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Rise of "Babylon"

Let me come clean: I grew up watching Star Trek. I loved Star Trek. When my friends and I would play, I'd always want to be Captain Kirk, which led to some interesting make-believe crossovers, like "Starzan," in which Captain Kirk and the Lord of the Apes... well, we were kids. What did we know? (I hear now that Marvel is publishing a "Star Trek meets the X-Men" comic book. Well, they're kids... what do they know?)

My love of Star Trek was reborn when they started making feature films. I still believe Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is one of the best science fiction films ever made, one that would probably be recognized as a classic if it weren't for the fact that it was a Star Trek.

These are sad days in the Star Trek empire, but that's a topic for another day. I come not to bury Trek, but to praise the show that's made me forget Trek while at the same time making me remember what I felt like when I watched those original Trek episodes.

The show is Babylon 5.

Babylon 5 is a show unlike any other on television, and it would be recognized as one of the best dramas on TV were it not for the fact that its stars include people under heavy alien make-up. As we all know, if it's sci-fi, it's just kid's stuff, right?

In the case of B5, that's totally wrong.

Story Arc. The first way that B5 is unique is in its overarching story. People made a big deal of Wiseguy's multi-part story arcs, self-contained stories that played out over 5 or 6 weeks. Murder One was quite controversial in that it took 22 episodes to play out one court case. But B5 beats all that, because B5 is a five-year story, completely plotted out before the first episode had been shot. This means that, unlike most TV shows but like most novels, we can see foreshadowing, dropped hints, all sorts of nuances that only hit you years later, when the other shoe is finally dropped. It doesn't require studying to appreciate the show, but even casual viewers will be impressed by the fact that they're not making it up as they go along. Unlike something like Twin Peaks, a great mind-bending show that ended up going to shit because the writers had painted themselves in a corner, B5 doesn't drop plot threads. They're all there for a reason.

We Fear Change. A few months ago, Entertainment Weekly published a cover story about how TV was better than the movies. I agree to a certain extent, but there's a big problem with series television: it's unchanging. With few exceptions, every series begins and ends every episode with the same cast of characters behaving the same way, mostly so that when shows get sawed up into syndication, people can view them in any order and not know the difference. Star Trek: Voyager can spend a week almost blowing up the ship (which, mind you, is supposed to be so far from home that they have nobody to help them fix anything), and yet the next week everything's squeaky clean.

In contrast, B5's characters are always changing -- just like people in real life. One character began the series as a humorous, likable character. He's now made decisions which have led to the deaths of millions of people, and is doomed to a life of tragedy and death. Another began appearing like a stock bad guy, but he's metamorphosed into a very religious figure determined to do what's right, no matter the cost.

In life, nobody's a flatline -- we're all vectors pointing in some direction at any given time. B5 captures that better than most shows out there.

Politics and Religion. B5 also succeeds in the depth of its subject matter. The overarching theme of the series seems to involve spirituality and personal responsibility. Characters have various religious beliefs, which affect the way they act. When you boil everything down to its core, the show seems to be about a recurring battle between good and evil -- but upon closer examination, I've discovered that it may not be about that at all. What's been set up as a simplistic battle between the forces of good and an ancient alien race known only as the Shadows has turned into a moral and ethical conflict stickier than anything a modern cop show has dreamed of.

The Sci-Fi Problem. But B5 is hamstrung by the genre it plays out in. Being a science fiction show gives B5 the ability to address themes other shows can't, because it can redress events in otherworldly clothing. NYPD Blue really can't address the subject of genocide, but B5 can, as one of its characters participates in what amounts to the carpet-bombing of an entire planet. But that freedom comes with a terrible price -- millions upon millions of viewers will never watch a science fiction show, because years of Lost in Space and Buck Rogers have convinced them that sci-fi is for kids.

On one level, sure, sci-fi attracts the kids and the chicken-head-eating-geek adults who love to see cool spaceship battles, and B5 does a good job at providing that for them. But behind the makeup and the sets is a series unlike any that's aired on television -- a five-year novel for television that's as mature, adult, and engrossing as NYPD Blue or Homicide or any of the other great dramas on the air today.

I ask you to set your prejudices aside and give it a try. And now's a good time to start -- the final two episodes of B5's third season air the weeks of Oct. 20 and Oct. 27, and they're the best two episodes the series has produced. It's not too late to give Babylon 5 a ride.


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