Babylon 5 is one of the best science fiction shows ever made. It also kind of sucks, and that’s okay.
“I hope the future will be like Star Trek, but I’m afraid it’s going to be like Babylon 5.”
This is how a friend convinced me to watch Babylon 5 close to a decade ago, and it’s a statement that gets both more and less prescient by the day. Babylon 5 depicts a future rife with stratified poverty, union busting corporations, xenophobic hate crimes, colonial legacies blossoming into new conflicts, and the tide of fascism rising right in our own backyard. In J. Michael Straczynski’s imagined future, the smug neoliberal western hegemony that arose from the ashes of the Cold War really was “the end of history”, and the results are simultaneously anodyne and horrific. Psychic powers are real, but those born with them are enslaved by the state. There are ancient terrors lurking on the edges of the map—civilizations who long ago ascended but refuse to let the children of the galaxy play unattended in the sandbox. People who live on the titular station still have to pay for their freaking healthcare in the year 2258.
And, of course, let us not forget what happened to San Diego.
Here’s what Babylon 5 also has: a complete, pre-planned, serialized story arc that is arguably one of the first successful examples of such on American television. A bisexual second-in-command and a nod to legalized gay marriage (in 1994!). An episode where “King Arthur” visits the station and knights an alien ambassador while drunk and actually this all has deep and ultimately painful relevance to the show’s immediate backstory, I promise. There’s a collective of time-travelling alien janitors all named Zathras who inexplicably become the most important hinge on which the stable time loop that ties together the first three seasons hangs. The heroes of Babylon 5 quite literally tell the universe’s most powerful threat to “get the hell out of their galaxy” eight episodes into the penultimate season and then spend the rest of the series mopping up civil wars, succession debates and personal crises. Yeah, that’s nearly two whole seasons the show keeps going without the Big Bad and most of it is very, very good (some of it is very, very not).
Babylon 5 is both exactly as wild as it sounds, and utterly underwhelming in terms of execution versus expectation. Because, honestly, a modern show with a Game of Thrones level budget would have a difficult time living up to the vision B5 presents in its five-year-arc, which attempts to suggest a history extending a million years in either direction; a great hand reaching out of the stars… and then doing absolutely nothing else. That Babylon 5 manages to grant us even a sliver of of that vision—like peeking through a crack in the door—is mind-blowing when you really examine all the things the show had going against it .
—which is kind of the critical equivalent of giving the show a gold star, or a participation trophy, isn’t it? This show won two Hugos once upon a time, but the legacy it has today tends to buzz around in the form of its “firsts” and the “in spite ofs”. Nothing else was doing serialization like this in the ’90s! Oh, it got cancelled, then un-cancelled! They never had the budget to do what they wanted! But… but! But, but, but!
So here’s the question I want to ask—is the show actually worth it, beyond the novelty of it simply being what it is? Because so often Babylon 5 is recommended in terms of those novelties, a piece of art that only justifies its existence in a self referential, metatextual sense because of its place in history. But aside from all that, is it really… any good?
I mean, obviously I think it is. It’s one of my favourite shows, and I’ve been known to be somewhat evangelical about it. I’ve marathoned it with friends and family members no less than five times in the nine years since I first watched it. I’ve witnessed more than one person cry during the series finale. My mother balefully admitted to me in a horrid whisper that she thought it was better than Star Trek. That it’s worth it seems self evident to me.
However, B5 is not a straightforward recommendation. There are many things about the show that are bad. And not just “cringey” or “cheap”, but legitimately, objectively awful or misjudged. The thing is, I don’t think that these flaws particularly detract from Babylon 5’s goodness. In fact I think they enhance it. They are thematically cogent and cohesive with what’s good about it, and I think that it would lose something in translation if that Big Budget, technically “perfect” modern adaptation everyone is dreaming about actually happened.
