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Babylon 5.1
by Rick Norwood

SF on TV
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Ratings are based on a four star system.
One star means that the commercials are more entertaining than the program.
Two stars watch if you have nothing better to do.
Three stars is good solid entertainment.
Four stars means you never dreamed television could be this good.

Babylon 5: The Legend of the Rangers As I write this, there is less that a week before Babylon 5: The Legend of the Rangers airs, on January 19, on the Sci-Fi channel. If enough people watch, it means a new series written by J. Michael Straczynski, a sequel to Babylon 5.

I hope The Legends of the Rangers is good. I want to be thrilled by it. Because right now, for the first time in more than ten years, there is no SF on television that really interests me. That is, there is no SF on television that contains new ideas, such as the idea that diversity should be cherished, that the survival of a race may depend on using logic to control emotion, that even the most likable superman cannot control his own passions, that a peaceful race may need to appear dangerous in a dangerous universe -- to toss out just a few of the ideas in the first season of the original Star Trek, the series that brought idea-centred SF out of the pages of John W. Campbell's Astounding Science Fiction and presented it for the first time to a mass television audience.

Much as I love Star Wars, and I do love Star Wars, it is essentially idea free: good battles evil. Good wins. Industrial-strength Light and Magic is a perfectly acceptable genre for the movies.

But most television SF seems to want to be Star Wars (or The Matrix), and on the small screen with a small budget they are only going to look small.

On the other hand, the big screen cannot handle the SF of ideas -- John W. Campbell's SF. With millions of dollars at stake, ideas are just too big a risk. Somebody might not like them. On the other hand, in a single television episode, there is less at risk, and so you have "The Measure of a Man" on Star Trek: The Next Generation, "Rules of Engagement" on Star Trek: DS9, and "Death Wish" on Star Trek: Voyager. All three are stories that either are or could be set in a single room with no special effects. None of the three would work on the big screen. All are excellent science fiction.

J. Michael Straczynski writes idea-centred SF. Babylon 5 also had some lush special effects, as icing on the cake. He wrote "Babylon Squared," "The Geometry of Shadows," and "The Deconstruction of Falling Stars," all stories which would have been at home in Astounding Science Fiction. Let's hope he does it again.

Copyright © 2002 Rick Norwood

Rick Norwood is a mathematician and writer whose small press publishing house, Manuscript Press, has published books by Hal Clement, R.A. Lafferty, and Hal Foster. He is also the editor of Comics Revue Monthly, which publishes such classic comic strips as Flash Gordon, Sky Masters, Modesty Blaise, Tarzan, Odd Bodkins, Casey Ruggles, The Phantom, Gasoline Alley, Krazy Kat, Alley Oop, Little Orphan Annie, Barnaby, Buz Sawyer, and Steve Canyon.

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