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Babylon 5.1
by Rick Norwood

I've been watching way too much tv. At the beginning of 1998, I was able to watch X-Files and Babylon 5 every weekday, starting from the very first episode. Except for a week in February, when a blizzard knocked the power out, I was able to follow the various story arcs with an intensity and continuity unavailable to those of you who have watched them spread out over the last five years.

In terms of scripts, ideas, acting, and special effects, only a very small number of SF movies -- three? five? -- can equal the experience.

Babylon 5 led the way with movie quality special effects on the small screen, thanks to cgi, computer graphics imaging. X-Files quickly followed, and finally Star Trek is coming along, kicking and screaming. Star Trek hung on to the model spaceships as long as they could, making all kinds of excuses (sometimes you get these really nifty unexpected lighting effects when you use models) and then finally realized that models just do not fly any more.

X-Files has become a cultural phenomenon. Babylon 5 is still an underground classic. Deep Space Nine, by shamelessly imitating Babylon 5 (there was a DS9 episode titled "Wrongs Darker than Death or Night", a B5 title if I ever heard one) has produced some of the best Trek ever, and Voyager is still wallowing around in the Gamma Quadrant, looking for a direction. Bringing in the Borg was a good idea, but one good idea does not a series make. Where has Q been off to this season?

The blizzard that knocked the power out was scary, boring, uncomfortable, a lot of hard work, and often strangely beautiful. It brought the family together: to solve problems, to keep ourselves entertained, to keep warm. Going without tv for a week was the least of our worries. But we did check into a motel to watch the B5 episode "The Very Long Night of Londo Mollari" together. Real life is more fun than television. But television is fun, too.

Other Babylon 5.1 Columns
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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.

MERLIN (***)
written by David Stevens and Peter Barnes from a story by Edward Khmara

Merlin This is the age of the high concept tele-movie, heavily promoted, usually shown in two parts. Gulliver's Travels (****) was so intelligent and handsome that it spoiled us. The Odyssey (**) had impressive special effects, but never got to the heart of the famous story. Moby Dick (*) rendered the classic novel down for its oil and blubber, throwing away the meat and bones of the book, which is the conflict between science and religion, between industry and madness. Now comes Merlin, better than it has any right to be, and yet somehow sadly disappointing.

This revisionist story, borrowing more from the film Excaliber than from Malory, tells of Merlin's life, from birth to old age. King Arthur has a relatively minor part. This is high fantasy, with dragons and lots of magic. But the tone is anti-heroic. Merlin loves Nimue. Merlin looses Nimue. Merlin finds Nimue. When Merlin tries to be a hero, he fails.

First, the good news. The special effects are like nothing you have ever seen before, both in the imagination that conceived them and the skill that brought them to the screen. Fifty million dollars could not have bought effects like these five years ago. Especially memorable are the Lady of the Lake's necklace of fish, which dwindles as she grows weaker, and Frik's startling transformations. The acting is excellent. Miranda Richardson's Queen Mab is a bit hard to take, but Sam Neill as Merlin and especially Martin Short as Frik are performances that will stay with you in memory. Also Alice Hamilton as the child Morgan le Fey is excellent. Even better news, there is intelligence at work here, a rare quality in the visual media. I was particularly impressed by the dialogue near the end, where Frik tells the aged Merlin, "But that wasn't the way it really happened." And Merlin says, "No, but it's what they want to hear."

And yet... and yet... the concept of Merlin as a loser, who always makes the wrong choice and causes disaster by trying to do good, is somehow unsatisfying. And I have a problem with the no doubt high minded attempt to resolve the plot without violence. A good idea, nonviolence. But dramatically, when nonviolence wins and violence loses, I have a hard time suspending my disbelief. The nonviolent cause may win out in the end, but the nonviolent individual tends to get squished.

X-Files, Gethsemane (***)
by Chris Carter

X-Files The fourth season finale turns the X-Files on its head, as Scully testifies that everything Mulder believes is wrong. What appears to be the corpse of a large-eyed alien is found buried in the ice. Meanwhile, the body count keeps rising. Someone is willing to kill a lot of people to keep America from finding out about the extraterrestrials among us. Or are they really trying to distract America with false stories of extraterrestrials, to keep them from finding out that the Military-Industrial Complex has taken over the country? Which is it? Wait for the movie to find out.

All I can say is, the ETs had better be real, because we've seen them. Mulder has seen them. Even Scully has seen them, though she hasn't seen as much as Mulder. This is the one problem I have with this otherwise imaginative and well-mounted series. Doesn't Scully believe her own eyes? Her continued skepticism is beginning to wear a bit thin, considering what she has experienced.

Still, I liked this episode a lot more than the reviewer from Cinefantastique did. He only gave it 1½ stars. The sequences on the mountain are excellent. (In the first season episode, "Ice" (***), they forgot to give characters in the cold visible breath, and got a lot of flack about it. They haven't messed up on this detail since.) The framing device of Scully testifying that a dead Mulder was deluded in everything he believed works for me. This episode leaves me eager to rewatch the two part fifth season premiere, "Redux" (***).

Copyright © 1998 by 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.

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