Rating: Babylon 5, Season 5

The fifth and final season of Babylon 5 has its problems, but it holds up well on rewatching. Here’s our take:

  1. “No Compromises” – 4
  2. “The Very Long Night of Londo Mollari” – 7.5
  3. “The Paragon of Animals” – 5.5
  4. “A View from the Gallery” – 6
  5. “Learning Curve” – 5
  6. “Strange Relations” – 4.5
  7. “Secrets of the Soul” – 3
  8. “Day of the Dead” – 4
  9. “In the Kingdom of the Blind” – 3.5
  10. “A Tragedy of Telepaths” – 4
  11. “Phoenix Rising” – 2
  12. “The Ragged Edge” – 4.5
  13. “The Corps is Mother, the Corps is Father” – 4.5
  14. “Meditations on the Abyss” – 7
  15. “Darkness Ascending” – 3
  16. “And All My Dreams, Torn Asunder” – 4
  17. “Movements of Fire and Shadow” – 4
  18. “The Fall of Centauri Prime” – 5
  19. “The Wheel of Fire” – 7
  20. “Objects in Motion” – 6
  21. “Objects at Rest” – 3.5
  22. “Sleeping in Light” – 6

The average rating for this season is 4.7, which is in line with the rest of the series. It was a little surprising to review the numbers and find that season 5 held up so well, since it is so different from the rest of the series. What had been planned as a five-season story got squished into four, then the series unexpectedly got picked up for a fifth season, so new stories had be written to fill out the time. The effects of these compromises are plain in season 5. Some of the new storylines go on too long, like the refugee telepaths on Babylon 5; others don’t have enough time to develop the depth they need, like the Drakh war. That this season holds up as well as it does largely rests on the excellent writing and acting work of previous seasons, developing characters with complicated stories and relationships still to be worked out.

There are no standout great episodes this season, but none that are truly terrible, either. The lowest rating we gave for this season was 2 for “Phoenix Rising,” which brings the telepath story to a head. That storyline as a whole was marred by clumsy writing and hammy acting. Add to that a further unpleasant turn for Garibaldi in this episode, after the character spent most of the past season and a half being mean and miserable, and it’s not an episode we care to come back to often.

At the top of the scale, the best episode of the season is “The Very Long Night of Londo Mollari,” at 7.5, a surreal and poetic episode mostly set in Londo’s unconscious as he reckons with the crimes of his past while fighting for his life after a heart attack. This episode pays off the long and sometimes painful growth of the character from cynical hack to manipulative monster to wise but broken leader. Peter Jurasik’s performance of Londo, always one of the strengths of the series, gets to shine here as the character tumbles through fear, anger, resentment, petulance, vulnerability, and finally contrition.

In other developments, Claudia Christian departed the series this season, so we get Tracy Scoggins playing the sharp and sharp-edged Captain Lochley. The character largely fills the role vacated by Ivanova and doesn’t get much time to set herself apart from her predecessor, but Scoggins makes the most of the time she gets.

Babylon 5 is, like many great things, deeply flawed in some ways. Some of its weaknesses are the result of a turbulent production environment; others are inherent in the story or come from the limitations of the creators who worked on it. Yet its great moments shine through despite those weaknesses, as brilliant, touching, even transcendent now as they were when the big blue barrel of a space station first appeared on our screens decades ago.

Season 1

Season 2

Season 3

Season 4

Image: Babylon 5 season 5 DVD cover via IMDb

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Rating: Babylon 5, Season 4

It’s an action-packed, emotional roller coaster of a season for Babylon 5. The previous three seasons of development and growth come to a head in some unexpected ways. Here’s how we rated this season’s episodes:

Babylon 5 season 4 DVD cover
  1. “The Hour of the Wolf” – 6
  2. “Whatever Happened to Mr. Garibaldi” – 3.5
  3. “The Summoning” – 6.5
  4. “Falling Towards Apotheosis” – 5
  5. “The Long Night” – 7
  6. “Into the Fire” – 9.5
  7. “Epiphanies” – 4
  8. “The Illusion of Truth” – 2.5
  9. “Atonement” – 3
  10. “Racing Mars” – 3.5
  11. “Lines of Communication” – 4
  12. “Conflicts of Interest” – 2.5
  13. “Rumors, Bargains, and Lies” – 5.5
  14. “Moments of Transition” – 3.5
  15. “No Surrender, No Retreat” – 6
  16. “The Exercise of Vital Powers” – 1.5
  17. “The Face of the Enemy” – 1.5
  18. “Intersections in Real Time” – 0
  19. “Between the Darkness and the Light” – 7.5
  20. “Endgame” – 6.5
  21. “Rising Star” – 6
  22. “The Deconstruction of Falling Stars” – 4

