Sensor Scan: Babylon 5
This is the fandom war I remember The first in the world.
OK, I’m not going there. Not tonight. Babylon 5 doesn’t deserve that. Not least of which because this is a show that when I look at it I don’t so much see something actively offensive as much as I do a case of heroic ambition tragically misplaced and misguided. Let’s not beat around the bush and deal with the obvious straight upfront, shall we? Babylon 5 isn’t very good. Phil has actually already articulated the reasons why very well in a piece for TARDIS Eruditorum some years ago, so I’m not going to make much of an effort to restate the arguments. Just go read that essay instead. There’s way more interesting stuff to talk about in regards to Babylon 5 from a Star Trek: The Next Generation/Star Trek: Deep Space Nine context than tritely comparing their respective quality.
During the mid-90s, you couldn’t go anywhere in sci-fi circles without publicly stating your position on the biggest, most controversial sore point since they announced a new Star Trek with a balding English thespian instead of Captain Kirk: Which was better, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (and Star Trek more generally), or Babylon 5? Forget the Star Wars vs. Star Trek divide-Although I had my annoyances with the franchise, they were mostly personal. This was the real schism that caused people to grab for the torches and pitchforks back in the day. Although the fandoms didn’t really get along, I was not trained to hate Star Wars the way Star Trek loyalists resented Babylon 5 opening up the genre TV market, or the way Babylon 5 fans seemingly resented everybody. It was a civil war the likes of which were unprecedented in the world. After all, it’s not like anything else important was going on in 1994: Not like there was an international espionage scandal or an AIDS pandemic or genocide in Rwanda or anything like that.
I mean, apparently. So I was told. Set firmly outside fandom circles as I was, I could only observe the proceedings from a distance. And anyway, I was preoccupied with other things in 1994 entertainment-wise: I was hurriedly trying to catch up with Star Trek: Deep Space Nine reruns (really, Starlog episode synopses), trying to figure out what the hell Stargate was supposed to be about, really digging Batman the Animated Series and that Spider-Man show on FOX, mourning the end of Garfield and Friends, Disney’s Marsupilami and The Little Mermaid (and yeah, Star Trek: The Next Generation too) and getting really intrigued by this mysterious thing called Project A-ko I kept seeing ads for in my Malibu DS9 comics. I was starting to finally get deeper into video games too: I rode the crest of the last real Sonic the Hedgehog wave as me and my cousin lived out the remaining days of the SEGA Genesis just as Donkey Kong Country mania swept the nation.
But did I watch Bablyon 5? Well, yes I did. And would you believe, at the time, I even liked it? And why wouldn’t I? It was a new show about starships and space stations, and I was kinda into starships and space stations in 1994. Just as I willfully refused to pick a side in the contemporaneous Super Nintendo vs. SEGA Genesis war by playing on a Genesis but respecting and appreciating the libraries of both consoles, so too was I profoundly disinterested in being made to choose between Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Babylon 5. My first and greatest love was Deep Space Nine of course because it was a relatively new and current obsession for me and retained a sentimental link to my favourite TV show, but I had nothing against Babylon 5 and enjoyed it perfectly well for what it was. I saw no reason why I wasn’t allowed to like it just because I also liked Star Trek. I even considered myself something of a fan in later years, checking out the tie-in comic from Dark Horse (a sure sign of my commitment to a franchise if ever there was one) and every so often trying to hunt down the action figures from Premier Toys (but only a couple-I was not enough of a fan to give it the Playmates treatment) and the model kit from Revell. I never did find any of them, and I eventually just lost interest in the series.
The first time I heard of Babylon 5 was as part of a feature in Starlog Magazine from very early on in the first season interviewing some of the cast and outlining the basic premise and themes of the show. In hindsight, I probably should have expected trouble was looming on the horizon because, as I now think about it, half that article was dedicated to explicitly pointing out how Babylon 5 was going to differentiate itself from Star Trek and the rest of that issue was full of thinkpieces about whether or not Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was capable of filling Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s shoes. The entirety of the 90s genre fiction downward spiral was present and anticipated during the light months of 1994. Of course it would be terribly unfair to Babylon 5, or any other space-based science fiction show for that matter, to constantly compare it to Star Trek, as if Star Trek has a monopoly on stories about starships and life in futuristic space settings. But it does serve to emphasize the gravity and omnipresence with which Star Trek: The Next Generation loomed in pop culture during the late-80s and early 90s: Go back just a half-decade and the idea that Star Trek was the only sci-fi game in town would have been laughable. Just a few years later though, and now it seems like an obvious truism. One can perhaps understand the B5 fans’ resentment.
