Happy Birthday, Babylon 5!

By Michael Boyle and Daniel A. Kaufman

Twenty-three years ago, the pilot for a new American science fiction series, Babylon 5, was first broadcast. The following year, B5’s production team embarked on a five-year journey that would see the development of one of the most respected and admired science fiction series ever produced, netting several Hugo and Emmy awards. The brainchild of longtime TV writer and producer, J. Michael Straczynski, Babylon 5 was especially innovative in its use of years-long story arcs, rather than the more traditional stand-alone episodes or limited story arcs that one finds in shows like Star Trek and the X-Files.

The entire five years of the series was developed by Straczynski before shooting a single episode and is grounded in an ancient quarrel between the forces of order and chaos, represented by races known, respectively, as the Vorlons and the Shadows. The similarity between this overarching scheme and the creation stories of the Mesopotamian civilization that had inspired the series’ name was intentional, and throughout Babylon 5, major plot and thematic elements are drawn from myriad human religions and civilizations, providing the show with much of its realism and depth.

The series is set, for the most part, on a space station called “Babylon 5.”  Five miles long and home to a quarter of a million humans and aliens of various races, the station is essentially an enormous “O’Neill cylinder,” orbiting a mysterious planet, revelations about which will have plot-changing consequences. (1) The “Babylon Project” was conceived in the wake of a devastating war between humans – who are depicted as newcomers on the galactic scene, in a manner reminiscent of David Brin’s Uplift Series – and the Minbari, one of the oldest and most advanced races in the galaxy, a war that began as the result of a simple misunderstanding.  In order to prevent anything similar from happening again, the Babylon Project conceived the construction of a habitat in neutral space that could serve as one part intergalactic United Nations, one part intergalactic trading hub, and one part intergalactic city.  It is not until the construction of Babylon 5, however, after a series of mishaps that led to the destruction or loss of Babylon Stations 1 through 4 – a narrative arc within the series that will also have long-reaching ramifications – that this dream is finally realized.

Although mostly centered on the station itself, the series avoids boring the audience by lapsing into over-familiarity or predictability. One of the ways this is accomplished is through creative and substantial character development, both at the level of its highly memorable main characters  and its equally compelling secondary personalities. A kind of galactic soap opera in many ways, Babylon 5 involves constant political and relationship shifts and high drama and gradually depicts what will become a galaxy-wide, all-consuming war between the Vorlons and the Shadows and all of the lesser races caught in between. Audience attention is essential in watching B5, for every episode contains crucial details, all of which contribute to the series’ masterfully complex and deeply satisfying five-year narrative arc.  Indeed, the first season, named “Signs and Portents,” foreshadows every major plot and thematic element that will unfold over the course of the show’s five-year run.

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Vorlon and Shadow Vessels in Battle

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One of the series’ greatest strengths is its combination of a grand, space-operatic scope with a commitment to realism in the depiction of its universe, its people, and its central action. The world of B5 is not some already established, idealized order, in which trouble occasionally erupts, as we find in Star Trek, but one in which any sort of ideal society is far off — if even conceivable — and in which every race and every individual is flawed — sometimes catastrophically so —  and challenged with constant struggles and conflicts, with ever shifting alliances between the races and between factions, within the individual races.  By way of illustration of this combination of grand scope and realistic realization, here is just a small handful of some of the key personnel and institutions that we find in Babylon 5.

iobeiQykpU2QQmz2Q8fgT9f23UaJeffrey Sinclair – Babylon 5’s first commander and a former Jesuit, Sinclair is a veteran of the Earth-Minbari war and a hero of the “Battle of the Line,” the final battle, in which the Minbari, on the verge of a devastating, total victory over Earth, suddenly and inexplicably, surrendered.  Sinclair was the last survivor of his squadron and blacked out during the final 24 hours of that battle.  Much of the first season of B5 is devoted to exploring what happened to Sinclair during those 24 hours, and what we discover is crucial to what will become an intricate and mind-bending story of the relationship between humans and Minbari.  At the end of the first season, Sinclair is removed from his post and reassigned as Earth’s Ambassador to the Minbari homeworld, a development that will set the stage for an even larger role for Sinclair — one with a truly cosmic scope — as well as for John Sheridan’s entry into the B5 universe, as the Captain who will command Babylon Five for three seasons and who will play as large a role in the fate of the galaxy as his predecessor, if not even larger.

