Sunday, March 11, 2007

Babylon 5: The Lists

Here's another Babylon 5 post, wrapping up the fifth season and the series, with some lists. First, the top five episodes of year five:

1. The Fall of Centauri Prime
2. Movements of Light and Shadow
3. Objects at Rest
4. Sleeping in Light
5. Day of the Dead

I think the season as a whole was a lot better than its reputation suggests. It was way beyond season one, and averaged out equivalent to season two. None of the episodes soared to the heights of the best of those years, but the characters were so much more complex, your average episode had a lot more layers. I really enjoyed the Byron story, even if the ending went awry, and the final Centauri arc was absolutely fantastic.

And, I found the ending totally satisfying. Yes, there were some loose ends, but I felt like the story had been told and it was time to move on. I'm sure there's people who wish the fifth season was never made, but I think it brought us a lot of great moments, and is a much more satisfying place to end the show than the chaos of 'Rising Star' would have been.

Now comes the larger issue of determining Babylon 5's place within the overall world of television. It's a very important series for showing that a very complex, unified story can be told in a TV show. People can stick with the exposition necessary for a five year story, and that buildup makes for a much more satisfying development. And, I can't think of any show where the universe is so well developed, such that we can leap seventeen years, five hundred years or even a million years into the future, and keep it coherent. I wish more shows would be created with this level of planning and foreknowledge. Of course, that is dangerous because, as in the case of Carnivale, you can wind up with just a bunch of buildup and no payoff. If Babylon 5 was cancelled after season two, I don't think it would have been worth watching, it is the way the threads develop and finally pay off that is most interesting.

But, what holds Babylon 5 back is that I sometimes got the sense that JMS was just trying to get to the end of the five years, and wasn't always paying attention to the moment. If you're aware of how much cool stuff will come, it might be easy to make some sacrifices in the present, and particularly in the early years, the acting just wasn't good. The pilot is almost embarrassingly bad, and even after that, it takes a while for the actors to adjust to their characters. I wish that they would have put as much effort into the performance as the writing, and worked to get the performances to a deeper level.

Reading interviews with JMS, he clearly prides himself on bringing things in on time and under budget, but that's not always the best way to do art. He said something like, I know what I want so I'll do one or two takes of a scene then move on. Now, that's valid, but there's a reason guys like Kubrick were able to get phenomenal performances out of their actors, the longer you work with a scene, the more you can develop it and find new layers. You can't approach it with the goal of just shooting and moving on, sometimes you have to just work in a moment. Now, after a while this can get tedious, but there's a lot of scenes in season one that could do with another take, and even in the later years, bad acting from the guest characters hurts the show. I wish JMS had his own Tommy Schalmme or Michael Rymer, someone to dictate a strong visual style and work with the actors to get the best performance possible. At the end of 'Deconstruction of Falling Stars,' he's not celebrating that he made great shows, he's celebrating that he made it to year five. There were great shows in there, but I can't help but wish he would live more in the moment.

But, is foreknowledge and planning incompatible with appreciating the moment? I think Joss Whedon founds the best balance, keeping overall character arcs in mind, but modifying the show to emphasize what was working and phase out what wasn't. Both Buffy and Babylon 5 had shaky first years, but comparing those years tells you what's best about each show. In the case of Buffy, even during the awful standalones, you had strong character moments and acting from the leads. In B5, it was hints about the larger picture of the universe that sustained me. And, ultimately both series emphasized those strengths as the show went on.

And, even as I fault some of the acting, I need to praise Peter Jurasik and Andreas Kulsatas again. They nailed every episode, right from the pilot, and without them, I'm not sure I would have made it through the early going. As the series went on, they became more nuanced and continued to do fantastic work. No one else on the show even touched them in terms of screen presence.

Ultimately, it's best to appreciate the show for what it is, not damn it for what it's not. There were moments in the show that affected me on not a personal level, but on some kind of universal human level. I've never seen a show that showed the devestation of war as powerfully as the Narn-Centauri War in season two. They managed to make these massive effects sequences incredibly powerful on an emotional level, and that's not easy to do. Effects are so often criticized as eye candy, these weren't superfluous, they were the story. The show made me think in a way few others have, and that's why I loved watching it. The reason 'War Without End II' is the series' best is because it's simultaneously mind blowing on an intellectual level, and extremely affecting on an emotional one. Plus, it's such a bold narrative experiment, you have to take notice. Not many people can reveal the end of the story in the middle of the show and still make it work.

