Alas, Babylon

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Title: Alas, Babylon
Creator: Abigail Nussbaum
Date(s): November 8, 2005
Medium: online
Fandom: Babylon 5
Topic:
External Links: Asking the Wrong Questions: Alas, Babylon, Archived version
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Alas, Babylon is a Babylon 5 essay by Abigail Nussbaum.

Excerpts

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.

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-par 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.

Fan Comments

[HH]:

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."
[Helen Louise]:

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.
[Rich]:

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]:

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.

[snipped]

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]: 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]:

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.
[Anonymous]:

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.
[TonyV]: 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?
[Abigail Nussbaum]:

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.
[Russ]:

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.
[SandWyrm]:

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.
[jollyreaper]:

Funny enough, the wife and I are going through the show: for me it's a rewatch, for her it's seeing things for the first time. I really, really enjoyed it when it aired and I'm happy to say my memory of good and bad remains pretty accurate -- I'm nitpicking the same stuff I didn't like back then and and am praising the stuff I remembered for being so good.

I hear what you're saying in your critiques and will disagree with some of them. B5 has some inherent flaws, some due to deliberate choice, others to production vagaries. But at the very heart is a sincere and earnest effort to tell a big, honking space story and do it well. And they really nailed it on many levels.

My personal peeve is Delenn lost her mojo when she got hair. She never seemed as strong when she became half-human. I think this was meant to show some insecurity and genuine vulnerability but it just made her weak. Season 5 was a hot mess. Four out of five TV movies were bad. (Including the pilot. Loved In the Beginning even though it was strictly redundant.) Some parts of the uber-arc don't make as much sense in retrospect, I think largely on account of changing what that arc was during production and shoehorning in the established lore. Delenn was originally content with blowing up humans and it seems like a retcon to make her reticent and looking for a way out. Why would they even probe a random human with their sacred artifact?

All that being said, here's my B5 experience. I grew up on and grew sick of Trek given the limitations of their format. Reset buttons, too much techno-babble, little continuity. B5 ditched all that and gave me something I'd never seen before. And few shows have even bothered to try and do this since. Most modern shows utterly fail due to making it up as they go along. I don't want that. When I watch a story, I want it relayed to me by a storyteller who has the whole story in his head like it's a history he's learned and he's laying it out for me. He's feeding me the info as it becomes relevant, as I come to care about the characters and how things came to be. I don't want shit made up on the spur of the moment that makes no sense in retrospect. That was Battlestar Galactica.

More shows are going for long continuity and serial storytelling but they can take lessons from B5 in trying to come up with something coherent. We've got the Expanse which is a big hit and lightyears beyond B5 in terms of production design and SFX but it's just not very engaging. I watched it because I was a sucker for the genre. I wouldn't share it with anyone who isn't because I doubt they'd be converted.

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