BOOK REVIEW: The Indranan War Trilogy, by K. B. Wagers

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Publisher: Orbit

Genre: Space Opera

Books: 3

Published: 2016-2017

Verdict: 4/5

Hail Bristol is just another gunrunner. Or so she wants people to think. When her family is attacked, she is ofrced to return home and embrace her birthright as the next Empress of Indrana. She’s not entirely happy about the prospect, and neither are her many enemies . . .

If books were food, then the Indranan War is the chocolate cake of the space opera genre. It’s got all the right ingredients for a winner. A heroine as quick with her quips as she is with her guns, a small crew of loyal friends, espionage and intrigue in the court, a brewing war between two interstellar empires. Pretty much everything I look for in the genre. It doesn’t rewrite the rulebook, it doesn’t put to much strain on the imagination, and the entire trilogy is a bit much to digest in a single sitting, but it’s fun and it’s enjoyable. So. Chocolate cake science fiction at its finest.

What sets The Indranan War aprt from the hundreds of other space operas out there is the strength of its female characters. Now, female characters are abundant in the genre, and many of them are strong. But the Indranan War has both strong characters and a variety of them. This is probably the first space opera series I’ve read where the female characters so clearly outnumber their male counterparts. Which is only natural, as Indrana itself is a staunchly matriarchal society. This little piece of worldbuilding is enough to set Wagers work apart from that of their colleagues. What I particularly admire is that at no point is the matriarchal socity presented as superior, or really all that different, to a patriarchal one. At the end of the day, they’re all just people.

This is a series where characters wear their hearts on their sleeves. The identities of traitors and frineds are usually obvious from their first interaction with Hail. This isn’t a bad thing. Subtlety isn’t really the name of the game here, and its refreshing to see people who are genuinely heroes and villains. This also means that when the heroes have to make hard choices, it hurts them all the more. The protagonists are all a likable bunch, well-oiled and with great interactions. There are points when the dynamic morphs into a >shudder< found family, but generally speaking I liked the mixing of bonds of friendship and dutiful loyalty. Hail and Emmory in particular make a great double act.

There’s an almost pulp like senibility to proceedings here, as once the pace picks up it rarelys lows down. Momentum is sustained across the enture trilogy without let up. The middle volume was the strongest for me, but all three make for great reads. If you’re looking for some frantic, action-packed adventure, this is definitley one to pick up. The Indian/Hindu influence to the worldbuilding is also a mark in its favour, as it’s a setting I haven’t come across very often in SF. There’s another trilogy set in the same universe that’s almost complete, and I know I’ll be picking it up.

The Indranan War is as fun and adventurous as fun adventures come, and I’m sure you’ll enjoy taking a bite.

BOOK REVIEW: Foundation, by Isaac Asimov

-spoilers for the entire Foundation universe-

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Publisher: Grafton

Genre: Social SF

Series: Foundation (#1)

Pages: 234

Publication Date: 1953

Verdict: 5/5

The end of the Galactic Empire is nigh. After millennia of stability, the Galaxy is slowly declining into a new age of barbarity. One man, Hari Seldon, has aplan to preserve civilisation. This is not his story. This is the story of those who come after him . . .

So here it is. The big one. An absolute classic of the genre and one of the first SF books I ever read. There’s next to no chance of this review being in any way objective, I raise my hands to that. But then, is any review objective? Probably not. With that in mind, on we go.

Foundation has just about everything I love about science fiction, particularly science fiction from the so-called Golden Age. First up, we have the sense of scale. Foundation doesn’t just cover an entire sector of the Galaxy, it tells a story that takes the best part of a century. One of the chief characters, Salvor Hardin, is born, reigns, and dies during the scope of the novel. Not all of it on the page, but the length of the narrative is far greater than the short page count would suggest. Part of this is of course due to the fix-up nature of the story. it’s not really a novel, but a collection of short stories packaged together. In a way, there is no central narrative beyond ‘this is the story of the Foundation.’ There is no main character, no complex plot. It’s nothing more than a series of events which happen to a group of planets. And it is brilliant.