Don’t believe me? Well, consider Babylon 5’s cast: an eclectic mix of outstanding character actors, career genre gutter dwellers, and true amateurs, many of whom grew into their roles in various ways. Can you really imagine any of these characters being recast? It’s not controversial to sing the praises of the more colourful members of the dramatis personae, of course; Andreas Katsulas and Peter Jurasik’s lightning-in-a-bottle chemistry as adversarial Ambassadors Londo and G’kar is legendary. Mira Furlan brings both her effortlessly luminous demeanour and sobering real-world experience with war, to the destiny-obsessed and destiny-defying Delenn in a performance that is as effervescent as it is complete. Claudia Christian might be the only one who loves Susan Ivanova more than we do, and everyone adores Captain Sheridan. Well, a lot of fans these days actually hate Sheridan, who commits the twin sins of being both terribly earnest and also being right most of the time, but you can’t deny that Bruce Boxleitner bleeds sunshine out both his ears.
It doesn’t stop there: No one forgets the first time they meet the slimy, self-righteous Psi-Cop Alfred Bester. The Ambassadorial Aides are irreplaceable [even Na’toth (especially Na’toth [the joke here is that she was replaced; it wasn’t the same])]. Richard Briggs brings an understated naturalism to the ship’s head medical officer Doctor Franklin that makes him carefully invisible until his demons start to leak out. Jason Carter? Who even is that guy even? I have no idea, but he was so pitch perfect as the charmingly annoying and quixotic Ranger Marcus Cole that for the longest time I thought his British accent was fake. There’s layers.
For example: Jerry Doyle—who played the station’s wise-cracking and entertainingly damaged security chief, Michael Garibaldi—had a notably short career as an actor, cushioned on either side by stints as a Wall Street trader and a right wing radio host. This is the kind of extra-canonical knowledge that would usually ruin a character for me but, y’know, I don’t like Garibaldi because I agree with him politically; I mean—he’s a cop. I like him because he feels real, and he feels real because Doyle was on, some level, playing himself. You really can’t say there’s a single actor in the main cast who didn’t truly and thoroughly make the role their own. In the same way your high school’s production of Les Miserables might create a stronger visceral memory of the barricade scenes than Colm Wilkinson’s flawless recitation of ‘Bring Him Home’ in the 10th Anniversary Concert, it’s the imperfections that make this stagey, un-subtle, occasionally overwrought Space Opera seem authentic.
That authenticity is underscored by the world these characters inhabit. Babylon 5’s production design is inspired. Unique. Gorgeous—I will not budge on this point. I’ve seen the Season 1 Ambassador outfits in real life: they’re incredible works of sartorial art that the current DVD transfers simply do not do justice. Instead of streamlined and sterile, B5 is rich and gaudy and grandiose. It’s peak ’90s pop art aesthetic, and it’s bargain bin film noir: smokey and dark and grimy, shot through with bursts of neon and pastels. Lounge singers are backed by bands with Christmas lights glued to their guitars to make them look “space”-y. The drum-sets have glowing fluorescent rims. Every room on the station is crafted with a careful eye for detail that often gets lost in the sumptuous shadow-drenched lighting.
Colours mean things in Babylon 5, they have thematic and character associations. Hazy reds dominate G’kar’s living quarters and illuminate his steps as he treads the path to prophethood. The dazzling, abstract shards of light in Minbari architecture express both their complex, sharp-edged fragility and the Platonic foundations of their religious beliefs. The peaks and valleys of Londo Mollari’s fall-from-and-rise-to-grace are marked by him literally changing his coat. That last one’s kind of gauche, I know, but so is the character, so it works.
The show does its best to break monotony in the endless parade of flat-lighting, shot-reverse-shot film-making popularly seen in network spec shows pre-dating the revolution brought about by later seasons of The X-Files and Buffy. Which isn’t to say the directing is good—it’s not. In fact, sometimes it’s laughably amateur, the kind of dumb camera tricks I’d have thought to do if someone handed me a Super 35 in high school and told me to to go nuts; dutch angles, weird zooms, filming a tense exchange from the most obscure angle in the room possible… but there’s a sort of artistic innocence and freedom that comes from that lack of expertise, from filming a show that doesn’t need to be as safe as the TNGs of the world. Often the camera is doing something really stupid, but it’s rarely resting on its laurels. The show is at its worst—visually and atmospherically I mean, but also in terms of writing, yeah—during its fifth season, when it had the financial security to “look good”. Something is lost in the transition. It loses the fervent passion and becomes workmanship-like. The lights have come on and chased the shadows away.
