Your Daily Dose of Babylon 5

"It was the dawn of the third age of mankind – ten years after the Earth-Minbari War. The Babylon Project was a dream given form. Its goal: to prevent another war by creating a place where humans and aliens could work out their differences peacefully. It's a port of call – home away from home – for diplomats, hustlers, entrepreneurs, and wanderers. Humans and aliens wrapped in two million five hundred thousand tons of spinning metal… all alone in the night. It can be a dangerous place, but it's our last best hope for peace. This is the story of the last of the Babylon stations. The year is 2258. The name of the place is Babylon 5."

You asked for it and you shall get it! Daily Babylon 5 reviews starting, well, tomorrow. (That's what happens when you don't know a series as well as some of those other ones I did - the one with the spaceships and the one with the police box - you watch episode 1 all raring to go, then realize the actual pilot is in a different DVD set.) While, yes, I did watch B5 when it first aired, I've never rewatched it, nor did I see every episode. My kid brother got me into it around the time Sheridan became commander, so my memories of the occasional first season episode are spotty at best. Babylon 5 is an intricate web, and not one I know intimately enough to go "ahhhh, that thing in episode 1 will pay off in episode 100" like I might've in past daily review projects, and this BUGS ME. But coming to something fairly fresh isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Some technical notes

I am obviously using the DVD releases which differ from the original broadcasts in one important way: They've been widescreened. This means the image isn't as crisp, though it's not necessarily noticeable in the live action elements. The CG outer space effects, however, look terrible: Blurry and flickery. The version of the pilot I'll be using is the 1998 re-issue, I guess, and that's a "special edition" edit. At least, I think so. (I feel like such a relative n00b!) I have all five seasons and the movies, as well as the Lost Tales, and I just ordered Crusade and Legend of the Rangers, so I guess I'm committed to covering the entire B5 universe. How will it be covered, well...

As with Doctor Who, I'll be including a quote from the episode at the top, and a screenshot.

IN THIS ONE... As the series becomes more and more serialized, it'll become important to give readers points of reference to help them situate each episode.

REVIEW: The meat of the article, discussing plot, character and production, as standard. Like I said above, I'm not clear on all the connections running through the series, so I'll be discovering them as I go along, discussing them in order. I kind of look forward to appreciating J. Michael Straczynski's work from back before I hated it. (That is to say, I think writing almost every episode of a long-running series is damn impressive and a huge achievement, but I've disliked every comic book he's ever written.)

ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WORMHOLE: Because Babylon 5 premiered more or less alongside the rather similar Star Trek: Deep Space 9 - which happens to be my favorite of all the Treks by a wide margin - and to give this series of reviews its own unique spin, I'll be attracting your attention towards connections between the two. Who was first? Who copied who? Was it all just zeitgeist? It's definitely not a one-way street. The category won't appear if it's irrelevant to any given episode, and might disappear entirely over time.

REWATCHABILITY:  The final score, from Low to High, and a brief evaluation. Same thing I used to do for Trek and Who. Rewatchability is a value based on both quality and canonical importance.

Should take us through the next five months or so! Watch along if you dare, and don't let the Shadows get you!


Madeley said...

Very excited about this. B5 is one of my all-time favourite shows, and a HUGELY important one to me growing up. It was such a mixture of all the things that interested me- heroes, villains, people who went from one to the other, HUGE space battles, politics, overly-complicated mythology, PLUS a weird melding of my very favourite genres: space opera and Lovecraftian horror.

Re: the special edition edit of the pilot (and not to pre-empt what might go into an "other versions" field tomorrow), I still own the VHS of the pilot as well as the DVD, even though I have no VCR anymore, specifically because, unless I'm mistaken, the video has the "mistakes" that were rectified in the special edition. The only thing I recall specifically is one character's hand gets a "glow" added to it in the special edition.

What's the policy for spoilers on these posts? I don't want to ruin the fun of revisiting something in my eagerness to talk about how things shake out.

