“It was the dawn of the third age of mankind”– Commander Jeffrey Sinclair, opening monologue during the first season opening credits of Babylon 5
What made Babylon 5 so great was its epic scope. It had a long-running storyline with conflicted characters and bizarre aliens who weren’t just actors with bumps on their faces. Unlike many sci-fi TV shows before it, Babylon 5 genuinely set out to present a mature story with engaging characters and it succeeded. When conceiving the show, Starczynski wanted to do a grand, epic sci-fi show and was inspired by Dune, The Lord Of The Rings and the Lensmen and Foundation series. Also emulating TV shows like Hill Street Blues, he wanted Babylon 5 to be taken seriously without robots or kids running around. Instead complex storylines were the order of the day; events had consequences in later episodes. Characters, even the heroic ones, were deeply flawed and suffered from addiction, greed, insecurities and other foibles. The show didn’t present some kind of utopian future, yet it wasn’t a moody, post-apocalyptic saga. At the end, the show was about hope and striving for a better tomorrow, which was best seen in its fourth season finale “The Deconstruction Of Falling Stars” and its final episode “Sleeping In Light”.
Evolving Situations & Complex Characters
Babylon 5 takes place in the mid 23 century on Babylon 5, a space station. It served as neutral ground for various space powers to work out their differences peacefully and as a port-of-call. At first, the station functioned as a futuristic U.N. and in the opening credit’s narration in the early seasons it was called the “last peace hope for peace.” But by the third season, intergalactic war was raging and the station then changed into the “last best hope for victory.” As can be inferred by the change in narration, Babylon 5 was very dynamic. Events, political situations and people were always in flux. It wasn’t static like many TV shows and careful viewers had to keep up with what was happening in the show.
Follow this example. There were five super space powers that had representatives on board the station; the Minbari Federation, the Earth Alliance, the Narn Regime, the Vorlon Empire and the Centauri Republic. The latter one was once a major, imperial power in the known galaxy. The B5 representative was Londo Mollari (Peter Jurasik), who was characterized by his outlandish hair that stood up in the back like peacock feathers and his boisterous personality. He came off at first as a bickering buffoon, who liked to verbally spar with his rival G’Kar (Andreas Katsulas). Now G’Kar represented the Narn, which was once ruled by the Centauri. He liked to antagonize Londo about the supposed superiority of the Narn and the fact that the Centauri were a declining power. It was very clear that Londo wished for his people to become a great power again.
Early in the show’s run, he met a mysterious person, Morden (Ed Wasser) who offered him a Faustian deal to return the Centauri to greatness. Afterwards, the Narn and Centauri went to war and the Narn were being defeated by an unknown power aiding the Centauri. At first, Londo was ecstatic over the supposed Centauri victories, but over time he learned that his people were aligned with the evil Shadows, an ancient power that returned to the known galaxy to conquer everyone. Londo came to realize the true cost of his deal, which was his soul and his people’s subjugation. So during the course of the show, Londo underwent a wide personality shift. Once seen as comedic relief, Londo assumed an adversarial role until consumed by guilt, he earned a measure of redemption when he finally turned against the Shadows and helped G’Kar and his people.
That was just one story arc. There were many other intricate plot lines that involved not just the show’s leads but supporting characters as well. People would suddenly die or leave the station, even the main character. In its first season, the lead was Commander Jeffrey Sinclair (Michael O’Hare), who was a calm, stoic leader, but was quietly suffering from his ordeals during a previous war. The show’s producers shocked fans after the first season when they announced that O’Hare wouldn’t be returning to the show. He was replaced by Bruce Boxleitner as Captain John Sheridan, a self-assured and brash commander who echoed James T. Kirk. It all may have been daunting for the average viewer who just tuned in for an episode or two, but in the end it was largely rewarding for a dedicated watcher.
A Five-Year Plan & More
An interesting development with Babylon 5 was that it was prematurely canceled only to get a last-minute reprieve. The show was shown on syndication and was always struggling to get picked up for new seasons. Towards the end of its fourth season it seemed as if its luck ran out. Even though JMS had a carefully plotted storyline that would’ve taken the show to five seasons, he wanted to conclude it before it was canceled. This meant that some plots like the Shadow War and Sheridan’s rebellion against Earth had to be wrapped up quickly in the fourth season. After the final episodes were filmed, including “Sleeping In Light”, the show was unexpectedly picked up by the cable station TNT. This left the producers scrambling; they held back the final episode and had to come up with a storyline for the fifth season. Unfortunately, the stories in the final season weren’t as interesting or as coherent as those in the first four seasons.
Around the same time, TNT commissioned several TV films based on Babylon 5, which were well made. The best one was the prequel film Babylon 5: In The Beginning, which dealt with the often-mentioned Earth-Minbari War. Another one, Babylon 5: A Call To Arms, served as the setup for the inevitable Babylon 5 spinoff Crusade. That show only lasted half a season, chiefly because of disagreements between Straczynski and TNT. A couple of years later, the Sci-Fi Channel produced another film Babylon 5: The Legend Of The Rangers, which was poorly received and for good reason. The film was atrocious with amateurish acting, a hastily written script and sloppy execution. It was almost as bad as the typical Saturday evening films shown on that network. In 2007, a direct-to-DVD anthology film was released called Babylon 5: The Lost Tales and although it sold well, no further installments were produced. Straczynski at that point didn’t want to dilute Babylon 5’s legacy with cheaply made productions and has been trying to get a big-budget theatrical film made instead. To date, he hasn’t been able to get the project off the ground and with some of the actors associated with the show no longer alive (Katsulas, O’Hare, Richard Biggs and Jeff Conaway), getting such a film made seems more and more daunting.
Babylon 5: The Legacy
During its run in the 90s Babylon 5 won several awards including two Hugos, Emmys for special effects, a Saturn and received multiple nominations. It boasted legions of dedicated fans. Today, there is a campaign called Free Babylon, which aims to keep the show in the public consciousness. It started when recent shows like The Big Bang Theory and Breaking Bad mentioned Babylon 5. The goal is to have Babylon 5 airing again on syndication as is happening now with Star Trek, Farscape and other sci-fi favorites. If this happens, it’s hoped that Babylon 5 will gain new fans and demand will increase for further adventures.
The show needs to be better remembered and lauded by today’s fandom because of its many groundbreaking merits. Babylon 5 was one of the very first TV shows to rely solely on computer effects. This was why epic space battles involving fleets of various spaceships were possible to pull off in the small screen for the first time. While the effects may not be top notch, they were pioneering for its time and helped lead the way for CG to be used more and more on TV shows–something we take for granted today. But the most important contribution that the show made was its use of long-running arcs. It’s something that is commonplace with most TV shows today, but back then that was unheard of. Babylon 5 respected its viewers and their patience was paid off with a rich and compelling storyline about humanity’s place in the universe.