Which only makes sense. The literal Shadows are gone from the galaxy too, and all the wars are over. The fifth season weaves so many narrative threads—some elegant, some nearly unwatchable—together that the plot hooks could set up a whole other five-season arc. Telepaths demanding the postponed freedoms they were promised, servants of the vanished Old Gods trying to fill the power vacuum left by their departed masters, beloved characters falling prey to destructive patterns and desires you would have hoped they’d overcome, while other members of the cast prosper in their roles as historical figures in the making. None of it is wrapped up.
Which is the point—that peace is difficult to maintain and there’s no magic fix. That when you kill your Gods you have to find something to replace them. That the needs of the truly oppressed are often treated as an after-thought by the bigwigs fighting the war, and their freedom will be used as a bargaining chip. For all these reasons, toppling oppressive regimes can have unexpected consequences that persist for years. For decades. The heroes have brought down the pillars of corruption with in such a way that the structure is still standing, and so they are forced to rebuild with the tools they already had.
But what if they had new tools? This is a possibility the show never even considers, and while there is a strong degree of intentionality to that point, Babylon 5 makes a big deal from the word go about the fact that we are supposedly witnessing the beginning of a “New Age”, so I think it’s valid to ask if perhaps the show could muster a bit more vision in its soft revolution.
The literal text of the show suggests that the natural result of Capitalism’s decay is a re-emergence of Fascism, and Earth is already locked in what we can now recognize as a familiar pattern of increasing technocratic censorship paired with a loss of political efficacy on the part of normal people when the series begins. There’s an election going on in the first episode and the conservative party wins on the basis of what we are to assume is reactionary rhetoric. He’s not the guy our protagonists were supporting, but the whole thing is treated with a shrug. It eventually leads to a civil war. We’re immediately thrust into a cynical world wracked with bureaucratic inertia and callow appeasement. Our heroes emerge as heroic because they choose to reject apathy, normalization and compliance. Watching Earth inexorably slip further into violent authoritarianism is gripping stuff, brilliantly played as background noise for the first two and a half seasons and just as novel as it was in 1994 even when expressed in the silliest possible terms (Earth Gov is really out there literally quoting Nineteen Eighty-Four on its propaganda posters, huh?). But I’m not sure how cognizant the show is of its own political subtext, or, y’know, text in general.
Actually, the real problem is that I am sure.
What I’m saying is that Babylon 5 is… a little politically naive. It succumbs powerfully to the temptation to paint its central characters as the Great Men (and Women!) of History. The solutions it offers are not much different from the problems it wants to solve. This—in some regards—is fine, because we know what happens a million years after the end of the series: Earth falls to fascism again. Human civilization is boiled down to its bones in a nuclear war. Eventually, we rebuild. Eventually we ascend and go beyond the furthest ring to hang out with Kosh and Sheridan, and it’s all very Lord of the Rings in a way that has you half-expecting Gandalf to pop out from behind a corner at points. Like I said: it’s ‘The End of History’, the zeitgeist of the 1990s taken to its logical conclusion. It’s a Liberal hellscape, and that’s intentional at least 50% of the time. It might be asking a lot for a major network show from the Clinton-era to offer a more cogent critique of the system everyone was happily drowning in at the time than this.
The show can be crassly broad when broaching topics such as the AIDS epidemic, McCarthyism or Jehovah’s Witness medical restrictions, but it is simultaneously also very good at presenting situations in which no one is exactly right, or subverting its own subversions. Babylon 5’s parallel to the Cardassian/Bajoran conflict is initially problematized by presenting the formerly colonized Narn as a bloodthirsty, ambitious Regime in their own right, eager to make a mark on the galaxy and give back every inch of pain meted upon them by their former oppressors the Centauri. But it’s still the Narn Ambassador G’kar who learns to look towards the future, and the Centauri Ambassador Londo who helps his Empire re-brutalize the Narn twice as bad as has been done before out of a petty desire to feel important again. The wheel does not turn: the Centauri’s Imperial desire to see themselves as martyrs now under the boot of their victims is the poison tooth at the heart of the show’s many conflicts.
