Julien Neaves, Sci Fi Head Writer
This past February marked the 30-year anniversary of space opera Babylon 5, a groundbreaking TV series created by writer/producer J. Michael Straczynski (Jeremiah, Sense8). The show is set on the titular space station and follows human military staff, alien diplomats and a host of other human and alien characters from the years 2257 to 2262. Following several interspecies wars, including a major conflict between Earth and a species called the Minbari, the Babylon stations were meant as a symbol of peace and a neutral ground for diplomacy and trade. But more often than not Babylon 5 (the fifth station after the previous four were destroyed or disappeared) would find itself facing battles both internal and external.
Thanks to an HBO Max subscription I was able to rewatch all five seasons of the series and quite enjoyed doing so. But three decades on how does the series hold up, especially compared to other contemporaries like Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (which had a controversially similar set-up)? With a jump gate-sized SPOILER ALERT let’s revisit two million five hundred thousand tons of spinning metal, all alone in the night in five blasts:
Blast #1 The Species
The aspect of the series that has weathered time the best is the species. Over its five seasons Babylon 5 does yeoman work in fleshing out its main alien species, namely the Minbari with their strict warrior, religious and worker caste system, the imperialist and decadent Centauri, the noble and resilient Narn, and the mysterious and technologically advanced Vorlons. From their social systems to their religious beliefs to their mating rituals to their history, we get an intriguing deep dive into all of them.
Exploring species is one of my favourite aspects of any Sci Fi franchise, though unfortunately it is something we rarely get on-screen as most shows either do the surface level alien-of-the-week format or, like Star Wars, drop a myriad of species with little to no development outside of online or print reading material. What we get here is on par with the above-mentioned Deep Space Nine, and if you know how much love DS9, that is some high praise.
Returning to B5, the lore and development of the alien species is supported by some of the best practical effects and costuming of any Sci Fi series, and worthy of its hairstyling and makeup Emmy awards and nominations. The elegant and gorgeous robes of the Minbari, the fan-like hair of the Centauri, and the reptilian skin of the Narn all look fantastic. My personal favourite, however, is the environmental suits of the Vorlons. It is so large and intricate and regal and so off-putting and so, well, alien. Every time the Vorlons were on-screen I was riveted. And can we talk about the show’s big bad, the Shadows? Well, we will be talking more about them later, but suffice to say at this point that those dark, spider-like creatures are some of the creepiest aliens ever put to screen.
Now there are other species that don’t get as much development, such as the Drazi and the Brakiri, but that is expected, and I did not mind too much. What we do get is extremely well done.
Blast #2 The Characters
Londo and G’Kar. For anyone who has seen the show, those three words are enough to put a wide, goofy smile on your face. Do I even have the words to describe how brilliant and outstanding were the duo of Peter Jurasik’s Centauri ambassador (and later emperor) Londo Mollari and Andreas Katsulas’ Narn ambassador (and later unwilling religious figure and philosopher) G’Kar? Probably not, but in a show with an ensemble of great characters everyone plays second fiddle to these two. They could not be any more different from each other, with Mollari being delightfully power hungry, charming and extravagant while G’Kar is selfless, stoic and humble. Both actors give top tier performances supported by Straczynski’s masterful writing and story arcs, and their frenemy relationship is easily one of the best of any TV series, Sci Fi or otherwise.
The other characters are no slouches either, and since we started with alien main characters let’s continue with that category for now. I adore Mira Furlan’s proud Minbari ambassador Delenn, who started off a bit stiff in the first season but grew into a beautiful, strong, thoughtful, and surprisingly witty female lead. And yes, I thought she looked better with the hair. Delenn’s relationship with John Sheridan, which grew from friendly colleagues to passionate man and wife, is so touching and beautiful, and truly the heart of the series. Delenn’s supremely loyal aide Lennier (played by Lost in Space’s Bill Mumy) was so much understated fun, and he had a somewhat tragic arc with his unrequited love for her. You also had Stephen Furst as the outwardly silly but deceptively crafty Vir Cotto, Londo’s diplomatic aide.
On to the human main cast, and for the first season we had Michael O’Hare as Commander Jeffrey Sinclair in command of B5. And he was decent enough, holding his own and getting a second life as ambassador to Minbar and later Minbari legendary figure Valen aka the One Who Was. But he was overshadowed by Captain John Sheridan, played by the always fun Bruce Boxleitner of Tron fame. Sheridan had more charm, wit, passion and strength than Sinclair, and deftly carried the show from Season 2 to Season 5 as station leader and later President of the Interstellar Alliance. And as Delenn looked better with the hair, he looked better with the beard.