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John Sheridan – B5’s second commander, Sheridan is also a hero of the Earth-Minbari war.  Called “Starkiller” by the Minbari, Sheridan is the only Earthforce commander to succeed in destroying a Minbari warship, during the war.  His tenure at Babylon 5 begins rockily, nearly sparking another Earth-Minbari conflict, but he soon emerges fully into the role that we later discover he was destined for.  By the show’s end, Sheridan will not have only commanded Babylon 5, he will have led a huge coalition of the galaxy’s races, in what will turn out to be its greatest and most consequential war.  Equally skilled in warfare and diplomacy, Sheridan is the series’ strongest, least ambiguous, and most consistent character, providing a kind of ballast, beneath the ever shifting, ever developing plotlines and character arcs that develop over the course of B5’s run.

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The Psi Corps – In the B5 universe, every race, with the exception of the Narn and – interestingly enough — the Shadows has telepaths, individuals with the ability to read and manipulate minds and at greater strengths, deploy telekinetic abilities.  On Earth, concerns regarding the privacy of non-telepathic “normals,” as well as considerations of security, lead to the creation of the Psi Corps, whose ostensible job is to train telepaths in the use of their talents, teach them how to block out the thoughts of others, so as not to encroach on peoples’ privacy, and serve the state, in a number of capacities.  (Interestingly, business negotiations always include a registered telepath, whose presence is to insure honest dealings among the parties.)

As Earth’s politics become increasingly troubled over the show’s five-year arc, we get a better view of the role played by the Psi Corps.  While on the surface, it is an institution whose task is to protect the public from telepathic invasions of privacy, the Psi Corps emerges as a shadowy, highly secretive, “Black Ops” style agency that is at least involved in espionage, sabotage, selective breeding, and other ethically dubious activities and which may even be functioning as a kind of puppet-master, behind the scenes on Earth.  It is worth noting that the Psi Corps character whom we see the most in the series is the slimy, truly despicable Alfred Bester, portrayed with great effectiveness by Star Trek veteran, Walter Koenig.

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Delenn – The Minbari Ambassador to Babylon 5 and clandestine member of the Minbari’s ruling body, The Grey Council, Delenn has an intimate connection to Sinclair — one related to his lost 24 hours, during the Battle of the Line — as well as to the enigmatic Vorlon Ambassador, Kosh.  Delenn’s arc is one that follows an ancient Minbari prophecy and involves her undergoing a shocking transformation that contributes to the already divided and unstable internal politics of Minbar.  Her developing relationship with the station’s new captain, John Sheridan, provides one of the most post powerful and enduring romantic arcs of the series, and the role Delenn ultimately plays in the larger story that unfolds is unmatched by anyone in the series, other than Sinclair and Sheridan.

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Londo Molari – When Babylon 5 opens, the Centauri are a people whose best days are behind them and whose Ambassador, Londo Molari, is a largely comic figure.  The story of Londo, over the course of the series, is the story of the Centauris’ rebirth as a major power and their re-subjugation of the Narn, over whom they had exercised a cruel and exploitative rule, for over a century, until driven out by a fierce and resilient Narn resistance movement.  Londo’s is a haunting, tragic story, the story of a Fall, not just of a man, but of an entire civilization, into darkness; the sort of Fall that only occurs, when one gets exactly what one has asked for and in which the line between triumphant hero and despicable monster is so fine as to be almost invisible.  Even more remarkable is the relationship between Londo and G’Kar, the Narn ambassador, one that spans the entire spectrum of human relationships.  From the direst of enemies to the closest of friends, the Londo-G’Kar relationship is one of B5’s strongest elements and is why the alien ambassadors are two of the most popular characters, among the show’s fan base.