(I’m trying now to remember where I would have watched Babylon 5 in 1994. It was bound to the WB network, which, because I didn’t have satellite TV until 1995, I wouldn’t have been able to see. It may very well have been one of the things I knew primarily through Starlog in its early years and I may have only actually picked up bits of the show itself in later seasons when I got more channels. And certainly I knew it through the comics: In Valen’s Name is a miniseries I remember particularly well.)
It is, however, a deceptive one. Because, and this is the real reason the Babylon 5 vs. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine war was so embarrassingly silly, in practice the two shows have *absolutely nothing in common with each other*. The typical argument from the B5 camp was that DS9 somehow “copied” and “plagiarized” J. Micheal Stracynzki’s show concept, and did a worse job of executing it to boot. Well first of all, no matter how you feel about Star Trek’s strict episodic structure (and in spite of all of its pretenses Star Trek really is fundamentally episodic), it’s tough to make a case for Stracynzki’s “novel for television” approach when the first act of his mangum opus properly belongs to a novel that never got written because half the cast of characters quit, the fourth and fifth acts got condensed into one because the book decided it wanted to end itself sooner than the author did and the epilogue and sequel hook got artificially lengthened to pad out the rest of the page count when it changed its mind at the last second. In other words, novels for television simply do not work due to the production realities of making network television. Similarly, it’s equally troublesome to argue Star Trek: Deep Space Nine ripped this structure off when it was never even intended to be serialized in the first place.
(What really gets me here is the argument that the two franchises sufficiently diverged once Star Trek’s Dominion War arc started, because in my mind the Dominion War arc was way, way more egregiously similar to what Babylon 5 was doing than anything OG DS9 had done. And you can’t even really make the case there, because the Dominion War was a direct response to Star Trek Voyager and, possibly and incredulously, Babylon 5 itself! And while it is also true that both shows do deal with religion and/or spirituality to some degree, one is thunderously Pop Abrahamic, almost technocratic, while the other…isn’t.)
There is, of course, the historical fact that J. Michael Stracynzki did indeed pitch Bablyon 5 to Paramount as a companion show to Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1989, a full two years before even the most preliminary of pre-production work began on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and had his proposal rejected. But there is absolutely no evidence apart from conspiracy theories invented by very bitter and very sad fans that either Brandon Tartikoff, Rick Berman or Michael Piller had any idea Stracynzki or Bablyon 5 even existed when they were drawing up plans for a new Star Trek series set on a space station in 1991. Imagining some kind of vast corporate conspiracy to personally fuck over this one random jobbing TV genre scriptwriter in particular on the part of Paramount seems at the very least questionably egotistical.
Because as I said above, Babylon 5 and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (and The Next Generation) truthfully couldn’t be more different, and to argue otherwise to me demonstrates a worrying lack of critical reading and media literacy skills, namely that similar fantasy settings can be used as metaphors for and to symbolize very different things depending on the context. Both shows are set on a space station. So…? A space station is a common science fiction setting. Both stations are near a FTL jump point of sorts. Well, that seems like a logical thing you’d want to put near your space station so that you can make it easy for different characters to come to it. That kind of just sounds like basic dramatic sense to me. Saying that one copied the other on those merits is a bit like saying CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and The Mary Tyler Moore Show are the same because both are set in major metropolitan areas serviced by commuter freeway systems.
