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Babylon 5.1
by Rick Norwood

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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.

The countdown to midnight always stirs memories of the best and worst of the year. But with video, bests and worsts of the year run into the problem that the video year runs from September to May, and so I am looking back on the end of one season and the beginning of another. The most memorable television of the previous season was Deep Space Nine's "Far Beyond the Stars", by Ira Steven Behr and Hans Beimler, and Babylon 5's "The View from the Gallery", by J. Michael Straczynski and Harlan Ellison. This season, the outstanding programs have been Deep Space Nine's "Treachery, Faith and the Great River" with a teleplay by Bradley Thompson and David Weddle from a story by Philip Kim and Babylon 5's "Sleeping in Light", by J. Michael Straczynski. (The last of these aired for the first time in 1998, but was filmed in 1997.)

You will not be seeing in this column a review of Invasion: Earth, the British mini-series aired on the Sci-Fi channel. I watched the first hour, then gave up. The Sci-Fi channel effectively destroyed whatever virtues the series may have possessed. First, the bright red logo in the bottom right hand corner of every frame is becoming increasingly annoying. I hoped that with time my eye would learn to ignore it. Instead, I find myself so angered by this distracting logo that I forget to watch the show. Instead of tracking what is happening on screen, I am writing nasty letters to the program director in my head. The twenty minutes of commercials in every hour also make watching the Sci-Fi channel an unpleasant experience, and why should I subject myself to unpleasant experiences when I can always read a book -- no commercials. The fifteen minutes of commercials on X-Files and both Treks are right at my limit of tolerance. Before the FCC deregulated commercial content in the name of free enterprise, eight minutes of commercials were the maximum allowed. In part, I am responsible for my own discontent. As a compulsive blipper, I can't go off to the refrigerator for a snack and come back when the show has already resumed. No. I hover there with my finger on the pause button, fearful lest my edit be less that perfect. (Are you absolutely sure there are three s's in obsessive?)

But the thing that really killed Invasion: Earth for me was this. The structure of the story was a structure that Brit television often uses well, notably in "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" (****). You introduce a number of characters, who are doing things you never explain, and you cut rapidly back and forth among them. Edgar Rice Burroughs used this same structure in most of his novels. Audience curiosity about what is going on and how these pieces fit together provides the narrative drive. But the Sci-Fi channel has effectively destroyed this structure by using the standard mini-series teasers. We already know what is going to happen, because the climax has been shown in the teaser at the beginning of the program. And the high point of each eight minute segment is shown amid the commercials preceding that segment, so there is no internal suspense and no emotional kick when that high point is finally reached. The guy who invented this narrative structure for the mini-series probably the same person who, as a kid, stood outside "The Empire Strikes Back" telling everyone "Darth Vader is Luke's father." when they bought their ticket.

So, after an hour of this (40 minutes of story, 20 minutes of commercials) I gave up and went to bed. And I can't review what I didn't watch. That's why I won't be reviewing Invasion: Earth.

The X-Files, "How the Ghosts Stole Christmas" (***)
written by Chris Carter

X-Files This season's Christmas show on The X-Files is an amusing rehash of haunted house clichés. "You go this way and I'll go that way and we'll meet back here." Guest stars Ed Asner and Lily Tomlin have a lot of fun with their roles as murderous Christmas ghosts. And it is nice to note that the special effect of seeing through a hole in someone's body, which was showcased so proudly in Robert Zemeckis' disappointing 1992 film Death Becomes Her (**), is now within the budget of network television. But the most enjoyable part of the episode comes from Chris Carter's willingness to seriously ask the question: just how big a looser is Fox Mulder?

Copyright © 1999 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. 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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