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G’Kar – G’Kar is the Narn ambassador to Babylon 5, a member of the Narn governing body, the Kha’ri, and was a freedom fighter, during the Centauri occupation of Narn.

G’Kar’s evolution represents perhaps the straightest, least complicated arc of any character in the series.  Beginning as an angry, vengeful, somewhat petty diplomat, whose main interest is to punish the Centauri for their invasion and occupation of his homeworld, he develops slowly, gradually, and seamlessly, into a skilled and generous negotiator, a dogged, loyal advocate of galactic peace, and finally, a statesman, writer of constitutions, and even a religious figure.  As already mentioned, G’Kar’s relationship with Londo Molari, who over the course of the show is both his closest friend and his greatest nemesis, is one of B5’s strongest and most compelling elements.

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Babylon 5 is connected in a number of different ways to Star Trek, that most iconic of all American science fiction TV franchises. The creative consultant to Straczynski for the duration of the series was Harlan Ellison, one of America’s most respected science fiction authors, who penned some of the most highly acclaimed episodes of the original Outer Limits, and who also wrote for the original Star Trek. Ellison had famously feuded with Star Trek creator Gene Rodenberry over what some consider to be the greatest single episode of the original series, “City on the Edge of Forever,” which was written by Ellison and then changed significantly, by Roddenberry, without his approval. He thus found a welcome opportunity in Babylon 5 to present a science fiction show from his own perspective, without the sort of meddling that caused his decades-long rift with Rodenberry. Also worth noting is that Paramount began broadcasting a new Star Trek franchise, Deep Space Nine, less than two months before the Babylon 5 pilot aired. The similarities between the two shows and the fact that Babylon 5 had been pitched to Paramount in 1989, led Straczynski to consider a lawsuit, something he eventually declined to pursue. (2) A number of Star Trek franchise cast members also appeared in Babylon 5, including the aforementioned Walter Koenig, Majel Barrett (Rodenberry’s widow, who also played in Deep Space Nine and whose appearance in Babylon 5 was an olive branch of sorts), and Andreas Katsulas, who played G’Kar.

Straczynski’s vision of Babylon 5 was that it should do for science fiction what Hill Street Blues had done for police dramas. Hill Street Blues, which ran from 1981 to 1987, redefined police shows and effected a shift in television toward more realistic depictions of law enforcement, rather than the more sanitary and tame versions that had been the norm in the 1970’s. Straczynski wanted to make the same kind of “grown-up” show for science fiction audiences, with realistic characters, in a setting that facilitated character growth, adaptation, and difficult choices. This matched up fairly well with Harlan Ellison’s own perspective on American science fiction, which he felt was largely puerile.

In terms of Babylon 5’s production, the original five-year sequence was marred by the fact that the American Prime Time Entertainment Network (PTEN), on which the first four seasons aired, folded in 1997 after the fourth season. Season Five was eventually picked up by the TNT Network, but very late in the show’s production timeline. Nonetheless, the series had resolved the major plot developments by the end of the fourth season, with Season Five then devoted to continuing some of the general history and the major characters’ stories in the aftermath of the action concluded in the previous season. Besides the original five years of the series, Straczynski was also able to film four B5 made-for-TV movies, as well as re-releasing the series Pilot and filming thirteen episodes of a successor series — also planned on a five year scale — called Crusade.  That series, alas, never took off and was canceled after the first season.

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The First Season Cast

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Celebratory Postscript

Included below is a recipe for Bagna Cauda, a fondue-style dip from the northwestern region of Italy, known as Piedmont. It is a favorite of the station’s Chief of Security Michael Garibaldi, who learned to make it from his deceased father Alfredo, and who cooks it annually on Alfredo’s birthday. The dish is part of the subplot of the second season episode “A Distant Star,” and involves Garibaldi chafing under a new diet, imposed on the senior officers by the station’s chief physician, Dr. Stephen Franklin. At the end, Franklin and Garibaldi share the delicious meal, the diet quickly forgotten by the doctor, after he tastes Bagna Cauda for the first time.

