Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Pop Between Realities, Home in Time for Tea 45 (Babylon 5)


There is a moment familiar to everyone who has ever enjoyed Babylon 5 in which they make the cataclysmically dumb mistake of trying to get someone else to watch it. It goes like this: “It’s a huge five-season story arc that was planned out from the start. The first season is mostly crap, but the second one has some really good stuff in it. And the third and fourth are quite good…” and then somewhere around admitting that the fifth season is also a trainwreck you realize that the case for Babylon 5’s quality is actually enormously strained.

And it’s true. It’s much, much easier to list the things that are very wrong about Babylon 5 than it is to articulate the case for it. I mean, the case isn’t that hard: the show’s basic conceit, a five year novel in television form, plotted from the beginning to lead towards a pre-defined endpoint that would pay all of its threads off, is impressive. Yes, the use of television for a multi-episode story arc had precedent, but J. Michael Stracyznski was the first person to really try plotting an entire multi-season arc out and executing it. It’s a sprawlingly hubristic little number, but it’s also the first stab at the sort of thing that is these days taken for granted: of the things that Vince Gilligan is praised for in Breaking Bad, the fact that he had a coherent plot for the whole thing barely makes the list. It’s expected these days. Even if you don’t have one (*cough* Lost *cough*), you’re supposed to pretend that you do. (The zenith of this is the almost completely [and rightly so] forgotten Fox series Reunion, which featured a murder mystery as part of its central premise. When the show was cancelled the producers promised they’d reveal who did it before, a few months later, admitting that they hadn’t actually worked that out by the time the show was cancelled.)

Which, actually, is largely what Straczynski did. The original five-year-arc was reprinted in one of the volumes of the Babylon 5 scriptbooks, and basically completely diverges from what happened in the series somewhere in the rage of season four. Some of this, at least, was caused by Michael O’Hare departing at the end of the first season and a new lead character being created, but only some of it. The larger arc that Straczynski mapped out could well have played out with Bruce Boxleitner’s replacement character. Furthermore, whole major story arcs are missing. In the original outline the plot about the war with the Shadows (then still called the Shadowmen) spilled out past the five year mark and into the sequel series. In practice Straczynski wrapped it up towards the beginning of Season Four. This is partially down to the fact that it looked like there wasn’t going to be a fifth season and thus that Straczynski had to accelerate his plotting, but the compression isn’t quite as dramatic as people say - Straczynski has said that if he’d known for sure there was a fifth season then the eighteenth episode of the fourth season would have been the finale, involving only four episodes of compression. The storyline that occupied most of the fourth season, regarding the corruption of the Earth government and the bulk of Babylon 5 fighting to liberate the planet, wasn’t even in the original outline at all.

Which is to say that Straczynski, in practice, did what any decent writer would: he changed things as he went and developed new ideas. Nobody knows how their five-season television series is actually going to end when they start. Some writers - Straczynski apparently among them - write better when they have an outline and a defined end that they’re going for, but nobody gets to the end and finds out that their outline held. So if that’s the show’s claim to fame it’s a dodgy one to say the least.

Which brings us around to the host of obvious problems to identify with Babylon 5. The acting is stunningly uneven. Through to the final season the show veers back and forth between getting rock solid actors and ones that leave you staring at the screen wondering why on Earth they cast them when Matthew Waterhouse was available. The writing is similarly dodgy. Straczynski has Aaron Sorkin’s love of lengthy monologues without Sorkin’s ability to actually write them. This means that he’s drawn with alarming compulsiveness towards the straightforwardly moralistic. There’s a moment in his more recent film The Changeling where he self-plagiarizes a bit of Babylon 5 - a speech with the end advice “never start a fight but always finish one.” What’s notable here isn’t the self-plagiarism itself - after all, the overlap between the audiences of the two is actually pretty low. No, what surprises me is that Straczynski found it worthwhile to self-plagiarize such an embarrassing piece of moralizing tripe. Even Terry Nation had the good sense not to recycle “the only alternative to living is dying.”

Actually, Terry Nation is a decent point of comparison here, since both Babylon 5 and Nation’s work have their roots in the same pulp tradition. Which may seem odd at first blush, given that Nation’s major influence is clearly Dan Dare, while Straczynski’s biggest debt is to Robert Heinlein. But Heinlein and Dan Dare both belong to the same ultimately similar tradition of the pulp scene from which the Golden Age of Science Fiction extended. And while we’ve been asserting the terminal decline of science fiction in its Golden Age style for something around a year now, it’s worth looking at the legacy that it left on science fiction and the way in which that legacy poses a real problem going forward.

In many ways the biggest piece of prior reading for this, then, is the post on Survivors, a show that’s much more similar to Babylon 5 than anyone would normally remark upon. There the big criticism of the show - indeed, the iconic one for which the show is infamous - is that it’s the most preposterously middle class thing ever filmed. Babylon 5 isn’t quite that bad. It does actually acknowledge the working class, both in character backgrounds and in actual episodes. But it’s telling the way in which this is done. The key episode is one from the fifth season called “A View from the Gallery,” which shows a standard issue crisis on Babylon 5 from the perspective of two working joe maintenance guys. The problem is clear from the title alone. The gallery - i.e. where the working class people are - exists primarily as a perspective to view the real events of Great Men as they make history. Even when acknowledging them - and Babylon 5 goes further than space opera really had before in acknowledging the working class - their position is inherently and intrinsically marginal. Even in “A View from the Gallery” they’re just that: the comic relief peanut gallery that gazes upon the real plot.

And the real plot is, as ever, white dudes being historic. Because Babylon 5 is dominated by white dudes. Let’s pause here and note that Babylon 5 is actually one of the most impressively progressive shows of its time in terms of strong female characters and a diverse cast. It really is. But its lead is still a Great White Man of History both times such that the decision to have every single second in command be a woman is frustrating in the extreme. The only one of its three main alien ambassadors to be a woman is the one from the touchy-feely spiritual race. The chief of security position is always male. The station doctor is a man. Its female characters are reliably defined either by how they’re violated and used by men (either of the two main psychics) or rescued by dashing male heroes (Ivanova). And while it’s reliably colorblind in its casting, it’s colorblind in that frustrating way where they’ll cast any actor as long as the actor plays the part as if the character could just as easily be white. It’s telling that Straczynski freely filled in Ivanova’s Russian background as a major character trait, whereas Dr. Franklin, played by the (African American) Richard Biggs, never gets a single character trait that implies anything about his cultural heritage. And yes, of course this is all filed under the header of “but in the future we’ll have eliminated racism,” but that’s the whole point - racism is eliminated by collapsing every culture into white European culture.

The show tries to be progressive in other ways, but similarly misses the mark. It tries to be brave and do a “lesbians are OK and people have fluid sexualities” plot between Ivanova and Talia, but ends up burying it so deep in the mix that it feels like the show is ashamed about it, and furthermore seems to only do it so that it can then tragically destroy the couple because, after all, lesbian couples only exist for searing tragedy. And the show twice attempted to play with transgender issues with similarly tepid results. First there was the idea of having Delenn be male for the first season and only having Mira Furlan play the part in her own gender after her transformation at the start of Season Two, which was abandoned when they couldn’t get a male Delenn to look persuasive enough. (Because, apparently, it’s unpersuasive if the gender presentations of alien species don’t perfectly match human ones.) Then, later in the season, Straczynski waged an elaborate practical joke on Peter Jurasik and Andreas Katsulas in which he wrote a fake set of scenes in which their characters became lovers after Katsulas’s character transformed into a woman. Because, of course, trans people are funny. That Straczynski had a woman working on the show come up to him during the course of this joke and thank him for writing a positive portrayal of trans people on television only to be horribly let down when it turned out he was using trans people for a cheap joke is one thing. He had already done the damage there, and revealing the joke wasn’t going to fix anything. The problem is that it appears that Straczynski took no lesson whatsoever from the fact that his joke actually hurt someone. Instead he gleefully tells the story in the Babylon 5 scriptbooks, even including the anecdote about the person thanking him, and showing nothing resembling contrition. Which is… predictable, really.

Because that’s the problem with this sort of progressivism. It’s the same problem that the BBC is continually plagued by in many ways - it cannot escape a vicious paternalism that undermines all of its attempts at progressivism. Babylon 5’s heart is in the right place, but it simply can’t get past its creator’s privilege. It’s telling that Babylon 5’s idea of the most horrifying thing imaginable consists of witch hunts, brutal interrogations, and propaganda. Put another way, it’s clear that Straczynski thinks the absolute worst thing to happen in America in the twentieth century was the McCarthy era. Which, yes, that sucked royally, but it’s also the most privileged answer imaginable. And yet it makes total sense within Straczynski’s larger worldview. Straczynski is following almost directly from Heinlein, and is thus absolutely in love with individual liberty and self-identity as the greatest principles imaginable. So his nightmare scenario are things that make a man deny who he is, and his idea of virtue is that “never start a fight but always finish one” sort of steadfastness. You know. “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you” and all that. So of course he has everybody in the show taking up the white man’s burden. This is, at the end of the day, a show that believes in an end teleology of humanity in which we ascend to become higher evolutionary beings. And, more to the point, one that believes that this is a fate reserved only for the good species, and that other species and cultures are irredeemably flawed and cannot ever achieve that. Which, given that his alien species are flagrantly based on various Earth cultures, whereas his version of humanity is a triumph of western secular humanism, is very difficult to take in an even remotely sympathetic way.

