Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Alas, Babylon

At my brother's prompting, my family and I have gone back and re-watched that seminal 90s SF phenomenon, Babylon 5. Now that I'm nearly at the end of the show's four-season run* I find myself having to rethink my assessment of it. Up until now, I've always thought of B5 as a better-than-average show with a poor first season, an execrable fifth season, and three deeply flawed yet ultimately successful middle seasons. And as it turns out, I was wrong, because Babylon 5, from beginning to end, both sucks and blows.

I suspect this is something a lot of people already knew--people who watched the show when they were older than 15, the age I was when I became a fan, and people who have gone back to it in the intervening years. More than anything else, Babylon 5 is a show for teenagers. The overblown dialogue, the broad humor, the melodramatic plots, the frequent monologues and speeches, and just in general the show's palpable sense of its own profundity must have been irresistible to the teenage set--to viewers looking for something grand and inspiring who weren't too interested in, or capable of, noticing the bad writing and obvious plotting. Who but a teenager, after all, could watch an EarthGov representative, who has just negotiated a non-aggression treaty with the patently evil Centauri, blissfully announce that "we will finally have peace in our time" without rolling their eyes? Who else would put up with entire paragraphs from 1984 being turned into dialogue for Night Watch representatives?

Come back to the show ten years later, however, with a bit more experience under your belt and with the genre television landscape having undergone a profound change (one that Babylon 5 was at least partly responsible for) and the whole thing looks rather pathetic. When I went looking for negative opinions about B5 I naturally started with that pithy curmudgeon of genre television, Andrew Rilstone, but sadly he went the succinct route. He did, however, point me towards this intriguing critique of the series by Nick Eden (written near the end of the fourth season):
The problem is that there is a single mind driving the entire show. That single mind, belonging to J. Michael Straczynski, is thinking up every idea, overseeing all the production and writing every script. And that single mind isn't up to it. The single mind that should be providing creative vision to the show is doing everything. The single mind is trying to see both the fine detail and the big picture at the same time, and as we all know, trying to do that means you don't get to do either very well and you get a splitting headache out of it.

What's actually happened is that the big picture dominates everything, drives every episode, every sub-plot, but at the same time there hasn't been enough time to make that big picture work when you get down to the detail. A conventional writing arrangement probably does things better - if the single guiding intellect is able to just get on and guide then he's got the time to make sure that the stories being told by the individual writers work as stories and fit into the bit picture.

But that's not how it goes on Babylon 5, because everything's being done by one man. One man who lacks either the time, the ability or the vision to see any single episode of Babylon 5 as anything more than a tiny segment of a five year story. He doesn't see stories, or characters, just pawns that are part of a greater whole. Individual characters are routinely sacrificed because the Plot demands that they go and do something, never mind that it doesn't fit with what they were doing a couple of weeks ago. Episodes don't have beginnings or middles or ends. They are just scenes in a tapestry. If you've not been watching from the start then you'd better not risk starting now. There are no jumping on points, only "bugger this for a game of soldiers, I'm going to bed" points.
Which, when I come to think of it, is fairly accurate. Take "In the Shadow of Z'ha'dum", one of the most important episodes in the second season--Sheridan discovers the connection between Morden and his wife, and Delenn and Kosh are forced to reveal to him the upcoming conflict with the Shadows. In the episode's final act, Sheridan is faced with a dilemma: if he releases Morden, he might lose his only chance of discovering exactly what happened to his wife, but keeping Morden in prison might cause the Shadows to attack sooner than they had planned, before the army of light can marshall their forces and mount a defense.

Sheridan's choice to release Morden is a pivotal moment for the character--by doing so, he is committing himself to the fight against the Shadows and making the first of many painful sacrifices to that cause. It's a decision reached with the help of a history lesson: as Sheridan tells Zack, during WWII Churchill chose not to evacuate a city he knew was about to be bombed by the Germans in order not to reveal that the Allies had cracked the German codes. If we're to believe Straczynski, Sheridan's situation parallels Churchill's--both men were forced to make a painful sacrifice in order to ensure the greater good. But, of course, the two situations aren't even remotely comparable. Churchill was forced to choose between the certain death of thousands of his citizens if he didn't order the evacuation and the possible subjugation of his entire country if the Germans changed their codes and the Allies lost the war. Sheridan is forced to choose between personal vengeance and the fate of the entire galaxy. Neither decision is easy, but only Sheridan's has an obvious right choice. In other words, Sheridan makes one of the most important choices of his life because he's a bad historian, and the fact that Straczynski expects us not to notice this--the fact that he seems not to have noticed it himself--indicates a sloppiness in his writing that tracks with Eden's view of him as a big picture man who can't, or won't, erect a proper foundation for the towers in his mind.

Or take Londo Molari, one of the most important characters on the show. According to Straczynski, Londo is a tragic figure--motivated by the desire to see his people regain their place as a major galactic power, Londo gives the Shadows a foothold on his planet and in its government, and soon finds himself in over his head as they begin setting up his species for a massive fall. And I'm sorry, but that's not what's showing up on screen. The Londo we see is a horrible person, who knowingly does horrible things for reasons which are, OK, vaguely honorable** but still not a sufficient excuse, and his exploitation by the Shadows can only be explained by his having the political instincts of a stunned wombat, which is plainly not the case. Londo is a mass of contradictions--one moment he's cringing at the bombardment of the Narn homeworld, and the next he's congratulating Vir for personally orchestrating the deaths of thousands of Narns (in reality, Vir has smuggled the Narns to safety, a grave disappointment to Londo)--which in the real world would suggest not a complicated personality but a sociopathic one, but in Londo's case is yet more evidence of a lack of attention to detail on the writer's part.

But I think it's giving Straczynski too much credit to suggest that there was something inherently wrong with the way Babylon 5's production was organized--to suggest, in other words, that any other person, working under the same restrictions as Straczynski, would have produced sup-bar work. Because J. Michael Straczynski is not only a talentless hack, he's a talentless hack who truly believes himself to be God's gift to the writing profession (go read some of his comments on The Lurker's Guide to Babylon 5--just pick an episode at random. I dare you not to come away from them feeling that Straczynski has an ego the size of China). In almost every respect, Straczynski failed Babylon 5.

He failed as a writer of dialogue. His humorous scenes were as wooden and posed as an episode of Gilligan's Island, his dramatic scenes invariably descended into monologues, and both were as far from realistic as it's possible to get. He failed as a director--apart from the CGI battles, B5 had a static, lifeless look. It's probably not fair to blame him for the show's paltry effects budget and for working at the very forefront of CGI (although some of the Vorlon ships look like they belong in a screen-saver), but he certainly failed to make Babylon 5 look like a real place--inside and out, it was textureless. He failed in his casting decisions***, and, having cast his actors, he failed to give them believable character arcs or decent direction****.

And yet.

If I hate the show so much, why did I love it ten years ago, and why have I breezed through it again now, constantly eager for the next installment of the story? Why does the fifth season make me so angry if I think so little of the previous four? For all its many failures, there is something to Babylon 5. I can't put my finger on it--maybe it's just that unearned sense of profundity, getting to me as thoroughly now as it did when I was a callow teenager--but I care about this world. I may be cracking snarky comments every five minutes, but when it comes down to it, and the music swells and the heroes strike their pose and the lovers are reunited, I'm touched, and I want more. I can't stand any of the parts, but I still love the whole.

Maybe it's nostalgia. Maybe Babylon 5 is like a piece of marching music--you know you're being manipulated, but the drums bypass your brain and head straight for your stomach and your legs and your heart. Maybe, in the midst of all the crap he poured into that show, Straczynski concealed a heart of gold without even knowing how he did it.

It occurred to me recently that, in about 20 years, I'm going to start seeing revivals and reimaginings of shows that were seminal to my adolescence. Farscape: The Next Generation, the new Friends, a gritty, realistic X-Files. Maybe, in much the same way that Ronald D. Moore has extracted the beating heart of something as campy as the original Battlestar Galactica and transplanted it into a better, smarter body, someone will come around one day who can take whatever it was about Babylon 5 that worked, the core of the story that's still bringing me back, and give it the treatment that J. Michael Straczynski couldn't.

It was the best of shows, it was the worst of shows. We deserved better, but I can't quite write it off.

UPDATE: Some more thoughts about the end of the fourth season.

----------------------------------------------------------------------

* Fifth season? What is this fifth season of which you speak? Oh, you mean the fifth season in which Ivanova was dumped and replaced by Cat from Lois and Clark, who just happened to be Sheridan's heretofore unheard-of first wife? The fifth season in which Lyta acted like a complete ninny over some over-bred, long-haired Marcus-wannabe? The fifth season in which G'Kar finally made the transition from fascinating would-be saint to bloviating bore, who couldn't give you the time of day without making a speech out of it? The fifth season in which Garibaldi, still traumatized from having been mind-raped in the previous season, crawled back into the bottle and none of his so-called friends even noticed? The fifth season in which Lennier went from an interesting, multi-layered character to your standard best friend who loses the female lead to the virile male lead, and because he is an intellectual and a weakling, uses violence inappropriately (of course intellectuals can't be trusted to use violence responsibly) to get revenge, just so that he could redeem himself by dying nobly in the 'David meets the Drakh' arc which we're never going to see because it happens fifteen years in the frikking future? That fifth season? Never happened.