Bagna Cauda (“Hot Bath”) (3)

Raw vegetables of your choice (see below) and/or a good, crusty bread.
2 cups heavy cream
6 to 8 cloves garlic
1/4 cup butter or extra-virgin olive oil (or a combination of both)
10 finely chopped flat anchovy fillets packed in olive oil, drained*
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley (optional)
1 (1 pound) loaf crusty Italian or French bread, cut into 2-inch sections

* Use only good-quality Spanish or Portuguese anchovies. Anchovy paste may be substituted (approximately two inches squeezed from the tube will provide the equivalent taste of one anchovy fillet). More anchovy fillets may be added according to your personal taste.

Preparation:

Wash and prepare the vegetables several hours before using them. Cut vegetable into strips about 3 inches long and 1/2-inch wide. Place all the vegetables in ice water to crisp.

In a large heavy saucepan over medium-high heat, add cream and garlic cloves; bring just to a boil, lower heat to medium, and cook, stirring constantly to prevent scorching or boiling over, approximately 15 minutes or until the cream has thickened and reduced by half (approximately 1 cup). Remove from heat and let cool slightly.

In another saucepan, melt the butter (or olive oil). Mash anchovies with a fork and add to butter, along with cayenne pepper and parsley; cook until the anchovies dissolves into a paste, about 5 minutes.

Put the reduced cream, garlic cloves, and anchovy mixture into a blender and purée until the mixture is very smooth. (The recipe may be made ahead to this point.)

In a saucepan, reheat the Bagna Cauda at a very slow simmer, stirring constantly, but do not let it boil.

Serve in warming dish over candle (a fondue pot works well). If sauce begins to separate while standing, a few turns with a whisk will bring it back together. Sauce may be made ahead and kept refrigerated in covered jar. To re-warm, place jar in cold water in a pan and gently raise the heat until mixture is liquid again.

Dip vegetables into the Bagna Cauda (a fondue-style fork will help), holding a piece of bread under the vegetable after dipping. After dipping a few pieces, the bread will be fragrant with oil and delicious to eat.

Makes 6 to 8 servings (1 1/2 cups).

Bagna_Cauda

Security Chief, Michael Garibaldi and Chief Medical Officer, Stephen Franklin, Enjoying Bagna Cauda

Notes

(1) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/O%27Neill_cylinder; http://www.nss.org/settlement/space/oneillcylinder.htm

(2) Straczynski’s comments online (lack of italics in original), on 2/4/1992, ten months before the airing of Deep Space Nine (DS9):

“When was B5 announced? Check the trades. November 21st [1991], several articles appeared with the info. When was DS9 developed? That, too, is a matter of both record and other information. Was B5 brought to Paramount? Yes, it was, and I have the correspondence to prove it. Were some of the development people at Paramount who read the B5 screenplay and saw the [Babylon 5] series treatment and bible [i.e, the pitch materials Straczynski had sent to Paramount in 1989] also involved in the DS9 development? It seems that this is indeed the case.

Were Pillar and Berman [Rick Berman and Michael Pillar, creators of Deep Space Nine] aware of B5 at any time? No. Of that I am also confident. The only question in my mind is to what degree did the development people steer them? One scenario is that they did not steer them at ALL…but knowing of B5, and knowing how swell it would be if they could co-opt B5, if Pillar and Berman came up with a space station on their own, they would likely say nothing, even though they might be viewed as being under a moral obligation to say something. Another scenario is that they gave direction to the creative folks without telling them the origin of that direction.

There are several ways of dealing with this. One is to launch a major suit with full powers of discovery. The result is that DS9 gets tied up for months, maybe even years in litigation, and maybe the show doesn’t go forward. It also means hundreds of thousands of dollars spent by Warners and me and others pursuing this…not to mention the sense of ill will that will fly back and forth.