The problem is that this approach is wedded in very, very deeply in science fiction. Because it is the default position of virtually all of a key generation in the genre’s development. Science fiction as a genre was driven by well-educated secular white men, and the ethos they put into it doesn’t come out easily. I’m thwacking Babylon 5 here, but the critique extends to an entire style that, in the mid-90s, was still hugely prevalent. More to the point, it extends to a style that’s still prevalent. This is at the heart of why the cult television model is sustained by middle class white men. The logic is that cult television can afford smaller audiences for more expensive shows because the audience it brings in are all middle class white men who are worth more to advertisers. And of course it does. Look at how it’s written. Even when it’s trying to be inclusive of women and minorities and the working class it’s blatantly, painfully a genre for white middle class American men.

The problem is a fundamental rot. It’s a rot that impacts anything whatsoever that tries to play off of the existing structures of sci-fi fandom that stretch back to the Golden Age. Because those structures have entrenched ideas and attitudes that simply cannot be separated out from their ideas. The only viable relationship left to have with it is open confrontation and parody. And, to be clear, that existed in the 1990s and well before. The feminist fandom tradition that Kate Orman comes out of was doing exactly that, and it was terribly important. And when, in early January, we get to the next stage of development of this line of thought that tradition is going to take center stage.

But for now we have Babylon 5. Which, ironically, despite its flaws is actually exactly as good as its fans say it is, albeit not at all in the way they mean, or, at least, not in the way they admit. Because it is the greatest sci-fi series of all time in, at least, the sense that it takes a particular vision of science fiction and the epic space opera  as far as it can reasonably go. You could refine the dialogue, perhaps, and hire some better actors, but that’s just trivial refinements. The biggest thing you could try to fix is to smooth out the seasons where the show is either figuring out what it wants to do or where it’s recovering from having done most of it and still having a season to fill. But even there one has diminishing returns. The truth of the matter is that Babylon 5 is really just a standard space opera show that bothers to show the sort of thing that most space opera shows push off to the backstory. So what you get is a standard issue space opera that slowly gets interesting as it does stuff that space opera on television is usually scared of, then, once it’s done, slowly settles back into being a slightly different standard issue space opera. That’s the real problem with Seasons One and Five - the first is the mediocre show that Seasons Two through Four disrupt, and the other is the mediocre show that spins out of Seasons Two through Four. It’s just that without the creativity to actually do the sprawling epic the fact that the show is poorly cast and has mediocre dialogue is a lot more obvious than it is when it’s doing something interesting.

But in finally accomplishing the massive epic of space opera on television and at a gloriously detailed length that even the most epic run of novels couldn’t hope for Babylon 5 ends up showing the fundamental limits of the approach. It does everything, conceptually speaking at least, as right as it can be done and still falls fundamentally short. The root problem is one that should be utterly familiar to anyone who’s read this blog at length: this model of science fiction believes that humanity has a destiny. That’s the impossible-to-remove problem. It believes that there is such a thing as what humanity will inevitably aspire towards, which is, in practice, indistinguishable from the belief that those forces privileged by contemporary ideological power are inherently good and are the future. And to be clear, this is more than the fact that television, as an instrument of power, is always going to tacitly support those forces. What’s uniquely pernicious about the shambling remains of Golden Age SF is that it weds that inherent institutional bias to a belief in historical teleology. That’s the trap that, despite its good intentions, Babylon 5 simply cannot find a way out of. Because, simply put, there’s not a way out without completely abandoning the western secular humanist tradition that underpins the entire genre. Which you can’t do without also aggressively abandoning the entrenched fandom structure that keeps genre shows afloat.

All of which is to say that this is where engagement with this line of thought ends on this blog except for where it actually enters Doctor Who. We’re not done with American sci-fi media, or even cult shows. But we are done with the specific style of fandom they cater to: the sort where the stereotype, at least, is middle-aged men who can’t find a girlfriend and have bad personal hygiene. (Which is not to say that this is actually what those fans are like - just that it’s what the stereotype of this sort of fandom is like.) Doctor Who’s association with that sort of fandom has always been oblique anyway; it’s vaguely what Eric Saward tried to chase during the period where Doctor Who was aggressively courting an American audience in the 1980s, but at every other point in its history Doctor Who has been at best openly hostile to that sort of fandom and at worst only incidentally connected to it. But shows that largely belong to that tradition, and I include several sacred cows that I’m sure chunks of my readership want me to cover, aren’t going to get posts simply because after the mid-90s this just isn’t the direction Doctor Who goes in anymore. There are plenty of other sci-fi shows we will cover, but they’re ones where there’s a clearly articulable way in which they break from the Golden Age tradition - much like Doctor Who does after 1996. To paraphrase its third season, Babylon 5 was the Golden Age’s last, best hope for viability.

It failed. Let’s move on.

84 comments:

  1. Every season of B5 struck me as revealing 'another layer of the onion', and so it's a shame that the final season didn't work towards the idea that after ousting the 'gods', homo sapiens had had its time in turn, and that the future belonged to the psychics.

    Seasons 2-4 were great fun, though, and I love how season 4 ends.

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  2. I've had a lot more success selling B5 to friends than I have with Doctor Who - fans are a lot more judgemental about season 1's flaws than non-fans, in my experience; they just look upon it as like Star Trek only with better uniforms and (if they care about such things) space physics. Meanwhile, I'm fairly sure that at least one time he told the story Straczynski said he felt bad about the fallout for the spoof Londo / G'Kar script, though I admit I can't find evidence with a quick googling. Even so, though - the show's problems with trans issues amount to two things that never even made it to the screen - a bit desperate? Would I have liked more LGBT material? Hells yeh, but I don't think it's fair to assume it would have been bad - Straczynski's an atheist but the show is more generous towards people of faith than it needed to be. Indeed, I think in places the show was more quietly progressive that you give it credit for - it takes it for granted that there's nothing suspicious about a newly-wed couple being both men, for instance (or it would have been risky to use that as a cover story) - probably an easier sell now that on first broadcast. And you skim over the fact that Sheridan's King Arthur bit isn't without its explicit criticisms; he and his Alliance may ultimately win, but not without the spotlight being placed on plenty of moral compromises along the way. Indeed, if I remember "Deconstruction of Falling Stars" correctly, there's an explicit disconnect between the short-term achievements of Sheridan and co and the Vorlonification of humanity far in the future - the intermediate stages suggesting the events of the show had been consigned to history, no more or less vaunted than many other such moments. If I recall, that was a source of frustration for the fanboys of the time, who wanted the show to be more stridently heroic than it was prepared to be.

    A word on Straczynski's dialogue: yeah, sure, he could have used a firm editor on occasion. But he scores points over Sorkin (and, what the hell, Whedon, Davies and Moffat too) for actually tailoring lines to characters, rather than writing most major characters as variations of himself (and in Sorkin's case, most minor characters as two-dimensional mouthpieces for straw-man arguments to be demolished by the aforementioned author stand-ins). That's well worth the odd clunky line to me.

    (And as for dismissing Ivanova as defined by being "rescued by dashing male heroes"... I can just picture her reaction to that.)

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    1. I wonder if your comparative greater success with B5 just comes down to the fact that 90s TV is a lot more like contemporary TV than 60s, 70s, or 80s TV. I know that when I try to get people to take an interest in classic Who, the biggest stumbling block is just the basic alienness of the way TV worked back then.

      I've never especially liked Babylon 5. Didn't hate it or anything, just didn't see whatever it was that made the fanboys so hot and bothered. But one of the things that does impress me is how long JMS apparently had this thing bouncing around his head. Back in 1987, he was the writer on a bizarre little show (that holds a place in my heart) called 'Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future', and one of the characters on that show is from some sort of secret underground (or undersea or space; the show was cancelled before we got the details) colony called "Babylon 5"

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    2. Well, yes, in her defense her main "get rescued by a dashing male hero" plotline occurred with her in a coma. And wasn't originally intended to be her final story arc on the show.

      Still, it's a terribly sour note when it happens.

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    3. That part of the post bugged me a bit. You noted that Michael O'Hare had to be replaced after S1 and the attendant changes to the arc. But you also complain about the lesbian/bisexual relationship of Ivanova and Talia being short-circuited without noting that it was because Andrea Thompson left to do JAG of all things. Likewise, you complain about the fact that both station commanders were white men, but Ivanova would have been promoted into that spot had Claudia Christian not left the series because she thought she had a shot at the "Highlander" spin-off. The main reason S5 sucked so bad was that two of three principal story arcs -- the conclusion of the Earth Civil War and Ivanova's interactions with the telepath refugees -- were aborted, which is why we got awful unwatchable filler like the aforementioned "A View From the Gallery."

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  3. I get the criticism but I think it's not helpful - your premise is that Stracyzynski's gender and ethnicity, the whole culture from which he came, is inherently Not The One (as Zathras might say).