** Inasmuch as "the Narns have offended my sense of racial pride and therefore they should be subjugated, oppressed, killed off by the thousands, humiliated, and generally made to suffer" can be considered an honorable motive.

*** Although, admittedly, it would have been a rare thespian who could have made something watchable out of Straczynski's dialogue--only Andreas Katsulas and Peter Jurasik consistently managed to weave gold out of the straw they were given--let's not forget that this is the man who thought Michael O'Hare could carry an entire series on his back.

**** My personal favorite is the Ivanova/Talia relationship. I'm willing to stipulate that between the beginning of the first season and the end of the second season, when Talia's dormant spy personality was activated, overriding her own, these two developed a friendship. But a romantic relationship? Where the hell did that come from, and how are we supposed to buy it when the two actresses look as if they're making small talk in the DMV line?

46 comments:

Anonymous said...

I was never a B5 fan, but I am very interested in writing and the creative proceess.

There is nothing wrong with writing for teenagers. Warren Ellis once commented that the Sandman by Neil Gaiman was in fact such a breakthrough because it is directed at teenagers. Esp today, when the perioud of teen-hood is ill defined and the social norms are far from demanding, a person can be a "teen" at age thirty. Maybe you and I won't like that person very much but they make a lot of the market.

Also, to write anything at all, to get any artistic work done, demands to have an ego the as big as China. You need to believe, regardless of countless proofs, that it truly matters if you get this thing right or not. That in a world already overflowing with stories and ideas yours are so impotrtent they derserve their place.

You better have a big ego for that. As one of my painting teachers once said: "Try giving your work away to people once in a while, you can't even give it away for free."

Last night I watched "Thelma and Louise" and, allthough I didn't like it, tried to understand what was it about the work the appealed to so many people when it came out. I have a few ideas but not for now.

Tty thinking about how YOU would improve B5, then try writing a few episods, before you'll know it, you'll be doing your own work.

And that's always fun!:)

Take care:

HH
Baltimore

Helen Louise said...

I see what you mean, and it's kind of a pain because I was a massive Babylon 5 fan. I wrote fanfiction even before I found out that other people wrote fanfiction. B5 was my life! *smile* But yes, even as a 12 year old I understood the 'Peace in our time' thing and although I liked the Churchill story didn't have a clue what in the hell it had to do with 'let Morden go'... So I agree with you, it was melodramatic and silly... but I like it. I think a few episodes are definitely worth salvaging (I love 'And now for a word' even if it's about as subtle as a sledgehammer). I have a theory that most viewers are willing to forgive anything so long as it's pretty. B5 feels dramatic and important and full of intrigue, even if some of the plot twists are stupidly obvious (Passing Through Gethsemane springs to mind)... and the character development painfully flawed at times (I remember actually having a heated discussion on whether Ivanova was a lesbian or not. I didn't realise there was a deliberate lesbian subtext until I read an episode guide and the actress playing Talia commented on it).

It's true, much of the romance, for example, was about as original as a third-rate rom com - the difference being it was on a space station and he was a captain and she was an alien with a big bone on her head who happened to be a leader of a mighty race that was one third warriors despite the fact that "Minbari do not kill Minbari". Man and woman kiss under the stars - boring. Man and woman kiss on a spaceship after they've just figured out a ludricrously simple tactic of the enemy, while their fleet of spaceships fly in the distance - cool. Perhaps the character development wasn't impressive, but at least there was character development. Vir isn't always the comic relief, Londo isn't always a wise-cracking clown, G'kar isn't always an embittered villain.

So yes, deeply flawed, but I still have a fondness for, among other characters, Susan Ivanova (I wanted to be her when I was 12. Now it concerns me that she rarely wore her hair back when at work. Hey, neither does Beverly Crusher...). I remember 'Severed Dreams' which was really just a big battle with some pointless plot manoeuvres and some Sheridan/Delenn bonding, but then, Mum and I watched it together, were biting our nails when it looked like everything was lost, and both yelled, "YES!" when the Minbari crashed in to save the station.

It just feels wrong to write it off somehow :) It might be clunky and heavy-handed and rushed but it's also pretty and symbolic (spent ages working out Sheridan's dream with all the characters saying symbolic things) and convinces you into *feeling* you're having an awesome adventure when if your emotions weren't engaged you'd merely notice the flaws. It's a soap opera. Set in space. With aliens. Who could ask for more?

Rich said...

On one of the cast commentary tracks they have some laughs about the great lumps of undigestible monologue they sometimes were required to exposit, Mira Furlan in particular. So, point.

The things which made the show watchable were the ones which made the fifth season unwatchable - the daringness of killing off a major alien race, of eschewing artificial gravity for the station in favor of rotation, of pioneering multi-ship 3D CGI space battles. I spent most of that season believing that "Fabio" (the Byron character) was a bad, evil, no-goodnik, only to find out that he was a misunderstood utopian genius with silky hair after all.

I don't have a problem with Londo becoming a dupe of the Shadows. I think it was case of a civilization rich in history but no longer as powerful as it once saw itself throwing in with a superpower that they thought they would be able to manage. Perhaps the Centauri intelligence services were unable to find out anything much about the nature of the powers they were taking on. Londo saw their hidden ally as being a quick ticket to good times and thus to the party which never ends.

The issue of Joe Straczynski's ego is pure ad hominem and really has little to do with the good and bad aspects of the series.

It's damning with faint praise, but all of the criticisms you raise do not seem as bad when applied to B5's competition on TV. Deep Space Nine? Voyager? You get all this bad stuff, plus inconsistent character portrayals, fake-looking starship models, and technobabble too.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Hagay:

I've gone back and reworded the sentence in which I discuss the show's appeal to teenagers, because I don't think it properly conveyed my point. Clearly there's nothing wrong with deliberately appealing to the teenage set. The problem arises when you don't aim your show at a particular audience, and end up catching the teenagers because they aren't discerning enough to see the flaws in your work and because your work appeals to their desire for grandeur.

It's like the first two Harry Potter films. They both suck, and the fact that kids like them says more about the kids than it does about the movies (which is not to say that children or teenagers can't recognize quality. It's more that they have trouble recognizing its lack).

Helen Louise:

spent ages working out Sheridan's dream with all the characters saying symbolic things

Oh, God, don't get me started about that dream! It's practically a metaphor for the entire show. You pore over it, analyzing every detail, reading significance into every little thing, and then the actual interpretation is revealed and all you can think is 'that was it?'

Seriously, why would Kosh go out of his way to send Sheridan a dream that revealed (for a given value of 'reveal') that a) Ivanova is a telepath, b) he was going to start working with Bester, c) he had a counterpart in the Shadow's ranks and d) said person was going to look for him? None of this information is even remotely important, especially given that a) and b) are things that Sheridan only connects to the dream after they happen, and although, with Delenn's help, he works out c) and d) before learning about them in real life, said knowledge doesn't affect his actions in any way.

(Plus, are we honestly supposed to believe that Justin--'the man in between'--is Sheridan's opposite number among the Shadows? He gets blown up by a thermonuclear device and it has zero effect on the Shadows' strategy.)

Rich:

I don't have a problem with Londo becoming a dupe of the Shadows. I think it was case of a civilization rich in history but no longer as powerful as it once saw itself throwing in with a superpower that they thought they would be able to manage. Perhaps the Centauri intelligence services were unable to find out anything much about the nature of the powers they were taking on. Londo saw their hidden ally as being a quick ticket to good times and thus to the party which never ends.

That Londo and the Centauri political apparatus were willing to ally themselves with the Shadows is eminently believable. My problem is the way they did this. Londo is supposedly a seasoned political operative, the veteran of a lifetime spent playing political back-scratching games and hoarding favors. You should be able to give him a lobotomy and he'd still tell you that no one does anything for free, and that the longer the price for a given favor remains unspoken, the higher it is likely to be.

And yet, when Morden shows up, makes Londo's fondest wish come true, refuses all offers of compensation and disappears into the ether, Londo doesn't even pause to wonder if getting involved with him might come back to bite him in the ass. A four year old should have been able to see the situation for what it was. Vir had it worked out within months!

If we'd seen Londo make a conscious decision to accept Morden's help regardless of the consequences, it would be another matter, but he seems to be genuinely surprised when he discovers that Morden's motives weren't altruistic, and that Londo doesn't fully control him. It takes him an unconscionably long time to start wondering if maybe, these unstoppable killing machines might one day turn their gaze to the Centauri republic itself, and even then he seems to the lone voice of reason in a cabinet of fools.

And again, if Londo had been portrayed as a fool, I wouldn't have a problem with this. It's the fact that we're supposed to swallow this foolish behavior and also accept that Londo is quite clever that gets to me.

The issue of Joe Straczynski's ego is pure ad hominem and really has little to do with the good and bad aspects of the series.

Straczynski's ego (and this is for you too, Hagay) has to do with the quality of the show when it prevents him from recognizing his own faults as a writer. If he had been more self-aware, he could have brought in people with more talent and experience, and raised the tone of the entire show. The decision to take full responsibility for the show had a lot to do with his ego.

As I said in my post, the problem isn't that Straczynski is a bad writer - and he is. It's that he thinks he's a good writer.

It's damning with faint praise, but all of the criticisms you raise do not seem as bad when applied to B5's competition on TV. Deep Space Nine? Voyager? You get all this bad stuff, plus inconsistent character portrayals, fake-looking starship models, and technobabble too.

