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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.

SF on TV

Summer time, and the viewing is easy. Nothing good on but reruns and Crusade gives me lots of time to read real books -- my favorite form of entertainment. I just finished Larry Niven's Rainbow Mars, and started The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. I know it isn't science fiction, but it is even better than I remember from reading it as a child. My memory had been clouded by the various movie incarnations of Tom Sawyer, any one of whom Twain's Tom Sawyer would have beaten to a bloody pulp on general principles.

I did want to warn you that, after airing all of the original Star Trek episodes uncut -- but not uninterrupted -- the SciFi channel has cut about ten minutes from each of them, in order to make room for more commercials.

From time to time, I try to watch some of what passes for SF on television outside of the "big four", soon to be the "big two": the two Treks, B5/Crusade, and The X-Files. Thinking there must be something else on, I tried watching the new SF series that has gotten the most buzz, and after five minutes, I couldn't stand it any more. I don't have to put up with this! In the sixties, I watched more bad television that you'll watch in your entire lifetime! I've paid my dues!

Bad SF on television and in the movies is usually bad in three ways.

First, utterly unoriginal. The writers of these shows seem to ask themselves, at each twist of the plot, at each exchange of dialogue, "Now, let's see, what cliché comes next?" And they dutifully write down whatever they've learned is supposed to come next.

Second, mind numbingly dumb. No human being talks or acts the way people on television talk and act. The plots contradict themselves. And the science -- don't ask.

Third, dull. The writers seem to say to themselves, "Now, we want to introduce this alien. And he's from another planet. And, get this, this is the really neat part, he has really big ears. Now, I know that's a really original idea, and is going to be hard for the rubes in the audience to understand, so we need to spend the first twenty minutes of the program establishing that this alien is supposed to be from another planet, and that he is supposed to have really big ears. Get it? Get it?"

So, instead of reviewing a show I couldn't stand to sit through, I thought I would share with you my five top clichés of bad SF TV.

Cliché #5: Really big corridors
Have you ever seen the corridors on a battleship? They are low and narrow. The same is true of the corridors on a luxury liner. In any vehicle, space is at a premium and corridors are going to be as small as you can make them.

Cliché #4: Interspecies reproduction
Humans reproduce using DNA, which is a very specific family of organic molecules. Human fertility depends on a specific number of chromosomes, a specific length for each chromosome, and a specific placement of nucleotides. Changes of even a few percent prevent reproduction. For a human and an alien to reproduce is impossible. You would have better luck with a wombat.

Cliché #3: The planet Southern California
We have experience with nine planets and a couple of dozen moons and no two of them are alike. The one sure thing about planets of other star systems is that they will be very different from Earth. Your average alien world will look nothing at all like Southern California.

Cliché #2: Humanoid aliens
What is true for planets goes double for aliens. Our closest "alien" relative, the chimp, shares -- I've heard -- 98% of our DNA, but you would never mistake a chump for a human in chimp makeup. When we do finally meet alien races, they are going to look nothing at all like human beings.

Cliché #1: Fuzzy pink explosions
You are all familiar with the picture. Our heroes discover a bomb. There is a digital timer prominently displayed on the face of the bomb, though I've never understood why the manufacturer included this feature, unless he has a nasty sense of humor. Our heroes have only seconds before the bomb explodes. Instead of running like hell, they exchange a few words of witty banter, "I don't think being blown up is on my schedule for today. I'm out of here." And they trot off, at nothing approaching an all-out run. You all know the scene that comes next. In slow motion, our heroes are flinging themselves into the air, with their arms out in front of them like Captain Marvel, never covering their faces the way any sensible person would, and behind them: the fuzzy pink explosion! In the next scene our heroes, without a scratch, without even a broken nose from landing face first on hard ground, pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and go on about their business.

So, off to the beach with a good book. Fish are jumpin', and the cotton is high. It's summertime.

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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