*** SPOILER ALERT: DO NOT READ UNTIL YOU HAVE FINISHED WATCHING Babylon 5 ***
The story is the main strength of Babylon 5. As I noted in my review for Season 1, J. Michael Stracynski initially conceived of the show as a televised novel. It’s easily the most complex science fiction story ever depicted on TV. The show rewards viewers for paying attention. Seemingly small details or plot points in Season 1 might reappear in Season 5. For example, the second episode in Season 1, “Soul Hunter,” depicts a Soul Hunter gone rogue. It’s a fairly standalone episode, but it introduces Minbari religious beliefs, which play a key role in Delenn’s later transformation and in Sinclair’s fate.
Over the course of the series, Babylon 5 explores themes ranging from intercultural diversity to sacrifice. Stracynski’s long-term planning allowed the show to cover these same themes in different ways over the course of the series. In Season 1, the exploration of diversity seems limited to understanding and acknowledging different cultures. We as viewers must become familiar bizarre alien races and cultures. In later seasons, the show challenges viewers to look beyond superficial diversity as it undermines our initial impressions. It’s telling that the “villains” – Mr. Morden, the Centauri, and President Clark’s regime – look and sound human yet lack humanity. By contrast, the Narn look demonic and the Minbari culture sounds incomprehensible, but in the end both G’Kar and Delenn embody some of humanity’s noblest virtues.
I should also applaud Babylon 5 for generally avoiding sci-fi tropes. At no point did the Babylon 5 crewmembers switch bodies, inhale a drug that made them act crazy, or travel to parallel universes. When the show did dip into the well of tropes, it added a unique spin, sometimes even improving upon the trope. For example, “Believers” is a standard morality play about a doctor confronted with a patient’s anachronistic religious beliefs, but the resolution plays against the progressive instinct that medical knowledge can solve everything. Even the “Babylon Squared” time travel story arc – admittedly not my favorite – did far more than simply send the characters back to California during the 1990s.
I’ve noted throughout my reviews that the standalone episodes of Babylon 5 tend to be the weakest. I stand by that statement. Star Trek: The Next Generation excelled at telling self-contained stories within a 45-minute episode. Even Star Trek: Deep Space Nine tended to focus on smaller stories or story arcs within the overall context of an interstellar war. I can tell you my favorite episodes of The Next Generation or Deep Space Nine. I have trouble picking my favorite episodes of Babylon 5. Some episodes of Babylon 5 are certainly better than others, but few truly outstanding episodes I would feel compelled to rewatch in isolation.
But I’m no longer sure it matters. After finishing the series, it’s clear that Babylon 5 was more interested in telling a serialized story and invested relatively little in individual episodes. In that sense, it is more like a science fiction soap opera. It makes more sense to view Babylon 5 as a single series rather than as a series of episodes. The shows’ focus on the overall story makes it more focused than the Battlestar Galactica reboot. One never gets the sense that Babylon 5 doesn’t know where it’s going next. For the 1990s, its serialized storytelling was ambitious. I can’t help but wonder if Babylon 5 would have fared much better during the 2000s, when serialization had become much more prevalent on American television.
That said, Babylon 5 does suffer from pacing problems. The two seasons focus too much on foreshadowing, building up the Shadows and raising more mysteries than the show could possibly answer (somewhat like Lost). The Shadow War only started midway through Season 3, but then ended rather abruptly early in Season 4. Then, after a lull in Season 4, the show raced towards the liberation of Earth. Season 5 seemed like an anticlimactic continuation of leftover plot threads rather than an integral part of the main story.
The “middle” of the story, Seasons 3 and 4, truly soared. I love the Narn-Centauri conflict. The relationship between Londo and G’Kar personalized the dispute such that I felt more invested in the dispute between these two alien races than I did the Shadow War or Earth civil war. During the first half of Season 3, the show slowly and deliberately built up tension between Babylon 5 and Earth Force. The politics had a verisimilitudeness often lacking in science fiction. I can’t think of many other TV shows in which the government and station commander would argue over paying rent for command staff quarters. Babylon 5’s subsequent declaration of independence in Season 3 was probably one of the most surprising moments in science fiction history. Earth was now the bad guy!
However, the show proceeded too quickly from foreshadowing to endgame without enough “middle.” In the end, both the Shadows and President Clark were paper tigers. The heroes never suffered a major defeat. I never really felt like our heroes were in a desperate struggle for survival (except perhaps for the Season 3 finale “Z’ha’dum”). Part of the problem is that the show tried to convey much of the story through exposition rather than action. We are told that the Shadows are a major threat but never see it. We are told that President Clark’s regime is evil but never see it. Perhaps an episode or two from a different point of view, such as an episode telling the story of Clark’s victims, would have added more meat to the bones.
In the real world, Stracynski had to proceed without assurances that Babylon 5 would receive a fifth season, prompting him to rush the main storyline in Season 4. In fact, Babylon 5 did switch television networks after Season 4 (from Fox to TNT). I can certainly understand how real-world constraints interfere with art. However, given the amount of unnecessary foreshadowing and filler episodes during the first four seasons, I can’t help but wonder if a tighter, four-season show might have worked better overall.
My journey through Babylon 5 continues next week with Part 2 of my Retrospective, about the characters of Babylon 5…