This past week, for reasons even I’m not sure about, I re-watched the entire Babylon 5 saga. It was quite a reflective experience, not only for re-experiencing one of the most unique televised expressions of American SF, but also for the introspective effect that B5 unwaveringly has on its watchers. The show ran for five seasons, with four full-length TV movies, one spin-off series that was cancelled mid-season (Crusade), one abysmal spin-off pilot (Legend of the Rangers) and one rather good attempt at a made-for-tv movie-length miniseries spin-off (The Lost Tales). The movies were touch-and-go, ranging from vomit-inducingly bad to timelessly inspiring. But it’s the main series, the five year tale of the “last of the Babylon stations” that I’d like to take some time to think about today.
If you’re like me, you stumbled upon an episode of B5 sometime in its first season (1994, I think) and had the problematic reaction of wanting to lose your last meal upon the TV screen. The pilot episode, now considered a TV movie in its own right, called “The Gathering”, is unfortunately critical viewing for understanding all the players in the grand story that would eventually unfold. But unfortunately, it is poorly acted, poorly directed, suffers from pitiful special effects and simply cringe-worthy corny dialogue.
So I did not return to the B5 universe…. until I stumbled upon another episode a couple of years later, titled, “War Without End”, a two-parter. The thing about that episode is that, as another writer so perfectly expressed it, it’s the cashing of a cheque that was written a year earlier, in an episode titled, “Babylon Squared”. With “War Without End,” I realized that there was something more to the story that what TV skiffy audiences had thus far been exposed to.
You see, at that point in television history, the Star Trek franchise reigned supreme. Any other space-based show was seen (mostly rightly) as pale imitators to the throne. In fact, Babylon 5’s creator, J. Michael Straczynski (JMS), had famously presented his concept to an industry audience a decade earlier, with the quip that it might surpass Star Trek in popularity and relevance. He was laughed at. (As an aside, there has been speculation since that “Deep Space Nine” was influenced by JMS’s presentation.)
TV at that point in history, even Star Trek, was largely episodic. Arc-driven storylines were rare and never bridged between seasons. (It’s for this reason, I believe, that the Star Trek: Next Generation story arc, “Best of Both Worlds”, was so successful –it was that audience’s first taste of genuine storyline continuity told over many episodes.) The thing about Babylon 5, the plan went, was that it was to be a complete story arc, with a beginning, middle and end, with interweaving side plots and multiple character arcs that would all find satisfying resolution. It was, in essence, a grand pulp novel to be told over 5 years.
Today, with shows like Lost and the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, series-long story arcs are de rigeur. But it all began with Babylon 5. And frankly, in terms of sheer storytelling finesse, no one has done it better than B5 did.
There are many risks associated with such an endeavour. Most famously is that actors would lose interest and drop out. So JMS created his now famous “trap doors”. If a trap door opened, and an actor was swallowed up, there were secondary characters available, in whom viewers had already somewhat invested, that would adopt the dropped-out characters’ story arcs.
At the end of the first season, the main protagonist, Commander Jeffrey Sinclair, fell through a trap door when the actor playing him wasn’t quite working out. So the contingency plan kicked in, and Bruce Boxleitner’s John Sheridan stepped into the leading role. It would happen again in the 5th season, when actress Claudia Christiansen failed to re-negotiate her contract, resulting in her character, Susan Ivanova, being replaced by actress Tracey Scoggins’ Ezlabeth Lochley. Other characters were similarly replaced. These are important events because key plot points had been planned to pivot on those characters; so JMS’s planning was essential.
The second thing that was essential to the success of a long term arc-based story was audience investment. In 1994, the Internet was still new to most people. But those few of us regularly online were the hardcore geeks, the dorks and the nerds… in other words, B5’s target demographic. JMS had a strong online presence, stoking interest and answering questions from the fans. In today’s world of chat rooms and Twitter, the idea of creator-fan engagement is pretty much essential for any broadcast product. Back then, it was new and groundbreaking.
So there I was, having just watched “World Without End” and not understanding what I had just seen, but aware that was indicative of a very complex story. It was my brother Bhash who explained it to me, and his explanation was a revelation.
