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Shaenon K. Garrity
This is where I write stuff.
Now I Watch All Babylon 5: "The Gathering" 
19th-Nov-2010 12:30 pm
That's it. I said I'd do it, and I'm doing it. I'm watching the entirety of "Babylon 5" from beginning to end.

Some background. "Babylon 5" was one of my formative nerd obsessions. When I was in high school, it came on after "Deep Space Nine" in local syndication, and I gradually abandoned DS9 for its dimmer, grungier warrens. I was in college when the awesome central seasons were running, and weekly "Babylon 5" nights became a fixture of our sci-fi club. My friends and I devoted no small amount of time to deciding which of us would have which character as his or her personal love slave. (Mine was Vir. I have...types.) Then I drew comics about the love slave selection process. No, you may not see these comics. Then Season Five rolled around and the joy kind of died, but I try not to dwell on the bad times.

The plotting of my webstrip Narbonic owes a lot to the five-year plot arc of B5, what with the time travel and weird foreshadowing and all. In the ten years since college, however, I've avoided rewatching it. Part of the reason is that, as any B5 fan knows, the series has two huge problems: the beginning and the end. Season One and Season Five contain some seriously bad television. Final season of "Soap" bad. (I'm watching "Soap" right now too. How does a show that brilliant go that bad? They even made Jodie straight. It's insane.) But it's getting to the sweet, creamy center that worries me the most. Can even the best of "Babylon 5" live up to my bright college memories? Before you try to reassure me, keep in mind that, at this very moment, the show's creator is writing a comic book in which Superman walks across America having boring conversations with people. The tagline is, "You will believe a man can walk." So my concerns are not unfounded.

But nonetheless, by the grace of Netflix, here I go. "Babylon 5," from the beginning.

Season 1, Pilot: "The Gathering"

As the Babylon 5 space station prepares to open for business, Ambassador Kosh of the Super Secret Vorlon Empire is poisoned by an assassin. Commander Sinclair and his suspiciously Bruce-Willis-like muscle, Garibaldi, have to solve the crime before it sparks a war with the Vorlons--but things get complicated when a telepathic scan fingers Sinclair as the killer. SPOILERS: Turns out it was the work of a guy in a shapeshifting suit, probably hired by Narn ambassador G'Kar, because he was evil then.

The Title Means: Um, people are...gathering? At the station? While the whole murder mystery thing is going down? I think that's about as deep as it goes.

Comments: Good lord, is the B5 pilot boring. It's like two hours long, and it's got maybe twenty minutes of non-boring material. The rest is mostly stilted dialogue, short-lived characters, and some amazingly bad acting. Tamlin Tomita, who plays never-again-seen Laurel Takashima, delivers every line with Shatneresque levels of projectile emotion, as if about to break down in tears while guiding ships into port, although Wikipedia says her terrible performance was partly the fault of Warner Bros. for demanding that she make her character act more "feminine" and less, well, competent. Most of the eventual regulars, however, are already bringing their A game, especially Andreas Katsulas as the awesome-right-from-the-start G'Kar. Maybe it's easier to get into a sci-fi character while masked by layers of protective latex.

The murder mystery plot is kind of interesting until the resolution, which might have been more satisfying if it had been mentioned previously that shapeshifting suits, you know, exist. That would have been useful information to have. This is the kind of thing that used to make people say it was impossible to write a good mystery set in a sci-fi or fantasy universe--you can always have the solution be "a wizard did it"--until Isaac Asimov got mad about it and wrote The Caves of Steel.

Although the concept is kind of interesting and the CGI is pretty good by mid-1990s standards (i.e., terrible), I'm honestly surprised "Babylon 5" got picked up on the strength of the pilot. The elements that made the series good--the characters' personalities and interactions, the detailed setting and backstory, the sense of a sprawling, ambitious ongoing plot, the dry humor--are nowhere to be seen here. It feels like the work of people who were none too confident they could really make a sci-fi TV show.

