This month in PopCulture 25YL, we’re taking a look at the music, shows, video games, and whatever else we want from the month that was January of 1994.
VHS In the VCR:
Babylon 5 by Paul Billington
“And so it begins”
It was the early 1990’s. TV was fairly homogeneous, but on the cusp of great change with a burst of sci-fi-related shows. Satellite television was the big thing, and cable TV too (ok, admittedly this was new to the UK anyway!). The choice was growing and new showrunners were on the playing field. MTV was capturing huge audiences with a steady stream of new content, pushing reality TV as a new genre, whilst other traditional networks had given us the likes of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Quantum Leap. The X-Files was beginning to really take off and help make geek and cult, cool and profitable.
Enter Joe Michael Straczynski (JMS to fans and for the sake of my typing, you too). He had an idea to create a 5 year-long novel for TV—a story that would have a beginning, a middle and an end. Not only that, but it would actually span centuries before, and after, the 5 years that it would televise, creating a rich tapestry of historical underpinnings and events that would echo far into the future. It would start slowly, introducing viewers to a new universe that was recognisably ours but set in the near future where we had finally made contact with other races, and were cautiously but excitedly building relationships with them in order to continue our progress beyond planet Earth. In order to help bring everyone together, to further our development and encourage cooperation and peaceful progress, a space station was built as a neutral meeting place for ambassadors, traders and travellers.
Airing via the PTEN network in the US, and on Channel 4 in the UK, Babylon 5 arrived in 1994. I kind of ignored it. I was unimpressed with what I considered to be an unrelatable world and.. well, a bunch of weird haircuts.
I was so wrong (not about some of the haircuts).
I did a bit of digging and there were a couple of things that intrigued the hell out of me…
- A war where the superior foe, on the cusp of defeating Earth and our forces, surrenders without reason.
- The Babylon 5 space station commander who has a ‘hole in his mind’. He was present at that conflict but cannot remember what happened. He ‘passed out’ during the final battle and when he woke, the war was over.
- Mysterious enemies known as The Shadows.
- The idea that plot points and hints in Season 1, don’t pay off until later seasons—it begs to be watched intently and ruminated on (my God, I hadn’t had that since Twin Peaks).
Okay, I figured, I would give it a go.
As I journeyed through the series (after a dodgy pilot movie), I discovered characters so well written, so real, and whose actions would have real consequences later in the show. I didn’t expect that. Events would unfold that would alternatively beguile, delight, frustrate, horrify and sadden. I kid you not. Some of the performances are devastating. One of the core relationships is between a Centauri named Londo Mollari (a middle-aged wash out to start with, whose pathos and humour is displayed with amazing skill by actor Peter Jurassic) and G’kar (a series-long powerhouse performance by Andreas Katsulas), a member of the Narn race that was subjugated by the Centauri for an age, but has overthrown their oppressors to become a real player in the galaxy.
Without giving too much away (and I really, really want to, as theirs is the most complicated and fruitful dynamic in the show), both Londo and G’kar will experience twists and turns that exemplify such real-world foibles as pride and hate, and strengths such as humility and forgiveness. As we follow them into impending darkness we explore what it means to make decisions that carry with them personal sacrifice and repercussions for so many others, as much as for ourselves. As people, they change. This was an eye-opener for me. So few genre shows avoided pressing the reset button at the end of an episode.
In scope, Babylon 5 is huge (in many ways it’s closest brethren would be Lord of the Rings—the personal stories, the breakout of war, sacrifice, moralistic conundrums and epic centuries-spanning histories. In fact, taking just one element, the planet of Z’ha’dum from Babylon 5 is akin to the Bridge of Khazad-Dûm in Lord of The Rings, both in terms of narrative repercussions and the spelling). The show may initially focus on the human station commander, Sinclair, and his attempts to broker peace between Londo, G’Kar, Delenn (of the Minbari race, the ones who almost conquer Earth in the war), Kosh (a Vorlon mysteriously hidden in a suit that enables him to breath) and many other races who all have representation on the station, but it also looks at the worlds these characters inhabit as a way of reflecting upon our own. Someone once called it “Casablanca in space” and one can see why—the melting pot of cultures, beliefs, ideals and political stances is very familiar. It represents the human race and our history, but by doing so in context of our near future, with a catalogue of new races to engage with: it allows commentary and questioning to take place in a way that a lot of network shows feared to do, at least back in the ’90s. In fact, looking at the world around us right now, I can see that back then, Babylon 5 was discussing fake news, subjugation of those perceived as ‘different’, the dissolution of alliances under fall pretences, true leadership through democracy becoming politically manipulative, personal gain—it’s all there.
