Babylon 5 is set over 200 years in the future. The space station Babylon 5 serves as a sort of futuristic United Nations, a place for alien races to settle disputes peacefully. The station is run by Earth Force Commander Jeffrey Sinclair. In the first few episodes, we learn that humans and Minbari had fought a war 10 years earlier, and that the two other superpowers, the Narns and Centauri, have a history of bloody conflict.
*** SPOILER ALERT: DO NOT READ UNTIL YOU HAVE FINISHED WATCHING SEASON 1***
As a political scientist, I find Babylon 5‘s core premise fascinating. Several of the main characters are ambassadors from alien races. I can’t think of any other TV show in which an ambassador is a main character! The combination of military and diplomatic personnel allows the show to tell stories about political intrigue, but to also have its share of action sequences. Although Earth Force personnel have to hunt down rogue aliens, characters just as often have to resolve problems through diplomacy.
J. Michael Straczynski, the showrunner and writer for over 90% of the episodes, describes Babylon 5 as a novel written for television. Over its five-year run, Babylon 5 would tell a single story, and individual episodes would tie into the larger plot. At the time, few TV shows told overarching stories. Star Trek tended to tell a new story every episode, with the occasional two-part cliffhanger (“To be continued…”). Although serialization is currently the norm on TV, Straczynski took a big risk in trusting that viewers would follow the story for five years. Even in Season 1, Straczynski plants seeds that will pay off later on. For example, the characters hint that there will be a confrontation with the Shadows, an ancient alien race. The show does manage to give viewers the sense that this is the beginning of an epic story.
Unfortunately, Babylon 5 sometimes struggles to reconcile the episodic format of TV with serialized storytelling. Most of the episodes from Season 1 feel like “filler” material, featuring some random Alien of the Week™ of the week who causes trouble. Meanwhile, some of the subplots (B stories) seem intended to move the larger story forward, but lack any thematic tie to the rest of the episode. For example, the episode “Deathwalker,” the A story focuses on the debate over how to treat an alien war criminal. Meanwhile, the B story focuses on the resident telepath, Talia Winters, as her mind is recorded by an alien. It seems like a significant development that will likely be revisited later in the show, but does not fit the tone or thematic undercurrent of the A story.
In fact, in general the biggest problem with Babylon 5 thus far is its weak B stories. Frequently, I get the sense that the B stories are simply excuses to move characters from point A to point B. Sometimes, it seems that the B story is intended simply to remind viewers that a character exists. Contemporary serialized shows like Game of Thrones have resolved this problem by almost completely abandoning episodic storytelling and rigidly defined A/B stories. One episode of Game of Thrones is pretty much indistinguishable from another as they tell a continuous story. It’s very rare to see “To be continued…” on TV nowadays.
Like Star Trek, most Babylon 5 episodes contain some sort of moral allegory or lesson. Unlike Star Trek‘s Roddenberry, Straczynski – and somewhat like Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin – seems to abhor neat and happy endings. The resolutions to the moral conflicts are often messy or even tragic. The main characters have to make tough choices, and sometimes end up make the wrong ones. The best example from this season is “Believers,” in which Dr. Stephen Franklin must decide if he should conduct an operation that would violate his patient’s religious beliefs. The parents of the patient lobby the alien ambassadors for assistance, which allows the show to explore different perspectives on the issue. I won’t spoilt the ending, except to say that it subverts the common sci-fi trope of the doctor finding a cure at the last minute in a brilliant way.
I’m not yet sold on the characters. The humans, including Commander Sinclair, are fairly one-dimensional. They have their professional duties, one or two quirks, but little promise of a richer character arc. The acting is generally passable, but does nothing to infuse these characters with energy. Fortunately, the alien characters fare much better. Andreas Katsulas and Peter Jurasik are superb as Narn Ambassador G’Kar and Centauri Ambassador Londo Mollari, respectively. The actors are clearly having fun with their roles, but never overact or overemote. Whenever one of them walks into a room, they instantly become the focus of attention. Moreover, the actors play off each other brilliantly, often to hilarious effect as they try to outwit each other.
Unfortunately, the production values really hamper the storytelling on Babylon 5. Simply put, Straczynski did not receive the budget he needed to tell his story. Because Straczynski could not afford to use models for the Babylon 5 station and spaceships, the show relies heavily on computer-generated imagery. Although revolutionary at the time, the CGI hasn’t aged very well and sometimes distracts from the story.
Worse still, the editing and directing frequently exacerbate rather than minimize the problems. Part of the genius of Star Wars is that George Lucas knew when ILM’s effects wouldn’t bear close scrutiny. We only get fleeting glimpses of Landspeeders or Cantina aliens because the illusion wouldn’t have held up for more than a second. By contrast, in Babylon 5, the camera often lingers on CGI spaceships or cheap alien masks, giving the human eye enough time to detect the fakery. It’s as if the effects crew didn’t yet know how to work within the limits of low-budget TV.
Even hardcore fans of Babylon 5 admit that Season 1 has some problems. The actors and writers were still finding their footing. These sorts of growing pains were quite common for TV shows in the 1980s and 1990s. Unlike today, when TV shows typically start with an impressive pilot and decline in quality, Babylon 5 requires viewers to be patient. And the hints of a truly epic story, combined with the wonderful interaction between Londo and G’Kar, have convinced me to stick around for Season 2. Even if the final product is flawed, I can’t help but admire Straczynski’s ambition.
My journey on Baylon 5 continues next week with Season 2…