Anonymous said...

The B5 / DS9 connection seems to be 99% zeitgeist as far as I'm concerned -- most of the things where DS9 allegedly ripped off B5 are either so generic as to be highly circumstantial at best, or DS9 did it first. And if you want to get right down to it, squabbling alien diplomats going to a meeting place named after Babylon was done first in ST:TOS, in "Journey to Babel" ... if we are going to give that a pass, we can give an awful lot a pass.

I've heard people say "the Dominion is just like the Shadows, that proves DS9 ripped off B5!" Except that 1) the two are almost nothing alike beyond being powerful and mysterious, and 2) DS9 mentioned the Dominion before the first episode of B5 even aired.

But, I'm sure this will all be covered one episode at a time.

Siskoid said...

I have to admit I hemmed and hawed about what to do next, and spent the last 15 hours refusing to commit. It was your comment at the tail end of the previous discussion that sold me on it. Your passion made me want to at least pop the first disc in the machine, and after one episode (which wasn't the pilot), I decided I should go on. So much texture.

As for spoilers, I'm not really sure. Whatever I say here, some commenter out there won't have read my answer and will spoil something sometime. I'd rather keep it at a minimum, I suppose, though they could be phrased in Vorlon (cryptic) way. You might want to clue us in as to what we should watch out for, for example, without giving away the end.

Generally, we can discuss revelations when they happen. And that way, we're not getting ahead of ourselves.

Siskoid said...

Anon: The B5/DS9 connections aren't meant to fuel some kind of rivalry between the two shows. I don't think either is a "rip-off" of the other, myself. It's meant to be cheeky and fun.

Anonymous said...

Fair enough, I promise to try not to get too defensive. I like both shows on their own merits, but I've heard DS9 disparaged as a rip-off way too often, is all.

Siskoid said...

You won't see me disparaging DS9, like I said, it's the best of the best of Trek and I love it more than I do B5, I assure you.

Tim Knight said...

Looking forward to these reviews. I loved B5 when it first came out, but for me it hasn't fared well under repeat viewings.

Conversely I came to DS9 late and, while I see some comparisons with B5 in the set-up and general overarching storyline, for me it has stood the test of time far better.

Toby'c said...

I'll have to catch up with you, when I free up some space on my library holds list. And on my rentals list (even though my library doesn't seem to HAVE an upper limit on DVD rentals anymore...)

Siskoid said...

No doubt. I think a lot of that is down to the look (which partly, but not exclusively, has to do with budget).

Ryan Lohner said...

Babylon 5 is my favorite show of all time, simply for the shockingly underappreciated role it played in making television what it is today. Younger viewers simply cannot properly appreciate how different TV was back then, and how much of a risk JMS was taking with the show. Even today, what producer would go so far as to plan out the entire story from Day 1, because what are the chances you'll get to finish it? But he did, and he did. Because sometimes, faith manages.

By the way, when you say you hate all of his later work, does that include Changeling?

Madeley said...

Siskoid: I'm glad I played a part in prodding our gracious host into a five month commitment! I'll be circumspect with spoilers, but flag if there's something worth keeping an eye on.

I love DS9, I love B5, and while I never took part in them I strongly recall the utterly bizarre DS9 v B5 fandom wars of the 90s very clearly. It seemed odd to me at the time, from the point of view that surely we're all just nerds together? Looking back now it completely boggles the mind.

Ryan: Totally agree re. how important B5 is to modern television. So far ahead of the curve.

Depending on everyone's spoiler tolerance, the Lurker's Guide to B5 is worth checking out, mostly because the site curated all the comments JMS made online about each episode. It's absolutely fascinating, and if I recall correctly, it was the very first website I ever visited back in the mists of time, at a local library.

Jeff R. said...

DS9 benefited a lot, relative to B5, from the much greater certainty of its scheduling. The showrunners knew that they were going to get at least five seasons from the end of the first at least, and knew the back two were coming pretty early on. Whereas JMS had to mangle and then partially unmangle his five-year plan, and the marks that left still show.

