding out that in order to read the more adult fanfiction, you had to know someone who knew someone who would recommend you to the list admin and then you could sign up and post. (This, in the time when you just have to click two buttons in AO3 to get the universe, blows people's minds.)

It was ending up in the Yahoo! magazine (oh the Internet of the late 90s!) with my Geocities' page that hated John Sheridan and said that Delenn Deserves Better. (I still intensely dislike Sheridan's "Aw shucks" Captain Colgate smile, but I have to say, Boxleitner has grown on me, the silver fox.)

It's the fact that I met my husband on a Babylon 5 IRC chatroom (the offshoot of the official chatroom after they closed it), and even though he lived in the UK and I lived in New Orleans, we made the long-distance thing work, to where it's been 19 years since we married.

I don't recommend Babylon 5 to my friends to watch, though. I know it's hard to look past the sets and the CGI, and when it's bad, it's appallingly so ("TKO" I am looking at you).

But it's still in my heart and will be forever.
posted by Katemonkey at 3:06 AM on June 18 [22 favorites]


I've been following the Fanfare rewatch and loving the posts flibbertigibbet. B5 holds a special place in my heart but yeah, I can't recommend it to people - you had to be there, the state of scifi has moved on considerably since then.

To the point on DS9 - seasons 1 and 2 were awful, cookie-cut Star Trek moral dilemma, alien or planet of the week. Then B5 kicks off and DS9 season 2 closes on a hint of a bigger arc? Even at the time it felt like someone was copying someone else's homework.
posted by Molesome at 3:45 AM on June 18


I credit B5 and the rest of nineties TV sci-fi (extra props to SeaQuest DSV) for curing me of my overwhelming childhood love of sci-fi. Cultivating the ability to recognize one’s time being wasted with desperate, abject schlock is a major life skill for adulthood, and Babs taught me well that one didn’t have to watch everything that was ostensibly sci-fi when it no longer felt interesting, inspiring, or thought-provoking.
posted by sonascope at 3:48 AM on June 18


So many people here have already said what I would have said, so I'll just endorse neckro23's episode guide and add a few comments of my own:

- Season 1 was indeed mostly meh for me, but Babylon Squared was the point at which I said "Holy shit, we really are being set up for plot developments that are happening years down the road, aren't we?"

- By mid-way through Season 2 my usual reaction to the end of each episode was "So what do I do for the next 167 hours?" (Answer: B5 discussion groups!)

- With the exception of a few weaker episodes at the start and end, Season 3 was incredible. I'd actually suggest that anyone planning a watch-through views S03E08-10 (Messages from Earth, Point of No Return and Severed Dreams) back-to-back as one two-hour TV movie, because that's in effect what they are.

- Season 4 is a season of two halves, both good, but has to wrap up far too quickly.

It's fascinating to ponder what might have been; although I think JMS is still cagey as to the original overall plot outline, it seems pretty clear that, had Michael O'Hare not had to leave at the end of Season 1 for what were eventually disclosed to be health reasons, his plot arc would have resolved at the very end of the show rather than half-way through. Certainly, JMS made comments at the outset that B5 was very much the story of Jeffrey Sinclair, and that he knew what the last scene of the last episode would be, and that it would be stunning. I don't think we can quite say that about the actual final scene, but imagine if five years of B5, starring O'Hare throughout, had ended with the final scene of War Without End, Part II.
posted by Major Clanger at 4:50 AM on June 18 [6 favorites]


without considering, for example, that soap operas have been doing epic, sometimes decades-long storylines for about as long as they've existed

I dunno. I mean, I don't watch soap operas so I'll be happy to be corrected. But it seems to me there's an important difference between a show like B5 / BSG / The Expanse where there's a coherent plan for the season and at least vague plans for how it integrates into a larger coherent story going forward, versus what seems from the outside to be the endless string of winging-it and soft resets that American soaps at least are known for.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 5:09 AM on June 18 [10 favorites]


endless string of winging-it and soft resets

Soap operas like Days of Our Lives and WWE RAW aren't designed with a specific, pre-planned endpoint. The selling point to many people for B5 was that everything (plot and subtext) was created for a specific, pre-planned endpoint.

