On My Shelves: Babylon 5




"It was the dawn of the third age of mankind, ten years after the Earth-Minbari War. The Babylon Project was a dream given form. Its goal: to prevent another war by creating a place where humans and aliens could work out their differences peacefully. It's a port of call, home away from home for diplomats, hustlers, entrepreneurs, and wanderers. Humans and aliens wrapped in two million, five hundred thousand tons of spinning metal, all alone in the night. It can be a dangerous place, but it's our last, best hope for peace. This is the story of the last of the Babylon stations.

The year is 2258. The name of the place is Babylon 5."


     If Star Trek was the TV series that first defined what television SF could be, it was Babylon 5 that first realized that potential. The creation of J. Michael Straczynski (often informally just called JMS), Babylon 5 (as the quote above says) is the story of the huge space station Babylon 5 – its crew, the ambassadors who live and work there, and the others whose lives are changed by what happens on and around the station.


     It is also the story of humankind's true emergence into the Galaxy as a power to be reckoned with, and one whose greatest power lies not in being meaner, or more powerful, or wiser, but more willing to cooperate, to forge cooperation with others, be they human or alien. Despite many dark events and terrifying ideas, Babylon 5 is ultimately a hopeful story, a story in a universe that assumes human beings are more good than they are evil.


     Unlike most prime-time series of the time, Babylon 5 was a long-running serial show – a series whose episodes, while usually reasonably self-contained, were all interconnected and told parts of a long overarching set of story "arcs" that formed a single tale. You could not come into Babylon 5 in the middle of Season 3 and expect to understand everything that was going on, nor to skip a few episodes and be able to pick things right back up, the way that one generally could with most episodic shows in which, as TVTropes puts it, "Status Quo is God".


     This of course was both a great strength and a terrible weakness for the show over the long run; a strength in that if people became interested in the story, it became far more powerful, complex, and fascinating over time, but a weakness because it required more effort or time invested to gain that interest, and had a harder time winning new viewers who came in during the middle of its run.


     Technically, Babylon 5 – or B5, as it is often called –  was also innovative, using computer graphics extensively to create its special effects, including spaceships and much of the Babylon 5 station itself. This was very advanced indeed for its time (B5 premiered in 1994). Several of the ship designs, especially those of the Vorlons and Shadows, were extremely evocative and visually striking.


     But it was the story and the characters that ultimately made B5 work. The focus of the story was often around the human characters – Captain Sinclair (Season 1) or Captain Sheridan (Season 2-4 with appearances in  Season 5), Commander Susan Ivanova, Security Chief Garibaldi – but just as often was taken by the major nonhuman characters, Londo Mollari, G'Kar, and Delenn. Characters changed and grew with the series, even in the first season, proving again and again the truth of a dictum that G'Kar had stated early on: "None of us on Babylon 5 are precisely what we seem."


     Nowhere was this more true than with Ambassador Londo Mollari of the Centauri Empire and Ambassador G'Kar of the Narn Regime. The two begin as rivals, with G'Kar seeming perhaps the less likable of the two at first; Londo appears to be that classic, the washed-up diplomat sent up to some far-off assignment where he can do neither harm nor achieve anything of note, while G'Kar shows himself as a scheming, manipulating bastard, taking joy in often petty humiliations of Londo.


     There is, however, much more to both characters, and their backgrounds. The Centauri had conquered and ruled over Narn for many years prior to being (relatively recently) kicked off of Narn, and relations between the two races are never far from the boiling point. It is at that fracture point that the two men of different worlds exist, and the pressure of two worlds meets precisely where they do. It is little wonder that, like diamonds, they undergo transformations under such pressure.


     Londo exhibits both pettiness and heroism… but his great weakness is pride, both for himself and, more strongly, for the nostalgic recollection of the greatness of their Empire which once had been the most powerful of the star nations, and is now in a Roman-like decline. It is that weakness that the true villains of the saga play upon, making him a catspaw and, for some time, a monster (even if one in denial). Once he realizes how terribly he has erred, and how he has been "played", that same pride in his nation is his strength, giving him the will to accept his own sins, to repent for what he has done, and seek to make as much right as he can.


     G'Kar, on the other hand, is more a bitter revolutionary who is driven by honor, pride, and – to be honest – fear, fear of losing the freedoms that his people have fought for so hard and long. It is this (well-concealed) fear that drives him to often questionable decisions; it is his basic honor and pride (not ego) which allow him to evade, in the end, the worst snares laid for him, although he pays a heavy price for his errors.


     In many ways, much of the entire story of Babylon 5 is that of these two people – adversaries who become mortal enemies, then allies, then eventually true friends – and their effect on those around them.


     But to focus solely on those two characters – no matter how strong they are, and they are very strong indeed – would be to do a disservice to the rest of the series. B5 is also the story of cosmic manipulation on a scale as vast as a galaxy, over periods of time measured in millennia and longer. It is the story of human (and alien) courage, love, and will. It is a tale of alliance, betrayal, fear, joy, mystery, terror, and enlightenment.


     Babylon 5 is space opera at its finest – shining heroes, villains so terrible as to send chills down one's spine, mysteries as deep as space and courage as strong and enduring as the stars themselves. I have watched it several times over the years, and I have no doubt I'll watch it several times again. One of the things that makes it worth watching are the details – events, phrases, even single words or glances that suddenly become of vast significance five, ten, even twenty episodes later, so that the viewer says with enlightenment, "oh, so that's what he meant!". There are few random, meaningless, isolated events, very few episodes that happen with no repercussions or ramifications. Devices, people, or creatures seen in one episode are not forgotten, but remembered and used or brought in when they become relevant. This makes the universe of B5 much more of a living world.


