The year is 2010. The name of the place:
Where the Shadows lie.
As part of an attempt to broaden my cultural horizons, I've been watching Babylon 5.

In its day, B5 was widely upheld as the pinnacle of science-fiction on TV. Of course, at the time it was competing against Quantum Leap and SeaQuest DSV, so it's not like we're talking about particularly heavy hitters, here. For a few years, Babylon 5 was matched up against Star Trek: the Next Generation, and then against Deep Space Nine, which — with its space station setting and it's emphasis on character development and multi-episode arcs — was often, perhaps somewhat unfairly, accused of ripping B5 off.

People who weren't engaged in sci-fi at the time — I only was because sci-fi was one of the only things they showed on the airbase where I grew up — may also not remember that J. Michael Straczynski was lauded as the pre-eminent sci-fi storyteller in the medium, a title he continued to hold until... well, until Firefly, to my recollection. So how has his hallmark show held up?

It's a mixed bag, to be honest. The effects aren't great, but we knew that — in fact we knew it at the time, when Babyon 5 — which used only computer graphics — was matched up against The Next Generation. which was still blowing up actual models. Ask yourself what looks better, an actual starship model being filmed or such effects as can be Toasted for a weekly episodic show on a pre-Pentium Amiga, and you'll figure out quickly why nobody talks about Babylon 5 for the effects.

What surprises me, though, is how poor the acting is. The character interaction is flat and uninspired, and although I'm not intrinsically opposed to the switch away from Jeffrey "perpetual smirk" Sinclair, his replacement doesn't yet (a third of the way into the second series) feel like he has any depth whatsoever. It's amazing to me how far we've come — the difference between world-class sci-fi in the early 90s and world-class sci-fi just ten years later (say, Firefly) is astonishing; Babylon 5 is at best on par with decidedly mediocre shows like Caprica, which is... startling.

The writing, too, falls ever-so-slightly flat. Although the hints at the larger storyline are, thus far, carried out far better than Battlestar Galactica managed, the self-contained arcs vary between ridiculous (the Drazi split into two factions wearing different-coloured clothes and then kill each other) to... even-more-ridiculous (a doctor finds a magic box that heals people by draining the "life energy" of others — but oh no she has a terminal illness — and Private Drake from Aliens is a serial killer — but oh no he escapes from custody — but he is shot trying to escape — so he finds the magic doctor — yes it ends exactly as you would expect, but it's alright because he was unrepentant and creepy). It's heavy-handed and overwrought, with none of the nuance most of us have come to expect in the post-Whedonian era.

So I'm not sure what to think, exactly. I'll probably keep watching, if for nothing else than because it's important to be literate, but I'm not certain it's as good as I went in expecting. Perhaps some hype backlash?

More depressing, however, is how old Star Trek fares with the distance of time. On a whim last night I watched "The Chase," one of my favourite Next Generation episodes — the one most often described as being Roddenberryesque; it's the one where they discover a computer program hidden in everybody's DNA. The makeup is decent, but what comes from the costumed performers... ack. The Cardassian's dialogue in particular is terrible, delivered with so little life it could very well have been synthesised.

What this leads one to wonder, mostly, is what television will look like ten years from now. Will Battlestar Galactica seem old hat and cliché? Will we look back on Firefly and just roll our eyes, because what's on the tube then is just so much better?

We can hope, I think — the growth of television marks one of the strongest counterargument to the "folks are getting dumber these days" trope that fills so many newspaper comments. Though this being said, it's also sad to muse on whether or not television drama is our last, best hope for intellectual discourse.

La Chevre!
3.03.2010 - 11h24
Comrade Alex
3.03.2010 - 11h35
La Chevre!
3.03.2010 - 1h09

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