    But: so what? What's Stracyzynski meant to do about that? Given he's a white, Liberal American male in the second half of the 20th Century, how is he meant to not write what he knows? I can kind of see he should maybe tried to break out of that mould - but I think you can argue in his depiction on TV of a class-riddled, problematic future where White American Liberalism is very explicitly NOT the end point of history (which goes against the established Star Trek view) that he was mould breaking.

    Side note: I love B5 - along with Buffy it filled the gap between Doctor Who ending and starting again. That's not to say I don't recognise some of its flaws, which you rightly point out, but like Doctor Who and Buffy, it's just damn funny. Stracyzynski started off writing stuff like The Real Ghostbusters, and I think that kind of wisecracking, ironic, fun approach comes across in B5. Despite the sometimes ponderous dialogue it's just much less po-faced and self-righteous than Star Trek. I think your post misses this, and misses explaining why B5 - like post-cancellation Doctor Who - still has such a loyal fan base.

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    1. I don't think it's as much a problem with Straczysnki as it is with his lack of ability to fight against his genre. Because another white man - from a much more middle class background than Straczynski, in fact - came along midway through Babylon 5's run and did a much better job with most of these issues with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And I think down the line we'll see both Battlestar Galactica and, though this one is going to get me someone disagreeing, Doctor Who under Steven Moffat, in which straight white dudes do much better jobs than Straczynski did.

      The issue, to me, is the straitjacket of a particular vision of science fiction more than it is the gender or ethnicity of the writer.

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    2. See, I don't know if I think these other shows did do so much better. Sticking with LGBT, I'm not familiar with the entire run of Buffy but I understand that gay fans were very unhappy with how the Tara storyline eventually played out, for instance. BSG's lesbian relationship is cliched and limited to a single movie. And while Who tends to do better with the gays, the only trans bit I can call to mind - Susan the horse - is also problematic; it's played for laughs, the Doctor uses male-gendered pronouns, and implies that Susan's dysphoria is a mere lifestyle choice.

      If it's a choice between avoiding dealing with such issues or dealing with them badly, I'm not sure avoidance is the bigger crime.

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    3. Isn't it Davies Doctor Who that's the most western secular humanist thing ever?

      Davies is, after all, the man who turned Jesus into a Guardian op-ed piece just before killing him off for good this time (and then casting him as the Doctor). How much more western secular humanist can you get?

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    4. Because another white man - from a much more middle class background than Straczynski, in fact - came along midway through Babylon 5's run and did a much better job with most of these issues with Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

      Buffy attacked Western Middle Class White privilege? I'll grant you that it was intensely feminist -- although (a) B5 was a lot more feminist than you give it credit for and (b) Buffy's feminism was, IMO, undermined by her increasingly absurd romantic entanglements. As for Buffy's superior approach to LGBT issues, that didn't pop up until S4 after B5 had already ended(unless you want to count Xander's bully, Larry, for whom being gay was largely played as a joke). And I have often been frustrated by people who fail to acknowledge just how meteorically fast the LGBT landscape changed over the course of the 90's. For example, I have been quite annoyed by people who condemn Bill Clinton for signing DADT without appreciating what a vast improvement DADT was over the prior status quo.

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    5. Was Buffy, the Vampire Slayer really more feminist than The Avengers? Both basically feature an attractive girl/young woman using martial arts as directed by an older and wiser (though not infallible) man.

      Is that terribly feminist?

      Surely for real feminism you have to look to Goldeneye, where it's the woman giving the orders and the man who's the blunt instrument.

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    6. Oh, I hate genre boundary policing, but it's worth noting here: Buffy was a horror show, while B5 was sf. Yes, there's overlap of all kinds, from mutual fans in some Venn diagramming to the intertwined history of both genres (think Poe, master of each, for instance).

      But that genre placement difference means they engage different genre expectations. Especially if you want to bring in Golden Age *sf*, rather than the parallel history of horror.
      That's why it might be more productive to compare B5 to Trek, Wild Palms, Space: Preposition and Preposition, etc., if you're working the 1990s context.

      That said, I'm happy to read comparisons with other 1990s genre, including Buffy, and also X-Files.

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    7. "Was Buffy, the Vampire Slayer really more feminist than The Avengers? "

      Yes.

      "Oh, I hate genre boundary policing, but it's worth noting here: Buffy was a horror show, while B5 was sf. Yes, there's overlap of all kinds, from mutual fans in some Venn diagramming to the intertwined history of both genres (think Poe, master of each, for instance)."

      It's true. I do think that the white male bias of horror is equally present, though perhaps less intrinsic to the genre than sci-fi. But equally, Whedon went on to do Firefly, although that was a good four years past the end of Babylon 5.

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    8. The white male bias of horror exists, but in different forms. The policeman/military officer, for instance, has a role in establishing closure over a break in the natural order within horror.

      Firefly disappointed me. That's something I need to write up.

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    9. That "blunt instrument" description of Bond is one of the things that bugs me about the newer movies (by which I mainly mean the Craig films; Goldeneye was the only one of the Brosnan Bonds I could stomach and I barely remember it). The whole pleasure of watching a Bond film or reading one of Fleming's novels (which, if B5 is THIS problematic, would give Dr. Sandifer fits :)) is that Bond is the opposite of blunt. The Craig Bonds are interesting in their own way, and quite well made, but he lives up to that description a lot more often than he belies it, which drains all the fun out of things.

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    10. The whole pleasure of watching a Bond film or reading one of Fleming's novels

      The Bond of the books is so utterly different from any of the movie portrayals -- more complex, more uncertain, sadder, more easily scared -- that I find it hard to imagine it could be the same pleasure.

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    11. It may not be. In both cases, though, I'd say it derives from the fact that Bond is more than just a thuggish hit man: he's an intelligent, subtle spy, or at worst a perceptive lothario with a taste for good food, good booze, and gambling. That line in Casino Royale -- "Do I look like I give a damn?" -- is very funny, but to use one of Dr. Sandifer's favorite phrases, it "rather spectacularly misses the point."

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    12. I would say, though, that Craig is more in the Fleming mold than, perhaps, Connery; he's a little bit more subtle than book-Bond, but just look at his emotional reactions, especially in the denouments of his three Bond films. That's Fleming's Bond, right there.

      The actor who was probably closest to the Fleming original is, surprisingly enough, George Lazenby; he has the benefit of being in one of the most book-faithful movies in the series, but the way he responds and reacts is just typical of book-Bond.

      Since we've gone this far, here's my ordering:

      1. Craig
      2. Lazenby
      3. Dalton
      4. Connery
      5. Moore
      6. Brosnan

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  4. I really loved B5 when it was first broadcast, and I think the first and last season are both underrated, but there's not much in this essay I can really find much fault with. That said, I will now bitch about the two points on which I strongly disagree.

    I've written about this in more detail at my own gaffe, but in brief, it seems odd that a blog so dedicated to exploring the contemporary culture that surrounds a piece of art would suggest a very low-key depiction of a homosexual relationship implies the show is "ashamed" of the idea. Is there any other genre show (certainly in the US, but quite possibly in the UK too) in 1995 that had any suggestion of a gay couple? That was the year DS9 played a single lesbian kiss as a Sweeps Week gambit. It was five years later that Joss Whedon reportedly considered quitting over Fox's unwilligness to allow Willow and Tara to kiss on-screen. Star Trek still hasn't so much as implied sexual encounter between two people of the same gender. Even into the 21st century, we've still got problems. BSG took four years to get around to the idea. Lost revealed one of its characters as gay after he'd already been killed. And the less said about Buffy's baffling decision to play Andrews homosexual tendencies for laughs, the better.

    Whatever B5 flaws as regards its handling of trans characters (and to argue that it shouldn't be a problem that an alien hemaphrodite couldn't be made convincing is to just not be happy with how many people interpret TV, which is fine as a personal preference, but not as evidence of how the show dropped the ball on social issues), it got away with more than any of its US contemporaries - and many of its successors - did, or perhaps even tried to, on this subject. For that I think it's worthy of praise, not a suggestion that by not being willing/able to push the envelope still further, the effort was somehow to the show's discredit.

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  5. a vicious paternalism that undermines all of its attempts at progressivism

    You say that as though there weren't a long history of paternalism and progressivism (by at least some definitions of "progressivism") walking hand in hand.

    I watched one or two episodes of this show, disliked the writing, and never came back to it. I think I saw an insallment that was a heavy-handed allegory endorsing military intervention in the Balkans, but at this late date I might be remembering some other overrated 1990s science fiction tale. (Maybe a Star Trek movie?) Anyway, it's good to hear that watching the rest of the series just would have given me more reasons to dislike it.

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    1. The Balkan context was *huge* in B5, from multiple episodes and plot lines to casting an ex-Yugoslav refugee as the main female lead.
      If you're seriously going for context, Philip, this is a major one.

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    2. I'm not persuaded. Most of the stuff that evokes the Balkan conflict is fairly standard space opera material. Yes, Straczynski adapted Delenn to Mira Furlan's background, but in fifteen volumes of commentary on the scriptbooks he never references the Balkans as one of the basic inspirations for the series that I recall.

