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The Column: The Babylon 5 Experience

While I was wondering what I could write for the next instalment of this column, it occurred to me that...

<digression> in the episode Sleeping in Light, Sheridan, Delenn and G'Kar use the words 'it occurred to me' a disproportionate number of times. They also do this in the last few episodes of Season 5. Why is this? This is very strange. </digression>

an interesting topic would be why I'm so interested in Babylon 5 in the first place.

I have noticed that the proportion of Babylon 5 viewers who are fully-paid up fanatics is far greater than any other television show. There is proof. Babylon 5 had once, during Season 4, by far the highest Audience Appreciation rating on Channel 4. That doesn't mean that a lot of people watched it, but it meant that those who did absolutely loved it.

I used to be a fully-paid up member of the Star Trek clan. I wrote on BBS boards about Star Trek regularly (we didn't have no Internet back then), I watched all the episodes. I hated Babylon 5 with a vengeance - I'd never actually seen an episode, but I waxed at length about how computer graphics were crap, and so on.

Then, one day, when I was bored, I switched on Channel 4. There was some interesting space battle going on, so I decided to keep on watching. Babylon 5. Hmm. I tuned in the next week to watch it again. This was Season 4, just a few episodes in. A week later, I was inexorably hooked. The fact that the storyline actually continued between episodes was the bait.

Why does this continuity matter so much? I like the Outer Limits, but that has no continuity. I'll tell you why it matters. One of my pet peeves with Star Trek (any series) was that they'd discover some amazing new weapon or defence (one that comes to mind was a particularly cool phase-cloak thing that let the Enterprise fly through solid objects). And then we'd never hear about it again, which was a little ridiculous because I'd be thinking a few weeks later 'Hmm, the Enterprise could really use that phase-cloak thing, what with it being surrounded by Romulans.'

It didn't make any sense. They were flouting the rules of continuity. So when I watched Babylon 5, and saw some continuity, I was intrigued. Intrigued enough to go on the Internet and find out everything I could about it.

I struck gold in the form on an online Babylon 5 'Xenobiologica' Encyclopaedia. I still have the pages I downloaded on my desktop. There was reams, dozens of pages, of information about all the different races. Their history, their weapons, their enemies, their technology, their physiology, their colonies. I was astounded. All of this came from the episodes, as well. This is what I'd been looking for - a universe that had a history.

What was better, when I watched a bit more of Babylon 5, was that it seemed real. Bad things happened. People were nasty. Things didn't always wrap up nicely by the end of the episode. People died. The good guys lost.

None of this happened in Star Trek (at least, not until the DS9 writers cottoned on and hastily introduced it later on in Seasons 4 onward).

This was a sci-fi programme I could identify with. It had interesting storylines. Things were presented in shades of grey.

Some of the episodes I loved, I've reviewed, like the Deconstruction of Falling Stars. That wasn't science fiction, that was just a real story about real people. And episodes like Objects in Motion, Objects at Rest. The eloquence with which G'Kar spoke about the universe knocked me for six. I'd never seen this on Star Trek.

Sleeping in Light. Some of the best TV I've seen. The hero dies, the magical castle is destroyed. But life goes on. That was what I liked about Babylon 5 - it was real. It had substance. It gave the five year saga a conclusion.

Here are some words about this said by JMS, in response to people complaining about an untidy ending.

"Dear Mr. Tolkien:

I just wanted to say that I think the way you ended THE LORD OF THE RINGS was crap. You didn't provide any closure. Instead of spending time with the hobbits clearing out the shire (come on, urban renewal in LoTR? give me a break) and lots of goodbyes, you SHOULD have shown me what happened to Tom Bombadil, he was an important part of the story, and you just left his story thread there unresolved.

You made a big deal out of the elves going to the west, but we never SAW it! We never found out what was there, or what Bilbo found when he got there, or what happened to the dwarves, or what happened to Merry and Pippin....

You betrayed your audience by not resolving every single plot thread you introduced in your book, and as a result, it is never going to be of value to anyone, ever, and will never go past its first printing."

and a quote that JMS said he liked from Orson Scott Card

"...if you're going to criticize me for not finishing the whole thing and tying it up in a bow for you, why, do us both a favor and write your own damn book, only have the decency to call it a romance instead of a history, because history's got no bows on it, only frayed ends of ribbons and knots that can't be untied. It ain't a pretty package but then it's not your birthday that I know of, so I'm under no obligation to give you a gift."

And the strangest thing is, Babylon 5 wasn't really science fiction, at least, not what people think science fiction is. Babylon 5 wasn't about phase-varianced phasers, or quantum torpedoes. It was about people in the future.

The greatest attraction was that Babylon 5 had all been planned from the beginning. We get to see Londo die, in the first episode. That's what I call foreshadowing. The Shadow War, the Earth Civil War, the Telepath Crisis, the Centauri War. All planned in advance. All accounted for. All of it flowed together believably, in a magnificent five year long tapestry. JMS once called it 'holographic storytelling'. You'd be able to see shades of the future, and the past, in every episode. JMS respected history, unlike Star Trek.

Of course, the other major reason why I liked Babylon 5 was the wonderful computer graphics space battles. It sounds shallow, but it isn't. I'd been fed up with the boring old Star Trek battles where you'd have huge lumbering ships turning wide corners and occasionally spitting phasers or torpedoes at each other. How boring.

Then you have Babylon 5. The ships in Babylon 5 have this thing called inertia, right? It means that, in space, they keep on going in the same direction. I loved that, the first time I saw a Starfury execute a cool inertial based manoeuvre, flying backwards. The ships in Babylon 5 didn't have namby-pamby shields that didn't make any sense. They had good old armour. So that did away with all this phase-variance nonsense. They had choreographed battles, with flying squadrons and boarding pods. The Earth ships used centrifugal force to produce gravity.

I could go on for hours. Literally. But I think you get the picture. Star Trek is fantasy. Babylon 5 is reality. That's why I like the latter.

I still watch DS9 and Voyager, for entertainment, as I would a bestseller action story. But I appreciate Babylon 5, as I would a literary masterpiece.