Thursday, February 27, 2014

What I'm Watching Now: Babylon 5 (The story continues and conclusions)

In many ways season 5 of Babylon 5 had a different feel from it's proceeding seasons. While seasons 1 to 4 were rocketing towards a building conclusion, season 5 felt (as I mentioned last time) much more open and unresolved. That was because network changes had opened the possibility of spinning the series off into a franchise much in the same way "Star Trek the Next Generation" had been. Season 5 was very much "Book 2, Chapter 1" in the Babylon 5 franchise; it had a new villain (The Drakh), new characters and a new direction set in the same universe.
After the series conclusion TNT network produced and released four Babylon 5 TV movies and started work on the first spin off "Crusade". Over the past few weeks I have watched the four movies, Crusade may be on the cards for a later date and will get it's own article if I do. The movie quality was actually much better than I remember...

Movie 1: In the Beginning
I remember this one being incredibly anticipated at the time of its release, and it doesn't disappoint for the most part. The story of the Earth/Minbari war reuses a fair bit if footage from the series but adds enough extra material to make it a very worthy watch. The SFX production is some of the best the franchise has done, with the battle of the line a truly epic event. (We are talking hundreds of ships on screen at once) Some of the story additions are a little suspect as is often the case with prequels, Sheridan, Franklin and G'kar going on a secret mission, meeting a Ranger and getting captured by the Minbari for example probably would have changed the way the characters interacted in the Season 2 opener. (Like I'm pretty sure Franklin acted like he was meeting Sheridan for the first time in that ep)
 But it is a well paced and interesting story despite being one who's great secret (The reason for the Minbari surrender) is well covered by the series. Enough other character moments are in there to keep it entertaining, allowing the viewer to look past the inevitable nature of the story's resolution. The movie is framed in a wonderful way as well, the story is told by Londo to two children in the Centari royal court as he awaits seeing Sheridan and Delenn (and G'kar) during the flash forward in Season 3's "War without end" 

Movie 2: Thirdspace
The second movie is a stand alone adventure focusing on the themes of ancient Lovcraftian horror in the Babylon 5 universe. What makes it doubly awesome is that all the alien designs were done by Wayne Douglas Barlowe , possibly my favorite Sci Fi artist. It's a good solid SF story, and it is also good to see Ivanova back on screen (she has a tiny part in In the Beginning as well) in a major way. Sheridan also preempts Picard in the Next Gen movies by boarding and destroying the evil super weapon at the end.

Movie 3: River of Souls
River of Souls is a weird one, and not a film I had good memories of. On a re-watch many years later it actually stands up better than I remembered it. A story expanding on the Soul Hunters of the first season of B5 this film not only features Martin Sheen but also Ian McShane (TV's Lovejoy and Al Swearengen from Deadwood) who really does steal the show. This is also very much a debut for the "Nu Crew" of the station, with Garabaldi the only old main cast appearing as himself. (Franklin appears in a vision had by Lochley)

Movie 4: A Call to Arms
Effectively the pilot for the spin off "Crusade", A Call to Arms is a very odd movie. No strictly bad, but it has a very different feel than the series and movies that came before it and I do feel that is to it's detriment. It follows John Sheridan, aged and still president, stealing the new Alliance battleship Excalibur (From the alliance) to combat an attack on Earth by the Drakh who have deployed the only remaining Shadow Planet Killer to the task. New incidental music, a very different style of direction and editing as well as a new cast of characters. (Of which two and one minor character make the jump to Crusade) As a movie it lacks a lot of the tension that Babylon 5 was able to create at its high points, and I'm not sure if that is the writing or the new score's fault.

"A Call to Arms" was the set up for the first spinoff series "Crusade". It ends with the Drakh spreading a plague over the Earth causing it to be quarantined. The highly advanced plague will kill all human life on Earth in 5 years, setting up for the Yamatoeque quest of the Crusade TV series.
(The sadly ill fated TV series, as it got almost half a season..)