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    3. Not the ethnic cleaning of "Infection"? I can't remember if that phrase actually appears.
      The horror of civilian bombardment, when the Centauri attack the Narn homeworld?
      Perhaps it's my personal bias - that was one of the first B5 episodes I saw after returning home from Mostar in 1995. jms and I corresponded a bit on that theme; I wish I still had those emails.

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    4. Plus the Minbari civil war. One can generalize from one civil war to others, of course, and the show does this in s4. But the particulars on Minbar seem apposite:
      -intertwined segments of society based on identity, rather than political ideology (cf Russian, English, Chinese civil wars) or religion (French wars of religion) or economic ideology (one reading of US civil war). Instead the Minbari civil war is about redressing balance within a federation of sorts - which was the argument made by each ex-Yugoslav would-be republic.
      -the role of Mira Furlan (Croatian - not an identity usually expressed in US tv then)
      -the agonized decision-making of interventionary powers
      -the rapid breakdown of what seemed an acme of peaceful coexistence and even integration (Bosnia used to be studied for its high rate of interfaith marriages)

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  6. Is Battlestar Galactica not in the Golden Age tradition?

    (I don't know what the audience was like in the US, but my impression was that in the UK it appealed to the non-fandom audience for whom Buffy had made genre tv acceptable. Despite BsG being about as uninfluenced by Buffy as I can imagine good 2000s genre tv being. I can see why you might decide that BsG is not really relevant to Doctor Who, despite being critically acclaimed by non-fandoms.)

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    1. I think BSG is an attempt to return to some of the iconography of the Golden Age tradition while systematically rejecting all of the philosophical premises. Most obviously, it starts by completely destroying the Standard Issue Sci-Fi Future, and then uses the relationship between its setting and contemporary humanity as one of the major mysteries of the show, thus removing the problematic teleology.

      It will definitely get covered - it's unavoidable. It was Doctor Who's lead-in for its first season in the US.

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    2. I think it's less of a rejection of the philosophical premises than it first appears. The original Battlestar Galactica was basically Mormons in space. As I understand it, Mormonism shares the same ideological roots as golden age sf. (My impression is that Mormons are overrepresented among genre fiction writers.) And I think a lot of that gets into the new Battlestar Galactica, especially in its treatment of religion.

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  7. I agree that there's not a lot to fault with this review. However I do feel that Phil gives far too little slack to programmes with faults that are simply more glaring with age. B5 is 20 years old now, and it's starting to show. The dialog was ropy, and the direction was hamfisted at times, and as time goes on more episodes of it are increasingly difficult to watch. It didn't stray too far from the standard SciFi model of shows of the time, and yes even the non-white characters are still kind of white, but any show no matter how radical you want it to be, has to be grounded in the TV of the time. Remember that it's not just JMS who made the show what it was, it was the Director, Producer, Camera guys, Scrip-Editors, Writers. The majority of people involved in a programme will always produce a programme that shows their influence to be the other programmes they've recently worked on. Wait till we get to the first season of the new Doctor Who. Watch it now, 7 years later, and it's starting to date. You can see 2005 Telly all over it, and I'm sure Phil will present legitimate criticism that would have been totally invisible in 2005.

    B5 is often lauded as being ahead of it's time. I'd say, like a Cult Curate's Egg, maybe 30% was ahead of it's time. The other 70% firmly rooted in the traditions of the mid-90s. But then if it had been too far ahead for 90s viewers, would we have even got a full 5 seasons?

    I can't stop without mentioning my absolute favourite episode though - "Confessions and Lamentations"- where JMS takes the AIDS epidemic and (adding a side-order of religious fanaticism) turns it completely on it's head, and annihilates an entire species in a way that I've never seen done better.

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    1. It's a balance, I hope. I mean, I'm also very actively committed to reading things in the context of the time. And for all my criticism of Babylon 5, I'd point out that I end up by saying that it really is as revolutionary and important as its fans say it is, but that there's just something fundamentally flawed about the genre it's making advances in. I'd say it's less that the 70% of Babylon 5 that isn't ahead of its time is rooted in the 90s than it is that it's rooted in the 50s at best. That's its real problem.

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    2. Rooted in the 50s? Hmmm...you may be right there! However I often wonder whether some of the awkwardness we see is JMS's sporadic attempts to portray a future society with different attitudes to our own. The Rebo & Zooty episode is often pilloried by fans for how unfunny Penn & Teller are, but I kind of see that as the joke (and I'm sure JMS meant it that way). Their material is terribly lame, and yet the whole cast (with the notable exception of Lochley) laugh themselves stupid at every dumb quip. I'm sure JMS or Gaiman could have written them some decent gags, but I think the point was that 200 years into the future even humour has changed. Sadly the scenes come over as embarrassing, which probably shows how you shouldn't stray too far from your current decade.

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    3. IIRC, he mentioned on Usenet that that was the whole point of Rebo and Zooty -- that a lot of humor is based on context and that without context, most jokes fall flat. Specifically, he meant it as a commentary on the then-current meme of "Oh My God! They killed Kenny! You Bastards!" which, if you've never seen or even heard about South Park, isn't remotely funny, to the point that you might be annoyed or even horrified at people laughing at the thought of a child being killed.

      Ultimately, however, that episode suffered from the same problem as "A View From the Gallery," namely that it was yet another damn filler episode to slog through while we were waiting for Centauri Prime to get slagged.

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    4. Um, unless I'm much mistaken, the episode with Penn and Teller *was* by Gaiman. Isn't it the same episode as the one with the Day of the Dead?

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    5. @Froborr

      Yes it was, and to my mind had Gaiman all the way through it. But I kind of have a feeling that JMS might have written all the Rebo & Zooty stuff.

      @Alan

      Most of Season 5 was like that wasn't it. Byron & the telepaths, Drazi homeworld, Garibaldi getting pissed...get to Londo and the Keeper already!

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  8. Jumping on the "yes, but other shows were worse" bandwagon, as you say, B5 goes further than any previous space opera had done in portraying the working class, and it's interesting to compare A View From The Gallery, which is what TV Tropes calls a "Lower Deck Episode" with Lower Decks, the TNG episode that's the Trope Namer. Because in Star Trek, the lower decks are occupied by junior officers (and one civilian) since there are no enlisted personnel in Starfleet except Miles O'Brien.

    And as a white guy myself, I honestly don't know if We've Eliminated Racism In The Future So The Fact Dr Franklin's African-American Isn't Relevant To Anything is better or worse than We've Eliminated Racism In The Future But Ben Sisko Is Still Very Angry About It. (I mean, Far Beyond The Stars was brilliant, but it transcended Star Trek altogether so I'm not sure it counts.)

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    1. Yes, the complaint about Franklin seems to be that the highly educated, African-America doctor whose accent made him sound like he was from the Mid-West acted "too white." Which is, you know, a complaint that I've heard against highly educated African-American professions in real life by race theorists. How exactly was Dr. Franklin supposed to "demonstrate his blackness" on a space station millions of miles from Earth while surrounded by aliens? Hell, his counterpart on DS9, Julian Bashir, was of Indian descent and he might as well have gone to Eton.

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    2. And yet the Russian character had no problem demonstrating how Russian she was on a regular basis, and the working class Italian American bloke managed to get his background conveyed on a regular basis.

      I don't find the appeal to Star Trek terribly persuasive either - Star Trek originated this sort of problem.

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    3. And Franklin's background is as a highly educated, upper class doctor from the Midwest who just happens to be black. From the Stephen Franklin wiki page:

      While the character was explicitly described as black in the script of the episode Soul Hunter, his first appearance on the show, J. Michael Straczynski was adamant throughout the run of the series that Franklin be a true individual who could have been played by an actor of any race. Richard Biggs later expressed his gratitude at being able to play a role purely as an actor, not a black actor.

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    4. But DS9 (and to a lesser extent TNG) at least made an effort to still address these things. Firstly, O'Brien is not the only enlisted officer, at least not on DS9, where the writers wanted an equal number of officers and enlisted personnel-I can point right offhand to Nog and Vlix'pran. Not to mention DS9 is populated by a bunch of civilians, veterans and people other than Federation officers. Look at Kira, Quark, Odo, Rom, Morn, Garak, Leeta, Jake, Keiko, Molly, Yoshi, and any of the numerous shopkeepers and religious figures who work on the Promenade.

      This is true at an episode-by-episode level as well, I feel: "Rejoined" tries to be progressive about Lesbianism and GLBTQ issues in general, albeit mostly in metaphor (even then it's a damn sight better than TNG's utterly disastrous "The Outcast" or B5's tepid attempt IMO). "Far Beyond The Stars" is great, as mentioned, but so is "Past Tense" which uses time travel to throw Sisko, Bashir and Dax right into a world of rampant prejudice and discrimination and doesn't shy away from showing what this means.

      The writers constantly struggled against the restrictions of the Star Trek format, yes, but they really did try. They *wanted* to say real, relevant things about racism, classism and sexism. They *wanted* to disconnect Star Trek from its middle class privilege roots: This was a conscious, deliberate creative decision on the part of numerous showrunners as evidenced by interviews and statements that date back to when the shows were airing. Perhaps they weren't entirely successful, but they really ought to be commended for trying, especially given what this team was able to accomplish with BSG.

