Saturday, July 12, 2008

Review - Babylon 5: "The Coming of Shadows" and "Severed Dreams"

Babylon 5: "The Coming of Shadows" and "Severed Dreams"
Respectively 1996 and 1997 Hugo Winners for Best Dramatic Presentation

My how times have changed. Just ten years after the show has come to an end Babylon 5 has gone from being the television show for nerds to a footnote. There's good reason for that, the property has not been managed well since the series ended and other shows have taken the ideas and format of Babylon 5 and taken them further.

Do this: name one television show before Babylon 5 that was a high concept program with planned out story arcs for the season (so starting in 1993). A few of you might have remembered a season of Doctor Who where they did this, a bit of Blake's Seven, and even The Prisoner arguably entered that territory. A couple of you going outside the box might have pointed to anime which has a long standing tradition of this. On American television, though I am unaware of a single example since nighttime soaps are not "high concept" and rarely planned their arcs for an extended period. I won't hold Babylon 5 responsible for this paradigm shift in television but they were right on the forefront along with X-Files in this revolution. But unlike most television shows that use this model now Babylon 5 was plotted out for the entire series.

That makes a dramatic difference in viewing. The X-Files may have been continuity heavy but wasn't plotted in advance. Buffy may have used season long arcs but viewing the show as a whole story has problems. Babylon 5 was one of the first shows that rewarded obsessive viewing as details and hints were buried everywhere.

Adding to that Babylon 5 hit right at the beginning of the Internet revolution. It was the first show I followed closely online through the newsgroup rec.arts.sf.babylon5.moderated. The show's creator was the first one I know of to take advantage of the technologies and communicated with fans on a daily basis online.

What you have then is a recipe for an obsessive fandom which would drive the votes for the two Hugo victories. Not that either episode that won is not worthy but they do not stand on their own. I'd like to recommend watching the entire series but those early episodes when the cards were being played close to the chest its harder to overlook the show's flaws. Things picked up dramatically toward the end of the second season when the show's creator began an unparalleled achievement in prime time drama of writing over fifty consecutive episodes. The only two people to receiving writing credits after season two are this obscure short story writer named Harlan Ellison who provided a concept and comic book nerd and Duran Duran biographer Neil Gaiman. The fact that Babylon 5 may be the only television series where it can be said that an auter was running it may contribute to the fact that its story arc holds together much better than the majority of problems that have followed in its wake.

So enough about the process of the show that made it special, let's get to the details. Babylon 5 was announced as the U.N. in space, a story of humans dealing with several competing alien government in the wake of a war against a superior alien force that surrendered when the Earth was at their mercy. I recall when the show started the concept was generally mocked by people who couldn't see a television show in politicking aliens. The show's opening told you that the space station that gave the show the title was the "last, best hope for peace" and where was the fun in that?

"The Coming of Shadows", the first of the Hugo winning episodes was also the first episode that revealed what the show would do. Mysterious hostile aliens had been brief appearances in the series and opened negotiations with one of the major governments. The dying leader of that government comes to Babylon 5 for one last mission of peace but his political opposition senses a power vacuum coming and moves to take advantage of it.

The reason that this episode is particularly notable is that we find out that the "last, best hope for peace" was a fool's hope. Babylon 5 wasn't the "U.N. in space", it was the League of Nations in space.l It's one of the two major turning points in the series where the premise and easy solutions are abandoned. When the majority of shows are governed by having things return to the status quo each week it was a dramatic change.

The other of those moments, appropriately enough is "Severed Dreams" where an increasing xenophobic and McCarthy-esque Earth government declares martial law and starts attacking break away colonies. The officers on Babylon 5 have evidence of conspiracy at the highest levels and knowing that the of government so they choose to declare independence and a civil war begins.

This episode splits the series cleanly in half and concludes the abandoning of the premises that the series started with. Neither of these changes were abrupt, they were heavily foreshadowed over the course of the entire series. And they represent what made Babylon 5 special even if ten years down the line everyone is special just like them.