2021 Babylon 5

b5I’ve already written regards this blog next year looking back as much as reviewing/commenting on ‘new’ films and television. Oddly, recent news from various quarters seems to have reinforced that, with a strange sense of synchronicity. Two of my favourite anime, the wonderful Satoshi Kon film Millennium Actress and the tv series Planetes, are being released early next year by All the Anime,  Millennium Actress on 4K UHD and Planetes on Blu-ray, each firsts for the UK.  I’m really enthused regards revisiting them, and shall hopefully be able to write about how wonderful they still are having not seen them for years: one of my fears of revisiting old favourites next year is in discovering they aren’t as great as I used to think they were, but you know, sometimes things just look even better in hindsight, so the opposite might be just as true.

Added to those anime returning is recent news regards my old favourite tv show,  J. Michael Straczynski’s Babylon 5 coming to Blu-ray next Spring in remastered form. Well, I say remastered, there are caveats to that, but all the same, this is frankly wonderful news. I’ve read that a new remaster of the show is now available on Apple iTunes and is apparently being set for a disc release on Blu-ray in the Spring. The show has returned back to its original transmitted 4:3 format in order to preserve some level of quality to the aged CGI visual effects shots and allow a remaster of the on-set material, essentially upscaling the show as was done with reasonable success with Farscape a few years back. While B5 was forward-thinking enough to be consciously shot ‘protected’ for widescreen, and was released as such on DVD several years back, unfortunately this was undermined by the original VFX hard-drives being lost long ago, which meant that any scenes involving VFX had to be zoomed-in from 4:3 to 16:9, just making the already dated CGI look even worse. The only way of truly remastering the show properly would be recreating all the VFX shots from scratch in 16:9 and editing them into the 16:9 live-action material, at what is apparently a far too prohibitive cost for Warner Brothers to countenance. Its frustrating, but its just how things are, so this new endeavour of remastering the show in its original 4:3 format is the best we will ever get.

As for the show itself, well, one has to remember how old B5 is now, and all the many great genre shows that came after it. I recently watched a YouTube video of the Babylon 5 cast then-and-now and it was really scary seeing just how many years have passed (and how many of the cast have been lost to us over the years), but it did have me feeling very nostalgic and swaying towards a re-watch of the show, so this remaster news is rather timely.  I think something that will help B5 stand apart is the fact that it was always distinctly old-fashioned space opera, rather than space fantasy or hard sci-fi; very much the kind of stuff one could read in the 1950s and 1960s. Hopefully the charm of that will help forgive some of its failings, and for myself I’m really curious having not seen it in years (I never really got through all those DVD boxsets, it just looked so poor). And hey, its a triple-dip! I had the show on (really expensive, all told, looking back on it) VHS tapes where they released them two episodes at a time, or something like that, and yes, bought those DVD sets. Maybe the third time will be the charm. Yes its a real pity nobody at Warners (or some millionaire fan) thought it worthy of investing in redoing those effects and bringing the show up to modern standards, but at the very least this preserves the old, authentic experience of the original transmissions back in the day. I just hope that news of Blu-ray releases holds true (apparently place-holders have been spotted with European vendors, and it makes sense for a disc release while physical is still worth something). I look forward to someday next Spring  sitting down with a strong coffee steaming from my Babylon 5 mug while I revisit that dangerous place, our last, best hope for peace… 

“You fart HELIUM?!”- Farscape 1.1: Premiere

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TV pilots are difficult- they have to introduce characters, settings, arcs and set up what a series is. The pressure is instantly on to ‘sell’ the show to the audience, hoping most of that audience will come back to the second episode. Its one thing to do this with a real-world show, but a genre show set in a totally alien environment has its work cut out for it. Think for a moment about something like Star Trek: The Next Generation, in which we knew what Star Trek was, the Federation, Klingons etc- so much groundwork was already done, yet it can be argued even that show struggled for its first year or two to establish itself. Shows like Babylon 5 and Farscape had even greater problems, in that they were not Star Trek, or Star Wars, but something else, and that was rather a problem back then in particular. They had whole new premises to establish, and Farscape would, after its first ten minutes, lose any safety-net of Earth or humans even. Once John Crichton falls through the wormhole and arrives on the other side of the galaxy, its all alien and strange from here on. Alice is in Wonderland, so to speak, only this Wonderland is full of wild and deadly danger from the first moment.

