Saturday, May 28, 2011

Blessings of Babylon

I finally understand what it’s like to be infatuated with a live-action science fiction TV series over an extended period of time. I had my fling with The X-Files, but that petered out, and though I absolutely loved the revamped Battlestar Galactica, the show went off the rails in the final season, and disappointed me terribly in the end. I also love Red Dwarf, but that series is not really the same thing, and overall I just shied away from “serious” live-action SF television. However, a recent viewing of Babylon 5 let me get a handle on that long-neglected aspect of my geekhood.

Babylon 5 appeals to my sensibilities and desires (which is why a long-time friend kept recommending it to me), instead of forcing me to push them aside for some unambiguous space adventure. There is a passionate, human heart to the series which is never overwhelmed by desolation, because of the series being open to showcasing the worst aspects of human nature.

J. Michael Straczynski apparently set out to write something like a novel, and as someone who prefers books a lot of the time, it’s a quick way to turn a series into mind candy. Viewing Babylon 5 through that lens, I can see something of the spirit of New Wave science fiction in it, perhaps in part because of Harlan Ellison’s role as creative consultant. Whatever the reason, I was constantly making parallels between Babylon 5’s content and some of my favourite science fiction novels, such as Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End (in aliens parallel to religious figures in one way or another, and in transcendent evolution), and C.J. Cherryh’s Chanur Saga (in exploring political difficulties among alien species which no government can truly control). These concepts  likely appeared in other series I haven’t watched, but the literary connection was the first that sprang to mind, and helped to predispose me to the series, and many of the early episodes felt like short stories onto themselves.

As I suggested above, Babylon 5 also has a kind of thematic atmosphere that’s like catnip to me: one in which the harshness and the complexity of sentient nature is a vital concept, and yet there is of course room to show the triumph of spirit and perseverance over all odds, as well as a sense of humour. I have no doubt some would find B5 to be too bleak and cynical, but showing the best of “human” nature isn’t worth much without showing the worst. I always found the various Star Trek series to be too flat and antiseptic, and the allegedly utopian future they put forth was part of that. I’m of the liberal-minded sort, but I enjoy stories in which we are unable to eliminate all the flaws of our current world, because that makes for more complex and exciting storytelling.

I envy Bablyon’s 5 ability to present both the silliest of humour and the highest of drama, both at different times. It suggests a very well-rounded show, one that knows the importance of balance. The special effects are obviously low-budget, but that does not sour much of the experience. I’ve also gotten over my contempt for rubber-forehead aliens and so was much more easily able to accept them than I might have been when I was younger—though I still disagree with the psychological justifications for them.

As to the infamous fifth season, made after the series’ hastily-redone conclusion, I decided to watch it with little hesitation. The way that the fifth season came about didn’t give me much confidence in its content, but I mostly enjoyed the episodes. I interpreted the tail end of season four and all of season five as being essential pieces of a series that were unfortunately shuffled around, so that they jumped back and forth in the timeline. While I do forgive season 5 for most things, it’s still jarring to go from the distant future back to the series’ immediate present, only to go back to a less distant future, even if it’s nice to spend a little more time with the characters, and some important things are still resolved in this last portion.

Babylon 5 also has some great characterization, from minor intrigues to major movements. While it’s expected that humans would play the lead in the series, the non-human characters stop being “those wacky aliens” shortly after the series begins, so that several become just as poignant. There were still a few cringe-worthy jokes and pranks regarding alien characters, and moments when human characters come off as irritatingly smug when they put one over on some aliens of various social standings, but it’s not enough to derail.

It’s not necessarily a sign of a good series when you only dislike the characters you’re obviously meant to, but such conditions can make things pleasant, and Babylon 5 was one of those series where I was favourably disposed towards pretty much everyone in the cast except the obvious scumbags. I loathed Alfred Bester as much as was the likely intention, even more because he always kept surviving when the plot had many opportunities to kill him--just like in real life, often the bastard gets away. Below, I won’t discuss all of the other characters I have an opinion on, but the ones that stood out to me the most.