And while all options are still open, the general consensus for now seems to be to live and let live. (I assume you want to see DS9, do you not? If you’d like me to take this out of the realm of discussion and into the courts, there’s a better than even chance that we could kill it — is that what you want?) We are content to try and let the market decide which is the better program…or allow both to continue on and on indefinitely, in the hope that they will be sufficiently different that both can succeed.”

Source: http://jmsnews.com/msg.aspx?id=1-21322&query=ds9

(3) Bagna Cauda recipe from http://whatscookingamerica.net/Appetizers/BagnaCauda.htm

Categories: Essay, Essays

14 Comments »

  1. This is beautifully written, very descriptive and clear. Now for a confession – I had never before heard of Babylon 5. Yes, I do live in an alternative universe, it is called Africa 🙂 Now that the shell of my universe has been cracked I have some serious viewing pleasure ahead of me.

    This raises five thoughts.
    1. The Fermi paradox.
    In our imaginings we expect a universe populated with many species but we see not even a hint of them. Is there a Great Filter? Is it before us or after us? Or is the jump to intelligence far more unlikely than we could ever have imagined? See Nick Bostrom – Where are They? (http://www.nickbostrom.com/extraterrestrial.pdf)
    2. Why do we invariably imagine a dark, apocalyptic future? Is the entertainment industry unconsciously expressing our greatest fears?
    3. Or has the entertainment industry correctly understood that technology unleashes the darkness that was always in us?
    4. Or perhaps technology unleashes our inner darkness but there is still enough residual inner good that it may eventually win the struggle with our inner darkness?
    5. Is technology the evil that lies ahead of us, the Great Filter of Nick Bostrom?

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  2. Dan, Michael,

    I’ll think I’ll pass on comment to this essay. When I was younger, I followed Star Trek and the Next Generation and Doctor Who; but while I’ve caught a couple episodes of Farscape and Firefly I enjoyed, and I really tried to follow the Dr. Who reboot, my interest in sci-fi TV has waned considerably over the years. For one thing, I have a difficulty remembering how to pronounce alien names – it’s hard enough remembering names of real people from other cultures these days….

    labnut,

    “Why do we invariably imagine a dark, apocalyptic future?”

    Well, there have been a few efforts at portraying a brighter future – 2001: A Space Odyssey, the more recent Mission to Mars (wonderful Morricone soundtrack on that one, by the way); and the Star-Trek sagas all paint a future of continuing improvement, despite our flawed natures….

    But here’s the problem: in a truly happy future, there would be no reasons to shoot anybody or stab them, or cut their arms off. There would be no blowing up spaceships or buildings or planets. There would be no corrupt officials or political intrigue. There would be no sexual anxiety or misbehavior. There would be no mind control, or conscious robots trying to destroy us; no threatening viruses or deadly designer drugs; no slimy things impregnating us with their larvae to eat us from within. There would be no inter-species warfare or threats of mass destruction. Now really – what would be the fun in that?

    In print, science fiction can be many things – science wonkery, prolonged philosophical thought experiment, romance, fantasy, speculative world construction…. But in the television and motion picture industries, sci-fi is a subgenre of the ‘action film.’ As such, no matter how intelligently written or directed, the show or movie has to be able to present conflict manifested in physical action. Characters can’t just sit around and talk; at some point, someone has to punch something or some one; something has to be blown up or vaporized; there needs to be a chase, and a final show down….

    The American poet (and our first real film critic) Vachel Lindsay, said that the ‘action film’ – (which was the principle film genre produced even in the silent era – the first being The Great Train Robbery, 1904) -was the least interesting film to watch for some one who loved film, because it was all about the action, not the cinematic talents needed to film it. That’s not true, and there have been many glorious action films made with considerable talent and art. But Lindsay did grasp the problem as it relates to audience expectations: Fans of action films want action, and have less interest in quality of writing or production.