The key here is in parsing out what each of the respective space stations are meant to be code for. Deep Space 9 is a city, namely a port city: It’s Casablanca or Shanghai or Singapore or Miami, just in outer space in the future. It’s meant to be a place where different people from all walks of life who might not otherwise run into each other gather and mingle. It’s a place everyone passes through on their way to and from the Gamma Quadrant and where very few people actually live permanently, and I think it’s significant that the exterior of Ops is designed after an airport terminal and air traffic control tower. The whole space station bit is just a convenient metaphor. Babylon 5, by contrast, is a far more traditional depiction of an artificial megastructure of the sort you’d find in old fashioned Golden Age Hard SF novels, being very much a “space habitat”. It’s also a centre for immense and extreme privilege. There’s a reason why everyone here is an Ambassador of something or other.
This is *markedly* different then the sociopolitical climate on DS9. For reasons I already laid out back when I criticized the depiction of the junior officers in “Lower Decks” I don’t want to use words like “underprivelleged” or “working class” to describe the characters who frequent Deep Space 9, but even in its post-scarcity economic utopianism Star Trek does depict a certain feeling of class and ethnic diversity Babylon 5 lacks. Babylon 5 is a show about realpolitiking in the halls of power, and its idea of diversity is having a spectrum of Ambassadors from various “member countries” represented in the council within said halls of power. Now we’re getting at the real germ of what separates these two shows and their central concepts, because, far from being Shanghai or Singapore, the titular Babylon 5 is instead the United Nations building, the great dream of liberalism projected into the future of all humanity. In fact, the station itself is *literally* described in pretty much those exact words diegetically in one of the show’s many profoundly unsubtle bits of symbolism.
The reason why is actually pretty easy to explain, and it’s all down to the two contrasting intellectual traditions Babylon 5 and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine came from. Babylon 5 is explicitly a throwback to 1940s and 1950s style Hard SF and, just like Foundation and its ilk, is all about Great Men (and women) of Power doing Great Things with meticulously researched speculative future technology (hell, Foundation even has a literal Church of Science, which Valen’s stable time loop-based self fulfilling prophecy puts one in a bit of a mind of). And it’s all set against the backdrop of a sprawling military war epic, because that’s the kind of story writers who wrote in that tradition would default onto, partially because they were just coming off of World War II and that’s all anyone in that social class was thinking about at the time, but also because it’s an easy, pre-made narrative structure you can use as a crutch when your real interest is futurism. Star Trek meanwhile, in spite of what its fans would oftentimes have you believe, is manifestly *not* Hard SF. In fact, it’s questionable you could even describe it as science fiction going by the original definition (though it is by mine), because all the technobabble is explicitly and constantly flagged as wallpaper and window dressing. Star Trek is fundamentally interested in something more ephemeral, esoteric and universal than that, or at least it wants to be.
So ultimately, there’s no way Star Trek: Deep Space Nine could have plagiarized Babylon 5. Not only are the shows fundamentally not interested in exploring the same ideas, they’re not even in the same *genre*.
And the sad irony is that in doing this the Babylon 5 fans created a self-fulfilling prophecy of their own. By making the ridiculous claim that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine ripped off Babylon 5, the corollary of which is that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is functionally indistinguishable from Babylon 5, they reinforced the perception in 1994 that Star Trek: The Next Generation was the only way to do science fiction (at least space-based science fiction) anymore. By incessantly bringing up Star Trek and comparing it to Babylon 5, the Babylon 5 fans ended up sabotaging *their own* show and its reputation, because in that forced reductive comparison Babylon 5 is *always* going to (ironically enough) come across as the inferior me-too knockoff. And that’s simply not fair to anyone involved: It erases the actual history of how these shows went from pitch to screen, misreads them both and forces a conflict where conflict doesn’t need to be.
Frankly, both Star Trek and Babylon 5 have made enough of their *own* mistakes to warrant damnation. We don’t need to invent new ones for them.
June 1, 2016 @ 12:53 pm
“Saying that one copied the other on those merits is a bit like saying CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and The Mary Tyler Moore Show are the same because both are set in major metropolitan areas serviced by commuter freeway systems.”
The better comparison would have been CSI Miami and Miami Vice.
June 1, 2016 @ 5:39 pm
Probably, but I don’t want Miami Vice to be the next Dirty Pair, in that it’s something I name-drop all the time to the point people get sick of hearing me talk about it.