So if Farscape struggles its only natural. Indeed the story it tries to tell in the pilot ‘Premiere’ and all the background facts/histories it throws at the audience, is simply too much for a standard 50-minute episode. It really needed to be a 90-minute tv-movie; I wonder if that option was considered and if so, why it wasn’t taken. However, it would seem the lesson was indeed heeded, as the show would often have two-parters and three-parters later on in order to give larger stories the room to breathe. Farscape was always a bit demanding, frenetic and busy but this pilot is just too hectic for its own good; it sets up Crais losing his brother and his drive to avenge him by chasing down Crichton, who Crais feels is responsible- but we never ‘see’ the brother or establish his relationship with Crais. It’s as if when Crichton arrives through the wormhole we are already forty minutes into a tv movie and we’ve missed all the setting-up. Its sort of a future pattern for the show; very often we start an episode with the nagging feeling we’ve missed the first ten minutes already. Its part of what makes Farscape so fun and so special, the show always saying hold on to your hats, you’re in for a ride, so pay attention and play catch-up as we go long. Its great for genre fans familiar with some of the sci-fi stuff but rather disconcerting for many viewers I’m sure, and indeed fans coming off the comparatively safe and familiar Star Trek.

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Of course, rewatching Farscape as I am, I have the benefit of knowing the characters and where the show is going to take them. In this first episode, its inevitable that some of the performances are a little awkward and some things work better than others. Already the great one-liners and comic undertone is working, and Ben Browder is clearly a charismatic actor and a sympathetic hero. There is an instant chemistry between him and Claudia Black, which will turn out to be the bedrock of the entire series. The creature effects already hint at the show being something special and the cgi (still somewhat novel at the time) have a sense of scale remarkable for television back then.

Overall it is very effective but one already can see how the shows strangeness might alienate initial viewers; it feels written for genre fans/geeks first and Joe Public second. How many of the latter would give the show a second try after this first episode, I wonder? Alas that seems the perennial problem for genres shows like this, but its surprising looking back just how full-on Farscape was from the start, and it can be argued it wasn’t even ‘proper’ Farscape until it reached episode fifteen, after which, frankly, all bets are off and you realise that Anything Goes. Its one of the great things about the show but it would also haunt it always, right up to its criminal cancellation after season four, but that’s 87 more episodes away, thank goodness…

Farscape (1999-2003)

farscapeI well remember the profound sense of loss, anger and injustice I felt when Farscape got cancelled after its fourth season. There is something rather intense about how attached you can get to a tv show, and its characters, over the course of the many episodes and years it is on air. Particularly a show as well-written and challenging as Farscape was.  It was never going to get the audience figures it needed to thrive- it was on the verge of cancellation for some time. But I loved that show.

Farscape was unusual, odd. It was like nothing else on television, more Star Wars than Star Trek, but even Star Wars never pulled things like Farscape did. It was wild, action-packed, funny, shocking, huge. Once the series hit its stride mid-first season, I was hooked. It was a great show, full of surprises, mysteries, odd turns… it was wonderful. Seasons three and four were nothing short of spectacular, and I don’t think television has seen anything quite like that since.  But it was very complex, and every season suffered with the problem of trying to get new viewers in mid-arc in order to keep the network happy. Indeed, I’ll be the first to admit that the very things that fans cherished likely led to its demise. It was just a bit too complex, too wild, too different.

But when the Sci-Fi channel finally pulled the plug it was still a shock.  Farscape had a five-year arc and its cancellation prior to season five robbed its fans, its cast and its crew of the resolution the show, and they, deserved, especially having managed to tell 80% of its tale with the last chapter to tell.  I honestly, fervently believe that it was the worst network decision since the original Star Trek tv series was cancelled.  It was a reminder of how cruel and sometimes short-sighted the entertainment business can be. One more season. Maybe just a half-season. After telling a story for four years and taking up all that time and effort of the fanbase watching it, small that those audience figures may have been, surely the network at least owed something back to that audience? And surely the franchise had more legs and viability in syndication had it got a proper conclusion? Who wants to start watching a show in re-runs if they know it never gets a proper conclusion? I couldn’t figure it out. I even joined in the campaign to bring it back and sent emails to the Sci-Fi network in the US.