However, this all looks very First Year PoliSci even when compared to that contemporary non-blood relative Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, which stumbles all over the place in its own Star Trekky way, but was perhaps more astute in its attempts at social criticisms with episodes like ‘Past Tense’ and ‘Far Beyond the Stars’ as well as notably more mature in its engagement with colonial war crimes. But what Babylon 5 lacks in wisdom it gains back in boldness and specificity. The reason I can respect this narrative, as outdated and self-defeating it is at points, is because B5 is never afraid—or embarrassed, even when it should be—to state its positions and their proximity to the world outside its narrative confines.
This specificity of framing is in sharp contrast to Star Trek, which presents a vibrant playground in which to pose infinite number of philosophical moral quandaries but has shockingly little to say about the political architecture of that playground. We all know that the Federation is a glorious Fully Automated Luxury Space Communism paradise, right? I mean, it is—there’s nothing else it could be, but no writer has ever told us this directly. Starfleet Officers are awfully self righteous about a way of life that the franchise seems averse to actual spelling out in explicit terms. And if you don’t say something out loud, it turns out you don’t actually have a whole lot to say about it in the end after all. I find specificity more valuable the older I get. I can have a conversation with Babylon 5, all the parts I find illuminating as well as the ones I find odious. I can interact with its ideas about capitalism and extremism and religion and western interventionism without getting lost in the weeds of polite innuendo post-Cold War Star Trek often malingered in. (NOTE: I also love Star Trek)
Babylon 5’s willingness to engage heavily with the material conditions of the world it depicts is the reason I get nerd snobby about classifying the show as a Space Opera, not! a science fiction show, despite its many fascinating hard sci-fi elements. B5 has some very obvious fantasy trappings—ripped directly from Tolkien here, quoting Arthurian legends there—but what makes it capital-F Fantasy in my opinion is its preoccupation with communicating story and theme through the evocation of historical verisimilitude in its world-building. Babylon 5 uses its world to tell a mythic tale with contemporary tools rather than to posit questions about our future. With the philosophical and allegorical framework of the “primary world” removed, the story gets a whole lot easier to swallow.
This convincing world-building is achieved not just through the beauty of the production design, but also through its storytelling format which, for all B5’s pretensions of being a “novel for television”, is actually a hybrid of arc-focused serialization and stand-alone episodes. This was a format that American television was experimenting with a lot at the time, but what makes Babylon 5 unique is that it does not separate the two narrative approaches into neat, tidy bins like, say, The X-Files did with its “mythology” and “monster-of-the-week” episodes, which can essentially be watched independently of each other to create two very different television shows starring the same characters. In Babylon 5, lore-heavy episodes often have frivolous B-plots and seemingly inane stand-alone adventures can affect the course of the series in unexpected ways.
Each episode shows you a new facet of the world. It doesn’t hand you the puzzle pieces in order and it’s not shoving them at you aggressively, begging you to guess its secrets. Season 1 is a world-building venture more than it is a storytelling one, sketching the extremes of the B5 universe’s unique elements in surprising detail, from the depressingly mundane horrors of anti-alien hate crimes and union busting to the startling implication six episodes in that psychic powers can manifest in such a way that they will cause a human being to surpass their physical form and become something akin to a God. In this same episode, we learn that the galaxy is full of “bermuda triangles”—places where people have incomprehensible encounters and, sometimes, disappear.
“There are things in the Universe billions of years older than either of our races,” explains Ambassador G’kar—until this point, presented as a villain, soon proved to be a Cassandra. “They are vast, timeless, and if they are aware of us at all, it is as little more than ants and we have as much chance of communicating with them as an ant has with us.”
The most tense conflict we experience in the episode before this is watching the station’s Commander try to save face coming up with a demonstration of Earth’s religious traditions for a cultural exchange festival while melodramatically distracted by an old girlfriend. It’s this patient see-saw between present-day material conflicts and universe-shattering metaphysical overtones that allow the show’s various foreshadowing elements to pile up almost unnoticed, so that when the first major shake up happens at the end of Season 1 it feels like a genuine gut-punch.