There have been two other Spin off attempts over the years, currently nether has been successful at getting Babylon 5 back on Television. Legend of the Rangers was a pilot that failed to get picked up, depicted a rag tag crew of Rangers facing off against a mysterious foe "The Hand" aka the aliens from Third Space. While the Ranger series is a nice idea, the idea of a "rag tag bunch of underdogs" who also are part of an elite quasi religious order didn't hang together well imho. (That and the really stupid VR battle bridge that the ship had, that required the helm officer to punch and kick to fire ship weapons. No wonder that class of vessel was discontinued)

The third and most recent was "Babylon 5: The Lost Tales" a pair of short episodes set in the B5 universe. The Lost tales aren't bad, but they are low budget and sit strangely in the continuity of the show. Like all the attempted spin offs the Lost Tales lack the dynamic tension that Babylon 5 was able to build up over its first four seasons.

Currently there are no concrete plans for more Lost Tales or other B5 spin offs, there is a strong online campaign; Free Babylon 5, to get the original series back on Television. Babylon 5 is a bit of an unremembered precursor to today's very cinematic television, along with Twin Peaks and the X files it was part of Genre TV's coming of age in the early 1990s. The multi season story arc, the "5 year plan" and the heavy use of foreshadowing as a dramatic device were very much introduced to genre TV though Babylon 5. Shows like Lost, Breaking Bad and Battlestar Galactica have very much followed in the footsteps of Babylon 5.

I for one hope that we see more shows in the Babylon 5 universe in the coming years, we already have a large comic book, roleplaying game and novel based universe to fill in all the gaps of the original series but one longs to see Babylon 5 revisit the small screen again. At this stage 20 years on the main cast is probably too old, and has a number of notable absences now, for a direct sequel to the series. But I for one would not object to something "Next Gen" style, some time in the future in a new universe. Very much what Legend of the Rangers was going for, but a little more grounded in presentation. At the very least a remastered version of the series would be amazing.

Till next time

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Sunday Night

Hey hey all you readers in interweb land.
So I have decided to do Dune (two and a half versions) as the next series, should be an interesting ride through cinematic almosts.
My time is tight over the next fortnight as I am working on a monstrous Roleplaying project that will be run as part of a weekend event for Caligo Mundi. So my typing will be largely diverted to my game "The Oni's Smile" over that time. But I do intend to finish off the Babylon 5 series with an overview article on the movies and spin offs. (Watch this space)

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Sunday Sunday Sunday (What do you want me to watch and write about?)

It's been a few weeks, definitely a period of time has passed. I have one chapter, an appendix if you will, to the Babylon 5 review series to come and then I'll be looking for more things to watch should life be kind and give me the time.
So teetering a bit on what I should do as a "What I'm watching now" next, any suggestions? With the documentary on Jodorowsky's Dune hitting DVD soon I was thinking of that as the next series. (Lynch's, the mini series and then the doco) But totally open to suggestions as always. Just remember I usually do season by season or version vs version reviews, I just don't have the time to do episode by episode recaps at this moment in time. (Provide me with an alternate source of revenue and then we can talk though :P) More when inspiration strikes!

Friday, February 14, 2014

Babylon 5 Reviews listed

So I have finished the great Babylon 5 rewatch, a grande endeavor it was as well. In fact my admiration for the show has only grown after watching it almost half a decade after the last time I had. I am going to do a short appendix on the various spin offs next week, no plans to do an *actual* rewatch of Crusade yet but have been watching the movies again.
For ease of reference (esp since this project started in December) here is a list of all five season reviews.