Weird aside: I was very excited when Mira Furlan first appeared on "Lost," and had to explain to Andrew, who is only a nerd about comic books, that she was Delenn! From! "Babylon 5"! I also have some degree of prosopagnosia, difficulty recognizing faces. When I pointed out Delenn to Andrew in this episode, he said, "You can't identify faces, but you recognized her?" (To be fair, Furlan later appears on B5 with a lot less sci-fi makeup. And I recognized her on "Lost" mainly thanks to her very distinctive voice. And, well, it's Babylon 5.)

19th-Nov-2010 08:44 pm (UTC)
Oh Babylon 5. It, too, was a Huge Deal for me. To this day, I can do a vocal Delenn impression that will momentarily silence a room full of nerds.

I recall going upstairs from the family rec room after the Season 4 finale (when the show was canceled), having a little cry, and writing in my journal.

The whole first season is rough going, as I recall (even my 15 year-old self could perceive this). Similar to DS9, neither of them really got off the ground until they realized they were allowed to be Different.
19th-Nov-2010 11:57 pm (UTC)
Oh goodness I remember those years. Every year, "Babylon 5 is getting cancelled! For real this time!" Every year, "Oh, oops, it was so doomed that even its cancellation got cancelled."
20th-Nov-2010 04:17 am (UTC)
You stole my thunder...I was going to comment about the first episode of DS9 looking like one of those MAD TV send-ups where everyone has to give their back story in one run-on sentence.
Fortunately, most ...um...(I hate to say it, because I am one, but here goes)NERDS realize that sci-fi writers,TV or otherwise, take time to get better.
R.A.H. being a notable exception. Niven another.
25th-Nov-2010 03:00 am (UTC)
as i recall, in both cases, some of the actors actually took lessons between the first and second season.
19th-Nov-2010 08:50 pm (UTC)
Ah, fond memories of sitting in a conference room in one of the not-physics buildings at Ohio State, watching tapes of B5 eps smuggled in from England (where they got the season before America). While waiting for those eps to arrive, the club showed all the series to date, which let me get caught up (I didn't get into it until late in S1), and then we were able to thrill to...well, "Gray 17 is Missing." But also good arc eps. :)
20th-Nov-2010 01:26 am (UTC)
Ah yes. There were similar showings of the first aired in Britain eps at the MIT grad student pub. Also, JMS did a showing of some yet to be seen eps at Comic-Con one year, as I recall to a rather limited audience that I was lucky enough to be a part of.
19th-Nov-2010 08:52 pm (UTC)

I didn't watch any B5 until a couple of years ago, all at once over a few months, and I luved it. I didn't think season 1 was that bad (despite hollow sets and hollower acting), but on the other hand I actively enjoy the campiest of old skool Doctor Who episodes. And my friend did make me skip the Gathering and go straight for the episodes.
19th-Nov-2010 08:56 pm (UTC)
Last year I watched Babylon 5 for the first time, so I support this project. Someone told me that the last season was really bad so I intended to skip it, but I think I thought it had more seasons than it did and ended up watching the whole thing.

Do I remember right that all of the scripts for season 4 was written by J. Michael Straczynski unassisted in a couple of weeks when he locked himself into a room with a word processor and a coffee maker?
19th-Nov-2010 08:59 pm (UTC)
Man, I really have to get back to that. The last episode I saw was "In the Shadow of Z'ha'dum," and that was ages ago. It's not on Hulu or The WB's site anymore; I see Netflix is streaming it, but I use Linux, and if I'm going to be using the family's Windows computer, Netflix has to compete with games and printing school stuff for my attention.

You know what? Forget streaming, I'm adding the last two discs to the family's DVD queue. There, done.

And holy cow, Danielle Rousseau was Delenn? I had no idea.
19th-Nov-2010 09:10 pm (UTC)
Earlier this year I watched the series finale again for the first time in years, and I can testify that it's held up well.
19th-Nov-2010 09:20 pm (UTC)
I started watching B5 because I wanted to see for myself just how bad it could be. I'd been following the "adventures" of its creation bit by bit as JMS was posting about it on one of the SFRTs (Science Fiction Round Table) back then, on GEnie.


