Signs and Portents
J. Michael Straczynski’s Babylon 5 was the last, best hope for a rival sci-fi television franchise to challenge the dominance of Star Trek. It failed. And let’s be glad it did. Last thing we needed was another bloated franchise knocking out a never ending cycle of naff spin-offs. Instead let’s be thankful for what remains to this day as one of the finest sci-fi series ever made. But it did take some time before it got there.
Straczynski envisioned the series as an epic novel for television told in five volumes with each episode being an individual chapter. JMS wanted to tell a universe changing saga of heroes and villains, epic battles and the rise and falls of empires. Something akin to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, only with in space with aliens instead of hobbits and on a limited television budget. Surprisingly this didn’t turn out to be as impossible as it might have seemed.
The year was 2258. The name of the place was, duh, Babylon 5, a massive five-mile long space station built by humans after the devastating Earth/Minbari to act as a natural place were aliens could meet to talk out their differences. Straczynski’s presented us with a future that was a far cry from the optimistic utopia of Gene Roddenberry. Crime, poverty, corruption and prejudice still existed. The various races were constantly at each other’s throats. Many of the alien races felt genuinely extraterrestrial, not just a load humanoids with bumpy foreheads and pointed ears, although the station did have its fair share of those.
B5 first aired in 1993 with the feature length pilot ‘The Gathering’. A year later the first season began airing with ‘Midnight on the Firing Line’ on the now defunct PTEN network, the show’s home for its first four seasons. In truth the first season is not the series’ strongest. No doubt in an effort to not alienate a potential audience the season is driven more by predominantly naff standalone episodes rather than the show’s signature story arcs. These standalone tales were often just sub-Trek nonsense that did little to help B5 to stand out from its rivals. Nevertheless there was still some good to be found in amongst all the crap. After all, as rubbish as ‘Mind War’ was it still gave us Walter Koenig as that slippery Psi Cop Bester (still B5’s finest villain).
In the second half Straczynski gradually started to move away from alien of the week tripe like ‘TKO’, ‘Believers’ and ‘Infection’ and began to lay the foundations of the awesomeness that was to come in episodes like ‘And the Sky Full of Stars’, ‘Signs and Portents’ (the introduction of Mr Morden and the Shadows), the two-parter ‘A Voice in the Wilderness’ and ‘Babylon Squared’ in which the crew investigate the sudden and mysterious reappearance of the missing Babylon 4 station. The big season finale ‘Chrysalis’ is a veritable congregation of ‘holy shit, did they just do that?’ moments as earth shattering cliff-hanger follows earth shattering cliff-hanger. Sinclair’s final lament “Nothing is the same anymore” couldn’t have been more appropriate.
At this early stage the cast were also something of a mixed bag to be sure. While G’Kar and Londo arrive practically full formed (despite some rough early make-up effects) the rest of the cast all need a little more work. Sinclair was too often stiff and po-faced while Ivanova had yet to develop something resembling a sense of humour. And I can’t be the only one who thought that Jerry Doyle looked like the product of a failed attempt to clone Bruce Willis?
The first season was certainly a patchy start for Babylon 5. Much of it hasn’t dated well. While they were groundbreaking and innovative at the time, much of the CGI effects now look rather primitive but still manage to stand up a lot better than most of the show from the time (Space: Above and Beyond for example). The costumes and alien make up are all a little rough. And the dialogue constantly veers between clunky and cheesy. But the series potential was still there for all to see. But by the second season the show would improve by leaps and bounds culminating in some of the finest TV drama of the last 20 years.
-Introduction and audio commentary on two episodes by J. Michael Straczynski
-"The Making of Babylon 5"
-"Back to Babylon 5"
-Enter the Universe of Babylon 5