“It was the dawn of the third age of mankind, ten years after the Earth/Minbari war. The Babylon Project was a dream given form. Its goal: to prevent another war by creating a place where humans and aliens could work out their differences peacefully. It’s a port of call, home away from home for diplomats, hustlers, entrepreneurs, and wanderers. Humans and aliens wrapped in two million, five hundred thousand tons of spinning metal, all alone in the night. It can be a dangerous place, but it’s our last best hope for peace. This is the story of the last of the Babylon stations. The year is 2258. The name of the place is Babylon 5.”
Thus begins the first episode of Season 1 of Babylon 5, perhaps the lost science fiction classic of the nineties. Originally pitched as a possible Star Trek entry, B5 came about in the right place at the right time. Star Trek was at its peak with three incarnations either on the silver screen (The Next Generation), on the air (the coincidentally – or perhaps not – Deep Space Nine), and in development (Voyager). Lucas still pondered expanding the Star Wars universe, and both Firefly and the rebooted Battlestar Galactica had yet to grace television in all their bingeable glory. In between Picard, Sisko and Janeway and the dark, gritty adventures of Galactica and the Serenity, J. Michael Starczynski brought forth a five-year epic equal parts Trek, Lord of the Rings, and Iain M. Banks’s Culture series. The aliens were truly alien with only the Centauri and Minbari somewhat human looking. The first season alone featured a minor criminal character who resembled a grasshopper while the second season featured a human suing a Gray for the abduction (and we assume, probing) of the human’s great grandfather by the Gray’s great grandfather.
Babylon 5 was indeed different right out of the gate. For starters, the space shots and even some of the characters, eschewed practical effects for complete CGI. It was obvious, but, as my stepson pointed out, it looked like an older video game, as though they used a videogame engine for many of the scenes. It gave B5 a different feel from the Trek shows and movies which still used primarily models and practical effects in 1994.
The show debuted with a movie, The Gathering, in 1993 on the fledgling PTEN network. It focused on “the last of the Babylon stations,” Babylon 5, commanded by Minbari War hero Jeffrey Sinclair. The station was to serve as a sort of United Nations in neutral territory. The Gathering had a much different cast with the introductory voiceover by Peter Jurasik, who played Centauri ambassador Londo Mollari, whose species looked human but with males prone to peacock hairdos. The station had a different telepath (who would return in later seasons), chief surgeon, and first officer. Also, Mira Furlan, who played Minbari ambassador Delen, had more pronounced prosthetics. The pilot was also heavy on exposition, but it did establish, if not the main characters, at least the presence.
At the center of the series was Michael O’Hare as Commander Jeffrey Sinclair. O’Hare had a certain gravitas as the first human to board a Minbari warship during their war with Earth. His second, from Episode 1 onward, was a Russian Jew named Susan Ivanova. And Ivanova was probably more responsible for the humans’ sarcastic vibe than any other character. Played by Claudia Christian, she was not to be screwed with. A classic line, spoken to one of Babylon 5’s own crew, went, “I’d like you to take time to learn the Babylon 5 mantra. I will trust Ivanova. Ivanova is always right. Ivanova is God. I will listen to Ivanova’s recommendations. And if this ever happens again, Ivanova will personally rip your lungs out!” After closing the channel, she looks up and says she was kidding about the God part.
No, she wasn’t.
The only character, aside from Delen and Narn ambassador G’kar, to make it from pilot to final movie was Michael Garibaldi, the station’s security chief. Jerry Doyle (then married to fellow cast member Andrea Thompson) imbued Garibaldi with a blue collar ethos, a science fiction response to John Goodman’s earlier (and current) performance on Roseanne/The Conners. Garibaldi was equal parts conscience and foyle to both Sinclair and Captain Sheridan. Garibaldi was not the ideal man of the future in the Roddenberry shows. He had a drinking problem he had largely kept under control, and could sometimes veer off course when provoked.
The aliens also proved interesting. Delen, ambassador from Earth’s most recent enemy, the Minbari, showed that the species that once tried to exterminate humans were actually more friend than foe once the misunderstandings disappeared. Delen goes so far as to transform herself into half human/half Minbari to build a bridge. She also becomes Sheridan’s lover, then wife. Londo Mollari, of the aforementioned Centauri, has a vaguely Slavic accent and has his closest analog in Star Trek to Deep Space Nine‘s Quark. But whereas Quark is a simple shopkeeper trying to adjust to a changing culture – both Federation and Ferengi – Londo is an ambitious wheeler dealer whose machinations get him caught up in an insidious evil that ensares just about everyone on the station and beyond. His rival is G’Kar, played by Andreas Katsulas (a Romulan admiral on The Next Generation and the one-armed man in Harrison Ford’s The Fugitive.) G’Kar is a Narn, a reptilian race both very much human-like and very much alien in appearance. G’Kar seethes from abuse by the Centauri in a recent war, and when Londo’s “friends” reignite Centauri aggression, G’Kar is hellbent on revenge. He is both a tragic figure and a freedom fighter who becomes keenly aware that humans and Minbari aren’t the only pair of races who didn’t know they were really friends. Most mysterious is Kosh, a Vorlon. For most of the series, we don’t see what the Vorlons look like, and the absence of the original doctor and first officer, along with the two-season absence of telepath Lyta Alexander is explained as the result of those three actually seeing Kosh in his true form. Kosh decides that John Sheridan is the one who will lead humans into becoming an elder race. He is mysterious yet a mentor, and, unlike his fellow Vorlons, actually has a sense of humor about the whole thing.
