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Babylon 5

Entry updated 10 November 2023. Tagged: TV.

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US tv series (1993-1998). Babylonian Productions for Warner Bros. Television. Created by J Michael Straczynski. Producers include Straczynski, John Copeland, and Douglas Netter. Directors include Michael Vejar, David J Eagle, Janet Greek, and Jim Johnston. Writers include Straczynski, Lawrence G DiTillio, D C Fontana, Peter David, Harlan Ellison, and Neil Gaiman. Cast includes Richard Biggs (Doctor Stephen Franklin), Bruce Boxleitner (Captain John Sheridan; season 2-5), Claudia Christian (Commander Susan Ivanova), Jerry Doyle (Michael Garibaldi), Mira Furlan (Delenn), Stephne Furst (Vir Cotto), Peter Jurasik (Londo Molari), Andreas Katsulas (G'Kar), Bill Mumy (Lennier) and Michael O'Hare (Commander Jeffrey Sinclair; season 1). 120-minute pilot aired 1993. 110 60-minute episodes aired 1994-1998.

One of the most important milestones in the growth of genre Television and in the development of the serialized model as the dominant form of televised storytelling, Babylon 5 is seen to best advantage when considered as a trailblazer and formal innovator. A closer look at the series as a piece of storytelling, particularly on the part of fans who discovered it in their teens and embraced it as an alternative to Star Trek, will likely lead only to disillusionment and disappointment.

Spanning the period 2258-2262 (each season takes place over the course of a single calendar year), Babylon 5 is set aboard the titular Space Station, a commercial and diplomatic hub administered by humans in the hopes of fostering peaceful relations in a galaxy recently wracked by several wars. The human crew is headed in the first season by Commander Geoffrey Sinclair and in later seasons by Captain John Sheridan, and their senior staff includes Commander Susan Ivanova, Security Chief Michael Garibaldi, and Doctor Stephen Franklin. The major Alien races include the Minbari, with whom humanity recently engaged in a costly and ambiguously-resolved war, whose representatives on the station are Delenn and her aide Lennier (Mumy, whose best-known role until Babylon 5 was as Will Robinson of Lost in Space [1965-1968]); the Centauri, a fading empire whose ambassador, Londo Molari, quickly informs his new aide Vir Cotto that their assignment to the station is a sign that they've been consigned to the diplomatic scrap-heap; the Narn, a species colonized and oppressed by the Centauri for decades, who have recently gained their independence and whose ambassador, G'Kar, is charged with establishing and cementing their military and political dominance in the new galactic scene; and the Vorlons, a mysterious, old and extremely powerful race whose members wear mechanical encounter suits. No one knows what their ambassador, Kosh, even looks like, and he speaks mainly in riddles.

In its first season Babylon 5 told mainly self-contained stories while hinting at larger mysteries – why did the Minbari call off their attack on Earth at the last minute, and what does this have to do with Sinclair's inability to remember the decisive battle in which he was missing in action for more than a day? What caused the disappearance of the previous station, Babylon 4? – and slowly building up hints of Political developments on Earth, Minbar, and Centauri Prime. In the second and particularly the third season these storylines gradually take over the series until it becomes the entirely novelistic story of an all-out galactic War. The Vorlons and another species, the Shadows, emerge as puppet masters who have manipulated the various races, and who orchestrate coups, wars, and genocides in order to achieve their ultimate goal of Uplift these species. Sheridan and Delenn become the leaders of an interspecies military alliance dedicated to defeating the Shadows (who have also played a part in Earth's descent into martial law – the latter half of the fourth season sees Sheridan leading a partly-alien fleet back to Earth to liberate it) and later force both them and the Vorlons to leave the younger races alone, forming the Federation-like Interstellar Alliance.

Babylon 5 came as an enormous shock to a Fandom for whom Star Trek (and particularly Star Trek: The Next Generation [1987-1994]) was the dominant televisual paradigm. The appearance of the station and behavior of the show's characters, so different from the Enterprise's gleaming corridors and its crew's formal (and sometimes stilted) manner, showed up the older series and its increasingly unfashionable Utopian agenda. The series prominently featured Aliens whose alienness came to more than a few ridges on their nose, and gave them their own storylines and internal disputes. It shied away from a stark division between white hats and black hats, often forcing its characters into moral compromises and deals with the devil. Its appearance was also innovative – the series spearheaded the use of CGI technology in its space scenes, and eschewed the by-then codified appearance of Star Trek's Spaceships in favor of its own designs, which were often less sleek and more garishly coloured. Most importantly, Babylon 5 was a single, continuous story at a time when television in general and Star Trek in particular seemed firmly rooted in the episodic model, rarely carrying over plotlines or even character development from one episode to another and often ending a particularly momentous story with the dreaded "reset button" which returned the series to its status quo. That Babylon 5 was a televised novel, conceived as such from its origin and fully planned out before the pilot was even filmed (Straczynski is credited as writer for 92 of the show's 110 episodes, including all of the third and fourth seasons, and even joked that he would have liked to be nominated for the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation for the entire third season) which demanded viewers' loyalty and close attention made it enormously appealing to the geek mindset, as did the fact that plot developments were seeded and hinted at well in advance, creating an opportunity for greater audience involvement as fans tried to piece together the clues they'd been given into a picture of revelations yet to come. Even as its ratings remained earthbound, Babylon 5's popularity among fans soared. It became the cool, hip show to Star Trek's square fuddy-duddiness (not helping matters was the fact that the second Star Trek spinoff, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine [1993-1999], which premiered in the same year as the Babylon 5 pilot, was also set on a Space Station administered by Starfleet and visited by non-Federation aliens, which only forced a greater comparison between the two fictional universes), to the extent that by the end of its run Deep Space Nine was making halting attempts to follow in Babylon 5's footsteps by crafting its own storyline about a galactic War and moving towards arc-driven storytelling.

