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Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Babylon 5: Season 1 - Signs and Portents Review

Alright today on Sci-Fi Adventures it's Babylon 5's turn to get a season review, meaning that I've finally finished one whole season from each of the three series I started writing about in 2016!

The trouble with TV seasons, especially for older series, is that they're really bloody long. When they were airing once a week I didn't notice, I was more bothered by the huge gaps in between, but now that I'm looking back 22 episodes suddenly seems like a lot. That's like 15 hours of content! You could get through 4 Lord of the Rings movies in that time! But they're not sci-fi, so I won't.

I was thinking about writing a 'first season battle' article at some point, where I put the series I've been watching against each other to see which was luckiest not to get cancelled in the first year, but now I've spotted the flaw in that plan: it'll take so long to watch them that I won't remember them well enough to compare them. I mean it took me a year to get through B5 season 1 and I'm already struggling to hold all that data in my brain.

So this season review may contain SPOILERS for episodes like Midnight on the Firing Line, Chrysalis and everything in between, or it may not, depending on how much of it's still in my mind. I may even throw in some for the pilot film The Gathering, though I won't say a word about what happens after season 1.



Babylon 5 season 1 is a collection of 21 science fiction themed stories that aired during 1994 and share the same setting, characters, and fictional universe. Well they share some of the characters anyway, you never get the full group at once, but man does it love sharing those sets. You definitely get what it says on the box here, as this season is stubbornly bound to Babylon 5 station itself.

Another thing it says on the box is that the season's called Signs and Portents, which is a bit daft as TV seasons don't have names, but I can't say that the title doesn't fit. The big advantage this season has over Deep Space Nine's first year is that there's clues that it's all going somewhere. It's not all that heavy on continuity right now, but it deliberately puts the foundations in place for later while dropping hints about what's coming next. Sometimes they're very big hints in the form of actual visions of the future... or maybe fake visions of the future, it's hard to tell before you get there (and I'm not spoiling anything). But what's important at this point is that even now it's not just killing time to make up its episode order.

I'm not sure I was so keen on all this set up the first time around though, as it was throwing a lot of balls into the air and didn't seem in any hurry to catch them. I mean shows like The X-Files were pulling the same kind of thing at the same time so it's not like continuity was unheard of in a sci-fi series, but during the late 80s and early 90s there were basically two varieties of space opera on US television: Star Trek shows and crap that got cancelled in its first season, so it was asking for a bit of faith from its audience. It's easier to appreciate on a rewatch though, especially now that I know where the characters are going.

Not that the ongoing drama matters much at this point as the episodes are mostly just about the sci-fi crisis of the week, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. This is the least serialised season of B5 and the most varied. If you're not interested in a grand story arc and just want to see an anthology of tales about life on a space station then this season's what you want. It's also a good season for people who like to see the lead character run around with a gun and punch people, because Commander Sinclair sure resolves a lot of those tales by personally administering violence.

He starts whooping ass in the pilot movie, you have up to get to episode 5 before he finally takes a break, and then he's right back at it by episode 6! He's the governor of a massive space colony, he has people to do this for him.

Personally I like Action Sinclair, he's far more watchable than Undercover Sinclair for sure and it's justified by the fact that he's got a bit of a death wish after the Earth-Minbari War. But even Star Trek: The Next Generation-era Gene Roddenberry realised that having the boss fly the space fighters, lead the SWAT teams and continually run into danger fists first is a good way to make your series feel like a bit of a cheesy relic. The season could've done with someone taking the Jack O'Neill or Kara Thrace role to handle the dangerous stuff while the commander does the commanding. Like Officer Lou Welch maybe! Or I suppose Garibaldi's right there.

But that's not the only thing that bothered me about season 1...