June 1, 2016 @ 1:15 pm
I feel like you may be missing the wood for the trees a bit here. I mean yes once you drill down into it they are (or were at the start) very different shows, but on a basic structural level, the setting of ‘space station next to a worm hole’ isn’t something that I recall seeing on tv before and certainly not a common trope; it’s not crazy to suggest that there was some influence from JMS’s pitch at some level.
That said yes, they (or were) very different, B5 was about the big picture with ambassadors and galactic realpolitik, DS9 was more about a humanitarian effort. And then it became B5 v2. The influence there is absolutely undeniable!
I remember preferring B5 from seasons 1-4 but felt that once DS9 started copying B5, it did the same stuff a lot better and more cohesively (though the final episode was a bit eeeeh)
June 2, 2016 @ 11:17 am
Can you imagine the day JMS heard?
FRED: “Hey, JMS! You heard the latest from Paramount?”
JMS: “Don’t talk to me about Paramount, I worked my ass off on the B5 pitch to them. They probably heard WB picked it up and suddenly got interested. Well, it’s too late for them.”
FRED: “No no, they just announced a new Star Trek series, it’s set on a distant Space Station next to a wormhole!”
JMS: “OH THEY DID, DID THEY?”
Loved ’em both – regardless of anything else they were undeniably very different in tone, and that was enough for me to not even consider them comparable. I couldn’t imagine Garibaldi on DS9 nor Dax on B5 – it just wouldn’t mesh.
June 1, 2016 @ 3:04 pm
I want to push back a bit against this reading, with the initial statement that both it and Phil’s were, of necessity, shallow because of their length. That’s not a critique in the sense that I think you both did much better than I would have with the same word count, it’s a critique in the sense that a brief examination of a lengthy TV series has no choice but to work in broad strokes.
It’s interesting the extent to which this reading is inflected by the JMS-led dissatisfaction with the DS9/B5 similarities (JMS’ original pitch, in his words, was “Casablanca in space,” so it’s interesting to see Josh deploy that phrase here attached to DS9). I picked up B5 late and dropped DS9 late (finding the Dominion War unappealing), and I was never very active in convention fandom, so I guess I missed out on the animosity Josh responds to here. If you were “outside,” Josh, I must have been in a different neighborhood entirely, because I don’t remember more than one discussion thread when I finally sought out fandom online. JMS’ “the executives ripped me off” narrative definitely got distorted by fans into a war between the shows, and it’d be more interesting to consider whether the two shows influenced each other beyond the Dominion War idea (a bad one, stealing the unimportant part of B5 and missing all the subtext). But judging B5 through this debate is like judging Next Generation through the Star Wars/Star Trek debate.
I’ll instead respond to the “Great Man” reading both Phil and Josh offered of the series. Setting aside the teleological statement that having roots in Golden Age SF necessarily makes B5 a throwback, I’m not convinced that a sensitive reading of the series as a whole sustains the claims entirely, though B5 struggles with this issue in the same way Next Gen struggles with sexism. Alfred Bester and Harlan Ellison are at least as strong an influence on the show as Asimov, and Bester at least doesn’t fit the broad stereotype-claim for SF in the period.
The human “Ambassador” is in fact in the military chain of command, which the show repeatedly treats as a problem; the Narn Ambassador starts with privilege but ends up having to first deploy it in the service of his new position as influential war refugee, then casts it off as political prisoner, then takes up an even more privileged position as Christ-figure that becomes a huge problem for him. The Centauri Ambassador’s perceived (and false) lack of privilege leads him to do terrible things and places him in a position of imperialist power which proves to be worse than empty.
But that’s still superficial. When “The Deconstruction of Falling Stars” puts talking heads and academics on the screen discussing the B5 plot in retrospective, they almost uniformly buy into the Great Man theory while the show works to refute them. The claim the series wants to make (not always succeeding) is the “Good Person” theory of history, the claim that individual choice matters and trying to grow and be a good person matters more than “great works” because that individual attempt drives what happens on the galactic stage. Far more than any other sci-fi series at the time, B5 depicts a cast of damaged people trying to do their best, often failing, whose actions have long-reaching consequences, and makes the claim that the galactic geopolitics are actually a microcosm for the little dynamics between individuals but that we get fooled by the scale into thinking the reverse.