As is often the case, however, the shock of the new and the very fact of innovation served to obscure, or even make irrelevant, the question of how well that innovation was being handled. A less star-struck revaluation of Babylon 5 reveals a series marred by technical and writerly flaws. Most fans accept that the series' first season, which was dominated by standalone episodes largely unrelated to its overarching plot, and its fifth, which was hastily rewritten after a fourth season cancellation had forced Straczynski to cram much of the fifth season's story into the end of the fourth, leaving not enough story to tell when the show was picked up by another network at the last minute, were sub-par, but even the allegedly magical second, third, and fourth seasons are hobbled by Straczynski's limitations as a writer. The dialogue is leaden and trite, often shading into overwrought soliloquies (G'Kar, who starts out one of the series' most engaging characters, is almost undone by this tendency; by the fourth season he never seems to open his mouth except to deliver a speech). It is rarely elevated by the cast's acting. Though some cast members have charisma (Doyle, Mumy, Furst, Jason Carter as heartthrob Marcus Cole, a member of the joint human-Minbari Ranger force who are at the vanguard of the fight against the Shadows), few bring real talent to the table and some, like O'Hare, are simply awful. (Notable exceptions include Jurasik, Katsulas, and Star Trek alumnus Walter Koenig as the Telepath Alfred Bester – a nod to Alfred Bester, author of The Demolished Man [January-March 1952 Galaxy; 1953], which introduced him and his books to a generation of young readers – a manipulative apparatchik in Earth's Psy Corps, which regulates and controls the lives of human telepaths, who spends the series hatching various schemes to augment the Corps's power and plays just about every faction to his own ultimate advantage). Character arcs are often mawkish (the romance between Sheridan and Delenn, which is endangered by his lingering feelings for his dead wife, her concealment of the fact that said wife is still alive but an agent of the Shadows, and his temporary death at the Shadow stronghold of Z'ha'dum, is a prime example, as are Franklin and Garibaldi's struggles with substance abuse). Even the vaunted story is not, once the fact of its construction over the course of five seasons is put aside, so very impressive – its basic building blocks are familiar and the handling of individual elements (such as the rise of totalitarianism on Earth or the Centauri's willingness to ally themselves with the Shadows in order to regain their status as a galactic power) is riddled with poor writing and clichés and often badly paced, rushing through some plot points and trudging through others in order to hit the predetermined high points of the series' five-year structure. Nevertheless it is nothing short of astonishing that Straczynski should have conceived of, much less succeeded in bringing to life, so ambitious a project, and the magnitude of that accomplishment should not be downplayed, but it does not make Babylon 5 a good piece of television.

Despite these flaws, Babylon 5 remains one of the most well-regarded genre series of the last two decades, winning two Best Dramatic Presentation Hugos, for the second-season episode "The Coming of Shadows" (1995) and the third-season episode "Severed Dreams" (1996); and Straczynski, though he has failed to replicate its success and fannish appeal in his later projects, is still one of the most respected names in the group of genre auteurs to emerge from the 1990s and 2000s.

Babylon 5's influence, however, is hard to gauge. Serialized storytelling, morally murky characterization, and an emphasis on Politics and the issues of the day have become popular, often necessary elements in the television of the late 1990s and the 2000s, both in and out of genre, but whether Babylon 5 served as an inspiration to later creators or whether it was simply an early, and particularly comprehensive, expression of an already-developing trend is unclear. Certainly no genre series has emerged as its direct imitator, perhaps because the building blocks from which its story was constructed were already borrowed from older sources. A myriad Tie-in products, mainly books and Comics, were produced during the series' run (though unusually for such projects, these were directly sanctioned by Straczynski and based on outlines written by him). Novels spun off from the series began with Babylon 5, Book #1: Voices (1995) by John Vornholt; further authors of novel Ties include Neal Barrett Jr, Jean Cavelos and Peter David, while Andy Lane produced the unofficial The Babylon File: The Definitive Unauthorized Guide to J Michael Straczynski's TV Series, Babylon 5 (1997) and its sequel.

There were also several on-screen projects set in the series' universe. A spinoff series, Crusade (1999), set five years after the show's events and centring around an Alliance Spaceship, was just as poorly written as the worst of the first season's episodes but had nowhere near as interesting a plot hook, and was justly cancelled after half a season. Three television movies were produced in 1998 – In the Beginning (1998) tells the story of the human-Minbari war, while Thirdspace (1998) and River of Souls (1998) tell self-contained stories set during the series' run. They are all quite bad. Later Straczynski attempted to spin the series off again by producing another movie, To Live and Die in Starlight (2002), for The Sci Fi Channel, which was to act as a backdoor pilot for a series called «Legends of the Rangers», but poor ratings left this series unproduced. In 2007 Straczynski wrote and produced the first instalment of a proposed direct-to-DVD anthology series called Babylon 5: The Lost Tales (2007). The first DVD included two stories and featured actors from the original series and Crusade, but it sold poorly and received lukewarm reviews, and Straczynski has announced that he has no plans to produce a second volume. [AN]

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