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Babylon 5: The Lost Tales cover

TV shows are like love affairs.

The relationship starts small: you're intrigued by a chance encounter; you end up making a date. Suddenly they're an important part of your life. You're seeing them every week, thinking about them when they're not there. The really potent ones can become consuming, their characters like real people, their stories like personal dramas.

Unlike love affairs (or, depending on your cynicism, exactly like love affairs) our passion for television shows is ultimately doomed. Unless its title contains the words "Law" and "Order" in close proximity, no TV show is likely to outlive you. Inevitably there comes the moment when the series is cancelled.

Bumping into an old TV show is a common experience, therefore, but also a strange one. It's like finding an old photo of someone who once meant a lot to you. You remember feeling very intensely about them but there's been a lot of water under the bridge since then. It's hard to reconnect except through nostalgia. When a familiar episode of Cheers or M*A*S*H appears on the screen it's undeniably the product of a different era. Old shows can stand like milestones in your life, marking eras now long gone, but they're strangely musty; part of the past, not the present.

Babylon 5 is one of my old TV flames, and now, after all this time, here it is again. It's tempting to wonder why, of all the gin joints in all the world, it had to walk into mine.

The Way We Were

My first meeting with Babylon 5 wasn't promising: it was a distinctly ropey encounter in a video store. The pilot film "The Gathering" was released in 1993. The performances were stilted, the dialogue expository, and the (at the time revolutionary) CGI effects were cartoonish. But there was something about it. This was a living, breathing and above all grimy world blending commercial, military and civilian interests. The nuts-and-bolts universe, with its dockers, petty criminals and toilet humour, deliberately distanced itself from the more sanitised world of Star Trek, then airing the sixth season of The Next Generation and the first season of Deep Space Nine. In its mundane approach Babylon 5 paradoxically captured a sense of wonder about space travel which Star Trek had long since reduced to part of the furniture.

Above all what that 1993 pilot movie held was promise. Like the first chapter of a book it deliberately set up several mysteries to be played out over the course of the prospective series, a novelistic approach to TV SF that was partly a reaction against Star Trek's decades-old TV template of episodic stories within an overall status quo. There was the "hole" in Commander Sinclair's memory, tied up with the truth about the Minbari surrender on the brink of victory in their war against Earth. The nature of the Vorlons was another: strange non-humanoid beings clad in impenetrable encounter suits whose purpose in observing the station was unknown. Babylon 5 had mystery built in by design, and as the series progressed it became apparent that its status quo and its characters had far more room to grow, change and even invert themselves than Star Trek had ever allowed. Story threads, offhand remarks and even specific flash-forwards could be paid off several years down the line. It was a risky but rewarding approach, and it evoked a passionate loyalty among its fans. I spent many happy hours in the heyday of our relationship happily debating the significance of every plot point, secure in the knowledge that it was all part of a grand design. Fans of the terminally aimless Lost may wish to look away now.

For all this ambition Babylon 5 was often as frustrating as it was inspiring. The low budget meant plywood sets, but did it have to mean plywood acting? Even the main cast ranged from the talented to the distinctly am-dram. The scripts, mostly from creator J Michael "Joe" Straczynski, often played like JRR Tolkien transposed to outer space, with a fondness for the grandiose, lashings of exposition and a tin ear for naturalistic dialogue.

Things gradually improved. From late Season 2 to early Season 4 the writing was more accomplished, the plot kicked into high gear, and the series enjoyed a golden age arguably as strong as any science fiction TV show before or since. Even more remarkably for US television, every episode of that period was written by Straczynski, who eventually notched up 91 of the show's 110 episodes, 60 of them written back to back. It was the period that told the story of Orwellian forces gaining power on Earth, of strange alien races warring like gods, and of Captain Sheridan's death and rebirth, in scenes reminiscent of Gandalf's transformation in The Lord of the Rings.