I think the influence of this show can’t be ignored, whether obvious or not. The serialised storytelling, risk-taking narratives, anti-heroes and social commentary is commonplace now. Back then, for a sci-fi show, it was rare and compartmentalised. 25 years later, Babylon 5 is well worth revisiting.
Brookside by Martin Hearn
I don’t know about other parts of the world but here in the UK soap operas are often used as a platform to raise awareness of real-life issues and highlight things that other shows often shy away from. Way back in the ’90s I was a young and confused boy who was struggling with thoughts about my own sexuality and all I’d ever seen on TV was gay stereotypes in sitcoms and other comedy related shows. It’s hard to believe that just a few decades ago gay people were just used in TV shows to get a laugh out of and my naïve little mind could never grasp what the problem was. It was just two people of the same-sex right?
Brookside was a soap opera that ran from 1982 to 2003 and never shied away from tackling some pretty big issues ranging from the hard-hitting (body under the patio anyone?) right through to the more extreme and questionable stories in its later years. The ’90s was the show’s golden era and I remember sitting down with my parents one evening to watch it. Then in 1994 they dropped a bombshell on the country; the first pre-watershed lesbian kiss on TV.
The gay characters I’d seen on TV in sitcoms didn’t kiss people, they just played up to the stereotype and were laughed at. Now here were two people of the same-sex kissing on national television, I’d never seen it before.
Nobody really said anything about it in my house but I remember the next morning it being everywhere! The other kids were talking and sniggering at school about it, teachers were whispering to each other about it, it was in the newspapers, and it felt like people were obsessed. I never really understood the sniggering and negative reaction it got at the time, I was naïve like I said, but now looking back I get it. It was meant to be talked about on a national scale because it hadn’t really been discussed before, the aim of the story was to normalise same-sex relationships on UK television. Did it work?
Sadly people still write official complaints about same-sex kisses on TV in 2018 but they are few and far between. The fact that we have so many same-sex relationships, kisses, and none stereotypical gay characters is down to moments like this in Brookside. It meant a lot to not only confused youngsters like me but other people struggling to make their voices heard in a country that wasn’t interested in promoting anything LGBT. The change slowly began to happen. Thank you, Brookside.
X-Files by John Bernardy
It’s a sobering moment to realize that X-Files has been in my life personally for over 25 years (the first episode I watched was “Ghost in the Machine” 25 Octobers ago). I will die on a hill for Season 2, but if these Season 1 episodes weren’t so damn intriguing I wouldn’t have gotten there at all.
January of 1994 aired two episodes:
In “Beyond the Sea”, Brad Dourif played an imprisoned serial killer that may or may not be able to psychically help catch a kidnapper, and it’s Scully who believes his ability this time and Mulder who absolutely does not. The role reversal was good for the characters’ growth, and there’s good reason why this is such a classic episode (and that it’s regularly noted as being one of Chris Carter and Gillian Anderson’s favorites). It’s also the first time Don Davis (Twin Peaks’ Major Briggs) played Dana Scully’s father. In a season that hadn’t quite found what the show would ultimately become, this is a high point that stands well with any classic episode.
“Gender Bender” is, to put it politely, not quite so much the classic. The story involves a killer who regularly changes gender, and an Amish-like community called the Kindred. During production, the crew was not all on board, wondering if they went too far in revealing the Kindred to being actual aliens. Yet, no-one was worried about offending the Amish. But, it did give us Nicholas Lea for the first time, though in a bit part rather than as Alex Krycek.
CDs on Rotation In Our 6-Disc
By John Bernardy
Alice In Chains, Jar of Flies
Alice in Chains dropped Jar of Flies this month. They recorded it over one week in September of 1993 after they spent a ton of time touring for Dirt and being part of Lollapalooza. And even without a plan going in, “I Stay Away” was one of those songs. I never got massively into this group but I will shout from the rooftops about the close harmony that Layne Staley and Jerry Cantrell pulled off, whether they were singing or screaming. For my money, no guy groups have ever been that unified with their vocals, and only groups like Lucius get close to touching that kind of magic.
