Thursday, November 7, 2013

TV Series Review: Babylon 5 (1994)

Except for the graphics.

This post is about Seasons 1-4, because Claudia Christian was not on Season 5 and I call shenanigans. I said good day!

Moving on.

I acquiesced to watching this nineties sci-fi series after what I can only describe as a sustained nerd campaign by my husband. For months he would turn to me, eyes shining, and declare how much I would love Babylon 5. He would leave tantalizing hints about the Minbari and their mysteriousness. He would mention the series in casual conversation having nothing whatsoever to do with science fiction or television. His efforts received an unexpected boost when my friend Cheap Date vetted the show. I finally succumbed when he marched out his DVD collection of Seasons 1 through 4, placed them prominently on the entertainment shelf, and gave me puppy dog eyes. Dammit.

So I popped in Season 1 and was immediately treated to Ambassador Londo Mollari’s bombast. His race of big-haired aliens was at odds with reptilian ones, and only human intervention was keeping them from killing each other. Incredibly cheesy humans, prone to grandiose speeches. And then the absolutely shitty graphics kicked in, and I was entranced. It was like a train wreck…in space.

Happily, it turned out to be the opposite. Thanks to incredibly thoughtful writing, a powerful and coherent vision of the fictional universe, and some spectacular acting, Babylon 5 is an enjoyable story. It starts off slow with Season 1, which is only natural because that’s the introductory phase. Season 2 gets things going, Season 3 is jaw-dropping, and Season 4 wraps it all up in a bow.

To summarize: Babylon 5 is a neutral space station in the 23rd century headed by humans and strongly backed by the Minbari, aliens recently at war with Earth. A decade before the show starts, the Minbari surrendered on the eve of victory over Earth’s inferior technology. Why? It’s a question that has an answer, and which leads to more questions. And then there are the other aliens: the fading Centauri Republic and the angry Narns, as well as a slew of secondary races, or the Non-Aligned Worlds. Together on Babylon 5, all this diversity tries to get along as best it can. But ancient forces are awakening, and prophecies abound…

The best actors are the ones who play the alien ambassadors: Peter Jurasik, the late Andreas Kastulas, and Mira Furlan are at the top of their game, despite all the prosthetics and makeup. Their role is to project everything about the aliens dreamed up by show creator J. Michael Straczynski, and boy are they effective. Jurasik’s Mollari is so sympathetic that viewers root for him despite all the crap he pulls, while Kastulas’ G’Kar constantly simmers with barely repressed rage. As Delenn, Furlan is often doe-eyed and restrained, but when she gets an idea in her head, she’s unstoppable. Many of the Crowning Moments of Awesome in this series involve soft-spoken Delenn plowing through the poor fools who think their way is better than hers.

Of the human protagonists, only the late Richard Biggs shows range and charisma. The rest of the main command staff—Bruce Boxleitner, Michael O’Hare, Jerry Doyle, and Claudia Christian—are wooden or cheesy. This is especially true for Boxleitner, who plays the Captain of Babylon 5. He basically just coasts on his generic good looks. Meanwhile, Doyle is saved by having an interesting character in Security Chief Garibaldi. O’Hare is so cheesy he should be slathered on a pizza, at least on Season 1.

I do suspect that Commander Ivanova’s perpetual stick-up-the-ass expression may have just been Christian playing true to character as an ambitious career officer with too much emotional baggage, a suspicion bolstered by her wrenching performance in the second to last episode in Season 4. Girlfriend dropped the mic right there.

Now the human antagonists--Walter Koenig of Star Trek just killed it as the Psi-Cop Bester. He was a villain's villain. But everyone else was cartoonishly evil. Meh.

All in all, Babylon 5 did a great job with casting. The supporting characters are brilliant. Minority actors are everywhere, which I guess is the point, since Babylon 5 is about holding all sentient life sacred and not letting differences get in the way of moral and technological progress. The script often presents two opposing ideas, each one plausible, but in the end, victory always veers toward those who hear the higher ethical calling. Well, eventually, anyway. Part of the reason the series is so great is that the characters have to go through so much, so it's a YAY! moment when they're vindicated.

Morality and technology are big themes here, as are the horrors of war, and decisions and consequences. There are a ton more, which I won’t cover because this post is already too long. I’ll just end by saying that sustained nerd campaigns can break down even the most stubborn resistance, so learn and live, my fellow nerds.

This post is brought to you by National Men Make Dinner Day! National Men Make Dinner Day: because holidays made up for retail purposes are fun! Just ask Jesus! 

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