THE BAD

If you're used to modern television, or even 90s TV with some cash to spend like the Trek spin-offs, I'm sure getting into Babylon 5 is going to take some adjustment... and that's doubly true if you start watching at season 1. There's a lot of world building here, it's putting together the foundations and establishing what 'normal' is for this world, but it's hard to say that a season full of set up is a success when a lot of fans suggest skipping ahead to the episodes that it's setting up instead because they're actually watchable.

I'd say that hasn't aged well, but this was airing at the same time as Deep Space Nine and The X-Files, so it was always a bit cheesy, theatrical and crap looking. Which isn't helped by the fact that you can sometimes hear the actors' footsteps on the wooden floors of the recycled sets. Every sci-fi series is going to redress their standing sets to get more mileage out of them, but it's amazing just how much of this station looks like Sinclair's office with the furniture moved around. In fact it took me until this rewatch to realise that there's supposed to be multiple curvy corridors, and it's not always meant to be the Zocalo. Plus it's obvious that the crew didn't always have the time or money to get sets properly finished, so they're kind of scruffy at times.

That doesn't have to be a huge problem, modern Doctor Who for example manages to magnify its production values through location filming, but B5 is resolutely stagebound. Location shoots are expensive, even Trek only went out like once every five episodes at this point, but this series' absolute aversion to natural light makes me wonder if some of the cast were vampires. Maybe they took Catherine Sakai's actress out to film a scene in Griffith Park or Vasquez Rocks and she vanished in a cloud of ash, so they thought better of it from then on. But even then they could've picked somewhere eternally overcast... like a forest near Vancouver or a quarry in Wales!

Speaking of the actors, I'm very disappointed by their poor attendance. I didn't realise it until this rewatch, but out of the main cast only Sinclair, Ivanova and Garibaldi appear in every episode! I think it's fine to drop characters from a story if they're not needed, better that than pull a DS9 and interrupt the plot with an unrelated scene just to give them 30 seconds of screen time. But there's something very weird going on when the rest of the characters in the opening credits only showed up in half the episodes! Granted that average is being dragged down a little by telepath Talia Winters only appearing in a third of them, but that's still pretty damn low.

I think it's got a strong cast though, stronger than it was in the pilot movie now that they've swapped out a few of the original characters, but some of those guest actors are dragging it down. I can't tell if it's bad acting or bad directing (probably both sometimes) but some of the performances really took me out of a scene this season. Even regulars like G'Kar and Londo sometimes crossed the line for me during comedy scenes, especially early on when there was more shouting, though to be fair they were being pushed over it by that cringeworthy comedy music. The characters showed signs of their potential in episodes like Midnight on the Firing Line, Signs and Portents and Chrysalis, but I was often surprised by how awesome they weren't.

Plus the series has the visual effects of a PlayStation game cutscene, mostly because it came out during the same year. The shots are dynamic in a way that Star Trek couldn't match until they hired the same effects company themselves, but they're never convincing. What's worse is that the picture quality on the DVDs goes to crap whenever a VFX shot or transition is used because they zoom in on the original 4:3 composite and then crop it for widescreen. Not that it looks all that great even at the best of times.

Also the DVD/airing order is such a mess that even the Lurker's Guide's corrected viewing order doesn't quite get all the pieces in the right place. And the commentaries on the DVD keep spoiling later episodes!

But the season wasn't all bad...


THE GOOD

For one thing Londo's hair is amazing... because I just don't notice it any more. The season has so thoroughly sold me on his character and culture that I buy that having his hair styled to look like Napoleon going through a punk phase is a perfectly reasonable choice. B5 season 1 had a lot of worlds to build and it did it pretty well in my opinion, considering you're trapped inside the same wooden sets viewing them through their ambassadors most of the time. The season puts most of the pieces on the board, hints at the larger story, and provides a nice comfortable status quo for episodes like Chrysalis to shatter.

