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What made Babylon 5 special


A friend asked me if he should watch Babylon 5.

Short answer:

It was only after I started writing this that I realized my favorite things about Babylon 5 are its characters. I still have such fond memories of them. They are all so flawed, complex, hilarious, tragic, and lovable. The show is worth watching for the characters alone.

I LOVED Babylon 5 and was absolutely obsessed with it. The show was ahead of its time in many ways, especially in pionering the multi-season story arc. (Even most shows with multi-season arcs today are mostly winging it as they go, just with continuity, but B5 had the major beats planned out in advance!) Yet, I must admit that, because its innovations became popular, it might not seem as special today.

Babylon 5 features morally-ambiguous conflicts and Tolkein-esque grandeur mixed mixed with a healthy dose of humor. And memorable characters as I mentioned. Its downside is that there are some bad episodes amidst the good, and some of the writing may feel a bit stiff and unnatural.

Compared to, say, Battlestar Galactica, BSG is even better on the moral conflict stuff, and the characters feel even more "real", but Babylon 5 does a much better job with the more mythological elements, and it has more of a mix of heaviness and levity rather than BSG's all morose all the time.

If you do watch, stick it out through Season 1, which is rather flawed; it gets much better in Seasons 2 and 3, and you wouldn't miss much if you skip Season 5 (more on that below). Also, the Onion AV Club has been reviewing the show episode by episode to tell you which to watch and which to skip.

Long answer:

Moral grayness: Keep in mind that Babylon 5 was made in part as a response to the positivity of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Babylon 5 is primarily about a U.N. in space, and all the complex politics of different factions with conflicting interests. My favorite thing about it when it aired is how much more realistic the characters felt than the too-perfect people on TNG. Nowadays, this aspect of the show pales icomparison to BSG, but it was impressive at the time. (It's no coincidence that Deep Space 9 was a similar show set on a space station with moral complexity. Babylon 5 was shopped and rejected at Paramount, it seems DS9 was at least inspired in concept by B5.)

Characters: I still smile when thinking about most of the main characters on Babylon 5 and their interactions with each other again. The cheerful exhuberance and heavy burdens of Londo. The dark Russian humor of Ivanova. And of course the hilariously enimagtic Kosh, who speaks only a few times a season, usually in proverbs. If I end up watching it through Babylon 5 again, it will be to see their faces again.

The 5-year arc and "holographic storytelling": Babylon 5 was notable for being one of the first, if not the first show to have a planned multi-season arc. The show creator planned out from the start exactly how the show would end, and what the major beats would be. There would frequently be clues planted in early episdoes that would be referenced many episodes or even seasons later. The show creator called it "holographic storytelling" because it wasn't just linear; each episode would relate to events that happened in past and future episodes. The most extreme example is how there's an episode in Season 1 where the characters are visited by future versions of themselves. Then, in Season 3, they actually travel back in time to Season 1! Now that's planning.

The original plan was that Season 1 was to have 80% standalone episodes and 20% "arc" episodes. Seasons 2 would be 40% arc episdoes, and so on. So in Season 1, you only get a glimmer and taste of what the overall story will really be about, and it also meant more standalone episodes that were failures and not that good. The mystery was very exciting at the time, and fans hung on every clue. :)

They did have to wing it a bit when, say, the star of the show decided to leave after the first season. (He still returned in season 3 for that time-traveling business though!) More importantly, the series was likely to be cancelled at the end of 4 seasons, so they ended up more or less cramming the rest of the story arc into Season 4. The 5-year arc became a 4-year arc. The show was renewed for a 5th season after all, but they ran out of story, so the 5th season was mostly filler and side stories.

Mythology: The show did a great job of mixing exotic ancient alien races and more human-like aliens. The creator openly said he was very Lord of the Rings-inspired (down to a key scene toward the end on a volcanic planet called "Z'ha'dum", named after Mt. Doom). As bad as all the myth-making stuff was on Battlestar, it was good on Babylon 5, and with a satisfying a conclusion.

Religion: The show creator is atheist, but he has a respectful attitude toward religion. There are episdoes that explore religion in thoughtful ways that are relevant to our daily lives, in a way few TV shows attempt, science fiction or otherwise.

