Monday, December 1, 2008

Babylon 5 Review 1 of...

I started watching Babylon 5 last night, and I remember when this show came out, I couldn't help but think it was a ripoff of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. And I'm not yet convinced it isn't, but over the years, a time or two, I heard something about it that got me real curious. That its creator sat down and wrote the whole thing, or at least an outline, in advance. This being as opposed to just about every other show which starts out with an idea and just goes from there. All of the Star Trek series have been done this way, and when cast members quit or die (not sure the latter has happened, just sayin') they handle it badly. As I understand it, Babylon 5's characters were set up so that any one of them could be written off the show in a hurry if need be, and it wouldn't affect the overall plot. Much more recently, I read up on the series on Wikipedia, and learned that the series was made shortly after the HDTV specs were announced, and was one of the few shows to actually film in HD - way the hell back in 1992. So maybe some people laughed when it came on in widescreen, but now that it looks great on the new widescreen TVs and the best of Star Trek is square, well, who's laughing now? The pilot was square, but the episodes are all wide. Even on a square computer monitor, it looks good.

I really had no expectations going in last night. Way back in 2003 a good friend of mine told me everything that happened on the show. I mean he gave the entire series away, and it sounded awesome. Now I have no idea what he said. I think I remember something about telepaths and an alternate universe or something. And a war. And while there are telepaths on the show from the start, I haven't seen anything related to the others yet, though I could be way off-base with my memories of what I was told.

As I began to watch it, I couldn't help but compare it to Deep Space Nine. In a two-story part of Babylon 5, I noticed that the railings on the second story were very similar to those used on DS9's promenade (social area). They're probably not, but that's what they reminded me of. Early in the pilot, a human-looking female is referred to as an "Ardassian" - one of the primary antagonistic races on DS9 (actually dating back to Star Trek: TNG before it) were the "Cardassians" - same name but with a "C" in front. And one race had a leader named "Dukhat", pronounced exactly the same as the Cardassian Gul (a Gul is somewhere between a Captain and an Admiral) Dukat. So those were obviously a couple of blatant ripoffs. Also, the political intrigue in Babylon 5 looks inspired by DS9, which did so in a way not done in prior Star Trek series. And then there's the fact that both series take place on a space station which is populated by various aliens.

The similarities end there, and I find myself enjoying the differences more than dwelling on the similarities. While DS9 (the station) is a good distance from Earth, Commander (later Captain) Ben Sisko might occasionally go rogue, but mostly he's on as short a leash as any Starfleet captain. I'm not really seeing that level of tight control from Earth in B5. And between Ben Sisko and his security chief Odo (later with the assistance of Worf), they really had tight control of the station. Babylon 5 is more chaotic, with command having much less control. Also, four episodes in (plus the double-episode pilot, so six) I've noticed that the "technobabble" which every Star Trek series uses, is nowhere to be seen. Either stuff just works, or it breaks and they fix it. They don't really talk about their technology, it's just something they naturally have and don't feel the need to explain it, like Star Trek characters do. As far as technology goes, vs. Star Trek, B5 doesn't have teleporters, they don't have food replicators, and they don't have holographic simulation rooms. Their weapons aren't exactly laser guns, they fire some kind of pulse. It's energy, but they don't fire as fast, and they aren't as deadly. Characters survive weapons fire regularly, though they do incapacitate. And the weapons are bigger. Their sidearms are about 125% larger than Star Trek phasers, and their rifles are huge. Though they seem to travel faster as they have an array which seems to make wormholes to anywhere, and other races can send ships through it as well.

Chronologically, B5 takes place at about the same time as the Star Trek prequel series, Enterprise, so the B5 universe is behind the Trek universe in terms of technological development. Regarding the races, where Trek has the iconic Klingons, Vulcans, and Borg, the B5 races seem less than stellar. At this point I only remember two of the five major non-human races: Centauri and Vorlon. I have to look the other two up on Wikipedia... Minbari and Narn. The Centauri are overweight humans with funny eyebrows - I'm almost reminded of Danny DeVito as Penguin in Batman Returns. And they all have the same funky hairdo that starts at the back of their neck, comes up the back of their head, and flares out like a peacock's feathers. The Vorlon don't show themselves, never coming out of their environmental suits (as of yet). The Narn are bald with spots and discret facial ridges, while the Minbari are also bald but wear funky headdresses. There are other races, but they're considered less important somehow. Still not sure how all that works.

So far, the episodes (and pilot) have been of average to good quality with an easy watchability. The pacing is good, the episodes don't get boring, and though none have been particularly memorable, neither have they been terrible. As far as topics, they mostly have established relations between the five major races. The Centauri were the first race to contact the Humans, and overstated their power in the galaxy, even suggesting Humans were a lesser relative of theirs (until the Humans got their hands on some of their DNA and disproved it). The Narns used to be enslaved by the Minbari (or was it Centauri?) and the Minbari invaded Earth, and on the eve of their victory, changed their minds and surrendered. This last situation presents the first storyline arc, in which Commander Sinclair fought in that battle, and "lost" 24 hours of memory, from trying to ram the lead Minbari ship, to landing on Earth and being hailed as a hero; trying to figure out what happened in that time.

I'm somewhere between a third and halfway through the first season, and sci-fi fans (mostly Trekkies) tell me the series starts off weak and gets better in the second season. Well, I'm already impressed. The characters aren't as deep, and as I said the races not quite as iconic, as on a Star Trek program, but B5 is more approachable. These people, unlike Starfleet officers, get paid, and they're more flawed, more normal, wear normal clothes, etc. At this point I'm nowhere near saying it's as good as Deep Space Nine, but I predict it's going to surpass Enterprise (not like that's hard). Now I wonder if it'll be as good as Voyager, or perhaps better. But I'm sure that's as far as it'll go - I can't imagine finding myself preferring Babylon 5 to Star Trek: The Next Generation, which itself is only just under DS9 as far as quality goes. And I certainly don't expect to see an episode of the caliber of DS9's "In the Pale Moonlight" (by far the best Trek has put out, and, according to Wikipedia, the highest ranked episode of any Trek series on, with an average rating of 4.8/5), but I do expect to enjoy the ride.

Four more episodes later, ending with "And the Sky Full of Stars" (Season 1, Episode 8) "business has just picked up", as good ol' JR would put it. Dark Reality, signing off for now, and promising to report back, free of major spoilers, future thoughts on this ambitious series.

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