I recently failed to complete two works with similar names: Babylon Babies, a book by some French dude, and Babylon 5, a TV series from the 1990s.

I got about a quarter of the way through Babylon Babies (533 pages all told) before giving up. The first chapter was a brutally boring account of one man’s love affair with his AK-47 but I slogged through it. I waded through faux hardboiled lines like:

It was fucking hot.

and

Romanenko scanned his screen with fucking intensity…

I don’t mind the f-bombs, but this just seems poorly written. Still I slogged on. Here’s the passage that did me in:

She was pretty. Her color was coming back. A mysterious glow played in the blue of her stare.

Toorop felt a kind of bulldozer turn on in a deeply buried excavation.

Something knotted at the base of his stomach.

Now is not the time, a warning light displayed on the dashboard of his consciousness.

Get this shit into program self-destruct right away, another voice screamed.

Imminent threat of sentimentalism, the alarm siren wailed.

He stared at the young woman with a strange smile…

I think the protagonist, Toorop, is falling in love with the other main character, Marie. But I’m not really sure, because I gave up shortly thereafter.

Ah. The author’s name is Maurice Dantec. I have to wonder if something got lost in translation. I gather he’s big in France. This book has been made into a movie called Bablylon A.D. which I will studiously avoid.


Speaking of moving pictures, that brings us to Babylon 5, which I cannot dismiss so easily.

I’d never seen a single episode of Babylon 5, and knew nothing about it. But I was compelled to seek it out after a conversation with some friends.

It went like this: I had just watched the brief and aborted series Firefly, and opined that it was surely the greatest science fiction television series ever made. In truth, I thought this was a safe statement to make because the competition is so thin. But my friends were swift and unequivocal in their reaction: “No. The best science fiction television series ever made? Babylon 5. No question.” I harbored some delusion that Babylon 5 was a Star Trek spin-off, but apparently I had it confused with Deep Space 9.

So Xy and I embarked on a Netflix-fueled odyssey through the first three seasons of Babylon 5. The first episode of the first season was so very bad that we almost bailed then and there. But the reviews I read were in universal agreement: The series gets off to a rocky start but steadily improves, but you have to watch them all or you’ll be lost.

And indeed the reviews were right. The second season was much better than the first, and the third was better than the second. What’s more, it was fascinating to watch every aspect of the production improve: writing, acting, cinematography, set design, makeup, technical quality, CGI, everything.

And yet. Despite the constant improvement, I never felt the series reached the level of what I would call, for lack of a better word, “good.”

Oh, we relished some moments for the sheer camp value, like the occasional snippet of corny dialog, for example. It was a hoot spotting furniture from our living room in the show. The long story arcs were not without some intrigue. And certainly it seems like the most ambitious science fiction series I’ve ever seen.

But that’s not saying much, alas. I realize that while I enjoy reading science fiction, the genre just hasn’t done that well on television in my opinion.

The series did give me food for thought about the genre itself. Sometimes it felt more like Tolkienesque fantasy than science fiction. That brought me back to the old hoary question: What is science fiction anyway? If you take Hamlet but have everyone kill each other with ray guns at the end instead of swords, does that make it science fiction? Surely not. So just because you have a bunch of aliens zipping around in hyperspace, that doesn’t necessarily make it science fiction.

But I don’t have the wherewithal to develop that thesis. I’ll just note that while there was undoubtedly a huge amount of creativity that was poured into this project, I could never get past my objections to the basic premise. I just couldn’t swallow all those aliens running around on that space station.

And of course they had one of my pet peeves: faster-than-light travel through a mysterious hyperspace. One of my favorite over-the-top moments was when Sheridan decided to open a jump point inside a jump gate. This seemed like the product of a classic dorm and bong conversation. “What if we jumped to hyperspace when we were already in hyperspace?”

Can’t deny it was habit-forming. Easy to throw one of these episodes on in the evening while Xy’s doing her homework. We even watching the first half of season four before calling it quits.

I still think Firefly was better.

  1. I hated Firefly, and was always totally indifferent to Buffy the series. Well, not totally – certain celebrated episodes such as the musical episode impressed me.

    I haven’t ever really checked out b5, but like you have always heard it spoken of highly.

    I should note that I am a strongly Star Trek oriented sf TV fan, and that the original series, sexism, racism, imperialism, and stupidity acknowledged, is my favorite. I personally do identify a few Next Generation episodes as the actual high points of Trek, however, such as “Darmok” and “Inner Light” (wildly conventional consensus choices, FWIW).

