Science fiction buffs can’t talk about sci fi shows in the 80’s and 90’s without bringing up the show Babylon 5. This show was considered one of the most underrated shows, not just in science fiction, but in television in general of the last 40 years. Reason being, it not only set standards for writing, direction, special effects, and acting that still resonate today, it was also groundbreaking as it also pioneered a number of the things we see and take for granted on serialized television shows today. I was first introduced to the show by my closest and best friend in the whole world, Marvin, who recommended I watch the show, and began doing so during the very first season in 1994.
For the uninitiated, a bit of backstory; the show, which debuted in 1993, and ran until 1998, centers around an Earth-built, alien-funded space station named (you guessed it) Babylon 5. It’s the 5th (and last) in a series of space stations that takes place 10 years after a terrible war, located in a neutral area of space, and is ostensibly supposed to serve as a United Nations of sorts, where the various alien governments can come together, hammer out trade agreements, settle disputes between their empires, and also use as a port of call. The first three stations exploded before construction was complete, and the 4th mysteriously disappeared just as it was completed. For more details, watch the show.
The five major empires at the time are the Earth Alliance, the Minbari Federation, the Centauri Empire, the Narn Regime, and the Vorlons, along with a league of minor powers in our region of the galaxy. Earth decided to build these stations after a group of Earth warships misinterpreted a Minbari gesture of respect during first contact, firing upon them and killing the Minbari leader in the process. This sparked off the afore-mentioned war 10 years prior to the events of the series very nearly caused the extinction of the human race at the hands of the technologically superior and enigmatic Minbari. For reasons not known to all but a tiny handful on Earth at the time, the Minbari surrendered at the very last instant when they were quite literally at Earth’s doorstep, for reasons that are explored in detail in the second season of the series, and if you want to know, well, like I said before, you’ll just have to watch the show.
The Centauri and Narn absolutely and unequivocally hate each other. They will try and kill each other at the quite literally the slightest provocation. The Centauri act much as the ancient Roman aristocracy did on Earth, living in decadence, obsessed with the accumulation of power and title for themselves and their noble families, while the Narn, who were under the Centauri’s boot, and suffered the Centauri lash for over a century before their recent independence, long for the day where they do to the Centauri what had been done to the Narn for so long.
The Vorlons are even more of an enigma than the Minbari. By far, the most technologically advanced race of the five major empires, nobody knows what they really look like, as they are constantly encased in special “encounter suits”; they could destroy the station and not even notice they had done it, the same way we would swat a mosquito away without a second thought. Constantly speaking in riddles and giving confusing half-answers to questions (assuming someone even gets an answer at all), the Vorlons claim the suits are environmental support systems since they cannot breathe our atmosphere, but whether this is true is left to be explored in the series. As for the other, minor races, they have their own agendas as well, and trying to get them to agree on anything makes herding cats seem like taking candy from a baby by comparison.
JMS: The Man The Myth, The Sci Fi Legend
OK, enough backstory. One of the reasons for the show’s enduring popularity was the series’ creator, J. Michael Straczynski, or JMS as he was affectionately referred to by fans, decided to create a sci fi show unlike anything anyone had seen before. On the advice of legendary sci fi writer Harlan Ellison, who served as a consultant to JMS throughout the series, instead of just having some alien-of-the-week, or the characters lurching from one random quandry to the next, the entire series had a defined beginning, middle and an end. JMS had actually taken the time to map out the entire 5 season span of the series, including the characters, plotlines, everything. This was something never before attempted in any television show before, let alone a sci fi show, outside perhaps soap operas, and even those were more haphazardly done than what JMS was attempting.
And on the off chance an actor had to leave or otherwise became unavailable due to illness, JMS even included so-called “trap doors” whereby they could leave the show without impeding the overall plot of the show, and it could go on with a new, identical character, or the existing ones picking up the slack. This was used to great effect when the original star of the show, Michael O’Hare, was forced to leave at the end of the first season. Tragically, he was battling schizophrenia at the time, and it was becoming increasingly debilitating as the first season progressed, to the point that it was forcing him to miss more work, and straining relationships between him and the rest of the show’s cast & crew. JMS, the only person fully aware of O’Hare’s condition at the time, even offered to delay production of the show so he could seek the help he needed but O’Hare refused, stating that he didn’t want so many people to be out of work for so long on his account. JMS thus used the trap door to replace O’Hare with a new character, Capt. Sheridan, played by TV veteran Bruce Boxleitner, and the in-show explanation was that O’Hare’s character, Cmdr. Sinclair was promoted to Ambassador and transferred to the Minbari’s homeworld as the first human allowed permanent residence. JMS also honored O’Hare’s request to keep his illness a secret until after O’Hare’s death in 2012.
Treading New Physical Ground
The show itself was also revolutionary for other things. It was one of the only television shows to accurately depict Newtonian physics in space as they really should be, with things moving in relatively straight lines until a force moves them in a different direction, not how other shows depict them, with arching and arcing maneuvers like fighter jets. JMS actually consulted with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Labs and they were so impressed with the show’s ships that they even asked JMS for the design schematics of the “Starfury” Earth fighter to use in space because the design was just what they were looking for to use in space construction. In addition, the show made extensive use of computer generated graphics, which at the time was still very uncommon, even in sci fi shows. All the ships, planets, the station itself, were all computer generated, and there were some scenes that were entirely computer generated. Even the station, which rotated to generate gravity, spun at the correct rotation, because one of the show’s crew, who had a background in Physics, actually took the time to calculate the amount of rotational speed needed to generate the artificial gravity on the station, since they knew the station’s mass, dimensions and just needed to plug in the numbers.
