Thursday, November 9, 2017

Babylon 5 and Battlestar Galactica

It's the Bs today! There is nothing else in common between these two shows. Babylon 5 is a pretty interesting series that is, as much as a tv series can be, a project of a single individual, J. Michael Straczynski, who is the creator, producer, developer and writer for the whole series. There are a number of things that distinguish this science fiction series from most others. For one thing, the lead character does not get to meet a sexy alien in most episodes and in fact, there are no sexy aliens. There are episodes that deal with high treason and treachery, labor disputes, ancient alien races, time displacement, and interstellar diplomacy. What drives the show are the very interesting characters such as the two opposing alien ambassadors, G'Kar for the Narn:

And Londo Mollari for the Centauri:

I think what impresses me most about the series are the unusual little incidents such as the one where the Vorlon ambassador insists that Captain John Sheridan, the military governor of Babylon 5, visit a particular compartment deep inside the station (Blogger won't embed):

Can you think of any other television show that would have a segment like that? Another one is when the two ambassadors pictured above, bitter enemies, are trapped in an elevator after an explosion:

One of the most hilarious scenes ever--superbly acted by Andreas Katsulas. Or Londo and his assistant Vir, singing opera:

There are some awkward scenes as well and the special effects look dated, but the show is really about the characters. There are some good satires on government and media as well. There are a lot of very likable characters, something that is not so common these days. I can think of a number of tv shows that have virtually no likable characters!

Battlestar Galactica is quite a different kettle of fish. The special effects are really well done and have the feel of gritty plausibility. As a once-resident of the area, I like picking out locations that are obviously Vancouver and environs. Amazing how many alien planets look just like a temperate West Coast forest! When this series began I was hugely impressed. It got a lot of initial energy feeding off the shock of the 9/11 attack--the series begins with a miniseries in 2003 that evokes the shock of civilizational destruction. Some of the best features were the sympathetic depiction of military characters and the tension between a civilian administration and the military.

There are some great characters in this series as well. Commander, later Admiral, Adama played by Edward James Olmos is a rare kind of character, exemplifying non-toxic masculinity and authority. Starbuck, played by Katee Sackhoff, is another strong character with a streak of rebelliousness. The theme of the robots of humanity's creation returning as twelve different models in multiple copies that look just like people is a brilliant solution to the problem of making villains that are interesting. There are a lot of excellent episodes featuring the ongoing war with the Cylons, internal treachery, defeat and recovery, the search for Earth and so on. There are some deeply touching episodes, such as when Kat sacrifices herself to ensure the safe passage of civilian ships through a radiation zone. And Lee Adama's defence of Gaius Baltar in his trial for treason. For me the climax of the series came with the finale of season three when four members of the crew are revealed as Cylons. This was brilliantly done through the skillful use of music. For the last few episodes of the season, these four characters keep hearing tiny melody fragments (that no-one else hears) and occasionally quote a few words. The viewer is perplexed for quite a while but finally these fragments coalesce into a song: "All Along the Watchtower" by Bob Dylan! This works very well with anyone who has this song deeply lodged in their brain--suddenly you recognize it and that perfectly parallels the self-realization of the four characters. Battlestar Galactica has the very best music of any science fiction series, written by Bear McCreary. Here is a clip of that season finale:

Sadly, after this, for me at least, the show went completely off the rails. I'm not sure what happened, but the fundamental bases of the series and the fundamental narrative structure just seemed to evaporate as if the writers no longer had a clue about where they were going. This seems to be a recurrent problem with a lot of series: there is a great pilot, but each subsequent season after the first one just gets less and less interesting. Instead of the narrative developing it just dribbles off into irrelevancy and then, inevitably, the series "jumps the shark." The one creator/producer who seemed to be able to do the opposite was Joss Whedon. In Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel he made each season an improvement and development of the previous ones. The characters gain depth and weight and grow in interesting ways. The series that seemed to have enormous possibilities for development was Firefly, but it was canceled in the middle of the first season! In my next post I will take up Firefly and then move on to my favorite series, which I am sure will take you all by surprise!


Steven Watson said...

Ah, the elevator scene! I think the entire show relies on the strength of those two characters. The other characters are too perfect or too serious. Londo and G’kar are always believably ambiguous. (Now, if only the costumes were a bit more believable -- Londo looks like Gorbachev had he led an underground 1980s electronica act instead of the Soviet Union.)

I am most curious about your favourite series. Is it also sci-fi? You don’t say so explicitly.

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh yes, those Centauri costumes!

What do you think of Battlestar Galactica? Or did you watch it?

Yes, the category is science fiction, so my favorite series is just that...

Will Wilkin said...

I'm surprised you say Battlestar Galactica began in 2003 because I watched it in either the late 1970s or early 1980s. My parents still had a black and white TV but probably the show was in color. I loved it!

Bryan Townsend said...

Heh, heh, heh! Yes, the original series was in 1974 and I know because I was in Spain and didn't see it but a friend told me about it. This is a re-launch of the original series.

Will, I owe you an apology. You sent me a call for papers in London for which the deadline was in late October. I'm sorry to say that I had the intention of at least doing an abstract, but I just got too busy. Also, on further consideration, going all the way to London to deliver a paper limited to 20 minutes seemed not quite worth the effort and expense. I'm saving up for Salzburg. But I appreciate you sending me the call for papers. Maybe next time?

Will Wilkin said...

Haha! Bryan, judging by the articles at the Musicology Now website, the "progressive" musicology now in vogue leads to a devaluing of "classical" music (ie, traditional western art music) and using political considerations where once aesthetics were paramount. Your voice would have been an articulate answer to that misguided trend, but of course that would cost you a lot of time and money and the result might be slight in the larger context of academic trends today. I hold hope for a few things getting better, mostly these hopes are pinned on my playing the Powerball and MegaMillions lotteries, either win will result in my offering you a commission to write and deliver a paper at such a conference, if you can find the time between the other commissions I will offer you for you to write me some duet violin music to be played with my guitarist brother. Another drawing tonight....just after I get out of the opera.

Bryan Townsend said...

I am eagerly awaiting, with bated breath, the results of those lotteries!

The new piece for violin and guitar is coming along, in fits and starts.

Steven Watson said...

I did watch BSG, and consider it one of my favourite series. Though that only applies for the first two series. Even season 3 I found a bit annoying -- the 9/11 comparison became too pointed.

Off topic, but as you and Will are discussing your compositions... Have you ever written anything for solo guitar for which the score is available? As a guitarist I would naturally be very interested to have look and, indeed, have a go.

Bryan Townsend said...

Steven, I have two suites for solo guitar that I think are not too bad. I'm working on a larger piece, but have set it aside temporarily to work on my new piece for violin and guitar. I would be very happy to send you pdfs of the two suites if you give me an email address. I have done a recording of the first suite and posted the clips, but the second suite remains unrecorded.

Steven Watson said...

That would be wonderful -- my email is It's quite exciting: very seldom do I find *new* music to play. And I definitely liked what I heard.