Let’s consider the worldbuilding. The fall of the Galactic Empire is explicitly based on the decline of the Roman Empire. In that regard there are no surprises. The inevitability of the new dark age carries a real narrative weight, however, and the sense of decline is palpable.  Terminus, Trantor, Anacreon. The names of planets are simple yet evocative. This isn’t a cut-and-paste Galaxy with the swamp world, the desert world and so on. Trantor is a single city, but that is dealt with realistically. Each planet retains its own distinct identity, even when the descriptions are quick and light. Much of the heavy lifting is done by quotes pulled from the Encyclopedia Galactica, offering not only facts about the worlds, but opinions on them too. It’s a simple tool, but it works brilliantly.

Asimov’s prose gets a lot of criticism. To be honest, yes. Yes it is dated. There’s no flourishing, no beautiful metaphors or linguistic trickery. What it does deliver, howveer, is a clear image. And that’s an art that is in short display these days. The clarity, not to emntion the brevity, with which Asimov writes has an elegance all of its own. There’s not a word wasted, and everything serves to further the story. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but it is to mine. There are a few passages written in dialect which are a little harder to read, and whether they are intended to be dramatic or comedic is difficult to tell. The dialogue in general is not very naturalistic to a modern speaker, but it never feels out of place. In twenty thousand years, maybe we’ll all be speaking like that. Who’s to say?

With it’s lack of plot, exposition-heavy dialogue and near total absence of female characters, Foundation certainly shows its age. It’s entirely possible you’ll hate it, and you’re certainly under no obligation to give it a try. But if, like me, you find it in a used bookstore, there are far worse books to pick up. Who knows? It could be the start of a whole new adventure.

AUDIO REVIEW: Doctor Aphra, by Sarah Kuhn

-This review contains some minor spoilers. Proceed with caution-

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Genre: Space Opera

Publisher: Penguin

Runtime: 5hrs 35m

Release Date: 21/07/2020

Cast: Emily Woo Zeller, Jonathan Davies, Sean Patrick Hopkins, Sean Kenin, Nicole Lewis, Carol Monda, Euan Morton, Catherine Taber, Marc Thompson

Verdict: 5/5

Dr Chelli Lona Aphra is used to living dangerously. After all, the life of a planet-hopping archeologist is hardly a safe one. But when she becomes entangled in the scheming of one Darth Vader, even Aphra may have bitten off more than she can chew . . .

Star Wars: Doctor Aphra has to be one of the most fun Star Wars releases I’ve ever experienced. It’s also one of the most accessible. I’m not familiar with the comic series from which this derives, but I don’t need to be. If you have even a passing familiarity with Star Wars – and if you’re picking this up I have to assume you do – then you’re in safe hands. This is a complete tale, brilliantly written and flawlessly narrated, that opens up new avenues for what the Star Wars universe can be.

Right from the start, it’s clear that this is more light-hearted than the previous audio offering Dooku. In terms of the films, think more Solo than Revenge of the Sith. It’s got the same sort of feel, the same pure joy and excitement. There are weightier moments, of course. You don’t spend nearly five hours in the presence of Darth Vader and expect it to be all rainbows and sunshine, but this is one of those tales best described as a romp. It’s quick, funny, and engaging. In a way, it remind sme of the old Tag and Bink comics, though slightly more serious than those scoundrels were.

The main reason Doctor Aphra works, aside from the scriptwriting and general excellence of production, is in the narration. Emily Woo Zeller takes on the titular role with gusto, and it’s clear she’s having just as much fun as the listener. Full of knowing winks, off-hand jokes and fourth wall-scratching comments, Aphra’s account of her experiences makes for addictive listening. It’s long by the standards of audio I listen to, but with it’s quick pace and lively narration, it never slows down. Accompanying Zeller’s lead role, the rest of the cast bring us voices both new and familiar. Darth Vader’s heavy breathing does much of the heavy lifting, but you wouldn’t know Marc Thompson from James Earl Jones with all the gravitas the former brings to the role. There are also appearances from the original generation of heroes, all now re-voiced of course. In particular, I was pleased to hear Catherine Taber stepping out from my childhood hero Mission Vao to pull a stellar turn as a certain Alderaanian princess.