Allow me to summarize the prelude to B5. A century from now, genuine telepaths start being born into the human gene pool. This kickstarts several changes in our society. A short time later, an alien civilization shows us how to build “jump gates” to travel through hyperspace, thus turning humanity into an interstellar species. We spread out, building colonies and warships and spreading our civilization. We have our first interstellar war, with a species called the Dilgar, and win easily. We become a power in the galaxy. Our arrogance grows to the point where, against all the advice of our allies, we attempt to make contact with a secretive, older race called the Minbari. There is a misunderstanding during first contact, and Earth vessels end up destroying a Minbari vessel which, by unlucky circumstance, was carrying the Minbari’s beloved religious leader.
The Minbari declare holy war against the humans. We lose at (almost) every encounter, to the point where all human territory has been destroyed and all that remains is Earth herself. On the last day of the war, the Minbari surround our world and prepare to destroy all life on Earth. The humans launch a fruitless, last ditch attempt to fly every vessel we have at our attackers. From the perspective of a single human pilot: he attempts to ram a Minbari ship, but falls unconscious before impact.
When the pilot awakes, the war is over… and the Minbari have surrendered on the verge of victory.
In the wake of the war, measures were taken to ensure that no such misunderstanding would happen again. A series of Babylon space stations were built to be platforms for interstellar diplomacy. The first three were sabotaged and destroyed before they went online. The fourth station was heavily armed and equipped with an engine, in hopes that it would escape sabotage. But Babylon 4 vanished before it could go online.
The Minbari agree to help finance the fifth and final station, with the caveat that they would choose its first commander. At this point, two humans are well known to them: the man who blacked out while attempting to ram their ship, Jeffrey Sinclair, and the only human to have won a battle against the Minbari during the war, John Sheridan. These two would serve as the dual aspects of the grand tale of conquest, leadership and Messianic advancement that would follow.
And that is where our story begins, with the “gathering” of all the players as Babylon 5 comes online, and with the first hints that an ancient evil is waking somewhere in the galaxy. We begin with a series of mysteries that will prove to be lynchpins to the 5 year story arc: (1) why did the Mimbari surrender on the eve of absolute victory? (2) What happened to Sinclair when he blacked out during the final battle? (3) Why did we suddenly evolve a sub-race of human telepaths? And, (4) where did Babylon 4 go?
If the above prelude does not whet your appetite to know how this story unfolds, then I would question your credentials as a science fiction fan.
So, as I hope is clear by now, I am fan of the deep, mysterious and complex story old over the lifespan of B5. Unlike more famous arcs —Lost and Battlestar Galactica come to mind– B5’s story arcs were planned out ahead of time. Its finale –the masterpiece, “Sleeping In Light”– was filmed a year before it was aired. There is satisfying conclusion to all its arcs, and none of it was hastily thrown together. It really is a magnificent achievement for its creator, JMS, who singlehandedly wrote two full seasons of episodes, including some of the songs.
After having re-watched the entire saga in essentially one sitting, I have the following parting observations to make:
The story. As I point out, the story is simply overwhelming in its complexity and subtlety, and even for its emotional impact and satisfying conclusion. But the storyteller in me must also respect JMS’s maturity to realize surprises and mysteries do not sustain a product, only spur interest.
Consider Lost, whose many mysteries kept its fans salivating at every turn, only to be left damp and frustrated at the end. The B5 mysteries are resolved fairly early on. And indeed, through frequent foreshadowing and the use of prophecy, even the various endings of all the story arcs are known to the viewer by the end of the third season. JMS’s storytelling brilliance is in relying on his love of character to maintain our interest as the story unfolds in the way we’d already been shown it would unfold.
For example, we know early on that the main character, Sheridan, will die, and that, years later, people would say that he had been taken bodily to heaven, like Mohammed. But we still wait to see how that will transpire. We know from several flash-forwards that two very important supporting characters, Londo and G’Kar, will die at each other’s hands. JMS never shows us the finality of that event in any given episode, but rather spins it out in pieces over the entirety of the 5 years; and when we finally absorb the full picture of their deaths, the circumstances are not at all what we had assumed them to be. It’s a simply brilliant use of prescience and misdirection without ever lying to the viewer.
