Sunday, 20 May 2018

Thoughts on Babylon 5

On Pick (UK free-to-air channel 11), they often repeat sci-fi shows. I recently finished watching the full run of Babylon 5. And I’ve got to say, I thought it was pretty damned good. Despite being old enough to have once owned a walkman that only had three buttons (if you wanted to rewind you had to flip the cassette over and fast forward, then flip it back), I’d never seen Babylon 5 before, and it was interesting to see it a couple of decades after it aired.

Naturally, major spoilers abound in this discussion/review of the whole show.

Unlike most, maybe all, preceding sci-fi series, Babylon 5 was characterised by long-term story arcs and character development. Beginning with Jeffrey Sinclair (played by Michael O’Hare in series one, he had to leave due to sadly suffering from serious psychological problems) and then John Sheridan (Bruce Boxleitner) the show followed the leader and crew of the space station Babylon 5 as it sought to be a meeting place for alien races and thereby foster peace.

Besides the senior staff (second-in-command Ivanova, security chief Garibaldi, Dr. Franklin), show regulars include the ambassadors of various races: Delenn, the wise Minbari representative; Londo, the dissatisfied Centauri who dreams of the glorious past; G’Kar, the Narn who (initially) delights in tweaking Londo’s nose; and the mysterious Kosh, the ambassador of the highly advanced Vorlons who never gives a straight answer to anything.

Over the first four series (of five) we see the preamble to and then break out of galactic scale warfare, with the lesser races being unwitting pawns in a proxy war of ultra-advanced races. This coincides with, and is related to, coups occurring on both Centauri Prime (where the emperor gets replaced with a Caligula-style lunatic), and Earth (where the president is replaced with a tyrant fond of secret police).

A feature of the show is the smart writing. One exchange early on, between Ivanova and Dr. Franklin, was very sharp. The doctor is forcing his colleagues to eat more healthily. Ivanova doesn’t want to gain weight and complains about becoming part of the ever-expanding Russian frontier, to which Dr. Franklin replies: “But you have such lovely borders.”

The writing quality isn’t limited to the comedy, which is present but to a lesser extent than, say, Stargate: SG-1 (rightly so, given the varying tone of the shows). There’s a fantastic scene in which Sheridan confronts Kosh, begging for help because the war’s going badly and his own government wants him dead, whilst Kosh led Sheridan into the war but appears to be doing little to help. What’s great is that the scene works perfectly in itself, but a short time later the meaning of it is turned on its head as both Sheridan and the audience realise that Kosh’s actions and words did not mean what we thought at the time, with tragic consequences. “You do not understand. But you will.”

The usurper who becomes Earth’s president institutes the Night Watch, a sort of delator/informant network. There’s a chilling line (“sedition comes in small packets as well as large ones”) when Zack Allan, a good guy who finds himself walking down a dark road, questions whether inconsequential things (people saying they dislike the president) really need to be reported. It’s the type of telling, and disturbing, political realism that helps make Babylon 5 great.

Walter Koenig, best known as Chekhov in Star Trek, recurs as the Psi Corps’ determined, self-interested and morally questionable Bester. Must admit he was a favourite mine, being dodgy as hell but smart too, so it was never quite clear whether he or the Babylon 5 staff, with whom he had a fractious relationship at best, would end up ahead. He also got to star in one episode which revolved around him and the Psi Corps, rather than the space station, and it helped give a new perspective to things.

Babylon 5 was one of (perhaps the) first sci-fi series to use CGI rather than models. Not unlike the videogame Vagrant Story (a pioneer of 3-D rather than pre-rendered backgrounds) this has led to the earlier series in particular sometimes looking rather dated. Later series and the specials, naturally, look a lot better.

A particularly strong episode was Intersections in Real Time, a late series 4 episode that is almost entirely devoted to scenes between Sheridan and his authoritarian interrogator, seeking to break Sheridan down and force or persuade him to confess. For his own good, you understand. It has 1984 vibes, and really works well laying down the hopelessness of the situation (and there’s a nice twist at the end too).

The fifth series is probably the weakest, but there is a good excuse for that. The show was meant to end after the fourth (which can be seen by the ending of that series), only to unexpectedly return with most of the long-running story arcs concluded. That said, the 18th episode in particular is very good, in which the new war comes to a climax.

There was always a certain feeling of inevitable failure or doom about Babylon 5. Even in success. Sheridan wins the war but has his life expectancy severely curtailed. Londo becomes emperor, and finds himself little more than a slave. Ivanova is saved, but struggles to move on from the guilt.

Victory tinged with sadness, triumphalism curbed by the price paid, and the certain knowledge there’s more struggle to come in the future brings bitter sweet realism, and is, perhaps, why Babylon 5 at its best is fantastic.



  1. A nice breakdown of the series, Thaddeus.

    Babylon 5 has been my favourite (and best) Sci Fi experience to date.

    1. Cheers :)

      It does stand the test of time. Reminds me a little of I, Claudius. The effects may be a little ropey, but the story and characters are there.