This isn't to denigrate the writing in Soap operas. You'd be hard-pressed to find more nimble writing in other made-for-tv genres.
posted by Groundhog Week at 5:18 AM on June 18 [7 favorites]


I don't agree with skipping season 1 entirely. At least see the episodes neckro23 mentioned. But these are mostly arc episodes and I think Giesbrecht made a good point in that the pacing is better if these are interspersed with more scene-setting, especially at the beginning.

While I can't say we needed more episodes like "Infection", I definitely missed this pacing later on when it was all-arc-all-the-time, especially the premature race to finish the main story before the end in Season 4.
posted by grouse at 5:24 AM on June 18


Whenever a serialized TV show fails to hold up through the ending, I always see suggestions saying that TV shows should just be like Babylon 5. As much as I love that show, it seems hard to justify that advice. Doing what Babylon 5 did and plotting everything out with contingency plans stacked on contingency plans is a lot of work, and even that wasn't enough to keep the series from being screwed over by circumstances beyond their control.
posted by ckape at 5:55 AM on June 18 [1 favorite]


Popping into comment that the score music by Christopher Franke holds up really well.

I loved this show and it really set up expectations of what I think scifi should be.
posted by AlexiaSky at 6:05 AM on June 18 [4 favorites]


I love me some B5, even in the underground world of scifi fanfom it has always seemed like the cool underdog, but like many here I have a hard time recommending it to people.

Sure it rips off a lot of other work, but it does so well and part of the charm is figuring out which classic novel or historic event the writer is borrowing from.

The DVDs do it no favors and not just because of the special effects. B5 was one of the first shows shot in widescreen but everyone had 4:3 TVs so all the action had to be centered. This leads to a lot of dialog scenes where the characters are all clustered together. standing unnaturally close to each other in large spaces - it looks weird once you notice it.

You also have to overlook the budget problems. Personally I love cheap shows that make the most of what they have but even I have to laugh at characters talking about the fallen splendor of the Centari Empire in a set that consists mainly of a few curtains.

It is fantasticly uneven. However, if the worst thing you can say about B5 is that the greatest moments make the worst parts look terrible then I guess it was a success.
posted by AndrewStephens at 6:15 AM on June 18 [2 favorites]


So B5 is technically easier to remaster for HD screens than DS9?
posted by ZeusHumms at 6:37 AM on June 18


Babylon 5 may be better than Original Star Trek. Fight me.
(I love TOS Star Trek. I watched it when it aired originally. Yes, I am old.)
B5 probably wouldn’t exist with out Trek. Episodic science fiction TV owes a lot to Trek. (And Space 1999. Oh, and Doctor Who.)
posted by Gadgetenvy at 6:38 AM on June 18 [5 favorites]


Babylon 5 may be better than Original Star Trek.

I love every single episode of this wonderful, schlocky show and enjoy it so much more than anything the Trek universe has produced. Everyone compares B5 to Star Trek, especially DS9. I really don't get the love for DS9. I find Star Trek so damn painful and often agonizingly boring to rewatch, even though I watched them all religiously on first run. TOS is just so dated. TNG is so awfully 80s and everyone is such a fucking perfect boyscout, with the moral of the story woodenly telegraphed from 100 miles away. DS9 is fouled by the insistence of ham-fistedly shoehorning low-grade-sitcom-esque "humour" surrounding Quark. Voyager and Enterprise are unwatchably awful with too many completely unlikable characters. Discovery is a mess of fast moving action and plot holes.

Despite the visual shortcoming, B5 has aged much better to me than any Star Trek. Farscape is the only other sci-fi show of that I make a point of regularly rewatching.
posted by fimbulvetr at 7:03 AM on June 18 [8 favorites]


I dunno. I mean, I don't watch soap operas so I'll be happy to be corrected. But it seems to me there's an important difference between a show like B5 / BSG / The Expanse where there's a coherent plan for the season and at least vague plans for how it integrates into a larger coherent story going forward, versus what seems from the outside to be the endless string of winging-it and soft resets that American soaps at least are known for.

The long-term story arc planning done in B5/BSG/The Expanse is wildly overstated (and in The Expanse's case isn't even relevant because it's built on a series of (not-great) novels.)

JMS can claim all he wants that he had a grand plan for B5, and maybe he did, but there was a lot more plotting improv going on there than the B5 cheerleaders want to admit.

