Discovering Babylon 5
SPOILER WARNING: This post contains mild spoilers for the first season of Babylon 5. If you’ve not watched the series yet, and intend to do so some day, you might want to skip this post.
When Babylon 5 originally premiered in January of 1994, I was buried in massive amounts of grad work and didn’t have time to follow the newly announced series on the air. Being the huge, protective Star Trek fan I was, I also considered Babylon 5 to be somewhat of an “also ran” at the time. Now, thanks to my Netflix enabled Apple TV, I decided to see what I was missing and dive head first into the landmark sci-fi TV series. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by what I’ve found.
I will say I’m still green when it comes to Babylon 5. I’m getting ready to wrap up watching the first season so please don’t post spoilers in the comments section. What I’ve discovered so far is a science fiction series which was crafted with love by its creator, J. Michael Straczynski. Although the production levels would be considered low budget by today’s standards, the writing of the characters and the drama is top notch. Like any fledgeling series, Babylon 5 took more than a few episodes to find its space legs. The first episode I really enjoyed was ‘Born to the Purple‘ featuring the Centauri diplomat Londo as played by the talented Peter Jurasik. One aspect that makes the show so appealing is the dialog between characters. Interactions often seem more “real” than they ever did on Star Trek: The Next Generation and there’s a intentional lack of the so-called “technobabble” that often served as a dramatic crutch on Star Trek.
Indeed, in interview after interview, J. Michael Straczynski stated he wanted to do things differently than Roddenberry and Berman did on Trek. Externally, the premise of the show may seem very Trek-like, but scratch more than the surface and the similarities end. Babylon 5 centers around an immense space station build by the Earth Defense Force to serve as a sort of deep-space United Nations to keep the peace between the major races of the galaxy. The story follows the crew and inhabitants of the station as they jockey for position in their day-to-day dealings with each other and the cosmos. The series is unique because it was planned as a single, massive five-year story arc that had a definite beginning, middle and end.
I’ve enjoyed the way Babylon 5 treats certain topics, among them religion. While religion played an important part of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, there it served as the center of faith for the Bajoran race, not of humans. Gene Roddenberry had specifically said that by Star Trek’s time, mankind had “grown out” belief in God. In Babylon 5, characters embrace religion, and in an ironic nod to Gene’s vision, even celebrate its infinite diversity on the planet Earth. One of the first season’s best episodes, “TKO” finds the station’s second in command, Susan Ivanova, dealing with the death of her father and embracing her Jewish heritage. The scenes with Ivanova holding shiva for her papa are touching and bring a sense of humanity to the technologically complex, and sometimes cold universe of Babylon 5.
Other parts of the show I’m enjoying often involve details. A scene between Commander Sinclair and Security Chief Garibaldi, part of which is held in a public men’s room. It’s refreshing because something like this NEVER happened on Star Trek. While I couldn’t possibly imagine Worf and Riker discussing the day’s events while standing at a urinal, it seemed like a perfectly normal scene on Babylon 5. Another funny exchange comes in the form of a funny practical joke Garibaldi and Sinclair play on Ivanova over breakfast one morning. Moments like this are rare in the often overly dramatic universes shows like Babylon 5 inhabit, which is why they’re so welcome by fans like myself.
Perhaps the best part of discovering Babylon 5 is knowing that I’m just at the outset of the series. Over the years, I’ve heard many good things about the show and how it became “must see TV” for an entire generation of scifi fans. I’m gratified to finally have a chance to witness the friendly jibes between Londo and G’kar, to slowly discover the mysteries of the Vorlons and to learn more about the ruthless and enigmatic Psi Corps. Watching the show for the first time is like discovering an entire universe of rich fables all waiting to be unwrapped. For a geek like myself, its a guilty pleasure and one that I highly recommend. Some time ago I wrote a post highlighting my top 10 favorite science fiction shows ever. At the time I had not seen Babylon 5, and so I had no reason to include it on my list. If the series continues to improve as so many on Twitter have told me it does, I may just have to go back and make amends.
It’s been a super long time since I have seen an episode of Babylon 5. As I recall it does nothing but get better each season but I never finished it. I’ll have to add this to my que and follow along.
Glad you’ve discovered this series. Since it ran almost exactly parallel to DS9, it’s hard not to make comparisons, and I think the slightly more polished Star Trek kept Babylon 5 in its shadow the entire time.
Babylon 5 is a fantastic show, and the series finale is among the best. Too bad networks are so scared of science fiction these days.
Oh, you are in for a treat.
It is indeed impossible to not compare B5 and DS9 (my favourite Trek by a long way), but B5 has the dramatic edge for me. The arc is deep and wide, and gets very interesting indeed. It carries on to ask some sharp moral and philosophical questions, some of which DS9 also hit, but JMS did it darker and rougher.
I really do need to embark on a rewatch. I haven’t watched B5 since its first UK run…
I assumed you left it out of your top 10 list cause you didn’t like it. So cool that you are watching it for the first time! I think it’s so excellent. I watched all five seasons again last year over a few months and enjoyed it just as much as back in the day. I agree totally on the production levels but found it to be even more fun that way. Enjoy!
Ben, I had left it out because I had not watched it at the time I wrote that post. If I had written it today, I definitely would have included B5 on the list. Probably somewhere around my 7th or 8th favorite. Of course, I’m only 2/3 of the way through season 2 so who knows if I’ll like it better the further I get.
Season 2 and especially 3 are much much better then 1. Which is a feat considering i enjoy season 1 more already then most of the fluff on tv these days.
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