John Sheridan, played by Bruce Boxleitner, replaces O’Hare’s Sinclair. This was a planned transition, but Starczynski said over the years he originally planned it for season 3. O’Hare had mental health issues that impaired his ability to work the long hours demanded by the show and asked JMS if he could leave after season 1. O’Hare even concocted a story, which Starczynski went along with, that he wanted to do a play, and could Sinclair’s storyline be wrapped up in guest appearances. Only after O’Hare’s death did Starczynski reveal what really happened. “Don’t take it to your grave,” O’Hare told JMS. “Take it to mine. Then let others know so they can get help.”
I wasn’t happy with Boxleitner’s arrival. He had a tendency to play pretty boys, which probably belied his actual talent. But within two episodes, he established Sheridan, a former starship captain, as the guy who would be at the center of a cosmic fist fight between two elder races. Everything – a a fascist coup on Earth and subsequent civil war, the Centauri’s brutal conquest of the Narn, and the collapse of their empire, a telepath uprising, all were engineered by the Vorlons and their much older rivals, simply known as the Shadows. The Shadows are probably the most alien and insidious villains of any space opera. Vaguely insectoid, terrifying to listen to, and capable of reducing most people to literal meat puppets, the Shadows thrive on chaos with their question (which fans of Lucifer will recognize), “What do you want?” The Vorlons, who worship order above all, ask “Who are you?” In the end, Sheridan and an even older race confront them and tell them to get lost.
Or “move beyond the Rim,” a euphemism for death that is not really death, echoing Tolkien.
The show is one of the most complex and intricate stories ever told. Equal parts shoot-em-up, love story, quest, and war epic, it even can point to Asimov’s Foundation series for inspiration. Not surprising. The cantankerous genius Harlan Ellison served as story consultant and even provided a few voices (including Sheridan’s computer taking on the personality of a cranky Jewish father in one episode.)
Babylon 5 was one of the first TV series to tell a self-contained story across multiple seasons with a planned end. Casting changes, deaths, and the collapse of PTEN as a network forced alterations in it. Indeed, the show lost Claudia Christian, to many the heart and soul of the show, to miss the final season on TNT. Tracy Scoggins replaced her as Captain Lochley, a woman with some history with Sheridan, as the ultimate commander of the station. In some ways, it robbed the show of its punch, though through no fault of Scoggins.
B5′‘s impact was immediate. It provided a template for Deep Space Nine and Voyager to tell their own seasons-long story arcs. JMS complained that, while he did not believe Michael Piller and Ira Behr plagiarized Babylon 5, he wished they and their writing staffs would have watched the show so they did not inadvertently duplicate aspects of each. (He also believes that, while Piller and Behr created an original show, some at Paramount might have used his original notes to steer them in a similar direction.) Andromeda and Farscape appeared with similar effects, graphics, and story structure. By the early 2000s, Ron Moore and Josh Whedon took their cues to make the first “bingeworthy” scifi shows, the rebooted Battlestar Galactica and Firefly. Today, The Mandalorian – Disney’s more Star Wars than Star Wars tale of the post-Return of the Jedi era – and The Expanse both have the epic sweep of Babylon 5 while telling their own stories. (Both owe a bigger debt to Firefly with their dusty, lived-in universes and Spaghetti Western feel.) Star Trek is now 10-episode shows with self-contained storylines, only Strange New Worlds promising the multi-season sweep of B5, but all three currently aired shows cribbing notes from it.
And what of Babylon 5? With Star Wars revived on television, the MCU progressing in short, limited series, and virtually every scifi franchise from Trek to Mystery Science Theater 3000 embracing either the Netflix weekend binge model or the slower pump-and-dump of Amazon and Disney+, the time seems right for Babylon 5 to undergo a retelling, details and a new cast that would bring J. Michael Starczynski’s original vision to life. And perhaps Warner Brothers is testing the waters with remastered episodes on HBOMax. JMS, however, said it’s unlikely. The show never made money for PTEN or TNT, it’s sequel, Crusade dying an inglorious (and undeserved) death. Warner owns the motion picture rights and is unlikely to sell them to another studio. JMS owns the television rights, but he can’t really sell a revived series to another studio without the film rights. Unlike, say, Battlestar Galactica, with no fewer than four revival efforts going at once and a fifth getting input from those involved with both produced incarnations, B5 is a victim of rights being divided up.
So perhaps HBO’s airing of the remastered series will create a groundswell of support for a show structured more like The Wire than Star Trek: The Next Generation.
It could be our last best hope for a return.