That's not even to touch on the idea that B5 influenced a generation of TV writers, which is laughable on its face because no one watched it and has been expensive or difficult to find at various points since its original run in the '90s.

If you want to point to a genre show that actually did influence TV storytelling, you have to look no further than The X-Files, a show which at its peak was pulling in almost 20 million viewers a week, and whose fingerprints are all over the mystery box serialized TV shows of the 2000s.
posted by Automocar at 7:12 AM on June 18 [4 favorites]


(I spent way too long typing this out, but I did it for y'all.)
posted by neckro23 at 2:41 AM on June 18 [+] [!]


It is well appreciated. I think that is my new go-to list for introducing people to the show.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 7:29 AM on June 18


don't watch soap operas so I'll be happy to be corrected. But it seems to me there's an important difference between a show like B5 / BSG / The Expanse where there's a coherent plan for the season and at least vague plans for how it integrates into a larger coherent story going forward

Claiming BSG had a coherent story is not something that really survives watching it.

That's the thing for me. Serialization in the general was done way before B5 in a million ways, and the specific B5 format of serialization (tightly plotted, 20+ episode seasons) isn't really the model for that much.

Prime time American TV was doing tightly plotted 10 hour runs (often based on books) since at least the '70s. They just "dropped" all at once and called them miniseries. Roots was one of the biggest and most successful TV events ever.

My impression is British TV, with its shorter series runs, was always doing way more of this, with various degrees of plotting. There was Masterpiece Theater fare like I, Claudius and also the slow burn romance of As Time Goes By.

I've already mentioned American TV was moving away from purely stand alone episodes in a big way in the '90s. For me at the time Twin Peaks was one of the early ones to do this, where individual episodes weren't things you'd really dip into and they pretended to have a series long plot. They were actually making it up as they went along, the same way the X-Files was doing with their arcs.

You also had things like Murder One in 1995, Stephen Bochco's highly acclaimed "one season is one murder case" law drama, which was far more tightly planned than anything B5 had done by then, but collapsed the second season because they lost the lead and the new plot didn't engage.

In this context late season DS9 was doing it's own thing IMHO, and actually not especially interesting in terms of format: It'd just string together whatever they wanted to tell a story (1 episode or 2 or 6) and see if people stuck with it.

I can go on about more crappy and forgettable stuff too. There's just so much to pick from both before and after B5 as serialization approaches and if you cross out B5 I doubt the other stuff changes much.
posted by mark k at 7:43 AM on June 18 [1 favorite]


"So what do I do for the next 167 hours?"

Heh. One of my biggest complaints about season 4 was how slow everything moved. Whole episodes were wasted moving the plot about an inch and a half forward.

In retrospect I only felt that way because I had to wait 167 hours with nothing to do but suck the gristle out of each episode. Watching the episodes back to back things actually move far too quickly.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 7:46 AM on June 18


Claiming BSG had a coherent story is not something that really survives watching it.

God did it.

See, there you go.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 7:47 AM on June 18 [5 favorites]


Fans always go on about how great and revolutionary the long-term plotting was on this show, but for me it was really a double-edged sword. For context I watched the show for the first time ten-ish years ago, getting the DVDs from Netflix.

Season 1, they lay a lot of foundation, part of which is the relationship and romance between Sinclair and Delenn. It's cool, I'm about it.

Then season 2, Sinclair is out, Sheridan is in. And the relationship continues with only the most token acknowledgment that this is not the same dude. It's like in Final Fantasy V when Galuf dies and Krile takes his place, but don't worry! She inherits all his skills so your game can continue on like nothing happened. But at least Final Fantasy V could justify it with "the game must go on." B5 has no such excuse. I probably shouldn't mix nerddoms like this.

I could never swallow that pill. (It didn't help that I just never took to Sheridan. Delenn Deserves Better, indeed.) I get that things happen when you produce work on the level of a TV series, and I'm willing to cut everyone some slack for stuff outside their control, but I feel like most other shows of the time would've adapted their relationship plot better because it wasn't already set in the long-term plan. I couldn't get over their bullheadedness in sticking with it.
posted by brett at 7:51 AM on June 18 [1 favorite]


JMS can claim all he wants that he had a grand plan for B5, and maybe he did, but there was a lot more plotting improv going on there than the B5 cheerleaders want to admit.