If I’m poked hard enough, I’ll admit that John Sheridan started to get on my nerves after a while, for just being almost too good. It was a perfection that I agreed with, since I almost always sided with Sheridan in whatever decision or speech he made, but he seemed to get the better of everyone else once too often, and while I loved the themes involved in the end of the Shadow War, the fact that much of the ending consisted of Sheridan alone yelling at the Shadows and the Vorlons felt borderline ant-climactic. In short, I wanted to see Sheridan make more mistakes, to be wrong once or twice, so that watching him was less like crunching on sugar cubes. I finally got my wish with the telepath incident, but it’s not quite enough to change my feelings about Sheridan’s previous characterization.

While I wouldn’t say I like him (nor, truly, dislike him), Londo Mollari is certainly a fascinating character to watch. A patriot willing to do anything, yet hardly innocent in the tragedies he creates or even that nice a person. It’s one of the most epic, yet personal, stories that the series produced, and his love-hate relationship with G’Kar is also wonderfully complex.

It’s not necessary to have favourite characters to enjoy a series, but they’re one of the sweetest bonuses you can find. Mine ended up being G’Kar, but with Kosh and Lyta trailing somewhere behind. G’Kar’s appeal is easy to understand. I like characters with a darker sense of humour, but I like the underdogs, too, and G’Kar is often forced into becoming one against his will—and then has the opposite happen when he’s venerated as a religious leader. That he ended up becoming a writer just cemented it, since I’m a total sucker for artistic characters. The only thing that could have made it better is if he were an actual reptilian and not a marsupial, even though the latter is a more creative designation.

With Lyta Alexander, it’s probably my fascination with seeing characters get jerked around speaking. Babylon 5 also deserves kudos for creating a female anti-hero (in the classic sense, not the warped definition of anti-hero appearing today) that feels genuine. You get the sense that Lyta’s problems, externally inflicted though they are, aren’t just meant to make the audience coo in sympathy, but create her darker side as well. That point is driven home when Lyta becomes ruthless towards the very end of the series: hers is a tragic story.

For a while, I couldn’t understand why I liked Kosh. There was just something strangely lovable about him, though normally I dislike characters that seem to be cryptic just for its own sake. It helped that his Encounter Suit was undoubtedly the coolest-looking prop in the entire series, even in the scenes when it was obviously being rolled along a trolley instead of walking. (And on a nerdy note, his voice is provided by Ardwright Chamberlain, was a writer for Robotech). Still, I felt it was more than that, and it turned out to be that that Kosh was apparently one of the few of his species who doesn’t turn out to be a jackass (and Ulkesh was just outright creepy on a microcosmic level), and this is because Kosh is smart enough to change.

The stagnant ancient race that needs a younger one to show them how to feel again is a ridiculous cliché, but applying this dynamic to an individual character makes it much more believable, since it’s about character development instead of painting an entire species with the same brush. Kosh isn’t completely incomprehensible, and some of his pronouncements show a disdain for younger races that he gradually unlearns, and that change is a matter of intelligence as much as compassion. In doing so, he comes out the better being than the other Vorlons because he is still willing to invite change. Members of ancient races don’t have to be empty totems.

As I’ve said elsewhere, I enjoy characters that lack a showy attitude and prefer to simply act without pomp. Delenn eventually grew into such a character, and it made her very enjoyable. I’m not too concerned about whether or not a series depicts feminine female characters being able to play things their way in a harsh environment, but if you’re interested in such a thing, Delenn is a damn good example, too.

Overall, Babylon 5 put me in a good place. It had themes I could agree with, a good balance of tones, as well as character arcs and character development. It rekindled my feelings of wonder and excitement regarding space-faring science fiction, and live-action SF TV. Hats off.

No comments:

Post a Comment