      And this is really I guess what it comes down to for me about science fiction in the 80s and 90s, at least Golden Age influenced space science fiction. Phil's analysis of Babylon 5 is the most honest and fair account of the series I've ever read. It's very well done for what it is, but it's a creative and thematic dead end. There is a way forward for this genre, but B5 isn't it. I'd probably argue Battlestar Galactica is, and that TNG and DS9 got far closer than anyone seems willing to give them credit for, but, as many have said, the way forward is a complete abandonment of its roots and core values.

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    5. @Alan: There's a basic problem in the fact that you frame the discussion on the unquestioned assumption that the default way "a highly educated, upper class doctor" would carry himself in a race-agnostic future society would be "pretty much exactly the way 20th century middle class white guys from north america do".

      That's the problem in a nutshell: the idea that "acting white" is the universal default, what all people would switch to if you removed the race-specified circumstances of 20th century western culture.

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    6. And yet the Russian character had no problem demonstrating how Russian she was on a regular basis, and the working class Italian American bloke managed to get his background conveyed on a regular basis.

      But Franklin's cultural background and spiritual beliefs are a core component of the character, referenced in various episodes and a key part of a multi-episode character arc at the end of the third season. It just happens to be a culture that, as far as I can recall, isn't related to the colour of his skin. And I had to scratch my head to work out which the Italian American character you're referring to is - if it's Garibaldi, I don't remember much being made of his cultural background, unless Daffy Duck cartoons are beloved of Italian immigrants. Even with Ivanova, her background, while important, wasn't considered important enough to give her a Russian accent.

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    7. That's the problem in a nutshell: the idea that "acting white" is the universal default, what all people would switch to if you removed the race-specified circumstances of 20th century western culture.

      No, the problem is in the definition of "acting white," because it implies a series of markers that signify "acting black," which to some people includes things like being academically successful, being disinterested in sports, and even being a fan of "nerdy" things like science fiction and comic books. I ask again, given the immutable facts that Stephen Franklin was an educated physician with a military background living on a 23rd century space station dedicated to diplomatic activities, how exactly were the writers and the actor supposed to communicate his "blackness"? Because the only place ST ever touched on it with Benjamin Sisko was when they sent him back in time to the 1950's.

      And peeeeeeet also makes an excellent point -- Ivanova was the exception, not the rule, as she is the only human character to repeatedly refer to her ethnic background in any capacity. Garibaldi is presumably of Italian-American descent but I don't recall him every making a big deal of it. None of the other human characters have any sort of ethnicity beyond, well, "human."

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    8. Crap. In the second paragraph, it should say "preclude" instead of "includes."

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    9. I'd say that all the main human characters are coded American, and not just by their accents. Especially Ivanova - nobody goes on about their ancestry like Americans. All the main characters who have a non-US/UK coding have knobbly faces and/or funny hairdos.

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    10. Alan:

      Sorry to be pedantic, but DS9 also dealt with race when Sisko, Dax and Bashir were sent back to Star Trek's racially charged and gang ruled 21st century in "Past Tense". Actually, pretty much any time Avery Brooks directed the show was overtly conscious of race issues. Also, something could I suppose be made of the fact Sisko is from New Orleans and proud of his Cajun heritage.

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    11. @Ross That's the problem in a nutshell: the idea that "acting white" is the universal default, what all people would switch to if you removed the race-specified circumstances of 20th century western culture.

      Legit question here, not trolling or trying to bait: what, precisely, does a black Doctor sound like? Should he have any of the number of African or African-American accents common to the English language? What should his back story be like, given the (presumed) changes to Earth culture in the past 250 or so years? More universally, what is the correct ratio of respectful cultural reference to stereotype for any given character?

      Given America's rather shameful treatment of other people's cultural signifiers, would it be possible to translate these into a sci fi show without it seeming as awkward and weird as that scene in Star Trek: Voyager where Chakotay has Janeway use his Medicine Bundle so she can find her animal spirit? One the one hand, there is nothing to indicate that this is being done in anything but a respectful way: Janeway is genuinely interested and completely unpatronizing when he suggests it might help her, and she does learn from the experience in a way that directly saves the lives of everyone aboard. On the other, it clearly plays into the stereotype of the "Magical Indian Vision Quest" that a character needs to go through to solve a problem without logic or reason. Chakotay himself is of course a lot more than that, but does the Native American character need to (at least once) go through the stereotypes most frequently associated with their race?

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    12. (cont.)

      To use a different example, many got upset (whether legitimate or not) at Khal Drogo from Game of Thrones for being a stereotypical evil dark skinned foreign tribal raiding Hun or Mongol. No one bats an eye at the depiction of, Cersei Lannister, for being an incestuous evil white British noblewoman. Granted, there is an entire cultural history at play with skin color here that cannot be ignored, but is the one fantasy depiction of an "evil" leader less bad than another because the English are an acceptable target? Some would say yes, and there's a very good argument there. No question that both Cersei and Drogo are well defined and thought out characters with clear motivations and back stories bringing them beyond the one note cliches they could be reduced to. Would Drogo be less objectionable to those criticizing his depiction if he were a white Norse-derived character? Would Cersei be more objectionable if the Lannisters were fantasy Carthaginians? Would it be alright if George RR Martin were Mongolian or Xiongnu or Kazakhstani (depending on your choice of Hun origin) himself? Is skin color enough to make one okay and the other unacceptable?

      Or, for a real life example, I have two computer programmer friends, one from South Korea, one from South Africa, and they both sound like "regular" women whenever we talk online. Aside from the occasional language translation problem (and I'll fully cop to being as much if not more at fault here, because I can speak neither Korean nor Afrikaans) or lack of culture context for a joke or reference, I'd have trouble distinguishing them from someone from the American mid-west or Russia or Japan or anywhere else, really. Their racial and cultural heritage only come up when we're talking about them. Similarly, my own white American experience is something we rarely talk about. It just doesn't really come up; we're much more interested in how our jobs are going, what our relationships are like, the books and comics we've just read and have opinions on, etc. My friends from Texas and New York City sound more different, but that may be because I'm better able to pick up on cultural bits from my own land. I have no idea what the differences are when contrasting people from Seoul and Busan, because I don't know enough about South Korea.

      I of course cannot say if I sound to them like a white guy from the States whenever we talk (aside, obviously, from the use of American English and my own cultural baggage), as opposed to a guy from England or Brazil or where ever. Perhaps I'll have to ask next time we talk...

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    13. @spoilersbelow:

      I don't want to speak for Phil, but it would seem to me at least that Doctor Who is just as sullied by this as anything else. The Doctor's roots as a character are in the archetype of the Victorian inventor. The Doctor is weird in the sense he's also tied to youth culture and anarchic change, but no matter what the gender, culture or skin colour of the actor, The Doctor as a character is always going to have those associations. A nonwhite or female Doctor, almost by virtue of simply being The Doctor, is still going to end up "acting white".

      That doesn't mean Doctor Who, or any other science fiction show for that matter, need always be a tool of hegemony and the establishment (though it is a little too frequently for my personal tastes), it just means it's something a skilled showrunner should always be aware of and be trying to work against.

      I really like your point about being aware of our own voice: I don't know how I sound to others, but I will say I try to make a conscious effort to not bind my language up in hegemonic associations.

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  9. Philip, I think your idea of critiquing B5 by situating it in the context of American sf history is very smart. But I'm not sure this post carries it through, partly through what seems like misreading or misremembering the program.

    1) The planning out of five seasons is actually impressive as heck, and not equaled since as far as I can tell. JMS showed enormously flexibility in adapting that project to multiple, serious pressures, including never knowing if *any* season would renewed, not just s4.
    2) "Straczynski has Aaron Sorkin’s love of lengthy monologues" - not really. These are usually very short, and owe more to the Clarke/Bradbury print tradition of lyrical sf (for example, the villain's evocation of his digging work in "Infection". Unless you mean narrated flashbacks (i.e., someone describing the first encounter with the Shadows).
    3) The acting - well, obviously. That was known from the show's start, and helped limit the viewership. But it's important to note this is connected with the show's very low budget. B5's ability to get so much out of so little is an important part of its appeal and impact, especially compared to relatively expensive Trek. Plus the core actors did very well.
    4) "Babylon 5 goes further than space opera really had before in acknowledging the working class" - yes, especially for an American audience. If you want 1990s context, remember that the US saw union participation drop throughout that decade. So that's some of the background for the union unrest episode in season 1, "By Any Means Necessary" (a title with resonance to black military, by the way). As far as I can recall there was nothing like this in the Star Trek universe, B5's sf competitor.
    5) If you want to establish the show's sf heritage, the Heinlein focus is misplaced. B5 clearly shows a broad love for far more of the sf tradition,from Alfred Bester (a major character named after him; a series-long plot riffing on The Demolished Man) to Arthur C. Clarke (the lyrical source of those monology bits, really). And more recent sf, including the 1970s O'Neill colony idea, the physical basis for the station, plus the gamer nod with hex maps.
    6) Gender - assigning major roles to women really deserves more credit, especially if you're thinking of Golden Age sf. To pick a few examples: Delenn is a combination of warlord, coalition builder, and planetary revolutionary. Her relationship with the human hero is hardly a classically subordinate. The station's operational manager is a woman in all 5 seasons, and is very clearly not a wallflower. Yes, there could have been even more women, but this post understates the progress shown here.
    7) "the touchy-feely spiritual race" - actually, the Minbari are described as split between three castes, not as a unity of a single trait: spiritual (and this is very ritual-oriented, not touchy-feely), workers (who win at the end!), and military (who are responsible for the majority of plots from seasons 1-3 at least). That multi-sided culture is the basis of every Minbari plot element. Moreover, far from being sensitive Newagers, the Minbari ruthlessly defeated the humanity race to the point of near-extermination. Their technology (not woo) remains beyond humanity's throughout the series. And Delenn, not so touchy-feely, constantly leads military expeditions (recall her decisive intervention in "Severed Dreams", not to mention winning the Minbari civil war. Moreover, she built the first giant allied war fleet on her own.

