...a blog by Richard Flowers

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Day 2442: Back to Babylon


The Americans are a funny lot. One bunch might see ancient Babylon as no more than a place to park their tanks, while another lot take it as their inspiration to create probably the most groundbreaking television series of the Nineties.

I am talking, of course, about Joe Michael Straczynski's "BABYLON 5", the five-year project to create a "novel for television", and show that careful budgeting, a dedicated cast and at-the-time cutting edge computer imagery could produce a cinematic feel on the small screen.

Well, Babylon is back and the news is it's BRILLIANT!

"Babylon 5" is like the works of Mr Dickens or Mr Conan Doyle, a single story that develops over a series of "issues" or episodes. By inventing characters who DEVELOP over the story it brings the soap opera into the space opera – in later days people will use the term "soap opera" to deride it and indeed to deride "Doctor Who" for the same reason, as though somehow drama isn't ESSENTIALLY always ABOUT character, and that that is the thing, if anything, that soap operas do most RIGHT!

Above all, it pretty much created the idea of the STORY ARC – the linking theme that ties separate stand-alone episodes together into a whole.

Daddy Alex gives me a funny look and mutters: "Isn’t there a story arc from 1978-9 coming out in a fortnight?" Well yes, "Doctor Who" has been doing this sort of thing for a BIT of a WHILE (possibly even more so in the ORIGINAL series with Miss Barbara and Mr Chesterfield) and you can look to "Blake's Seven" (particularly in its second year) for another influence, too. But it wasn’t until "Babylon 5" that the ideas of an overarching plot, character development and a sense of theme all pulled together.

Series like "Murder One" and "24" picked up this idea and REALLY RAN with it. In some ways, though, the "Babylon 5" arc is too HEAVY. By the end of the second season, EVERY episode is an "Arc episode", so rather than rewarding the committed follower, it penalises the casual viewer. Unlike other similar series, you are less likely to just tune in if one happens to be on if you don't know what's going on already. Later series, like "The X-Files" and "Buffy" would use a lighter arc – one where the series was mostly one-off stories, where only some small number of incidents would connect to the main through thread. Ultimately, this leads to the modern day "Doctor Who", with its Bad Wolf, Torchwood and Saxon "arcs".

As a series, "Babylon 5" does not always succeed, even on its own terms. Fear of cancellation clearly tips the producers into telescoping the planned year five story into year four, making the penultimate year too crowded and rushed and leaving the finale empty of major plots and almost drifting. Mr Joe ended up writing almost every episode from the middle of the second season through to the end, and although this does ensure a unity of vision, it is also obvious that it left him exhausted and flagging for ideas by the time year five (or even four) came around.

It's been suggested that constant cast changes may have hurt the series too, but I think that it actually adds REALISM to a world where people can be reassigned, assassinated or turn into glowing angels all the time! Actors DID leave the series, under a variety of circumstances, and yet where this might have damaged the show it was often turned to advantage – losing Mr Michael O'Hare (Commander Jeffrey "Wooden" Sinclair) at the end of year one meant gaining the powerhouse that is Mr Bruce Boxleitner (Captain John "Nuke'em" Sheridan) who has invested so much personally over the years in a show he clearly loved and loves; it was certainly a blow when Ms Claudia Christian (Commander Susan "Boom Tomorrow" Ivanova) left after the fourth year, but even so the series makes another gain in Ms Tracey Scoggins (Captain Elizabeth "I've had the President" Lochley).

Since the end of "Babylon 5" in the episode "Sleeping in Light" there have been several attempts to return to that universe: several movie-length episodes set around the series' main story; a spin-off series "Crusade" which was sunk by trouble between Joe and the TNT network who were then carrying the show; and a really rather dreadful pilot for a second spin-ff series "The Legend of the Rangers" which went down with all hands, despite including the last performance of the toweringly awesome Mr Andreas Katsulas as G'Kar.

So it was with a mixture of hope, anticipation and vague DREAD that my Daddies received the news that Mr Joe was going to try yet again, this time with a series of "Babylon 5" based stories called "The Lost Tales". The DREADED words "straight to video DVD" did not help much either!

I can only say we were BOWLED OVER with delight!

