And So It Begins (Babylon 5 Season 1)

I haven’t had a B5 marathon in something like 8 or 9 years. The last one was during the process of indoctrinating my wife in the geek ways. We started with Star Wars and then an introduction to the Whedonverse with Buffy. Once I had her softened up, I figured it was time for my second favorite thing in the universe (show reference!), and we embarked on a tour of Epsilon 3 and environs. At this far remove, I honestly can’t remember if we watched all of first season or not. I know that we ended with the dramatic finale of fourth season and never finished out the series. I probably haven’t seen the disappointing fifth season since it aired, so I’m hoping to revisit it with fresh eyes and to discover it’s better than its reputation.

So it is time. After struggling through Deep Space 9 last year, I’d been yearning for another look at the real thing. Then this series of weekly reviews of a re-watch popped up on the A.V. Club, giving me the last little nudge.

But before I tear into first season, let me just warn the virgins out there: HERE THERE BE SPOILERS. It’s a show that’s nearly 20 years old, so I don’t feel bad for you. Well, I do feel bad for you actually. So I’m going to give you two pieces of advice. 1. Watch the damn show. 2. Skip the first season. Slight caveat to # 2 — the first season episodes “Midnight on the Firing Line”, “Signs and Portents”, and “Chrysalis” will give you a lot of backstory for the buck and are rather good.

So if you haven’t seen Babylon 5 before, go here right now and watch it.

And so it begins.

Over the last several weeks, I’ve made my way through first season. The first thing I realized is that I watched this season way too much back in the day. I must have seen every episode at least five times. It’s no wonder that I was slightly disappointed by the season. There were no surprises in store for me, and damn few moments that I didn’t remember pretty well.

So first, let me get all the negatives out of the way, then I can move on to all the reasons I loved it in the first place.

Probably the most damning aspects of the show twenty years later are the sets, the acting, and the CGI. In the last decade, we’ve been spoiled by shows like Battlestar and Firefly to expect a very high level of set design, and Babylon 5 does not have that. Every episode has a trip through a plastic crate storage room. Unfortunately, it makes B5 look cheap… and it’s true that the ambitions of the narrative often outstrip the budget. It’s probably one of the biggest things, even over the CGI, that makes B5 look dated. I’ve re-watched part of second season at this point, and the good news is that the number of plastic crates has drastically reduced, as well as general improvement to set design.

The CGI is pretty long in the tooth. I remember when it first debuted, and it looked pretty darn good. You whippersnappers will have to take my word for it. Mainly it looked good because the “camera” was able to move through space in ways that were difficult or impossible for the Star Trek models of the time. But now every CGI space show does that, and often much better and more impressively. And B5, rendered on Amigas 20 years ago, can’t hold a candle to BSG’s space battles.

Worse, the show’s CGI was rendered for 4:3 90’s televisions, but the live action was filmed for both standard and widescreen. So when TNT converted the show to 16:9 for the print that eventually went to DVD, the CGI scenes and any digital composite shots were cropped off at the top and bottom for the conversion. It was a massacre. I’m tempted to see if I’ve got my old VHS tapes around somewhere to compare, but I’m afraid that might just depress me more. The show should have been left in 4:3 if they couldn’t re-render the CGI and composite shots. Instead, there are shots that are perfectly clear surrounded by fuzzy, “zoomed in” shots. It happens more often than I at first would have thought because there are a hell of a lot more composites that I would have guessed. The title credits, for instance, in addition to any time a ppg or weapon fx goes off, and strangely enough, apparently whenever there is a fade in/out. Whoever reassembled the widescreen cut must have been too lazy to re-render fades. A completely amateurish butcher job.

But it’s what we’ve got.

The acting, on the other hand, can’t be entirely blamed on the age of the show. It’s not very good (with a couple of notable exceptions that I’ll get to later). Michael O’Hare as Commander Sinclair is stiff and wooden–I think he might have been trying to play a character who was very emotionally closed off, but I’m afraid O’Hare doesn’t have the range to convey this. The Russians are apparently Star Trek androids because Claudia Christian as Susan Ivanova doesn’t use contractions for the first half of the season, just like Data. After that, she loosens up (you could say it’s the character since she goes through the death of her father then, but she goes through even heavier stuff later in the series and doesn’t act as stiff as in these first episodes–so I’d say it was the actor and writer(s) still learning the character). Jerry Doyle’s Michael Garibaldi did not work for me this time. He mostly seemed to be trying too hard and going over the top when delivering his lines. I think he settles in some in later seasons, too, but I didn’t remember his acting being quite this rough.

Stephen Furst’s Vir starts off terrible, but I knew that going in, and expect him to get better. The acting that surprised me the most was Mira Furlan as Ambassador Delenn. She’s always been one of my favorite characters, and a stellar actress on top of that. However, her performance in first season is a little uneven. Delenn has quite a few scenes where she’s smiling like she’s stoned, often while dispensing fortune cookie wisdom, and several others where she flips out. These struck me on this viewing as being slightly off key for the character, and I don’t know whether to blame the writing or the acting.

The writing holds up pretty well, but it’s still rough in places. It takes a while for the writer (and I’m mostly talking about J. Michael Straczynski here, though there were others) to find the rhythms of the characters. Not to mention that Babylon 5 works best when layering on levels of meaning and reference, and most of the early stand-alone episodes don’t have that. JMS also has a hard time with humor–when it comes as a natural part of character interaction, it can be wonderful, but the “humorous” set pieces usually fall flat (the breakfast scene at the start of “Babylon Squared” comes immediately to mind). And there are a lot of those “knee-slapping” scenes in first season, often accompanied by “funny” music which makes the gags even more eye-rolling.

This has gone on longer than I’d expected, so I’m splitting it in two. To be continued…

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