The approximately half of JMS's spider-man run that wasn't deeply involved in one of the three horrible ideas (Sins Past, Spider-Totem, and the ending, which unlike the other two wasn't his fault) were pretty good, actually.

Ryan Lohner said...

Madeley: The part about the feud that stands out the most in my memory is JMS' comment in the script books that after Majel Barret-Roddenberry's guest appearance on the show, he considered returning the favor by appearing on DS9, then decided against it as the fans would likely shut the show off the second they saw him.

Madeley said...

Jeff: Totally agree on his Spidey run, loved much of it, disliked Sins Past and the last year or so (never minded the Spider totem stuff. Didn't love it, but it didn't bother me either.) He deserves huge credit for writing Aunt May- the character's never been better, and Mary-Jane too for the most part. Having Parker become a teacher was an absolute masterstroke.

A lot of his other comics work I'm hot and cold on, but I thought his Thor work was fantastic and it's such a shame he got booted in favour of a particularly lackluster Fraction run.

Timothy Brannan said...

When this was out I didn't watch it. I thought it was a little cheesy to be honest and yes I felt B5 was ripping off my beloved Star Trek.

Age and time has given me a better view point on this.

So while I have never really watched the show, I saw episodes here and there. I am really looking forward to this.

Siskoid said...

Ryan: I've never seen Changeling. I strictly meant his comics work.

Madeley: Yes, the Lurker's guide is on my list of resources.

Jeff: I'll admit to not having read those early Spider-Man arcs. But then, I don't exactly go out of my way to find and read JMS stuff.

Timothy: Awesome. And if you're disappointed I didn't go with Legion, well, I'm participating in a new, collaborative Legion blog (stay tuned) and if it was the DCAU you would have liked to seem everything points to my following B5 up with that.

Martin Léger said...

where is stargate posts

Siskoid said...

Leave the trolling to Idiotbrigade, Marty.

LiamKav said...

A few points:

1. Do you know where you are going to place the TV movies? The first two were made between seasons 4 and 5, but "In The Beginning" is sort of designed to be watched first, before everything (including the pilot). It mentions a couple of things regarding Valen, but JMS's perhaps grand thinking was that everyone knows who Darth Vadar is, so doing a prequel that hid things everyone would know wouldn't work.

The second (Thirdspace) sort of works as an early season 4 episode, although I believe that it doesn't fit 100% perfectly anywhere.

2. My opinion on JMS has gone from love, to hate, to, well, I don't know anymore. Certainly a lot of his work recently has soured me on him, as is his habit of taking credit for everything. For example, the Lurker's Guide had sectioned wher ehe'd talk about the reasistic gravity situation, and how the Starfuries launched in a way that used the centrafugal force of the station and how he talked with the SFX guys to ensure that. All well and good, except that Foundation Imaging say that they basically came up with 99% of that and then JMS just took all the credit at the end.

3. The widescreen sitation: It's not as simple as it just having been "widescreened". The show, like lots of mid to late 90s shows, was actually filmed in such a way that they made sure that tripods, bags etc was kept away from the left and right of the video image, so that when widescreen came in they could use that extra information at the side. (This is why TNG isn't widescreen. The film actually does allow for a 16:9 image, but you'd see the copies of scripts, tripods, crew etc hanging around out of frame.) Lots of shows at the period did this, including Friends and ER. Now tey're shown in widescreen. There's not normally anything important on the left and right side of the image, but there isn't anything that isn't supposed to be there either.

HOWEVER... according to Foundation Imaging, there was an SFX issue. Basically, the software they were using (Lightwave) wasn't designed for 16:9. They asked the company that made it and actually got them to implement a 16:9 mode. All they needed then was a 16:9 monitor, so that they could double check the images looked fine at both 16:9 and 4:3. Doug Netter refused the $200 cost. And FI, thinking that they'd already gone above the call of duty, also then refused. As a result, all the SFX are rendered at 4:3, which means that whenever there's a shot with SFX in, they have to zoom in on the image which makes it all blurry.