    With all that said, today i would have to point you at the new Battlestar Galactica as the sine qua non of televised SF. I am quite serious when I assert that certain story arcs in the new BSG rival their classical and Shakespearean forebears. Give it a shot.

  2. I really like the newest Dr. Who show on the BBC, which can be easily Netflix’d (although it’s troubling that the Christmas specials do not seem to make it onto the normal Season X DVDs, yet they often hold some event which is significant to the plot). I was never a big fan of the old Dr. Who as it was too slow for me. I was familiar, having tried to watch it a number of times before, but it never really clicked.

    Anyway, so I think Dr. Who works. Not much of a fan of BSG after the first season where they seemed to have used up all their best tricks (IMHO). I did think that ST NextGen was neat in its exploration of different sci-fi and philosophical concepts, and I enjoyed watching it, but…yeah, it wasn’t ground breaking.

    As an aside, have you read “Fire upon the Deep” by vernor vinge? Really good stuff…

  3. Yes, “Fire on the Deep” rocks. Also check out “A Deepness in the Sky.” Vinge’s vision of galactic empire is just about the only one I’ve ever been able to buy. All the rest are but conceits of glamor.

  4. Bah! Humbug! I still love Babylon 5 and I’m not sorry I recommended it. In retrospect, I should have also pointed you towards The Lurker’s Guide to B5, which has analysis, notes inside jokes, and (crucial for me) makes fun of condradictory plot points. Very fun. I also own Firefly, and I love it, too, but I don’t know that you can claim that it’s free from corny dialogue, ridiculous or trite situations, etc. (With specific note to the cringe-worthy episode about the whores on a moon ranch.) If you take a Western, and move it to outer space, is it still a Western?

  5. Anne, for that matter I should note: I’m not sorry you recommended it either. I didn’t hate Babylon 5. I just found it didn’t rise to a certain level of excellence according to my personal aesthetics. But I am glad I watched it. And, yes, Firefly could be corny too. But corniness isn’t all bad; in fact that was B5’s most endearing trait.

    Cate, Battlestar Galactica is next up. David’s non-stop advocacy (I almost said badgering) has worn me down. Unfortunately I’ve had my fill of science fiction TV so it will have to be some kinda good.

  6. Re: your viewing of BSG, you’ve got to blanch your palate. Get all that B5 (and even Firefly) out of your mouth. If you’re sick of sci-fi TV, wait until you’re not.

  7. Oh no indeed, David. It’s on, and let the chips fall where they may!

    Actually I’m just kidding. I’ve already cleansed the palate, so to speak. I watched Blow-Up. That movie rocks.

  8. I also like BSG, but find that it sometimes falls shy of its full potential. Somewhere I have an essay I wrote to a fellow BSG fan about the huge, obvious similarities to Babylon 5– including near copies of B5 episodes. I’ll dig that up for you.

  9. I love B5, but I recognize it for what it is…grand space opera with more than a few references to it sources as varied as “Doc Smith”, Asimov & Trek. Still I thought it worked well with its source material. I wish you guys had stayed through to the end of season 4, at least for the thrill of it…since it did get messy during the last season. BSG is more political, has lots to say about war and what it does to people and at times is far more depressing, but in its own way very good. I think maybe since the format for TV is to sell to the most folks, the ideas behind a lot of SF is not going to go over very well on TV in any broad way. Having said that, I’m not sure nich networks such as SciFi channel have done that much for the genre either. Regardless, like Anne I’m also not ashamed that I recommended it to you. Try Farscape next if you get a chance…it has much more fun with the settings of SF if you will and might be more your cup of Tea.

  10. Hey, Anne, don’t send B any BSG spoilers. (The writers of BSG are masters of the unexpected.)

    BSG similar to B5?!! That’s like saying chocolate ice cream is similar to shit.

    My favorite B5 episode: when Jack the Ripper shows up to torture the seashell-headed woman.

  11. Ouch. David, I had blocked that one from my memory.

    BTW, if you put your e-mail address in the form and click the notify box you’ll get updates via e-mail when someone posts a new comment. That way you don’t have to check back to see if there are new comments, plus eventually I think my spam filter will be retrained to identify you as a non-spammer, and I won’t have to manually approve you every time. Your e-mail address is never exposed to the world or seen by anyone but me.

  12. The last person I talked with about Babylon 5 with told me to check out this author, Zecharia Sitchin, he wrote a book called the 12th planet. Have you read any of his work? I’m enjoying it as sci-fi, but I think it might have been written as a historical/scientific account of alien gods inhabiting Earth, and creating man in his image. The rib from Adam was a real operation leading to cloning, and the immaculate conception caused by some aliens with sperm filled turkey basters…

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