In fact, quite a lot like Gandalf. Sheridan plunged into a vast chasm, at a place called not Khazad-Dum but Z'ha'dum. His ancient enemy, the Shadows, had an all-seeing eye whose gaze might fall upon you if you probed too far. One immortal was known as Lorien. The forces of good were aided by Rangers, and there were wizards, powerful technomages who use advanced technology to simulate magic. You get the idea. Babylon 5 was as much fantasy as science fiction, rife with prophecy and destiny and littered with deliberate nods of the head to Tolkien. But in other aspects the show did reach back to classics of written sf. The draconian PsiCorps was represented by Alfred Bester, a character named for the SF author who penned the classic telepath novel The Demolished Man. Earth had an Orwellian "Ministry of Peace" and the Season Four finale "The Deconstruction of Falling Stars" echoed both Orwell's 1984 "newspeak" in phrases like "realfacts" and "goodfacts," and Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz in its depiction of priests preserving knowledge in a ruined far future.

This derivativeness was less of a problem than you might think. In blending so many disparate influences the series became a unique melting pot which used its many classic sources to provide a great variety of overlapping genres and tones. It made a virtue of its magpie tendencies by constantly name-checking famous SF authors and characters, winking conspiratorially at fans of written SF and fantasy. Even if the ideas were commonplace in other media, Babylon 5 was the first to weld these big ideas onto the conventions of series television and to weave its diverse borrowings into an overarching five year tale with beginning, middle and planned conclusion. As such it was a series which, at the time, stood head and shoulders above its competition in terms of imagination and scope.

But ambition was ultimately perhaps the series' greatest flaw. In managing so many storylines over a five year span while subject to real world tribulations such as actors departing and threats of cancellation, it was near impossible for Babylon 5 to maintain a coherent whole. The series was epic, but also something of a curate's egg: mediocre episodes sat cheek by jowl with classics; major plots like the Shadow War fizzled in anticlimax; tragic character arcs like Londo Mollari's raced one minute and dawdled the next; key moments like the fall of Centauri Prime were marred by plot contrivance. The ideas soared, but the execution was sometimes flat-footed. The final, fifth season suffered greatly from the show's last-minute renewal after the fourth season had already been completed, meaning that much of the five year plan had been squandered. It even lost a major character between seasons. For a series that relied so heavily on novelistic storytelling, this was hobbling.

Nonetheless, despite its limitations Babylon 5 was in its time a brilliant, epic and often inspiring TV series. It changed the rules for SF television. The space operas that have followed, from later Deep Space Nine through Farscape and Battlestar Galactica, and even Stargate SG-1, owe it a huge debt whether directly or indirectly. To this day, and perhaps wisely, none have come close to the scale of advance planning attempted by Babylon 5, even as they surpass it in other ways.

After its conclusion Babylon 5 sputtered on in various forms. Four TV movies were shot, two following the final season. One spin-off series, Crusade (1999) was cancelled after thirteen episodes, and a further spin-off The Legend of the Rangers (2002) never made it past a tired pilot film. None succeeded in recapturing the sense of mystery or epic storytelling that had made Babylon 5 a success.

Now, unexpectedly, comes an attempt by Straczynski to revive the series in a straight-to-DVD production. What's most disconcerting about bumping into Babylon 5 again after all these years is that it's still maddeningly inconsistent.

Brief Encounters

The new production goes by the unwieldy title Babylon 5: The Lost Tales: "Voices in the Dark." To be clear, The Lost Tales is a proposed DVD series, and "Voices in the Dark" is the first instalment, itself divided into two distinct parts. Although linked by their time frame these halves are so different that they feel like anthology short stories. The first, "Over Here," is a standalone episode, often the show's Achilles' heel, while the second, "Over There," hints at the kind of "arc" storytelling in which the series traditionally shone. Together they exemplify the range of Babylon 5: in tone, subject matter and—unfortunately—quality.

"Over Here" concerns Colonel Elizabeth Lochley (Tracy Scoggins) investigating a case of demonic possession on her station with the aid of a Catholic Priest, played with suitable gravitas by Alan Scarfe. The theme is of religion, the source of one notable past success in Season 3's "Passing Through Gethsemane." Babylon 5's religious and mystical elements always set it apart from the more secular Star Trek. In particular "Over Here" discusses how religion can survive when "for 200 years mankind has walked among the stars on legs of fire and steel, daily encountering profounder wonders than the burning bush."