Where this is especially shit is in real-life shots with SFX. It means we suddenly go from a nice clean proper 16:9 shot to a zoomed in 4:3. Likewise, if there's a fade in from the station to an interior shot, it stays in blurry-o-vision until the camera angle changes and they can switch to the 16:9 film.

It bugs the hell out of me. You may not be bothered by it.

And that's the end of Liam's lesson into inter and intra-company policing. I'll come back when we get to the end of season 3 and Foundation Imaging are kicked out in another dodgy Doug Netter move. In the meantime, I am honestly looked forward to this. :) (And, for what it's worth, season 3 has my favourite TV title sequence of all time.)

LiamKav said...

Sorry, one more thing:

Madeley: The part about the feud that stands out the most in my memory is JMS' comment in the script books that after Majel Barret-Roddenberry's guest appearance on the show, he considered returning the favor by appearing on DS9, then decided against it as the fans would likely shut the show off the second they saw him.

I find that an infurating comment, and massively egotistical. JMS has a real victim complex and he no doubt turned the "Us vs the world" thinking to his advantage, but I really doubt that Ira Behr and Ron Moore gave B5 even a tenth of the thinking that JMS gave Trek. And I'm also pretty sure that if JMS appeared in DS9, the reactions would have ranged from "oh, that's nice", to "who?"

LiamKav said...

(and one more)

Spookily enough, I'm watching TNG's "Power Play", and I'm pretty sure that one of Worf's security guards is Patricia (Lyta Alexander) Tallman. Surely an omen!

Siskoid said...

To answer your questions:

1. I will cover them by air date.

2. That's all behind the scenes stuff anyway, and won't impact my opinions on the show. We can agree that the "production", whether we use that word or "JMS", includes lots of collaborators.

3. Thanks for the explanation. It is even more horrible now that I know it could have been avoided.

One more thing: Most definitely. I think Us vs. Them was a useful marketing tool to keep B5 fans engaged, but there was no real truth behind it. Proof is that most fans of one are fans of the other. If anything, the implied rivalry kept me from giving B5 a fair shot when first aired (my experience is from late 90s reruns).

Siskoid said...

Here's where my Trek cred comes in handy:

Yes that's her, one of MANY roles across Trek. She was one of the hijackers in Starship Mine, a feuding immortal in Battle Lines, a time alien/Romulan in Timescape, a bridge officer in Generations, the Defiant's weapons officer in The Way of the Warrior, a Bajoran nurse in The Muse, an officer on Voyager's bridge in Basics, and a Taresian in Favourite Son.

She was also doubled for various Trek women in stunts, including Nana Visitor, Gates MacFadden, and others.

Madeley said...

To my recollection, the other issue regarding SFX shots was that everyone assumed that years down the line computer processing would become cheap enough to redo the effects shots from scratch if there was a need. Which is true from the point of view that while a home desktop could probably render early 90s effects shots of comparable quality at a fraction of the cost, Babylon 5 just isn't popular enough for it to be worth Warner Bros bothering. Also, it really would be from scratch because I don't believe the SFX guys kept any of the rendering or object data saved anywhere.

Jim Yoder said...

Looking forward to this, loved the Doctor Who and this is my next favorite!

LiamKav said...

"To my recollection, the other issue regarding SFX shots was that everyone assumed that years down the line computer processing would become cheap enough to redo the effects shots from scratch if there was a need."

That's the excuse that's been floated out there, but I'm pretty sure that Mojo or others at FI have shot it down as nonsense. I'll have to see if I can find the article.