After Sherdian, my next favourite was Claudia Christian as Lt Commander (and later Commander) Susan Ivanova. It was only when I rewatched the series I remembered how hilarious she was. Her dry humour and biting zingers never failed to put a smile on my face. Also bringing a few laughs, some action and edge to the show was Security Officer and recovering alcoholic Michael Garibaldi (Jerry Doyle). We also had Richard Biggs as the sterling Doctor Stephen Franklin and his stim addiction plotline was quite edgy for the time and very well-written. I also enjoyed both resident station psychics Talia Winters (Andrea Thompson) and Lyta Alexander (Patricia Tallman), though the former’s storyline ended way too abruptly. And there were other characters who also came up short in the development department. Ranger Marcus Cole (Jason Carter) was great fun but never felt like he fulfilled his potential, Tracy Scoggins’ Captain Elizabth Lochley was super under used in the final season, and while Zack Allan (Jeff Conaway of Grease fame) had loads of screen time and a whole four seasons he barely had an arc, and the number of interesting storylines were all of zero. Why was he even there?
And we haven’t even talked about the villainous characters. Sadly, B5 didn’t have that many great bad guys in terms of quantity. Most were either villain-of-the week types or undercooked like the rarely seen xenophobic head of the Earth Alliance President Clark or the dastardly second Vorlon Ambassador, also named Kosh, who didn’t do much before getting blown to bits by Sheridan. But there were two baddies who were pretty great, namely human Shadow agent Morden and Psi-Corps senior officer Alfred Bester. Ed Wasser was pure, slimy, manipulative evil as Morden and loving to hate him was the easiest thing in the galaxy. Like Vir, I was also overly pleased to see his head up on a pike on Centuari Prime.
Morden, however, is easily eclipsed by Walter Koenig’s Bester in a performance that is a polar opposite to his most famous role, plucky Russian navigator Pavel Chekov on Star Trek. Bester is smug, condescending, Machiavellian, diabolical and perpetually scheming. He does the most horrible things, including controlling Garibaldi and ruining his career, but it is not out of malice or spite. No, he is a firm believer in the cause of telepaths and will use or destroy anyone to achieve that goal. But he is no unfeeling monster and showed a tender side with his secret telepath lover. A villain through and through and a wonderfully complex one, you knew that whenever Bester showed up stuff was about to go down. If you could read my mind you would see how much I adore this character.
Blast #3 Action and Visuals
The visual effects for B5 were done in CGI way before that became more commonplace, and they received an Emmy Award Outstanding Individual Achievement in Special Visual Effects for the pilot TV movie The Gathering. Rewatching it now, the CGI does look very dated and does not hold up as well as the model designs of the Silver Age Star Trek series. While rough, I eventually found myself getting used to it and I was still able to appreciate the creativity that went into the designs. From the large rolling titular station to the fierce Star Furies to the sleek White Stars to the spider-like Shadow vessels, the ship designs are truly a delight and I enjoyed how varied they were by specie. Definitely a unique aesthetic and one that makes it stand out from other space Sci Fi series.
We also had a few CGI aliens as well, notably the true, angelic form of the Vorlons and the skin-crawling Shadows, which have weathered time pretty okay.
In terms of space action, we had more than our share of dogfights and full-scale conflicts. Seeing a variety of ships blasting each other into dust was quite the spectacle and was aided by some deft sound editing. My favourites were the difficult battles with the implacable Shadows and the emotionally charged encounters during the Earth Civil War.
We also had more than a few dust-ups on the station itself and a few others on various planets. And the action is alright, though I never found the main hand weapon, the Phased Plasma Gun (PPG), all that interesting. More fascinating were the Rangers and their extendable staff weapons, though we did not get enough of that for my tastes.
Blast #4 Storytelling
While most mid to late 90s TV series used the episodic format B5 was a “novel for television” with a pre-planned five seasons with each season as a chapter. This format makes rewatching and binging the series quite rewarding. And with Straczynski at the writing helm the strong quality of writing remained relatively consistent throughout, interrogating themes of war, trauma, prejudice, xenophobia, addiction, religion, loyalty and power. Now I will do a quick breakdown season by season.
