Why watch Babylon 5?

by Jane Clewett (2,138 words)

Why watch Babylon 5?
March 16, 2020 Jane Clewett

Few television shows were as seminal (or have aged as badly) as Babylon 5. Posters for it now look like awkward cosplay rather than a groundbreaking science fiction show that redefined what television could be. For a modern audience, this can be hard to get past — and arguably the characteristics that made the show great in the 1990s are widespread today. So why is it brilliant?

Babylon 5 was something different from its conception. Moving away from the ‘monster/problem of the week’ formula typical for genre fiction shows of the time, J. Michael Straczynski’s “novel for television” set out instead to tell one epic, united story. The programme’s five seasons each cover a year in the life of the eponymous space station, with coherent arcs for all of the major characters as well as larger political and military developments. Although the plot underwent several big changes from Straczynski’s original vision (more on this later), the show remains a significant, almost unique achievement in long-form storytelling on the small screen.

We begin in 2258. Humans have joined a larger galactic society, having been gifted with faster-than-light travel technology by the Centauri, one of the series’ important alien races. We have risen quickly to a position of military and political power, and fought and eventually made peace with the Minbari; the repercussions of this war form one of the show’s long-term arcs. Babylon 5 itself is a human-built space station in neutral territory, intended as a base for trade and diplomatic negotiations — the “last, best hope for peace” in the galaxy. The series follows the lives of the station’s command staff and some of its most significant alien ambassadors through a time of political upheaval, as it becomes clear that current events are being shaped by a much older conflict between ancient, powerful forces.

So far, so space opera. But where Babylon 5 excels is combining the epic sweep of its plot with smaller, more personal arcs which feel every bit as vital and involving: a recovered alcoholic draws on his own experience to gently interrogate a friend about the extent of his drug use; an atheist wrestles with whether she should mourn her father in the traditions of his religion; a mixed-species couple confront the fact that one of them will inevitably die decades before the other. The idea of this ‘grown up’ approach to science fiction, with a focus on character and real-world issues, was baked into Babylon 5s premise. Straczynski was adamant that there would be “no kids and no cute robots” before the show was even in production (the closest it comes is a single episode appearance of a grumpy artificial intelligence, voiced hilariously by Harlan Ellison). 

More important to the effect, though, was the series’ commitment to its arcs. In another kind of show, a character might become addicted to drugs, recognise they have a problem, and successfully kick the habit within a single 50-minute episode; in Babylon 5, these events take place over the better part of two seasons, freeing them from a cramped, artificial timeframe and allowing both the problem and the resolution to feel more genuinely meaningful. The series forcefully rejects the end-of-episode ‘reset button’: actions have consequences, relationships change, characters die. At one point, an entire sapient species is rendered functionally extinct.

Crucially, the major alien characters are given as much room to breathe and grow as the human ones. Londo and G’Kar, the ambassadors for Centauri and Narn, are arguably the series’ most beloved characters, and certainly the ones who undergo the most profound changes from their initial appearances in season one to where we leave them at the show’s end. Although Babylon 5 struggles with the genre’s frequent problem of mono-cultural aliens (notably, an early episode demonstrates that humans have at least as many religions as they do in the present day, whereas every other species has only one), the time and personal growth allowed to individual alien characters gives the setting heft, and preserves the feeling of real stakes in the major conflicts.

Babylon 5 also took advantage of its focus on aliens and ‘grown ups’ to cast a wider net for talent than many other contemporary shows. Several of the series’ main characters are played by actors who would, by normal Hollywood standards, be confined to bit parts and not given the opportunity to take a leading role. Mira Furlan, who plays Minbari ambassador Delenn, was an acclaimed actor in her native Croatia but was given almost no on screen work in English before being cast in the series. Others, such as Andreas Katsulas (G’Kar), Peter Jurasik (Londo), and Stephen Furst (Vir), had had successful careers as character actors but typically only appeared in small parts. All of them give truly exceptional performances and provide some of the series’ best moments.

The show has a consistent interest in tackling weighty issues. Although there is an occasional ‘sciencey’ puzzle or powerful alien artifact for the protagonists to deal with, most of their problems are more mundane. The setting is key to this; the conflict between the station’s position as an asset of Earth’s military and its mission as a diplomatic outpost is one of the main engines driving the arc plot for the first few seasons. Another major theme is how fascist regimes rise to power and how they stay there; dealt with from the point of view of characters who resist from the outset, those who compromise as long as possible, and those who are initially won over before they realise what they’ve got themselves into. Issues of class are also present — one episode is dedicated to a workers’ strike in favour of safer conditions. The station is home to a permanent underclass of people who live in the ‘downbelow’: essentially slums. The hopelessness of this life is a plot point in several different episodes, and the seeming impossibility of dealing with it is one of the major things that differentiates Babylon 5 from more utopian visions of the future like Star Trek.

