4 years, 4 months ago
There is a moment familiar to everyone who has ever enjoyed Babylon 5 in which they make the cataclysmically dumb mistake of trying to get someone else to watch it. It goes like this: “It’s a huge five-season story arc that was planned out from the start. The first season is mostly crap, but the second one has some really good stuff in it. And the third and fourth are quite good…” and then somewhere around admitting that the fifth season is also a trainwreck you realize that the case for Babylon 5’s quality is actually enormously strained.
And it’s true. It’s much, much easier to list the things that are very wrong about Babylon 5 than it is to articulate the case for it. I mean, the case isn’t that hard: the show’s basic conceit, a five year novel in television form, plotted from the beginning to lead towards a pre-defined endpoint that would pay all of its threads off, is impressive. Yes, the use of television for a multi-episode story arc had precedent, but J. Michael Stracyznski was the first person to really try plotting an entire multi-season arc out and executing it. It’s a sprawlingly hubristic little number, but it’s also the first stab at the sort of thing that is these days taken for granted: of the things that Vince Gilligan is praised for in Breaking Bad, the fact that he had a coherent plot for the whole thing barely makes the list. It’s expected these days. Even if you don’t have one (*cough* Lost *cough*), you’re supposed to pretend that you do. (The zenith of this is the almost completely [and rightly so] forgotten Fox series Reunion, which featured a murder mystery as part of its central premise. When the show was cancelled the producers promised they’d reveal who did it before, a few months later, admitting that they hadn’t actually worked that out by the time the show was cancelled.)
Which, actually, is largely what Straczynski did. The original five-year-arc was reprinted in one of the volumes of the Babylon 5 scriptbooks, and basically completely diverges from what happened in the series somewhere in the rage of season four. Some of this, at least, was caused by Michael O’Hare departing at the end of the first season and a new lead character being created, but only some of it. The larger arc that Straczynski mapped out could well have played out with Bruce Boxleitner’s replacement character. Furthermore, whole major story arcs are missing. In the original outline the plot about the war with the Shadows (then still called the Shadowmen) spilled out past the five year mark and into the sequel series. In practice Straczynski wrapped it up towards the beginning of Season Four. This is partially down to the fact that it looked like there wasn’t going to be a fifth season and thus that Straczynski had to accelerate his plotting, but the compression isn’t quite as dramatic as people say - Straczynski has said that if he’d known for sure there was a fifth season then the eighteenth episode of the fourth season would have been the finale, involving only four episodes of compression. The storyline that occupied most of the fourth season, regarding the corruption of the Earth government and the bulk of Babylon 5 fighting to liberate the planet, wasn’t even in the original outline at all.
Which is to say that Straczynski, in practice, did what any decent writer would: he changed things as he went and developed new ideas. Nobody knows how their five-season television series is actually going to end when they start. Some writers - Straczynski apparently among them - write better when they have an outline and a defined end that they’re going for, but nobody gets to the end and finds out that their outline held. So if that’s the show’s claim to fame it’s a dodgy one to say the least.
Which brings us around to the host of obvious problems to identify with Babylon 5. The acting is stunningly uneven. Through to the final season the show veers back and forth between getting rock solid actors and ones that leave you staring at the screen wondering why on Earth they cast them when Matthew Waterhouse was available. The writing is similarly dodgy. Straczynski has Aaron Sorkin’s love of lengthy monologues without Sorkin’s ability to actually write them. This means that he’s drawn with alarming compulsiveness towards the straightforwardly moralistic. There’s a moment in his more recent film The Changeling where he self-plagiarizes a bit of Babylon 5 - a speech with the end advice “never start a fight but always finish one.” What’s notable here isn’t the self-plagiarism itself - after all, the overlap between the audiences of the two is actually pretty low. No, what surprises me is that Straczynski found it worthwhile to self-plagiarize such an embarrassing piece of moralizing tripe. Even Terry Nation had the good sense not to recycle “the only alternative to living is dying.”
Actually, Terry Nation is a decent point of comparison here, since both Babylon 5 and Nation’s work have their roots in the same pulp tradition. Which may seem odd at first blush, given that Nation’s major influence is clearly Dan Dare, while Straczynski’s biggest debt is to Robert Heinlein. But Heinlein and Dan Dare both belong to the same ultimately similar tradition of the pulp scene from which the Golden Age of Science Fiction extended. And while we’ve been asserting the terminal decline of science fiction in its Golden Age style for something around a year now, it’s worth looking at the legacy that it left on science fiction and the way in which that legacy poses a real problem going forward.
