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Babylon 5 101
I’ve been inspired to create this FAQ thanks to the writers on “The Big Bang Theory,” who have endowed the character of Sheldon with a love of all things sci-fi--except “Babylon 5.” I don’t get this antipathy, so I’m creating this one to educate the fictional Sheldon and others like him about why “Babylon 5” is worth their time. Please note that I have placed all spoilers into the section labeled “The Plot,” so if you don’t want to know about what happens during the course of the series, don’t read that part.
“Babylon 5” was a space station-based space opera that aired in syndication from 1994-1999. It ran over five seasons and was created by J. Michael Straczynski as a story with a five-year story arc; this made it one of the first continuing series in the genre. The story was actually a very complex one, with a good deal of action, politics, religion, ideology, genocide, social issues and all kinds of conflict, designed to create a rich world that funnels into the main storyline. B5 was among the first shows to use CGI visual effects exclusively, at a time when other shows (including "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine") were still using models. It was pioneering in a few other ways, as well--it focused on politics, social, religious and other conflicts between Earth and its first colonies as well as new neighbors in a way few shows in its genre ever had. Also noteworthy was its treatment of homosexuality, which had been skirted in controversial ways in the “Star Trek” universe. In B5, homosexuality was a normal and accepted thing, and two of the main female characters engaged in a (mostly implied) lesbian relationship as ultimately tragic as anything on TV.
The fifth season of B5 is commonly considered the worst, because B5’s distributor, PTEN, was losing backing fast, and the story arc was rushed for completion into four seasons in case B5 didn’t get a fifth. When the fift season did actually happen, several key characters left and other changes were made to accommodate this; the absence of Susan Ivanova (Claudia Christian), who was replaced by Captain Elizabeth Lochley (Tracey Scoggins), and the addition of brooding telepath leader Byron (Robin Atkin-Downes) were among the much-criticized changes.
Setting and Background
Basically, the setting is a space-based United Nations in the year 2257, where alien races mixed, got into conflicts, traded, negotiated and fell in love. B5, the successor to four space stations who were sabotaged, accidentally destroyed, or mysteriously disappeared, is located in Epsilon Eridani. It is a five-mile-long rotating cylinder that’s home to many civilization’s representatives.
The Earth Alliance is the organization that includes our planet and other sovereign planets with whom we have diplomatic relations. Humans mainly have contact with four other major civilizations--the Minbari, Narn, Alpha Centauri and Vorlons, although there are many other civilizations, including ones from the League of Non-Aligned Worlds. The Narn and the Alpha Centauri are at odds with each other, and the Minbari and Earth have just ended a very strange war--one where the technologically superior Minbari were about to destroy humanity until they suddenly retreated and ended it.
There was a bit of shuffling within the cast, especially going into the fifth season, but but the basic players included the people of B5, ambassadors and their staff. Some of the main players are:
Commander Jeffrey Sinclair (Michael O’Hare): The commander of Babylon 5 when the series begins. He later became ambassador to Minbar and the head of the Rangers, following the revelation of his part in ending the Earth-Minbari wars.
Lieutenant Commander Susan Ivanova (Claudia Christian): B5’s second in command, although she became Commander in the second season and Captain later on. Hot-tempered and humorous, Ivanova blames her mother’s suicide on the Psi Corps. Her romances on B5 end tragically.
Captain John Sheridan (Bruce Boxleitner): Sinclair’s replacement on B5 is also destined to play a large role in interplanetary events. He develops a relationship with Minbari ambassador Delenn, becomes the head of the Rangers, and helped prepare for the upcoming war against the Shadows.
Michael Garibaldi (Jerry Doyle): Chief of Security aboard B5. With a tendency to sarcasm, paranoia, distrust of authority and alcoholism, Garibaldi is still one of the good ones, siding with the working-class stiffs and always remaining loyal to B5. Well, until the brainwashing.
Dr. Stephen Franklin (Richard Biggs): Ship’s doctor with strong moral beliefs that occasionally get him into trouble.