JMS was nearly totally clueless about science fiction short stories and science fiction novels. Yes, he'd heard about the classics but he'd never read them. He wasn't reading the new stuff either.

Like most Hollywood types JMS had no time for reading and he was scared to death of being influenced or being accused that he had stolen somebody else's "big idea". It was so much simpler to keep away from the printed stuff and stick to a few SF movies and comics. On the other hand he was very entertaining, as a GEnie/SFRT poster. Also, he seemed like a very "sympatico" kind of guy. At least his postings on all kinds of subjects gave that impression.

Then, B5 finally appeared on the boob tube.

I had expected bad, ill-thought, irrational science fiction. I hadn't realized though how bad the acting could be and how irrational the plots would end up.

From my point of view there wasn't much of a difference between seasons one and two, or three. The actors were all mediocre and their lines were sub-par. I kept on watching because at the time I was starved for space-based TV and movies. Also, there was the intellectual challenge of comparing the lack of true science fiction in B5 with the lack of true science fiction in DS9. I have memories of intense groaning. Good times.
20th-Nov-2010 01:13 am (UTC)
Dude, is there any SF television you DO like? If B5 and DS9 struck you as poorly conceived and executed.

They're both fine examples of the space opera genre, which is not particularly related to the serious speculative SF that is more prevalent in the prose market, or for high-budget movie sci-fi. They're closer to soaps than they are to Asimov.
20th-Nov-2010 05:05 am (UTC)

- Red Dwarf!

- Dune, the miniseries. (first part only, the one corresponding to the original Dune novel)

What can I say? I've been spoiled not only by great text-only SF short stories and novels but also by tons of great, fully graphic, comic-form SF stories. Nearly all of Spaceman Spiff's adventures have more real science fiction in them than the typical episode of the typical USA TV series. Then, you have something like Narbonic. I haven't read all of it but what I've read was oozing with true science fiction stories, superbly conceived and superbly executed SF stories where the characters, the plots were pushed to action or totally embroiled in classic science fiction tropes that absolutely could not be transposed to a fantasy setting.

(also, I would like to note that I was overcome with joy on those rare occasions when DS9 did actually show a science fiction episode, like "Civil Defense", "Far Beyond the Stars", and a few others).
20th-Nov-2010 06:35 pm (UTC)
I don't see how Sisko suddenly thinking he's a poor black writer in the 50's suddenly elevates that episode to being "true" sci- fi anymore than any other episode of DS9, but whatever.
15th-Jan-2011 09:38 pm (UTC) - OK, that's strange.
You think the acting is bad and the plots are irrational on B5, a show which places guns on the mantelpiece in this episode that don't go off for five years, and which plans for the departure of arbitrary actors at arbitrary times... but you consider *Red Dwarf* to be good SF? This is a show which didn't even bother providing reasons for the sudden changes of appearance of some of its actors, whose plotting varied from risible to nonexistent, and whose dialog sometimes descended to the level of jokes so dead Plutarch considered them old hat.

It seems to me you've fallen through a timewarp from a parallel universe in which B5 and Red Dwarf had each others' show titles. B5 has faults (JMS is definitely better at monologue than dialogue), but it is nowhere near as bad as you suggested.

Considering the universally panned Dune miniseries to be better than B5 is somewhere between loony and crackpot. I suspect you to be a troll.
19th-Nov-2010 10:48 pm (UTC)
Beyond my recognition that the security officer guy was Kenicki from Grease, the only other characters I liked were that blonde telepathic woman (I went through a whole phase of appreciation for sleek, cold Scandinavians) and Kash. I would fantasize that Kash was actually some babelicious angelic being, a la Gabriel or Michael.

Did we ever actually see Kash without his suit?
20th-Nov-2010 03:54 am (UTC)
Yes, we do eventually see Ambassador Kosh without his suit. He's actually some babelicious angelic being, a la Gabriel or Michael. See the two images in the middle of this review of the relevant episode
20th-Nov-2010 05:38 am (UTC)
Oh, for the love of...

Thanks for this! Whew. I'll sleep like a baby tonight.
19th-Nov-2010 10:53 pm (UTC) - Waves prosopagnosia flag high.
I wonder if there's a correlation between liking cartoon faces and having trouble pinning names on real ones.

