Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Burden Of Being The First Volume: Babylon 5 The Complete First Season – “Signs And Portents!”

The Good: Interesting character growth, Mostly decent acting, Generally good special effects, Story
The Bad: Specific moments of acting, Lack of real DVD extras
The Basics: In the future, humanity is part of an interstellar community plagued by the same instincts and prejudices that guide our societies today in the often-grim science fiction novel, Babylon 5.

Note: This was originally written immediately following the death of Richard Biggs. I liked the opening, so I opted to retain it for this. Enjoy!

With the recent and surprising death of one of the stars of Babylon 5 (Richard Biggs, who played Dr. Stephen Franklin died unexpectedly on May 23, at age 43), I found myself mulling over the Babylon 5 Season 1 DVD set that I had not yet gotten around to reviewing. I had met Mr. Biggs on several occasions, but the most I ever had to say to him was that I liked his performance on NYPD Blue (he did a single guest shot on the show in the tenth season); as I had not watched Babylon 5 before then. It's too bad I'll never have the chance to tell him how much I enjoyed his work in the first season of Babylon 5.

"Signs And Portents," the title of the first season of Babylon 5, as well as one of its episodes, establishes the universe of Babylon 5 and the races and people who dwell there. Babylon 5 is a space station in neutral space in the 23rd century, at a time when humanity is recovering from a fairly devastating war with a race called the Minbari. Babylon 5 serves largely as a United Nations in space for the major species of the future: the humans, the caste-bound Minbari, the former "colonial power" Centauri, their recently liberated Narn slaves and the mysterious and ancient Vorlons. Led by Commander Jeffrey Sinclair, Babylon 5 is a hotbed of political intrigue as well as an outpost on the frontier of exploration.

Sinclair is aided by his good friend Garibaldi, a dry alcoholic security chief, his first officer, the psychic-hating Susan Ivonova, and Dr. Stephen Franklin. Other regulars aboard the station are the Psi-Corp deal-monitoring telepath Talia Winters, the Minbari ambassador Delenn - who has ties to Sinclair's past, and her aid Lennier. The Centauri are represented by the nostalgic Londo Mollari and his assistant, Vir Cotto. They often find themselves at odds with the Narn Ambassador, G'Kar and his assistant, Na'Toth. In their quest to keep the galaxy running smoothly, they find themselves beset with problems, from a Narn attack on a Centauri colony to visiting fanatical telepaths to invasions from biomechanical creatures who prey on the station's lifeforms.

As is evident by my other reviews, I am a huge fan of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. The common story is that when the producers of Star Trek: The Next Generation were considering a spin-off series, they got wind of the idea of Babylon 5 and decided to co-opt (or "steal and adapt") the idea. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Babylon 5 bear some similarities (most notably that they are set aboard space stations), but kudos has to be given to the producers and creators of Babylon 5 for having a yen to make something original. If only Rick Berman and Brannon Braga at Trek could do that, they would be forced out of the franchise. In short, Berman and Braga continue to put crap (garbage, poo, utter braindroppings) out under the name Star Trek (i.e. on Enterprise) when it is no more Star Trek than my big toe. J. Michael Straczynski and Douglas Netter had an idea for a science fiction show and they went and created their own forum for that vision and that is Babylon 5. So without degenerating into which show (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine or Babylon 5) is better, allow me to diffuse such arguments by saying that they are two different animals and that I've lived a lot longer with Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

Most impressive about the concept of Babylon 5 is that Straczynski wanted to put a novel on television. That is, from day one, he had a five year television show conceived that would largely tell a single story and it would "read" like a novel. That's a huge plus right away in my book; I love serialized television. Such an approach is more adult - because it requires one to tune in week after week -, tends to build better characters, and forces consequences into the show. The boxed set DVD collection is the ideal format for this; "Signs And Portents" is volume one of the Babylon 5 novel and having the whole collection at one's disposal makes the entire thing a lot less confusing, especially when it does build on itself and specific elements come into play over and over again (and I'm told there are many from season one that will resurface in later seasons).

Like all good stories, the tale of Babylon 5 is told through its characters. Here is who they are and how they develop over the first season:

Commander Jeffrey Sinclair - A war hero from the Earth-Minbari war, he has a gap in his memory from the last day of the war when he went missing. Now in command of Babylon 5, Sinclair comes to realize that that gap is important and he spends a great deal of time and effort tracking down what happened to him, even though knowing may be worse than living in ignorance. He is a fair commander who does not tolerate racism of any form and finds himself reunited with an old lover with hope that his future might be better.

Lt. Commander Susan Ivanova - The Russian first officer coordinates day to day activities on Babylon 5. Having lost her telepathic mother at a young age, she is deeply distrustful of telepaths and hit especially hard by her father's death.

Security Chief Michael Garibaldi - On his last possible assignment before being utterly fired, Garibaldi finds a friend in Sinclair and the two work to maintain peace and order on the station, even as Garibaldi's past continues to come back to bite him in the behind.

Talia Winters - The station's resident telepath, she understands Ivanova's distrust of her and other Psi Corp members, but tries her best to live in peace on the station. When a visitor from her past arrives to inform her that the Psi Corp may be overstepping her power, she finds her loyalties somewhat conflicted.

Dr. Stephen Franklin - The Chief Medical Officer of Babylon 5, he spent much of his past trading his medical services for passage on ships, giving him a great deal of interspecies knowledge. Franklin often acts as a moral compass around Babylon 5, putting medical science above any other belief, even to his own detriment. He also runs a clinic for those people trapped aboard the station without enough money to leave.

Londo Mollari - Disillusioned by the pacifists who now control the once-mighty government of the Centauri Republic, Londo pines for the "good old days" and finds himself unwittingly allied to a man who has vast amounts of power.