Season 1: Signs and Portents
Season 2: The Coming of Shadows
Season 3: Point of no return
Season 4: No surrender, No retreat
Season 5: The Wheel of fire
Crusade and the Television movies

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

What I'm watching now: Babylon 5 (Season 5: The Wheel of Fire)

Well it's time for the season that almost wasn't, season 5. The great lesson of Babylon 5 is that while sticking to the plan is tricky it is ultimately rewarding. As I've already mentioned JMS had a series of trapdoor contingencies for actors and plots, these small changes were really just course correction elements, the plan ultimately unchanged. (For example Sinclair left and Sheridan was shifted into his role. Sheridan then went on to do the stuff Sinclair would have done had Micheal O'hare stayed on with the series.) The existential crisis that truncated season 4, the fact that the WB was in financial distress and was likely to cancel the series, broke the 5 year plan. JMS was forced to wrap up the primary story arcs in year 4, effectively putting much of the fifth season out of the scope of the five year plan. Other things changed as well, Babylon 5 was a hit so the series was not only granted a fifth year but a chance to do more on another network. Four telemovies were commissioned and a spin off series for the TNT network was put into motion as well, so season 5 is in many ways a launch pad for the ill fated Babylon 5 spin offs as much as it is a conclusion to the show.
Before I go on with the inevitable Season 5 bashing (you all know it's gonna happen) there is one thing about this season I have to commend. My favorite title sequence of the whole series. It is a great final season title, looking back at the whole series it never fails to make me a little fluttery inside hearing Koch say "And so it begins" at the start of each episode...