These things happen, of course- look at shows like Dark Angel, Dollhouse, Firefly… there are so many shows that get cancelled. Some shows deserve it, some shows deserved more. There have been a few times when I’ve been hesitant to even start watching a tv show for fear of it being cut short. I guess I’ve been lucky enough in the past- Babylon 5 got five seasons to finish its arc (albeit the doubt over season five kind of damaged what it could have been), and the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica managed to find Earth and complete its own remarkable story. Both series got their grand finale, but Farscape was the one that deserved it but never got it. An eventual mini-series/tv movie hybrid sort of summed up what should have been season five in something like three hours, but it wasn’t really what should have been It was something, and we fans, God knows, were thankful for that, but it wasn’t quite the real deal.

I have all the four seasons on DVD- they are up in the loft. Bought back when full-season boxsets were unknown and you had to buy individual DVDs as they were released, three or four episodes at a time (God knows how much they cost me overall), so the DVDs take up some considerable real estate. Of course, it makes it that much more difficult regards actually getting to watch them when you have to climb up into the loft and dig them out of storage boxes. So anyway, I noticed a sale at Zavvi on Sunday, with the complete series on Blu-ray for just £32.99. That’s an absolute bargain if only for space-saving, with the bonus of many extras/commentaries that my initial DVDs didn’t have. So when I do finally get back up the loft the redundant DVDs can finally be given away to whatever needy cause wants them, and in the meantime I have the complete series in one handy box. Frell, yeah!

So I can finally watch the show again, after all these years. It should be interesting. How far I actually get, or how long it will actually take, only time will tell. But I’m looking forward to it. May try to put short reviews here too if I can get to it. And if anybody out there has never heard of Farscape or have heard of it but not seen it, well, if you are willing to embark on a wild and crazy challenging ride in a universe that makes the Cantina scene in Star Wars seem tame, well, I’d urge you to give it a go. It might piss you off. But you might just fall in love with it. Believe me, if you fall in love with it, you’ll be in for a very special experience.

And who knows, there may be more to Farscape yet. Rumours are going around regards a reboot/continuation, set years after the last episode.  Its a strange world, after all, and if its a world with more Farscape coming, then its getting only stranger.

Television > Movies?

bsg7 bsg5American Horror Story. Dexter. The Shield. The Wire. BSG. Boardwalk Empire. Game of Thrones. Mad Men. That’s hardly the start of it. There is a long list of television shows now that are the equal, if not indeed actually superior to, what we see in the cinema.

Back when I was a lad – well, not even anything like that long ago actually- there was a clear difference in quality between television and movies- even ‘big’ shows like the original Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, tv shows created on the back of the post-Star Wars sci-fi boom, were clearly of inferior quality compared to their Big Screen counterparts. There were obvious limitations in budgets and time-constraints that meant that what was on viewers television screens was markedly different to what was on the silver screen. But it went beyond just production values. You’d very rarely, if ever, find an established movie-actor appearing on television, whether it be tv series or a tv-movie. It would seem to be a ‘step-down’. Likewise movie directors wouldn’t work on television projects. If anything, directors would start in television to get experience and work their way up to motion-pictures, seeing the latter as the Big Time and never to return to their humble origins.

bsg4 bsg6Things have changed though. Television is still home to plenty of sub-standard product but some of its quality shows are easily superior to most motion pictures. Actors see better roles for themselves on television than what is available on the silver screen- dramatic, challenging roles with real merit. Even film directors have become used to using their skills on television projects. Mostly this is due to premium cable networks like HBO but even on other, lesser cable channels, or terrestrial networks such as the BBC here in the UK, there is not the old natural perception that ‘made for tv’ means any less quality than a full-blown motion picture, whether home-grown or from Hollywood.

I have just finished watching Hannibal, a prime-time show from the NBC network in the USA. Rarity it may be for that network, it was nevertheless one of the best shows I have ever seen, easily equal to the quality we’d tend to expect from premium sources such as HBO. I’ve never been a huge fan of the various Hannibal-based movies but this 13-part series was easily equal to them. The writing, acting and direction… the location-shooting and the intense soundscape of the music score… it is a remarkable piece of work. Here in the UK it was shown on the SkyLiving channel, aired via cable and satellite networks, so no doubt failed to set ratings-figures alight or gain much attention from tv critics more focused on popular soaps or primetime shows. I only hope its DVD/Blu-ray release will widen its reach, or that I can talk people into giving it a go and perhaps tuning in to the second season next year, because this was really something special. The makers have a five or six-year plan for the series and I’d love to see it manage that.

bsg1 bsg2I recorded Hannibal on my Tivo box, letting the Tivo collect all the episodes each week over the past few months before finally watching them over the past week or two as the showing of the series finale neared. I guess in a way it was like watching it as a DVD boxset, watching it every night or so, and sometimes watching two episodes in a night if time allowed. That way was ideal for following the plot and picking up on clues as the storyline progressed as opposed to waiting for a new episode each week. And of course I was able to skip through the irritating ad breaks. I guess tv chiefs hate people doing this, but it does raise the issue of how people access television content now.  If I had watched the first two or three episodes and decided it wasn’t for me, I’d have stopped and deleted the series from the Tivo, but instead I found it was really excellent and devoured it inside a fortnight, never being subjected to a commercial break.