Computer graphics: The B5 pilot was the first TV space show to go all CG. It was really cool then, but the effects do feel quite dated now. I still remember being so amazed by things like slow zoom-ins to the windows on CG ships, where you could then see an actor. :) One delightful thing was how the main human fighters were designed with space in mind, with engines at the extremities, for maximum rotational power, and the ships actually obeyed Newtonian physics. Again, that's kind of par for the course now, but it was innovative then. As for sound in space, the show creator famously said that any sound you think you hear is really just part of the musical score. :D

Audience interaction The showrunner, J. Michael Stracynski, was an old fan of Compuserve and Usenet. He regularly answered audience questions on rec.arts.sf.tv.babylon5.moderated and described the process of running the show, cast changes, and other logistics. Again, not impressive in the modern day of vlogs and podcasts, but back in the mid-90s, this was so ahead of its time!

Also ahead of its time was The Lurker's Guide to Babylon 5. Because the main story arc progressed so slowly in the initial seasons, the fans would analyze every hint to the future of the story. Years before other shows had fan pages, fans compiled facts from each episode on its own page at the site, along with any hints from the show creator. Even today, actually, few shows have such a well-organized database of information. Again, keep in mind this was the mid-90s!

Babylon 5 had a fandom like no other. When I was in college, the show was on syndication, and the local affiliate aired it mid-week. Fans at the school would snatch the satellite feed that beamed the show to the syndicated stations and play it for everyone in a classroom so we could watch the show days before it officially aired. (That's how I learned that half the commercials are national, while the other half are just black in the original feed, to be replaced by the affiliate's local commercials.) When a few episodes ended up airing in the UK before the US, someone even arranged for tapes to be express mailed so we could see it on the UK schedule. (We were mesmerized by the bizarre British commercials!)

Conclusion: Babylon 5 was such a special show in its time, its fandom so unique, that it's really hard for me to even imagine what watching it for the first time would be like today. What would it be like to blow through the story instead of waiting agonizing months for new episodes? Would some of the joy be lost because you wouldn't be able to analyze the clues with friends? Would its take on morality still feel free today when viewers are more likely to compare it to BSG or Firefly than to TNG? I don't know. But I do know something I didn't when I started writing this: The characters were wonderful and timeless. Because of them, I think the show will always be worth watching.

I leave you with the peak of CG awesomeness in 1994:


(That used to be my desktop wallpaper! Those exact same pixel dimensions (640 x 480) used to be full screen!)

Comments (2)

awesome post ken!

yes i loved this show so very very much. Much more than any of the star treks. Not to say that the trek shows were worse - but the grittiness and the grayness which you speak of definitely was more rich. That there were life forms that did exist in a way outside out human or viewer ability for comprehension (those who walk around sigma 957, the great machine) stuff like that was fantastic for the sci-fi genre as a whole. I'm going to go rewatch the whole thing now thanks for the inspiration.

Loved this review of the series, I found it through comments in an earlier episode.

It's worth spelling out the real life drama surrounding Sinclair leaving. At the time, JMS said that Michael O'Hare wasn't quite working out. People agreed but many loved his performance all the same.

O'Hare died a few years ago, and per their agreement, JMS divulged the truth. O'Hare had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, and it was interfering with his performance. He went to JMS in private, told him he had to leave and why, and asked to keep it confidential until after his death. O'Hare's first monologue in the second part of the time travel story was written to have a chilling and very sad double-meaning. "All my life I've had doubts about who I am, where I belonged. But now, I'm like the arrow that springs from the bow. The path is clear."

It's a great inspiration for people suffering from severe (and in the case of schizophrenia, eventually fatal) mental illness. O'Hare didn't want to deal with the stigma alongside his condition, but wanted his story eventually told to fight that stigma. It's worth repeating.

Finally, I think that B5 equals and exceeds BSG on drama and characterization. Yeah, yeah, the production values. But BSG was a show that never really knew where it was going. After they ran out of original series episodes to mine for ideas, the show never really got on track. Yeah, great performances also, and yes it was dark, but it wasn't as meaningfully dark as Babylon 5.

And when you see shows like Lost and BSG that have tried to do the grand finale ending that ties up the whole series-- shows that have huge budgets and brilliant acting and dialogue-- and then see them fail sometimes spectacularly-- it's a real sign of how great a writer JMS was. Season 5 was weak, but Sleeping In Light was a brilliant ending that satisfied nearly everyone.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on April 24, 2014.

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