"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.