In many ways the biggest piece of prior reading for this, then, is the post on Survivors, a show that’s much more similar to Babylon 5 than anyone would normally remark upon. There the big criticism of the show - indeed, the iconic one for which the show is infamous - is that it’s the most preposterously middle class thing ever filmed. Babylon 5 isn’t quite that bad. It does actually acknowledge the working class, both in character backgrounds and in actual episodes. But it’s telling the way in which this is done. The key episode is one from the fifth season called “A View from the Gallery,” which shows a standard issue crisis on Babylon 5 from the perspective of two working joe maintenance guys. The problem is clear from the title alone. The gallery - i.e. where the working class people are - exists primarily as a perspective to view the real events of Great Men as they make history. Even when acknowledging them - and Babylon 5 goes further than space opera really had before in acknowledging the working class - their position is inherently and intrinsically marginal. Even in “A View from the Gallery” they’re just that: the comic relief peanut gallery that gazes upon the real plot.
And the real plot is, as ever, white dudes being historic. Because Babylon 5 is dominated by white dudes. Let’s pause here and note that Babylon 5 is actually one of the most impressively progressive shows of its time in terms of strong female characters and a diverse cast. It really is. But its lead is still a Great White Man of History both times such that the decision to have every single second in command be a woman is frustrating in the extreme. The only one of its three main alien ambassadors to be a woman is the one from the touchy-feely spiritual race. The chief of security position is always male. The station doctor is a man. Its female characters are reliably defined either by how they’re violated and used by men (either of the two main psychics) or rescued by dashing male heroes (Ivanova). And while it’s reliably colorblind in its casting, it’s colorblind in that frustrating way where they’ll cast any actor as long as the actor plays the part as if the character could just as easily be white. It’s telling that Straczynski freely filled in Ivanova’s Russian background as a major character trait, whereas Dr. Franklin, played by the (African American) Richard Biggs, never gets a single character trait that implies anything about his cultural heritage. And yes, of course this is all filed under the header of “but in the future we’ll have eliminated racism,” but that’s the whole point - racism is eliminated by collapsing every culture into white European culture.
The show tries to be progressive in other ways, but similarly misses the mark. It tries to be brave and do a “lesbians are OK and people have fluid sexualities” plot between Ivanova and Talia, but ends up burying it so deep in the mix that it feels like the show is ashamed about it, and furthermore seems to only do it so that it can then tragically destroy the couple because, after all, lesbian couples only exist for searing tragedy. And the show twice attempted to play with transgender issues with similarly tepid results. First there was the idea of having Delenn be male for the first season and only having Mira Furlan play the part in her own gender after her transformation at the start of Season Two, which was abandoned when they couldn’t get a male Delenn to look persuasive enough. (Because, apparently, it’s unpersuasive if the gender presentations of alien species don’t perfectly match human ones.) Then, later in the season, Straczynski waged an elaborate practical joke on Peter Jurasik and Andreas Katsulas in which he wrote a fake set of scenes in which their characters became lovers after Katsulas’s character transformed into a woman. Because, of course, trans people are funny. That Straczynski had a woman working on the show come up to him during the course of this joke and thank him for writing a positive portrayal of trans people on television only to be horribly let down when it turned out he was using trans people for a cheap joke is one thing. He had already done the damage there, and revealing the joke wasn’t going to fix anything. The problem is that it appears that Straczynski took no lesson whatsoever from the fact that his joke actually hurt someone. Instead he gleefully tells the story in the Babylon 5 scriptbooks, even including the anecdote about the person thanking him, and showing nothing resembling contrition. Which is… predictable, really.
Because that’s the problem with this sort of progressivism. It’s the same problem that the BBC is continually plagued by in many ways - it cannot escape a vicious paternalism that undermines all of its attempts at progressivism. Babylon 5’s heart is in the right place, but it simply can’t get past its creator’s privilege. It’s telling that Babylon 5’s idea of the most horrifying thing imaginable consists of witch hunts, brutal interrogations, and propaganda. Put another way, it’s clear that Straczynski thinks the absolute worst thing to happen in America in the twentieth century was the McCarthy era. Which, yes, that sucked royally, but it’s also the most privileged answer imaginable. And yet it makes total sense within Straczynski’s larger worldview. Straczynski is following almost directly from Heinlein, and is thus absolutely in love with individual liberty and self-identity as the greatest principles imaginable. So his nightmare scenario are things that make a man deny who he is, and his idea of virtue is that “never start a fight but always finish one” sort of steadfastness. You know. “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you” and all that. So of course he has everybody in the show taking up the white man’s burden. This is, at the end of the day, a show that believes in an end teleology of humanity in which we ascend to become higher evolutionary beings. And, more to the point, one that believes that this is a fate reserved only for the good species, and that other species and cultures are irredeemably flawed and cannot ever achieve that. Which, given that his alien species are flagrantly based on various Earth cultures, whereas his version of humanity is a triumph of western secular humanism, is very difficult to take in an even remotely sympathetic way.
