Sunday, June 18, 2023

The “New” B5 Trailer And The Dangers Of Nostalgia


Hey, everyone! Zathras is back! And he said the thing!

Sorry to any Oldnerd readers who aren’t, in fact, old nerds, but we have to talk about the new Babylon 5 trailer. The one for the animated The Road Home movie.

Nostalgia is increasingly indistinguishable from generative AI.

Me and Babylon 5 go way back. WAY back. In my early 20’s, as close as I’ve ever been to using a fandom as an identity, Babylon 5 was that fandom. I was invested in the rivalry with Deep Space 9, I followed the show closely, forgave it its sins, and was ride or die until Season 5, when my burgeoning critical faculties and the creator’s decision to write an entire season of television solo collided in a fairly defining moment of self-awareness. But I’m still fond of it. But whatever this is? I don’t want it.

The biggest nostalgia mistake creators and companies make is confusing what people liked about a thing and what they remember about a thing. This trailer is FULL of what people remember about Babylon 5. Like, for example, Zathras saying “unstuck in time”. Or Zathras in general. Zathras wasn’t a character. He was an exposition shell filled with a bunch of pithy rejoinders, a twist on Yoda but just the wacky bit where Luke didn’t know Yoda was Yoda. Zathras was memorable, but Zathras wasn’t what brought people to Babylon 5.

But this trailer has a lot of Zathras, and a lot of Zathras doing the ‘unstuck in time” thing, and sure, it makes a certain amount of sense given that it’s time-jumping and Zathras was associated with time-jumping in the original, but that’s part of the problem too. This isn’t a continuation or reboot of Babylon 5, it;’s a nostalgia tour of where-are-they-now’s and what-if’s. Maybe the movie isn’t what the trailer is, but what the trailer is is what they’re trying to tell us the movie is, and it’s all HEY REMEMBER THIS THING?!

Which is kind of what generative AI does. It takes a bunch of stuff that people have said and talked about before and reformulates and regurgitates it back to you, and the more familiar it seems, the more successful you think it is. 

The entire surviving cast is back, so, you know. About half. It’s still weird how many of the actors on that show died crazy young. The characters they bring back anyway seem to be pulled from the pool of voice actors who can do soundalikes, which is fine. I don’t even mind that the animation style is definitely that 3-D line art thing you do when you have zero fucking budget. I mean, I don’t love it, but I understand it.

WB is clearly testing the IP waters here, putting out something quick and cheap to see how big the fanbase and appetite still is, which explains the decision to do it up as nostalgia and fan-service, but it’s been three decades. The original fanbase is all 40+. As much as I know better, I’d like to think a statistically significant fraction of us have grown out of that shit. We’ll see. I’m sure it’s gonna hit Max in the fall at the latest, but I’m not even sure I want to spend time on it then. 

Because Babylon 5’s biggest draw was only a big draw int the 90’s. There’s no conversation about the shift from episodic TV to long-form prestige TV storytelling without Babylon 5. When it came out, the Sopranos was six years down the road, on premium cable. B5 was the pioneer in a shift that has now become so commonplace that shows are nostalgically backtracking towards episodic. So there’s no capturing that. Similarly, the pioneering of CGI effects. That ship has also sailed. Hell, we’re even a bit past the prime of the creator cult-of-personality thing.

Yes, there were good characters, and good writing, especially by the standards of 1993, but even there, that level of quality largely remained fixed (or declined) while the rest of the industry, especially genre stuff, improved over 30 years. Which leaves the world and the premise. Which is solid, and honestly rife for a remake that takes the original concept, applies modern techniques and sensibilities, but that’s not what we’re getting, despite rumors and talk over the past couple of years. We’re getting this, possibly to see whether or not anyone wants this to gauge whether anyone wants the other thing, even though the two things aren’t the same. 

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