     B5 is also a considerable inspiration to me, and Grand Central Arena certainly owes something to B5 for its final form; I have often described GCA as being "Babylon 5 meets Stargate as written by Doc Smith". While I haven't taken anything from B5 directly, the general approach of the factions certainly echoes the diplomatic wing of the Babylon station.


     And when I read the novels out loud, the voice of Orphan is that of Andreas Katsulas, who played G'Kar. Somehow it fits, in my head.


     If you have not seen Babylon 5, give it a try. Remember that it is an ongoing story; do not judge by an isolated episode or three, but begin at the first episode and watch in sequence. I will note that some people say begin with Season 2, but I happen to very much like Season 1, and there are a lot of vital events in Season 1 whose consequences will seem to come out of left field if you haven't watched the first season. But give it a try the way we were advised to by our friend who introduced us to it; he gave us a tape with the first five or so episodes and said "If you finish that tape and don't want to see any more, it's not for you."


     The next day we were calling him up, demanding the other episodes.


     Maybe… just maybe… the same magic will happen for you, too.







  1. Somebody turned on B5 while we were eating dinner, before starting a gaming session… and I dismissed it as a poor Star Trek clone with nothing going for it.

    Well, I was wrong.

    A few years later I was bored, flipping channels — do you remember when that was a thing people did? I’m happy we’re done with that — and watched the remainder of an early Season 4 episode. Even without context, it was clear that this was something amazing. How did I miss it? How could I catch up?

    B5 was one of the first series I was aware of to have a fanbase that really used the internet. I found the Lurker’s Guide and read through it. A few years later TNT (I think) started airing episodes daily, in order, and I finally got a chance to see all of it. Wow.

  2. I have the entire series on DVD. But I did watch it when it was airing and have a few friends who watched it religiously with me. There was foreshadowing in this series that would only be apparent in later seasons and would leave the viewer gobsmacked.

    Just now almost finished re-watching the series with my wife. Took us two years

  3. Groblek (Brian Williams) says:

    My family started watching B5 together at the same time as season 2 of ST: Voyager as I recall – we came in sometime during season 2, and soon dropped Voyager because the “Status Quo is God” effect wasn’t tolerable once we had something to compare it to. I rewatched the series ~3 years ago as my wife hadn’t seen it, and was pleased to see that the story was just as good a second time through, though the effects that seemed cutting-edge to me at the time looked quite dated.

  4. I mark it entirely your fault that I have just ordered the series on DVD from Amazon. (Well, not specifically for ordering from Amazon, that was my choice and other options were available.) Perhaps not entirely, either, as I have wanted to watch the episodes in order instead of the total mash-up in which I actually saw less than a quarter of the series. Consider yourself a catalyst, at the very least.

  5. As someome who watched it as it aired (and was voting it for its hugos), it was one of two shows I was watching at the time and I could see where the other show was taking the story idea and trying to duplicate it. (Just not as successfully.). B5 still stands up to time as a good storm and a novel written for television. JMS was interacting and answering the questions as the show aired and the lurker’s guide did answer the questions we had at the time. We (the fans) did have some influence on the show on occasion. Hubble space shots were provided by one fan, another (when requested) provided a name of an element or a comapny. The lurker’s guide web page even got tuckerised as a ship name.

    The 5 seanons of the show and the movies are still worth watching, 20 years later. All of the books and the comic series (short lived as it was) are part of the cannon of the b5 universe. They do fill in a number of holes that did not make the tv show.

    Also, there is a condensed version of the story in the filk song “Five Years”, written and performed by Tom Smith.

  6. B5 was one of the few TV shows that didn’t drive me insane with inconsistencies and dropped arcs and… stuff. there aren’t a lot of shows that i’ve watched and REALLY watched [let’s see – all the Whedon shows. and… Dark Angel, Xena, BSG, Heroes for the 1st 2 seasons and… that’s about it. i’d watch Trek sometimes, but… i don’t really watch TV, never did] because of this problem. most shows just… can’t compare in ANY way to books. i’d rather read. *shrug* [and i’ll be honest – “Revolution”?! someone BETTER be giving S.M Stirling royalties for that! “Lost”? they lost the scripts! gah, drives me insane]

    i really should re-watch it. strangely, i never read any of the novels or comics – i don’t know why. hrm. i should do that, too. somehow…

  7. I still remember the moment in I think season 3 when watching it, after having just read a comment of JMS’s on lurkers guide that now the story could get moving since he finally had all the pieces in place, that it clicked and I realized exactly what story JMS was telling. He was telling us the story of the birth of an empire. These are the events and actions that happened to create a great empire. All the other stories of empire I had seen and read to that point had been during the empire or more often during the fall of the empire or its fall and rebirth.

    But here in this tale known as Babylon 5 we are seeing the first birth of a new empire. It was sitting there thinking about what pieces he had moved around that I realized he had placed Babylon 5 at the core of the axis of change that was coming. It was the point around which all was pivoting at that time. Certainly it didn’t remain the center but for a time it was the heart of the birth and the tales and stories of what happened at that time would go on to be the myths and legends of the new empire.

Your comments or questions welcomed!