Friday, January 31, 2014

What I'm watching now: Babylon 5 (Season 4 No surrender, No retreat)


By 1996 Babylon 5 was a moderate success for WB and after it's initial stumbling with casting it had established itself as a major Sci-fi television serial. It had received several Hugo awards as well as Emmys for special effects, make up and cinematography. However the network was in trouble financially and JMS had the impression that the series would not be renewed after the 1996-97 season. So he decided to truncate the last two chapters of the story into one season and even ended up shooting the series finale as part of this production block. To achieve this he also performed a task not done before in television, he wrote the entire 22 episode season himself.
Now with the hindsight of history, we know that Babylon 5 got it's fifth season, but at the time JMS was faced with the possibility of his epic space opera ending a chapter short. The Shadow war, which had been building for the better part of three seasons, is wrapped up very quickly (and many think disappointingly) in the seasons first six episodes. It would seem that the nature of that major storyline's conclusion would not have been altered greatly by running the full season, more time would likely have been devoted to making the Vorlons work as villains and setting up the highly Moorcockian ending to the great war. (Humanity rejecting the gods of the past)
One of the features that JMS always boasted about in writing B5 was the concept of a "Trapdoor", and out that he had for every major character should the actor leave. He had a plan to replace any character should it become necessary and indeed several of those Trapdoors game into play as the series moved on. The one biggest criticism I can think of for the narrative of the Shadow war's final act would be the presence of the Gandelf like Lorien, a character that seemed to be the "Trapdoor" for the Shadow War's ending. Lorien is an unspeakably ancient alien who predates the Vorlons and Shadows; who acts as the principle catalyst in moving the Shadow War to its conclusion. While as a concept he may have been in JMS's original story draft, in this truncated season the character comes off as a heavy handed mcguffin who appears with little precedent to dispense answers to the plot. I have no issue at all with the philosophical ending of the War, I quite like it in principle in fact, Lorien just seemed like too elegant a solution. Especially for a series that often deliberately avoided that sort of solution. It's not to say the ending of the war is a total waste, Londo and Vir on Centari prime is a storyline that makes every minute of the first six episodes worth it. Once again Peter Jerasik, Andre Katsulous and Stephen First steal the show as they grapple with the Caligulaesque Centari Emperor Cartagia. G'kar is captured while trying to locate Mr Garabaldi, and is used by Londo as a vehicle in a plot to Assasinate the mad Emperor. All great stuff, and would have worked amazingly well at the end of the season. Sadly after the Shadow War's conclusion these three characters tend to drift a bit with nothing to do, awaiting the conclusion of Londo's destiny that would have happened in Season 5.
The remainder of the season is devoted to the civil war with earth and Sheridan's effort to liberate earth from the despotic President Clarke. As I mentioned last time, this plot arc skirts some topics and ideas that would not be possible on television after 11/9/2001. Issues of state torture, propaganda, fascism , warmongering and scapegoating "the other" all feature predominantly in this plot arc. With the heavily cut down nature of the Shadow plot arc, the Earth civil war is given much more time to breath and seems to be presented largely as intended. I personally suspect that many of the events that occur with Londo and the "legacy" of the Shadows would have originally concurred with this story arc as part of Season 5. (It makes a lot of sense as both Londo and G'kar seem stuck "between" plots a fair bit in Season 4 and 5, and the series uses that space to turn them into a slightly comic paring which I feel fails. More on that next time) The Minbari civil war plot also seems to indicate that the final chapter of Babylon 5 would have originally involved each major race dealing with the Shadow War's aftermath at home.
Like the previous season we get a lot of action not happening on the station, in particular on Mars which features very prominently. Sadly Mars has only three sets, a transport tube, the underground and Thomas Edgar's apartment; actually seeing how the Mars colonists live would have been nice and I am sure budget is to blame. This budgetary issue does afflict the Babylon 5 universe as it moves on, the majority of the Mars sets seem like reskinned Babylon station sets. One of Babylon 5's great strengths as a series is that the station seemed like a real place, it bustled and seemed lived in. Unfortunately as the series's scope expanded the new places it visited tended to be smaller and less alive, we only ever see Centari Prime from within the Palace for example. Budget is to blame and this sadly makes some of the events in Season 4 (and especially in the Spinoff Crusade) seem cheap or hockey. One of Sci Fi's greatest Achilles heels is when ambition and vision outstrip the ability of the program to present them. (AKA the Classic Doctor Who conundrum)
Despite the small let down of the Shadow War conclusion Season 4 is still a strong season, its central arc is pacy and filled with great character beats for Sheridan, Ivanova, Marcus and Garabaldi. The character movements of these season seem to do best in pairs, Sheridan vs Garabaldi, Marcus and his infatuation for Ivanova, Londo and G'kar and Delenn and the Minbari warlord Neroon. The writing for these pairings is tight and interesting, a few of the other characters like Franklin and Zac lack these oppositions and generally don't seem to grow or develop much as a result. (Though to be fair, I'm not sure what else you could do with Franklin after his addiction plotline that wouldn't lead to killing him off)
I usually pick a highlight or two and in this season it has to be episode 18 "Intersections in Real Time", a very atypical episode in that it only features Sheridan and an Earthforce interrogator more much of it's run time. It directly harkens back to Orwell's Nineteen Eighty Four and the penultimate episode of "The Prisoner"; the brilliant "Once upon a Time". It harkens back to the Next Gen episode "Chain of Command" as well, though I do find Ron D Moores version of Nineteen Eighty Four's frightening interrogation sequence not quite faceless enough. He repeats the Motif again a few times in Battlestar Galactica but it always seems to be a clash of two characters rather than one person vs the faceless system. (One is not worse than the other, it's just different character dynamic.)
The ending of the season is a strange one, the second last episode "Rising Star" is very much intended to be the second last episode of the whole series to be followed by the series finale "Sleeping in the Light" which was shot as part of Season 4. When it became apparent that Babylon 5 would be renewed for a fifth season a new season finale was made "The Deconstruction of Fallen Stars" which while a little rough as a concept is a very interesting episode in the annals of Television Sci Fi. The Science fiction story as history, or as part of a much longer history is a very old device in fiction. Dune and the Foundation series feature installments hundreds and even thousands of years apart. Possibly for the first time in Televisual media we have such a story, tracking humanity's future up to a Million years ahead. Anime had treated itself as historical document before this, presenting itself as historical tales created after the events described. SDF Macross and Gundam both do this. But they don't depict history over such vast sweeps of time as this Episode. Such movements in narrative time are usually only reserved for epilogues or situations where time can be advanced but the main cast can still operate. (Red Dwarf for example, Hundreds of years pass between some seasons but Lister is a constant)
For many Babylon 5 ends here, for us we still have another Season! Tune in next time for my trip into Babylon 5 Season 5. Is it as disappointing as I remember it? Can like the first season it be redeemed with time?




Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Year of the Doge





I have often struggled with the idea of asking for donations on this blog. I put ads up and the few cents Google grants me as stipend is more than sufficient for my heady lifestyle. I actually enjoy writing stuff and putting it up for people to read so the idea of asking for money to do it has never worked for me.
But, there is also the want to do more and higher quality work. Real life does get in the way and if there was something in this caper I would be able to do more, get stuff edited etc (Do weird things such as doing drafts like a real writer!)
But the internets have given me a happy medium between my two diametrically opposed positions on this. I will take donations from those who like what they read and want to read more. But I will only ask for said donations in Dogecoin. (If you really want to give me real money, email me, you will not be offended by refusal ;))
My wallet address is to the right>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>
So donate some Doge and keep me writing. But I'll probably write anyway.
Did I mention I was a fan of Andy Kaufman? 

Saturday, January 18, 2014

An aside; Free Babylon 5!

Now I set about re watching Babylon 5 about a month ago, totally independent of what I discovered recently was a growing movement to get the show onto television again in reruns. Warner Bros have shown little inclination beyond the initial DVD releases to keep the series in syndication.
Recently a fan movement has appeared on the internet seeking to convince television networks to rerun Babylon 5 for a new generation of fans. If you have been enjoying my re watch blogging and want to support the series in it's 20th anniversary year go to http://freebabylon5.com/ and voice your support!