    As long there is an audience paying to see things blow up, we’ll see movies showing things blow up. Which means our writers will continue to be expected to produce a vision of the future where things frequently blow up. That’s probably not going to look like any version of Utopia.

    ” Is the entertainment industry unconsciously expressing our greatest fears?”

    Actually, it’s not unconscious at all. I think a great many of us – probably most of us – think the pooch is screwed. We’re just hoping the worst (whatever that might be) doesn’t happen in our lifetimes.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. “For one thing, I have a difficulty remembering how to pronounce alien names” – by the way, I never did figure out how *gavagai* is pronounced (Quine wasn’t clear on this). Is it gava’guy’ or gava’gay’? GAVagai, gavAgai, gavaGAI? The history of philosophy depends on this! How are we to learn the ostentation of a term in practical usage of a word if we can’t grasp the inflection of it in direct speech? Rabbit? stewed, fried, or par-boiled? Or that fuzzy pet the kids all love?

    My guess is that ‘gavagai’ is a sacred word spoken by Misbari priests during rituals – but I could be wrong…..

    (All right, please forgive my post-Pythonian humor here….’)

    Liked by 1 person

  4. EJ,

    “In print, science fiction can be many things – science wonkery, prolonged philosophical thought experiment, romance, fantasy, speculative world construction…. But in the television and motion picture industries, sci-fi is a subgenre of the ‘action film.’”

    Yes, true. But even in print, science fiction tends to be largely about conflict against dark forces that we only just manage to overcome. This is not generally true of the rest of fiction although drama does make up a sizable part of it. As you point out, it has good entertainment value which is why the visual industry focusses on it. But that, in a sense, is begging the question because it taps into the dark imaginings of the readership/viewership.

    It seems that when our thoughts turn to the future they become dominated by 1) technology and 2) struggle/apocalypse.

    Does this represents our fears? Human history is the story of our struggles and we tend to project this experience onto the future. The problem with that is when we fear something we create the opposite of wish-fulfilment, and that is fear-fulfilment. When you prepare for Armageddon you make it more likely.

    The most striking real life example of this can be found in Michael Dobbs’ book, One minute to Midnight, an updated account of the Cuban Missile Crisis. He describes how the US military came perilously close to plunging the world into nuclear holocaust. This book should be prescribed reading in every school and every university. Perhaps we should pass a law requiring that all generals be castrated(hmm, that idea really appeals to me).

    I think that the heart of the problem is that technology has created an open ended future which defies forecasting. This uncertainty has magnified our fears. The worst outcomes have seemingly entered the realm of the possible.

    It is also an awareness of how finely balanced is the moral equation in ourselves where the good in our nature can be swept away in a tide of evil. The events in Rwanda showed this.

    Perhaps the biggest problem is that technology presents a barrier to compassion. We all have circles of compassion and we naturally extend moral consideration to people inside our circles of compassion. There are many things that limit our circles of compassion, distance, ethnicity, culture. Technology is the greatest barrier, it immunises and anaesthetises us to the suffering of others.

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  5. EJ:

    I am a little surprised that you have little use for science fiction. It is one of the few art forms in which one can really push the envelope, with respect to social and political criticism. There are critiques that never would have received the kind of exposure that they did, were it not for science fiction. As for it being tainted by excessive “action,” this is only true of the most recent, theatrical versions of science fiction. Some of the best examples of the genre are quite cerebral and “talky” without much action, something that remains true until not long ago. The original Star Trek, Doctor Who, and, of course, Babylon 5, are *very* talky, oftentimes with entire episodes devoted to nothing but diplomacy or science.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Dan,

    Well, I was actually hoping to watch an episode of B5 before responding at all. But I couldn’t find a free episode on the web; however, I will keep an open mind ion the matter should I be able to give it a watch.

    There have been indeed some very challenging and entertaining science fiction films and television shows. But sci-fi as a genre seems to require an investment of time and effort to be fully satisfying – hence all the Trekkies and Star Wars cosplay and conventions. And I just don’t have that much time or energy to invest at this point.