I never cared for Voyager, but DS9 remains my favorite Star Trek series and I disagree with your assertion that in terms of writing, plotting, acting and effects it was no better than B5. I think it's a show that got a hell of a lot right, in particular an intelligent treatment of religion that B5, with its airy-fairy pantheism and funny Yiddish rabbis, never even came close to achieving. Sure, there were the standard ST flaws, chiefly technobabble but also a slightly sterile feel to the dialogue and the acting, but compared to what B5 trotted out week after week, DS9 was an evening at the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Babylon 5 is important, I think, because it laid the foundation for the SF television that came after it - stuff like Farscape, Futurama, Firefly, the new Doctor Who and Battlestar Galactica. It proved that it was possible for non-Star Trek SF to find an audience, and for that both it and Straczynski have my undying respect, but the argument that it was better than anything else on - especially when you consider what else was on at the time - is indeed faint praise.

Niall Harrison said...

See, I've been buying the DVD sets as they come out largely on the strength of teenage memories (OMG 'Severed Dreams'!). Now I'm scared to actually watch any of them again. :p

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Heh. If it makes you feel better, Niall, "Severed Dreams" is still freaking awesome.

If, that is, you allow for Strczynski's constant attempts to undermine himself.

I mean, there's Delenn's line. You know which one. It's pretty much the best line in the series, and God knows it's Mira Furlan's only chance to sound like a real person and she nails it.

"Only one human captain has ever survived battle with a Minbari warship. He is behind me. You are in front of me."

And that should have been it! It's a perfect line, practically the platonic ideal of a trash talk, IF it's left alone just as it is in its pristine perfection.

But nooooooo, Straczynski has to go in there and add that clunky, cumbersome tail, "If you value your lives, be somewhere else." It sound like Buffy-speak! It's absurd and redundant and ugly and it very nearly ruins the moment.

I swear, when that show succeeded, it was in spite of Straczynski, not because of him.

Helen Louise said...

I thought about this some more today and realised that Macbeth (my favourite Shakespearian tragedy out of the whole three, count 'em, three that I've seen) is at times silly and melodramatic with over-blown speeches and needless poetry. And it has symbolism and stuff, albeit slightly better synchronised.

OK, perhaps JMS cannot be compared with the Bard but Babylon 5 is still a helluva lot less depressing than Hamlet. Poetic, angsty, made me lose the will to live. Give me a good dose of Minbari mysticism anyday, it's much better for my mental health.

What does depress me is that Valen only prophesied that the Grey Council would be broken because he was around when the Grey Council was broken. Making it a bit a crap prophecy. But hey, who said Minbari history had to make sense? "I wrote a letter to myself". Riiiight.

Oh, who am I kidding? I love time travel episodes, especially ones with stupid plot twists. I went on about the H.G. Wells episode of 'Lois and Clark' for ages, in spite of the fact that poor Herbert George was spinning in his grave after the complete monstrosity of "I'm going back in time to kill Superman as a baby". And Zathras rocks.

I agree with your point about the dream btw. Lots of pretty symbolism that was mainly for the viewer, not an actual plot device (also spent ages debating on who 'the one who is already dead' is. Apparently it was Refa, but Sheridan would make much more sense since he did actually die. "Hey, he's not the Pope, he doesn't look anything like her!). But wasn't Kosh awesome? "What is it?" "Efficient". I didn't get the 'I am your father' thing he did with Sheridan though.

Babylon 5: I may not be obsessed anymore but it's still better than Hamlet. Yes, I am a Philistine.

Anonymous said...

I am a B5 fan. I was never obsessed, but I enjoyed the show when it originally aired, and I re-watch all 5 seasons as background noise while I work from time to time. I am a fan, and I think you're missing something obvious about the show.

B5 was never a normal sci-fi show; it was a space soap opera. The only thing that made it better TV then Days or General Hospital was the overarching story line. Then again, the show would have been completely worthless without it.

As to the rambling speeches and overblown dialog, I suggest you try speaking with someone who thinks that they have a destiny to fulfill. In my experience, people with egos that big will usually talk your ear off, spouting self-serving drivel that will reeks of ignorance and a complete lack of any sort of sense of real history.

Speaking of history – that whole Sheridan/Churchill thing you brought up, not nearly as big a ‘mistake’ as you are making it. The idea was not to parallel the two sacrifices, but to show how hard the decision was for Sheridan. The only similarity between the situations was that both leaders had to make decisions about revealing information to their enemies during war. That was enough to make the image potent for a character like Sheridan.

Also, the ‘peace in our time’ bit – well, you’re being very naive. Idiots exist everywhere, and bureaucrats – those types that are represented by earthgov – never do learn from history. These people exist, and have university degrees, and can even seem smart, but you should never underestimate the power of human stupidity. There will always be isolationists, and people who think appeasement is a good idea. Look at the “War on Terror” – pro or con, there are a lot of morons making a lot of noise on both sides of that debate. We are lucky that some of the people on either end are intelligent and influential at the same time, but they have the support of zombies.

I’m going to stop now, because I think this is already so long that few people – if anyone – will bother to read it. I want to emphasize for those who have gotten this far though, that I would love to tear the criticism apart point by point. I have a life though, and breakfast to make, so I can’t right now. Sorry.

Rich said...

It's true that DS9 wasn't a bad series, with a pretty good set of main characters (with the exception of Sisko, who I never found engaging). Somewhere around the third year I lost track of the war-related plot threads and stopped watching, though.

(I thought I'd better comment here than get this mixed up with your other B5 post.)

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Anonymous:

Also, the ‘peace in our time’ bit – well, you’re being very naive. Idiots exist everywhere, and bureaucrats – those types that are represented by earthgov – never do learn from history. These people exist, and have university degrees, and can even seem smart, but you should never underestimate the power of human stupidity. There will always be isolationists, and people who think appeasement is a good idea

The fact that the diplomat signed a treaty with the Centauri wasn't what bothered me. It was his choice of words that did it. In case you're not aware of this, "I have brought peace in our times" is the famous phrase uttered by soon-to-be ex British PM Neville Chamberlain when he returned from Munich in 1938, having signed an agreement with Hitler's government that allowed Germany to annex part of Austria. Instead of appeasing Germany, the accord proved an encouragement for Hitler's expansionist policies and helped pave the way for WWII.

Since then, the phrase has become synonymous with a short-sighted, insular approach towards international politics, and, in general, with political naivete. It hasn't been uttered with a straight face in 60 years, and the fact that Straczynski expects us to believe that a career diplomat would un-ironically announce that he had accomplished peace in his time is just this side of laughable. The use of the phrase is clearly a broad wink at the audience, and it deserves only a tired eye-roll.

TonyV said...

What is most interesting and amusing is that after all this time, you have all found the time and energy to revisit it and then criticize. I'm sure JM Straczynski would be most pleased that you are still mentioning B5. He never said that the show was going to please everybody and if it is so bad why did you watch it then? Looking back at the show to compare it against how you remember it is a rather pointless exercise and you are now a different person to the one you were when the show was being broadcast. Life changes us and so does the passage of years change your perspective on things. It's a bit like asking "was the original Star Trek better than ST:TNG?". It doesn't actually matter as they were both products of their times and it is how you perceive it at the time you watch it that really matters. The same applies to B5 and yes, their were monologues to cringe for but, no show is perfect. Remember, it ulimately achieved what was set out from the beginning. To tell a story over 5 years and keep all who watched it engaged in the characters and story lines. Isn't that what happened to you?

Ed Chamberlain said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Ed Chamberlain said...

Great stuff, I loved it all and on some level you are right. I can appreicate a lot of the flaws of my favourite show but somehow can still give 2-3 hours a week up to watch the DVD's (and my time seems very precious at the mo.) Without being too patronising, I suspect you are in your mid-early twenties and anxious to put her teenage obsessions behind you to show you are an adult? Having spent my early twenties rediscovering the inner child I had suppressed as a teenager, I am now deep in the process rediscovering my inner adolescent. And he still loves B5, despite the flaws you pointed out...

I still like JMS's writing, compared to other stuff of the time it was great. Thanks to Lost, BSG and yes, Buffy (despite is grating wise-cracking cuteness) styles have moved on. Once you get used to JMS's style as an adult and understanding where he is coming from, you can see how it works. Its like reading Lord of the Rings or a Wells novel. Dated, now, but still very good. Compare it to some Voyager dialogue, go on...

Oh, and he only ever directed one episode, the last one. And that was quite good.

BTW, you've been noticed on jmsnews.net. The B5 version of being slash/dotted!

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Tony:

I find it interesting, how often 'if you don't like it why did you bother to write about it?' appears as a heartfelt argument in online arguments. It's the blogosphere equivalent of 'if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all'.

Why did I write this post? Because I wanted to. Because I watched the show and had all kinds of thoughts about it and felt that I could express those thoughts in essay format. Which, to be honest, is what this blog exists for. Make no mistake, just because this isn't a 'today I'm wearing a gray shirt/my boyfriend is wonderful/here's a picture of my cat' blog doesn't make it any less personal. It's my venue for self-expression.

Why did I want to write the post? Because I'm opinionated, and expressing strongly felt opinions is fun. Also fun is the ability to use words to succinctly and accurately express your feelings about a subject. It's also a useful skill, and one that I've been using my blog to hone and develop.