As for the privilege of the main characters: I wonder whether Garibaldi or Ivanova or Franklin (or Sinclair, for that matter) really qualify as privileged? Garibaldi is a working class schlub who ends up sticking it to capitalism (though that endpoint doesn’t entirely land); Ivanova’s a Russian Jew, bisexual in an uncringeworthy way and a closeted telepath who works her way up in the military but who is filled with regrets; Franklin’s the military brat who became a doctor, who fought the military all his life but finds himself working for it now, who is forced to go after himself for what privilege he earned because it erased the better part of himself.
Rewatching “Ship of Tears” the other day with some first-time viewers, we were all struck that the big fight between the Shadows and our heroes that was the overt heart of the episode was dramatically eclipsed (and deliberately so) by a scene between G’Kar and Delenn where she apologizes to him for making the decision to sacrifice his people. You feel for both characters at this moment, and you know G’Kar has been primed (even a bit brainwashed) into accepting Delenn’s logic, but the scene’s as much about the betrayal of their relationship as it is the betrayal of the Narn people because at its heart, B5 argues that the geopolitical is always, always personal. And frankly, though the show wants you to see that Delenn did what she thought was right, it doesn’t want you to placidly accept that it was right.
I’ve never seen a show so preachy that so fervently wants you to be suspicious of what it preaches.
I do have a plan someday (if time and work permit) to offer redemptive readings of all the B5 episodes, because I think they’re marvelously subtle and because I think they leave a lot unsaid in ways that SF in particular rarely did in its time. The show doesn’t really address human racial issues, for example, a criticism Phil leveled at it, but for not talking about race it sure has a lot to say. In the end I’m claim that B5 is as much about that which is left unsaid and undiscussed–about subtext–as it is about the grand speeches JMS so enjoys writing.
June 1, 2016 @ 4:59 pm
Well said. Based on what you wrote here, I’d certainly be interested in any redemptive readings of B5 that you might do in the future. I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing you do a collection the way there’s been the TARDIS Eruditorum collections.
Dealing with where Josh might have seen it initially, it wasn’t actually the WB network specifically showing it. They had made something called PTEN which was selling packages of series in syndication. In addition to B5 they did Kung Fu: The Legend Continues, Hercules and (later) Xena. So, it could have been really any local channel that decided to pick those up in syndication.
June 2, 2016 @ 3:10 am
PTEN syndication is the most likely option, though for S5 TNT was showing the whole series, and of course Sci-Fi showed it for a while before they became Syfy.
When I was in grad school, I used to rewatch the whole B5 series in about two weeks of binge watching (on VHS tape, recorded from TV) at the end of every year. I was in grad school ten years. I’ll have to write on the show sooner or later.
June 1, 2016 @ 3:25 pm
I remember learning about it at a point where I’d got bored of Star Trek, seeing its opening credits and maybe a little bit of it, and concluding that it was just a copy of Star Trek generally, (or maybe something which wants to be a fourth Star Trek series without really being that,) because as well as being set in space, its aliens were all humans with bits of plastic attached (or all the same hairstyle?) with “humans” really being “Americans” and each alien “race” being like a stereotype of another nationality, (probably generic rather than specific,) and the lead character is a military captain who can give orders to people. (And the humans all get introduced with two names, but the aliens only get one.) Noting how the credits can say “humans and aliens” but you’d never get away with “Americans and foreigners”. Erm, probably.
Which is quite shallow, (you probably need to actually watch the thing to say non-shallow things,) but it does seem worth pointing out, at least.
June 1, 2016 @ 3:33 pm
I can only speak from personal experience here, but despite being a massive fan of B5 in the day (and still pretty happy with the series today) I can’t recall any serious instance of animosity between B5 and DS9 fans. For the most part what I remember is B5 fans getting a little annoyed when DS9 fans would claim that B5 was a ripoff of DS9 because the DS9 started broadcasting first. Most of the “B5 came before DS9” arguments centered on this misunderstanding, because many DS9 fans simply didn’t know about the back story of how long it took for B5 to actually make it to TV.
