I think everyone has a special show.
I say “show” as in a TV show, but really, it can be a single book or a trilogy or an entire series, a movie, a comic, anything that tells a story. Everyone has a story that is very precious to them, characters that are near and dear to their heart, a tale that takes their breath away. Over the years, I’ve had several stories that affected me deeply, stories that I come back to every year that remain fresh and new and alive, no matter how many times I’ve read or watched them.
For my Dad, that would be the old cartoon series Rocky and Bullwinkle. For me…well, I’ve had a few, most notably the original Star Wars trilogy, Joss Whedon’s sci-fi TV show Firefly, the wonderful blend of the best of American and Japanese animation that is Avatar: The Last Airbender, every Toy Story movie, the anime series Yu Yu Hakusho, The Coldfire Trilogy by C.S. Friedman, The Bard’s Tale: Castle of Deception by Mercedes Lackey and Josepha Sherman, and, oddly enough, Elvenborn, the third book in The Halfblood Chronicles by Andre Norton and Mercedes Lackey.
For some of them, it makes sense why I love them and return to them so much. Star Wars is a classic I saw when I was very young that made a huge impact on me and it changed the movie-making scene forever, from storytelling to special effects. Firefly, Avatar, and Yu Yu Hakusho are brilliant all around with wonderful characters and plots that feel so very real and address very real problems that people have to deal with, whether they are dealing with double-crossers in space, running from angry Firebenders, or fighting demons in an arena. The two cartoons are wonders of animation as well, beautiful to look at with no filler, static shots to supplement action, or reusing old shots because the animators got lazy or the budget was cut. The wonders of Toy Story are far better articulated by my onii-san David Greenshell, so suffice to say that Toy Story was made for my generation, the ones who literally grew up with the films, and yet the course of the story is almost a rite of passage that all of us must go through as we grow up. The Coldfire Trilogy makes me think about a lot of things: the nature of evil, religion, and morality, the shades of grey that life throws at you, the power of faith and fear, and the awesome power of and limitations imposed by nature.
It’s a little less clear why Castle of Deception and Elvenborn call to me in a similar manner. Granted, they were both co-authored by my favorite author…but I don’t think that’s the whole reason. (She’s co-authored a lot of books.) Elvenborn is not spectacularly better written or better plotted than the first two books of the series, but it’s also the only book (currently) in the series with Kyrtian in it. Kyrtian is a young Elvenlord who is very provincial and treats his people, human and elf, very well, unlike most other Elvenlords. He spends his days staging mock battles with his human troops and trying to stay under the other Elves’ radar. But then he is thrust into Elven politics and given a role he never asked for or wanted that puts him under even greater scrutiny than before. Something about Kyrtian’s political naiveté and sense of honor and obligation really appeal to me. He’s just fascinating, and I don’t really know why. It’s similar with Castle of Deception. It’s not a fantastic book. Basically a typical motley group of Dungeons and Dragons-like characters get together to go on a quest to save a kidnapped princess, who wasn’t really kidnapped, but is actually an evil sorceress bent on taking over the kingdom. I can point to plenty of others with more drama and believability and probably rounder, more exciting characters. But there’s a simple and straightforward charm to the book and its characters that gets tangled up in my heartstrings and I can’t let it go. Both of these slightly-less-than-stellar books get me immersed in their pages at least once a year, sometimes more.
All of these books and movies and TV shows have special meaning for me. But I don’t think any of them have touched me the way I was touched by Babylon 5.
Babylon 5 was one of the first, if not the first, sci-fi television show to use computer graphics for backgrounds and external shots of the space station. It is five seasons long with 22 episodes per season which covers a period of about a year each season. There are also five movies, a 13-episode spin-off series called Crusade, and roughly 15 novels based on various outlines and episode ideas originating from J. Michael Straczynski, the creator, producer, and writer of Babylon 5. The computer graphics are a little clunky and video-game-ish but still neat, although as the series progresses, the interior sets get more elaborate (since they had more money to work with); and the costumes and alien make-up are first-rate. And, for you music lovers, almost every episode is individually scored, which is unusual for a TV show. Visually, some parts are more impressive than others, but nothing hugely spectacular.