Various shenanigans with the networks broadcasting Babylon 5 led to the originally planned seasons 4 and 5 being squished down into a single season, and the results are visible. In some ways, the results were good, as the pace of the action noticeably picks up and gives an urgency to important episodes dealing with the Vorlon-Shadow war and the Earth civil war. In other ways, the effects were less positive, though, as the story often feels cramped and rushed. In the end, we have an average rating for this season of 4.5, down from season 3 but on par with season 2.

Given how much story had to be condensed into this season, it is particularly jarring when the season pauses for a number of self-contained (and sometimes self-indulgent) episodes such as “The Illusion of Truth,” a demonstration of how propaganda works, “Intersections in Real Time,” in which Sheridan is tortured, and “The Deconstruction of Falling Stars,” a meditation on how history is transformed into legend. None of these episodes scored very well with us. “Intersections in Real Time” is our lowest rated episode of the season, at a complete 0, for being both unpleasant to watch and unnecessary to the larger story. The season also spends an inordinate amount of time watching Garibaldi make bad life choices, which we could also do without.

But when this season works it really works. At the top of the ratings we have “Into the Fire,” at 9.5, which pays off years of development as the younger races of the galaxy stand up to the ancient Vorlons and Shadows and tell them to get the hell out. This episode fully delivers on the promise of the series, being both exciting and thoughtful, and deftly transforming our entire perspective on the two mysterious races at the heart of the series’ central story. The last few episodes of the season proper, “Between the Darkness and the Light” (7.5), “Endgame” (6.5), and “Rising Star” (6), are less spectacular, but they bring the long-simmering Earth storyline to a satisfying close.

A lot of what makes Babylon 5 great is on screen in season 4. It may not be exactly what was planned at the outset, but it lives up to the promise of the earlier seasons.

Season 1

Season 2

Season 3

Image: Babylon 5 Season 4 DVD cover via IMDb

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A Babylon 5 Reboot Is in Active Development

‘Tis official: a Babylon 5 reboot is in the works.

The Catholic Geeks babylon52

(Please read the thread for more of Straczynski’s thoughts on the announcement. Looks like at this writing many articles available online largely just rephrase his tweets.)

Without wading too deep into all of the speculation, I did glean this tidbit about the timing of the new B5:

Pretty exciting, wouldn’t you say? Of course, in the end the fan reaction—including mine—will depend on the technical quality of the final product, our personal preferences, which aspects were chanced and which retained, and whether the cast will be able to carry the stories. I’m certainly looking forward to more news on the project, and fervently wish that the casting will be successful (and quality-wise more even).

Image via The Catholic Geeks

Rating: Babylon 5, Season 3

The action revs up in season 3 of Babylon 5, bringing both new characters and higher stakes. Here’s how we rated this season’s episodes:

Babylon 5 season 3 cover
  1. “Matters of Honor” – 5.5
  2. “Convictions” – 2.5
  3. “A Day in the Strife” – 4
  4. “Passing through Gethsemane” – 5.5
  5. “Voices of Authority” – 4
  6. “Dust to Dust” – 5.5
  7. “Exogenesis” – 2
  8. “Messages from Earth” – 5.5
  9. “Point of No Return” – 8
  10. “Severed Dreams” – 8
  11. “Ceremonies of Light and Dark” – 4.5
  12. “Sic Transit Vir” – 6
  13. “A Late Delivery from Avalon” – 3
  14. “Ship of Tears” – 4
  15. “Interludes and Examinations” – 6
  16. “War Without End, Part 1” – 7.5
  17. “War Without End, Part 2” – 8
  18. “Walkabout” – 4.5
  19. “Grey 17 is Missing” – 4.5
  20. “And the Rock Cried Out, No Hiding Place” – 6.5
  21. “Shadow Dancing” – 5.5
  22. “Z’Ha’Dum” – 8

There’s a step up in the ratings this season, with the average hitting 5.4 after the previous season’s 4.5. Most episodes are comfortably in the 4-6 range of “okay, but not great,” with only a few lower and several standing out higher.