I’ve never particularly bought into JMS’s claims of meticulous plotting and contingency plans, etc. I think he had a vision for a story and a universe to tell it in. He knew the beats he wanted to hit over a five season arc and moved along finding ways to hit them.

The thorough multiple contingency plans were likely him and Harlan sitting around over beers saying "Hey, Andrea isn’t happy. What do we do if she leaves?"

To me, JMS’s most impressive achievement was getting the show made. He was relentless in promoting it as The Most Fucking Amazing Thing Ever. Anything and everything to do with the show was Totally Under Control And Awesome. Part of that was cheerleading for fans but I think a lot of that message was aimed at the people holding the purse strings.

I don’t think the show would have made — and I’m certain it wouldn’t have gotten a second season — without a one man over-the-top PR factory doing everything to make the show look like a solid investment. His public presence was one long sales pitch.

It was very impressive, and it got the show made which is even more impressive, but in the end it was still a sales pitch. It’s not clear how much to take at face value.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 8:25 AM on June 18 [9 favorites]


One of the other groundbreaking aspects of the show was JMS being so available to fandom online. While writing most of the entire series, and producing, he still found time in his schedule to answer fan questions, clarify stuff, and write essays on the complete history of the delicacy that is spoo.

As for TKO, not only does it contain the infamous Zima sign, it's the first episode of a broadcast television show I can think of where a character sits shiva for someone.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 8:35 AM on June 18 [7 favorites]


One of the things that I think the article and many of the comments here illustrate about B5 is that it is a show of contrasts. And that contrasting nature carries over into its fanbase. The fans can come at it & find their own unique loves and hates. As an example, I like the show, the article writer finds the sets and costumes gorgeous I find them aesthetically repulsive. Some people like the divergent one off characters others find them tedious. I think the effects actually work on old tube televisions (low definition tvs) others find them terrible regardless. On and on...

I can't think of too many shows like that where the fandom's likes and dislikes can be so divergent and without consensus. Maybe Doctor Who?
posted by Ashwagandha at 8:37 AM on June 18 [3 favorites]


The thorough multiple contingency plans were likely him and Harlan sitting around over beers saying "Hey, Andrea isn’t happy. What do we do if she leaves?"

This is a funny detail for me to read, i just read the first draft script for City on the Edge of Forever for which Ellison provided a 30,000 word (!) rant as a preface, entirely about how pissed he was at everyone ever involved with Star Trek for telling lies about him and smearing his reputation etc, and one thing that really got his goat is that one of his peers told a story that he admitted something incriminating to them after a few beers, when in fact even the smell of alcohol makes him sick.
posted by thedaniel at 8:48 AM on June 18


fimbulvetr: TNG is so awfully 80s and everyone is such a fucking perfect boyscout, with the moral of the story woodenly telegraphed from 100 miles away. DS9 is fouled by the insistence of ham-fistedly shoehorning low-grade-sitcom-esque "humour" surrounding Quark.

It's interesting to me that you make these comments back-to-back. I basically like both shows, but I agree with you these are big weak points of each. (It might help that I did curated viewings of both, so I skipped some of the worst of it.) On the whole I prefer DS9, and the main reason why is that it takes place in a setting where the characters are not all on the same side, and want different things, and that usually drives much more interesting conflict and storytelling than TNG's rah-rah teamwork.

And Quark contributes a lot to that. For all his obnoxiousness and borderline one-dimensionality, he's in the best position to call out when others are falsely standing on principle—something Trek desperately needs. Everybody always links the root beer scene in these discussions, and, well, yeah. The hot-and-cold relationship he had with Sisko and Odo rang very true to me as well, reflecting how he would always act in his own interests first but sometimes that serve as a very powerful engine to get things done on the station. I don't like Quark but DS9 is a much richer place for having him in it.
posted by brett at 9:03 AM on June 18 [9 favorites]


For people with an interest in the original arc plan and no access to the long out-of-print scriptbooks, here’s an interesting S1 rewatch that tries to map each episode to the original notes:

http://www.firstones.net/forums/index.php?p=/discussion/289438/a-look-back-at-the-first-season-and-the-original-story-arc
posted by Obscure Injoke at 9:05 AM on June 18 [3 favorites]


It is well appreciated. I think that is my new go-to list for introducing people to the show.