Thursday, January 16, 2014

What I'm Watching Now: Babylon 5 (Season 3:The Point of no return)


One thing I haven't talked about yet which is one of my favorite aspects of the staging of Babylon 5 are the opening titles. Unlike many series, Babylon 5 had a new title sequence for each season marking off and setting the tone for each chapter to come. Each has a new monologue and also dates the series within it's fictional timeline; each season being analogous to one year of fictional chronology. I always find the opening of B5 satisfying, every time I watch it.  I'm sure it's the cinema studies student in me who recalls being told how important the opening and closing of a film is to the overall impression the film leaves. Season one and two were mostly the same, simply swapping the new lead actor into the intro and mentioning some plot advancement. For three we see the premise of the first two seasons stated and then refuted: "Babylon 5 was our last best hope for peace. It failed" showing us the evolving nature of the show. Most other shows quickly revert to the mean, but B5 is stating in its credits that the story moves on.
Recently an article on Salon talked about what television shows can learn from recent break out success Breaking Bad,  and the solution was to have an ending in mind from the beginning. This is where a lot of genre Television becomes unstuck, not having it's eye on a destination and how to get their instead pouring twist on twist and ending up with a weak unconvincing ending. Think of Battlestar Galactica's reboot (or even the original), the last two seasons of Stargate SG1 or The X files; all series that had a continuing narrative arc built in but obviously with no clear end point in mind resulting in dramatically diluted or rushed endings. Now Babylon 5 suffers from it's own issues largely due to the politics of TV, but while it is running through it's major story arc it has a pacing and momentum matched by few series because it is rushing towards an definitive end. But more on endings later, for now lets look at season 3.
After the upheavals of season 2 the cast of Babylon 5 is now mostly stable with the core four characters (Sheridan, Franklin, Ivanova and Garabaldi) and ambassador characters (Mollari, Delenn and G'kar) forming a very solid bedrock for the drama. Season 3 quickly expands on the concepts of "The coming of shadows" in its first episode "Matters of Honor". As hinted at the end of the last season the Shadows now act openly attacking worlds and helping the various races of the galaxy fight each other. While not the best episode it very skillfully sets up the themes and obstacles to come. It introduces Marcus Cole, the series first regular Ranger character. It shows us the shadows and their agents further influencing the Centari, the league of non aligned worlds as well as Earth government itself. It also finally introduces The White Star, a ship built by the Minbari to help Babylon 5 against the shadows. The introduction of the White Star is the most structurally changing element the series has brought in since replacing its lead actor, no longer is this series station bound but capable of traveling to other places to tell new and larger stories.
The season develops all of the themes from the season before, conspiracy, ancient evil, faith and hope. The character journeys push into the long dark period where they rise or fall, something that continues as a central theme of the series up until the start of Season 4. G'kar and Doctor Franklin for example go through transformations of character, falling to rock bottom but returning stronger than before. G'kar has always been played as a foil, the villain of the pilot and heroic underdog of the Narn/Centari war he starts this season on the path of bloody revenge and ends it two of his three steps towards his character's endgame rejecting the violence of a new war with the Centari and instead seeking to aid Babylon 5 against the darkness.
Season 3 has a number of stand out episode, possibly more than season 2. Not only the Messages from Earth "trilogy" of episodes (Messages from Earth, Point of No Return and Severed Dreams)but some of the best use of sound and vision in the series so far. My stand out besides the season closer (see below) is "And the rock cried out, No Hiding place", the tale of Londo's revenge against Lord Refer and a great character study episode of Londo and Vir.
In good old three act structure, this season represents the start and maybe the entirety of the story's second act. The ancient enemy is revealed at the close of season 2 but all of the true complications of the main arc appear in season 3; the succession from the Earth alliance, the rise of the Shadows and the truth about the nature of this great war. All this drives to the best season closer of the series, and one of the best of any genre show "Za'ha'dum". It is almost the perfect episode of B5, the pacing, the soundtrack, the drive towards a dark and gripping ending. The Christopher Franke electronic riff when Sheridan comes to the balcony overlooking the shadow city still gives the Krautrock fan in me chills whenever I hear it.
Seasons 2 and 3 definitely represent the peak of Babylon 5 as a storytelling vehicle, they are driven and exciting with only a little fat every now and then. Generally the plots are operatic and grand without becoming earnest or forced. The fate of the universe in many cases does hang in the balance as this show does rearrange it's fundamental tenets as the story moves on. TV hasn't quite gotten to the point at B5 where mains can be eliminated easily, but the structure below the cast can shift and change direction without resetting. Actions have consequences which generally pay off, we will get to where they don't shortly...