This season sees a couple of changes to the cast. The Minbari-trained human ranger Marcus Cole joins the station, bringing a distinctive wry quirkiness. At times the witty, roguish, smooth character veers perilously close to being a Mary Sue, but the warmth and charm of Jason Carter’s performance is usually enough to save him from tipping over the edge. In addition, the telepath Lyta Alexander returns in a shake-up of the cast (the previous seasons’ telepath, Talia Winters, was reportedly a casualty of contract negotiations with the actor). Lyta’s return is welcome, and Patricia Tallman plays the ambiguity of the character—a human serving the mysterious Vorlons—well enough.

Along with the changes to the cast we get some significant forward motion in the larger story this season. The war with the Shadows heats up at the same time that the Earth government goes full-bore fascist. Our heroes on the Babylon 5 station are caught in the middle of both developments and have to move fast in response. Meanwhile, the Centauri invasion of Narn enters a dangerous new phase.

Our lowest-rated episode of this season is a side-story without much connection to the larger arcs. In “Exogenesis,” a 2, Marcus and Dr. Franklin investigate strange goings-on among the station’s homeless. The episode does offer Marcus and Stephen a chance to bond, but beyond that there’s not much substance to the story. It feels more like a first-season episode, a self-contained story building the background of the setting but not connected to much else.

For the best episode of this season, though, we are spoiled for choice. Four episodes get an 8 from us, with a fifth one close behind at 7.5. First there’s “Point of No Return” and “Severed Dreams,” not properly speaking a two-parter, but two episodes in a row that both see the Babylon 5 crew have to deal with the consequences of Earthgov’s violent power grabs, culminating in a watershed moment when Babylon 5 declares itself independent. The next is a proper two-parter: “War Without End,” Parts 1 and 2, a clever revisiting of the first season’s time travel story “Babylon Squared” in which we see the reappearance of the Babylon 4 station from a new perspective, and Captain Sinclair gets his send-off. Finally there’s the last episode “Z’Ha’Dum,” in which Captain Sheridan sets off to the homeworld of the Shadows to discover what drives them.

Season 3 effectively builds on what seasons 1 and 2 accomplished, and it sets the stage for the dramatic events coming in season 4. Overall, quite a strong season and worth a rewatch.

Image: Babylon 5 season 3 cover via IMDb

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Rating: Babylon 5, Season 2

The second season of Babylon 5 brings in a new captain and a new look for the Minbari ambassador, and sees the larger story begin to take shape. Here’s how we rated this season’s episodes:

Babylon 5 season 2 DVD box cover
  1. “Points of Departure” – 4
  2. “Revelations” – 5.5
  3. “The Geometry of Shadows” – 2.5
  4. “A Distant Star” – 1.5
  5. “The Long Dark” – 4
  6. “A Spider in the Web” – 4
  7. “Soul Mates” – 7
  8. “A Race Through Dark Places” – 4
  9. “The Coming of Shadows” – 5.5
  10. “GROPOS” – 4
  11. “All Alone in the Night” – 4
  12. “Acts of Sacrifice” – 4.5
  13. “Hunter, Prey” – 4.5
  14. “There All the Honor Lies” – 5.5
  15. “And Now for a Word” – 4.5
  16. “In the Shadows of Z’Ha’Dum” – 8
  17. “Knives” – 4.5
  18. “Confessions and Lamentations” – 4
  19. “Divided Loyalties” – 6
  20. “The Long, Twilight Struggle” – 5.5
  21. “Comes the Inquisitor” – 0
  22. “The Fall of Night” – 6

Season 2 comes in slightly ahead of season 1, with an average rating of 4.5, up just a little from the first season’s 4.4. Most of this season’s episodes fall between 4 and 5.5, a competent if not inspiring range. Only a few stand out above this range, but not many fall under it, either. Most episodes have their weaknesses, but they also offer something worth seeing in terms of developing the story or giving the characters room to grow.