Thank you. I typed it in a bit of a hurry but it's been boiling in the back of my brain for awhile now because I've been intending to introduce a couple of friends to the show.

I actually didn't read the essay in the OP until after I posted it (it's very good), and now I feel kind of guilty for talking trash about all the "skippable" episodes that really do give the setting some space to breathe. Oh well, the intent was kind of to give a cheat sheet to people struggling through Season 1 thinking "This is supposed to be classic sf? This sucks! When does it get good? Is that a Zima sign?"

I did forget to mention that if you're going to skip season 5 (I don't blame you), you should at least watch the series finale, which has nothing at all to do with season 5 (it was filmed at the end of season 4, because reasons).
posted by neckro23 at 9:25 AM on June 18 [3 favorites]


with my Geocities' page that hated John Sheridan and said that Delenn Deserves Better.

I LOVED THAT PAGE! and I still strongly agree with its sentiment.
posted by Catseye at 10:08 AM on June 18


I will be amazed when network tv has something more bonkers than Londo using his sexual organ tentacles to cheat at cards. Maybe that dog eating that heart?

"Oh, you think you are being symbolically cast... in a bad light."
"Nice save."
posted by BeeDo at 11:48 AM on June 18 [4 favorites]


On my last rewatch with some friends, about a decade ago, we called Sinclair "the Eyebrows" and Sheridan "the Teeth".

Despite my old fondness for Boxleitner (I had a teen crush on him in How the West Was Won), I found Sheridan rather unbearable. He was so self-righteous and earnest, with so little humility and self-awareness. The character kind of worked for the role he was in, but I don't think Garibaldi was altogether wrong in his reaction to post-Zha'ha-Dum (sp?) Sheridan.

I always said B5 was the series with the best story and the worst dialogue. Also they cast the most competent actors in a godawful layer of latex: Furlan, Katsulas, and Jurasik were so much better than the cast playing the human characters, for the most part.

That said, I still have a fondness for it, and I still love Marcus' line about how awful it would be to live in a just world.
posted by suelac at 12:03 PM on June 18 [7 favorites]


I think of one of my favorite Londo lines every day: "I never grew up. I grew old "
posted by The Underpants Monster at 12:36 PM on June 18 [6 favorites]


I do remember when my friend in college was forcing the rest of us to watch B5 because he was hugely enthusiastic about it and we hit the point where Sinclair leaves and Sheridan comes on the scene. Our friend had been *really* hyping Sheridan as his favorite character ever and how great and awesome he was. He shows up on the screen for the first time and the entire rest of the room recoils. "Oh, god, I want to punch his stupid teeth," I believe was my remark.

We were all super-deep introvert nerds from the 90s when that meant getting beaten up in high school instead of having all the coolest media and toys aimed at us. Sheridan's whole loud-dumb-jock schtick just set all of us completely on edge.
posted by Scattercat at 12:49 PM on June 18 [1 favorite]


To have fun with how terrible B5 dialogue can be, try playing the Hell Game; every time someone on screen uses the world “hell”, you shout “HELL!” I think there’s one episode (probably in season 4) where it’s used about eight times in two minutes.

None of which eclipses my deep love for B5.
posted by andraste at 1:54 PM on June 18 [4 favorites]


Regarding Claudia's departure, if you go with JMS's version of events, after the end of season four, they got the rest of the cast on board for season five, but Claudia held out. Attempts were made to bridge the gap with cast members personally contacting Claudia, but there came a point when shooting was starting on Monday and JMS had to draw the line and move forward.
posted by Fukiyama at 2:41 PM on June 18


B5 has aged much better to me than any Star Trek. Farscape is the only other sci-fi show of that I make a point of regularly rewatching.