Science fiction mystery is hard, but has there ever been a decent fantasy mystery besides Feet of Clay?
19th-Nov-2010 11:21 pm (UTC) - Re: Waves prosopagnosia flag high.
Science fiction mystery is hard, but has there ever been a decent fantasy mystery besides Feet of Clay?

Having trouble remembering, but I think there have been a few. IIRC a couple of the original Robert Howard Conan stories edged into Mystery territory, but that was a very low-magic setting for the most part.

I think I remember Raymond Feist doing a halfway decent one, but I blew through a huge chunk of his stuff in one go, so damned if I can remember which book that would be; they've all kind of run together in the years since.

The Hallowed Hunt, bu Lois McMaster Bujold, might be arguable, but it's some weird mutant form of the mystery genre if so.
20th-Nov-2010 02:20 pm (UTC) - Re: Waves prosopagnosia flag high.
Randall Garrett's "Lord Darcy" stories. Serious dectecting, good stories, some homages (one is "Murder on the Orient Express" in reverse).
20th-Nov-2010 12:01 am (UTC)
Delenn is the only reason I have seen as much Lost as I have. I love her.
20th-Nov-2010 12:12 am (UTC)
Well, it took it a year to get picked up based on that pilot. I bet if it had been stronger, that wouldn't have been the case. Although, of course, ci-fi television was not really known for the strength of its acting back then (Patrick Stewart aside).

And I think JMS noticed the weakest performers too. As you pointed out, most of them didn't end up coming back. (Although I'm sure some of them just had other commitments.)
20th-Nov-2010 01:09 am (UTC)
Sometimes the shows we most fear won't be as awesome as we remember hold up the best.

I was worried that Count Duckula wasn't *actually* the best thing ever, but it turns out it was (unlike that no-good Inspector Gadget).
20th-Nov-2010 02:14 am (UTC)
Yes, there was a lot of schlock.

Yes, they had to figure things out as they went along.

But how many genuine hero-stories are out there to watch? Not plaster saints, not drunken womanizers with iron suits or magic rings, or people doing evil things 'in he name of good', but heroes? Thank Valenn B5 was on when my kids where growing up and needed to see heroes.


No SF series, before or after, has had so many glorious one-liners.

"What do you want, you moon-faced assassin of joy?"
Londo to Vir, Born to the Purple

"It's an Earth food. They are called Swedish meatballs. It's a strange thing, but every sentient race has its own version of these Swedish meatballs. I suspect it's one of those great universal mysteries which will either never get explained or which will drive you mad if you ever learned the truth."

"The universe is driven by the complex interaction between three ingredients: matter, energy, and enlightened self-interest."
G'Kar, Survivors

DS9 never even came *close* :)
20th-Nov-2010 04:33 am (UTC) - Not a one-liner, but...
G'Kar, looking at a poster of Daffy Duck in full rage - "I was studying this image. Is it one of his household gods?"
Zack - "That's Daff- Yeah. Well, in a way I suppose it is. It's sort of the Egyptian god of Frustration."
G'Kar - "Most appropriate! Thank you!"
22nd-Nov-2010 07:25 pm (UTC) - Re: Not a one-liner, but...
And of course the "Babylon 5 Mantra."

Also, on a more serious note, G'kar's Declaration of Principles, which itself was worth the slog through Season 5.
23rd-Nov-2010 01:54 pm (UTC) - Re: Not a one-liner, but...
I remember those...

But...doesn't this mean that G'kar's "Declaration" was all about Ivanova?
20th-Nov-2010 04:36 am (UTC)
Oh god, is the last season of Soap that bad? I'm at the start of Season 2 on Netflix now and enjoying it -- I haven't seen Seasons 3-5 since they first aired. Okay, I'll be ready for it going all pear-shaped . . .