Delenn (Mira Furlan): A pivotal character in B5, who starts out as a well-liked Minbarian priestess and becomes a human-Minbari hybrid. Just for starters.
Londo Mollari (Peter Jurasik): A bigoted Centauri ambassador. His antagonistic and complex relationship with Narn Ambassador G’Kar is one of the great things about B5, and is part of what makes that final season worth watching.
G’Kar (Andreas Katsulas): An often-hostile diplomat whose family, like many Narn families, was slave to a Centauri family. Conflict--and ultimate enlightenment--ensues.
The Plot (SPOILERS AHEAD!!!)
Oy. Where do I start? The story arc of B5 is complex and intricate, and yes, there are continuity errors. Let’s begin with the Earth-Minbari wars, which, as it turns out, ended suddenly because the Minbarians now believe that its leaders and heroes are being reincarnated as humans, including B5’s commander Sinclair. To build a bridge between the two races Delenn begins the transformation into a human-Minbari hybrid.
But mysterious and disturbing events begin to happen, including the assassination of Earth Alliance president Luis Santiago, which turn out to be the subtle machinations of an alien force called the Shadows. The insidious Shadows, in season two, continue their plots and schemes, instigating another Narn-Centauri war and leading to totalitarian moves on the part of the current Earth Alliance administration. The new administration is being led by VP and now President Clark, with help from the Psi Corps.
Mars and B5 are forced to declare independence from Earth, along with other colonies, which causes the Earth Alliance to attempt to retake B5 by force. B5, however, has allies in the Minbari. At this point, open war breaks out between the Shadows and B5’s allies.
Here things get a bit murky and I’m not sure I can explain it all properly without re-watching season three and four in their entirety. Suffice it to say: there’s time travel to B4, a visit to the Shadows’s homework Z’ha’dum, civil war, intrigue, betrayal and lots of battles. We figure out that the Vorlons and the Shadows are the ancient races, to whom the guardianship of every younger race has been entrusted. We upstarts don’t want interference from our elders, though, so we talk them both into leaving for good.
And then there’s season five. As mentioned earlier, B5 was always meant for five seasons, but ended up finishing the story arc in four because its distributor was failing. In this tacked-on season, B5 becomes a sanctuary for rogue telepaths, while the universe continues to have conflicts and such, this time without the Shadows. Many of the main characters leave; Michael J. Straczynski appears in a cameo, turning off the lights in B5 before the space station gets demolished, 19 years later.
B5 vs. Star Trek
The series most often compared to B5 is, of course, “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.” Both were set on space stations, with a mix of aliens being forced into the same space. Although technically DS9 aired earlier (it ran from 1993-1999), those of us who were around at the time watching both series could see the influence that B5 was having on DS9 storylines as time passed--continuing how conflicts between the Bajorans and the Cardassians became political and storylines that weren’t neatly wrapped up in one episode became part and parcel of the DS9 world. DS9 became edgier, less pristine than other “Star Trek” series--and if it wasn’t directly B5’s influence, it certainly was a sign of the times.
DS9 and B5 were similar, in that they had aliens, a space station and an ensemble cast. But the B5 and ST franchises started with very different philosophies. At its heart, thanks to creator Gene Roddenberry, “Star Trek” is a picture of an optimistic future, where humans have evolved into their potential, we live and let live, and all aliens are humanoid. B5 never had such illusions: its main enemies, the Shadows, were nothing close to humanoid, and other aliens had to make accommodations to the human’s atmosphere and culture and customs in a way ST aliens never did.
ST often utilized the scientific and political principles of a more enlightened time; B5 focused on psychics, mystics, religious conflicts, racial tensions and a more organic--and chaotic--worldview. In some ways, B5 was ahead of its time, and wouldn’t be as out of place in today’s darker, more adult TV landscape as ST would be.
A note of trivia for you ST fans: In 12 episodes of B5, Walter Koenig of classic “Trek” played the recurring character Alfred Bester, a Psi Cop who brainwashed Garibaldi and added an “Asimov” command (think the Laws of Robotics) to prevent him from getting his revenge.
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