Cough, cough, SG-1!
posted by Ber at 4:58 PM on June 18 [2 favorites]


I don’t care for SG-1. Too much rah-rah American militarism for me. As a Canadian I found it distasteful.
posted by fimbulvetr at 5:04 PM on June 18 [3 favorites]


Doing one of my every-five-years Farscape binge watches, and wow does that show hold up. I loved (love?) B5, but have bounced off attempts to rewatch. I love threads that remind me of all the wonderful moments, and I think I'm going to leave it at that.
posted by chromecow at 5:11 PM on June 18 [3 favorites]


What I heard was that, if Claudia Christian had stayed, a lot of Lyta's arc in season 5 would have been hers. The groundwork had been laid way back when Ivanova admitted to being a latent telepath. I'd have been interested to see Ivanova coping with new abilities and divided loyalties, and of course the threat of Bester. (Lyta can have Byron, though.)
posted by Pallas Athena at 5:12 PM on June 18 [7 favorites]


I didn't have the chance to watch Babylon 5 during it's original run. I may have even thumbed my nose at it, being the Star Trek fan that I was (and still am).

I ended up watching recently, during the fall of 2017, during an ongoing time of major change, turmoil and loss for my family, binging it on Amazon Prime, on my iPad.

I had found a guide to watch what were considered the "essential" episodes the first go around on Geek.com that I can still recommend, along with neckro23's above.

I ended up watching the series three times over the past two years, eventually taking in the episodes few profess to liking.

It's imperfect, for all of the reasons mentioned, for sure, but the overall story, the character development, and big story beats are so well done, they are easily some of the best television I've ever seen. I'm not sure I've ever watched a story that melded sci-fi, fantasy, faith, character development, and politics, that kept me wanting to watch the next episode, to see what would happen next, except for maybe "Avatar: The Last Airbender" (yeah, not sci-fi, but you get the idea).

In fact, B5 reminded me of the effect "Star Blazers" had on me as a child (I'm old)! Stories about making it thru desperate, scary times, told in a sci-fi serialized format, that left you with a glimmer of hope, that there *might* be a way to make it thru the dark.
posted by kmartino at 5:40 PM on June 18 [12 favorites]


For people with an interest in the original arc plan and no access to the long out-of-print scriptbooks, here’s an interesting S1 rewatch that tries to map each episode to the original notes:

Wow, that's amazing and well worth reading for anyone who liked the show.
posted by Slothrup at 7:00 PM on June 18


Doing what Babylon 5 did and plotting everything out with contingency plans stacked on contingency plans is a lot of work, and even that wasn't enough to keep the series from being screwed over by circumstances beyond their control.

Yeah, but I still think the show came out pretty well despite the shit. It still helped. I still think if Lost and BSG had done some planning ahead of time we wouldn't be so mad at how they came out today.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:32 PM on June 18 [3 favorites]


B5 has infected my brain more than any other show, I think.

To this day I can't get mad and say someone should go to hell without bursting into a full Londo Mollari impression and saying "And you, Vir, you can go to hell too! I wouldn't want you to feel left out!"

I also routinely mutter "No one ever listens to poor Zathras, no, he's quite mad, they say. It is good that Zathras does not mind, has even grown to like it."
posted by mmoncur at 8:41 PM on June 18 [12 favorites]


Zathras’ Consolation — “At least there is symmetry” — is a commonly sighed phrase in my group of friends, too.
posted by darkstar at 9:36 PM on June 18 [6 favorites]


Given that JMS wrote 95% of the episodes himself while producing, Internet-working, and trying to fit biological needs into what was apparently a schedule from hell I think that those of you who find the dialogue clunky should go watch Space Precinct [SLYT], Time Trax [SLYT], or Nightman. If your show wasn't Star Trek and it was syndicated, odds were there was no time to polish a TV script all that much. Budgets are tight and higher quality takes more time.

Given the waters that they swam in, B5 was amazing. Compared to the current Golden Age of Television, it looks primitive, apples to apples it was better than average. No doubt a script editor with the power to force a rewrite would be good but no one had the time. Watching many shows from the eighties and nineties you find quite a bit of awkward and stilted dialogue. We have been spoiled with quality of writing for the small screen over the last twenty years. Please keep that in mind and find a little forgiveness for a show that also provides scenes like this [SLYT] (spoilers for those who have not seen, Comes the Inquisitor) or (and also as a partial answer for those of you who question Claudia Christian's acting chops) this [SLYT] and of course a little light hearted Russian cyanacism.
posted by Ignorantsavage at 10:10 PM on June 18 [7 favorites]


Please keep that in mind and find a little forgiveness for a show that also provides scenes like this

I think it says something for the (occasional) high quality of the writing that I thought you were linking to maybe the series' best G'Kar scene, from the same episode. One of those times when the A-plot and almost totally unrelated B-plot were both brilliant.
posted by neckro23 at 11:54 PM on June 18 [4 favorites]


I thought you were linking to maybe the series' best G'Kar scene

And there I thought that you'd link to Londo and G'Kar stuck in an elevator together.