But, even with that, the disagreement was relatively peaceful. Certainly nothing coming close to the kind of Star Wars/Star Trek fights I remember.
June 1, 2016 @ 5:43 pm
Yeah, I sometimes wonder if I’m a “fan” at all, because, whilst I like some thing a lot (and hate other things), I never resented anyone for having a different opinion.
That may be why I’m a lousy political activist too.
I loved B5 for the way its reach always exceeded its grasp; that the story was always fighting with the presentation because nuance is so hard to do in the visual medium, and unreliable narration even more so, and B5 was rife with both of those right from the start. DS9 certainly entered similar territory, but only after it was more sure of its footing I think, and only once B5 had proved it was feasible, albeit flawed.
Once upon a time, I expressed my love of B5 in the usual fannish way:
June 1, 2016 @ 9:18 pm
I was only a casual viewer of B5 (which is possibly the worst possible series to be a casual viewer of, with the possible exception of Nu Who) , but I’d question the “DS9 is a city, B5 is the UN” analogy. To me, B5 always felt much more like a city than DS9, which is just a port with a shopping mall.
The episode of B5 I remember best is the one where the dockers are on strike. Not just because of the wonderfully lefty ending (Sinclair is told he has carte blanche to do “whatever it takes” to end the strike, and interprets that as authorising him to agree to all their demands), but just the idea of a space opera with dockers and labour disputes.
June 2, 2016 @ 10:24 am
Yes, it’s striking how the description given for DS9 fails to match it, while fitting B5 perfectly. B5 absolutely feels like a port city, with a whole shifting society of residents and (especially) transients going about their business away from what the main characters are doing, whereas DS9 feels like an airport, and not a very busy one. Of course, it’s also an airport that’s been taken over by the US Air Force in a quasi-colonial peacekeeping scenario, which later turns towards being a full-blown military airbase when the war gets going.
Some of that contrast is down to the different sense of scale given by the range of internal settings, and the odd CGI sequence in B5’s core. It also reflects the non-utopian nature of Babylon 5‘s future, whose sharp disparities of wealth and social tensions generate more of a flavour of urban life. There’s even the contrast between the external effects shots in the opening titles and transitions. In B5 they tend to have cargo ships, shuttles and liners coming and going and waiting their turn, giving the impression of a busy port. DS9 tends to just hang there all alone in the night (to coin a phrase), except for the occasional docked ship that generally relates to the episode plot, until the war kicks in, when they generally have some warships hanging around.
It’s interesting that it was the series with a much smaller budget that made its station feel much bigger and busier.
June 1, 2016 @ 11:23 pm
Space Opera can’t be Hard Sci-Fi because the laws of nature basically dictate that we’re shit out of luck with regard to travelling to the stars and the like. And indeed, Babylon Five includes godlike aliens, time travel, prophecy, telepathy and other things which go far beyond scientific plausiblity. Babylon Five also takes religion seriously and that’s something which Hard Sci-Fi, usually driven by materialism, usually doesn’t do.
Where Babylon 5 is harder than Star Trek isn’t science, it’s social science. Star Trek postulates a kind of utopian future and then doesn’t bother to delve into it much, using it as a background for heroic adventure and exploration. Deep Space Nine is the only real exception to that because it actually delves deeper into politics, religion, and culture, as does Babylon Five, which is, I think, the real similarity between them. B5 can’t delve as deep into any single culture as DS9 gets into Bajor, but it tries. The Centauri, the Narn, the Minbari, and Future Earth are developed as cultures with their own traditions, history, and faiths.
I have to reject the idea that the Great Man theory of history underlies Babylon 5; I can see how you get that, but there’s something different going on here. What actually underlies Babylon 5 is the story of how a cycle of creation and destruction, driven by godlike aliens efforts to experiment using the lesser species as pawns, was finally broken and everyone was freed from them. It’s a metaphor for humanity overcoming the gods and setting themselves free.