Season 1: Signs and Portents
A cool season, though not the strongest start. We have the mysteries of Sinclair’s “hole in (his) mind” and the introduction of the Shadows via Morden (though we did not know their name at the time) but most of it was pretty standard Sci Fi TV fare.
Season 2: The Coming of Shadows
Sheridan comes in like a breath of fresh air and the series picks up steam. The President Clark conspiracy is introduced as well as the Earth isolationist policy which will have grand and intriguing ramifications in time to come. We also have the Shadows making their first big move with assisting the Centauri to decimate the Narn Empire. Now you have me hooked.
Season 3: Point of No Return
This is my favourite season of the entire series. So much happens and it just takes the show to an epic level. Sheridan and Delenn’s “conspiracy of light” is formed to fight the Shadows and B5’s greatest conflict, The Shadow War, gets into full swing. The conflict with Earth also picks up with Clark declaring martial law and Sheridan in response declaring the station independent, complete with snazzy new black uniforms. And one moment that remained with me two decades after I first watched the show was the brutal and tragic murder of Ambassador Kosh by the dastardly Shadows. And the season wrapped with Sheridan’s ill-fated visit to his enemy’s homeworld, Z’ha’dum, which culminated in a movie-level finale. Simply the best.
Season 4: No Surrender, No Retreat
I suspect Straczynski was worried this might have been the show’s final season and tried to wrap everything up just in case. And yeah, the season came off feeling way too rushed. We had the Vorlons becoming a threat, the liberation of Narn with the aid of Mollari and the end of the Shadow War thanks to Sheridan learning the ancient history of the Vorlons and the Shadows. But for the major conflict of the entire series, it feels like it is wrapped up too quickly and too easily. And then we also had the end of the Earth Civil War which, while well done, also felt like it could have used some breathing room. The season ended with that weird jump to the distant future episode, which I presume was intended to possibly close out the series but was too all over the place for me.
Season 5: The Wheel of Fire
What do you do when you’ve wrapped up your two major storylines and then get another season? Well, you get Season 5 of B5. It seems like they really didn’t know what to do with this season. The first few episodes felt like they were spinning their wheels and for the first time in rewatching the show I felt bored and wondered where it was all going. Yeah, we had new Captain Lochley but as mentioned before she barely did anything and featured relatively rarely. The telepath conflict was interesting but never really went anywhere. And even worse was the allies of the Shadows who secretly took over the Centauri Empire and forced Mollari into their service. This got me all excited but then deflated like a balloon. At least the final episode provided a touching and fitting tribute to Sheridan, the station and the series as a whole.
Blast #5 Legacy
Overall, B5 holds up as one of the best Sci Fi series and Straczynski and his team crafted one of the best science fiction worlds ever. And it is a world that is worth revisiting. Now as a franchise we had six TV movies (the abovementioned The Gathering, prequel movie In the Beginning, Thirdspace, The River of Souls, A Call to Arms, and The Legend of the Rangers: To Live and Die in Starlight) and the spin-off series Crusade, which followed the crew of the Victory class destroyer Excalibur searching the galaxy for a cure to a Drakh nanovirus plague. I remember a few episodes of Crusade and it was decent enough but felt too much like Star Trek, lacking the complex storytelling of the mother series. It only lasted the one 13-episode season before fading into the night. The Legend of the Rangers was meant as a pilot for a series of the same name, but it was never picked up. I remember watching it, and it was oddly lacking in staff weapon action for a show centered on Rangers. Overall, it was not that remarkable.
B5 has remained relatively dormant since then, though there was news in 2021 of a reboot. Can’t say I’m a fan of the idea, as I would be more interested in some sort of continuation or even a prequel series. But then again, the Battlestar Galactica reboot was quite the pleasant surprise, so I’ll give it a shot if it ever comes out. And with Star Trek enjoying a Renaissance and Star Wars having multiple television series currently it is time Bablyon 5 returns from the shadows and back into the light in some form.
So that’s my retrospective. Are you a fan of Babylon 5? What are your favourite species or characters? And you can check out more epic Sci Fi content below:
Julien “Editor Jules” Neaves is a TARDIS-flying, Force-using Trekkie whose bedroom stories were by Freddy Krueger, learned to be a superhero from Marvel, but dreams of being Batman. I love promoting Caribbean film (Cariwood), creating board games and I am an aspiring author. I say things like “12 flavours of awesome sauce”. Read more.