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  10. (con't)
    8) Lesbian relationship - that was a big step for American genre tv in the 90s, especially science fiction. Recall that 1993's Wild Palms (cyberpunk miniseries) was considered wildly daring for a single gay male kiss. Cf, too, other comments on this thread.
    9) "Straczynski is following almost directly from Heinlein, and is thus absolutely in love with individual liberty and self-identity as the greatest principles imaginable" - again, I think this ascribes too much of the show's engagement with the sf tradition to one of its exemplars. Besides, this passage doesn't explain the pro-union stance of season 1. Not does it address the persistent emphasis on self-sacrifice - sometimes for glory, yes, but not always.
    10) "he has everybody in the show taking up the white man’s burden" - the show is anti-colonialism from start to finish.
    11) "a show that believes in an end teleology of humanity in which we ascend to become higher evolutionary beings" - I don't remember this from Heinlein (is it in the later, lamentable books?), but the explicit references for this are to Walter Miller (Canticle for Liebowitz), Clarke (Childhood's End), and even Tolkien.
    12) "Science fiction as a genre was driven by well-educated secular white men, and the ethos they put into it doesn’t come out easily" - secular, well, hurm. The show is about religions from start to finish, on many levels, and hardly all oppositional. Indeed, B5 is awfully sympathetic to faiths from a writer who's an avowed atheist.
    13) The gendered fandom bit: has anyone done fieldwork on this? I don't have any stats, so must fall back on my experience of B5 fandom, which was and is of evenly balanced genders. Moreover, we could mention the nearly-all-women fan base for the John-Delenn relationship, which was a vibrant email list back then.

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  11. Two more points, and then I'll stop sprawling all over this thread. And these are, alas, points based on absence.

    First, while I take the point of comparisons to Buffy (in the horror genre), it's vital to recognize that B5 existed in strong competition with the Star Trek universe (space opera) from start to finish. There's all kinds of fan history here, like the disputed story about whether or not jms stole the idea of a space station story from Paramount, who then did Deep Space Nine, or if Paramount stole the idea from him, back before B5 s1 ever appeared. There's the big difference in resources, which I noted above, with B5 episodes costing something like 10-30% of what Trek did (someone surely had better stats than I). And the shows complemented each other in themes and topics. So if you want to go after the space opera tradition, you really have to address Trek.
    NB: if you already have, my apologies; I've only read this blog for the Who stuff.

    Second, if you want to view B5 as responding to the 20th century, it's important to see that it was deeply concerned with another 20th-century horror, fascism. That's a huge plot organizer or architectonic, sweeping up all kinds of characters and seasons. It's explicitly named, obviously referenced, and clearly in play throughout. If we're talking Golden Age sf, I'd say this places the show on the opposite end of the genre from the power fantasies Spinrad diagnosed in Iron Dream. It's not an immediate context for the 1990s (unless you could some Serb and Croat nationalists, who are definite context), but such a major theme that it begs address.

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    1. Well said, sir. You touch on two points I'd like to expand upon due to their importance to DW.

      1. B5 was incredibly cheap. I remember JMS expressing shock and amazement on Usenet that the ST: Voyager pilot cost more than the entirety of B5's first season. This blog has repeatedly pointed out that the BBC does not have the resources to do Star Wars level effects as well as Star Wars. It does, however, have the budget to do B5 level effects at least as well if not better than B5, and probably has since the late 90's.

      2. Phil, no disrespect, but your horror of the suggestion that humanity will eventually evolve to some higher state is amusing when Doctor Who expressly states that humanity will, over the next few billion years will become the dominant species in the entire universe and, in fact, will be the only known sentient species still in existence at the time of the Great Crunch. You also assume that humanity will be the only B5 race so blessed, even though the metaplot for the first 3 1/2 seasons involves other higher races who came before us. I may be misremembering, but I'm pretty sure that when Lorien said "If you survive, if you do not destroy yourselves, we will be waiting for you beyond the Rim" was directed at the assembled crowd which included humans and aliens, and not just the humans. The fact that we see one Ascended Human at the end of S4 (in an episode that JMS banged out quickly because he got a fifth season at the last minute) doesn't mean that humans are the only ascended beings 1 million years in the future.

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    2. "Doctor Who expressly states that humanity will, over the next few billion years will become the dominant species in the entire universe and, in fact, will be the only known sentient species still in existence at the time of the Great Crunch"

      At which point they will degenerate to horrific savages before being turned into psychotic Quiddich balls by the Master. It's not quite optimistic.

      And Straczynski said on Usenet that the Minbari and humans are the only two races to make First One status, and that the Narn and Centauri definitely do not. On the run and can't get the link right now, but I'm pretty sure it's on the Lurker's Guide page for Deconstruction of Falling Stars.

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    3. And Straczynski said on Usenet that the Minbari and humans are the only two races to make First One status, and that the Narn and Centauri definitely do not. On the run and can't get the link right now, but I'm pretty sure it's on the Lurker's Guide page for Deconstruction of Falling Stars.

      But with the latter two, isn't that because the Narn and the Centauri are expressly described as being unable to let go of their cycle of mutually inflicted violence?

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  12. "It’s telling that Babylon 5’s idea of the most horrifying thing imaginable consists of witch hunts, brutal interrogations, and propaganda."

    B5 also portrays genocide, war crimes and tyranny as among the worst things imaginable.

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    1. i think it is more that it is the worst thing imaginable for an "advanced society" We grow up thinking that we are the greatest thing ever, that we have the most advanced morals, that anyone can say anything, because of freedom. And then McCartyism happens and it directly contradicts the myths in a way that one atrocity or another really doesnt

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    2. Honestly, I think it's unfair to dismiss the political undercurrent of B5 as focusing on McCarthyism. When the Minipax guy showed up to investigate the crew, the big fear wasn't that they would get kicked out of the military and/or blacklisted, it was that they would be taken out and shot. The whole Earthgov arc was always about rising fascism and by the end of it, the government was running torture camps and indiscriminately bombing civilian populations.

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  13. First of all, I agree with all your criticisms of B5, but I love it anyway. In my case, it's the opposite of the usual reasons: I love the little moments. There are a few absolutely brilliant lines and short speeches (Marcus' little speech about the universe being unfair being the best of them, but Ivanova has the most of any character, I think), and some punch-the-air moments of awesome. It's not high art, I suppose, but I reject the high art-low art binary anyway.

    That said... no on Buffy. Buffy is not a feminist show. Because Joyce, because Giles, and above all because that vile little creep-weasel Xander.

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    1. Yeah, I think Buffy has a lot to love -- and like B5, it's a show I came to in the past few years after having assumed for years that I would hate it -- but it's definitely not beyond criticism in these areas. I love that Willow and Tara have a relationship, for example, but there's a lot about how it's presented that bugged me. It's quite plausible that Willow would get into her first lesbian relationship and pipe "gay now!" at every opportunity, especially when you consider which relationships she might want to forget and the way a lot of probably-bisexual women choose to identify as lesbians, but it always rubbed me the wrong way. And others have already brought up Andrew and Larry, though honestly, I was usually just grateful they were there at all. P.S. I'm not a Xander fan either.

      That said, my girlfriend liked the show (with reservations; she didn't care for Faith and we both had big problems with Spike in the later seasons), while she hated Firefly. Part of that was the clever but off-putting-if-it's-not-your-thing Kentucky Fried milieu, but part of it was also the characters; every time she brings it up she has disparaging things to say about Inara, and I frankly agree.

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  14. It always seemed to me that Buffy learned some lessons from B5 in how not to do arc-driven TV.

    Lesson 1: do the arc season-by-season. This leaves you less buggered if key actors leave, the execs decide to cancel the show then change their minds, and so on. While JMS always tried to write in what he called "trap doors" in case of actor unavailability, the results were often unsatisfactory (e.g. Talia).

    Lesson 2: don't try to write an entire season yourself. JMS wrote two whole seasons single-handed, and the last season almost so. It's a heroic achievement: compare to the great strain on RTD writing less than half of a shorter series and rewriting the rest. But invariably you end up with quality control issues, as well as the inevitable filler episodes (though B5 is nowhere as bad at these as DS9). Buffy had a writing team for each season. JMS does some fine writing when he's on form: I wonder how much better B5 would have been with 10-13 episodes per season rather than 22?