Amid a tangle of diverging plotlines involving almost every major character on the show, the B5 staff discover signs of an assassination plot within Earth’s Government. They scramble to decode where this evidence leads in a race against the clock that they ultimately lose—by a shockingly wide margin. By the time anyone found indication of foul-play, it was already too late to stop the the gears from turning. “The avalanche has begun,” warns the enigmatic Ambassador Kosh, representative of a species so ancient and advanced that he possesses no corporeal form, “it’s too late for the pebbles to vote”. He’s talking about bigger, older things than the political machinations of Earth-bound xenophobes, but the characters aren’t far enough away from the frame to see the entire picture yet. Earth welcomes the New Year with a sinister change in regime and the protagonists are left empty handed, disbelieved, and alone in the night.
At the time, this episode was shocking because it broke the rules set up by Star Trek: The Next Generation, a show that JMS was actively and obviously reacting against. In the 1990s, heroes didn’t fail to the extreme degree that Babylon 5’s protagonists do in that first season finale. The twist remains shocking even now because it still breaks the rules set up by its own premise; an episodic story where the world doesn’t get reset at the end of each episode. And the show continues its mostly episodic pace afterwards, so that the next paradigm shift hits just as hard. And the next one, and the next one, until the entire galaxy is on the brink of collapse.
This structure is so effective that even the plot twists and status quo shifts which are poorly foreshadowed, or ill-explained, or over-explained feel natural and world-shaking because Babylon 5’s pace always gives you time to breathe, and the world is so believably lived in, that any crisis that strikes it feels immeasurably more impactful than damage wrought onto a world that we’re meant to understand changes from the get go. By the time the show starts hurtling along a set of truly serialized arcs in Season 4 there’s a feeling that anything could happen. It still feels fresh today, maybe even fresher than it did in the 1990s simply because very few people are making shows like this anymore. Modern serialized television asks you to be a voyeur to the chaos, to consume it as fast as possible, or to consume it as a communal project. You and your friends waiting for the next big bombshell and treating everything between like treading water. A show paced like Babylon 5 asks you to come live in those in-between moments. It wants you to watch the chaos from inside the world and to stick with it during the long silences.
And it is very easy to inhabit those silences. Babylon 5 has a very particular kind of tonal variety that makes the world inviting—an appealing balance of drama and playfulness. A lot has been said about the show’s occasionally regrettable sense of humour, and there are certainly some epic clunkers in almost every script (the less said about a certain Season 3 episode that effectuates a kooky, sitcom-esque tone while discussing ethnic cleansing the better), but I find myself laughing along with Babylon 5 more often than not. A lot of the humour is character derived, and I love the characters. I really do—I love the contrast between their realistic flaws and depressing personal lives and the cheesy, stage-play poeticism of the dialogue. I know more about the lives of Babylon 5’s senior staff than I know about any Starfleet Officer. They’re all a mess of workaholism, addictions, failed relationships, PTSD, broken paternal bonds—except for shining paragon of All-American Gee Whiz’ism, John Sheridan, who is broken down piece by piece during a war that reveals him to be a ruthless, “means justify the ends”-style General. He grows a beard while being tortured by his own government and never shaves it off. No one’s arc is static. No character ends where they begin. Most characters shed their comfortable roles for new directions on a season by season basis. B5 is a show that flourishes upon rewatch, largely because it’s very satisfying to start over again with all these characters knowing that most of them end up so, so far away from where they begin, in both edifying and tragic ways.
Babylon 5 is a station full of weirdos and failures. It attracts alien ambassadors with lists of sins ten miles long, disgraced nobles that no one else wants, military officers desperate to either escape their demons or build their careers on their own terms, rejecting the path laid out for them by mentors and patriarchs. It’s the staging point of a successful rebellion, the nucleus of several catastrophically failed peace treaties. It bears witness to the extinction of an entire species and the destruction of the key to immortality. Some dark shit goes down in this show, yet the unflagging ’90s-style optimism and local-theater-esque presentation keeps it from dipping into the kind of “gritty” grim-ness that defined TV spec fiction in the post 9/11 era. And oh, don’t get me wrong. I am a big fan of grimdarkness. I don’t inherently reject it the way a lot of people (understandably) have in the last few years, but I do reject the idea that it’s embarrassing for fantasy to be, well… fanciful. Babylon 5 is shamelessly fanciful.