Taking place in the gap between episodes 4 and 5, Doctor Aphra does an excellent job of telling a new story with familair peices that doesn’t just fill in gaps in what we already know of the era. It’s esactly what an expanded universe should aim to be, and gives me hopes for more to come. The Indiana Jones-esque adventures, coupled with a character who’s far from the tragic villain/noble hero divide we’ve seen a lot of lately, make for a fun and funny way to spend a few hours.

This is the perfect listen for a Star Wars fan who wants something a little different, but it could easily be an introduction to the franchise. I don’t know if there are plans for more, but I sincerely hope there are.

BOOK REVIEW: Shadow of Victory, by David Weber

-Major spoilers abound for all previous books in the Honorverse. Click here for a full index of reviews-

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Publisher: Baen

Series: Saganami Island (#4)

Genre: Military SF

Pages: 1158

Publication Date: 2016

Verdict: 2/5

 

War rages across the Galaxy, and no world is spared. As the Solarian league and the Star Empire of Manticore fall into an all-out shooting war, the Mesan Alignment continues to operate behind the scenes. But with their plans about to be exposed, the conspirators grow ever more desperate . . .

As long-time followers of this readthrough will know by now, I have been less than impressed with the Saganami Island series. And even though the sub-series has now well and truly been folded into the narrative, I still treat it as a separate entity. Sadly, this fourth and final volume continues every disapoointing trend of the series so far.

The main problem with Saganami Island has always been a lack of focus. When a series starts off with the promise of focus on the next generation of heroes, there’s an obvious problem when those characters are quickly and comprehensively overshadowed by characters from the main series crossing over. There’s no single plotline either. Each book is something different, and not in a good way. The fact that they all overlap with other books certainly doesn’t help, as scenes and chapters are robbed of the tension they should have. The first half of this behemoth of a tome suffers extensively from this. In fact, the main characters don’t really turn up until this point.

And that’s the biggest issue with this, the Honorverse’s longest book. It is incredibly bloated. Convsersations are circular. Battles are repetitous. The constant backstabbing and politicking just drags by for chapter after chapter after chapter. For the prelude to the series finale, this book is the one thing it shouldn’t be possible to be. It is boring. I read a fair few books of similar length across SF and Fantasy, and they are enjoyabe because they are page turners. the only manner in which Shadow of Victory is a page turner, is that I was desperately turning through the pages in the hopes that something – anything – would happen. And time after time, I was disappointed.

The saving grace of Shadow of Victory is that it moves the plot forwards, albeit only a little. The last few Honorverse books have really felt as though they were building to something, rather than being that something in their own right. This is certainly true here. With the next book being both the final volume in the series and a mainline Honor Harrington novel, I hope that it will prove a satisfying conclusion to the series. But I have to admit, those hopes are as high as they were just a few books ago. It seems to me that Weber’s magnum opus has lost steam, and it remains to be seen if it can get going again in the thousand pages it has left.

If it weren’t a necessary read to understand the series, I wouldn’t recommend Shadow of Victory to a friend. But if you are going to read it, be warned that it may not be all you hope it to be.

TV REVIEW: Space Force, Season 1

Cast: Steve Carell, John Malkovich, Ben Schwartz, Diana Silvers, Tawny Newsome, Jimmy O. Yang, Don Lake

Episodes: 10

Genre: Comedy, Hard SF

Broadcaster: Netflix

First Aired: 29/05/2020

Verdict: 5/5

Inspired by the terrible idea of the same name, Space Force is the latest in a series of new SF-based comedies hitting our screens. Following the natural end of The Good Place and the tragic axing of Santa Clarita Diet, it is also one of the reasons I intend to keep paying for Netflix. Together with Amazon’s UploadSpace Force proves that America is really knocking it out of the park when it comes to concept comedies.

We begin with General Naird (Steve Carell) finding himself in charge of the newly-formed Space Force, which is a laughing stock to all other branches of the military, as well as most people outside. In the first episode, we then skip ahead six months to the point where Space Force has a base, funding, and an in-house scientist played wonderfully by John Malkovich.