And "discusses" is the operative word. This is a talky piece, in which the characters often feel like mouthpieces for the author. From Lochley and Father Cassidy's first meeting we're plunged into pontificating on the nature of faith and human nature. The dialogue is so overwritten that it would sound out of place in a sermon, yet we're led to believe that we're hearing naturalistic dialogue between a priest and a soldier. Even taking into account Father Cassidy's scholarly persona this cut-rate Plato and Socrates material is tough to swallow. Take this mere soundbite:

"Physicists have tried to soften the blow with quantum mechanical consolation prizes, noting mysteries still to be resolved in subatomic particles whose actions hint at the presence of intelligence, but where in those infinitesimal spaces can be found the God who stopped the sun in the sky over Jeddah, or parted the red sea, birthed the universe and shaped molecules of dust until their name was man and woman?"

As Harrison Ford famously is meant to have said to George Lucas on the set of Star Wars: "You can type this shit, George, but you can't say it."

In the past Straczynski's more pretentious tendencies were well-served by actors such as the late Andreas Katsulas, whose alien character G'Kar was theatrical enough to carry off this kind of near-soliloquy. Despite a sterling effort, Alan Scarfe just can't make it ring true. Ironically the opening credits of The Lost Tales utilise a snippet of Katsulas as G'Kar precisely because he was so effective at delivering poetic dialogue, but such speeches were always grace notes. The problem here is that the entire episode is written in the same ponderous tone. Things go slightly better when Lochley and Father Cassidy confront the possessed crewman (played with sinister verve by Bruce Ramsay) but the dialogue remains unwaveringly self-important.

It's brave to relaunch the series with such a cerebral offering, one that embraces the show's more mystical and philosophical aspects, but unfortunately much of the religious discussion comes across as heavy-handed twaddle. The plot is cursory at best, with the episode built around a "twist" idea whose genre is more fantasy-horror than sf, and whose broad outline is obvious from early on. A scene in Lochley's cabin in which she essentially talks to herself and solves the plot is a horribly stilted attempt to impose some dramatic structure and recalls the most workmanlike filler episodes of the series. Tracy Scoggins was never the show's finest actor, but she's ill served by the earnest dialogue, and the premise is simply too slight and thinly developed to support even the short 35 minute running time. As a result the tale is weighed down rather than invigorated by its attempts at sounding meaningful. It all ends up as trite window-dressing for the denouement.

The direction, by Straczynski in only his second outing after the series finale "Sleeping in Light," self-consciously seeks to establish an off-kilter tone with stark lighting, tight close-ups and slow handheld tilts to distort the viewer's sense of up and down. Although it's about as subtle as the script, this lends "Over Here" the air of a filmed stage play or—perhaps intentionally given the subject matter—of an old Twilight Zone episode. Straczynski is an avowed Twilight Zone buff and worked on later episodes of its revival in the 1980s. This episode feels very much in the vein of an anthology series; indeed it would almost certainly work better in such a setting rather than bolted onto the Babylon 5 universe.

Visually the episode is our first look at the series in nearly a decade. The effects, which improved graphically if not artistically over the course of the original five seasons and their spin-offs, are a big step up. Crisp and detailed, but without foregoing the show's trademark use of vivid colour, they look the way you remember the effects in your mind's eye. They are faithful to the look of the original vessels, updated to satisfy a modern sensibility and the rigours of High Definition. The exception is an over-used digital matte painting of the Docking Bay, which is both unconvincing and confusing in its topography.

The newly built sets are familiar in design but strangely pristine, as if the physical construction has been designed to match the CGI extensions and not the other way around. There's not a trace of dirt on the carpets or the walls, even in apparently dingy spaces, which greatly damages their believability. The relatively low budget means that these corridors are sparsely populated by the meagre central cast and a few extras. It all adds up to a bustling space station five miles long which appears to consist of one corridor, two rooms and five people. If it weren't for the high production values evident in the CGI, this might feel like a particularly expensive webisode more than broadcast television.

