New from Sarah Welch-Larson on Substack: 7: Space Operas

I found out last week that Babylon 5 is back on HBO Max. I resent this a little, because Babylon 5 is one of those shows that jumps around streaming services every few months and then disappears, and because I had the hardest time getting a hold of it when I watched it front-to-back in summer 2020. It’s long enough that even binge-watching the show won’t guarantee that you’ll be able to see the whole thing before it disappears to another corner of the internet. I had to buy the show off iTunes when I marathoned it. It wasn’t streaming for free anywhere, and the DVD box sets are out of print, and I’ve learned the hard way that buying them used usually means at least one disc is scratched up and unwatchable.

All of this is to say: if you have not watched Babylon 5 before, you should pick it up while it’s still accessible. It’s a 90s space opera, set on the titular space station, which rests in neutral space during a tentatively peaceful period in human and alien history.1 Each episode tips the scales of power between species; the show’s interested in the intricacies of intergalactic diplomacy and the consequences of war and lust for power. Structurally, the plot across the first four seasons is modeled on Lord of the Rings. It’s structurally a landmark TV show: every single episode lends itself in some way to an overarching plot, even when they don’t appear connected at first glance. Even the X-Files, which helped usher in TV shows with intricate continuous plot lines as their primary structure, traded off between lore episodes and monster of the week episodes. In contrast, all of Babylon 5’s monster of the week episodes are crucial to the plot.

I love this show. It’s a true space opera, with heightened tensions and loud arguments between human characters and their rubber-foreheaded alien counterparts. The stakes are always a combination of personal pride and duty to one’s own home planet, as well as the well-being of every living being in the galaxy. Earth is the arbiter of peace between rival alien species, a tall order because they’re still licking their wounds from a nasty interplanetary war of their own, and because they’re dealing with the pressures of rising atavism and fascism back home. Quite a lot of the show relies on telling, not showing; it’s dialogue-heavy, much like a play. The conflicts are at their best when opposing characters are thrown into a room together to rip at each other verbally. (Andreas Katsulas as Ambassador G’Kar and Peter Jurasik as Londo Mollari are my favorite actors to watch in the series. Both actors are at home with J. Michael Straczynski’s dialogue, and they have antagonistically electric chemistry with each other. In-universe, the two are eternal sworn enemies, and I believe it thanks to Katsulas and Jurasik’s enthusiastic sparring.)

The show isn’t perfect. The special effects are a mix of practical work (including a lot of puppetry) and rudimentary CGI (another way the show broke ground on network TV). Sometimes the sets look like they’re made of cardboard and the props from scraps. There’s room for spectacle and wonder, but most of this is communicated by the dialogue and the performances of the actors, and not by the dated special effects. It’s a scrappy show; it teetered on the brink of cancellation for much of its runtime. I suspect that this existence on the edge, in the shadow of other, better-known sci-fi TV shows, is what lends the show its sense of urgency. It has a lot of things to say, and it’s crushingly earnest about them. Sometimes it misses the mark—the entire fifth season is rough—but it gets out of its way often enough to be able to convey a sense of wonder at being such small players in such a vast and strange universe. When the show works, it embodies everything I love about speculative fiction.


What I talked about:

On this week’s episode of Seeing & Believing, we reviewed The Black Phone (in theaters this weekend) alongside Hayao Miyazaki’s 1984 movie Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Both are about resourceful teens in impossible circumstances beyond their control, although the similarities end there. I didn’t care for The Black Phone, but Nausicaä is an all time favorite of mine, and it was a delight to introduce it to Kevin.

A correction:

Last week, when I mentioned that I was reading Linda Holmes’ newest book Flying Solo, I defined the capital-R romance genre as being about whether or not the main love interests get together at the end of the book. This isn’t quite accurate. Romance novels must also have a plot driven by the central romance; it can’t be incidental. I’ll leave it to readers to discover whether Flying Solo counts as a romance novel; having finished it, I can say that it’s very good, no matter how you classify it. (Many thanks to Kelsey for the correction!)

1

The premise is similar to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, which ran at the same time and which overshadowed Babylon 5. I can’t comment on the similarities between B5 and DS9 because I haven’t watched the latter; I’m interested in it, but am still inching my way slowly through The Next Generation.

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