Friday, December 27, 2013

What I'm Watching now: Babylon 5 (Season 1; Signs and Portents)

We are today in what many call a renaissance of television; a time when the writing and storytelling ability of television writers (Particularly on US Cable TV) rivals or exceeds that of Hollywood. The genesis of this boom can be found in the early 1990s, better technology not only gave us better quality video but also made it easier for transfers to be made from higher quality film. The real break out for improving the quality of Television production was the eponymous 1990 series "Twin Peaks"; a huge hit helped move Television out of the studio and opened the door at Networks for more experimental programing.


Star Trek: The Next Generation had been on television for six years and had proven very popular, by 1993 many networks were trying sci-fi. The X-files, Sea Quest DSV, Highlander, Earth 2 and Space Above and beyond all appeared on our screens in 1993-94. The majority duplicated the pattern of Star Trek, self contained episodic sci fi with some elements of a greater plot arc seeded through the series. Even the X-Files was mostly self contained adventures in it's early years, but as the trend for larger and more sophisticated stories started to become a success with audiences almost all genre television started to incorporate those ideas into their storytelling. (Up to the current season cliff hanger fueled Sci-Fi Television, or the Story arc meme approach used in New Doctor Who and series like Warehouse 13 that kept the episodic structure)
The Pioneer of the season long arc concept is undoubtedly Babylon 5, launched in 1993 with a pilot telemovie and picked up as a series by Warner Brothers in 1994. Babylon 5 was a space opera in the purest sense of the word and the brainchild of writer J Micheal Straczynki (JMS) ; conceived as "fundamentally, a five-year story, a novel for television,".
Now twenty years on, I am re-watching the whole series and rediscovering just how intricately written and plotted the series was. The series is often remembered for it's cutting edge CGI effects, it's distinctive sound track scored by Tangerine Dream's Christopher Franke, and for the fact that it came out at the same time as another space station based show "Star Trek Deep Space Nine". But really I think the elements that really have stood the test of time is its example of good story arc writing despite the best efforts of a Television network to make it all fall down on its face.

The series starts with the 1993 Pilot movie "The Gathering", like most pilots the cast and concepts have yet to be fully bolted down. As a movie it is a little weak, lots of explanatory dialogue and a slow paced story focusing on an Assassination attempt of a new Alien Ambassador. What it does do is give us an overview of it's universe and characters. The year is 2257 and humanity has gone to the stars and encountered a multitude of alien races and cultures. After almost facing defeat against the highly advanced Minbari ten years earlier, the Earth Alliance elects to build a neutral diplomatic outpost to prevent further wars. These stations, the Babylon stations, are one by one destroyed by accident, terrorism or mysterious forces. (In the case of Babylon 4) Babylon 5 was the first of this series of stations to successfully come online and serve as a place of trade and diplomacy.
The story focuses on the station commander, Jeffery Sinclair a veteran of the Earth Minbari war as he represents the interests of earth and peace while dealing with the machinations of various alien governments. We are introduced to four primary governments; the Minbari a highly advanced spiritual people, the Centari a race of decadent Aristocrats whose best days are behind them, the Narn an aggressive warrior race once slaves of the Centari and the mysterious Vorlons who are never seen outside their encounter suits. The Pilot gives us a very bare bones view of the universe JMS had in store for us, gives us a few mysteries and shows off the ground breaking (for 1993) special effects.

By the time of the series premier proper in 1994 many thing had changed from the pilot. Several of the main cast were swapped out, a new Doctor, Telepath and XO were introduced, the Minbari were redesigned a little with the androgynous Ambassador Delen more distinctly female now. As soon as you load up the first episode of the series "Midnight on the firing line", you immediately see the form that JMS's story is intended to work in. "Midnight..." covers much of the background covered in the Pilot and along with the second episode "Soul Hunter" very adeptly set up all the story beats for the season ahead. The main cast quickly settle into their roles and their individual story arcs are carefully mapped out and advanced as the season progresses. Very few scenes or dialogue lines are flippant or left to chance in this season, watching it unfold again you can see that even in non arc episodes the characters foreshadow their development with a great degree of skill on the part of the writers and actors. (Despite some truly terrible performances from the guest cast, hello Jinx) The Narn Ambassador G'kar is a great example, a basically flat out villain in the pilot organically twists both ways as the series progresses. In one episode he is plotting attacks on Centari colonies, another he is rescuing Sinclair's girlfriend and all for reasons that make sense for the character.

Babylon 5 also gave us the ideas of putting chapter titles on seasons, something that few series have really done since. The title for the first season was "Signs and Portents" and that is a theme that runs under every episode and plot development. What we see here are the beginnings of plot arcs, the green shoots that will blossom later into more developed stories. Religion is a big theme and continues to be so as the series progresses, not a particular religion but religion and faith itself. World building is also a great strength of the series, the world presented is very much our own projected forward 200years with all of the political and cultural issues that the 1990s had. That makes the world quite relate able, we are not seeing the utopic future of Star Trek but a world where people and governments are as flawed, greedy and terrible as in our own.

The season pushes forward to a cliff hanger, the Earth Alliance president is assassinated, Ambassador Delenn undergoes some sort of process that puts her into a chrysalis,  mysterious aliens attack under orders from a man known only as Morden and the station chief of security is shot in the back by his second in command. What seems to be a fairly stable universe is turned on it's axis in the space of a single day setting us up for the drama to come next season. This is all expertly done, and honestly the final episode of the season "Chrysalis" is the one that turned me around on the series initially after disliking the pilot. None of these cliffhanger events are strange or out of the blue, each is carefully setup and foreshadowed in a very tightly written manner. From Delenn building the device to transform her into whatever she will become slowly throughout the whole second half of the season, to the constant reminders to Security chief Garabaldi to "watch his back". (Or in one case "You gotta learn to watch you back Micheal" in the episode TKO)Babylon 5 season one is an almost perfect model as to how to write story arc based genre fiction, one that many series attempted to imitate in the years that followed. It's a slow boil, but it warms you up just right for what is to come...
(To be continued as soon as I finish Season 2 :P)