One downside to all the streaming services popping up is that content on basic and pay cable services is being thinned out; a quick glance at the many channels I have show fewer TV shows, or the same shows being run over and over. The upside to that is that I’m watching more of the DVDs and DVD collections I already own. Right now, my wife and I are rewatching Babylon 5, for the first time since its original run on TV.
Babylon 5 is now 28 years old since its first appearance on American television. It came out when there was a dearth of science fiction television that didn’t have Star Trek in the title, and the Trek franchise had a distinct influence on the series, as well as being a barometer against which the new series would be forced to stand. And in some ways, the initial comparison didn’t look good.
Babylon 5‘s production was noticeably inferior to Paramount’s Trek productions; Warner Brothers Domestic Television, the show supporters, were stingy when it came to financing the series (which, considering how tight Paramount really was in financing Trek productions, is saying something). Special effects were most notable in inequality, as they were infamously created using off-the-shelf Amiga computers, and in a different filming format than the live action content, which Warner refused to equalize in post-production. The series was given an electronic score which sounded cheap and thin compared to the orchestral sound given to Star Trek and other high-budget SF movies. Sets were small, cramped and dimly-lit, belying the supposed scale of the titular station.
And it probably didn’t help that Babylon 5‘s first season suffered from the same issues that Star Trek: The Next Generation had, namely, overcoming its own novelty. Those stories featured a lot of awkward personal infodumps and character setups that were cringeworthy at best, many given by unseasoned actors still trying to figure out the whole space-show-with-aliens-and-telepaths-and-what-am-I-wearing? thing. Certain acting and directing gags were repeated so much in the first season that you could have made drinking games around them. And dialogue quality throughout the series was all over the place, at times inspired, and at more often times sounding like the kind of writing you’d expect from a comic book writer.
But with all that said, Babylon 5 had qualities seen in few science fiction series, before or even since. The series creator, J. Michael Straczynski, had had a long-term vision for the series, a coherent multi-season arc based around the main characters discovering they were being used as pawns in a galactic war between more powerful alien races that they had barely a clue about, and having to take a stand for themselves in that war. The series, in fact, started in the middle of this epic, and gives us an ending decades after the epic is essentially over. Straczynski once described the show as doing “what Hill Street Blues had done for police dramas:” Rarely seen in SF television, characters evolved and stories didn’t just “reset” the universe at the end of each episode. The premise was highly evolved SF (as much as stories with scores of intelligent aliens can be, at any rate), more intelligent overall than most content rolled out by Star Trek or any other space-based series. The series was solely responsible for the trend of overarching story arcs enjoyed by the remake of Battlestar Galactica and other SF shows since.
That arc included major sub-arcs of various alien races and individuals in those races, particularly the Ambassadors G’Kar, Londo Mollari, Delenn and their aides. Early on, the Ambassadors and aides almost seemed to be good only for comic relief; but over the seasons, the conflict between G’Kar’s Narn race and Londo’s Centauri race, which evolved into a deeply intimate war between the G’kar and Londo, became the predominent B-plot to the series and created the most increasingly energetic and compelling moments of the series. And Delenn’s transformation at the end of season one, when added to her apparent, almost prescient knowledge of their role in the greater story arc, gave her a gravitas that added to her magnetic personality.
They put a lot of work into their aliens, too, going much further than Star Trek‘s fabled “nose prosthetics” to create their less-prominent humanoid aliens. Entire head prosthetics were regularly used, combined with contacts and even dentures, with costuming that made even B5’s minor alien races look like they hadn’t robbed a backlot wardrobe room before arriving on stage. Considering their budget, this couldn’t have been easy, and there are many occasions when aliens in a scene are noticeably mute… because someone just pulled a simple rubber mask over their head to do a scene.
Couple this with the fact that the series featured more aliens, visible crowds of aliens and non-humanoid aliens than any series, and the feat of production is incredible. The only show that put more work and creativity into non-humanoid aliens was Farscape (created by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop), but they didn’t come close to B5 in sheer quantity.
Yes, Babylon 5 was incredibly ambitious for a show that many doubted would get past two seasons, much less finish up their unique long-term arc. It started out so rough that it was hard to take the series seriously, even as the first mysteries started to appear around the Star Trek-lite episodes. But those brave (or desperate) enough to stay on the ride found themselves witnessing memorable and quotable television moments: G’Kar warning a freighter pilot about beings in space as far above us as we are to ants; Delenn’s version of Carl Sagan’s “starstuff” quote delivered to Sheridan; Vir’s “goodbye” to Mr. Morden; Lenier’s shocking betrayal of Sheridan; and G’Kar’s proclamation that, no matter how long it takes, the Narn would be free. Not to mention Zathras saying absolutely anything. Poor Zathras.
As I rewatch the series, I find myself mentally baring my teeth to get past the cringeworthy moments, the inadequate sets and effects… because I know that, when you dig deep enough, occasional pearls are revealed; and their incredible shining beauty more than make up for the time spent in the mud. For all its rough edges, Babylon 5 was a historic series worthy of more than the accolades it gets.