In recent years, we've gotten a lot of shows with the illusion of continuity and development. Rescue Me and Nip/Tuck always carry over plot threads from episode to episode, but they don't accumulate in the characters' lives. They go through awful, awful shit and come out the other side basically the same. On Babylon 5, change always mattered, actions had consequences and nothing was forgotten. That is why I loved the show, and, in spite of its flaws, it stands as perhaps the best example yet of the television show as more than a bunch of episodes, it is the television show as single, unified story.

And now, the top ten episodes of the series:

1. War Without End II - The boldness of doing a three part episode where the latter two air two years after the first deserves notice alone, with this millenium spanning story. Not only do we get great resolution for the past, with Jeffery Sinclair's emergence as Valen, we also get resolution for the future, with the phenomenal Centauri Prime storyline. Only in a show as meticulously as planned as B5 could an episode like this work, not only is it mind bending, it's also extremely fun as it unfolds. Easily the best episode of the show, and unlike anything else I've ever seen.

2. The Long Twilight Struggle - This was the most emotional episode of the series for me. Londo finally recognizes what he's done in the devestating bombing of Narn sequence. This is the first episode that uses massive events, the space battles, in a truly emotional way. Watching G'Kar's pain next to Londo's gradual revelations is heartbreaking, there's a reason this one is revisited so much later in the series, it's one of the greatest depictions of the horrors of war in TV history. Most war stories can't help making war look cool, witness the love of Apocalypse Now or Full Metal Jacket by fratboy types. One of JMS's greatest triumphs is to show war for what it really is, destruction and loss, the worst thing humanity is capable of.

3. Deconstruction of Falling Stars - No episode made me think as much about this one, and no episode is as relevant to reality. This is a story about humanity's journey, and it applies just as much to us as it does to Sheridan and his gang. The opening two segments are interesting comments on the show, the last three are about humanity in general, depicting our capacity for greatest evil and greatest good in equal measure. And, no matter what we do, we will continue to move forward, move to the stars. On the commentary, JMS talked about a potential series about the monks rebuilding Earth and that sounds like as good a spinoff as any from the series. In one episode, he created four fully realized universes.

4. Z'Ha'Dum - There's a reason the image of Sheridan on the precipice, preparing to jump, popped up in so many credits sequences. It's epic, never was the show bigger than at the end, with Anna advancing on Sheridan, and the white star descending, carrying bombs on Z'Ha'Dum. This episode pays off a lot of threads, and completely changes the nature of the Shadow War, it's the turning point of the series, and one of the most emotional hours.

5. The Coming of Shadows - This was the episode that changed everything, before this I enjoyed the show, but this made me reevaluate what it could be. Londo's oblivious betrayal of G'Kar is devestating, and casts a shadow over the rest of the series. The scene where he buys Londo a drink is one of the best examples of dramatic irony in TV history. Plus, we get that intriuging glimpse of Londo's future, a dream which will guide us through the rest of the series. I'd ever seen a previously likable character to as dark a place as Londo went in the second season, his arc alone makes the series worth watching.

6. Rising Star - Ivanova's speech is her character's greatest moment, and the personally emotional of the entire series. Most of the emotion comes from huge events, as the characters watch wars spiral out of control around them. This was just one person's sacrifice, and it was still profoundly sad. It was a great farewell moment for the character. A lot of other cool stuff happens here too, including the set up of the universe's new status quo. If the show had ended with this plus 'Sleeping in Light,' I'd have been satisfied.

7. The Fall of Centauri Prime - So many previous plot points fell into place here, and Londo's arc comes to a sad end. After his rehibiliation in year four and five, it's so hard to watch him give up his identity to save his people. All his hopes and dreams are shattered, unable to escape the legacy of his deal with the Shadows. Everyone gets good stuff in this episode, it's the last moment of forward progress in the series, everything else is denouement.