"Voices in the Night" is the first (hopefully of many) "Lost Tales" and is basically an anthology of two short (roughly half-hour) stories linked for the most part by no more than being set on the same day in 2271.

Mr Bruce and Ms Tracey both return, one taking each side of the story: now promoted to Colonel Lochley is having one HELL of a time on the Babylon station, while Mr now-President-of-the-Galaxy Sheridan is given a glimpse of the end of the world and a KILLER of an opportunity to prevent it.

The opening story (subtitled "Over Here") is barely even a "Babylon 5" story at all. In fact, it almost goes out of its way to ignore most of the B5 back-story and mythos. What it is, though, is an absolutely CRACKING piece of science fiction, mixing a good old dose of THEOLOGY with an old-fashioned horns of a DILEMMA – and it's up to Ms Lochley to find the apocryphal third way out.

The plot revolves around: a priest whose religion is fading away as man travels into heaven and finds no gods; a man who appears to be genuinely possessed; and what the implications of this vision of perdition would mean for believers and for one man's soul. Now, if you KNOW that in the Babylon 5 universe there are TELEPATHS who could mess with your head like this, or if you happen to remember the (rather wonderful) episode in the first season where Mr Commander Sinclair introduces a whole long line of religious types, then this set-up seems, well, a bit not quite right. BUT that isn't the point: take it as a story in its own right and you will REALLY enjoy it.

Barely more than a three-hander, it hangs on some really terrific performances from the actors and one or two stand-out effects moments that knock you back on your heels.

In the second half-hour (now called "Over There", obviously) Mr President Sheridan is travelling to the Babylon station when his trip and his dreams are interrupted by the TECHNOMAGE Mr Galen (played by Mr Peter Woodwoodwood the son of Mr Edwardwood Woodwoodwood) who was probably the most intriguing character from poor old failed "Crusade". Mr Galen is VERY MYSTERIOUS, often quite a bit SCARY and SERIOUSLY bald. But also funny and probably a goodie – so long as you work out how his twisted mind is working! Nice cape, also.

Mr President Sheridan faces a DILEMMA too – and he too finds a third option, when he realises that that is what Mr Galen has been hinting at. This story relies much more upon knowing the B5 history, understanding that the Centauri fell in with a bad lot (called the Shadows), started a great big war and ended up losing almost everything. So, the possibility that in thirty years they might be back for revenge means something. Equally, it helps to know what it means that Prince Vintari's father was killed by someone called Vir. (What it means is that his dad was mad bad Emperor Cartagia – think Caligula with pointy hair!)

These are, without doubt, the best "Babylon 5" since "Sleeping in Light" and with one or two notable exceptions ("Sleeping in Light" among them) probably the best since the glory days of the third season. The CGI effects are, once again, cutting edge with absolutely stunning new shots of the Babylon Station, and much improved use of the ol' green screen studio (pioneered in B5's last season – or possibly in the Barry Letts era of "Doctor Who"!). The cast is very small, even-for-B5 small: three leads, four guests and a few extras, and the actually built sets (as opposed to the computer realised ones) are small, and kept to a minimum. And golly, those Minbari viewing room designers were clever – two chairs and black drapes! If you think this makes it sound CHEAP then think again, though, because – and I think this is OFTEN the case with science fiction – the limitations put upon them actually bring out a better, more focused story. The money is spent EXACTLY where it needs to be, on top quality artistes. (And you should think of the team designing the CGI as artistes as well as artists – their contribution is as important and they are correctly included in the producers' balancing act.)

Even the THEME TUNE, developing on the Fifth Season theme, is HUMMABLE for the first time in ages!

And, perhaps most importantly, the rather long gap since he last had to try and write and "Babylon 5" has given Mr Joe's creative batteries time to RECHARGE. The writing is back as good as it used to be, as good as it ought to be.

Can I urge anyone who is even SLIGHTLY inclined to buy it to see what it might be like to give it a go (ESPECIALLY anyone who saw the Rangers pilot: "To Live and Die in Starlight" and swore NEVER AGAIN!). The prospect of another story even half as good as this is certainly worth the price of admission.

Oh, and the Sock Puppet version on the extra features is a KILLER!

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