As to the rendering assets, that's something that's come up with the TNG remastering. One of the original arguments for moving to CGI from models is that models don't get damaged over time. Which is true. What they do do, though, is degrade by format. For example... Star Trek Generations was being made, and ILM made a CGI Enterprise-D. The DS9 people then wanted a Galaxy-class ship so they got a copy of the Enterprise-D. It was in the wrong format though so they pretty much had to redo it from scratch. A few years later we get the final episode of Star Trek: Enterprise which needs an Enterprise-D, but they can't load up the DS9 version as it's an old format and not high-res enough. So they build a new one. Fast forward AGAIN to TNG-Remastered, and they need a CGI Enterprise for those shots they can't find the original version of, so they have to rebuild ANOTHER one.

Basically, every single CGI shot in Star Trek: TNG has had to be redone from scratch for teh HD release. So yeah, Babylon 5 would have pretty much the exact same impact. And I imagine saying to SFX guys "oh, you can do it quickly and cheaply now" has the same effect as when someone at work comes to me with a personal laptop and asks me to fix it for free because "I love fixing computers and stuff".

And one more issue with redoing it... you need the original film. If you watch the extras on the TNG blu-rays, you'll see that finding all the original film canisters for that show was an epic undertaking, and even then there's scenes here and there where they've been simply unable to find the original film and had to make do with upscaled DVD shots (not much, on average only a minute or two each season). TNG-R has had a fair bit of money thrown at it, and I can't imagine someone spending the same amount on B5, even assuming that the film cannisters haven't been trashed in the meantime.

LiamKav said...

The interview with Rob Thornton discussing the FI work on B5 is here:

He shoots down some falsehoods, like the idea that FI weren't doing good work on B5 because they were also doing Trek (they started doing Trek AFTER they were fired from B5).

That link to the petition for getting a hi-def version of the show released reminds me of something I wanted to ask. John Copeland persuaded WB to have the live action on B5 filmed in a wide letterbox format using 35mm film. That was because everyone knew hi-def widescreen tv’s were just around the corner. But until they arrived the images could be telecined to the (then) standard tv ratio of 4:3. However, the CG stuff was only produced in 4:3. Why was that?
The widescreen conversion thing was executive short sightedness at it's finest!!! We offered to do ALL of Babylon 5 in widescreen mode if Warner Bros would buy us a reference monitor so we could check our output. (only $5000 at the time) Ken Parkes (the "Business affairs" guy) and Netter (penny wise, but pound foolish) said no! So we did everything so it could be CROPPED to be widescreen! Each blamed the other by the way. Doug Netter said, "Ken Parkes said no". Ken Parkes said, "Doug Netter said no". SHEESH!!! So for $75 an episode they could have had AWESOME near Hi-Def. Bet Joe never heard about that!!
The Rattlesnake, you got to love him. ; ) What do you mean by near hi-def? And 5 grand for a MONITOR!!
NTSC widescreen. At the time a monitor that would stretch the NTSC widescreen was $5k in the US, they were much cheaper in Europe.
I thought stretching the pixels for NTSC widescreen buggered up the image quality, and could lightwave even produce images in that format?
Not at first. We got Newtek to add an NTSC widescreen button in Lightwave. Press that and everything looks awesome! Just squished. Warner Brothers at the time were posting Louis and Clark in NTSC widescreen, which is like anamorphic video. Still a 4:3 image but with a compressed pixel aspect ratio that when expanded to 16:9 looks normal. (It's squished horizontally before expansion). There is more anti aliasing in the horizontal than the vertical with video so there is less of a PERCEIVED loss of quality.

Randal said...

What are the odds of reviewing the comics? The books are probably out of the question, but the comics seem doable...

Madeley said...

Oh cool, I hadn't seen that article before. Every time I read something I didn't know about the show before, I'm more amazed they managed to get a single episode out, never mind 5 plus series.

Siskoid said...

Randal: Slim to none. If I ever come across them and deem them worthy, they might become the object of a bundle review, but that's it.

Ben said...

And I hope you review the comics...some are considered canon, for whatever that's worth.

Siskoid said...

Could come down to access.


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