Till next time folks!

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Andy did you hear about this one? It's a Sunday post!



Not only Sunday but the last day of the Holidays for me. Yup seeing I have failed to either win the lottery or have a pallet of cash drop into my yard I am back at work as of tomorrow.
What have I done today? Well I really tried to enjoy the last day of freedom, shopping, made lunch for the next couple of days, listened to a lot of REM for some reason...
I've mentioned it before; REM were the first band I found on my own and as as result do have a very special place in my heart all these years later. I'm not prone to nostalgia but the Man on the Moon clip really does bring back the early 1990s for me, and then I remember how long ago that was.q.q
Enjoy, B5 season three should be up very soon... 

Friday, January 10, 2014

Keep on rolling on...

Hey guys quick update on things. Third part of Babylon 5 review/rewatch is coming and will hopefully hit the Internets Saturday or Sunday. New It rolled from the Dining room post will be up very very soon. Currently I'm working on my game for Arcanacon which is acting as a drag on the amount of time my brain wants to sit behind a keyboard.
Currently my new game "Arenas of Bahra" is sitting at almost 20,000words. Like a mini thesis really, and that is not including the background material I have written as I *have* to be special and have a custom game world for my fantasy game. (Seriously I need my head examined) The previous game "Skyships of Bahra" is also being run again so if you wanted to play and didn't you can! The game has also been re-written to make it easier to digest as the original version was a tough pill to be honest. (Plus a bit of experiment for me in presentation, not a 100% successful one to be honest)
But if you are in Melbourne and that way inclined please come down to Arcanacon and make my (and all the other writers) work not in vain.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Gee almost out of Sunday....

You know the thing about Holidays? The thing about Holidays is you never get done all you want to get done. I have a week to go in mine and still behind at a number of tasks.
One thing I haven't done is at all make any silly resolutions for 2014. So lets do that now shall we?
This year I intend to work in this space and the other blog more often. One of the main things that seem to count when blogging is being constant in creating content, and I have been terrible at that in the past. No more! I plan a post every Sunday and a post on "Tomorrows Sound" at least once a week. The gaming blog will likely get one every two weeks at the moment but I hope to pick that up, I do feel that blog is still looking for a voice...
Second I plan to start a website, one based around writing and world building for Roleplaying games. Over the years I have accumulated alot of material I have put together and feel that it should be housed somewhere for prosperity and possibly as inspiration for other people. Honestly if anyone knows away to make dollar money world building (conceptually not 3d modeling or computer game programing) please let me know, not sure it is possible based on my current locale...
Finally, on a personal note, I intend to advance myself this year. Trying to learn a language and actually taking the real job more seriously than I normally have. Career development maybe? Who can say buy would really like to break this feeling of coasting...

Till next time...

Saturday, January 4, 2014

What I'm watching now; Babylon 5 (Season 2: The Coming of Shadows)


This week we continue on what is actually a pretty epic rewatch of Babylon 5, due to the Holidays I've been able to get through 3 or so episodes a day. (Despite the 2nd season boxed set disagreeing with my DVD player...) Over the next few weeks I hope to cover the whole series and maybe the movies as well. (Watch out SPOILERS below)
Season two, entitled "The Coming of Shadows", is for at least its first half and extension of the themes and pace of the first season. This is chiefly due to the writing having to backtrack a little due to the departure of Micheal O'Hare from the lead role of Commander Jeffery Sinclair and the introduction of Bruce Boxleitner as Captain John Sheridan. In a series as tightly plotted as Babylon 5 this is no simple task as a large part of the show's first year was dedicated to developing Sinclair as a character, hinting at his Destiny and mysterious connection to the alien Minbari. So the second season represents the series reconfiguring to accommodate the new lead character so it's narrative can pick up pace towards the end to catch up.