Coming from many of the same minds who made The Office – a show I detest with a passion – I wasn’t expecting much from this show. The early reviews suggested it wasn’t very good either, but I gave it a chance. And boy am I glad I did. This is a show that works as a comedy, and as science fiction, deftly playing both sides of the field without skimping on the other.

As a comedy, Space Force gives us a killer and original concept, even if it is one ripped right from the headlines, and delivers it with a side dish of a stellar cast. Like their rockets, the odd joke doesn’t quite land as firmly as it should, but that’s to be expected in any show. There are clear references to real-world events, but no one is ever mentioned by name. The POTUS who keeps sending texts instead of orders is clearly Donald Trump, but by not using his name, Space Force creates a comedy that transcends the now. It may be a product of its time when looked back on, but it never dates itself. Crucially, the actors are playing it straight. This isn’t a live-audience wait-for-the-laughs comedy. The jokes come thick and fast, all delivered with military bluster. It’s a far cry from a lot of other US comedies, which may be why it works so well.

But more than being another comedy, Space Force is the best kind of science fiction. I, like Malkovich’s Adrian Mallory, am firmly against the militarisation of space. Yet Space Force takes both scientific research and military endeavours seriously, with the respect each is due. Despite it’s origins in a rightly-derided idea, Space Force gives us an optimistic look at the future of humanity in space. Yes, there are going to be problems and conflicts, but at the end of the day, space is a place of wonders. It is somehwere we have to go, where it is a good idea to go, and Space Force conveys this philosophy brilliantly.

There is no word yet on a second series, but I for one desperately hope there is more. The world needs more shows like this.

BURN BRYTE: A Quick Look at Roll20’s First RPG System

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I’ve been using Roll20 to run my RPGs for the past two and a half years, racking up around a thousand hours of actual game time. That’s about a fifty-fifty split between my homebrew SF systems and Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition. It’s a great tool for GMs who can’t meet up with their players in person, complete with digital dice, detailed maps and artwork. I’ve sunk a lot of time and money into Roll20, and none of it feels wasted. So you can imagine how excited I was when I stumbled across the news that Roll20 was developing their own original RPG.

First of all, this is value for money. For around £45, you can get the full rulebook, an introductory adventure, and a handful of maps. The latter work best if you have the dynamic lighting subscription, but that is by no means essential. As you can expect, this is an RPG that takes full advantage of Roll20’s unique features. If you were playing at a table, having 35+ dice per player nearby would be unwieldy, but in a digital setting this is much easier to manage. I haven’t had a chance to run a full session yet, but I have layed around with some of the features, and most of it is highly intuitive.

The base setting for Burn Bryte is the last Galaxy in the universe. At the end of time, the universe is burning up until only this dwindling corner still remains. There are no humans around, but there are eight original species to choose from, ranginging from robots and cat people to insect swarms with a hive mind and sentient slugs.  Each species has it’s own artwork to really give you a sense of the world. If you’re a fan of the wacky species you can make in Stellaris, you’ll feel right at home here. As well as species, you also choose a culture to have grown up in. This is basically the planet you were born on, and each gives mechanical bonuses. You can also choose a number of special abilities, some of which are only available to certain cultures or species.

The core mechanic of Burn Bryte is the part that takes the most work. There are various skills from Skulduggery and Streetwise to Computers and Melee. In each, you start with a pool of D4s. At creatin, you can increase a D4 to a D6, a D6 to a D8, a D8 to a D10, and a D10 to a D12. It’s dice pool based gaming with a twist, and all dice in a pool have the same number of sides. Each task has a challenge rating between 2 and 7, which dictates how many dice you need to roll. So if you have D6 in Skullduggery and the challenge is 4, you would roll 4D6. The goal is to avoid rolling doubles. Any double fails the check, whereas no doubles is a pass. It takes a little getting used to, but it’s quite simple once you get the hang of it. The game also gives players free choice in what skill to roll for any given task, provide dthey can justify their choice. So getting through a locked door could be a Computers, lockpicking or even a Melee roll. This ensures that play doesn’t gring to a halt due to a lack of skill.

