Friday, January 31, 2014

What I'm watching now: Babylon 5 (Season 4 No surrender, No retreat)

By 1996 Babylon 5 was a moderate success for WB and after it's initial stumbling with casting it had established itself as a major Sci-fi television serial. It had received several Hugo awards as well as Emmys for special effects, make up and cinematography. However the network was in trouble financially and JMS had the impression that the series would not be renewed after the 1996-97 season. So he decided to truncate the last two chapters of the story into one season and even ended up shooting the series finale as part of this production block. To achieve this he also performed a task not done before in television, he wrote the entire 22 episode season himself.

Now with the hindsight of history, we know that Babylon 5 got it's fifth season, but at the time JMS was faced with the possibility of his epic space opera ending a chapter short. The Shadow war, which had been building for the better part of three seasons, is wrapped up very quickly (and many think disappointingly) in the seasons first six episodes. It would seem that the nature of that major storyline's conclusion would not have been altered greatly by running the full season, more time would likely have been devoted to making the Vorlons work as villains and setting up the highly Moorcockian ending to the great war. (Humanity rejecting the gods of the past)

One of the features that JMS always boasted about in writing B5 was the concept of a "Trapdoor", and out that he had for every major character should the actor leave. He had a plan to replace any character should it become necessary and indeed several of those Trapdoors game into play as the series moved on. The one biggest criticism I can think of for the narrative of the Shadow war's final act would be the presence of the Gandelf like Lorien, a character that seemed to be the "Trapdoor" for the Shadow War's ending. Lorien is an unspeakably ancient alien who predates the Vorlons and Shadows; who acts as the principle catalyst in moving the Shadow War to its conclusion. While as a concept he may have been in JMS's original story draft, in this truncated season the character comes off as a heavy handed mcguffin who appears with little precedent to dispense answers to the plot. I have no issue at all with the philosophical ending of the War, I quite like it in principle in fact, Lorien just seemed like too elegant a solution. Especially for a series that often deliberately avoided that sort of solution. It's not to say the ending of the war is a total waste, Londo and Vir on Centari prime is a storyline that makes every minute of the first six episodes worth it. Once again Peter Jerasik, Andre Katsulous and Stephen First steal the show as they grapple with the Caligulaesque Centari Emperor Cartagia. G'kar is captured while trying to locate Mr Garabaldi, and is used by Londo as a vehicle in a plot to Assasinate the mad Emperor. All great stuff, and would have worked amazingly well at the end of the season. Sadly after the Shadow War's conclusion these three characters tend to drift a bit with nothing to do, awaiting the conclusion of Londo's destiny that would have happened in Season 5.

The remainder of the season is devoted to the civil war with earth and Sheridan's effort to liberate earth from the despotic President Clarke. As I mentioned last time, this plot arc skirts some topics and ideas that would not be possible on television after 11/9/2001. Issues of state torture, propaganda, fascism , warmongering and scapegoating "the other" all feature predominantly in this plot arc. With the heavily cut down nature of the Shadow plot arc, the Earth civil war is given much more time to breath and seems to be presented largely as intended. I personally suspect that many of the events that occur with Londo and the "legacy" of the Shadows would have originally concurred with this story arc as part of Season 5. (It makes a lot of sense as both Londo and G'kar seem stuck "between" plots a fair bit in Season 4 and 5, and the series uses that space to turn them into a slightly comic paring which I feel fails. More on that next time) The Minbari civil war plot also seems to indicate that the final chapter of Babylon 5 would have originally involved each major race dealing with the Shadow War's aftermath at home.

Like the previous season we get a lot of action not happening on the station, in particular on Mars which features very prominently. Sadly Mars has only three sets, a transport tube, the underground and Thomas Edgar's apartment; actually seeing how the Mars colonists live would have been nice and I am sure budget is to blame. This budgetary issue does afflict the Babylon 5 universe as it moves on, the majority of the Mars sets seem like reskinned Babylon station sets. One of Babylon 5's great strengths as a series is that the station seemed like a real place, it bustled and seemed lived in. Unfortunately as the series's scope expanded the new places it visited tended to be smaller and less alive, we only ever see Centari Prime from within the Palace for example. Budget is to blame and this sadly makes some of the events in Season 4 (and especially in the Spinoff Crusade) seem cheap or hockey. One of Sci Fi's greatest Achilles heels is when ambition and vision outstrip the ability of the program to present them. (AKA the Classic Doctor Who conundrum)

Despite the small let down of the Shadow War conclusion Season 4 is still a strong season, its central arc is pacy and filled with great character beats for Sheridan, Ivanova, Marcus and Garabaldi. The character movements of these season seem to do best in pairs, Sheridan vs Garabaldi, Marcus and his infatuation for Ivanova, Londo and G'kar and Delenn and the Minbari warlord Neroon. The writing for these pairings is tight and interesting, a few of the other characters like Franklin and Zac lack these oppositions and generally don't seem to grow or develop much as a result. (Though to be fair, I'm not sure what else you could do with Franklin after his addiction plotline that wouldn't lead to killing him off)

I usually pick a highlight or two and in this season it has to be episode 18 "Intersections in Real Time", a very atypical episode in that it only features Sheridan and an Earthforce interrogator more much of it's run time. It directly harkens back to Orwell's Nineteen Eighty Four and the penultimate episode of "The Prisoner"; the brilliant "Once upon a Time". It harkens back to the Next Gen episode "Chain of Command" as well, though I do find Ron D Moores version of Nineteen Eighty Four's frightening interrogation sequence not quite faceless enough. He repeats the Motif again a few times in Battlestar Galactica but it always seems to be a clash of two characters rather than one person vs the faceless system. (One is not worse than the other, it's just different character dynamic.)

The ending of the season is a strange one, the second last episode "Rising Star" is very much intended to be the second last episode of the whole series to be followed by the series finale "Sleeping in the Light" which was shot as part of Season 4. When it became apparent that Babylon 5 would be renewed for a fifth season a new season finale was made "The Deconstruction of Fallen Stars" which while a little rough as a concept is a very interesting episode in the annals of Television Sci Fi. The Science fiction story as history, or as part of a much longer history is a very old device in fiction. Dune and the Foundation series feature installments hundreds and even thousands of years apart. Possibly for the first time in Televisual media we have such a story, tracking humanity's future up to a Million years ahead. Anime had treated itself as historical document before this, presenting itself as historical tales created after the events described. SDF Macross and Gundam both do this. But they don't depict history over such vast sweeps of time as this Episode. Such movements in narrative time are usually only reserved for epilogues or situations where time can be advanced but the main cast can still operate. (Red Dwarf for example, Hundreds of years pass between some seasons but Lister is a constant)

For many Babylon 5 ends here, for us we still have another Season! Tune in next time for my trip into Babylon 5 Season 5. Is it as disappointing as I remember it? Can like the first season it be redeemed with time?
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