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    1. I would add:

      Lesson 3: For God's sake, have a fifteen second "Previously on ... " blurb at the start of the episode instead of relying on absurdly clunky expository dialog to bring new viewers up to speed.

      "Hey, remember that time three years ago when Delenn's Minbari friend who we only met once got plugged into the computer of the mysterious alien planet below us and gained control over its godlike technology? Well, he's back as an interactive hologram, but now he looks like John Schuck."

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  15. So, are you going to cover Spaced? Because this piece does come across as a Simon Pegg trolling in-joke from that (“Babylon 5’s a big pile of shit!”)…

    I can’t iconoclastically disagree with your opening paragraph, though it’s slightly harsh on the first season (more dull than crap, though the fifth is both for me). But, as you point out in your second paragraph that “It’s much, much easier to list the things that are very wrong about Babylon 5 than it is to articulate the case for it”, why did you just follow the easy route? Isn’t that saying in advance that your own argument’s going to be very lazy? So you might at least have started out with a bit more credit before laying into Straczynski, ironically, with far more of your own personal bias than he displays in his attempt at a multi-cultural Casablanca in space that is far less (‘less’ being a relative term) ‘America in space, and hurrah!’ than any other single US space opera I can think of.

    For you, on the series’ depiction of the working class “The key episode is one from the fifth season called “A View from the Gallery,””… which it would have to be, if you were attacking it as mere comic relief, because otherwise you might have to consider Garibaldi, or the labour union stories, or that Delenn leads a revolution against what appears otherwise an all-male Council (which might be something to consider in the context of her originally being male) which ends up reforged with the literal working class in control. Hardly a Marxist fable, still, but making your choice of “key episode” look wilful at best. And as for the women only being second in command – aside from Delenn, isn’t the person in charge of the station for the final 20% a woman, or does that not count because that season’s crap? In which case, why not ignore O’Hare, too, and claim that the only station commander ever is Sheridan?

    I’d agree with you that it doesn’t do a great job on LGBT issues, but not necessarily for want of trying: Susan and Talia are broken up by one of the actors leaving; and, despite your biggest issue, tellingly, being with an off-screen in-joke that viewers never saw, you fail to mention that the original plan would have involved a male-to-female trans character marrying the lead. All you have on that is a dismissive aside about their judgement on whether the make-up worked – but the original intent was to have a major step forward in trans characters. And watching in the ’90s, with very, very few gay characters on any screen, it seemed to me that although the few steps forward were always more network-friendly attractive lesbians, because seeing a gay man would be too scary (we looked out for them, obviously, and virtually never found them), most shows were still too scared even to try as potentially straight-male-friendly a step as that. Babylon 5 certainly felt better than other genre shows to that point, even after I’ve used the mind rubbers to scrub away that vomitworthy STNG ‘exploring Teh Gay for one week only via the medium of Riker shagging yet another woman’.

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  16. Babylon 5’s heart is in the right place, but it simply can’t get past its creator’s privilege. It’s telling that Babylon 5’s idea of the most horrifying thing imaginable consists of witch hunts, brutal interrogations, and propaganda. Put another way, it’s clear that Straczynski thinks the absolute worst thing to happen in America in the twentieth century was the McCarthy era. Which, yes, that sucked royally, but it’s also the most privileged answer imaginable. And yet it makes total sense within Straczynski’s larger worldview.

    Well, where to start? I notice Iain’s come up with part of the point already, but of that entire, gobsmacking paragraph above, if I may make a non-secular suggestion, take the log out of your own eye. Because it seems to be way, way more about you than Straczynski. Straczynski’s unsubtle characterisation of the Nightwatch and all that flows from it in Clark’s regime, which seems to be your target (ignoring all the war and genocide, as you do), has some overtones of McCarthyism, but is far more crushingly obviously borrowed from the Nazis. And I’m struggling to find any conceivable way of seeing McCarthyism first without thinking myself into, say, a privileged US media Marxist victimology worldview.

    But you’d already rung a massive alarm bell for me in your uncritical comparison of Straczynski with Sorkin, and using the latter to beat the former (I think you underrate one’s dialogue and overrate the other’s, but both are great on good days). Now, it may well be that at some point in the future you’ll be laying into Sorkin, too. But in context it came across as undiluted praise for Sorkin. Well, of his two big auteur shows, I admit I like The West Wing, but watching it again after Studio 60, it’s clear how much of the earlier show was a lucky escape: set in politics, so about issues rather only personalities, and with the initial idea of a show about communications officers (ie writers) derailed by Martin Sheen being so bloody awesome the show became about him, it’s incredibly fortunate that it escaped what Sorkin clearly conceived as a show about brilliant Sorkin analogues. Studio 60, on the other Strip, was so undeniably about Sorkin The Amazing Brilliant Hero and the most expensive therapy session in the history of the world that I kept watching it merely for its sheer chutzpah.

    But, unlike Babylon 5, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip was horribly, horribly, hideously sexist and couldn’t bring itself to have any gay characters – despite being made a decade later, it felt entirely as if it was “Tonight, from the 1950s… Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip!” Complete with being totally up itself about McCarthyism. Just in case you ever write your own piece about it, I won’t go into it at length here, but given your critique of Straczynski it beggars belief that you contrast him unfavourably with Sorkin. And I have gone into it at length before, if you want the detailed argument:
    http://loveandliberty.blogspot.co.uk/2007/09/studio-60-on-sunset-strip.html

    Oh, and Was Buffy, the Vampire Slayer really more feminist than The Avengers?

    Not The Avengers I’m thinking of, it wasn’t. But they’re British. Though I love Buffy as a series, and it did probably the most interesting and complex version of network-friendly attractive lesbians (even if it ended up with Bury Your Gays and Comedy Gay Nelly also beamed from the 1950s).

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    1. I never watched much of the West Wing, but what I saw seemed very much a US liberal wank-fantasy, which irritated me enough that I didn't bother watching the rest. Armando Ianucci pwns Aaron Sorkin, and I'll put the dialogue from The Thick of It up against that of the West Wing any day.

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  17. One of the most refreshing things about B5 was that it portrayed some of the real complexity and difficulty of politics. It wasn't exactly The Thick of It in space, but it did show how good people (and bad people) could end up on opposite sides of a political divide, how history shapes the political possibilities of the present, and how things are never as easy as you think they ought to be. One small but symbolic point here is the scene where Sheridan declares to his crew that B5 is breaking away from Earth and that anyone unhappy with this should leave their post - and some of them do.

    B5 also got to some extent away from the standard American SF setup of a military team who all defer to the chain of command, which is like valium to drama. Yes, the senior officers of B5 are still at the core, but there is as much going on with characters who are outwith that chain of command, and enough tension within it as the story goes on, that it never settles into the usual rut. It doesn't go all the way like Blake's 7 in having a central crew who all hate each other, but it's still an improvement.

    Maybe these factors are why B5 went down particularly well with the British sci-fi audience, and why in the UK the B5 and Blake's 7 fandoms had such a strong overlap.

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    1. It's true that that crew dynamic works in Blake's 7. That's because Blake's 7 is really a nihilistic absurdist comedy (whether Nation realised that or not), and the central unstated joke is that Blake, Avon and crew are collectively the most rubbish resistance fighters since the Judaean People's Front. But Blake's 7 fans seem to think that that kind of dysfunction works in every genre. It doesn't.

      It seems to me that the Blake's 7 dynamic was the model for relations on the TARDIS in the Davison and Colin Baker eras, (in particular Sixth Doctor - Peri seems modelled on Avon - Vila) and that was not exactly a success.

      Yes, I agree that one oughtn't to invoke the terminal niceness of e.g. Next Generation at the other extreme either.

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  18. From "The Potential Last Ever Lawrence Miles Interview" (2000):

    "Eventually, there will be another TV series of Doctor Who. And it will fail horribly, because inevitably it'll be aimed at the kind of fan-targeted SF market that didn't even exist until Star Trek: The Next Generation came along and spoiled everything. Doctor Who only works as a family adventure series, but when it finally comes back you can bet any money you want it'll be like Babylon 5 or something. It'll only last one series, maybe two. So then the TV programme will be dead forever, the license will be in limbo, and nobody will ever want to pump more money into it as a TV concept."

    Just as well RTD took Buffy as a model instead.

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    1. Oh, now you're just peeking ahead to Monday. :)

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    2. I hardly thought you were going to overlook Buffy! But slag off Alyson Hannigan and you're a dead man.

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  19. Reading those Lawrence Miles interviews really did make you angry. In all the controversy of these huge strings of comments, I want to say a couple of things, though. Phil, I think you come off as a little too mad about Babylon 5, but one thing I think would be interesting to see explored in the books is the different ways in which Doctor Who could have been resurrected that, as Miles said, wouldn't have been nearly as successful as Davies eventually did it. I think we might see some of this in your discussion of the TV Movie.

    But we should give Babylon 5 some credit. Showing a world where there were corporations more powerful than governments, where there were significant numbers of poor people, where there were underclasses, and where we did know people at all levels of society, even if they usually appeared only in relation to the better-connected principals.

