So, not a lot of people know this, but I was there at the dawning of the Third Age of Mankind. It began in the Earth Year 1993, with a visionary science-fiction television show born from the imagination of Joe Michael Straczynski. Babylon 5 was completely unlike anything else on TV at the time; which earned it a passionate cult fanbase on the one hand, and a near-constant battle against cancellation on the other. Indeed, the story behind Babylon 5 is almost as good as Babylon 5 itself, and maybe better, because it’s been awhile since I’ve actually seen this thing. That’s part of why we’re here, in this introductory post for my very own Babylon 5 rewatch: to see it with fresh eyes, and see what exactly the big deal was.
Because make no mistake, this show was a big deal for me. I think it’s safe to say that the likes of Breaking Bad, Lost, and Carnivale have supplanted it as my favorite show of all time, but it’s easily held a top 5 spot over the years, for sure. Because I was there, you see, at the dawning of the Third Age. I have vivid memories of running 30 blocks from work so as not to miss a crucial episode, and the catharsis of collapsing in front of the television set in a pool of sweat and triumph. I was a part of that passionate cult fanbase. The very first scrap of the Internet I ever saw was the Babylon 5 homepage, which took about 5 minutes to load and was worth every pixel. True story.
But although I was there, I wasn’t a fan from the beginning. Not even a bit. I saw the pilot episode with my father when it aired on TBS and I think I was so bored I just stared at the wall instead. Dad really liked it though, and over the years he acquired the series-in-progress on a bunch of bootleg VHS tapes passed along his circle of friends. These he played on pretty well a continuous loop and since we were sharing a one bedroom apartment, it was pretty well unavoidable. To me, Babylon 5 was something to be tolerated. And then one day I just… got it. It clicked. I remember the exact scene where I perked up and was like ‘wait, that happened?‘ and I’ll be sure to point it out when we get there. It was a real Road to Damascus conversion, and from then on I was hooked.
But that was a long time ago. Babylon 5 may have pioneered long form storytelling, but we’re awash in it now. How does the series hold up in the rarified pop culture air of 2016? Will the story hold up in the face of corny humor and Stone Age computer graphics? Will the C-list actors detract from the performances of the B-list ones? I can’t trust my memory, so there’s only one way to know for sure. We’re gonna watch the whole goddam thing.
A few programming notes before we dive into this: the plan is to post these every Wednesday, and I will do my level best to adhere to that schedule. I’ll probably play it loose with the format until I find my stride, but for now I’m going to borrow the template from Leigh Butler’s excellent Wheel of Time reread, which is to say each episode will have a summary section followed by a commentary, and we’ll do two episodes a post. Except this one. The re-watch will also be spoiler free; at least, I’m determined to make it so. If that changes as the series picks up steam, I’ll be certain to throw up appropriate buffers and warnings and such. Aaaaaaaad, I think that’s it. To the post!
Babylon 5 : The Gathering
Listen, don’t worry about it. The Gathering is not on the test. You could have skipped it and not missed much, honestly. That being said, I’ll be brief: There’s a Space Station. In Space. Different alien species live there, ostensibly to build peace, except that the first thing that happens is an assassination attempt on the Vorlon ambassador. (Vorlon’s are mysterious, which will become relevant later.) Commander Jeffrey Sinclair is implicated in the assassination, but since he’s the series lead, we know he didn’t do it. The rest of the episode is a race against the clock as he tries both to clear his own name, as well as discover the identity of the actual assassin. Meanwhile Dr. I-can’t-remember-his-name-because-he’s-not-on-the-actual-show fights to save Ambassador Kosh’s life; battling not only the poison used, but also the red tape the mysterious Vorlons throw up to protect their secrets. Everything works out in the end though, and in the end the ambassadors and crew officially open Babylon 5: our last, best hope for peace.
For the record, there are two versions of this pilot movie: one which initially aired in 1993 (boring a 13 year old me half-to-death), and is nearly unwatchable and -blessedly- a second, directors cut released a few years later. Guess which one I picked this for this re-watch?
Director’s Cut aside, the Gathering is still far from a masterpiece of the genre, but this version actually isn’t that bad. I was pleasantly surprised, and the friend who bravely agreed to do this re-watch with me didn’t hate it either. (Unless she was simply being polite? I’ll have to inquire.) Now, this show is so 90’s it practically bleeds Duran Duran, but it was part of the charm for me, and Devin -again- did not seem to hate it.I feel like judging the production design of a pilot episode isn’t quite fair, anyway. Though the show will never shake it’s inherent 90’s-ness, I’m pretty sure it won’t always look this… garish.
As the movie introduces a dizzying array of characters, each with their own motivations and backstories, we’re given a kaleidoscopic view of a lived-in universe. It’s baffling to the initiate for sure, but that’s where the simplicity of the assassination plot comes in handy. While the story does take little dips and detours along the way, hinting at the bigger picture, it always comes right back to the point; a story so basic I just summarized it in a paragraph. Watching it with the benefit of foreknowledge, I was deeply impressed by how dense the storytelling actually was, seeding future episodes and entire arcs with a few throw-off lines and one particularly excellent monologue from Jeffery Sinclair.