The series’ approach to LGBT themes was somewhat stifled by the network; producers vetoed a kiss between two female characters early in the show’s run, and the most clear indication that the two were involved ended up being a confession by one that she “think[s] she loved” the other after the second character was (probably) dead. However, later episodes showed two male characters undercover as a married couple. While there are no explicitly queer characters, Babylon 5 at least takes place in a universe where LGBT people definitely exist, and are imagined to have more rights in the future than they did at the time the show was written (same sex marriage was not legal anywhere in the world when the episodes were first broadcast). While not a huge stride in representation, this was at least a clear and sincerely-meant gesture.

One field where Babylon 5 was certainly did innovate was technology, being the first television programme to use computer-generated effects. The contemporary Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (DS9) created its spaceships using high-quality models and manual rotoscoping techniques, but this was an expensive process. Babylon 5 was made for roughly half DS9’s budget, around $800,000 an episode. Straczynski, who already had an interest in computer graphics, saw an opportunity to save money by making the show’s effects purely digital. The animation was generated on 24 networked Amiga 2000 machines, boosted by the Video Toaster expansion card. Although the resulting product looks fairly primitive and unconvincing to modern eyes, it does get the job done on the storytelling front, and it undoubtedly broke new ground.

One of the points of controversy in Babylon 5‘s early years was its similarity to DS9. The two shows both took place in on a space station, in the aftermath of a major war, where many of the conflicts were driven by relations between alien races. As DS9 debuted slightly earlier than Babylon 5 (it premiered on January 3rd, 1993, while Babylon 5‘s pilot movie was first aired on February 22nd of the same year), some DS9 fans regarded Babylon 5 as a low-budget rip-off of their show. Meanwhile, the fact that Straczynski had approached Paramount Television (the producers of DS9) to make Babylon 5 and been turned down by them convinced some Babylon 5 fans that Paramount had stolen Straczynski’s idea. Straczynski himself said he “suspected” that Paramount executives may have used some ideas from the show bible he provided them with, although he was sure that DS9’s creators, Rick Berman and Michael Piller, were innocent of any wrongdoing. 

It’s impossible to know the truth, but it’s worth pointing out that the resemblances between the shows are mostly skin-deep; by design, they fundamentally take place in very different universes, and both have their merits. Star Trek alumnus and widow of Gene Roddenberry Majel Barrett eventually made a memorable guest appearance on Babylon 5 in a deliberate attempt to foster peace between the two fan bases.

Although it’s often stated that Babylon 5‘s plot was completed by Straczynski before the show even started, this is an oversimplification. Real life events throughout the series’ production had a major impact on the eventual form that the story took. In Straczynski’s 1993 synopsis, he outlined a five-season arc which would be followed by a spin-off series, Babylon Prime, both focused on the character of Jeffrey Sinclair (Michael O’Hare), the station’s commander in season one. Tragically, O’Hare began to suffer from serious mental illness, including hallucinations, during the making of the first series. He agreed to continue filming until the end of the season so as not to jeopardise the show’s production, but retired shortly afterwards. Sinclair was eventually given a magnificent send-off in a two-part episode of season three; he was replaced in the main show by Captain John Sheridan (Bruce Boxleitner). Although Sheridan has several characteristics in common with Sinclair (including sharing their initials with the show’s creator), his character arc is quite different to the one that was originally planned. 

Another casting change occurred when Andrea Thompson, who played Talia Winters, left the show; although there is a good deal of speculation, there is no official explanation of why this happened. Some of Talia’s intended plotline was scrapped, and the rest given to returning character Lyta Alexander (Patricia Tallman), who had previously appeared in the movie pilot. 

Perhaps most significantly, the Prime Time Entertainment network, which was producing the show, was shut down during the making of the fourth season. With the question of whether a fifth season would be possible up in the air, Straczynski shuffled his planned plotlines so as to provide a resolution for all the major story arcs by the end of season four. The result was a fourth season which is intense, fast-paced, and gripping, but when the fifth season was greenlit it proved a somewhat underwhelming finish to the show. Although there are wonderful individual episodes in season five, its major arcs (understandably) feel under-structured and less well considered compared to what came before.

Babylon 5 is one of those shows. The kind that people obsess over, rewatch every year, and drive their friend group mad by trying desperately to convince them that they should all watch it too. So should you? Naturally, it depends on your taste. The first season can be hard to get into; it’s a slow build up to a main plot that doesn’t really get going until the last couple of episodes. New viewers may be put off by the ropey CGI, or by some of the acting. Michael O’Hare was mostly a stage actor who arguably never really settled in to his leading role on screen, and Mira Furlan is hampered in the first season by her character’s lack of eyebrows (an issue fixed by a redesign in season two). 

The things that made Babylon 5 revolutionary we now take for granted; it’s no longer a surprise to see a genre show grappling with serious questions of politics and religion, or laying out a dense and intricate plotline (although the show’s multi-season arcs are still some of the longest television has to offer). Most of all, it’s impossible to talk about what makes the series so good without spoiling some of its best surprises. In the end, though, it comes down to this: if you love Babylon 5, you’ll really love it. And it’s probably worth finding out if you do.