    I imagine some of such investment happens largely by chance. I became heavily invested in Chinese martial arts films during a prolonged illness, since the video store across the street had hundreds of these, and I watched them all, and continued watching such films long after getting well. I learned the nuances of the form and their variations, the history of the genre, the major players both early and recent; and through this learned something about Chinese culture as well. The back-story was that my high-school best friend had been a Bruce Lee fan, which left me open to this investment when I had the time and opportunity.

    I don’t think one can decide ‘I’m going to invest in this genre’ ahead of time. I actually tried that with Western novels, since I enjoy good Western movies; but it just didn’t work. Despite that many Western films are based on novels, Western films form their own genre independent of the novels, partly because the conventions of the novels are talky and moralistic in a way that doesn’t carry over into film; and partly because the Western film is another sub-genre of ‘action film,’ and generally has much more action than can be effectively described in prose. (In film, a gun-fight will take ten or so minutes, or approx. 10% of the running time; in a novel it’ll take up a page, or .05% reading time.)

    Sorry to go on about this, but I do think the entertainments we prefer say something about us – although I’m not sure what. Bertrand Russell liked detective novels, but he was also a speed-reader, so he didn’t spend much time on them. Schopenhauer belittled Hegel because it was said Hegel read the sentimental Gothic romances that were coming out at the time. Both Peirce and Umberto Eco were big fans of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes; Wittgenstein preferred the ‘hard-boiled’ fiction of Norbert Davis. Well, we can’t spend all our reading time on poetry and philosophy, after all….

    labnut,

    “I think that the heart of the problem is that technology has created an open ended future which defies forecasting.” Technology isn’t the only contributor to this uncertainty; but it does multiply the risks we face considerably….

    Liked by 1 person

  7. EJ,
    I was most amused by your expressive term ‘the pooch is screwed’. I hope you are wrong.

    “Technology isn’t the only contributor to this uncertainty; but it does multiply the risks we face considerably”

    We are pretty bad at seeing the future and that is what creates the risk. I remember sitting with colleagues in Jan 1990. The conversation turned to the great changes in the computing world during the 1980’s. I asked the question, could anybody in 1980 have foreseen the computing world in 1990? A few claimed they would(always wise after the event). So I challenged them to make their predictions for 2000. Ten years later, in 2000, nearly the same group assembled again. I reminded them of the conversation and we took stock. Every forecast was wrong and the computing world had changed in unforeseen ways. Again we made our predictions and ten years later, in 2010, the same thing reportedly happened(I was no longer there).

    We were seasoned professionals but we were bloody awful at seeing what was coming down the line at us. That was the first lesson. The second lesson is that there is a decadal cycle during which technology can change dramatically. The third lesson was that some things had hardly changed while we had expected them to change. The fourth lesson, for me at least, was that I had to continually retrain if I wanted to stay relevant.

    Neither stability nor change happened in expected ways. If we cannot anticipate the future we will always be poorly prepared for the new risks that will confront us, because change brings new risks. My former top boss had the mantra – you may change your job/position after three years, you should change it before five years have gone by and you must change it before seven years go by. This forces constant renewal and brings in new thinking, our best chance for anticipating risk.

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  8. I agree Babylon 5 is one of the stronger examples of SF on TV. Two comments. Certain performances are wooden. Boxleitner never worked for me, though I’ll admit he grew into the role a little with time. The other was the relationship with The Lord of the Rings: Minbari as elves, core human-elvish marriage, prophesies, Ring cycle plotting and performances, and so forth. My point is not to denigrate, but to point to the relationships and tensions between science fiction and fantasy and where they work and don’t work. For example, telepathy has long been a staple of SF, but it was the existence of the Society for Psychical Research and then the parapsychologists that boosted it in 1950-1960s written SF, then saw it fall in popularity from the 70s onward. The Psi Corp in B5 deliberately looks backward to that time, notably Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man (1953), but less explicitly to AE Van Vogt and James Schmitz. The latter is great fun.