Let's try to remember that all I did was post my opinion on my personal blog. I didn't seek out B5 fans and force them to read it. I didn't plant posts on B5 forums titled 'B5 sucks! Click here to find out how!' I sent my words out across the ether for those who were interested to read them and for those who weren't to ignore.

So I think the real question here is, if my post made you so angry, why did you read it?

Ed:

I suspect you are in your mid-early twenties and anxious to put her teenage obsessions behind you to show you are an adult?

Um, right on the first count, not so much on the second. I'm not the sort of person who's eager to put away childish things. I'm the sort of person who reads Harry Potter and Lemony Snicket on the train, the sort of person who loves Bone and Calvin and Hobbes. B5 isn't the only hallmark of my youth that I've gone back to reexamine, and in some of those cases I've discovered a wealth of intelligence and emotion that I simply wasn't able to appreciate as a child. In other cases, of course, I've discovered a very simple truth: I'm a better reader/viewer now than I was ten years ago. Presumably, ten years from now I'll be an even better one, and maybe then I'll go back to B5 and wonder how I could have been so stupid as to dismiss the show in my 20s.

But I kind of doubt it.

Anonymous said...

"one moment he's cringing at the bombardment of the Narn homeworld, and the next he's congratulating Vir for personally orchestrating the deaths of thousands of Narns"

It's pretty obvious. Londo felt the deep GUILT for the Narn bombardment. That's why he was running from himself the entire third season, pretending that he's still a noble Centauri, and that he still hates Narns. He was lying to himself just to escape from his own conscience. Watch "The long Night of Londo Mollari".

"Neither decision is easy, but only Sheridan's has an obvious right choice"

Now that's very naive. In time you'll understand that decisions like Sheridan's are ALWAYS carried out on the emotional level, not logical. During the war the
leader learns to put up with deaths of those he doesn't see. Churchill did what was right,
because he was a leader, and because he was at war - the war changed him, twisted him emotionally.

Now think about Sheridan. The man lost his wife, the single woman he loved, and then someone comes up to him and says: "OK, your beloved wife may be still alive. But alas, you shouldn't rescue her." NOW WHAT DO YOU EXPECT HIM TO DO?? Do you really expect Sheridan to think: "Mmmm, the whole galaxy versus my dear wife... OK, I'll do what I must!" If I were in Sheridan's place, I would kiss the galaxy goodbye and rush to Z'Ha'Dum immediately.

He had to almost destroy himself emotionally, to burn the parts of himself - in other words, he had to do to himself the same thing the war did to Churchill. It was a great emotional pain, that's why he remembered about the British premiere from the past. And if you listen to Sheridan carefully, you will surely notice that he only said that he understood Churchill's pain, which is pretty hell obvious.

Maybe I will surprise you, but most of the people in our Universe do not resemble calculators, they carry out their decisions on the emotional level. Welcome back to the real world.

tonyV said...

Abigail. I appreciate your response. However, I would respond to one particular part. In particular:

"I find it interesting, how often 'if you don't like it why did you bother to write about it?' appears as a heartfelt argument in online arguments. It's the blogosphere equivalent of 'if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all'".

I never said that or implied it and certainly would never tell anyone what they could or couldn't write. I certainly wasn't upset in anyway by the comments in your blog entry but merely wanted to state mine. If we agree to disagree then that is fine by me. That's what can happen when you have freedom of thought and speech.

Perhaps a better example of what I was referring to is the comparison of the old and new Battlestar Galactica series. Many people like both but some couldn't put up with the changes made and some even considered the change of sex of Starbuck as an act of blasphemy. As I said before, these are a product of their time as are our thoughts and perceptions of them are also a product of the time and also a reflection or representation of who we were or are. Hindsight is a wonderful gift but would we really want to use it. Some things get better with time, other things do not, but does that detract from how much they were enjoyed at the time. Do people look at a children's programme they may have watched as a child and think "how could I have watched this???!!". I am and remain a B5 fan as I consider it to more than the sum of its parts and certainly much better than other competitors of its time. That may not be true now but that's they way the cookie crumbles. That is my opinion and the fact that you have another opinion does not detract from the right to express that opinion. This may seem angry but this is not the case. I am just forthright and willing to express my views in the same way that you are. I'm all for freedom of expression no matter what is said and no matter how much I may agree or disagree with it even if I find it morally offensive. I hope that my comments will be taken in the spirit in which they were intended.

Having said all of that I do not think that I can ever forgive J Michael Straczynski for the episode in season 3 "Grey 17 is missing". The plot involving Marcus was ok but the rest....urrrgghhhhh!!!!

Anyway, I'll get off my soapbox now and as Lennier once said:-

"executing 'getting the hell out of here' manoeuver".

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Anonymous:

Watch "The long Night of Londo Mollari".

Thank you, I'll pass. Once was really more than enough.

And I'm perfectly aware of what Londo's arc is supposed to be. I just don't buy it - I don't believe that the dialogue and the acting bear this out. Watch "Sic Transit Vir" again. There's something indecent about Londo's glee at the thought of thousands of murdered Narns. I don't see any squelched guilt there.

As for Sheridan's choice, I'm not sure you read the sentence you quoted correctly. Here it is again.

Neither decision is easy, but only Sheridan's has an obvious right choice

I didn't deny that Sheridan's choice to turn away from the possibility of finding out his wife's true fate was an easy one. In fact, I said myself in the same paragraph that it is one of his greatest sacrifices for the cause of the war.

My point was that unlike Churchill, who really had no way of knowing which choice - the definite death of thousands or the possible subjugation of millions - was the right one, Sheridan knew what he had to do. Hell, he knew it ever before Delenn and Kosh intervened. When Garibaldi and Susan chew him out for his actions against Morden he admits that he knows what he's doing is wrong and that he should release Morden, but he can't do it.

There's a difference between knowing what the right thing is and acting on it, and that gap can be an incredibly difficult one to cross, which is why I never claimed that Sheridan's choice was an easy one. Sheridan, however, had an advantage on Churchill in that he knew what the right course of action was, which is why I call the choice obvious.

TonyV:

Looking at your post again I can see that I did misconstrue your meaning and I apologize for that.

However, I'm still not sure what your objection here is. Of course the change in my opinions about the show has to do with the fact that I've changed - or, more precisely, become a more discerning viewer - but why does it follow that it is pointless for me to write about the flaws that I now perceive in the show?

As for the idea that we should respect B5 as an artifact of its time and leave it at that, I would suggest that the mid-90s are not yet so distant from us as to be exempt from judgment. Also, as far as I'm concerned the problem isn't that I've changed. B5 always sucked. I just wasn't smart enough to see it ten years ago.

Anonymous said...

"And I'm perfectly aware of what Londo's arc is supposed to be. I just don't buy it"

Then you should write "I don't find Peter Jurasic's acting in the third season to be a convincing one". But instead, you write that "Londo is a mass of contradictions". Please do not mix your personal feelings about actors and the quality of the show's plot.

"I don't see any squelched guilt there"

I believe that Straczynski made his show for the "teenagers" which are capable of understanding the psychology of his characters. To me (and to all the people I've discussed this issue with), the hidden guilt was obvious. If it's somehow not obvious to you - then maybe the problem lies within your point of perspective, not within the show's plot / characters.

"which is why I never claimed that Sheridan's choice was an easy one. Sheridan, however, had an advantage on Churchill in that he knew what the right course of action was, which is why I call the choice obvious"

Excuse me, then I do not get your point. Sheridan had to abandon his personal feelings (he loved his wife) for the greater good. Churchill had to abandon his personal feelings (he loved his people) for the greater good. Yes, the cases themselves are very different, but the pain in both is very intense and quite comparable. Sheridan says something like "Now I understand what Churchill felt". Yes, I believe he did understand. What is exactly the problem with this part?

Abigail Nussbaum said...

An exercise for the readers: who can tell me why the assertion that Churchill found it difficult to sentence Coventry to death because 'he loved his people' is not only absurd, but an insult to the memory of a great man?

It's not really important, though. This will be the third time I've gone through this and I'm not doing it again. I have not argued that either Sheridan or Churchill's decisions were not difficult. I argued that while Sheridan knew which choice was right, Churchill didn't. This is the crucial difference between the two cases.

Anonymous said...

"I argued that while Sheridan knew which choice was right, Churchill didn't. This is the crucial difference between the two cases."

Dear Abigail, no one argues with you on that point. These cases ARE different, and that's exactly the thing I wrote in my last post. "Yes, the cases themselves are very different".

My point is, this difference has NOTHING to do with Sheridan's speech. His speech was about EMOTIONS, not the logical basis behind his decisions. That's exactly the thing you fail to understand.

He felt the same pain Churchill did, because he had to do the same thing - to abandon the loved one(s) for the greater cause. IT DOES NOT MATTER WHETHER HE HAD AN OBVIOUS CHOICE AND CHURCHILL DIDN'T. The only thing that matters is PAIN. Sheridan didn't say: "Wow man, now I understand that Churchill was right and I wasn't". He said "NOW I UNDERSTAND WHAT CHURCHILL FELT". Once again, it has nothing to do with the multiplicity of possible solutions (or its lack). Sheridan did not carry out his decision "because he was a bad historian" (quoting your original post), but because HE FELT the same thing that Churchill. His decision was carried out through PAIN, through emotions, and that's what his speech was about.