Many of these series have long complex story-arcs, almost like long novels. Seasons may be self-contained very often character-arcs span multiple seasons and events in, say, season 5 might refer back to events of an episode in season 2. They encourage viewers to pay attention and reward that attention, A two or three-hour movie cannot even approach that level of complexity or sense of reward to the viewer.

I know there were television shows that did it before (particularly here in the UK), but I often think that the tv show Babylon 5 was the first real attempt at this kind of programming. Most tv shows prior to that, particularly network shows, had an established model of individual episodes that pressed a magical ‘reset’ button at their conclusion. That way audiences could miss the odd episode but drop in easily. Shows like Star Trek, The A-Team… pretty much any show, they were all the same. Series creator J. Michael Straczynski had a plan for Babylon 5 from the very start, a five-year arc with a definitive beginning, middle and end, essentially a novel for television in the genre of space-opera, and it pretty much succeeded. It wasn’t perfect and has been bettered since, but it proved to be the model for future genre shows like Farscape, Battlestar Galactica and so many others, right up to current series like Defiance and Falling Skies.

I remember being absolutely blown away by Babylon 5. I’d see things in series one that were brought up in series three or four, or something a character would do or say in series five that dated back to something that happened to them in series two. There hadn’t been anything quite like that before. I would re-watch shows to pick up on something I may have missed, and, Lord knows, I couldn’t miss an episode. I remember at the end of each season the agonising wait to hear if the show would get renewed for another (Babylon 5 was always a borderline success and its fans were always subjected to a real-world renewal cliffhanger equal to any of the shows in-series cliffhangers). The series may have faltered toward the end (the storyline proper had pretty much been condensed to the end of season four due to poor ratings) but the emotional pay-off of the final scenes of the last episode of season five was like nothing I had experienced before. I loved that show.

bsg8bsg10Nowadays most shows seem to follow the Babylon 5 model. They can be victims of it, of course, as once the show is established, it can find it impossible to increase audience ratings. That happened to Farscape and it suffered a painful cancellation, but even its fans have to admit there was little chance of new viewers to, say, season three, having the slightest chance of figuring out what was going on. That’s the real challenge of episodic television like this, how to maintain or even increase viewer ratings with entry-points and the like while maintaining multi-season arcs. I guess DVD boxsets help with this. I missed the initial showings of Dexter, for instance, but I saw the first series one and two on DVD boxset and then followed it from season three onwards on-air, so the shows likely manage to increase viewers through things like that. Of course it also might actually reduce viewing figures, as a lot of people just wait for the boxset anyway, which can prove dangerous to the longevity of the show.

So anyway, this seems a long way of stating the fact that I find many television shows better than what is shown in cinemas now. Its gotten to the point that I watch fewer movies now, and more tv shows, and find the latter more rewarding. Thirty, twenty years ago that would not be the case. But show me any recent social-commentary movie equal to The Wire. Any science-fiction movie of the past ten years equal to the Battlestar Galactica reboot. Anything as endlessly fascinating as Mad Men. Movies have become huge bubblegum entertainment blockbusters, hugely popular, yes, but hardly satisfying in the way so many tv shows are now.  Which is another way of saying I am more inclined to be excited about an upcoming tv series than I am any movie. For all the blockbusters coming to the cinema this year or next, I am more hyped for the return of Da Vinci’s Demons or American Horror Story or Mad Men or, indeed,  Hannibal.  And it seems my Blu-ray shelf is stocked as much by tv box-sets (and I am more inclined to watch and rewatch them) as it is by movies. Unfortunately of course, all these boxsets and series are more time-consuming, which is likely the one negative about them.

But anyway, if you didn’t catch Hannibal on-air, do give the upcoming box-set a go. You won’t regret it- except that you’ll be in for an agonising wait for season two!