The greatest horror in Babylon Five isn’t witch hunts and McCarthyism. It’s having forces beyond your control treat you as a pawn for their amusement and force you to jump through hoops as a social science experiment in whether competition or cooperation is a better principle. It’s about entire species having been wiped out in stupid wars which were pushed and empowered and sometimes directly caused by godlike aliens who float above it all, letting us go out and die for their edification.
This is Chariot of the Gods, but the aliens uplifted us so they can then use us for cockfighting. Social science experiment cockfighting. This goes far beyond the disorganized godlike aliens of Star Trek, who just mess with those who stumble into their grasp or like the Q, find someone and then repeatedly mess with them for fun/edification.
The central story of Babylon 5 is the breaking of the cycle of the periodic return of the Shadows to bring about a massive apocalyptic conflict. That’s why the fifth season is weak; the real story is over by then. The true story of Babylon 5 is the shadow war and how the age of myth was ended and mere history begun, in which all the younger species would finally be the masters of their own fate.
This is something which in Star Trek never happens. There’s a series of confrontations with godlike aliens, and particular godlike aliens may be tricked into self-destruction, turn out to be benevolent, or just leave once they made their point, but there’s no sign that ST humanity will ever be free of these bastards until it finally evolves in some way into godlike beings themselves.
So the central horror of Babylon Five is that the world is full of things we can’t control, things which will use us for their own benefit and toss us in the garbage once no longer useful. What happens on Earth is merely one aspect of that. But think about what happens to the Narn, who were free and are put back in chains. G’kar is a major character and he puts a recognizable face on what happens to them. Babylon Five thus deals with imperialism and it puts a recognizable face on imperialism with Londo; Londo is the very picture of the modern former imperial powers, who had only just become so in the nineties. What if they went to town on their former colonies, aided by other forces in doing so? What if we had helped crush all those colonial uprisings?
Indeed, in some ways, what you have here is a situation which also speaks to the just ended Cold War; the US and the USSR destroyed entire countries in their struggle by proxy with each other over the future of how the world should be. The shadows arming the Centauri for revenge on the Narn isn’t much different from the US arming Vietnamese Catholics against the Viet Cong and what happens on Earth isn’t all that different from our interference in places like Guatemala and Iran. Just a larger scale of destruction.
(And in Original Series Star Trek, A Private Little War deals with the same theme, for example.)
Babylon Five uses the trappings of space opera to tell a giant parable/myth with multiple possible levels of interpretation, from the cosmic down to being a metaphor for how the US and USSR fucked up other countries during the Cold War.
But further, I would argue that to the extent that this resembles the Great Man theory of history, this is driven by the fact that telling a story on Television pretty much requires a plot structure in which the protagonists drive the resolution of the story. It would be very hard to create a satisfying story in which impersonal forces drive everything and individuals don’t matter.
Does Star Trek embody the Great Man theory of history whenever its cast changes the course of events? If not, why not? How is Sisko less of a Great Man of History by becoming the Emmisary than Sheridan or Ivanova or Garibaldi or Franklin or Delenn? How is Kirk, who rewrites the entire societies of worlds on a whim, less of a Great Man of History?
Rather, they are protagonists. And it’s the nature of protagonists to overthrow the overthrowable and to kick the inevitable in the groin and take its sandwich.
The protagonists of B5 are people, people who are sometimes great, but also people who screw up and make mistakes and have weaknesses. They have issues, they have breakdowns and some of them get played like violins. Sometimes, they rise and act as Heroes, as has to happen if Gods are to be defeated by Men, but they also get drunk and make bad romantic decisions and other bad decisions and are haunted by their pasts. In some ways, this makes them more like the Heroes of mythic literature, who do great things but also have great screwups.
So I don’t think Babylon Five has to lose to Star Trek; each has their own strengths and weaknesses. Babylon Five’s creator had to make a lot of compromises, but in the end, it still largely reflects a single vision for good and ill, while Star Trek has been many different things to many different people due to ever changing creative staff and changing cultural environments. Star Trek can be more easily edited in one’s mind to a particular mold, though as someone who has read every post of Vaka Rangi, I’ve seen that you’ve more often found the show didn’t fit your vision of it than did. Whereas, with B5, either you like its creator’s vision or you’re gonna end up hating it.