8. Into the Fire - The Shadow War comes to a close as its essential falseness is revealed. This was an ideological war, and Sheridan and Delenn win by choosing a third path, creating the third age. In some respects, I would have liked a bigger conclusion to the story, but it still works well, and is a perfect summation of the themes that have been present since the pilot.

9. Introspections and Examinations - Another everything changed moment happened here, with the death of Kosh. It may be the most shocking moment of the show. On top of that, we've got Londo's return to the darkness, and Sheridan's tense confrontation with Kosh. It is in that moment that Sheridan begins the series of events that will begin the Third Age.

10. Movement in Light and Shadow - Perhaps the best cliffhanger in the whole run is the end of this episode, with everything falling apart, the entire Alliance in jeopardy, and Centauri Prime falling into the chaos we know will last for seventeen years. There's a bunch of episodes similar to this, but few had the stakes of this one.

Now, a couple of point I've been thinking about. One is, whatever happened to Draal and Epsilon 3? A bunch of effort wasput into setting them up, and I figured they'd play some role in the Shadow War. He pretty much disappeared from the show after a while, was he ever meant to do something more, or was it always a misdirection? I suppose the planet was a part of War Without End, but I figured it would play a bigger role.

And, after finishing the show, I have to say that Garibaldi's season four arc was a copout and one of the rare violations of the actions having consequences rule. All of Garibaldi's development over the course of the season is wiped away when Bester meets him. Now, there are some lingering consequences, from the act of being controlled, but not from what he actually did. It's an attempt to have things both ways, do the dark Garibaldi arc, and then have him back on the team easily. I think it would have been more effective to have him spend the fifth season trying to find redemption for betraying Sheridan, and coming to terms with what he'd done.

Also, what are the major changes from the five year plan? I know the original one, with Sinclair, isn't out yet, but from what's out there, where did things change? I know the Ivanova and Byron one, but there are any other major things like that?

And, to close things out, a few months ago, I made a list of my twenty favorite TV shows of all time, but I was midway through B5. Now that I'm through it, here's my current ranking:

1. Twin Peaks
2. Buffy the Vampire Slayer
3. Six Feet Under
4. The Sopranos
5. Cowboy Bebop
6. The Office (UK)
7. Angel
8. The X-Files
9. Freaks and Geeks
10. Babylon 5
11. Arrested Development
12. Battlestar Galactica
13. Gilmore Girls
14. Seinfeld
15. Friday Night Lights
16. 24
17. Samurai Champloo
18. The Prisoner
19. Spaced
20. Trigun

Battlestar vs. B5 was a challenging question for me, and a really good end of season from BSG could change the rank, but ultimately, B5 had a clear direction, and constant forward motion. That's what makes it a more satisfying overall experience for me. But, on a random episode basis, BSG is far beyond. It's interesting because the shows are exact opposites in terms of strengths. Babylon 5 has great overall direction, far reaching character arcs and great consistency and internal story logic. Battelstar suffers on the big picture, with a lot of wheel spinning and obfuscating, but it's so well shot and acted you don't really care. If the production team of BSG worked with a writer like Stracyzinski, we could have an absolute masterpiece. What he really needed was someone to focus on the moments, the acting, the shooting, and leave the big picture to him. In that respect, he reminds me of George Lucas, a guy who can make a whole universe, craft epic, sweeping character arcs, but falls down when it comes to getting a decent performance or writing believable dialogue. Maybe it's just not his concern, I can forgive Grant Morrison for writing stories that frequently feel like they were much better in his own head, why not give JMS the same room? He wanted to realize his dream on film, and in the end, I think he succeeded.


Colin Blair said...

Draal and the Machine's primary purpose was WWE. The actor playing Draal became unavailable and since he had already been recast once before the thread had to be dropped as far as any direct during the current shadow war. As for changes to the five year plan, the complete outline will be released when all of the script books are released. However, in brief a few episodes were cut from the end of season 4 and reduced to a few lines of dialog referring to off-screene events. The original end of the season would have been the interrogation episode.

Patrick said...

Ok, I figured Draal would play some critical part in the Shadow War, but I guess that would have been pretty deus ex machina, so it's for the best they avoided it. That's a shame about the actor not being available, if his whole reason for existing was that episode, but it all worked out well, so I guess we didn't miss much.