Wednesday, February 8, 2012

How to watch Babylon 5

Babylon 5 has been off the air for over 15 years, and there's now a whole new generation of science fiction fans who probably don't know about it, and definitely haven't seen it. If you start watching it straight through, I'm afraid you won't enjoy it. So this guide is here to help you to see the show in the best possible way.

You have to understand that it's a show that was finely honed for its audience and its presentation format. It built up a following by slowly ratcheting up the amount of story being developed and then delivering big "arc" episodes that drove all of the story lines forward at once. This makes for a great series, but a slow start. Many viewers see a couple of episodes and give up, assuming the show won't go anywhere.

The FX can be distracting as well. It was aired when HD was being talked about, so the episodes were filmed in wide-screen, but the FX shots were rendered for non-HD TV and then the master data files were lost in a fire, so if you see it in HD the special effects look even more cheesy than they should, given that they were created at the dawn of the computer-rendered FX age. In addition to the purely FX shots like the exterior, the show pioneered a lot of the virtual set work that has taken over the industry. These scenes too had to be transferred over from the original broadcast masters, and could not be re-rendered. That being said, the graphics are phenomenal, given what they had to work with, and one of the draws of B5 for the "hard SF" crowd is that space combat is highly realistic. Spacecraft don't bank in B5, for example, they pivot and thrust the way they should.

First off, get over the FX and buy the first season on regular DVD or watch it online on WB's site with commercials (no, there's no Blu-Ray because to do that, they'd have to re-build every FX shot from scratch, costing millions of dollars). The guide below assumes you have at least the first season available.

I will avoid spoilers as much as I can, but I suggest keeping a bookmark to this post and not reading ahead too far as you watch the series. I'm going to walk you through the first two seasons, telling you which shows to watch and which to skip. I'll also give you a sense of when to wait a while before seeing the next. This part is important, so try to stick with me, here.


Season 1, Part 1

Pop in the first episode, Midnight on the Firing Line, and watch it. Expect it to grab you, but don't expect it to be the sort of revelation that many B5 fans say the series will be. Just ease into it. Don't watch the pilot movie (sold separately, I think) and don't watch the prequel movie because it will ruin the entire series!

Now, get ready for the slow part. Watch the next two episodes, preferably in one sitting. They're not "filler" per se, but they're not what fans of the show call "arc episodes". They're ground-work. The strange religious overtones of Soul Hunter will become deeply important to the story later on. In Born to the Purple, Londo's character arc gets a nudge. You won't believe that this idiot with the big hair could be interesting. You'd be wrong...

If you started watching Soul Hunter and got bored or annoyed, skip it and Born to the Purple. It won't hurt too bad as long as you're good at catching up on the run.

OK, now skip Infection. Please, for the love of any higher entity you might respect, skip Infection. It's not the worst episode of the series, but it'll really break your stride if you watch it now.

The Parliament of Dreams is important, and you should watch it. It's entirely about character interactions, and not the main arc of the story, but you need the context for later. There are two characters who will give heart-thumping performances later on, and if you don't get the context for their interaction it won't have the same impact.

Mind War introduces the worst-handled plot line in the series, IMHO, but one that is so full of promise that even a poor conclusion doesn't diminish it. Watch it for what I consider Walter Koenig's best role and for some back-story that will be important later. This plot thread will wind its way through all five seasons of B5!

Skip over The War Prayer. It's actually a very important episode in a strange way that I can't reveal without ruining plot, but if you skip it, you're not going to suffer for the loss of context. It's more of a teaser.

OK. Now, you're about half way through. Take stock. Don't watch another episode yet. Understand that at this point you should be enjoying the show moderately, but there's nothing here that should be stunning you or making you throw out your other science fiction DVDs... yet. Take a day or two to do other things and think about where the show is going. I'm going to call this a "pause" and I'm going to suggest that you take a pause several times, going forward. It was during these pauses that we, the fans watching it for the first time, built our anticipation and brought some of the ideas in the show together, making the payoffs far more worth it. People who just slam through the series don't get that effect.

This will work even better if you watch the series with a friend and use these pauses to chat with them about what you've seen and what you think is coming up next. The show is deep and complex, and well worth speculating about what's to come.

Season 1, Part 2

Now you jump right in to the meat of the series with And the Sky Full of Stars. This episode sets up the first season arc and tells you where the commander's story is going. The actor who played him left after the first season, so don't get too attached to him, but his story continues to be incredibly important!

Deathwalker and Believers are optional episodes. I would say that if you are digging the story, and don't mind a breather after Sky, go ahead and watch Deathwalker. If that leaves you wanting more arc, skip Believers and go directly to the next episode.