This season has two pieces of narrative heavy lifting to accomplish. The first is to establish Bruce Boxleitner’s John Sheridan as the replacement for Michael O’Hare’s Jeffery Sinclair. O’Hare bowed out of the series after the first season, as we know now, because of his increasingly difficult mental health problems, even though important elements of the ongoing story had already been tied to the character. The transition to the new station commander is a little clunky at times, but O’Hare’s decision to leave is completely understandable, and it is a credit both to Boxleitner and to the production team that they found ways to position the new captain where they needed him for the long-term story without just making him a copy of Sinclair.

The other major piece of business this season accomplishes is establishing the growing menace of the Shadows. The slow build is expertly handled, with little pieces of information filtering in, episode by episode, letting us know that something is out there, something powerful and terrifying, without giving the game away too soon. If for nothing else, the gradual build-up of the Shadows makes it worth rewatching most if not all of the season.

Our lowest-rated episode of the season is “Comes the Inquisitor,” which we gave a complete 0. In this episode, the Vorlons subject Ambassador Delenn to a cruel test of her worthiness as a tool against the rise of the Shadows. The writing is loose, the characterization weak, and the story driven too much by larger narrative needs and a giggling serial killer fanboyism, not enough by the characters within it.

At the other end of the scale, “In the Shadows of Z’Ha’Dum” gets an 8. This episode does a lot to establish important elements for the future of the series, but it remains deeply grounded in the lives and emotions of the characters themselves. Sheridan confronts the Shadows’ agent Morden about his connection to the expedition that killed Sheridan’s wife. Meanwhile, elsewhere on the station, the pseudo-fascist government of Earth extends its tendrils into Babylon 5 through the innocuous-sounding but insidious Night Watch. The tensions are high in this episode, and the actors carry it well.

Babylon 5 remains a product of a different time, not just in television but in our history. The age shows, but time has been kinder to some of its elements than to others. Some parts of season 2 feel awkwardly dated now, other parts chillingly apt. But still, it is (for the most part) worth a rewatch.

Image: Babylon 5 season 2 DVD cover via IMDb

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Rating: Babylon 5, Season 1

Babylon 5 is something you either fondly remember or have forgotten ever existed. There isn’t much middle ground for this ambitious, expansive, flawed masterpiece of science fiction television. Here’s what we thought on our rewatch of season 1 (note that this does not include the pilot movie, “The Gathering”):

Babylon 5 season 1 DVD cover
  1. “Midnight on the Firing Line” – 5.5
  2. “Soul Hunter” – 4
  3. “Born to the Purple” – 4
  4. “Infection” – 3
  5. “Parliament of Dreams” – 8
  6. “Mind War” – 6
  7. “The War Prayer” – 2.5
  8. “And the Sky Full of Stars” – 4
  9. “Deathwalker” – 2
  10. “Believers” – 3
  11. “Survivors” – 4
  12. “By Any Means Necessary” – 7
  13. “Signs and Portents” – 6
  14. “TKO” – 2.5
  15. “Grail” – 5
  16. “Eyes” – 5
  17. “Legacies” – 6.5
  18. “A Voice in the Wilderness, part 1” – 4
  19. “A Voice in the Wilderness, part 2” – 3.5
  20. “Babylon Squared” – 5
  21. “The Quality of Mercy” – 5
  22. “Chrysalis” – 3.5

The average rating this season is a rather low 4.4. It’s a shaky start for a series that aimed to do so much, perhaps unavoidably so since the greater story Babylon 5 wanted to tell required so much background and worldbuilding. Some episodes this season end up falling flat because they were there not so much to tell an episode-long story as to fill us in on things we would need to know later. The idea of telling a connected arc story over dozens or hundreds of individual episodes was still new and largely untested in US media (apart from soap operas, which occupied a very different space in entertainment than B5 aspired to). Season 1 played it safe, probably by necessity, convincing both an uninitiated audience and a hesitant network to buy into the world of the show before striking out into such new territory. Three decades on and arcs are everywhere, even in series that don’t really need them. B5 may seem quaint now, like a Model-T car, but without it our modern television landscape might look very different.