The characters. I hope it’s clear by now to most serious fans of television SF that everything hangs on the characters. The one thing that salvaged the potential disaster that was Battlestar Galactica‘s finale was the creators’ realization that it was the characters that mattered most, in particular Gaius Baltar, who represented the tragedy of that story arc.
JMS knew that in spades. He also knew that the titular lead was not really the emotional focus of the story. While both Sheridan and Sinclair rise to Messianic and Alexandrian statures, with Sheridan in particular being the centre of any scene, they are not the true heart of the tale. Instead, I think it’s the rocky relationship between the aforementioned Londo and G’Kar. Londo, in particular, is the heartbreaking, tragic figure who represents the plight, sadness and hope of the entire B5 universe. It’s his ambition that triggers the horrible galactic war; it’s his transformation that allows the enemy to be vanquished; and it’s his tragic path that requires his fall from grace if all he loves is to be saved.
Inspirations. Watching the saga again, it’s clear to me now what has been clear to others for 20 years, that B5 is essentially The Lord of the Rings in space. Shout-outs to “the rangers”, the eye of Sauron, the wakening of an ancient evil, and similar-sounding place names make the connection obvious. But more essentially, the ancient evil arising from afar and threatening civilization, only to be opposed by a marginalized group of heroes who must first marshal their fellowship and their personal motivations, are all plot themes extracted directly from the Tolkien classic.
The special effects. They are universally atrocious. To a lot of people, this is a conversation-ender. Frankly, I don’t care about special effects. Give me a good story, good acting and good dialogue, and how the thing looks on screen is irrelevant to me. But since B5 sometimes tries to show off its piss-poor visuals, I must criticize it for that failing. The one exception is their ability to show space ships moving through atmosphere. They do it absolutely brilliantly. There’s a scene in the 4th season in which a space ship exits hyperspace inside the Martian atmosphere and proceeds to destroy ground targets. There are scenes in which various ships race across the skies of Centauri Prime, especially one in which a Vorlon “planet-killer” blocks out the sun. I’ve re-watched all of those scenes several times over. They look pretty damn real, and represent visual shots rarely seen in other science fiction offerings.
The dialogue. Okay, this is where JMS loses me. When watching B5 episodically once a week, the corny dialogue is a tad painful. Watching it non-stop for a couple of days had me pulling out my hair in frustration. When talking about matters of spiritual or philosophical consequence, JMS’s dialogue is superlative. When he’s trying to be a “regular guy”, his dialogue is cringe-worthy in its amateurishness. I found myself easily predicting the rhythm and length of speech of pretty much every character in every exchange. Most typically, his characters go on at length explaining their motivations in frustrating displays of stretched exposition. Maybe he was going for an obvious homage to opera, since this is space opera of the highest order, and wanted his characters to engage in frequent sonatas and soliloquys. Whatever his intent, it does not work. It’s sometimes just embarrassing.
The acting. Part of the issue with dialogue is the poor acting of some of the players. Boxleitner is a star who radiates charm, but delivers every line the same. I fear he may actually speak in corny dialogue in his personal life, as well. “Get the hell ot of our galaxy!” is a particularly cringe-worthy example.
But other actors, such as the late Andreas Katsulas (G’Kar) and Peter Jurasik (Londo) bring glorious, deep life to the words they are given. It’s evidence that even the poorest dialogue can be uplifted by gifted actors.
The skinny. One of the reasons I have gone on at length about B5 is that its story and heart represent an enjoyable and important part of the history of American televised SF, and I fear that those who have only stumbled upon an episode of two will have been driven away by its atrocious casual dialogue and visuals.
One way to jump into the story without having to suffer through the gutwrenchingly bad first season is to watch the very well written TV movie, “In The Beginning,” which covers many of the basic plot points. But to get the full impact of the richness of this tale, do consider enduring the first two seasons. In seasons 3 and 4, the story ramps up and you will crave each new episode. The 5th season features some of the best writing and production, but the story staggers a bit. (This is due to a production issue having to do with an uncertain future of the show, causing JMS to accelerate and slow the story at inopportune times.)
And lastly, as I’ve oft said, the final B5 episode, “Sleeping In Light” is, for those who know the plot elements leading up to it, the finest hour of American science fiction TV ever broadcast. Yes, it is that good.
So, give B5 a chance. And be forgiving. It does pay off.