25 years ago today, Babylon 5 premiered on American television. Today science fiction fans still speak of it in mixed terms, both proudly and embarrassingly. But Babylon 5 was an important SF television series, and is worth recognition today.
This new series, written by J. Michael Straczynski, gained unfortunate renown at first for being not Star Trek to audiences and critics. And when it first appeared, there didn’t seem to be anything to rise it above the many Star Trek series or movies (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine premiered weeks before Babylon 5, leading to obvious comparisons). Often, those comparisons left the show lacking.
For instance: Babylon 5 featured totally computer-generated space scenes, ships and effects, produced on the Amiga computer system, with the idea of saving production money by avoiding expensive spaceships and optical effects. Although it did trim the budget, the effects weren’t up to the quality of the effects seen on Star Trek, or in innumerable SF movies.
Also, the sets had an overall cheaper, less-polished feel than Trek sets. Although there were very unique designs that went into the show, with a lot of variety befitting a series about many races, the lack of “prettiness,” for lack of a better term, didn’t endear audiences. (This same “dark” look, with a little more money spent on it, would turn out to be plenty popular when the Battlestar: Galactica reboot premiered.)
And there had been some very interesting choices made with the appearance of the aliens. Although some, like the Minbari and Narn were well-received (it didn’t hurt that the production found very capable actors to fill the roles of G’Kar and Delenn—Andreas Katsulas and Mira Furlan, respectively), the appearance of the old-Russia-inspired Centauri Republic (personified by veteran actor Peter Jurasic as Londo Mollari, and featuring semi-circular crowns of hair on the men—bald females—and attire that would inspire steampunk ensembles for decades) was off-putting to many viewers at first. Ironic that SF fans had been by then skewering Star Trek for featuring alien characters as “actors with nose appliances” for so long, but one alien among the many sophisticated alien designs of B5 would bother them so much.
Finally, Babylon 5 got off to a slow and shaky start… much like like Star Trek (both the original series and The Next Generation, the series had to stop and explain so much at the start that almost the entire first season seemed like setup. And mostly boring setup, at that… personified by the long-winded show-opening voice-over (which I won’t repeat here), which so many SF shows are convinced their series needs to be understood by the slightly-dull masses. It wasn’t until near the end of the first season, when strange signals precede an unexpected appearance from the Babylon 4 station, stuck in time, that the first hints of a deeper story appear.
And it is this deeper story that is the hallmark of Babylon 5: After the often clumsy writing that highlighted many episodes of the first season, the second season began to build a much deeper and more extensive story, the Shadow War… and the viewer begins to see the connections that were made in season 1 that connect all of the main characters to this new story arc. It was, in fact, the first series-long story arc in an SF series, the first attempt to build such an all-encompassing storyline in television SF.
The Shadow War series, which essentially took place over 4 seasons, reveals a building conflict between alien races as far above humans as humans are above ants… and interestingly, those higher races are fighting to be the guardians of the lower races (like us), and arguing over philosophical differences. Over the ensuing seasons, we see the brinksmanship between the higher races and the lower, as well as the intense conflicts between the lower races vying for their own control of their corner of the galaxy.
Eventually, the conflict is ended when the lower races reject the idea of interference from the higher races, at which point the higher races agree to stop bothering us, and leave for another part of the galaxy. This was laudable for its being so unlike the usual blow-everything-up or stalemate solutions that are so popular in SF TV and movies (even, increasingly, in Star Trek). It was one of the better attempts to present humans as capable of creating our own future, even in a space that could be so much stranger and hostile than we could ever imagine. Not to mention showing the audience that violence isn’t the only answer.
But perhaps because of all this… because fans and audiences don’t have an exploding death-star or the fiery destruction of nasty alien races to point to… the series is slowly fading into memory, its series-long arc remembered, but nothing else.
My favorite element of Babylon 5 was the station itself: A massive and mostly self-sufficient space facility, revolving to create its own gravity, and partitioned with multiple environments inside to allow aliens from different planets to coexist. The station was, as its name implied, supposed to be a place where all of these aliens could live and work together, smooth over each others’ differences, and help form a galaxy-wide alliance of races. The series itself brought characters together that had many differing and conflicting views, backgrounds and histories… and yet, found ways to force these characters together, to find common ground (and common enemies), and eventually, to make peace with each other.
Of course, no utopia is perfect, and many fans got their greatest enjoyment from watching the ongoing battles between Londo and G’Kar, the diplomats-cum-leaders who started the series as little more than comedy relief, and ended the series literally, tragically, at each other’s throats. Both characters became nigh-mythical figures by their end. Other characters experienced love, hate, loss, sacrifice, jealousy, avarice, religious persecution, xenophobia… subjects such as authoritarianism, thought-crime, privacy and sexual preferences… a much longer laundry-list of experiences than fans saw on Trek productions.
My greatest personal memory is of the episode wherein Captain Sheridan is trapped on the wrong side of a door and about to be killed. Lennier, Delenn’s assistant (and secretly in love with her) finds him, but realizes that he can choose not to save Sheridan, and have Delenn to himself… and he takes it, intentionally walking away and leaving Sheridan to die! Sheridan is (naturally) saved anyway; and Lennier, realizing his act and his incredible shame is revealed, runs away and joins the Rangers, to be as far away from Sheridan and Delenn as possible.
To be sure, Babylon 5 reached some heady moments… but its character moments were deep—sometimes 3 octaves down deep—and we didn’t see such well-developed character moments on any other SF series until shows like Lost and Galactica.
So, it wasn’t the production that was memorable about Babylon 5; it was the series-long story arc, the well-developed characters and deeep character moments, and the well-thought-out vision of our place in the cosmos, that set this series apart. Though other series have since taken similar cues and done a great job with them, Babylon 5 should be recognized by SF fans as the show that taught them all how it was done.
Read more about Babylon 5 on Wikipedia.