That, more than anything else, I think, is the biggest difference between the two.
Anywhere, there’s my two cents.
June 2, 2016 @ 3:16 am
I would definitely like to subscribe to your newsletter.
That said, I don’t entirely agree, but then again, I think the Fifth season is wonderful, even the many parts that aren’t. It is also, I think, further refutation of the “Great Man” reading of the series, because S5 takes the beautiful promise of the Interstellar Alliance, the Federation-alike that will usher in this new age of enlightenment under our fearless hero, and turns it into a horrific political mess.
And the Psi-Corps episode in S5 which puts Walter Koenig’s Alfred Bester in the leading man role justifies the series’ existence by itself.
June 2, 2016 @ 11:22 am
I agree on the contradiction between hard sci-fi and space opera, and have trouble seeing where any impression of particular “hardness” in Babylon 5 comes from, except maybe from a couple of elements of human ship and station designs which show a passing intterest in feasible space-flight technology: the Starfury’s multi-directional engines and various things with rotating habitat sections. Even there, every ship except the Starfury (aside from those without glowy engine outlets at all) follows the usual space-opera model of big engines at the back and no discernible manoeuvring ability, while a lot of the alien ships have traditional space-opera artificial gravity, so there’s hardly a commitment to “hardness” on display.
On the day-to-day level, there is little sign of excited futurism, notably regarding computer and communications technology. The series broadcast during the years when the internet was just becoming A Big Thing, and was gestated before that, but the technology existed and sci-fi had been playing with related possibilities for years. Yet this is a world where everyone gets their news from Space CNN and where a character grumbles “every time they say we’re becoming a paperless society I get ten more forms to fill in”. That more venerable sci-fi preoccupation, AI, crops up exactly once, as a joke. Even on the level of human non-uniform costume, whereas Star Trek goes for In The Future, Everyone Will Wear Pyjamas All Day, Babylon 5 favours “like now, but with collarless shirts and no ties”. Transformation of the human way of life by science and technology is not something this series is interested in investigating.
On the plotting level, it tells its stories with a conspicuous lack of interest in science and technology. Charcters rarely talk about these things except in the briefest and vaguest terms, in stark contrast to Star Trek’s pervasive technobabble rituals. Star Trek-style scientific analyses of exotic phenomena and technological solutions to problems are very rare. The most notable “technological” fix revolves around psychics, for pity’s sake. Plot-significant bits of technology are typically alien, opaque in their workings, and often decidedly “magical” (e.g. the healing device, the Great Machine, Sebastian’s box of tricks or the Starfire Wheel).
And that ties into another significant element of the genre recipe which has not been mentioned yet, which is the role of fantasy fiction. I mean, it’s not as though JMS was exactly subtle about acknowledging the degree to which he was influenced by Tolkien. “Fantasy meets 20th-century politics, In Space” seems a whole lot closer to what the series was doing than “Golden-Age Hard Sci-Fi”.
June 2, 2016 @ 11:50 am
novels for television simply do not work due to the production realities of making network television
Are the production realities of making cable television really that different? Because, as Phil’s article remarks, the Five Year Plan approach is pretty mainstream in US TV drama these days, so it’s only by making a big deal of the network/cable distinction (which, as a Brit, is not something I have a very sound grasp of) that I can get that to stand up.
And in terms of any putative imitation on the part of Deep Space Nine, why is what was “intended…in the first place” so much more important than the way it was reconfigured after they had seen what the competition was up to?
June 14, 2016 @ 9:01 am
I guess my relationship with Babylon 5 has been somewhat patchy, to the point that I have not even fully watched the whole show. So I guess I can’t fully comment, but I like you Josh was completely on the outside of fandom for this show (and Trek), I have never really been that invested in comparing these shows or even properly seeking to define them.
The only thing I usually ask (and did then in the 90’s in a simpler more gut instinct way) is “does this individual story work for me?” And I have maybe not finished watching Babylon 5 as more often I found the stories to not be deeply grabbing me. I would like to go back through it and find the time for it just to see the journey of the show though.