Delenn - The Minbari ambassador with a mysterious past and a link to Sinclair spends a great deal of time and effort protecting Sinclair from danger while working for her own government. She makes a decision that will forever change her and her people.

G'Kar - Often at odds with Londo and Sinclair, he sees the Narn as having their chance to advance into the galaxy and finds he is often the adversary. Despite death threats and political maneuverings, G'Kar quickly realizes that there are huge changes going on in the galaxy and he becomes determined not to let the Narn Regime fall prey to anyone.

and Morden - A stranger who visits the station infrequently on a mission for unseen forces that will change everything.

The first season of Babylon 5 is an admirable idea with mixed execution for uncertain results. That is, the idea of a novel being put into the visual medium is a great idea. Serialized television, where events build up over weeks and there are consequences for earlier actions, is the perfect medium for this. The problem is, this particular story starts with little idea of what the actual story of the station is. That is, the first five to seven episodes feel like episodic television where little things are happening but it isn't going anywhere larger.

Conversely, this season of Babylon 5 very clearly establishes this particular universe and the principles within it. One of the most admirable ideas of Babylon 5 is that the station where we - the viewers - are stuck is not the center of this universe. So, like the characters, much of current events is brought to us in the form of news updates, security reports and heresy from visiting characters. And this creates a troubling universal picture.

Viewed this way, the first season of Babylon 5 is the story of the galaxy slowly coming apart. As the Minbari work to solidify a peaceful relationship with the humans, a racist pro-human movement springs up on Earth, gaining political influence under the mantra of "Earth for the humans." This anti-alien group of separatists demands Earth break ties with alien races and stages numerous terrorist acts on Babylon 5. Even as the Home Guard grows, Sinclair tries to build stronger relationships with other alien races. This is made difficult by the enigmatism of the Vorlons and the recent aggressions of the Narn against the Centauri. And Londo's desire to reclaim his people's greatness starts an alliance that will change everything.

This is, overall, a clever idea for a series and once the stories do become more about Sinclair's efforts to resist Home Guard influence while determining what exactly happened to him in the missing day of his life, the story begins to take off. From a show that originally boasted showing the first lavatory in space, Babylon 5 adds up to a great deal more.

A lot of that has to do with the acting. Most of the acting is well done. The cast is well assembled with no one possessing such celebrity as to be viewed outside their character. Michael O'Hare creates a likable commander who is very different from any other leader in science fiction and as a result, it may take some time to warm up to him. But he has a consistency to him that makes his lack of sweeping emotions read as very real.

Claudia Christian is a stand out for the character who has the most emotion to wrestle with as Ivanova. Christian gives excellent performances in episodes like "TKO" where she is forced to deal with the consequences of her father's death and in her revelations of her dislike for telepaths. Unfortunately, she is also the bearer of the single worst line delivery in "Eyes," when she refuses to be mentally scanned. The direction for her character - a flat declaration of principle - makes perfect sense, however the delivery comes out completely wrong and like Christian is reading lines. She has possibly the best and worst performances throughout this season.

A lot of credit must be given to both Andreas Katsulas and Peter Jurasik, who create very memorable characters on G'Kar and Londo without ever letting the make-up overwhelm them. Richard Biggs illustrates compassion perfectly for a doctor when the show gets around to using him (he has two episodes "Believers" and "The Quality of Mercy" where he is given meaty roles and he easily rises to the occasion). Jerry Doyle rounds out the cast well with his cocky portrayal of Garibaldi.

The special effects are boasted as the first television series relying on all-computer generated special effects and many of them work, though a lot of the space battles seem computer generated. The real effects triumph is in the make-up. The aliens look like aliens and not like people in prosthetics, a nice change from the pilot movie "The Gathering" (reviewed here!).

Which leads us to another drawback of this Babylon 5 Season 1 boxed set; it may be volume 1 of the larger novel, but it is missing its prologue. The Babylon 5 story actually begins in "The Gathering," a separate movie (also on DVD) and that contains several events and characterizations that are important to this story. The DVD does not reference this first chapter and if one simply sits down and watches episode 1 on the first disc, they may feel somewhat lost. Especially as the events of "The Gathering" are referenced several times throughout the season.

Like a lot of television DVDs, this is fairly skimpy on the extras. Only two of the episodes have commentary (I am a commentary junkie!) and outside that there are only episode previews (accessible on the Episode Listing page by going to the left or right of the image of a scene from the episode) and a few featurettes and character primers.

Still, there is enough in this season to come back to and the ending to the first volume is intriguing enough that most science fiction fans will at least want to give volume 2 a shot before deciding on where they will fall on this series. I know I am. However, I would recommend waiting until this goes on sale. The Babylon 5 boxed sets have a pretty steep ($90 range) average sticker price and that's a lot to shell out on something that you have not seen before. My recommendation: pick up the $15 - $20 disc that has "The Gathering" and "In the Beginning" on it and if you like "The Gathering," or think you like the universe it establishes, give this DVD boxed set a chance. This season is a lot better than "The Gathering" and it does feel like the story is going somewhere. It just suffers from the usual "first volume" difficulties. While there are plenty of compelling dramatic moments, this show is more likely to be enjoyed by fans of science fiction as opposed to drama fans.

For a more complete idea of what this boxed set includes, check out my reviews of some of the included episodes reviewed at:
Midnight On The Firing Line / Soul Hunter
Born To The Purple / Infection
The Parliament Of Dreams / Mind War
The War Prayer / And The Sky Full Of Stars
Survivors/By Any Means Necessary
Legacies / A Voice In The Wilderness Part I


For other television reviews, please be sure to visit my index page on the subject by clicking here!

© 2012, 2007, 2004 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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