Sunday, 29 March 2015

High Five

Twenty years ago, the future was refreshingly not like Star Trek at all 

A beacon of diplomacy and commerce, and half a decade of the best telly around.
For five years in the mid-nineties I got drawn into a TV series which, at the height of my devotion to it, became the only thing close to ever rivaling Doctor Who in my sad fan life.  Like Who, it was not like anything else on TV, could fluctuate wildly in quality, but when it was good it utterly obliterated anything else around.

This was not a good time for TV science fiction with Doctor Who seemingly gone forever after the false dawn of the 1996 TV Movie, and Paramount's increasingly dreadful, po-faced Star Trek spin-offs clogging the schedules.  And then, with very little fan-fare came the last best hope: Babylon 5.

Not taking itself too seriously was always one of Babylon 5's strengths
I was living in Britain when this show, inevitably announced as 'Star Trek with knobs on' got a couple of paragraphs in the Radio Times.  I missed the first few episodes but switched on one day out of curiosity, finding myself in the middle of a space battle of a scale previously only achievable in big screen extravaganzas.

Television effects had never been like this before
B5's revolutionary, pioneering computer generated effects hooked me first because I'm shallow, but very quickly the format and characters drew me in.  I don't want to keep knocking Trek as I will always be a fan of the original series and most of the movies, but it's inevitable as Babylon 5 could only be described as 'the antidote' to Star Trek.  Where the Paramount output became increasingly, self-consciously politically correct, (to say nothing of 'appropriating' the entire Babylon 5 concept for their charmless Deep Space Nine series), B5 presented earthy characters and gritty situations where the quality of humanity in any gender, sexuality or species was more important than the influence of self-appointed moral guardians.

Life imitated art when a small delegation of B5's actors and actresses presented themselves to Warner Bros heads when the studio tried to force them all to sign an excessively prohibitive agreement banning any behaviour deemed as  'sexual harassment'.  The cast stood idly pawing one another and explained that they didn't feel the document was 'really them'.  The ploy succeeded and filming the show became reportedly the most fun any of them had in their working lives.  In an industry infamous for it's turnaround of employees, a colossal 80% of the cast and crew stayed on for the entire run of the series.

The stories more often not parceled-up neatly in a single episode, but instead plot threads (this was the dawn of the now-common  'story arc') could span entire years.  Babylon 5 itself was created by screenwriter Joe Straczynski as a five-year novel broadcast on TV, and despite constantly fighting for survival and recognition, the series eventually achieved this goal (if not quite as intended - the five year story was condensed into four when a final series wasn't taken up, only to then have the fifth year green-lit after all, forcing Straczynski to fill that last season with largely left-over storylines). Emmy and Hugo awards, and a Bafta nomination, followed.

Working on two distinct levels the Babylon 5 concerned itself with the microcosm of fascinating characters and their ever-shifting alliances onboard a Galactic 'united nations' Space station; and secondly: the vast cosmic events gradually unfolding around them.
The first level was the show's undoubted strength, illustrated most clearly when I tried to watch an episode with my mother.  When she was trying to understand a programme she hadn't seen before, her method would be to ask, every time a character appeared, whether he was a 'goodie' or a 'baddie'. That might work for other programmes, but with this one my answer would be more along the lines of:
"Well, he was a goodie, but then became a baddie, but is possibly going to become a goodie again, depending upon what this other character, who was a baddie but is now a goodie, might do..."

The scary 'Shadow ships': Babylon 5's design aesthetic for alien hardware was often ingeniously organic.
The 'cosmic horror and biblically-proportioned conflict between good and evil' aspect worked best when hinted at and glimpsed, but the level of meticulously-built anticipation became so vast that any attempt at a pay-off could only ever fall short.  But even this wasn't always the case: the spectacular resolution of the rebellion against the corrupt Earth Government plot-line was a tense masterclass in story telling.

And here was the crux of what made this series different.  This was no cosy 'Star fleet' family where authority and command was unquestioned  - this was a dangerous future where the administration was not to be blindly trusted, but instead the individual was forced to make difficult choices for the future of humanity. Straczynski was a firm believer that history is changed by individuals - that you can fight City Hall. Babylon 5 was, if you like, the British model of science fiction television: where rebels and non-conformists like the Doctor, Roj Blake and Number Six (The Prisoner was abundantly referenced) strove to bring down the establishment, rather than being complacently part of it. Perhaps for this reason it was an enormous hit in the UK, while struggling for survival on a year-to-year basis in its own country. (Incidentally, ahead of it's time again, the single most common work referenced throughout Babylon 5 was actually The Lord of the Rings.)

Babylon 5 reached its appointed end in an episode held over for a year (filmed when the fifth season wasn't optioned), and remains an intensely emotional experience for anyone who had spent time in Straczynski's universe.  The 'Great Maker' himself (as fans referred to the show's creator) appears on-screen as an anonymous technician pulling the switch on the obsolete Babylon 5 station's lighting for the final time, before this now-designated 'hazard to shipping' is demolished in an almost balletically graceful and utterly heart-rending pyrotechnic sequence.

You will believe a special effect can make you cry
(or Christopher Franke's music, at least)

When Babylon 5 disappeared, this programme that so many people haven't even heard of left an indelible mark on television.  Shows like Lost and the rebooted Battlestar Galactica eagerly adopted Straczynski's years-long plot arc approach to their storytelling, while Paramount's Star Trek spin-offs quickly employed B5's CGI approach (and vendor) to visual effects (after initially swearing that they'd never abandon traditional model-work). Babylon 5 was the first to use the widescreen format in its production, and cinema quality audio engineering in its soundtrack. Straczynski's writing could be merciless if he decided a character, no matter how major, was to be killed off in service of the wider story - another approach which braver shows have since emulated.

There was a briefly-lived B5 'sequel' series, various stand-alone TV movies and every few years rumours of a cinematic feature re-surface.  But the reality is that two decades have passed, irreplaceable cast members have passed away and Straczynski himself has become a very busy producer and writer (working with Marvel studios and the Wachowskis among others). Babylon 5 was always conceived as a five year story, echoing the literary novel structure of 'introduction, rising action, complication, climax and denouement' - and that was exactly what we got.  As experienced lead actor Bruce Boxleitner was apparently fond of telling cast and crew when he realised his own luck: "Enjoy it while you can: this is like nothing else I've ever worked on..."

Ambassadors Londo and G'kar: Their destiny to die by one another's hand
was revealed early on - but the journey to get there was ever-changing and never predictable...

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