Survivors isn't all that optional, but you can skip it and not suffer too greatly. It sets up a major character arc and it gives you some context for something important that will happen later on, but if you don't see it, you won't be lost. Here's how to decide: if you are wondering what kind of crack these B5 fans are on, skip it. If you are loving the characters and want more, do watch it.

Skip By Any Means Necessary. I say this with a heavy heart. It's one of my favorite episodes, but you don't need it for context and it leaves you with something fun to go back and watch later. After the next episode, you'll understand why I told you to skip forward.

Take a short pause. You should have seen 1-4 episodes during this chunk of the season. It's a good time to think about what is going on, because the next episode leaves you no time to reflect. It's a roller-coaster ride and one of the 4 best episodes of the series. Pause, think. Come back tomorrow or next weekend.

Season 1, Part 3

Signs and Portents kicks off the second half of the first season with a roar. It's non-stop plot and two major characters are introduced. One has been around for a long time, but has always been in the background. One arrives for the first time. Each character has a fate that you might not expect, but let's not get ahead of ourselves... Enjoy the episode and if you come out of it feeling that B5 isn't for you, then now you can safely stop watching the show. I dare say it gets even better, but this episode encapsulates everything that is truly great about the show, as does the season finale of season 1.

Skip the next three episodes, and take a very short pause if you like. We'll be skipping forward enough that it's a good time to think about what you just saw. If that sounds like crazy talk, don't be afraid to keep going, but you must take a pause either here or before the season finale. If you see two major arc episodes in the same sitting, they just won't have the same impact.

The episodes you're skipping are TKO, Grail and Eyes. TKO is generally considered the weakest of the series, though I kind of liked it. Grail and Eyes are good, but not essential, and you're probably jazzed up about the main story line by now, so let's keep that going.

Legacies is optional. It's important to understand more about the Minbari, and they play a major role in this episode. It also sets up the season finale in an important way. But if you don't see it, you won't suffer.

A Voice in the Wilderness parts 1 and 2 aren't exactly optional, but aren't exactly essential. They're sort of a trilogy with Babylon Squared, so I recommend seeing all three in a sitting if you can. Definitely see Babylon Squared and understand that some of it won't make a lot of sense if you didn't watch the two-parter first. If you watch all three, pause afterward.

The Quality of Mercy is an episode with a really, really delayed payoff. I suggest skipping it, but it's high on the list of episodes to go back and watch on a second viewing.

Now, pause again if haven't just done so. You've watched 1-6 episodes this chunk, and there's only one left. Consider this question: how much could the show change in the next episode? What kind of cliff hanger would leave you wanting to see the next season? Give it a day or a week. Come back refreshed and ready to see a great episode.

Season 1, Finale

And here we are at Chrysalis. If you come away from this episode without being out of breath, then the show just didn't grab you, and I'm sorry to say that the second season probably won't do it for you, either. It's paced like Signs and Portents, but even more so. I'd say that, overall, it's my second favorite episode in the series and easily a step up from Signs. Watch it. You might even watch it twice to get the bits you missed: there will be some.

Now, don't jump into season 2. Take a good pause to consider the shape of the series and who the actual antagonists are. Think about everything that changed since the first time you met each character, and consider the tectonic shift that each race's story just underwent. No one that was introduced in season 1, episode 1 is unchanged. They're all on a very different path, now. Some of these paths are tragic. Some ascendant. Think about it and come back ready for more.


Season 2, Part 1
The second season starts with Points of Departure, which is very nearly a slow episode in comparison to what we just saw. It's the introduction of a new commander for the station. He doesn't exactly replace Sinclair in terms of the story arc, which is kind of interesting. He's more of a tangential addition who takes over some of the elements of Sinclair's future plot threads, without stepping on who Sinclair was to the story so far. You'll see Sinclair again, don't worry. His story still plays out. But for now, Sheridan is your new main character.

Revelations concludes the wrap-up for the season 1 finale and fully transitions to the second season. Definitely watch it, but it's not a very arc-heavy episode. That's OK, there's another one coming...

The Geometry of Shadows is a good episode to watch. It introduces a new group of characters who won't be critical to the story until Crusade (the sadly stunted series that ended before the first season even had a finale), but it also introduces more about what's going on with Londo, which is key for later.

You can watch or skip A Distant Star without too much loss. It's a good episode, but other than playing out some of Delenn's arc, it's not critical either. The second season tends to fold more arc "moments" into each episode than the first season did, though, so you might miss a little context with every episode you skip.

I'm going to call A Spider In the Web and Soul Mates optional. The truth is that the actress who plays Talia left the series early and it stunted her plot thread and another, both of which are built on with these episodes. See them if you're enjoying Talia's and the Psi Corps' plot, but understand that it might not conclude as well as one might hope.