My first impression of my old flame was less than favourable, then. All its old faults seemed to have become more grating over the years, and it had become a bit of a pompous bore to boot. At times I was shuffling uncomfortably in my seat. Thankfully, as the evening progressed I began to remember what it was I liked about the series in the first place.

"Over There" is a significant improvement on "Over Here," a much warmer and more eventful tale which goes out of its way to pay homage to, and evoke nostalgia for, the original series. The story concerns President Sheridan en route for the station. Bruce Boxleitner was primarily known as something of a bland actor before the series but he really came into his own as Sheridan and he settles effortlessly back into the role, exuding a cheerfully grizzled charisma through his greying beard.

We open on the planet Minbar for a wordless shot of Sheridan watching a shuttle land, before cutting straight to open space. This brief establishing shot immediately adds some of the expansive world-spanning quality that "Over Here" entirely lacks. Then comes a narration that positively wallows in the long span of time that has elapsed since the old series, and we cut to Sheridan staring fondly at a gigantic hologram of the B5 station spinning in space, anticipating his return. This, surely, is the opening the DVD was crying out for.

"Over There" is another short story built around a single idea, in this case that SF chestnut: If you could go back in time and kill Hitler as a boy, would you? It's an old idea even by the standards of series television. The original Star Trek's most celebrated episode, "The City on the Edge of Forever" placed Captain Kirk in the position of having to allow one person to die so that others in the future could live. Farscape's ..".Different Destinations" placed future life and death in the hands of the regular characters with tragic consequences. "Over There" is far safer than either of those contributions and adds little to the subject, but does provide pleasant entertainment. At the very least it compares favourably with less challenging modern SF television such as the Stargate franchise.

In this telling the role of Hitler is taken by the Centauri Prince Regent Dius Vintari, third in line to the throne. The technomage Galen visits Sheridan in a dream and presents him with a vision of the future. A young man now, Vintari will one day become so embroiled in paranoid dreams of restoring the Empire that he will launch a massive orbital assault on Earth. We're treated to some fairly spectacular images (reminiscent of the Xindi attack in Star Trek: Enterprise) of the future New York struck by a massive energy weapon; the 9/11 overtones are clearly intentional although the episode uses them as nothing more than emotional shorthand. The solution, Galen informs Sheridan, is to kill Vintari now. Given what we know of Sheridan's character it's no great moral dilemma, but the story milks the conflict sufficiently to provide some interest. It helps that Galen was a regular character on Crusade and last appeared in the series proper in its final TV Movie "A Call to Arms" in which he performed a similar prophetic trick. His role here as a narrative macguffin carries a little more weight than it might otherwise do.

What does work about the story is the characterisation. Sheridan and Galen bicker and snipe, and we're treated to some far more lively dialogue than Lochley's ponderous exchanges. Sheridan gets to goad an ISN reporter with some typically broad humour, and his reaction to Emperor Mollari's reported behaviour is warm and appropriate. Most effective of all is the relationship between Vintari and Sheridan. The Prince Regent is well-drawn, neither too naive nor too scheming but simply a troubled young man thinking hard about his place in the Universe. Keegan MacIntosh's performance is likeable and fits well with what we know of the Centauri from past appearances. It's easy to imagine a hypothetical sixth season in which Vintari was a recurring character somewhat akin to the young Lex Luthor on Smallville, fated for darkness but still with choices before him. On the downside, as in "Over Here" there's a half-hearted attempt to impose plotting onto the one-note premise, and as before the lead character's pivotal thought processes are spelled out in a series of flashbacks to earlier scenes. This would be unnecessary in a normal TV episode but in a vignette of 35 minutes it feels lazy. Fortunately the context for the flashbacks in this second tale is somewhat more dramatic, showcased by a stunningly close Serenity-style camera move around the hull of a Starfury that demonstrates just how far television visual effects have progressed.

"Over There" is more energetic and engaging than the DVD's other tale, and at times comes close to recapturing the feel of the old series. The script even makes room for a couple of graceful nods to the two cast members who have died since the end of the series, Richard Biggs and Andreas Katsulas, for whom there are also short tributes in the DVD bonus features.