Now, I'll tell you a little secret - I TOO HATE THIS SPEECH. But I hate it for the only real cause - because it's filled with PATHOS. But PATHOS is a part of our everyday life - we all sound quite pathetic in our crucial moments. That's because, dear Abigail, we are all totally self-obsessed.

So I must say in conclusion that your hatred for Sheridan's speech makes me respect JMS even more - he did raise the kaleidoscope of emotions in his viewers. He depicted Sheridan as a man who carries a boy in his heart; this boy likes making parallels with the great ones. Whether you like it or not, it's his character.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Dear Anonymous poster who won't do me the courtesy of signing his own comments,

Did you know that most people are capable of recognizing condescending and patronizing behavior, even when it is concealed in alleged civility? Did you know that most people react negatively to being patronized and condescended to? Did you know that when a person is consistently patronized, on her own personal website, she might very well begin to wonder why, under the guise of allowing a free intellectual debate to flourish, she is countenancing a genteel form of abuse?

I disagree with your interpretation of Sheridan's line, "I know how Churchill felt." I do not believe he was referring to the pain of personal sacrifice but rather to the burden of leadership, and to the feelings of guilt that Churchill felt upon viewing the ruins of Coventry. I believe the context of Sheridan's conversation with Zack bears me out.

You may wish to contest my claim in public or in private. Be advised: if your next comment on my blog isn't the epitome of respectful civility, it and any other comment that follows it will be deleted.

TonyV said...

Hi Abigail. Thanks for your response. Just wanted to point out that I do not have an objection, just a different point of view. I liked and still like B5. You thought it was ok but now you think it "blows and sucks". I'm interested in this in particular, how can something blow and suck at the same time? Is this some form of new vacuum cleaner? Seriously though, I've very much enjoyed reading and responding to your entries and I'm sure if we ever met in person, we could sit down over a few drinks (alcoholic or not as the case may be) and have a very healthy debate over B5 and all its good and bad points. Let's face it, even if you think it both blows and sucks, can you find some redeeming features in it? It would be interesting to find out what they are, if they exist. I'm afraid it's the eternal optimist in me. I have a healthy sense of realism but always want to see the best in things. Having said that, if any thing on TV both blowed and sucked at the same time, I don't have to look any further than Star Trek - Enterprise, but that's not what this blog is about. Just looking back at your initial entry you stated that the B5 was a show for teenagers. Having been in my 30's when the show was broadcast (and knowing a lot of people of a similar age who also watched it) I wonder if there is any demographic information available to uphold that particular view? Regardless of all of that I have no time for anyone who insults another persons point of view in either an abusive or condescending manner. I may not agree with you but does that negate your views? I think not.

Finally, if you are not aware of it, a very fine amateur movie is available for download free at www.starwreck.com called Star Wreck - In the Pirkinning. This is written, filmed and produced by a group of amateur film makers from Finland and is a feature length parody of both B5 and Star Trek and is well worth a viewing. The script, special effects and production values would put a lot of mainstream filmakers and stuidos to shame. I found the whole thing absolutely hilarious and a great credit to the people who made it.

Anyway, thanks for your attention whilst reading my posts and I shall certainly look out for others of yours in the future.

Best wishes.

strashiLOL said...

"Dear Anonymous poster who won't do me the courtesy of signing his own comments"

I must bring my deepest apologies - I'm new to this area of Internet. I just got here by chance, and realized that your thoughts on B5 were very interesting. That was the only and sole reason for me posting here. From now on, if I post anything more, I will sign my comments. Once again, I must apologize.

"I disagree with your interpretation of Sheridan's line"

But why, why had I to make three almost identical posts before you finally chose to hear my interpretation? And that happened only after I've nailed my opinion in capital letters...

"Did you know that most people are capable of recognizing condescending and patronizing behavior, even when it is concealed in alleged civility?"

Quoting your original post:

"Because J. Michael Straczynski is not only a talentless hack, he's a talentless hack who truly believes himself to be God's gift to the writing profession"

"You may wish to contest my claim in public or in private"

I do not consider it wise. You've heard my interpretation, I've heard yours. I haven't got anything more to say on this issue - neither have you, I believe. We've expressed our opinions and discussed them. That was the point.

Marc Mielke said...

Another comment in the endless dissection of the Churchill reference in "Z'ha'dum"...the Coventry story is somewhat dodgy history to begin with, from what I understand.

The 90's is very different from today's work. I've been screening reruns of "Nowhere Man" recently, which is of the same vintage as B5, and find it far less cool than when I saw it the first time, in my 20s.
B5 at least didn't have computers that could eat your soul.

I find B5 actually somewhat unwtchable in repeats myself, especially after the poor sequels Crusade and Legend of the Rangers, the last of which vies in my head for worst thing ever perpetuated on the American Public, right up there with Highlander 2.

Russ said...

Abigail,

I have read far too many comments and responses and comments and responses to coherently quote anything. It is much how I feel about Bablyon 5, as a matter of fact, having immersed myself in it for many years, more so as a writer than as a sci-fi fan.

I have personally been impressed with JMS because I felt he brought the most important idea I learned in English to the television: "show, don't tell." Yea, he had his monologues, and in the DVD commentaries he takes constant jabs at himself about it (it's been over a year since I watched one, but I recall decidedly self-critical references to "the idiot babbling writer" or somesuch in some of those scenes). We all have our flaws. JMS is flawed and he knows it; you can hear him twitch with embarrassment when he feels he blew something. Perhaps part of the truth, though, of doing something extremely well is that you have to do something as extremely badly. Dichotomy is common in those who seek to achieve, as is ego-- after all, the belief in oneself is what drives one to aspire towards things the less emotionally secure dismiss as impossible.

With that said, B5 is a reflection of its creator, good and bad, as is any creative exercise. As much as I love it, there are parts of it that decidedly stink. I remember Yelling Narn G'Kar and Space Dad Sinclair (yes, I call him Space Dad) in particular from S1. In fact, I still can only barely make myself watch S1. But then I hit the last episode and wince at Garibaldi being shot in the back-- more so for how it was presented, and its context, than the simple fact that it took place. I was hooked.

The grace of B5 and JMS is that he has a lock on the art of the setup. The gun shown on the mantle in Act I must be used by Act III. The smart viewer knows this as soon as they see it in Act I, and has to get his or her thrill watching how we get to the increasingly obvious-no-it-can't-be conclusion. And that is probably the indescernible thing about B5 that pulls you in, even though this or that sucks about it. It's not the destination, it's the trip. Not even the scenes, but the succession of them.

Somewhere in the Lurker's Guide I recall reading JMS' comments about 'wham' episodes. Set you up, lead you down a path, and then, WHAM. Send you flying in another. Not all writers or readers particularly like it, some don't respect it, and some will call it plain stupid. I, however, love it, and I loved watching B5 execute it. For it, I could tolerate campy dialogue, stiff scenery, Ivanova spending an entire season being an intermittent pessimistic Russian stereotype, and that what-the-heck "Commander! Something is coming through the jumpgate!" woman (boy was I glad when they ditched her).

The big departure, incidentally, is S4. The poor windup of the Vorlon-Shadow conflict I have to chalk up to "I think this is the last season" and shrug. But there is so much that shines-- Intersections in Real Time being my personally most loved and hated at the same time (loved for its effectiveness, hated because it feels like a kick in the gut)-- that I again can live with the things that don't work. In fact, I have to give S4 even more kudos because it gave us the one thing in that season you won't mention some meat-- the tragedy of Garibaldi.

So I come 'round to the thesis that B5 sucked and it always did. Well, I don't think there's a good way to posit that objectively because 50% of that equation is you. It's your spin, your perspective, your POV. Even the term "sucked" is subjective by definition. It's emotional rather than logical, non-scientific, not provable or disprovable in a lab. And on that point I wonder a little bit about the fairness of some of your characterizations. But then, it's your blog, and it's editorial, not a lab report. So a reader has to keep it in perspective.

I will throw one thing out before going; I think your dismissiveness of the idea of Londo experiencing guilt at the bombardment of the Narn homeworld is more reflective of your dissatisifaction with the Londo character than anything that the character actually brought to the table. It comes in the context of statements like "Londo is a mass of contradictions," which is what I suspect you really have an issue with.

Well, um, yeah. People are contradictory and the older they get, the more contradictory and complex and self-negating, and maybe even evil, they get. In fact, it's a wonder that by being yes, no, right, wrong, amoral, and guilt-ridden all at the same time, they don't blink themselves clean out of existence like matter and anti-matter coming into contact. And that's where the reality of the Londo character comes from. He twists, turns, bobs, weaves, more to and from himself than anyone else, and at the end resolves it all far too late for himself and a rather long trail of people behind him. The word tragic barely begins to cover it, and perhaps the only thing that takes Londo from "sociopathic" to "tragic" is that he does eventually come 'round. If he didn't, tragic wouldn't be the word that applied.

You happen to be about ten years younger than I am and I can say that ten years ago, had I been watching B5 in first-run, Londo would have made little sense to me. I had not run into Londos. I had read about Londos and seen them described by others as either their Trait A *or* their Trait B, with the Trait not selected being dismissed as "unrealistic." For you see, A and B were mutually exclusive, and therefore the Londo under discussion had to be one or the other. To present a character as otherwise simply made no sense, and any writer who did, by definition, "screwed it up."

