I got a great Christmas present from my wife this year. I now have at my disposal the entire Babylon 5 video collection. That’s all 5 years of the show, all of the TV movies, and the Crusade spin-off. (Okay, so it doesn’t include Legend of the Rangers, but that’s not really a bad thing. The Lost Tales, though… might have to pick that up.)
This is a show that I was obsessed with. I liked Star Trek – a lot. But it never commanded my attention as fully as Babylon 5. My interest owes much to its structured, pre-planned story – a rarity in sci-fi television, even today, but at the time it was unheard of. No one was doing anything except episodic sci-fi where the consequences of what happened in an episode were completely forgotten by the start of the next episode.
Over on my Facebook page, I’ve posted little reviews/synopses of each episode of the first season of Babylon 5. They’re not very long – head over and take a peek. They start just at the end of 2014. The goal was to put up these little reviews as my wife and I rewatched the episodes, and then come here and do a season overview on the blog. So here we are. This one’s going to be a bit longer, because I want to hit the pilot movie, the Gathering, as well. And I found something I had written while the series was still running – the text for a planned B5 themed website I was working on back in the wee-hours of internet time that quickly overviews the whole series. So I share that below. Let’s get started.
It was the dawn of the third age of mankind…
So begins the five-year saga told by Babylon 5’s creator, J. Michael Straczynski (JMS). From its conception, Babylon 5 was to be a coherent story, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. It broke with the popular theories of episodic television that state that no plot line for any episode can affect the “status quo” of the series. Everything that happens to a character in Babylon 5 has a lasting effect on that character’s development. Even death. Babylon 5 rewrote the rules, set in large part by Star Trek, for science fiction television. And it’s popularity steadily grew throughout its five years, garnering numerous prestigious awards along the way.
Each of the five seasons of the show can be looked at as books, with each season’s 22 episodes representing a chapter. In the first two or three seasons, most of the episodes could be enjoyed without much knowledge of the series at large. As the third season drew to a close, and especially in the fourth, it took a greater understanding of the series to fully appreciate each episode, as the series-wide plot wound tighter. Dilbert creator and one-time B5 guest star, Scott Adams, was quoted as saying that it took three episodes before you could understand the plot, and who was doing what to whom, but it is well worth the effort. The (almost abandoned) fifth season has more episodes than the previous two that can stand alone, but by the second half of the season the plot pulls you from episode to episode through to its stunning conclusion.
Each season spans a year in the series and was named to show the vision of that season’s intended effect on the overall plot:
Commander Jeffrey David Sinclair, commanding officer of Earth’s newly operational Babylon 5 space station, is accused of attempting to murder the most mysterious of the arriving ambassadors: Kosh, a Vorlon. It is eventually proven that the would-be assassin is a Minbari radical who, in his last moments, tells Sinclair, “You have a hole in your mind.” Sinclair believes that the Minbari was referring to the 24-hour period that he cannot remember at the end of the Earth-Minbari war, nine years earlier, and vows to discover what transpired during that time. That war was halted suddenly on the eve of Earth’s destruction by the Minbari, who gave no reason for their unexpected surrender.
Season One (A.D. 2258) — Signs and Portents
Commander Sinclair and his new First Officer, Lieutenant Commander Susan Ivanova try to keep peace on the station. Between his battles with raiders and negotiations with the League of Non-Aligned Worlds and the Babylon 5 Advisory Board, Sinclair enlists the aid of his long-time friend and security chief, Michael Garibaldi, to learn more about the “hole” in his mind. Delenn, the Minbari ambassador, is discovered to have been somehow involved in that lost time. A friendship develops between Sinclair and Delenn, but he does not tell her that he is beginning to remember her earlier involvement in his life.
Londo Mollari, the Centauri ambassador, has a prophetic dream of his death at the hands of his enemy, G’Kar, ambassador for the Narn. G’Kar, his people still recovering from 100 years of Centauri occupation, would like nothing better than to turn Londo’s dream into reality. The Centauri are now a crumbling empire, living in the glory of their past.
The planet around which Babylon 5 orbits, thought to be lifeless, is found to house a Great Machine of incredible power.
At one point the previous station, Babylon 4, appears in a region of space where time is disrupted. Sinclair and Garibaldi answer a distress call to evacuate the crew members. While aboard they discover Zathras, who tells Sinclair he has a destiny and that Babylon 4 is needed in a Great War in another time. Zathras identifies his leader as “the One.” Sinclair and Garibaldi escape just before Babylon 4 disappears again into the time rift. From inside the station, an older version of Sinclair watches them leave, remarking that it all occurred just as he remembered it.
An unknown race working in the shadows begins to slowly and quietly affect the lives of those on the station. As the year closes, Earth Alliance President Luis Santiago is assassinated, leaving Vice-President Morgan Clark in his place. Garibaldi is shot and in a coma. The Vorlons and Minbari see the approach of an impending doom. Delenn begins a drastic change. Sinclair, overwhelmed, summarizes the situation: “Nothing’s the same anymore.”
My rewatch experience
As I stated over on Facebook, the CGI work is notably outdated. Early on, it was extremely jarring. I was surprised, however, by how quickly I ceased to care. It took a few episodes, but then it just became part of the aesthetic of the show.
Don’t get me wrong, I would LOVE to see someone update that stuff – it would look awesome – but despite what I thought at the beginning, it hasn’t been a detriment to my enjoyment of the show.
And that’s because this show is built on character and story – the way shows should be built.
It has been at least a decade since I last watched any episodes of this show, and I had forgotten how quickly the plot of the season progresses, and how much is set up that pays off later. I remembered it as a much slower build-up – and it would still probably play that way to a new watcher – but it just seemed to speed through things this time around.
The first episode sets up stuff that we see in the series finale. That’s 5 years later. Everything in between completely changes the meaning of that payoff, too. When you see Londo’s death dream in that first episode, there is absolutely no way for you to understand how meaningful that scene is at the end of the line. This show is all about the journey. And what a journey it is. On its own, this season is a bit of a ride, but its real goal is to set the pieces in place to begin the rest of the story.
I’m looking forward to starting season 2.