I want to tell you to skip A Race Through Dark Places, but you really can't. See it, but definitely take a pause after it. You want to take stock of where you are before moving on.

Season 2, Part 2

Londo has definitely been making interesting choices, and you know some of what those choices are leading toward, but The Coming of Shadows explains that you had no idea... It's my favorite episode of the series, and the third of the episodes that made me keep checking the clock, wondering how the episode could be only half over with so much plot packed into it! Enjoy. Pause when you're done.

Skip Gropos (which is only significant in that it introduces a newly upgraded arsenal for the station) and head directly in to All Alone In the Night. Here we find out much more about the Minbari, and that's going to continue to be as important as it has been...

Acts of Sacrifice introduces more of Delenn and Sheridan's interaction, but you can skip it safely if you wish.

Hunter, Prey is a serious arc episode, but doesn't have the big reveals or pacing that make it a contender for the top-5 the way Coming of Shadows or Signs and Portents did. Still, a must-see.

There All the Honor Lies is semi-optional. It's a fun episode and there are some ongoing plot threads that it's hard to miss, but if you don't see it, you can catch up later.

Skip And Now for a Word. It's a good and creative episode, but you don't need it to know the progress of the ongoing conflict. This is, however, another fine choice to come back to on a second viewing.

In the Shadow of Z'ha'dum is a must-see, mostly for what it reveals about a certain character. It's also not a bad place to pause. After seeing this, you are about 1/3 of the way through the primary arc of the show.

Season 2, Part 3

By now, you should know what you like and what you don't, and frankly I'm only going to tell you to skip episodes that are really off. Other than that, make your own decisions. I will tell you when an episode is arc-heavy, character-heavy, or just a side story.

Knives is a character-heavy story about Londo. It's good, but not a big game-changer for the second season.

Confessions and Lamentations is mostly a side-story, but it's one of those ... well, I can't tell you. If you enjoy the side stories, this is probably the best of them.

Divided Loyalties continues and concludes an important character sub-plot, and you should see it, but understand that external, real-world events forced this episode to happen, and truncated massive amounts of story. It's a bit disappointing in that light, but there it is.

The Long, Twilight Struggle is an important arc episode that marches us toward the season finale.

Comes the Inquisitor is a great side-story for Delenn, Sinclair and G'Kar.

It's not a bad place to pause if you watched a siginficant number of the episodes in this section.

Season 2, Finale

The Fall of Night isn't really one of those breathless, "everything changes" episodes, but it definitely ups the ante by a staggering amount. After this episode, we now know where the third season's drama is going to come from, and it will be no surprise that next season's intro has a very, very different tone.

Season 3, and Beyond

After season 2, you're a veteran B5er. You should probably watch all of the episodes from here on in. Season 3 ups the ante from the get-go. Even the intro credits have a voice-over that makes it clear that the series has and is about to change. About half-way through season 3, you'll get a sense of where season 4 is going to go, and that's when the scope of the series really starts to take shape. Season 4 is a wild ride that completes the series in several senses. Season 4 was compressed and elements from season 5 added to it in case the series wasn't renewed the fifth time around. Thus, the 5th season is more of an epilogue than a full-fledged season. Watch both and feel free to post below and let me know what you thought!

Moments to Watch For

Unlike nearly all television science fiction before it, Babylon 5 was planned out, ahead of time, as a 5-season story with a beginning, middle and end. Because of this, there's a lot of foreshadowing (pun intended). For example, watch for strangers to the station early in season 2 and you'll be rewarded later on with an explanation.

In general, the show is full of little details that show you just what's going on in the larger setting. If you pay attention to news broadcasts and printed documents, you can often find out quite a lot about the back-story.

In terms of memorable scenes, there are very few that, for me, can top the moment in Coming of Shadows where two characters chat in an observation room. That scene sums up some of the core message of the series and is one of the first times that I found myself respecting our replacement station commander. I think that conversation probably sticks with him for quite some time, and might be one of the reasons that he turns out to be so willing to do the things he does later in the series.

Straczynski had a lot of fun with flash-forwards and prophesy in the show. Time travel and precognition are a part of the series and he plays with them in order to reveal elements of what's coming, but in doing so, he always attempts to lead the viewer down a certain path of expectations and then take a sharp turn. One of the best examples of this is in the third season when someone comes to the station and delivers a prophetic message to one of our main characters. It's a shocking message, and one that doesn't make a lot of sense at the time. Everything that you might predict based on that prophesy turns out to be wrong, though, and as the third and fourth, and eventually fifth seasons play out, it becomes an important plot point that has wonderful ramifications for the series.