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  9. Hi Dan and Michael, sorry for coming in so late but I have been swamped. This was interesting to me, especially because you tied it in to DeepSpace 9. Bear with me as I unpack this.

    I loved both Star Trek series (only 2 at the time) and was set to like DS9… but other than the opening scene of a captain losing his ship I was like, eh. I gave up after the first season, though tried an episode now and then until season 3 where I finally pulled the plug. After that I was constantly surprised when I’d see it was still running. And I was totally floored when I heard people say it was as good as or better than ST or NG.

    Then a couple years back I heard from a few people that you had to stick with it, and that by season 4 it became really really good. For some reason that got me curious enough try and sit through all the episodes until it got good. And I gotta say, it really did improve to the point some of the final seasons were on par with the others. I was glad I took the chance.

    So the thing is, I was not that impressed with the first several B5 episodes I watched. It was certainly better than DS9, but not enough to keep me watching. Londo and Gkar in particular seemed a bit 2 dimensional to me, and the guy in charge (as an actor) seemed a bit wooden. Given my issues with DS9 at the time, I pulled the plug even faster. (And I erroneously thought it was trying to imitate DS9 to a limited extent).

    Now I’m thinking OK maybe I had B5 all wrong too. Maybe I ought to sit through episodes like I did for DS9 until it catches for me.

    Leading to the question: Did you feel it started a bit awkward, before finding its feet? If so, when did it start “getting good”?

    Also, what did you guys think of DS9?

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  10. Hi Labnut, you have a valid/interesting point about what might drive darker scifi stories, but I heavily disagree with your suggestions that…

    “…we invariably imagine a dark, apocalyptic future[.]” and “It seems that when our thoughts turn to the future they become dominated by 1) technology and 2) struggle/apocalypse.”

    While obviously those things exist, I don’t see these as dominating. And apocalypse is not invariably present in scifi at all.

    It is arguable that themes of struggle are there to a very large extent, but that seems true for basically all genres (right?). And technology is not always a focus, but often a way to differentiate the setting as future rather than present or past. Its sort of wallpaper or props, not the important element or focus.

    My favorite scifi is definitely not apocalyptic and usually not tech heavy. This is not to say there are no great apocalyptic or tech heavy stories. But my preference is for two things you did not mention: exploration and wonder.

    When I think of scifi I think of those two qualities/focal points more than anything else.

    And by exploration I do not just mean of physical space, though obviously there is that too 🙂

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  11. dbholmes: Obviously, a series that is designed to develop over a five-year arc cannot be judged on the basis of its first few episodes. But unlike DS9, in the case of B5, even those early episodes are full of foreshadowing. As explained in the essay, virtually every major plotline, character arc, and thematic line, is traceable back to the first season.

    In many ways, the show is superior to Star Trek. The only thing Trek has over it is the sheer size of its universe and the quantity of lore that has built up since the 1960’s.

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  12. Hi Dan, to be fair until I read your piece I didn’t know the show had a long, set story arc and the first episode was packed with foreshadowing. That knowledge might have gotten me to watch a bit longer (and not miss episodes). Like DS9 I am now placing it back into a viewing schedule given this info.

    Still, my complaints were about something that hits any show of any genre, regardless of excellent planning… execution. It is rare for a show to start great. Actors need to find their characters, visual and effects artists need to find what environment works for the story they are telling, and writers (regardless of longterm plotting) need to find single episode narratives that are compelling. Eventually shows tend to take on a life of their own as the people putting it together get familiar with their own work.

    Sometimes this results in significant changes to the show even if large scale arcs remain the same. An excellent example is Breaking Bad where a small one-off side character ended up becoming a major part of the series.

    So like I said B5 felt a bit clunky to me to start with. DS9 took years before it ever found itself (to my mind). I just wondered if you had any feelings that way yourself, or if it immediately hit you as being special and smooth going.

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