Season 5 sadly is a game of disappointing expectations, picking up on two major plot threads that were left dangling at the end of season 4. These plots neatly divide the season into two major arcs, the second one I actually quite like. The first is the foreshadowing of the Telepath war, represented by the character of Byron. Byron is a rogue telepath who attempts to set up a colony of human Telepaths free of the Psy-corp on Babylon 5. (Needless to say this does not go well) I remember during the first run of the series just disliking the character, as many online did at the time. On this rewatch I actually found the character quite confusing, it is difficult to figure out just how we are supposed to feel about him and his quest. Byron is depicted as a quasi messianic figure surrounded by a largely silent group of followers, in many ways his plight is sympathetic, but in many other ways it has all the classic hallmarks of a cult. His people almost never talk, only communicating via telepathy, they are devoted to him unto death, they shun support from Dr Franklin when offered, and they do everything to exclude themselves from the rest of the human race. When learning of the true origins of Telepaths from Lyta (that they are all engineered by the Vorlons as weapons against the Shadows) he decides it is vital they press his wish for a home world for Telepaths, so they scan and try to blackmail all of the alien ambassadors. Naturally this goes badly but is an incredibly malicious act for a peace loving character to perform especially in a series that has noted how dangerous and traumatic unauthorized scans can be. The story is obviously supposed to be, man with good intentions goes bad for the sake of his ideals. But the creepy cultish nature of Byron's Telepaths goes someway towards subverting that reading. Not only that, to make the plot work they have to tweak the way Telepaths have worked in the past. If you saw this season in isolation you would almost think that no other races had Telepaths apart from humans, even though it was established in the pilot that the Narn wanted Telepath DNA to breed Telepaths to give them a defense against exactly the sort of thing Byron was planning to do! So if G'kar was afraid of this military use of Telepaths (and it's also been established that Centari Telepaths do this sort of thing for cash) why don't all the governments already have something in place to stop this sort of casual surface scanning to get secrets? Seeing as it is an established "thing" in this universe?
It probably also doesn't help Byron that his uncertain writing is paired against Walter Koenig's brilliant Alfred Bester. Of all of the series guest stars, Bester is the most consistently well written and performed and Koenig is really able to sell his character's unwavering faith in his own ideology so well that you can't really be blamed for rooting just a little for his bloodhound units as they hunt the "blips" on B5...
The other big and rather disappointing addition is Captain Lochley, with the departure of Ivanova at the end of Season 4 a new captain was needed for the station as she was the logical successor to the now President Sheridan. Lochley sadly is little more than a clone of Ivanova, a tough no nonsense female officer who we aren't given quite enough time to get to know. She very much feels like she is filling in an empty place on the show rather than bringing anything new, even her deep dark secret isn't all that deep or dark. (Would have been much more interesting if she had fought for Clarke's side during the war as was a red herring) Because she is new she gets little development in the season's much better second half, as most of that action is focused on the Alliance and bringing the more established characters to resolution.
The second half of the series, the titular Wheel of Fire, is for the most part very well paced and plotted. It is the sad tale of the fall on Londo Mollari and Centari Prime that had been hinted since Season one and in my opinion was probably originally intended to run somewhat parallel the war with earth as the series final chapter. The only issue in my mind occurs is when JMS attempts to tease the proposed follow up series "Crusade", leaving several elements of the story unresolved. The second last episode "Objects at rest" is very bad for that. First we get Lenir, hurt from watching his beloved Delenn marry Sheridan, commit the most pissweak "betrayal" I can recall. (After it being foreshadowed earlier in the season) He decides not to help Sheridan during an engine room accident on the White Star, leaves but then thinks best of it and comes back, only to run away again. Betrayal needs some malice to it, and this really was lacking much emotion besides the formally fine character having a bit of a tantrum. Also supremely frustrating is the final scene with Londo visiting Minbar. The tragedy of his last visit, him hoping that he could get drunk with his friends so he could share what he knew about the Drakh's secret conquest of Centari Prime, only to be hit by the fact that the Minbari can't consume Alcohol. Tragic and brilliant, less so with the cliff hanger that the scene leaves us on. Londo delivers a urn for Delenn and Sheridan's first born containing a Drakh keeper, the results of which we never learn because it's the last episode besides "Sleeping in the Light". It's a blatant "watch Crusade to see what happens" ending.
This season also includes the intended ending for season 4 "Sleeping in the Light", the very last episode in the Babylon 5 story. It is set 19years in the future with Sheridan facing his final demise after being resurrected by Lorian on Za'Ha'dum. It's an ok episode, really a prolonged goodbye to the series and its characters and little more. It seems a little out of joint after season 5, as many of the plot developments (like Lochley not being there) seemingly forgotten about. The glaring one is what happened to their son and the Keeper? Is Centari Prime still full of Drakh? Did the Centari rejoin the alliance under Vir? What happened in the Telepath War? What Happened to Lenir? All things that may not have been asked if this episode proceeded season 4, but vital questions after season 5 as they had just spent 21 episode making us care about these events.
Sadly Season 5 is a bit of a sour note for the series, it has some great elements in it but for some reason is just incapable of pulling them together.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Sunday post

Holy crap. is an all girl Denpa band from (you guessed it) Japan who are famous for their cover of the Beastie Boy's classic "Sabotage"
You can read more about that here.
The video above is staring in their very own 70s style moustachioed cop show set in San Fransisco. Seriously, Hollywood, why the fuck are you bothering with Batman vs Superman when this could be made into a film. *Sigh* Priorities people. 

Friday, February 7, 2014

So, I think the world is now ready for Jerry Cornelius

(B5 will be back soon, Season 5 is proving to be harder to binge watch...)