Well, ten years later, I've gone through a few Londos. I can't describe them as impossible or unrealistic, because they're, um, here. And this is the basis of Londo. Dichotomy is part of the human condition. It can self-contradict in the extreme and contain mutually exclusive yet simultaneously existing behaviors and traits. That's why Londo's character resonates as being realistic to me-- JMS nailed it, whereas many characters are simply "this way" or "that way." Londo is a mess. A multifaceted, multilayered mess, lying to himself more than he's lying to you or anyone else around him, and changing the lie each time the one he's using starts to falter in the face of his own conscience.

And that's about as real as it can get. Unfortunate, but common. Take that personality and put it in some position of power, and you get REAL trouble-- like Londo.

I suspect if you repeat your experiment in another 10 years, you may still walk away with "B5 sucked." But you may have a different spin on some of the things that JMS got right.

And oh yeah, TKO sucks more than Grey 17 is missing. Well, almost. :-)

Best Regards and Cheers,

-Russ

Abigail Nussbaum said...

TonyV:

You thought it was ok but now you think it "blows and sucks". I'm interested in this in particular, how can something blow and suck at the same time? Is this some form of new vacuum cleaner?

Heh. It's an expression - not of my creation - that's meant to convey extreme horribleness.

Let's face it, even if you think it both blows and sucks, can you find some redeeming features in it? It would be interesting to find out what they are, if they exist.

I think I make it clear in the post itself that I do see redeeming features in the show. I certainly don't spell them out as much as I do the flaws (it's a sad thing, but I always find poking fault to be easier than lavishing praise), but I do make mention of them. Here's a partial list:

* I think Sheridan and Delenn's love scenes are incredibly sweet, especially towards the beginning of their courtship.
* G'Kar, Garibaldi, Marcus and Lennier are wonderful characters, when they're given room to breathe.
* Marcus in general has fantastic chemistry with almost everyone he comes in contact with, but particularly Franklin, G'Kar and Lennier.
* Some of the battle scenes are really quite stirring.

You'll get no argument from me about Enterprise. I should have written that show off the minute I saw the Vulcan in the skin-tight catsuit.

StrashiLOL:

You've heard my interpretation, I've heard yours. I haven't got anything more to say on this issue - neither have you, I believe.

Yes, I think we've both said enough.

Marc:

I'm happy to say I gave up on the B5 universe after Crusade. It really was quite terrifying, even after the fifth season of B5, to see how bad that show could get.

Russ:

The big departure, incidentally, is S4. The poor windup of the Vorlon-Shadow conflict I have to chalk up to "I think this is the last season" and shrug. But there is so much that shines-- Intersections in Real Time being my personally most loved and hated at the same time (loved for its effectiveness, hated because it feels like a kick in the gut)-- that I again can live with the things that don't work. In fact, I have to give S4 even more kudos because it gave us the one thing in that season you won't mention some meat-- the tragedy of Garibaldi.

If you've read my second B5 post, you know that I actually thought the fourth season was the strongest of the bunch (at least the second half). I liked the Garibalid arc quite a bit, but as I say in that post I had problems with its resolution.

I was actually going to mention "Intersections in Real Time" when I spoke about the fourth season, but I couldn't quite find a place to fit it in. It's clearly a brilliant episode, not least because Straczynski just dumps this character exploration in the middle of the action, with no scenes taking place on the outside to let us know how Sheridan - and Garibaldi - are going to get out this mess. It very much puts us in Sheridan's shoes and I think that was an excellent choice on Straczynski's part.

But I do question the episode's premise. For one thing, I sort of doubt that there really exist interrogators like that. I think most psychological breaking is more along the lines of what we've seen in Iraq - beating, humiliation, and deprivation - and no less effective for it. Ignoring that caveat (because really, it is creepier to have this fastidious, pinstriped bastard come in and talk Sheridan into submission) I think the entire episode depends on Sheridan suddenly losing 50 IQ points. He should be aware of how this interrogation is going to work and what its purposes are, but he consistently plays by the interrogator's rules. Again, this is a complaint that I feel hesitant in making - Sheridan is injured, hungry, thirsty, cold, sleep-deprived, and in general not in shape for a psychological battle - but I do feel that his reactions are slightly out of character. I think he should have been more knowing and less accommodating.

I think your dismissiveness of the idea of Londo experiencing guilt at the bombardment of the Narn homeworld is more reflective of your dissatisifaction with the Londo character than anything that the character actually brought to the table. It comes in the context of statements like "Londo is a mass of contradictions," which is what I suspect you really have an issue with.

Well, um, yeah. People are contradictory and the older they get, the more contradictory and complex and self-negating, and maybe even evil, they get. In fact, it's a wonder that by being yes, no, right, wrong, amoral, and guilt-ridden all at the same time, they don't blink themselves clean out of existence like matter and anti-matter coming into contact.


I don't think my problem with Londo is that he's a mass of contradictions (read my post about Mal Reynolds, a self-contradictory character whom I absolutely adore) but rather with the fact that he's a badly created mass of contradictions. Londo's character arc is, in many ways, a metaphor for the entire show. There's this grand concept of how it's all supposed to look - an examination of a person in constant battle with himself, a good man who does terrible things and vacillates between guilt and pride - but once you get to filling in the details, the talent to create this masterpiece simply isn't there (this is really Nick Eden's main complaint against the entire show). The problem with Londo is that instead of being gray, he's constantly switching between black and white. As I said in my post, I get what he's supposed to be, but the writing to create that brilliant character simply isn't there and what shows up on screen is monstrous and unsympathetic.

Russ said...

Abigail,

Londo's character arc is, in many ways, a metaphor for the entire show. There's this grand concept of how it's all supposed to look - an examination of a person in constant battle with himself, a good man who does terrible things and vacillates between guilt and pride - but once you get to filling in the details, the talent to create this masterpiece simply isn't there (this is really Nick Eden's main complaint against the entire show).

Well, that critique is the nut of it, in many ways. I'm not sure I buy that the missing details are the result of lack of talent-- I think it takes more information than you can glean from watching the show or even reading JMS' own commentary to conclude that-- but there is a salient point in there.

JMS has commented more than once that B5 is the story of Londo Mollari, and that rings true in the of the construction of B5 the series just as much in the handling of Londo proper. Londo's character suffered from some sparseness, and B5 as a show suffered from a great deal of sparseness. In fact, by today's standards, it is decidedly "teenage" and fluffy (compare to the current incarnation of BSG, which is decidedly character-driven most of the time).

But then, US television standards and expectations were different between 1993 and 1998. Both B5 and DS9 were groundbreaking in those days in moving character towards front and center, and not getting complained clean off of the airwaves. In fact, there's still a loud batch of people who are still griping how there was "too much character development and not enough sci-fi" in B5 and DS9. They feel, and a lot of suits felt with them, that character development was something to happen maybe once in a blue moon in a special episode a la Trek TOS and (to a lesser extent) TNG. But the rest was about the currently impossible "sci" which in turn implied the "fi." Voila, sci-fi. Simplistic, but a common POV in the mainstream.

Needless to say these types don't like the current incarnation of BSG either, and the character-heavy BSG might have never gotten past the suits to the TV screen in 1993. So for all that B5 and DS9 didn't do right, they were pushing the envelope, and that envelope could only be pushed to the brink of what people were willing to finance and put on the air. Not beyond, or they wouldn't have found their way to anyone's viewing at all.

But back to the idea that Mollari the B5 character and B5 the TV show are in tight parallel, clearly all you're left with when the middle is washed out is the extremes. I personally feel at least some of this was the result of the way the genre worked at the time. I also wonder, however, if Londo being monstous and outrageous was exactly the point. Sure it would have been nice to have the middle, the "grey", fleshed out. But was it critical to do so? What if that wasn't there *because* Londo was intended to be perceived as a character constantly swinging between extremes, with the greyspace either nonexistent or ignored? Maybe the intent *is* to let the audience know that he is a sociopath (I'd argue that if he isn't, he's darned close, whether tragic or not). And whether that makes him monstrous or outrageous, and unpalatable to the reader/viewer, is beside the point. He and all the other characters have roles to play in building the larger tapestry, and that's his. The vacillation and the tendency to work in black and white, with no middle ground, is in fact a critical component of what makes a Londo a Londo. Change it, and you have a different character.

This is not to say that JMS couldn't have done more with the character. I was holding my breath for the Centauri Prime trilogy because even after "all that" (5 seasons of TV) I was definitely feeling that there was a lot to this character that was missing, and I wanted to know more. But I chalked that up to having room to expand the story across all of its media, beyond the TV series proper, not to a failure of the show or writer to finish presenting what they "should have" through the picture tube.

One of the critical aspects of how B5 was designed is that it is largely a construct of filling in the blanks. JMS has related starting out with a timeline, working out a sparse amount of detail over the longest period, and ever-increasing amounts of detail as you get closer and closer to the 5 years of future-time that encompass the series. And the process he described wasn't one of smooth, gradient-like fill-ins; it was one driven more by intervals. Some intervals were left completely unfilled with a stated intent of coming 'round to them later (the Telepath War being the most obvious example). Some elements of character development were planned the same way.

Under this kind of design structure, I suspect that you will invariably wind up with a lot of holes, and most of those holes will show up as all those little, annoying, niggling things that sharp people pick up on, including missing chunks of character development.

With respect to developing characters, I think JMS got better at filling those holes as time went on, but by then it may have been arguably too late to turn the show towards something seen in a Buffy, a BSG, or even a Firefly.