The problem is that this approach is wedded in very, very deeply in science fiction. Because it is the default position of virtually all of a key generation in the genre’s development. Science fiction as a genre was driven by well-educated secular white men, and the ethos they put into it doesn’t come out easily. I’m thwacking Babylon 5 here, but the critique extends to an entire style that, in the mid-90s, was still hugely prevalent. More to the point, it extends to a style that’s still prevalent. This is at the heart of why the cult television model is sustained by middle class white men. The logic is that cult television can afford smaller audiences for more expensive shows because the audience it brings in are all middle class white men who are worth more to advertisers. And of course it does. Look at how it’s written. Even when it’s trying to be inclusive of women and minorities and the working class it’s blatantly, painfully a genre for white middle class American men.
The problem is a fundamental rot. It’s a rot that impacts anything whatsoever that tries to play off of the existing structures of sci-fi fandom that stretch back to the Golden Age. Because those structures have entrenched ideas and attitudes that simply cannot be separated out from their ideas. The only viable relationship left to have with it is open confrontation and parody. And, to be clear, that existed in the 1990s and well before. The feminist fandom tradition that Kate Orman comes out of was doing exactly that, and it was terribly important. And when, in early January, we get to the next stage of development of this line of thought that tradition is going to take center stage.
But for now we have Babylon 5. Which, ironically, despite its flaws is actually exactly as good as its fans say it is, albeit not at all in the way they mean, or, at least, not in the way they admit. Because it is the greatest sci-fi series of all time in, at least, the sense that it takes a particular vision of science fiction and the epic space opera as far as it can reasonably go. You could refine the dialogue, perhaps, and hire some better actors, but that’s just trivial refinements. The biggest thing you could try to fix is to smooth out the seasons where the show is either figuring out what it wants to do or where it’s recovering from having done most of it and still having a season to fill. But even there one has diminishing returns. The truth of the matter is that Babylon 5 is really just a standard space opera show that bothers to show the sort of thing that most space opera shows push off to the backstory. So what you get is a standard issue space opera that slowly gets interesting as it does stuff that space opera on television is usually scared of, then, once it’s done, slowly settles back into being a slightly different standard issue space opera. That’s the real problem with Seasons One and Five - the first is the mediocre show that Seasons Two through Four disrupt, and the other is the mediocre show that spins out of Seasons Two through Four. It’s just that without the creativity to actually do the sprawling epic the fact that the show is poorly cast and has mediocre dialogue is a lot more obvious than it is when it’s doing something interesting.
But in finally accomplishing the massive epic of space opera on television and at a gloriously detailed length that even the most epic run of novels couldn’t hope for Babylon 5 ends up showing the fundamental limits of the approach. It does everything, conceptually speaking at least, as right as it can be done and still falls fundamentally short. The root problem is one that should be utterly familiar to anyone who’s read this blog at length: this model of science fiction believes that humanity has a destiny. That’s the impossible-to-remove problem. It believes that there is such a thing as what humanity will inevitably aspire towards, which is, in practice, indistinguishable from the belief that those forces privileged by contemporary ideological power are inherently good and are the future. And to be clear, this is more than the fact that television, as an instrument of power, is always going to tacitly support those forces. What’s uniquely pernicious about the shambling remains of Golden Age SF is that it weds that inherent institutional bias to a belief in historical teleology. That’s the trap that, despite its good intentions, Babylon 5 simply cannot find a way out of. Because, simply put, there’s not a way out without completely abandoning the western secular humanist tradition that underpins the entire genre. Which you can’t do without also aggressively abandoning the entrenched fandom structure that keeps genre shows afloat.
All of which is to say that this is where engagement with this line of thought ends on this blog except for where it actually enters Doctor Who. We’re not done with American sci-fi media, or even cult shows. But we are done with the specific style of fandom they cater to: the sort where the stereotype, at least, is middle-aged men who can’t find a girlfriend and have bad personal hygiene. (Which is not to say that this is actually what those fans are like - just that it’s what the stereotype of this sort of fandom is like.) Doctor Who’s association with that sort of fandom has always been oblique anyway; it’s vaguely what Eric Saward tried to chase during the period where Doctor Who was aggressively courting an American audience in the 1980s, but at every other point in its history Doctor Who has been at best openly hostile to that sort of fandom and at worst only incidentally connected to it. But shows that largely belong to that tradition, and I include several sacred cows that I’m sure chunks of my readership want me to cover, aren’t going to get posts simply because after the mid-90s this just isn’t the direction Doctor Who goes in anymore. There are plenty of other sci-fi shows we will cover, but they’re ones where there’s a clearly articulable way in which they break from the Golden Age tradition - much like Doctor Who does after 1996. To paraphrase its third season, Babylon 5 was the Golden Age’s last, best hope for viability.
It failed. Let’s move on.
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