My general advice to people looking at watching the show is to start with the first episode, then skip straight to the second DVD. First that means you get to miss Infection (possibly the worst episode in the show) and second you miss The Soul Hunter - which is meant as an introduction to Delenn but is frankly an awful one. In the back half of S1 it would be mediocre but it really doesn't work as the second episode. DVD2 (Parliament of Dreams/Mind War/War Prayer/And the Sky Full of Stars) on the other hand is a good test of what the show will be.

A pity it had such a rocky start - but succeeded in spite of it all.
posted by Francis at 2:30 AM on June 19 [5 favorites]


It’s a little eponysterical for me to comment on this post. I created an account here at a time when I was a lot younger and B5 had had a huge influence on what had been a difficult life up to that point. It’s not the username I would pick today, but, I feel an attachment to how old this account is (even though I have almost never posted or commented here, really) and have kept it for that reason.

There are scenes in this show that I happened to encounter at just the right time in my life, and still bear resonance today. Two in particular that I regularly revisit: the first is G’Kar’s revelation (which, in light of all of the coverage these days around the renewed exploration of psychedelics in trauma treatment, now reads to me like a Vorlon-induced trip); it’s certainly a big moment in terms of story value, but the piece of it that stays with me is the line from Kosh-as-G’Lan at the end: “You have an opportunity here and now to choose: to become something greater, and nobler, and more difficult than you have been before.” It comes to mind for me whenever I find myself confronting something difficult and want to give up in the face of it, to avoid the pain of growth… which, two decades later, still happens a lot.

The second is Sheridan and Lorien on Z’ha’dum, in particular “your friends need what you can be when you are no longer afraid… when you know who you are, and why you are, and what you want. When you’re no longer looking for reasons to live, but can simply be.” And, beyond that: “it’s easy to find something worth dying for… do you have anything worth living for?” Every line in the scene is delivered with such compassion. I originally saw the scene largely out of context — my first memories of the show (other than randomly seeing part of The Gathering pilot) are of channel-flipping and being pulled in by “Z’ha’dum” and the following episodes. It made me want to go back and see what led up to these moments that were so different from anything I was used to on TV.

I discovered this show in my late teens, really got into it in my early twenties. I’m in my late thirties now. Back when I was watching this, I was sure that by the time I reached the age I am now I would have chosen to end my own life. Like, back then, I was feeling so bad that this age was about as far as I could imagine myself getting. It would be fair to say that the compassion and courage and redemption and forgiveness on display in this story played a pretty big part in shaping who I was becoming, at a critical moment in my life. Reading the YouTube comments (normally SUCH a bad idea) on the scene with Sheridan and Lorien, it’s affirming to see other people whose lives were impacted in similar ways by those few minutes of dialogue.

I haven’t recommended the show to people in my current life either, for all the reasons that people in this thread also haven’t — production values and dialogue that haven’t aged well, and also changing expectations with regard to the length of TV seasons and the amount of time we’re able to put into viewing them — but I’m pretty sure that I myself wouldn’t be who I am without it. (Answering the Vorlon question, in a way.)
posted by Kosh at 8:18 AM on June 19 [22 favorites]


Archived posts regarding Claudia Christian's departure. That year's Wolf 359 remains the only fan convention I've ever been to.
posted by Molesome at 8:50 AM on June 19 [5 favorites]


Kosh, just wanted to say thank you for sharing that. I feel my attachment to the show is similar in someways. It was helpful for me when I needed it. I’m regularly going back to quotes from it to help me navigate the grief journey my family has been on these past few years.
posted by kmartino at 3:27 AM on June 21 [2 favorites]


Just recently got my mother into this show. (Lifegoals! Be useful to one's family, haha.) She has been loving it but had some consternation at to the end of Season 4 and wanted to know whether Season 5 would have any point. I think probably? But it's been a while.
posted by Coaticass at 6:02 PM on June 22 [1 favorite]


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