“I was squad team leader when the call came in. We all knew it was a suicide mission. The Minbari had broken through and were closing in. Every ship we had left was ordered to circle earth. We had to stop them. No matter what it cost. They came at us out of nowhere. We never had a chance. The sky was full of stars, and every star, an exploding ship. One of ours. My team was blown out of the sky in less than a minute. I managed to take out a fighter before they hit my stabilizers. I was losing power, I’d lost my team, and I figured if I was going to die I’d take some of them with me. So I targeted one of their heavy cruisers, hit my afterburners, I was gonna ram them head on. The last thing I remember is… hurtling toward that cruiser, filling my screen, big. My god, so big. Then, something, passed in front of my eyes. I guess I blacked out from the acceleration. When I came to, 24 hours later, the cruiser was gone. I checked in. They told me the war was over. The Minbari had surrendered…”
This blog will have much and more to say about Michael O’Hare’s performance as Jeffrey Sinclair as we get deeper into the show, but for now, this piece of writing, and this delivery, is fantastic. It’s good to see that even in it’s infancy, Babylon 5 was showing flashes of the quality which my nostalgia recalls so strongly. This bodes well.
If nothing else, The Gathering has made me eager for this re-watch. Guys, it’s Babylon 5! We’re doing this!
Next week, we’ll wade deeper into politics and religion with Midnight on the Firing Line and Soul Hunter. And so it begins…
CW: rape, gang rape, underage rape, extortion, torture, suicide, ruined lives, spousal abuse and murder
We interrupt our usual programming (not that such a thing technically exists as yet) to bring you my broken fucking heart and some news of the world. It’s bad out there, folks. It was a rough week.
I’m not okay. I mean, I’m fine, technically. I’m a light-skinned male in an age that still overvalues such things, which means that I’m not really at risk of the various horrors I’m about to recount. This immunity brings me no comfort. It leaves me stranded on the sidelines, separated by my privilege from those I empathize with the most. My heart hurts so much and I just want to scream. I want to destroy the world, and I want to save it, and I can do neither. My hands are tied.
So let’s go first to Brazil, a country I admittedly know next to nothing about. Rio de Janeiro is there, and in one of the slums of that city, a 16 year old was drugged and gang-raped by 33 men. I saw the headline and it took everything in me to click through. I didn’t want to; I know the world is a horrible place, and it’s easier to talk about comic books and Star Wars and pretend this shit isn’t happening. But that would have been cowardly. The least I could do was bear witness to the horror, to absorb this latest atrocity to women and not flinch away from it. So I clicked. I read. I recoiled.
16 years old. 33 men. There are no words. I read about it on Thursday evening and it’s Sunday now and I still can’t get it out of my head, the brutality of it, the monstrosity of such a crime. 33 beasts wrapped in human skin, each consenting to strip a girl of her right to consent.
“I fell asleep and woke up in a different place with a man underneath me, another one on top and two others holding my hands and several people laughing at me.”
And as if this weren’t bad enough (and it most certainly is), the story gets considerably worse. Several of the men took pictures and video; proudly flaunting their crimes on social media, because Brazil is the fucking wild west or something, and they knew they had nothing to fear from sharing, except that maybe their hands would get sore from all the high-fives. Seriously, I have no idea what motivates someone to pose for a selfie with the bruised genitalia of their rape victim. It is so far removed from what I know that I can only speculate. Still, at least initially, their twisted and warped worldview appeared to bear out. As online outrage grew an investigation was launched, wherein the first questions the victim was asked were – and I shit you not – what she was wearing, and if she was in the habit of group sex.
One of the gang-rape suspects, Rai de Souza, 22, told a local newspaper that he had done nothing wrong: the girl was “so unconscious,” he said, but had consensual sex with him – and he didn’t film her, he just “watched and laughed” while his friends did.
I feel sick.
Now, obviously, Brazil is fucked. There was a lot more background in the stories I read, about a culture of toxic masculinity and machismo, a country where a woman is raped every 11 minutes. So it might be easy to, if not dismiss the story, at least take comfort that our society would never allow such a thing.
Tell that to Karen Perez of South Houston, Texas. Oh wait, you can’t, because she was raped and murdered by her boyfriend, who recorded the assault on his fucking phone. From the Washington Post story:
“You can clearly hear the defendant forcing the victim to have sex with him. He even calls her by name,” according to a probable cause statement read earlier this week in court. “You can hear the victim saying she does not want to do this.
“You can hear the defendant choking the victim. You can hear the victim stating, ‘I don’t want to die.’ ”
He raped her, he choked her to death, and recorded her dying cries. She was 15 years old.
Next up, yay! A story that doesn’t involve underage victims or rape. What a pleasant surprise. No, wait, oh. From the Toronto Sun:
Deputies discovered the bloodless body of Iana Kasian after breaking through a barricade to get into the couple’s West Hollywood apartment last week, prosecutors said.