A happy shiny utopia without interpersonal conflicts was the default setting for TV space sci-fi at this point, due to Trek's domination, so Babylon 5 was a break from the norm with its less optimistic future. Earth's united but it's not a paradise and things there are getting worse, with anti-alien groups getting bolder, an uprising on the Mars Colony and a good president being assassinated. Personally I like Trek's Earth being an example for us to aim for and it'd be really nice if our own Earth could sort itself out as well, but it's nice that B5 isn't travelling the default road.

Though the human characters on the station are all reasonably saintly paragons who could get a transfer onto the Enterprise and fit in without too much trouble. In fact I'm still annoyed they didn't once open up a dimensional rift and go hang out on Deep Space Nine for a two-part crossover. It'd be like that episode of The Simpsons where Homer fell out of a low-detail CGI universe into a far more realistic world, with real sunlight and everything!

Put Babylon 5 and Star Trek's visual effects next to each other and B5's will be less convincing every time, because Trek at the time was filming multiple passes of thousand dollar physical models with a motion control rig and B5 season 1 was rendered on Amiga home computers. But Foundation Imaging weren't amateurs, they were the guys that Voyager and DS9 later called on when they needed to step up their game, and this season has the largest and most complicated space battles made for TV at the time. Plus relying on CG meant that they could give each race their own distinct ships instead of reusing the same models over and over, which I appreciate.

Christopher Franke's strange synthy soundtrack is also pretty distinct and helps give the series its identity. I'm not 100% keen on it this season, especially when it takes it upon itself to accentuate the comedy, but I much prefer it to Deep Space Nine's sonic wallpaper, Stewart Copeland's score in the pilot movie, and Evan Chen's weird-ass music in the Crusade spin-off. They got a bit too distinctive with that one.

Also season 1 has lots of hats. If you want to see crowds of extras with hats, alien makeup or shirts without collars, this is a good place to look. Plus all those hat wearers in the background help make the scruffy wooden sets look like a busy space colony, which is a nice side effect.


CONCLUSION

Thank fuck that's over with... is what I thought I'd be typing here when I started watching season 1 all those months ago. But after I'd endured the early episodes infesting the first half I found that this seasons was pretty okay! I'm glad I went back and rewatched it now, which isn't exactly the reaction I had to the first year of Deep Space Nine.

DS9's first season clearly has the edge in production values as they had a bigger budget and folks were working overtime on it, but I think B5's got the edge when it comes to stories. Not necessarily due to the writing or even the serialisation, but because they're about something halfway appealing. Midway through DS9's first year the shine was wearing off and I was getting sick of it, so I checked to see what I had to look forward to and there were episodes about O'Brien inspiring a town to get rid of a cloud monster, Kira struggling to evict a farmer, Rumpelstiltskin trying to steal O'Brien's daughter, Deanna Troi's mother stalking Odo... I've never been more tempted to skip to the end of season and get it over with. But halfway through B5's first year I still had Signs and Portents, A Voice in the Wilderness I + II, Babylon Squared and Chrysalis to look forward to and things were just getting interesting.

I have a theory that DS9 season 1 is possibly more entertaining for people on their first watch, when everything's fresh to them and they're not tormented by the knowledge of how good it gets later, because it's more immediately appealing and it's got some strong episodes early on to hook them in. But B5 season 1 might be better for people rewatching it as a fan, as they'll have already forgiven its flaws and learned to appreciate/tolerate its eccentricities.

I'd like to give the two seasons an overall score each but that's never been something I'm good at; I wasn't born with the gene that gives reviewers the ability to intuitively know if something's worth 85.1% or more like 85.2%. But I can try to rank some stories at least, so here's my top 22 episodes from B5 season 1 in ascending order:

22.Grail - I'm kind of torn between putting this or TKO in last. Grail does have two great guest stars in David Warner and Jim 'Bishop Brennan' Norton, but Jinxo and Deuce drag everything down to their level.
21.TKO - Finally an episode about a guest star we've never met proving himself in a fighting tournament we've never heard of and conquering anti-human prejudice we've never seen.
20.Born to the Purple - I wanted to put this higher just because of Vir's handheld, but then I remembered Sinclair's laugh when he's 'undercover'.
19.Infection - IKAAAARRRRAAAA!
18.Soul Hunter - SHAK TOT!
17.Mind War - Even Walter Koenig as sinister Psi-Cop Bester and a philosophical G'Kar couldn't save an entire episode of overly emoted exposition for me.
16.The War Prayer - Bad acting in the Homeguard plot, shouty Londo in the Centauri lovers plot. I don't like overly shouty Londo.
15.Survivors - This one's not so bad, but I'd have liked it more if Garibaldi's adventure wasn't a total waste of everyone's time. Sure he had to ultimately fail so bad it drives him to drink, but it'd be nice if we got something out of it.
14.By Any Means Necessary - A nice story of scruffy Sinclair finding a legal loophole, spoiled a little by an overly smug negotiator.
13.The Quality of Mercy - I feel like this should be lower but it clearly says 'did not suck' here in my notes and my past self could remember it much better than I can.
12.Legacies - Possibly more interesting for what it tells us about the Minbari and telepaths than for the actual plot.
11.A Voice in the Wilderness, Part 1 - We're watching the shuttle take off for a third time? Okay then.
10.Believers - This one's typically a love it or absolutely hate it kind of episode I've noticed, but for me it was just... alright.
 9.Deathwalker - Way better than an episode called Deathwalker should be. Shame about the irritating Kosh and Talia plot.
 8.And the Sky Full of Stars - Basically two people yelling at each other in the dark, but in a good way.
 7.Parliament of Dreams - I wasn't won over by Sinclair's romance plot, but G'Kar's assassination adventure was fairly awesome.
 6.Midnight on the Firing Line - Suffers from poor direction at times, but this has Starfuries, politics, a G'Kar rant about how he wants to turn the Centauri into flutes, and Londo throwing things.
 5.A Voice in the Wilderness, Part 2 - Captain Trollface brings the drama and the aliens bring fireworks (and a really bright spotlight).
 4.Eyes - I wasn't expecting much from this, but it was some dramatic entertaining television, enhanced by an overly smug investigator and an appearance by Jeffrey Combs.
 3.Babylon Squared - Would've been better if our heroes actually did anything, but still interesting regardless.
 2.Signs and Portents - Introduces the scary black spider ships, sets up the main story arc and has the biggest space battle of the season. Probably not one to skip.
 1.Chrysalis - A watchable anthology series about people running a space station suddenly becomes Babylon 5 and nothing's the same any more.

Chrysalis is actually a lot like DS9's season finale In the Hands of the Prophets now that I think about it, and not just because they're both about someone trying to solve a death related to something mysterious going on in a docking bay, while a religious leader makes plans and another leader goes on a trip into space. They're both an early sign of the jump in quality that's to come in later seasons when the series mature, develop more continuity and expand the scale of the stories they tell. But Chrysalis is better.

Anyway, I plan to continue watching all of B5 season 2 next, giving each episode the same recap treatment I did to the season 1 eps. Even though it does mean I'll have to come up with another bloody season review at the end of it.



COMING SOON
Babylon 5 will return with season 2, starting with Points of Departure. But next on Sci-Fi Adventures I'll be writing about sandy 1994 sci-fi event movie Stargate!

Until then the comment box is all yours, share your thoughts and opinions.

3 comments:

  1. Good news about season 2!

    I think your rankings are fair. I'd probably flip "TKO" and "Grail" myself, but mostly because my wife enjoys watching David Warner deliver exposition more than she likes boxing.

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  2. Crikey, you're not going to go from Stargate to reviews of every episode of SG1 are you? There's not enough time left in the universe for that!

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    1. You're exaggerating, I could fit the entire Stargate franchise into my schedule and it wouldn't take me longer than 30 years to get through them all!

      So no, I won't be doing that. Though I suppose it wouldn't be so bad if I just wrote about some of season 1...

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