My favourite part, however, is the Story Path element of character creation. You choose a five-act story to embark on, and gain bonuses for completing each act. When you complete the whole story, you simply choose another one. It’s a great mechanic for a players who want concrete goals, and a handy helper for the GM when planning sessions. On the whole, Burn Bryte balances mechanical gaming with a strong story focus. of course, I haven’t seen it in play yet, but I very much like what I’ve seen so far. It’s a game that looks easy to just pick up and play, rather than one that takes hours just to make a character.

Overall, I am very impressed with Burn Bryte from the brief look I’ve taken. Clean mechanics, strong storytelling options, and very accessible. Hopefully Roll20 will be supporting this with more add-ons for years to come.

TV REVIEW: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century

Cast: Gil Gerard, Erin Gray, Felix Sila, Mel Blanc, Tim O’Connor, Thom Christopher, Jay Garner, Wilfrid Hyde-White

Seasons: 2

Episodes: 32

Genre: Time Travel, Space Opera

Broadcaster: NBC

First Aired: 1979-1981

Verdict: 3/5

Buck Rogers in the 25th Century is the epitome of cheese. It’s a glorious, nonsensical world of ham acting, scantily clad women, wobbly sets, model spaceships and robots that are just people in suits. A world where one episode will feature a plot to destroy a city and another will have seven dwarves with psionic powers. There is not a jot of cohesive worldbuilding to be seen amid the sea of glitter and terrible CGI. And yet, in spite of all of this, it has something that’s lacking in so many modern productions. Fun. So, so much fun. Sometimes your laughing with the show, with the cheesy one liners and freeze-frame finishes. Other time syou’re laughing becasue Buck changes height and weight in the middle of a fight as a stunt double takes Gil Herard’s place. Either way, it’s entertaining, and there is nothing wrong with that.

The casting helps tremendously. Gil Gerard is perfectly cast as the fish-out-of-water Rogers, a late 80s astronaut propelled five hundred years into the future. He brings an earnestness to proceedings, and it’s nice to have a character who can be relied on to the right thing. Erin Gray lights up every scene just as much as the increasingly flamboyant costumes she is surrounded by. Mel Blanc – Mr Looney Toons himself – provides dry wit as the voice of Felix Sila’s robot Twiki. The four of them form a reliable core to a show that jumps between genres like nobody’s business. The guest stars are on good form too. Every evil governor and beautiful princess looks and sounds to have stepped right off the pages of a pulp comic. Buster Crabbe even turns up at one point, with all the meta references you’d expect from a meeting of two Bucks, generations apart.

The second series adopts a more serious approach, and I don’t think it works as well. Thom Christopher dons a feathered swimming cap and brings a staggeringa mount of gravitas to the role of Hawk, last of the bird people. It’s almsot like a different show, and some of the fun has disappeared, others remaining and not quite fitting in, but the ending is worth it. The final episode stands up as a quality hour of television even in today’s golden age of drama. It’s a shame the show was cancelled so early, because it had the potential to generate many more classics if allowed to breathe a little longer.

With its two-fisted approach to space adventure, Buck Rogers represents a storytelling style that has all but died out today. It revels in cliche and predictability, throwing ideas into the script and just seeing what they can pull together. A lot of the time the result is a mess, but the result is never not spectacular. To pick a few highlights, we have the SPace Olympics, musical numbers, a full rollerskate dance routine that feels like it will never end. Sometimes there’s a moral to the story, sometimes it’s just happening because it can. This is a show where people just kept saying yes to things.

It’s not the best show ever made. By a lot of measures, it’s not even a good one, but Buck Rogers in the 25th century is undeniably fun, and sometimes that’s all something needs to be.

BOOK REVIEW: Forward the Foundation, by Isaac Asimov

-spoilers for the entire Foundation universe-

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Publisher: Doubleday

Genre: Social SF

Series: Foundation Prequels (#2)

Pages: 416

Publication Date: 1993

Verdict: 4/5

Hari Seldon works tirelessly on his psychohistory project. But even as governments come and go, and the Galactic Empire slowly breaks apart around him, the greatest threat may yet be time. Time, and Seldon’s own mortality . . .