Blake Leibel, born in Canada, tortured and mutilated his girlfriend who had recently given birth to their child, draining her body of blood. I can’t even imagine the scene; the terror, the agony, the grief and fear for her newborn – or maybe I just don’t want to.
The list goes on and on and on and on, far past the point of human endurance. I forgive you for not clicking those links. Each is the death of an innocent woman, each murdered by a man they’d been involved with; each a beast wrapped in human skin who felt entitled to something which they most certainly were not. And each grisly, unspeakable crime took place in the past week. It was a bad week for women. But it certainly wasn’t an atypical one.
None of these crimes, it should be noted, took place in Canada. Canada remains a bastion of freedom from sexual violence, he said, sarcastically.
Let’s go to the numbers: 472, 000 self-reported rapes in 2009 according to statistics Canada (the last year I was able to find numbers for). That breaks down to roughly 1, 300 a day, 53 an hour, or nearly a rape every minute in the True North Strong and Free. Just like that, Brazil looks positively enlightened. Depending on how fast or slow a reader you are, chances are good that – according to those statistics – at least one woman in Canada was raped while you were on this page. I say ‘woman’ because, really, that’s our best case scenario: those same stats lists the majority (307, 000) of those rapes as having happened to victims between the age of 15-24. I’m going to go out on a limb and say they happened disproportionately to Aboriginal women, even though I can’t back that up with anything other than sickening, gut-twisting instinct.
Numbers are useful in getting a big picture, but limiting in their own way; you can’t make out the faces, the individual tragedies that reverberate unseen but not unfelt across the social fabric. I feel a great disturbance in the Force, it’s called Rape Culture. It’s called Jian Gohmeshi. It’s called Amanda Todd. It’s called the Highway of Tears. It’s a monster that wears many faces, that bears many names, and it’s a number that is staggering in scope, thoroughly vile, and shameful, and damning in it’s implication: Four hundred and seventy-two thousand.
Truly, I have no idea what I’m trying to say here. I just don’t know. Rape is bad, and We have to stop this; to which you would say, as I would, I know, and I don’t know how. To any woman reading this post I would say nothing – I could say nothing – I’d be far too ashamed to even maintain eye contact. To men, to my brothers and fellow beneficiaries I would say: We are failing at Patriarchy, here. We are straight-up tanking this thing. If we can’t even protect our supposed inferiors from ourselves, then maybe we were never superior to begin with; maybe, just maybe, the entire culture of sexism we were born into and perpetuated is not only bullshit, but dangerous bullshit. When a 16 year old is gang-raped by 33 men, that’s not an anomaly, that’s the logical extension of a system that denies half of humanity its humanity. When a woman named Joanne has to go by JK Rowling just to sell books to boys, when studios won’t make a superhero movie with a female lead, when actors on a press junket will be asked about their character if they’re male or their costume if they’re female… it’s all the same shit. Different tributaries in a river of shit.
And if for whatever reason you’re not convinced that sexual violence exists at the beating, corrupted heart of our fucked up society, look no further than the depiction of oral sex in online porn, depending on whether a man or a woman is on the receiving end. With the latter it’s passive objectification, with the former, throat-gagging. That’s check and mate, my friend.
Women live in fear of violence in general, and fear of sexual violence specifically. My sister walks home with keys in hand, even though she knows she’s far likelier to be victimized by someone she knows. Still, better safe than sorry, right? To have it and not need it than to need it and not have it? That’s the world we live in. The air we breathe. The culture of Rape Culture.
I don’t know what to do about it, yet, beyond bearing witness and not flinching. I won’t pretend that everything’s okay when it isn’t, or that I’m somehow innocent in all this when I’m not. I’m a feminist now, but I wasn’t born that way. Then again, I wasn’t born a misogynist either, I just learned really well. And when I finally learned what I had learned, I rejected it entirely.
And I’m certainly not the only one, nor am I breaking new ground by stating the obvious in a lonely and anonymous blog. But to bring things back around: a teenager in Brazil – who was just beginning her confusing and bewildering journey into adulthood – was drugged and raped by over 30 men who bragged about their crime. As with so, so many women who report, she was initially doubted and disbelieved by authorities. But the horror of it was too much this time; it could not be borne in silence and, this time, it galvanized a response. Heroic protests from feminist organizations, who are quite literally fighting behind enemy lines; thousands took to the streets all across the country.
As a result of their efforts, the lead investigator has been removed (although remains in good standing in the department because cops will be cops) and a female officer installed. Now we have a real investigation and a couple of arrests, and, most importantly, protective custody for the victim. I’d be grasping at straws to claim this as any kind of victory, Pyrrhic or otherwise.
It’s not enough, not by far, but at least the girl is safe. For now. The only way she can truly remain so is by tearing down this worldwide system of power and privilege, and the only way to do that is by challenging it at every hideous turn.
So I guess that’s what I’m going to do.