What got me were the characters and the plot. There is no filler, or at least, none that leapt out at me dressed as a hip-gyrating zombie and screamed “FILLER!” (which is what many shows tend to do.) The pacing and momentum of the story is phenomenal, always moving forward to give the right amount of urgency or rest without being confusing or boring for the audience. Each episode has at least two, sometimes three or four story lines going on at the same time, but they are never confusing, pointless, or unrewarding. The little ones are tied up neatly at the end of the episode and the longer ones that have been introduced run their logical course through several more episodes or possibly throughout the whole season or series itself. Nothing feels tacked on or wasted, and even the (very few) plot points that are unresolved at the end of the series gave me a deep sense of satisfaction because enough is hinted at that you get the idea of the direction without being explicitly told or shown. (Now, that doesn’t mean that I don’t want to find out for sure, but I’m not foaming at the mouth yelling, “You did WHAT?! But what about THIS?! What happened to THEM?! ARGH!) I think only Yu Yu Hakusho and Avatar: The Last Airbender have given me a similar sense of conclusion and satisfaction at the end of a long TV series.
I think that part of the reason why Babylon 5 is so well-written and tightly contained is because J. Michael Straczynski wanted it to be “a novel for television” and he planned out the whole thing in detail. The entire series has a definite beginning, middle, and end which each season being a section of the dramatic plot structure. Season 1 is the Introduction, the establishment of the norm and, at the very end, the upsetting of normality. Season 2 is the Rising Action. Season 3 is the Climax. Season 4 is the Falling Action. Season 5 is the Denouement, the wrapping up of the plot threads, reestablishment of normality, and “the breaking of the fellowship.” (Do not for a second think that, simply because they are considered the Falling Action and Denouement, Seasons 4 and 5 are boring. They are not. Even in the second-to-last episode there is one more slice of surprise and danger.) I was never bored and highly amused by the sense of humor evident throughout the series.
But I think that, even more than the well-crafted story, the characters were what hooked on Babylon 5. They’re real. I can see facets of myself in each of them, experiences that I or people I know or heard of have been through. Their struggles, actions, choices, and reactions are so genuine and I loved them all. I don’t think I’ve ever watched a series and said, “No! Don’t do it, don’t make that choice!” so many times, and yet watched with fascination to see what would happen as a result of the choice I saw them making. Nothing is quite what it seems and the villains are far from card-board cutouts, even if a few of them at first appear that way. Point of view and the fact that there are multiple sides to any story are very key themes in this series. Honor, responsibility, reliability, friendship, compassion, revenge…all of these and more are wrapped up inside Babylon 5. I personally think that the fall and redemption of Londo Mollari is one of the most heart-wrenching stories I have ever seen unfold. I’m starting to cry just thinking about it. (I’m not going to say any more about the characters for fear of giving something away. I refuse to spoil the wonder of this series.)
Because of identifying so strongly with these characters and becoming so invested in their stories, Babylon 5 put me through an emotional wringer. I started sniffling at the third-to-last episode and sobbed through the entire last episode. But it wasn’t really sad crying because I don’t think I felt sad and it wasn’t because I was dissatisfied or unhappy with the ending. Yet, nor was it simply because it was the end of a show I loved, although that was part of it. I was just…so emotionally involved and invested in the lives of these characters that a teary outbreak was required. I did something similar after an epic marathon of all three Toy Story films, but with one crucial difference: at the end of Toy Story 3, I cried more for myself because I had gone through what Andy went through. At the end of Babylon 5, I cried for them. I cried for those who had died and those who had survived. I cried for all the pain and fear and heartbreak and wonder and joy and beauty that they had been through. Because their struggle and pain felt more real to me than anything else I have ever experienced.
We each have stories we identify with, stories that make us laugh and cry and think. We come back to these stories and the people that inhabit them again and again for comfort, wisdom, and inspiration. If you have not found a story that does this, I hope you find one of your own. Everyone should have such a tale to carry with them into the long night. Babylon 5 is mine. It made me laugh and cry and think, and I treasure every second I spent in that glorious company, in that special place. There will never…be another.