Babylon 5 is a collection of contradictions. It is two parts Star Trek and one part Tolkien, with too much geeking out over the physics of space travel to be fantasy and too many ancient prophecies and mystical rebirths to be science fiction. It is the most Star Trek-like of all the shows that sold themselves as “not like Star Trek,” and the one that most strenuously insists on the difference. In some ways, it is timeless, telling a story that spans the lifetime of the universe and finding its narrative touchstones in everything from Arthurian legend to World War II. In other ways, it is unmistakably a product of the US in the nineties: a time when we believed competent military technocrats could solve everything, thought Russia was going to be our friend and Japan an alien menace, and bought collarless shirts and Zima.

But the contradiction that strikes us the most on rewatching is in the talents of the actors. Most of the main cast are adequate, if not inspiring. Guest roles are a mixed bag of lifeless line readings and overdone melodrama. There’s a lot of tedious under- and overacted scenes to get past if you want to watch Babylon 5 straight through. Yet amid these tepid talents are some blazing stars. Claudia Christian as the snarky second in command Ivanova owns every scene she’s in. Bill Mumy’s Lennier and Stephen Furst’s Vir, two junior diplomatic aides, are as endearingly awkward now as they were three decades ago and a delight to rewatch. But the most mesmerizing performances come from Peter Jurasik as the louche, cynical Centauri Ambassador Mollari and Andreas Katsulas as the canny, passionate Narn Ambassador G’Kar. Every scene with either one of them is elevated by their presence, and the scenes with both positively crackle with energy. Watching the two of them dance around one another like knife fighters, first as mortal enemies and later as fire-forged allies if not exactly friends, is as thrilling now as it was the first time around.

Babylon 5 is a parade of strengths and weaknesses, and it is in some sense to its credit that the two do not cancel each other out. Not surprisingly, the worst episode of the season falls under the weight of a lot of these weaknesses, and the best soars with the strengths. At the bottom of the heap we have “Deathwalker,” in which a war criminal from Narn’s past reappears offering the secret to eternal life. We rated it a 2. On rewatching, you can see that this episode helps set up the tensions between the galactic powers and the controlling hand of the Vorlons, but that comes at the expense of any meaningful development or resolution of the immediate conflict raised in the episode.

At the other end, the best episode of this season is “The Parliament of Dreams,” rating an 8. So much of what was great about B5 is on display in this episode. The main storyline, about a cultural exchange of religious traditions among the assembled ambassadors, gives depth and richness to the alien races while the secondary story, about an attempt on G’Kar’s life, gives the character some of his first opportunities for growth.

Do you have any special memories of the first season of Babylon 5? Let us know!

Image: Season 1 DVD cover of Babylon 5 via IMDb

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

Tips Needed: Years-Long Story Arcs on Screen?

Recently I’ve been thinking of Babylon 5 quite a bit from the storytelling point of view. When it first aired (1994-1998 in the U.S.), it was unique in my experience (which was, at the time, still quite limited) for a few things.

The Catholic Geeks babylon52

Firstly, I loved B5 for its complex, detailed, and consistent world. I hadn’t seen that level of commitment to worldbuilding on tv before. Also, the plot moved on several levels, from individual concerns to multi-species war, and involved political struggles, religious prophesies, racial tensions, social pressures, and personal rivalries of many kinds. At times it was heavy-handed, for instance in its discussion of authoritarianism vs. free will (“Who are you?” “What do you want?”), but not consistently across every plotline, if memory serves. (Note to self: It’s clearly time for a rewatch!)

What really sets B5 apart from other attempts, however, is that it’s carrying essentially one huge story arc over years of tv programming, not just one season’s worth. The creator, J. Michael Straczynski, conceived of the whole plotline before the series was written for tv. Apparently, it was specifically supposed to be a “novel for television,” with the core plot points figured out beforehand. (That’s my biggest beef with the current Doctor Who, for example: the writers are struggling to fold in new storylines into the existing canon—even very recently created canon—and it shows.)

Game of Thrones and The Expanse feel very similar to B5, being tv adaptations of stories already in existence, and I’ve really enjoyed those aspects of both. Before them, though, I can’t really remember seeing that many quality series that incorporate truly extended story arcs. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and the Battlestar Galactica reboot all tried, even though none of them really implement as overarching a story as B5 does.

I’ve been wanting to see (and not just read) long plots lately, so I’d really appreciate your input. I still haven’t looked into Straczynski’s new series sense8—does anyone know whether it has a similar structure? Or can you recommend any other genre shows with long-term payoff?

Image via The Catholic Geeks

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.