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Babylon 5

Every once in awhile, a piece of a television show, book, or movie comes along and rocks you to the core. It extends beyond the range of entertainment and feels almost holy. The characters become family, the setting a home, and the story an alternate life. Some might argue that allowing yourself to become so encompassed by something is unhealthy, but I disagree. Sometimes a fictional world that truly appeals to you is a great place to escape the real world for a few hours and feel something more than mindless entertainment.

One of the shows that affected me in such a profound way was Babylon 5, a science fiction show that takes place on a five mile long space station in the year 2257. Written by J. Michael Straczynski (at the time known for his work on Masters of the Universe and The Real Ghostbusters), Babylon 5 took both science fiction and scripted television into a new era. Gone were the cute children and goofy monsters, instead Babylon 5 went the more serious route in an attempt to be Hill Street Blues of science fiction. The storyline for Babylon 5 was geared towards adults, asked deep philosophical questions, and contained an interlocking storyline that unfolded over five seasons and several TV movies. It was a televised novel of sorts not only in story, but in design of the show as well.

It was the first television show to be written with a beginning, middle, and end planned out in advance. The entire storyline had an end point at five seasons and that would conclude the plot. By meticulously planning the show, Mr. Straczysnki was able to control the budget and that allowed him to keep things under control which is something science fiction shows always struggle with. Also, by having an ending in place, Mr. Straczysnki was able to tell a cohesive story, complete with small details appearing the first season that have major impacts on the final season. It was completely unheard of to create television shows in such a way, and it is part of the reason why Babylon 5 is so intoxicating to watch. The story pays off, over and over again. Loose ends are cleaned up and nothing feels rushed or out of place. The ending is perfect.

Mr. Straczysnki was so detailed in his storytelling, he even wrote in “trapdoors” in the event a cast member left the show. Storylines would be summed up and replacement characters were ready to step in and allow the main story to continue. I’m sure Mr. Straczysnki didn’t expect to have to use a trapdoor so soon, but after the first season the main character, Commander Sinclair (Michael O’Hare) left the show due to health reasons. The incredible Bruce Boxleitner stepped into the main role as Commander Sheridan and the show never missed a beat. It’s actually pretty incredible when you watch it. The storyline just seamlessly continues albeit from a different perspective. It truly is a testament to Mr. Straczynski’s writing.

Babylon 5 debuted on the short lived television station Prime Time Entertainment Network (PTEN) in January of 1994. The plot is almost impossible to condense into a few paragraphs, but the show centers around Babylon 5, a space station that works as neutral ground for various alien races to conduct business, set up trading, and settle disputes. The main storyline centers on Commander Sheridan and his crusade to do the right thing and fight against The Shadows, an ancient race of aliens determined to test the concept of survival of the fittest. But the story is so much more. It’s about redemption and destruction. It looks at destiny and whether or not a man has the ability to change what seems inevitable. It discusses addiction at great lengths in a variety of different forms. It’s about friendship, overcoming racism, changing and growing as both a person and as a society. At its core, Babylon is about life. And like all good science fiction, it takes time to look at society and make cultural, religious, and philosophical comments about the world at large and humanity’s place in it.

Babylon 5’s writing and story arc may be what fuels the show’s success, but it’s the characters that make the show enjoyable. Every character is cast so perfectly, it's mind blowing. Each character is well rounded, developed, and has a purpose. The closest show I can relate Babylon 5 to in this way is Joss Whedon’s various shows like Buffy The Vampire Slayer or Firefly. Everyone has a unique voice, realistic motivations for doing what they are doing, and their own moral barometer. Every character you love at one point and dislike in another, just like real people in your own life.  Nobody is perfect, everyone is fallible and by making each character exist in the grey area of life, you believe in what they say and do, and the idea that they are on a space station two hundred years in the future is forgotten.

Babylon 5 lasted five seasons, had six TV movies, and one spin off show, Crusade. The show even survived a jump from PTEN to TNT for its final season. A toy line was launched, a comic series was developed by DC, and video games were put into production. The show was a critical success, had one of the largest internet fan communities in the 90’s, and in many circles is held in higher regard than the Star Trek shows of the 80’s and 90’s. Babylon 5 had all the showings of a very successful television show, yet the show has all but been forgotten over the past twenty years. Why is that?

