September 15, 2012

Babble On #25: Season 1 in review

The first time I watched Babylon 5, I remember being constantly ambivalent about it. I remember watching Season 1 with a general air of disappointment, quite liking Season 2, adoring Season 3 and then as good as throwing my remote into my TV over Season 4. To be honest I've seen maybe three episodes of Season 5. It was a lot more popular among science fiction fans than I felt it deserved, and even today among many fans it holds a pretty prominent place in their affection.

I always intended to revisit the series and give it a second chance. I like giving art two chances. Maybe it's the time, or the context, or maybe something is ahead of its time. Maybe my tastes change. It's quite often, however, that something I'll adore the first time around will annoy me intensely the second, and vice versa.

So here we are: I've watched the whole of Babylon 5 Season 1, in order, for the second time. What I'm interested in with this is less whether or not it's good (to be honest, it's about an uneven and mediocre as general wisdom remembers it to be) but where I may or may not have changed my opinion on it.

I started these reviews in dot point, then expanded to full text, but now I think it's easiest if I drop back to dot point once again.
  • The writing: to be honest, my opinion of this is pretty much unchanged. I think J. Michael Straczynski can write the hell out of a monologue; I mentioned all the way back in my review of "Midnight on the Firing Line" that if you give one of his characters 90 seconds to speak without interruption, you're going to get something great. Sadly the dialogue often leaves a lot to be desired, and there's way too much of a tendency to fall back on cliche and stereotype. I kept a much tighter notice on who was writing each episode this time around, and the problems with stereotype were, to be fair, much worse in the non-JMS scripts.
  • Commander Sinclair: the general wisdom is that Michael O'Hare's performance was wooden and lacklustre, a wisdom shared not only by fans but also by Warner Bros themselves, who demanded he be replaced as series lead for Season 2. This is an opinion I used to hold myself, but re-watching this season it's become clear we all did him a disservice. O'Hare gives a wonderful, idiosyncratic and crucially subtle performance as Sinclair, and it's a deep shame we all failed to recognise it for what it was at the time.
  • Lieutenant Ivanova: she's always been a fan favourite, and the first time around I just couldn't see it. The second time around... I just can't see it. Sorry.
  • Londo and G'Kar: I remember them being the highlights of the cast, and this opinion hasn't changed in the intervening years. It's a tragedy that both Peter Jurasik and Andreas Katsulas have since died, because they were wonderful performers. (EDIT: blame a faulty memory, it is Katsulas and Richard Biggs who are no longer with us - Jurasik is thankfully still alive.)
  • The visual effects: they have really dated quite visibly, in a way that the model-based effects of Star Trek have not. This isn't a criticism, however, merely an observation.
  • Christopher Franke's musical score: I've gone the whole of this season without really discussing the music. It's bizarrely exactly like the music that the BBC Radiophonic Workshop were making for Doctor Who's 18th season. Given JMS' well-known fondness for British telefantasy, I do wonder if maybe that was deliberate.
  • The story arc: it's perhaps far more difficult to reflect on the story arc of Babylon 5. Arc-based narrative television is par for the course in 20th century TV drama. Where I suppose Babylon 5 continues to distinguish itself is that it's trying to tell a story with a beginning, middle and end in five seasons. I think they left the arc sidelined for far too many episodes this season, but can understand they may have wanted to be a little more tentative with their audience starting out.
Even though this was, all things considered, a pretty shaky start for the series, it did still have its share of good episodes. The five I thought were particularly enjoyable are:
  • "Midnight on the Firing Line"
  • "The War Prayer"
  • "Signs and Portents"
  • "Babylon Squared"
  • "Chrysalis"
Episodes you may wish to specifically avoid (consider as me watching them so you don't have to) are:
  • "The Soul Hunter"
  • "Infection"
  • "TKO"
  • "Grail"
  • "Eyes"
Those last three ("TKO", "Grail" and "Eyes") came one after another in what I will henceforth describe as "Babylon 5's great trilogy of shit".

In the end, Babylon 5 Season 1 is a rough, uneven, fairly shaky opener. It's not the worst first season of a science fiction series I've seen (Star Trek: The Next Generation was pretty awful in its first year), but it's also far from being the best. If you thought this season was enjoyable I'd smile agreeably. If you thought this season was great science fiction television, I'd probably debate that a little. If you told me it was great television drama period, and was owed Emmy Awards (people have done this to me), I'd think you hadn't seen enough television.


  1. I'm pretty sure Peter Jurasik is still alive. These reviews have been fantastic.

  2. I'll be interested to see what you think of season 5. I was one of the few people who really enjoyed it.

    But then I managed somehow to never watch the last few episodes of season 4.

  3. Totally agree with you about Michael O'Hare. He was playing a Commander, someone who needs a certain level of emotional detachment, and a man haunted by a mystery in his past and trying to bottle it all up. Rather than mugging for the camera he was acting.

    I had problems with the effects back when it was made. Far too much reliance on stock texture mapping to add detail that needed to actually be modelled. And texture maps that didn't make sense given the setting.

    I need to catch up with your reviews, because even when I disagree with you (though there's nothing here I particularly disagree with) I enjoy your perspective.


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