About the only characters that came through by the end as fully fleshed out were G'Kar and Garibaldi-- and *maybe* Sheridan (if you can accept that the parts of him that were closed were there because Sheridan as a personality closed more as time went on). I have puzzled over this more than a few times without finding any really good answers.

For what it's worth, my own exposure to B5 was a bit upside down, and I openly admit that it tweaks my perspective. I stumbled upon it in first-run three times; first in that ep where workers were striking (S1, and I still hate it); second in the latter half of the S4 opener ("huh? Cave? Dead? Wha? I thought), and third in Intersections in Real Time (which simply creeped me out). I didn't become a B5 watcher until In The Beginning was released, and I was immediately transfixed by the stories of Sinclair, the Minbari-Vorlon what-are-they-up-to?, and the very strongly implied "there's more to this Londo, come watch and find out." So I watched S5 in first-run, caught S1-S4 in repeats, and filled it all in backwards.

This also meant, BTW, that I didn't see the Londo-as-rising-megalomaniac story until very late in the game, and it didn't help that my VCR managed to always screw up taping the Londo-pivotal episodes (I don't think I got the entire Narn-Centauri scoop until the third tour of reruns on TNT in the US).

In the end I found Londo to be a fuller-feeling but lost-in-the-shuffle character in S5-- until the last few eps, at least. In S4 I could see that he was getting interesting, but from what base I didn't know. In S3 there was simply less Londo to draw a firm bead on (again, working backwards from S5). In the leap from S3 to S4 something radical happened, and I didn't know what it was, but pre-S4 Londo felt rather two-dimensional by comparison. S2 Londo was not fun at all-- if you hadn't seen him before, you were ready to quite happily watch him fall into a hole, and S1 Londo, like much of S1 in general, just plain needed a better haircut. You got a couple of good glimpses of him, but wondered if you had been seeing things when it went back to business as usual.

B5 is one of those things that I see as a broad tapestry, where every once in awhile the magnifying glass zooms in on a spot and the detail is striking. The upside is that you get to marvel at that spot, its nuances, and its complexities. The downside is when the magnifying glass is taken away and you go back to the broad view, you feel like something is missing. And in that respect B5 is like an acquired taste; the significance of certain quirks it has, if you acquire the taste, is subsumed beneath the things you enjoy. If you never acquire the taste, or acquire it and lose it, those quirks show up at front and center and you wonder why anyone bothers with it.

I recently read a JMS post suggesting that with the script releases this is pretty much it for the "original" B5 story. It saddens me, because there is so much more to be told. I wouldn't mind some more fleshing out of Londo in particular. But I suppose everything has to move on.

Quick Q - I gather you weren't a fan of Crusade-- have you had opportunity to watch the episodes in the intended airing order? Notwithstanding some of the continuity issues it creates (TNT-redone uniforms popping in and out, etc.) it seemed to change the feel of the series from haphazard to actually going somewhere-- or trying to at least. Just curious.

Cheers,

-Russ

TonyV said...

Abigail

The ONLY redeeming feature of Enterprise WAS the Vulcan in the skin tight catsuit. Alas, I am a weak and shallow man!!

Read your post on Mal Reynolds and you are absolutely spot on. It is his inherant contradictions that make the character so appealing and interesting. One minute calling Inara a Whore and next minute killing a bad guy for hitting a woman. That's not an actual occurrence but an analogy in very simple terms of what he is capable of. I very much enjoyed Serenity and Firefly and it was a shame that this didn't get the opportunity to flourish that B5 did. Damn you Fox TV, damn you all to Hell!!

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Russ,

I don't quite remember how my emotional reactions to Londo changed when I first watched B5 (I pretty much watched the show in sequence, although there was a period before I became a viewer when I kept stumbling upon it - and it would always be the episode "Comes the Inquisitor"), but when I revisited the show recently it went something like this:

S1 - OK, enough with the humorously tragic/tragically humorous already. At least, until the very end of the season when all I could do was gape at Londo's idiocy - I've spoken above about how unrealistic I think his involvement with Morden was.
S2 & S3 - Die! Die! Die! And, occasionally, marveling at his stupidity.
Early S4 - Well, it's nice that we're finally on the same page. Too bad it took putting Caligula on the throne to get you to see sense.
Late S4 - Oh, so now you're a good guy again? And G'Kar is all of a sudden your best friend? Die! Die! Die!

I sort of like the idea that Londo is supposed to be a psychopath, but from what I've seen on the Lurker's Guide I really don't think that's the case. Straczynski makes it clear when he speaks about Londo that he intends a tragic arc for the character, and a tragic hero can't be insane - at least not to begin with.

In fact, between Londo's bi-polar morality and his political brain-death wherever Morden is involved, he pretty much relinquishes all claim to the title of a tragic figure. A tragic character has to be fundamentally good with a fatal flaw that dooms them, but Londo as we see him on screen is a mass of flaws with a few sporadically appearing redeeming characteristics. The tragedy, in other words, is not Londo's, who only wanted to do what was right for his people, but his victims', for not having a smarter, saner person in his place who might have prevented their deaths.

So, no, I don't think Londo as he shows up on screen is what Straczynski intended. And I do think the problem is one of shades of gray. Londo changed, several times, over the show's run, and we never see those changes taking effect - there's no gradient, only an abrupt shift. It really does read to me like an writer who's in over his head.

Now that I think about it, I suppose the reason that G'Kar, the only other character who undergoes a change as profound as Londo does, doesn't strain the viewers' credibility in the same way that Londo does is that his alteration doesn't have a gradient. It is literary a road to Damascus moment - one transformative experience that makes him into a new man.

Quick Q - I gather you weren't a fan of Crusade-- have you had opportunity to watch the episodes in the intended airing order?

I think I watched Crusade in TNT's reversed order - I seem to remember the uniform switch at some point in the middle of the season. I really doubt that watching the show in its original order would have made a significant difference to my reaction - that was grade A dreck.

Russ said...

Abigail:

In fact, between Londo's bi-polar morality and his political brain-death wherever Morden is involved, he pretty much relinquishes all claim to the title of a tragic figure. A tragic character has to be fundamentally good with a fatal flaw that dooms them, but Londo as we see him on screen is a mass of flaws with a few sporadically appearing redeeming characteristics.

Well, tough to argue on that one. It syncs up quite nicely with my own sense that Londo as tragedy is incomplete. I chalked it up to things other than a JMS talent issue, but the conclusion on the final status of Londo as tragic is pretty much the same. "There is a hole in your mind" might apply well to what we got to see of Londo, in some respects.

Something I've eyeballed (including JMS' scribblings) notes B5's constant use of "the light, the dark, and the grey." The implication is that you have two extremes, and the middle with all its complexities.

But is that really what we have in B5? Maybe rather than two extremes and a middle, you have three extremes in B5: light, dark, and neither (which is only defined by not being light and not being dark, therefore grey by default).

Reading JMS' various scribblings, including the non-B5 ones, this might well be a fundamental tenet of both his perspective and his presentation style. It's either on, it's off, or it's... not. Perhaps definition by relationship to extreme is how you get grey-- and therefore the "middle" of a character or a middle-of-the-road character-- in B5. I'll be the first to say that it faces challenges as a literary technique.

At the end of the day, it may be a question of the writer's lens, and I suspect JMS' scribblings are a question of his lens. I happen to get his lens. It resonates with me, in no small part because "there's always more" is a recurring theme I see in his writing. But if one doesn't get the lens, or feels the lens is fundamentally out of focus, one can easily come to a different, and arguably legitimate, conclusion.

So with all that said, it's been fun chatting with you, in no small part because chatting with folks who go "yeah, me too!" (and no more) when you say you like B5 gets a little old. Getting a critical eye on the subject is enjoyable. Some remaining thoughts:

- I wanted to whop Sheridan over the head in Intersections in Real Time as well. Mostly well-executed, but pieces of it had me saying "Sheridan, shut up!" and wanting to offer him a clue finder.

- "And Now for a Word" has one of my favorite all-time dramatic moments-- the closing scene with the camera sitting inside the display they have been watching; Delenn, simultaneously powerless and stupefied, can only leave; the glare from Sheridan into the display; Sheridan's pointlessly forceful and useless jamming of the buttons that shut off the screen, brimming with the compacted emotion of a vengeful punch to the gut that can't be thrown. Ouch.

- I wish I had gotten to see more of Garibaldi. Can't say more than that.

- And yes, Londo needed a good "thwap" where Morden was concerned. Perhaps the biggest issue that I *do* have with Londo is that at least early in the game, he seems awfully clueless for someone in the middle of so much intrigue.

- I don't know whether Ivanova's "right hand of God" was good or bad writing, but I sure loved it.

Anyway, it's been great reading your thoughts and chatting with you. I hope you continue to find the elements of B5 that do work for you thoroughly enjoyable. Anything else, trust Ivanova, trust yourself, and otherwise, shoot 'em!

Cheers,

-Russ

Russ said...

Woops, not "And Now For A Word," I was thinking of "The Illusion of Truth."

Cheers!

-Russ

Grokodile said...

Hmm, I don't think hindsight is a good way to judge the quality of a show.

Things are never as good as we remember them to be. New things come along and put them to shame, it's the way it works.

You thought it was good, at the time, because it was good, at that time. It's not good compared to current options and our evolved expectations.