The final novel Asimov wrote before his death, and published posthumously, Forward the Foundation is the last piece of buildup to his magnum opus. The last few threads are tied together, the last few seeds are sewn, and from here on we go to the truly Galactic stage. But first, there is this. A book at once a sweeping story of interstellar politics and also a character-driven insight into one of science fiction’s most famous characters. This is a story of two halves, travelling the same line, but in different directions.

The first story arc is that of psychohistory itself. As a rereader, we know that psychohistory will prove to be a success, not to mention a key element of human development. yet there is still tension to this exploration of the early days of the field. Various goverments, both Imperial rulers and military juntas, seek control of the project. Not to mention the internal arguments between Seldon and the mathemeticians. While we know what the outcome will be, how we get there is still exciting. The political backstabbing and moral quandries Seldon and the others face shine a new light on the Foundation itself, providing a solid bedrock to support the novels still to come.

The second arc is a more intimate one. Asimov publicly admitted that large parts of Seldon were based on himself, and so the painful journey of Seldon as he reaches old age takes on a new meaning. The fact that Asimov died so shortly after completing Seldon’s story make sit all the more poignant. If anyone ever tells you that Asimov was a poor writer of characters, just point them to this book and they’ll see how wrong they are. Seldon’s truggles to balance work and family, and the losses he suffers along the way, are all too realistic. Asimov spent over half a century developing this character, and that investment shows clearly.

This is not a perfect book, however. Broken up into sections, each spaced a decade apart, it can feel disjointed. Especially when we meet the same cast of characters in each part, at various stages in their lives. Foundation at its best covers centuries, but here it does feel like skipping to the best parts of a story, with a sens ethat there’s so much left remaining untold. Several key character are killed off the page, when it would have been nice to fully deal with the ramifications of their deaths. There are loose ends too. Dors and Demerzel both disappear during the narrative, and though the latter will eventually return at the end of the series, the departure of Dors is a mystery that Asimov never had the opportunity to solve.

While Forward the Foundation may not be Asimov’s greatest work, it is a fitting epitaph to his career, and indeed his life. A greater legacy is hard to imagine.

BOOK REVIEW: Cauldron of Ghosts, by David Weber & Eric Flint

-Major spoilers abound for all previous books in the Honorverse. Click here for a full index of reviews-

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Publisher: Baen

Series: Crown of Slaves (#3)

Genre: Space Opera

Pages: 823

Publication Date: 2014

Verdict: 2/5

The Mesan Alignment’s conspiracy to bring a new order to the Galaxy has been exposed. But as old alliances are broken and new ones forged, not everyone is convinced as to the scale of the threat. It falls to a small group of spies to reveal the true weight of what is about to come crashing down on the human race . . .

After a few leaner entries in the series, the Honorverse returns with a far longer instalment. As regular readers will know by now, this means bloat. It is odd, with a series this far in and this close to the end, that Weber insists on adding yet more irons to the fire, and yet here we are. Cauldron of Ghosts is not quite the lowest the series has sunk, but it’s a far cry from the fun adventure of the first two Eric Flint collaborations.

One of the main problems I have with a series this long, particluarly one with multiple ongoing arcs, is keeping track of what’s happened so far. This is particularly true of a series like the Honorverse, where much of what has already occured is no longer relevant, but where everything seems important at the time. In this regard, I am indebted to Wikipedia and fandom sites for providing summaries of previous books. Including something along the same lines within the book itself would go a long way toward alleviating this problem. It’s been a long while since I read Torch of Freedom, and not much of it has stuck in my mind this long. Thankfully, with a little help from the internet, I was just about able to keep up.

Anton Zilwiki and Victor Cachat are our protagonists this time around, as events drift away from Torch and Queen Berry. It’s nice to see the smaller roles getting fleshed out, but as per usual in a Weber novel, they are soon drowned in dozens of other viewpoints. With so much going on, much of it overlapping with other novels, it’s hard to remain interested in what you see on the page. Flint’s style of writing, once a welcome change, now seems disjointed and out of place when he is telling the same story as Weber’s central narrative. Characters are ever so slightly different her ethan in the main series, and everything feels just a little off.