This results in two episodes to deal with the previous year's cliffhanger "Chrysalis"; the first "Points of departure" primarily deals with the rather notable cast change and resolving (not entirely) the mystery of Sinclair's abduction during the Earth/Minbari war. The second attends to the loose ends presented in the previous season cliffhanger, Garabaldi's fate, Delenn emerging from the chrysalis and Londo's extended dealings with the mysterious Mr Morden. In my experience this is the place most fans actually entered the series at, and it requires minimal backtracking to "get" the narrative by coming in at the start of the second season. (Which I understand is something Network TV likes, as heavily narrative series tend to be seen as "locking out" new viewers. Hence the reason many series like BSG often had strange non arc episodes stuck in the middle of seasons 3 and 4)
Season two as an introduction to the series is also helped by Bruce Boxleitner's John Sheridan who brings the charisma of a more traditional leading man to the role as opposed to O'Hare's brooding more complex Sinclair.
Once the season hits its ninth episode, the titular one for the season, the real arc for the year is unleashed. The Narn/Centari war is very much the warm up for the conflict that is regularly foreshadowed in the series narrative, it is both a conflict of nations and of characters as it is the axis that G'Kar and Londo Mollari's character relationship and the Earth alliance conspiracy plotline pivots on. It is generally a very nice war narrative, not bogged down in particulars just the effects of the conflict and the motivation surrounding it. Peter Jerasik's Mollari is definitely the stand out regular cast member of the season (and I'd argue the next as well); his characterization and writing is deep and conflicted. He is man who wishes not only the glory days of his republic, but his own youth, restored and does so via the malicious and manipulative Djinni in Morden. But he is also ultimately a man who is terrified of the results of his actions, the blood that must be spilled to feed the Djinni disgusts him no matter how much he desires the results. Mollari is also contrasted by two other characters, his aide Vir who has the youth he wants but has no desire for power or glory and Lord Refa who is the political animal Mollari wants to be without the conscience. His rise is one of this season's real pleasures to watch, all tainted by what we and he know will be his inevitable downfall.

Season two also deals with a major plot element that makes it a difficult tale to retell in our culture post 2001. The seeds of mistrust of authority sewn in the first season are regularly revisited with the revelation that the death of the Earth alliance president may have been assassinated in what was in reality a Psy-corp backed military coup. The Earth Alliance of Babylon 5 is very much a proxy for the United States, waxing between expansionist and isolationist and slowly coming under the grip of ultra-authoritarian elements. The tale of Earth in Babylon 5 is one of a culture that slowing goes mad after the twin shocks of the Minbari war and the death of their president. The rise of the Nightwatch, the Psycorp and the new "Ministry of Peace" (nod to Orwell) is a analogy of how easy it is for a democracy to become a fascist state and is steeped in imagery from Orwell, the Illuminatus trilogy and Patrick Mcgoohan's "The Prisoner".

Season two also continues the first's attempt to approach television sci-fi from a different angle than it had been approached before. Our characters are quite flawed for the most part, their actions are not always demonstrated as being correct or even just. Choices are made, not always the correct ones and the consequences of these choices provide new story elements for the long form narrative. Doctor Franklin is most emblematic of this, a deeply flawed man who is a brilliant medical doctor. While he is shown as capable he is also an overworked depressive whose flaws regularly creep into his bedside manner. His true test comes late in the season in the episode "Confessions and Lamentations", where he faces what could be called a true "Kobyashi Maru"; a no win scenario. In that episode an minor race, the Markab, start presenting a mysterious and deadly illness. The illness quickly spreads through the whole population of Markab aboard the station who see it as a spiritual affliction rather than physical and refuse aid. The story has Franklin working with a Markab doctor to try to find a cure or treatment; and when he thinks he has found one it is too late, the Markab are dead and with the virus also present on their homewold the race faces unavoidable extinction.  This episode is very brave for the normal sci-fi show format, where normally this sort of crisis is gone in the flash of a macguffin by the last few scenes. (usually just as the time runs out..) This episode presents the event as test of character for the Doctor as well as for Delenn and her aide Lennir who opt to tend to the ill rather than a puzzle to be solved or overcome.

The second season is also important as it expands many of the concepts from the start of the series. It reveals the Vorlon ambassador Kosh's appearance. (Kinda) It names the foe that is constantly hinted at. (The Shadows) It resolves the conflict between the Narn and Centari and moves the show towards its next stage. (The oft mentioned Shadow War) That is this show's great strength, the pace and consistency with which it moves it's story along. Season two and the following season "The Point of No return" represent this series at the height of its popularity and quality.

Till next time...