In recent weeks, I’ve been re-watching my DVDs of Babylon 5, a superb five-season novel for television which ran from 1993-1998. The other day, I started on season 4.
Yes, novel for television. It was written with the structure of a novel, and it was intended to run for five seasons.
It was also the first American TV series to take such an approach, and series creator J. Michael Straczynski wrote 92 of the 110 episodes (or about 84 percent), ensuring that the storyline hewed to his vision.
He also spent years trying to get the series made, a testimony to, as Straczynski himself put it, never surrendering dreams. One of the earliest references to Babylon 5 I’ve come across is in an interview with Straczynski in Starlog #136 (Nov. 1988, pg 58).
Among other things, Babylon 5 explored the relationships between individuals and among governments before, during and after a major war. One of the themes of the series is the importance of creating one’s own future and of determining one’s own destiny. As Straczynski says in his commentary for the season three finale, “individuals have power; individuals have strength.”
The story takes place from 2258 to 2262, primarily aboard the space station Babylon 5, located in neutral territory. Here, five interstellar dominions converge: The Centauri Republic, The Earth Alliance, The Minbari Federation, The Narn Regime and The Vorlon Empire.
Babylon 5, the last of the Babylon Stations (the first three were sabotaged early in their respective construction phases; Babylon 4 disappeared 24 hours after it became operational) was built ten years after the Earth-Minbari war, which nearly saw the human race annihilated. But just when the Minbari had Earth on its metaphorical knees, they mysteriously surrendered.
As the series begins, the Narns, once enslaved by the Centauri, are trying to make a name for themselves; the Centauri Republic, by contrast, is in decline; the Minbari seem to be ignoring signs that the prophecies of their greatest leader, Valen, are coming true; the Earth Alliance is becoming more isolationist; and the Vorlons—
Are an enigma.
And unknown to most, a sixth race— known only as The Shadows— is on the prowl. And their presence is a very bad sign.
Some governments rise; some fall; some (including the Earth Alliance) are torn apart by civil war.
The characters also change over the course of the series. At first glance, Narn Ambassador G’Kar (Andreas Katsulas) appears to be the primary antagonist. But as G’Kar himself says, “no one here is exactly what he appears.” By the end of the series, he has changed in ways he probably couldn’t have imagined when he first came aboard the station.
And who could guess that Centauri Ambassador Londo Mollari (Peter Jurasik), an apparent buffoon, a gambler and an overall has-been at the series’ start, would end up with so much blood on his hands?
Neither the Shadows nor the Vorlons are necessarily what they appear, either. To paraphrase something Straczynski said in an online forum when the show was on the air, the Shadows are the nominal “bad guys”, but their representative, Mr. Morden (Ed Wasser), is polite and circumspect. The Vorlons are the nominal “good guys” but Vorlon Ambassador Kosh (Ardwight Chamberlain) all but terrorizes telepath Talia Winters (Andrea Thompson) and has an inquisitor (Wayne Alexander) all but torture Minbari Ambassador Delenn (Mira Furlan).
We also see the rise of a dictatorship on Earth. One aspect of it is an organization called the Night Watch. Initially presented in terms some might find palatable, it’s not long before it becomes much more sinister. Security officer Zack Allan (Jeff Conaway) joined Night Watch for the extra 50 credits a week, but he soon begins to have “buyer’s remorse.” Especially when Night Watch members are authorized to read E-Mails and look into individuals’ past associations.
Of course, those who were paying attention when Night Watch was introduced would have noted this phrase by another representative:
“Peace can be made or broken with a gun, a word, an idea, even a thought.” (emphasis mine)
Even when Night Watch was showing its “nice” face, it was still hinting at its true nature.
Then there’s Interstellar Network News (ISN), a propaganda arm of EarthGov. In the fourth season episode “The Illusion of Truth”, Captain John Sheridan (Bruce Boxleitner) allows an ISN reporter access to the station because he knows the man’s going to do a story anyway. But, as he later tells Ivanova, “we kept anything we said down to short, declarative sentences to make it harder to take us out of context.”
The ISN broadcast (which takes up the second half of the episode, and provides a juxtaposition between what viewers of the TV show saw vs. what people in that fictional universe saw on the news that day) is a hatchet job. Actual dialogue in some scenes is replaced by the reporter’s blatant lies in a voice-over; and rather than show the reporter asking the actual questions he addressed to Sheridan, ISN instead inter-cut shots of the reporter asking different questions— while in another room— with Sheridan’s answers. This gives the answers a different context.
In Vol. 9 of the limited edition Babylon 5 Scripts of J. Michael Straczynski (page 26), Straczynski said few people noticed that inter-cutting, “which of course is exactly why and how people get away with this sort of thing.”
He also said the episode has become required viewing at media and journalism classes at several major universities.
As it should be.
It’s not all gloom and doom on Babylon 5, however. There are many moments of humor. In the teaser of “Babylon Squared”, Commander Jeffrey Sinclair (Michael O’Hare) and Security Chief Michael Garibaldi (Jerry Doyle) trick a half-awake Commander Susan Ivanova (Claudia Christian) into believing she slept through breakfast (“I’ll notify your next of kin,” Sinclair subsequently tells Garibaldi).
In the season two episode “The Geometry of Shadows”, Ivanova seeks to understand the reasons for fights among the Drazi— who’ve split into factions wearing green and purple scarves— so she can try to mediate the conflict. What’s the point of contention?
Turns out the scarves are selected at random, literally taken from a large barrel.
“Green must fight Purple; Purple must fight Green. Is no other way,” a Green Drazi says.
“Just my luck,” Ivanova replies. “I get stuck with a race that speaks only in macros.”
Later, Ivanova tries to get the Drazi to understand how asinine this is (especially after the two factions begin killing each other).
“Don’t you understand? This is insane. It doesn’t make any sense to go around killing each other over of a piece of cloth.”
The Drazi situation reminds me of the Bloom County strip from July 6, 1982, where a soldier in the Falklands War says “they want our rocks. These are our rocks. I will die to protect the honor of our rocks.”
Babylon 5 was also rare among science fiction TV series in that it explored religious themes and beliefs. Ironic in some ways, because Straczynski himself is not religious. G’Kar is deeply religious; the Minbari are very spiritual; Ivanova is Jewish; and Sinclair was educated by Jesuits.
Also, characters often find themselves in situations where they must decide whether or not to forgive. As Sheridan notes in the episode “Passing Through Gethsemane”, “Forgiveness is a hard thing, isn’t it?”
When the Prime Time Entertainment Network (PTEN) collapsed, cable network TNT picked up Babylon 5 for the fifth season (and aired re-runs of the previous seasons). To introduce its viewers to the series, TNT broadcast In The Beginning, which told the story of the Earth-Minbari war, as narrated by an elderly Londo Mollari.
If you’re going to watch (or re-watch) Babylon 5, I believe it’s best to start there. Then go on to the 1992 pilot movie, The Gathering (which was re-edited in 1998, with a lot of important character bits— and other things that should have been there all along— restored), and then the series.
Yes, starting with In The Beginning means you’ll know things viewers the first time around didn’t learn until much later; but while you’ll know, for example, that Londo one day becomes the ________, you won’t know how or under what circumstances.
And finding that out is part of the fun.
Copyright 2012 Patrick Keating
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