Regardless of these issues, there is a lot of plot development here. Things in the Honorverse are finally coming to a head, and with only two more books remaining in the series, it’s looking like we might finally get closure on the dozens of plotlines spiralling around out there. I certainly hope we do, because to throw away the potential this series still has would be a travesty indeed.

Cauldron of Ghosts is not a good book, not by itself. But in what it sets up, there’s hope for the Honorverse yet.

TV REVIEW: Babylon 5

Starring: Mira Furlan, Richard Biggs, Stephen Furst, Andreas Katsulas, Peter Jurasik, Jerry Doyle, Bill Mumy, Bruce Boxleitner, Claudia Christian, Jeff Conaway,  Patricia Tallman, Andrea Thompson,  Jason Carter, Michael O’Hare, Julia Caitlin Brown, Tobert Rusler, Mary Kay Adams, Tracy Scoggins

Episodes: 111 (+6 spin off-films and a 13-part spin-off series Crusade)

Genre: Space Opera

Broadcaster: PTEN/TNT

First Aired: 1994-1998

Verdict: 4/5

Babylon 5 isn’t just humanity’s last, best hope for peace. It’s also the last, best series I’ve never seen an episode of. Until this year. Boxsets are a wonderful thing, and the Babylon 5 Ultimate Collection certainly kept me entertained for the best part of six months. Going by sheer episode count alone, this ranks as one of the most successful SF TV series. Of course, a show not only needs quantity, but also quality. Does Babylon 5 have that? Yes, yes it certainly does.

Like many, I first heard of Babylon 5 through it’s rivalry with Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, which for the record is my favourite Star trek series. Though I can see the similarities, I’m not going to get bogged down in that rivalry here. Suffice it to say that Babylon 5 stands as a grimdark mirror to that other show.

Babylon 5 ostensibly tells the story of the titular space station, a sort of neutral ground in a Galaxy populated by dozens of alien species. As the series goes on, it takes more and more plotlines, all interwoven, and centred around a cosmic battle between light and shadow. Famously one of the first SF series to adopt a more serialised approach to storytelling, Babylon 5 nevertheless has plenty of standalone, and standout, episodes. Whether it be Londo Molari undergoing a crisis of morailty, or the ground-eye view of two mechanics stumbling their way through an attack on the station, there’s plenty to grab your attention.

Of course, any programme that has as many plotlines as this is going to be hard pressed to wrap them all up to everyone’s satisfaction, and the failure to do this is Babylon 5‘s only real failing. Particularly in the last season, a fair few plotlines are set up only to be abandoned. Rather oddly, the same happens in the spin-off films, some of them clearly aiming to spawn series of their own which sadly never materialised. A lot of this is of course the result of behind-the-scenes affairs. The show was cancelled and brought back, numerous actors quit during the series (no season has the same main cast as another) and there are doubtless more issues that are less well-publicised. For all that, it’s nothing short of a miracle that the show is as incredible as it is.

Unlike a lot of shows at the time, Babylon 5  embraced CGI over models. The effects haven’t aged well, but they give the show a unique appearance. Considering that, the alien prosthetics are absolutely amazing. The Narns and Minbari are never unconvincing, the background species are masterpieces of make-up, and even the wild-haired Centauri never look out of place. Couple that with sets that still look convincing today, and you almsot forget that the show is twenty-five years old.

Though the pilot features acting that’s a little wooden as people grow accustomed to the dialogue and characters they perform, after that there’s not a bad performance in the lot. Special mention must go the masterful partnership of Katsulas and Jurasik, who make every scene sparkle wih wit and energy. Among the main cast, I also want to draw attention to Jeff Conaway, whose Zack Allen is the perfect everyman, and a fine example of a character going from one-off appearance to recurring character, until he finally becomes the series regular he was born to be. The true-life tragedies that has befallen amny of the actors in the years since only makes their performances more poignant.

If you have a few months with nothing on, then Babylon 5 is the show for you. it’s not one you can dip into, because you’ll soon drown. But dive right in, and you’ll be in for the swim of a lifetime.