    However, I think the most remarkable elements of Babylon 5 were their relationships to authority. The story is, in part, about a group of people who become rebels against their own leadership. The analogues aren't strictly to McCarthy, but I think about the rise of fascism thanks to manipulations of superpowers (which makes the Shadows into the CIA and Earth into Chile, at least in that relationship), and connects those phenomena in their social and political expressions. And Sheridan's rebellion against the Shadows and Vorlons are literally a revolution of the little folks over their more self-important superiors who treat them as pieces in their battles. On the surface, it's a people's revolution. Underneath, the show structurally can't escape the problems you identify.

    But yes, while Clarke and more mystical-leaning sci-fi writers are important to many of JMS's ideas, the space opera traditions and Robert Heinlein are probably most important to the overall shape of Babylon 5. And they really did hit the limits of it. I think it's potentially misleading to connect it with white privilege explicitly (it lets people divert the argument into discussions of JMS's ethnic heritage, rather than his intellectual influences). But the space opera is about the great figures whose movements change a galaxy. Ordinary people are bit players. The Great Man theory of history articulated as the tropes of a sci-fi narrative. Babylon 5 does stretch that just about to its breaking point. For all its interest in the smaller folks throwing off the shackles of those who would manipulate them for the sake of their narratives, the great figures of the show's principal cast can never be overthrown, unless it's by other characters who take their place as great figures.

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  20. I'm not entirely sure I agree though: Buffy is a show in the horror genre, explicitly challenging well-established tropes like the Final Girl. B5 is a show in the space opera genre and I think you point out it similarly challenges some of the tropes of that even of it doesn't overturn all of them. And I an extent BSG and even C.21 build on what Stracyzynski was doing - he just got there first.

    Or, another way, if (as you say) Straczynski is Terry Nation and BSG is Whitaker, despite all the problems with Nation's stuff, his is the erratic genius that invented the Daleks - the philospher's stone Whitaker needed to work his alchemy.

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  21. This was the 1st blog in weeks that really held my attention. And this was despite the fact that I have still, to date, never seen a single episode of BABYLON 5. (But my best friend has filled me in on most of the major points.)


    Yonatan:
    "We grow up thinking that we are the greatest thing ever, that we have the most advanced morals, that anyone can say anything, because of freedom. And then McCartyism happens and it directly contradicts the myths in a way that one atrocity or another really doesnt"

    I think the steady progression from 1980 to 2012 has also been a real let-down. I keep praying that, maybe, thingsd might finally start to turn around now.


    David Anderson:
    "the central unstated joke is that Blake, Avon and crew are collectively the most rubbish resistance fighters since the Judaean People's Front"

    That's an interesting suggestion. I feel absolutely certain that I could have enjoyed the show 100 times more than I did, if it had actually been done as a comedy.


    As for 90's genre soap-operas, my fave is no doubt CHARMED.

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    1. I think the steady progression from 1980 to 2012 has also been a real let-down. I keep praying that, maybe, thingsd might finally start to turn around now.

      A lot of people were expecting the progression from 1980 to lead to an apocalyptic nuclear war by now, so it's not all bad.

      (I like to say that my fundamental theory of the 80s is that everyone was absolutely convinced that the world was going to end within the decade, and that unless you first understand that, not a single thing that happened in the 80s makes any damned sense. Further, the entire 90s can be explained by the fact that at some point in 1992, everyone woke up and realized the world *wasn't* going to end, and that they had no contingency plan for what they were going to do with their lives now.)

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    2. That's an interesting way to look at it. While Ronald Reagan seemed bent on confronting the Soviet Union at all costs, the sick people ("yuppie scum" and other power-made rabid-dogs) who put him in office were bent on destroying the US economy for their own benefit. It seems to me they never even blinked when the USSR broke up. The "S&L" crisis could have been predicted, and the banking crisis more recently as well.

      I've found it increasingly disturbing to go back and watch reruns of TV shows from the 80's & 90's and be able to see, all too clearly, that what's going on right now was right in front of everybody all the time, but few seemed to take any notice of it.

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    3. Ross: That is a perfect explanation for everything. (And one could explain the 00s by talking about who came up with a contingency plan first.)

      That said, things have been changing since... oh, 2005ish. Slowly at first, but currently accelerating at speed.

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  22. A really interesting argument. And, to return to an earlier topic, this kinda gets to why I rate mid-period Red Dwarf (seasons 4-6). Even after it's lost its working-class sitcom dimension, it still functions as a delightful skewering of the 90s Trek school of TV SF; the bleak, empty, post-humanity universe is the complete opposite of the emphasis on human destiny found in the latter, making it a genuine subversion of Trek rather than simply 'Trek with jokes' IMO. (Although it gets to that stage in S7 & 8...)

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  23. Yeah, I disagree. I don't think that western secular humanism is an unchangeable, irreductible original sin, in this strain of science fiction or anywhere else. I think that any tradition that's lasted this long and produced this much good art has to be flexible enough to escape a straightjacket like that. (I also note that every single artistic tradition on Earth has come out of a culture of privileged conquerors, because humans tend to do that.)

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    1. Also because art is the sort of thing that it's hard to work on with the sort of consistency it takes to develop a proper style and tradition when you're putting in sixteen hour days of hard labor for the benefit of your conquerors.

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  24. I'm disappointed no one appears to have mentioned "Crusade" with its RPG cast of characters including Space Cat Lady Thief and Brit Thesp Young Gandalf (in Space). With its achingly pretentious episode titles, it crept on to late night telly for a couple of months about a dozen years ago.

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    1. I remember having watched Crusade, with Edward Woodward's (the good Wicker Man, The Equalizer) son as Space Gandalf, and Will Ferrell's dad from the Ricky Bobby movie. And that's all I remember about Crusade, other than that it wasn't very good.

      Seriously: Space Cat Lady Thief? No memories at all.

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    2. I would love to see someone make a Brazil-style comedy about the making of Crusade, because I suspect it would be simultaneously hilarious and horrifying. Per JMS and others, the execs at TNT realized belatedly that B5 was absolutely unlike everything else in their lineup and they didn't want to proceed with a multi-year commitment to the series, so they deliberately sabotaged it with bizarre demands on JMS (for example, arbitrarily changing the uniforms and then arbitrarily changing them back five episodes later -- with total disregard for the airing order) that the result became an unwatchable mess with a few flashes of brilliance.

      It also, to me anyway, presaged Firefly more than a decade in advance. Once I learned that Fox execs demanded that Whedon pull the pilot that concisely explained the setup and then rewrite the second episode with clunky exposition to make it into a new first episode, I knew it was doomed.

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  25. I always remember 3 similar shows debuted within a few weeks of each other: BABYLON 5, STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE, and SPACE RANGERS. I really liked SPACE RANGERS, but it was the only one on a network, and CBS really SCREWED the show over. They only ran 5 of the 7 episodes made, and they ran the pilot 5th (last). This one really felt to me like what BUCK ROGERS should have been, or what BATTLESTAR GALACTICA could have been, without the downbeat, ponderous "big story". Just a group of really fun, likable characters, and loads of exciting action.

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  26. Talking about nazism, Rwanda or whatever is missing the point in Babylon 5: the Earth Alliance is America. All the characters from Earth are, basically, American. Ivanova is Russian-American, but is basically American. She believes in the Flag, and the Constitution, and babushka's home-made syrniki. Garibaldi, mutatis mutandis, ditto. The rest of the world is represented by the Centauri (ruthless but effete old-world oppressors who are all degenerate, in-bred, overly-politicised, hierarchical, backward drunks), and the Narn (I AM VERY ANGRY ABOUT COLONIALISM BUT AM ALSO ACTUALLY QUITE BACKWARDS).

    Eastern cultures are vaguely acknowledged to be... there, in the form of a caste-based, ritualist society of violent space hippies who talk comfortingly meaningless pabulum about the universe in between kicking ass.

    Make no mistake: the series is entirely about American manifest destiny, and the simple fact (in the author's mind) that the American Way is the way of the future, and the only acceptable way to live (minus the bit the author doesn't like - God).

    The programme's attitude toward the rest of the world is, at best, indulgent disdain.

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  27. Since no one really addressed Phil's claim that JMS has a thing for big moralizing speeches, I feel that I should point out one detail: JMS started his career at Filmation, the only American studio to make consistently watchable educational and/or "pro-social" programs for children. As much as he's tried to distance himself from Filmation since he left the studio because Lou Scheimer wouldn't officially name him the story editor for She-Ra (he was the de facto story editor of She-Ra's first season), his work still has a pretty obvious tendency towards the morality play structure. Furthermore, his writing staff is heavily populated by people he met while working in animation (he met Larry DiTillio, Marc Scott Zicree, and possibly D.C. Fontana at Filmation), to the point that only Peter David, Scott Frost, and Harlan Ellison have no experience in animation among the B5 writers.

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  28. You say "secular humanism" like it's a bad thing. It's clear you like Joss Whedon, and he's openly admitted to being a humanist. So what gives? Is it that B5 does humanism wrong? Or are you and Joss Whedon using a different definition of humanism?

    I'm just wondering because it seems like you treat any sci-fi show that has a white male lead like that aspect is inherently problematic (even Doctor Who) no matter how progressive it is otherwise, and yet you mention Firefly in the comments here and act as if it's a break from this when most of it's cast, regular or recurring is white, including the male lead.

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