I’ve been very tongue in cheek about the quality of B5’s writing up until this point, but there are lines in this show that have stuck with me for years. I can quote many of them off the top of my head, and I bet every fan of the show can sing along at home:
My shoes are too tight, and I’ve forgotten how to dance.
* * *
Understanding is a three edged sword: your side, their side, and the truth.
* * *
The wheel turns, does it not?
* * *
All life is transitory, a dream… if I don’t see you again here, I will see you, in a little while, in a place where no shadows fall.
* * *
It’s all a game—a paper fantasy of names and borders.
* * *
I have seen what power does, and I have seen what power costs. The one is never equal to the other.
* * *
I used to think it was awful that life was so unfair. Then I thought, wouldn’t it be much worse if life were fair, and all the terrible things that happen to us come because we actually deserve them?
* * *
There comes a time when you look into the mirror and you realize that what you see is all that you will ever be. Then you accept it or you kill yourself or you stop looking into mirrors.
* * *
Who are you?
What do you want?
Do you have anything worth living for?
* * *
Will you lay down your life—not for millions, not for glory, not for fame—but for one person, in the dark, where no one will ever know or see?
I’ve talked a lot about politics in this essay, but no piece of art can truly endure solely on what it means in the substantive, theoretical sense. It’s exhilarating to read or watch or play something that was truly prophetic, however those stories are far and few between. Storytellers can’t predict the future, they can only survive it. The further away from the original context of a work we get, the more its ephemeral aspects begin to matter over its literal ones. And the aspect that leaves the deepest impression in the sands of time is always how something feels.
Babylon 5 remains emotionally evocative in all the places it has become perhaps thematically irrelevant: in the jagged edges of the sets, the stumbling waltz of its plot threads, the lush indulgence of its dialogue, the patchwork aspects held together by glue and determination, as imperfect and brimming with colourful quirks as its most beloved characters. My favourite scenes in the show are the little things: Ivanova’s illegal coffee-plant, Londo and Vir singing Centauri opera together in the station’s hallways, Marcus regailing a beleaguered Doctor Franklin with his nerdy headcanons about which characters in Le Morte d’Arthur he thinks the B5 crew are most like, Delenn and Sheridan telling each other quiet, ordinary anecdotes about their very different childhoods. Babylon 5 is a story that is truly greater than the sum of its parts. Modern plot-driven shows tend to do one thing, and do it very well. Babylon 5 does a little bit of everything: mostly okay, sometimes horribly, and occasionally with an earnest beauty that is almost transcendent.
I think the value of Babylon 5, and indeed its entire thesis statement, is best summed by Ambassador Delenn’s sage invocation of Carl Sagan. She says:
“I will tell you a great secret… the molecules of your body are the same molecules that make up this station , and the nebula outside, that burn inside the stars themselves. We are starstuff. We are the universe made manifest, trying to figure itself out.”
Everything is interconnected, the ugly and the beautiful, our triumphs and our mistakes. Our best work and our worst. It’s only when we embrace both that we can leave behind something worth remembering.
I believe that when we leave a place, part of it goes with us and part of us remains […] when it is quiet, just listen […] you will hear the echoes of all our conversations, every thought and word we’ve exchanged. Long after we are gone our voices will linger in these walls…
Originally published June 2019.
Jennifer Giesbrecht is a native of Halifax, Nova Scotia where she earned an undergraduate degree in History, spent her formative years as a professional street performer, and developed a deep and reverent respect for the ocean. She currently works as a game writer for What Pumpkin Studios. In 2013 she attended the Clarion West Writers Workshop. Her work has appeared in Nightmare Magazine, XIII: ‘Stories of Resurrection’, Apex, and Imaginarium: The Best of Canadian Speculative Fiction. She lives in a quaint, historic neighbourhood with two of her best friends and five cats. The Monster of Elendhaven is her first book.