Sunday, November 26, 2006

Babylon 5: 'The Gathering'

Back in 2003 when I started watching Buffy on DVD, I'd seen very few long form TV series, but over the past few years, I've gone through pretty much every show I really wanted to see, the shows that were considered essential works of longform television storytelling. However, there was one still out there that I'd heard great things about, and that's Babylon 5. The thing that stopped me from watching it before was the first season's bad reputation.

Most shows today are able to start off strong. For whatever reason, the medium has evolved to the point where a show like Six Feet Under or Lost can come out with a first episode that instantly places you in a specific world, with developed characters and strong style. In the case of Lost, this first episode turned out to be the best moment of the series, but back in the early 90s, it seems like it took longer for shows to find their voice. Buffy's first season is decent, but almost embarassing compared to the greatness that would shortly follow. The same thing is true for The X-Files, which took a season to really find its voice. If I was watching Buffy as it aired, I'm not sure if I would have made it through the first season. And, in the case of Babylon 5, I'm pretty sure I would not make it past the pilot. But, there's an advantage in knowing that something will get better and that means that I'll stick with the show despite the very weak opening.

The first thing that stands out watching the show today is the pathetic effects work. At the time, it was apparently groundbreaking, but most videogames today have better stuff than what we've got here. Particularly coming off of a show like Battlestar Galactica, it's jarring to see stuff that doesn't even come close to reality. As the episode went on, I got more used to it and was able to accept that this is just how it is and I can't ask for more. It does hurt though because any time we're presented with something that's supposed to be dramatic happening in space it has to overcome the hurdle of the blatantly unreal effects.

But, that's not my major problem with the episode. In sci-fi, there's an inherent ridiculousness to the material, and it's up to the actors to make the world into a place that's emotionally real. Someone like Patrick Stewart or Edward James Olmos brings the gravitas you need to create a believable world. Alas, our captain here feels more like a game show host or used car salesman, you get no sense that he's invested in the world, it's more like he's trying to avoid being embarassed by working on the show. His second in command, the Asian woman, is even worse, delivering every line with the same b-movie mix of anger and disinterest. The alien actors are much better, when they're on, it's easier to believe in the reality of the world.

The acting is my main issue with the pilot. I'm not expecting much from the first season, but I just don't see most of these actors ever doing something great. Now, I also couldn't see most of the Buffy actors ever doing the stuff they would do over the course of the series, but most of them were at least alright in the first season, not actively bad.

What's most exciting about the pilot is the glimpses of the larger world in which the series takes place. It seems like the series' overall arc will revolve around the difficulties that the various alien races have in co-existing. Presumably they'll move towards the goal of a universal peace, but constantly be undermined by individual jealousy and selfishness. There's certainly potential in the premise, and pieces of the episode are good, but generally speaking the acting and effects prevent the series from creating a believable reality.

It's always unfortunate to watch a show like this after seeing what it spawned, in a Battlestar Galactica or Firefly. The latter have access to so many more resources in creating their effects, it's very difficult to compare. Yet, you don't really have a choice, and rather than BSG being a pleasant surprise in the growth in quality of its effects work, Babylon 5 winds up looking far below standard.

But, I will be sticking with the show, at least through the first season because I would love to see something as good as people say the later seasons of the show are.


Anonymous said...

definitely stick with it, Patrick. the early graphics and acting is pretty subpar with some bits of good acting (notably G'Kar and Londo). the show starts to feel more comofortable towards the end of the season, and when you get bits of the larger story, it makes it more interesting to stick through.
-Keith P.

Antimatter said...

Yep, stick with it, it gets much, much better - I've only got through 3 seasons so far, but I'm eagerly anticipating the rest of it.

I agree about the acting being bad in the pilot (though G'Kar and Londo have always been excellent in my mind). You'll be glad to know that it improves through the first season (and you'll get used to Sinclair), and from the second season onwards it's pretty solid stuff.

As for the effects, they never become 'realistic', but they do get much better, and to be honest they're far more dramatic and dynamic than the effects of the show's contemporaries.

Your theory of the way the show goes is... somewhat correct, but it actually gets more complicated than just that! Honestly, most of the first season is like a really long prologue, but it is an essential element that sets up the B5 universe.

Lee said...

It's no spoiler to reveal that half the cast get the chop after the pilot, although some of their replacements aren't much better. The SFX and prosthetics are also significantly redesigned between The Gathering and the series.

It took until the tenth episode, Mind War, for me to really commit to the show. If you can stay with it till then, I think you'll be on board for the rest of the run.

Patrick said...

I'm definitely going to stick with the series, at least into the second season. I've seen the first three episodes of the series and it does improve. The new humans in the cast are much better, though I'll admit that I'm still not quite seeing how it has the potential to become a truly great series. But, at this point in their run, neither Buffy nor Angel seemed to have that potential either, so I'm giving it the benefit of the doubt. The third episode was the best of the series so far, so perhaps things are looking up.

Michael said...

Glad to see you're sticking with it. Like Antimatter said the first season is like a prologue, what I found so special about this series is that the whole run was one story. You never found yourself back where you started with everyone on the bridge and all is well - people die, people change and nothing is ever the same again.
As a new watcher looking for the greatness pay atention to G'Kar, I think his role has the most power behind it.

Vargen said...

I'm curios.

Did you see the original pilot or did you see the remake that JMS did in 1998?

I haven't seen the remake myself, but it's supposed to be much better. You can find the remake in this box:

Patrick said...

I saw the re-edit, which forces me to ponder just how bad the original version must have been. Now, don't get me wrong, I love the way the series turned out, but the early days are pretty bad.

I actually rewatched some of the pilot a few weeks ago, when I got that DVD boxset, and the effects certainly looked better than they did on the first viewing, but the acting was still rather stilted. That said, having seen the whole series, the pilot had an alluring, slightly alien quality like this was a Babylon 5 from a parallel dimension. Everyone looked slightly different, like in the early Simpsons episodes, and there was a bit more of a seedy feel, with frequent references to interspecies sex and a lot of time spent in the casino. It might have been nice to keep some of that for the series.

Londo and Delenn in particularly looked really different, like knockoff action figure versions of the characters that you'd find in Chinatown. So, it was a strange journey to go back to something that's so familiar and yet so different.

Vargen said...

Oh, well in that case you can forget my later post. :D

Yeah, I know what you mean and I would have been nice to be able to keep some of that, though I'm glad that some of the changes where made (like Delenn).

Patrick said...

Yeah, Delenn was not working there. If she was originally like that, I'd assume the romance with the Captain was not part of the original plan.