Well, Babylon 5 has not been shown on American television since 2003, which really hinders its ability to find a new audience. To make matters worse, Warner Brothers has not made it available on any streaming video service in several years. It seems that this decision might have a lot to do with several mistakes made when handling the CGI over the years. Back in the early 90’s, television studios were looking to the future and wanted to make sure their shows would still look good on the widescreen televisions to come. Babylon 5 was shot on Super 35mm film stock, which meant the show was shot in widescreen and would be cropped in fullscreen (4:3 ratio) for the televisions of the time. Then when new widescreens televisions came along, there would be a widescreen master print to release. This would keep Babylon 5 looking great for the foreseeable future.

But when it came to the use of CGI in the show, a decision was made to shoot the scenes in a (4:3) fullscreen format to save money. The initial thought was that when widescreen televisions became prevalent, they would cut the top and bottom off the images in order to fit the widescreen format, and then upscale the images. It was a horrible idea at the time, and can be seen as a mistake, because in 2000 when the show was finally formatted in widescreen for an airing on the Sci Fi Channel, the CGI scenes were not cropped and upscaled, but were blown up to about a third of its size in order to fill the screen. It didn’t help that the 4:3 tape that they used had a high level of grain, which was only made worse by the enlarging and stretching. Warner Bros. also forgot that they had film negatives to use for the live action/CGI scenes, so instead they used PAL tapes and converted them to NTSC. They never remastered the shows which resulted in a large number of visual flaws throughout the widescreen release. Anytime a scene with CGI comes up, the quality of the shots drops dramatically, making for a very uneven and distracting viewing.

It is a shame that such a progressive and forward thinking show has been derailed because of some stupid technical decisions. Now with the DVD market limited and no interest in airing Babylon 5 anywhere else, it does not make financial sense for Warner Brothers to go back and remaster the entire show properly. That means fans will most likely never see a Blu-ray release or a proper HD release of any kind, which is disappointing. Especially when shows like Lost in Space, which are thirty years older than Babylon 5, have been beautifully remastered for Blu-ray. Babylon 5 was credited with having “launched the new era of television CGI visual effects” and now looks like something an amateur CGI artist would have made in 1988. It truly is a shame.

I didn’t watch Babylon 5 when it was airing on PTEN or TNT. I watched the DVDs with the bad CGI and to be honest, after the first few episodes, you get used to it. The story and acting are so good, I found it easy to overlook the bad CGI when it came about. The only time I ever grew irritated with it was some of the epic space battles in the later seasons when the scenes jumped back and forth from CGI to regular over-and-over again. Then again, if you grew up in the 80’s and 90’s, you know how bad television can look. You just have to get past the whole HD age that we live in now and lower your expectations some and the CGI doesn’t look so bad.

Time has not been kind to Babylon 5 and its fans. The visual effects issue makes it hard to get others excited for the show, but even more difficult is the loss of so many of the cast over the past few years. Just last week, Jerry Doyle (Michael Garibaldi) passed away. He joins the list of series regulars that have passed away including: Michael O’Hare (Jeffrey Sinclair), Richard Biggs (Stephen Franklin), Jeff Conway (Zack Allan), and Andreas Katsulas (G’Kar).

For years, there have been rumors of a Babylon 5 movie or a reboot, but I really don’t believe we’ll ever see it. With the studio so bent on not putting Babylon 5 out there for a new audience to discover, I just don’t see how well a reboot would work. It’s sad, because in most situations, I approach reboots/remakes with some hesitation, but Babylon 5 is something I’d be thrilled about. The franchise needs some sort of boost and a reboot could give it that. Even if the reboot didn’t work, people would still seek out the original and that would allow it to live on just a little longer.

The storylines and characters make Babylon 5 one of the most riveting and interesting television shows I’ve ever watched. I truly love the show and it is one of the most fulfilling series I’ve ever seen. If you get a chance to watch it, please check it out. It’s a brilliant show that I think any fan of science fiction would love if they sit down to watch it.

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Rick Ace Rhodes Posted on Jan 07, 2017 at 03:18 AM

If only Straczysnki was able to have made Spider-Man "One More Day" a better story.

echidna64 Posted on Jan 07, 2017 at 01:05 AM

Thanks for sharing this with us Mass! There is a clear difference between a series that is planned out in advance versus one that is written ad-hoc with ratings-grab twists that sabotage future episodes.
I never got into Bablyon 5 but wouldn't mind seeing an episode or two based on your recommendation, it's a shame that it is nowhere to stream.

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