Sniff, sniff, let the show rest in peace.

Anonymous said...

I just discovered your blog, and have been browsing through the entries. As a fan of B5 (yes, in my teens), I understand completely what you're saying, and thought I'd add my $0.02 as to why B5 still moves me, even with all its flaws:

It speaks constantly, in text and subtext, to the possibility of real, human heroics. It says over and over again that, yes, sometimes legends have their roots in people and actions that were truly astonishing, moral, brave, and honest. That sometimes the truth is even greater than the legends tell us.

(and as a p.s., may I just agree whole-heartedly with your comment about the Ivanova/Talia relationship? You're the first person I've seen put my objections to the supposed subtext so clearly. Kudos.)

--Izhilzha

Anonymous said...

The main problem with Babylon 5 was that it had the worst acting ever on a TV show.

Anonymous said...

As a diehard Deep Space Nine fan, I was looking forward to immersing myself in Babylon 5 via DVD (as I'd done with DS9 -- my life was frantic in the mid-'90s, so I missed both shows then). I never bought into the fan-fueled competition between the two shows, and believed that whatever similarities there were between them would enchance both.

Man, was I wrong: I made it through the pilot and halfway through the first season before I couldn't take it anymore. Whatever merit the overarching story line may have had over the long haul was drained by the truly awful acting, ultra-cheap special effects, indifference to visual or emotional nuance, and childishly moralistic writing. Every time I put in a disk my stomach would clench and I'd dread the hour or three I was about to waste feeling embarrassed and ashamed for all involved.

What a letdown.

Starstuff said...

I have to disagree with your article on B5. True, some of the dialog seems "too much" sometimes, but it also seems to be that you did not understand the underlying intentions of JMS.

This show was not about flashy effects and short-term entertainment; this was an epic story (the 5 year arc) that he wanted to tell. Only because of that JMS ended up writing more than 90 of the shows 110 episodes - to make sure the storylines and the developments of the characters really went into the right direction.

I also think that many of the problems that arise in the story can be found in our current time. Just look at what President Clark is doing and then substitute Bush for Clark. Look at the Drazi fighting over colored cloth and substitute flags (as in US flag or German flag or Iraq flag) for cloth. I could go on forever with this.

At the same time there a lot of those "dull" and "appealing to youth" speeches that have so much meaning in them that I am surprised that you actually think they only appeal to young people. I, on the contrary, when I watched the show for the first time, didn't get half of what was being said. Now, at almost 30, it's like a revelation. A lot of it can be applied to every day life and the philosophies conveyed in the show make more sense to me than most religious belief systems.

So, I guess everyone is entitled to his and her own opinion and I just wanted to say that I disagree with you :) I am just watching Babylon 5 on DVD and I enjoy it tremendously. I think I will soon start my fifth re-run :)

Anonymous said...

Yeah, JMS isn't perfect, we get that. Then go back to watching re-runs of Star Trek TNG or DS9 because those were the only other options at the time. It's easy to nitpick any series in hindsight. The simple fact that you can not dispute is that B5 was revolutionary for it's time.

Anonymous said...

What is "sup-bar"? Some kind of establishment that serves liquor to homies? I think you meant "sub-par."

Anyway, one typo in a great article isn't bad. I can't thank you enough for putting into words the deep suckitude of Babylon 5.

Anonymous said...

In regards to Ivanova, she makes a really bad Russian Jew for many reasons. That whole TKO episode with the Asian aliens and the phony Rabbi must have been the end-result of serious intoxication. I don't what the hell the creator of this crappy show was thinking and smoking. It is infested with contradiction. Delen doesn't even know what a poem is in one episode, while another episode includes a famous Mimbari poet, a buddy of Delen. This is an abomination. I can't believe I liked this show when I was a teenager.

SandWyrm said...

I think that you need to consider B5 within it's own time and place.

Go back and look at ST:TNG and ST:DS9. Then remember just how badly DS9 sucked until they started aping aspects of Babylon 5. The crazy upstart show with less than half the budget and almost as many viewers.

Yes, B5 was ridiculously awful at times, and didn't hit it's stride until Season 2. But remember how fresh is was compared to Trek at the time. Story Arcs, no technobable, CGI everywhere, real people, class divisions, non-utopian outlooks, space battles with some semblance of actual tactics... That all of this has been done better since doesn't diminish the fact that B5 did it first. It really was groundbreaking.

Your review sounds like what I would expect a 20 year-old to say when watching Ridley Scott's Alien for the first time. After seeing many hundreds of shows and films that aped it's formula and stole it's surprises. Not knowing that it was the first Sci-Fi horror film to have a strong female protagonist. As well as the first to have non-military characters fighting aliens.

In the same way, you can't properly appreciate Star Wars or Forbidden Planet without understanding the low quality of the other Sci-Fi available at the time of their release.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Go back and look at ST:TNG and ST:DS9. Then remember just how badly DS9 sucked until they started aping aspects of Babylon 5.

I did, in fact, do just that. And what I found, in DS9's case, was a show that even at its worst was better-written, more intelligent, and more mature than B5 was at its very best. Babylon 5 failed to live up to my rosy teenage recollections of it. DS9 surpassed them.

The importance of B5's formal innovation is undeniable, which is why I don't deny but in fact say so in this post and in the comments. But that importance still doesn't make the show good TV.

(For the record, Alien is still a great film thirty years later. Even Star Wars holds up, for the most part. Babylon 5 was just never any good.)

Anonymous said...

I went back and looked through both DS9 and B5 in my early thirties. I liked both the shows when I was younger, I still like them both, or parts of them. Oddly enough in both cases the early parts of the shows.

DS9 is really quite good in the early seasons when the characters are introduced to each other and relationships between them are formed. It also has the interesting Bajoran religious theme, and Siskos role as the Emissary. Much of this was drowned in the later seasons by the Dominion war which the show never seemed able to write itself out of.

B5 was simpler. Characters already knew each other, even the change from Sinclair to Sheridan left no big impression. It was like a teenage nerds cold war history in space. You got the characters placed in all those moments that would have been remembered in the history books. When A declared war on B, when the resistance emerged on the homefront, when this or that planet was nuked, when our hero took charge and organized the fight, etc...

And it worked for me. The style was interesting, the Shadows were evil and looked it, the Vorlons were reluctant angels. I certainly wasn't Shakespeare but it was enough.

Rewatching the show, it seemed the Fourth season that ruined everything. Everything changed. The format whent from stand alone episodes to weekly cliffhangers, Garibaldi went berserk and lost all character development, B5 like DS9 seemed unable to write itself out of the war with the Shadows and eventually solved it with the sham of having them randomly decide to leave one day and never come back. But the first three seasons are still fun in a simple way.

Yeah, I don't rally know what any of that had to do with what you blogged. I guess I just felt like writing it.

Dream well!

Johnny D

Anonymous said...

Dear Abigail,

I hope you will comment on what I've written here:

I suspect one of the reasons that you still enjoy Babylon 5, despite everything, is the strong heroine and military leader portrayed by Delenn. I remember a scene from the 4th season where she responds to Sheridan leading the attack against Earth, saying that he can handle himself. I was surprised by the maturity of their trust and faith in each other: Delenn for her trust in Sheridan's decision to attack Earth, and Sheridan for his trust and respect for Delenn's culture and her decision to stop the Minbari civil war.

Babylon 5 also seems romantic at heart, and touches that part of us that is still the dreamy eyed teenager, before any cynicism from the real world sets in. It is optimistic, very long-term optimistic, about our capacity to overcome adversity and create loving, meaningful lives.
Even writing the above words can cause eyes to roll, and despite that, this dreamy optimism is a big part of why I've enjoyed many scifi shows.

A question, though: given how much you enjoy writing about fiction, what are your top 3 tv shows and what makes them so good? Given your skill at deconstructing a show, I'm not sure what you'd consider as an example of the best tv production and why.

Regards,

Dean
British Columbia, Canada

Anonymous said...

I always hated Babylon 5 for exactly the reasons you've stated. But I love Farscape - a show that was not written for 15 year olds.

Anonymous said...

Love Farscape too anon. Babylon 5 I tried to watch but the characters just weren't involving enough for me. And the stilted acting is hard to sit thru.
Farscape is the best sci fi show I've seen. It's so bizarre at times but that's what makes it so great. It had some excellent acting and you really care about what happens to the characters.

Heathkit said...

Hi Abigail,

I just discovered your writings - it seems we're the same age and experienced SF tv in pretty much the same way. I have to say I was blown away by your TNG writings - they changed the way I think about that show.

Are you familiar with the direct to dvd production from 2007? Babylon 5: The Lost Tales? I eagerly bought it, wanting to return to that world and relive my teenage years. Instead, it convinced me that I was probably better off with my memory of B5 than actually watching it again.

One thing that stands out in my memory of B5 is how willing they were to experiment. "Comes the Inquisitor" was my favorite episode - I can't think of many shows before or since that would do an entire episode with basically no set. Also, I really enjoyed how Sheridan's torture was handled (interest to compare it to Picard's), and the music and still images montage that portrayed his capture.

No doubt JMS's ego drove the show, and I think people who bought into his cult of personality on the internet ( as I did ) are more likely to be dismissive of DS9, which is a shame. Looking back on it now, I agree DS9 was a better show in many ways, but B5 was much more willing to experiment and take risks, even when it wasn't a good idea.

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