Acting & Writing
As mentioned before, I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the acting and the writing. Much of the praise heaped upon Babylon 5 by fans and critics alike centered around the acting and writing of the show. Many of the actors, veterans in their own right of stage and screen were pitch-perfect for their roles. Two prime examples were Peter Jurasik, who played Centauri Ambassador Londo Mollari, and Andreas Katsulas, who played his archrival, Narn Ambassador G’Kar respectively. While their characters were the most bitter of enemies, the two actors were the best of friends off-screen, and such excellent and consummate actors, they almost never needed more than two to three takes to complete a scene together. In fact, their scenes together were also hailed as some of the best of the series, and (a bit of a spoiler alert) the poignant speech about freedom G’Kar gave in the council chambers when his world fell to the Centauri was voted one of the greatest moments in sci fi television history. On a personal note, I have to say, that scene really was a tear jerker, and you could see just how well Katsulas understood G’Kar’s ever-crumbling pride, which was eventually transmuted into something much greater and noble further on in the show.
Also during the show, JMS, took great pains to insert various gags in the show to break the tension of often highly charged episodes. These gags included the Fasten/Zip conversation, the incident with the teddy bear, Vir’s hangover, and Londo driving himself almost to the point of insanity trying to understand the meaning of the “Hokey Pokey”, along with so many others.
It was a testament to the amazing writing JMS put forth, as he personally wrote 92 of the 110 episodes of the show. In fact, JMS was the first person in TV history to personally write two entire seasons of any show, sci fi or otherwise, a feat which has not been duplicated. And as mentioned before, Harlan Ellison, a giant in the field of science fiction literature and television scripts, and known for his abrasive personality and not suffering fools gladly, counted JMS among his few real friends, served as a conceptual consultant to JMS throughout the show. Ellison helped the show immensely by raising the quality of the show’s writing, giving JMS sound advice throughout the entire process. He took such pride in the work that when the episode “Grey 17 is Missing” aired and was very poorly received by fans, JMS posted online that he was willing, at his own expense, to come knock on the door of every single Babylon 5 fan with hat in hand and personally apologize for how poorly the episode turned out.
Speaking of writing, the show itself didn’t exactly shy away from a host of controversial topics over the course of the series. Among the topics covered were war, peace, transgenerational trauma, dealing with the death of loved ones (especially suicide), the difficulty in letting go of past hatreds, religion (both the good and the bad aspects), addiction, political machinations, mental health, PTSD, sexuality, the homeless, totalitarian regimes, assassinations, doing what is right vs. what is convenient for the greater good, skewed journalism, Stockholm Syndrome, dealing with minorities, the list goes on. While they were things that other sci fi shows might have glossed over or sugar-coated, Babylon 5 was not afraid to face these head on, not in a preachy in-your-face way, but in a very human, matter-of-fact way, that showed the tragic cost and unintended effects of these things on others, and that no matter how well intentioned our actions & decisions might have been in doing things, actions have consequences, and sometimes those consequences don’t show up for a while, but when they do, the results can be completely unexpected and can really blow up in your face, sometimes quite literally. It also showed that humans still had a lot of the same emotional baggage in the year 2257 that they did in the late 20th century, and took it all with them to the stars.
B5 & The Internet
Babylon 5 was one of the first shows to take full advantage of the early days of the Internet, as it was still in its infancy compared to today. It made extensive use of UseNets, especially on the CompuServe and GEnie systems prior to the Internet coalescing into the juggernaut it is today. Fans would dissect every single episode that had just aired, and even JMS himself would occasionally post and interact with fans in the rec.arts.sf.tv.babylon5.moderated group. In fact, the station’s location in space in “Grid Epsilon” is an oblique reference to the GEnie system, and websites have since sprung up, like the Lurker’s Guide to Babylon 5, a Babylon 5 fansite still around today, listing character bio’s, a breakdown of every episode, alien races, technology, terminology, everything you could ever need to bone up on the series, or in case there was something you might have overlooked or missed during a particular episode. There are also countless groups now on Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere online for B5 fans to gather, trade stories of interactions with JMS, the cast, and share stories of how the show changed their lives or just debate which episode is the best.
Babylon 5 Vs. DS9
Now, I would be completely remiss again if I didn’t mention something else regarding Babylon 5, and that has to do with the marked similarity it has with another sci fi show that was around at the same time, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. DS9’s overall plot, casting and many other aspects of the show were so similar to Babylon 5 that B5 fans felt that Paramount had plagiarized the show. In fact, even JMS himself admitted that he pitched Babylon 5 to Paramount in the late 80’s while he was still working out many details of the show, which is why, despite a number of differences between the two, there are still so many similarities, according to B5 fans. JMS himself has said there was no plagiarism involved, but this has still led to a level of friction between Babylon 5 and Deep Space 9 fans, even to this day. Babylon 5 made a concerted effort to bury the hatchet by having Majel Barrett, the widow of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, as a prominent guest star on the show, prophesying Londo’s future in one of the show’s most pivotal episodes.
There is so much more to Babylon 5 than I could possibly write in this posting, which is all the more reason that, if you’re a fan of not just sci fi, but good television, you really should watch it. Even though the show never got the respect it deserved during its initial run because there was the constant threat of cancellation, which was a big part of the reason why (full disclosure) the original 5th season had to be squished into the 4th season, and , and the 5th season that aired seemed to be a bit sub-par at times, but that doesn’t in any way diminish the overall accomplishment, story, acting, and everything else that went into the essence that was such a giant in the field of sci fi that was Babylon 5.
All 5 seasons of B5 are currently streaming on HBO Max, and it’s well worth the monthly subscription price. In fact, a reboot of the series is already in the works, with JMS himself at the helm, who has confirmed he has already written the reboot’s pilot episode, and is just waiting for the green light from the CW to film it and eventually air it in the next couple of years, a testament to the enduring popularity of the show.