I didn't see much of B5 as it aired. My wife was a fan, and I got the DVD boxes as they came out and became a big fan watching those (while my wife, seeing them yet again, began to like it less). I've watched them again recently, and found all of the seasons but 3 more uneven than I remembered. I don't think you'll be TOO disappointed with them when you get there.
20th-Nov-2010 09:10 am (UTC)
I liked B5 when it was shown here in Finland, I watched almost every episode when they were first aired and taped all except one or two episodes.

The VHS tapes sat on my shelf for almost ten years until I threw them out in the last move. I have never bought the DVDs or even watched them again (a flatmate had them) because I think they were good but would feel bad.

It's still fun reading these entries - I friended you for them so I can follow them more easily. I might even take up watching them all again, though I have the plan to do that for Farscape - I liked that, too, for other reasons and I have never watched it completely.

(Why, yes, I came here because of Narbonic commentaries. :)
20th-Nov-2010 02:26 pm (UTC)
I was a big fan of the series when it was first airing and recorded all but the last five episodes(was deployed to Korea for a year). I bought all the DVDs as they came out. I would argue that the pilot is probably the worst for all the things you have pointed out here. G'Kar is the only saving grace to the whole two hours.
20th-Nov-2010 02:49 pm (UTC)
B5 still holds a special place in my brain, warts and all...

But I do find it interesting that the most consistently good performances, even in the pilot, came from the actors playing aliens--Mira, Andreas, and Peter.

The "special edition" of The Gathering is better than the original edit by far...in much the same way that the Director's Cut of ST:TMP is superior, and for very similar reasons.
21st-Nov-2010 05:35 am (UTC)
I was amazed at how much better Tamlyn Tomita was with her original voice track. An actor friend explained to me that she'd had to redub her original track in a softer style *after* it had already been filmed, which resulted in some very weird moments.
21st-Nov-2010 02:31 pm (UTC)
I agree. It was a classic case of network execs not actually having a bloody clue.

And they got shafted in the end, because Claudia Christian was twice as bold as Tamlyn Tomita even in the better edit!
20th-Nov-2010 08:44 pm (UTC)
I am very excited that you are doing this. More excited than I can rationally justify.

So which version of the pilot was it? They re-edited the original a few years in in an attempt to make it less boring. Visiting wikipedia to refresh my memory they say the edits to make it more interesting mostly added exposition and background about characters, which I guess gives some idea about how boring a pilot we're talking about here. They also took out the scene that was a trip through what looked like a zoo for aliens.
21st-Nov-2010 12:03 am (UTC)
You know, I loved B5 back in the day, and would move heaven and Earth to find somewhere to watch it.

Then it finished, and I couldn't muster the nerve to watch it again --- while it was, on the whole, great, the bad bits were so cringingly bad I couldn't face them, and didn't want to sully my memory of a groundbreaking series. I still have nightmares about some of Straczynski's speeches.

So I've just watched The Gathering. I hope you're proud. And you know, it actually worked and held together well. As you say, it could have been edited down quite a long way, and it would benefit hugely from improving the CGI (even giving them some new textures so they didn't have to keep recycling the same four lousy 'dirty metal' effect textures on all the models), and Michael O'Hare is wooden you could make furniture out of him, but I enjoyed it.

So, thanks, I think. Am I going to watch the next episode? Well, it does have Claudia Christian in it...
22nd-Nov-2010 08:02 pm (UTC)
As an amusing side note, my local syndicated station also played both DS9 and B5 back to back... which the station got horribly confused somehow, because the first preview ads for DS9 used clips from The Gathering. ("When did Star Trek switch to CG?")
23rd-Nov-2010 12:14 am (UTC)
Eh... I don't think S1 and S5 are all THAT bad. I can think of other series that really took a piss all over the place (HEROES) to the point where I was not only bored, but angry. I never felt that way about S1 and S5, more like "Eh, they're warming up" and "Well, JMS got screwed a bit there and had to improvise, okay."

I did, however, enjoy listening to Babylon Podcasts going on about how much they hated Byron. That was funny.
3rd-Dec-2010 10:57 pm (UTC)
I loved Babylon 5! I never saw the ending, though. I watched it while I was in college with my other D&D friends, really enjoyed it for the most part, and then lost track of it after I graduated.
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