I wrote a mostly coherent series of articles not too long ago about the death of canon in popular genre fiction. One of the things that motivated that introspection was my dissatisfaction with the current state of one of my favorite franchises; Doctor Who. I came to realize that it was ok that the Nu Who was not the same as the Classic Who that I love so much. Texts do not have an obligation to remain consistent with texts written by different authors on the same topics/characters.
The 50th anniversary of Doctor Who gave us a couple of things to digest, first a quite furious debate about who should be Matt Smiths replacement, and a (in my mind) cementing of the fact that this Doctor Who is a distinct character in many ways from the one I grew up with.
I have spoken to many fans who the Nu series, many who have not seen the Classic series and like Doctor Who for their own distinct reasons. My view of the Doctor has always been as a low level but heroic cosmic meddler, he enters situations as the outsider who is distrusted but perseveres though wit and genius. He is not a character with many "powers" beyond his intelligence; (a trait I like in my heroes, I admire Sherlock Holmes for the same reason) , his mentalism is minor, he can regenerate his body (although that is never really used as a plot point) upon extreme injury, he has a respiratory bypass system (ie he can hold his breath a long time) and of course the Sonic Screwdriver. Even the TARDIS is rarely used as a plot point in Classic Who, it is more a gateway to the story for the Doctor and his companions. Naturally these are played up more in the Nu series, in particular the Regeneration and Sonic Screwdriver. The Nu Doctor is a Pansexual lonely Messiah, who appears in all places and all times. He is not a character who generally needs to gain credibility from the people he meets as he has a reputation that proceeds him. (He more often than not now needs to deal with people's fear of him or the Time Lords)
Now this is my opinion which holds just as much authority as any other person with too much time, a keyboard and a net connection; but I think the character that Nu Who fans want subconsciously is not the Classic Doctor at all. It's Micheal Moorcock's Eponymous anti-hero Jerry Cornelius.
Now I love Jerry Cornelius, he is one of my most favorite literary constructs, Moorecock's eternal champion work boiled down into one insanely cool entity. I and many actually good authors have used him or aspects of him in derived works as Moorecock put the character out there as a sort of open source protagonist. (Although he did take exception to Grant Morrison's Gideon Stargrave for following his formula too closely. I'm unsure if he was right there...)
We now live in the age of the Internet, of mashups, gender swaps and a movement towards a more inclusive and plastic popular culture. The retelling of The Hobbit with a total gender swapped cast gaining attention is a peak indication that this phenomena is starting to become very much part of the culture.
Cornelius as a character is all that and a bag of crisps, in fact I can think of few better poster children for the neo-plastic popular culture that we now see ourselves moving into. Cornelius is gender morphing, non bound by sexuality, time and dimension mobile and a Messianic avatar of the time he is written in. Most of the most famous works in his series are very heavily steeped in the 1960s and 70s, hence the characters often seen connection to the drug culture of the time. The Cornelius of the classic quartet of novels is still a little out there even for today's fan, the reoccurring masochistic and incestuous relationship with his sister Catherine for example. But the metafictional Jerry Cornelius finds popular culture gravitating towards him, Moorcock even included a more distinctly feminine reflection of Cornelius in his work in the character of Una Persson who would not only appear as Jerry's lover but often would best him for the affections of Catherine. (In "The Condition of Muzak" for example)
It would seem Cornelius is a character who's time has come as "he" already has so many of the aspects that fans want in a fictional character. The plasticity to fit into any place and time, to be anyone. Much in the same way at the Doctor is seen as a great post modern character, though he is shackled by decades of canon and fan expectation. (Hense why the female Doctor thing tends to spark passionate debate on the intertubes. Something John Nathan Turner joked about to vex die hard fans in the 1980s still vexes today)
So as pop culture moves away from its segmented origins and becomes one greater meta-plastic mess of fiction, crossovers, swaps and switches, it is time for Jerry Cornelius.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Sunday post so late it's Monday!

Did anyone mention it was hot? The fact that my PC is in a hotter part of the house seems to slow my posting during Melbourne's recent heat, I still can't write properly on a mobile device. But the lounge and the big n'cheap TV is air conned so much watching has been done. Babylon 5 season 5 is almost done, it's been a hard slog I have to say. Binged "Orange is the New Black" Season 1 and was indeed very pleasantly surprised; proof that Americans can do black comedy well.
What's for this week? Well hopefully finish B5 so I can move onto the Movies, writing another gaming project that will consume my time and energy too soon after that last, and more stuff for the gaming blog is on the way :)
Thanks for the patience and the response to the B5 reviews, your clicks keep me writing stuff.