We'll Always Have Paris

What's interesting about this revival is what it isn't.

It's not one of those execrable "reunion" TV Movies in which an ageing cast assemble for a lukewarm meander down memory lane. Babylon 5 has already shown us what lies down the road for its characters, taking us all the way to the destruction of the station and Sheridan's death in its series finale "Sleeping in Light." Indeed that's the exact point at which this new endeavour begins, with an opening sequence which reprises the station's destruction before winding back the years.

It's also not strictly a spin-off in the same sense that Crusade or the putative Legend of the Rangers were spin-offs, since The Lost Tales features the core Babylon 5 characters and settings. And yet, it doesn't really feel like a sequel or a continuation of the series. So small scale is this production, and so sparse is the cast, that it almost feels like televised fan fiction, a slick but tightly-constrained attempt to recapture some small part of what made the series work. The decision to largely separate the stories and casts into two instalments only emphasises the constraints. It's hard to escape the conclusion that these tales would have worked far more effectively if intertwined rather than presented end to end, allowing them to play more like an extended episode with parallel A and B stories whose strengths and weaknesses offset one another. This would have avoided the odd decision to open with an insular piece which sets out to prove the show's intellectual chops, making the audience wait for the more character-based second tale.

Ultimately the choice—perhaps budgetary, perhaps artistic—to continue Babylon 5 as a set of short anthology stories is slightly at odds with the multi-layered style of the old show, something these tales implicitly acknowledge in their half-hearted attempts to impose a conventional dramatic structure onto their core idea. For all the faithful special effects, casting, costumes and sets these are at heart small one-act plays. It's as if ten years ago someone turned off all the lights in the Babylon 5 universe, and this attempt to switch them back on could only afford a couple of 40 watt bulbs. Enjoyable as it is to see small corners of Babylon 5 illuminated once again, what lies outside this feeble illumination is a good chunk of what made this universe an interesting place. The opening credits attempt to remind us of this epic quality, offering images of all the key races and characters who don't appear on this DVD, but they only underline the lack of anything epic here.

There's no word yet on whether we'll be seeing any more of The Lost Tales. According to Straczynski in a usenet post, "after the sales on B5:TLT came in, way exceeding (Warner Bros)'s projections, they initiated talks about what to do next, including commissioning more DVDs," but the Writer's Guild of America strike intervened. As disappointing as this first DVD is, there are some reasons for cautious optimism if future releases can capitalise on their limited resources and instil these tales with a bit more scope. Straczynski himself seemed to recognise this in a 2007 interview: "If we do more, they have to be done with a larger budget so we can involve more of our cast members, do bigger FX and locations and the like." As it stands I'm hard pressed to recommend the DVD to newcomers to Babylon 5. If you want to find out why it's so beloved then the five seasons of the series are the only place to look. If you're another of the show's old flames and you're looking to rekindle some romance, I still don't hold out much hope for you, but if you skip part one and go straight to part two, it may go a little way towards reminding you of what you once had.

Iain Clark lives in the North of England with his wife and two cats, who feed him most of his best ideas.



Iain Clark was born in the same year Star Trek was cancelled. He has contributed a number of TV and film reviews to Strange Horizons, and lives in the North of England.
2 comments on “The Ex Files: The Lost Tales and the return of Babylon 5”

Thanks for this thoughtful review. I think you hit the nail right on the head.

Wow! What a well-written piece. I'm currently watching the series for the first time on DVD, after avoiding it for years. I felt burned when watching it in it's first season for many of the same reasons you mention -- uneven acting, expository dialogue, dreadfully standard stand-alone episodes, etc. After pushing my way through the first season, I find myself interested and even intrigued.
Your writing style and the ideas you express are inspiring and in many ways, the piece is an excellent example of the ideal I'm shooting for in my sci-fi TV blog (http://scifitvgeek.wordpress.com/). Reading it has made me excited about writing again (I've hit the doldrums, lately), so thanks!

 

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