Tori Amos, Under the Pink
The album from this month that really stuck with me was Tori Amos’ second album, Under the Pink. I didn’t finally fall into music until a few months from now, but “Cornflake Girl” was one of the songs in regular rotation and I couldn’t get enough of Tori’s classically trained eccentricities. It didn’t matter what she was saying, didn’t matter what the lyrics meant. She had a dreaminess to her work and that dream logic was something I felt and understood at a Lynch level. I remember how everyone was gaga because Trent Reznor sang backup vocals on “Past the Mission,” but I was already owned by “Pretty Good Year” going into “God” going into “Bells For Her.” By the time Reznor’s voice came into the scene I was already part of the dream. This album, even though it was eclipsed handily (from my point of view anyway) by her next album, Boys For Pele, Under the Pink was still played more times by me in my car in 1994 than almost every album from this year except maybe the Beasties and NIN. If you’ve never tried this but you’re way into artists like Joanna Newsom, you owe it to yourself to investigate Tori Amos. Just make sure you clear yourself a few hours first. And start with this album.
The Quick Stop:
by John Bernardy
Mega Man X was released in America for the Super Nintendo in January of 1994, and you can bet I got this for my birthday later that year. I loved the graphics and music upgrades, though the melodies weren’t as grabbing as Mega Man’s 1 or 2 (at least in my opinion). Not sure what was released for the Sega Genesis this month because it only did what Nintendo didn’t. Let me know if my console wars allegiance made me miss a classic.
Michael Crichton released Disclosure, his first novel after Jurassic Park came to theaters. While taking place in a 1990’s software company, this novel didn’t have any science fictional elements and rather focused on sexual harassment on a male employee by a female employer. Though it couldn’t be quite the action blockbuster that Spielberg released the year before, Disclosure became a movie all the same by December of this year.
At The Comic Shop:
by John Bernardy
Scott & Jean get married!
I know X-Men #30 has a March cover date, but comics were always dated 2 months out so they could be sold in spinner racks in grocery stores and bookstores for a longer period of time without seeming outdated. And that kids is how periodicals used to work.
The long-time couple of Jean Grey (originally Marvel Girl, also the Phoenix, portrayed in the movies by Famke Jansen and Sophie Turner) and Scott Summers (Cyclops, portrayed in the movies by James Marsden and Tye Sheridan) finally tie the knot after decades of will-they-won’t-they and various states of being alive and/or married to other people (who is a clone of Jean in the first place), and it was a beautiful issue. Scott Lobdell wrote it and Andy Kubert outdid himself on the pencils. It was a nice breath of fresh air right before the melodrama kicked back in. As is the tradition with the quieter X-Men issues of the day, all the character moments were strong and memorable. Though not on the level of Uncanny X-Men #303, this is well worth the read.
Welcome, Kyle Rayner!
Kyle Rayner was introduced two issues earlier when the official Green Lantern, Hal Jordan, began his descent into villainy, but this issue was the first time Kyle took the power ring. This was the era where Superman was killed and Batman’s back was broken. Green Lantern got the become-a-villain treatment DC tested out a few years earlier in Armageddon 2001, but this time it stuck for about ten years rather than months. Jordan became Paralax in this conclusion to the three-part Emerald Twilight story and Kyle Rayner became Green Lantern for the next decade. And because I didn’t read the book before this point, Kyle was my Green Lantern. He was new to the superhero biz, and he was an artist by trade. I probably understood Kyle better than any of the other superheroes save Jack Knight in Starman (later this year!). He was a fantastic addition to the universe and I’m glad DC recognized it rather than sending him way off into the sidelines like Azreal and the various (Reign of the) Superman replacements.
Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross unleash Marvels on everyone
Kurt Busiek was not a household name. Alex Ross’ paintings were not a given. Well, they weren’t a few months ago anyway, but they were this month because Marvels was on its 3rd issue. And it was the coming of Galactus. This amazing series recontextualized the 60s Marvel stories into a modern sensibility by showing what the coming of the Superheroes did to the normal people caught in the crossfire. And the main character, Phil Sheldon, was just a photojournalist with zero super powers. He made the stories way more real and made the stakes higher than ever, and I swear to god these stories hit me right in the heart. This one was the best in the series right up until next month with Gwen Stacy and the Goblin. If you ever wanted to read the classic Marvel stories but didn’t want to slog through silver age dialogue, read Marvels. Hell, read it even if you can appreciate the originals. You can thank me later.
Have any of your own memories from this month? Leave them in the comments or any of our social media locations below. We’d love to hear what 1994 meant to you, too!