Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Babylon 5: Jews In Space

I’ve been watching the first season of Babylon 5 and just finished the first season. I wanted to point out some of the highlights of the episodes I’ve been watching. In the episode titled, TKO, that originally aired on May 25, 1994, Ivanova has to face the admonition of her Rabbi-Uncle who travels all the way from Earth to B5 (which is supposedly a very expensive trip) to assist her in sitting Shiva for her dead father. First off, it was heartening to know that hundreds of years into the future people will wear retro-eighties stylings but rabbis will still don the cloth of the early Twentieth Century. Rabbi Koslov could have showed up in a Saturday Night Live (SNL) episode where the Rabbi comes to minister to Jim Kirk in a Star Trek TOS spoof. I mean the guy comes off the shuttle with nothing but his Torah, his black hat and his Russian-Jewish accent. At first glance I began to wonder, “Did B5 actually just ‘jump the shark’?”

It gets better. Not only does Ivanova have to fend the good intentions of Rabbi Koslov but Garibaldi’s friend Walker Smith comes to B5 in order to try out for the part in Karate Kid Part XXIII. Or was it Bloodsport Part XXXX? By the time I hear that it was the dawn of the Third Age of Mankind I’m convinced of it.

Walker Smith isn’t really on B5 to try out for the Ralph Macchio convention; he’s there to enter into the highly suspect title of Mutari Master. This is the most ridiculous excuse for a contest that a human can’t enter since Anakin Skywalker raced his pod racer. I always try to give a writer credit when they have to invent a contest that “no human in the entire universe can ever compete.” We really don’t have any idea what that could be since everything we can think of to put on film would probably be a human based event. That being said, these guys have to come up with something a little better than an overblown drag race (pod racing!) or a no hold barred fighting event that looks more staged than “Professional” Wrestling. Currently, UFC has bloodier battles. I mean Walker Smith could have kicked that guy’s butt with his eyes closed. Wouldn’t a little more of a threatening figure or someone who actually knew how to fight martial arts (like say Darth Maul character?) been a better choice. That guy looked like a reject from MST3K! The storyline didn’t jibe for me, especially the whole abbreviated mentor relationship between Walker and the creepy alien.

Back to the Jewish angle: At first, that didn’t ring true for me either. The Rabbi seemed a little stereotypical for me, especially in a science fiction show. Then it grew on me. The thing that struck me most was how the writer’s made Ivanova so human by bringing her religious background in direct conflict with her personal feelings for her father. We learned a lot about her from this episode. Her conflict, her motivation and her basis for her strength of character. Being Jewish myself I did have an emotional attachment to Susan Ivonava for her religious struggle. There is something grounding about going to a service at Temple and timeless about being part of a ceremony that spans ages. It produced a good juxtaposition to see this Rabbi representing one of the oldest popularly practiced religions in space to help the second in command of Earth’s premier Space Station to sit Shiva for her estranged, dead father.

One of the things I appreciate about good science fiction is when they introduce a little authenticity into it. What I mean by that is the characters, setting and culture have basis in “our” world. While most SciFi or Fantasy takes place in alternate realities or made up universes there is something to be said about grounding the viewer or reader. Orson Scott Card does this in his fiction by drawing on cultural bits that we are familiar with and down paying the bang, whiz aspect of technology. Lord of the Rings, both the books and the movies, do this by depicting a gritty realism to the story and characters. LOTR looks and feels like history instead of fantasy. Star Wars did it with the “used universe” concept, which was a little lost in the prequels.

I make fun of the cheap effects and costuming in B5 but what it does it does very well, apparent even from this first season. The characters are solid and believable even if the stories are uneven. The one thing that works overall in B5 despite being just north of cheesy is that the characters are very strong. JMS did an exceptional job of fleshing out his characters’ backgrounds and motivations. They seem very human, even the aliens. So far this is the strength of the show, characterization and conflict.

That being said, I have been told that it gets better and I am one for giving a show a chance even through the rough patches. Season Two is on its way via Netflix and I will be waiting anxiously to return for a second dose.



The Phoenix said...

Sounds kinda goofy to me. I love sci-fi, but whacky sci-fi has to be REALLY good (i.e. Hitchhicker's). Otherwise, it looks a little ridiculous.

ObilonKenobi said...

Yes. It's not intentionally goofy though. It's one of those shows you have to stick with through the corny stuff.

CrapholeIsland said...

Thanks for the update, glad to hear you're enjoying it. Looking forward to hear your thoughts on season two.

The Phoenix said...

"Jews in Space." I think you could write a screenplay for that, Lon.

ObilonKenobi said...

I would love to. If Mel Brooks would let me... As a matter of fact, it would make a great short story.