Babylon 5 Series Review

"Now get the hell out of our galaxy."

J. Michael Straczynski’s Babylon 5 was the last, best hope for a rival sci-fi television franchise to challenge the dominance of Star Trek. It failed. And let’s be glad it did. Last thing we needed was another bloated franchise knocking out a never ending cycle of naff spin-offs. Instead let’s be thankful for what remains to this day as one of the finest sci-fi series ever made. But it did take some time before it became that.

Season One - Signs and Portents

Straczynski envisioned the series as an epic novel for television told in five volumes with each episode being an individual chapter. JMS wanted to tell a universe changing saga of heroes and villains, epic battles and the rise and fall of empires. Something akin to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, only in space with aliens instead of hobbits and on a limited television budget. Surprisingly, this didn’t turn out to be as impossible as it might have seemed.

The year was 2258. The name of the place was, duh, Babylon 5, a massive five-mile long space station built by humans after the devastating Earth/Minbari war -- a place where aliens could meet to talk out their differences. Straczynski presented us with a future that was a far cry from the optimistic utopia of Gene Roddenberry. Crime, poverty, corruption and prejudice still existed. The various races were constantly at each other’s throats. Many of the alien races felt genuinely extraterrestrial, not just a load of humanoids with bumpy foreheads and pointed ears, although the station did have its fair share of those.

B5 first aired in 1993 with the (not very good) feature length pilot ‘The Gathering’. A year later the first season began airing with ‘Midnight on the Firing Line’ on the now defunct PTEN network, the show’s home for its first four seasons. In truth the first season is not the series’ strongest. No doubt in an effort to not alienate a potential audience, the season is driven more by predominantly naff standalone episodes, than the show’s signature story arcs. These standalone tales were often just sub-Trek nonsense that did little to help B5 to stand out from its rivals. Nevertheless there was still some good to be found in amongst the crap. After all, as rubbish as ‘Mind War’ was, it still gave us Walter Koenig as that slippery Psi Cop Bester (still B5’s finest villain).

In the second half Straczynski gradually started to move away from alien of the week tripe like ‘TKO’, ‘Believers’ and ‘Infection’ and began to lay the foundations for the awesomeness that was to come in episodes like ‘And the Sky Full of Stars’, ‘Signs and Portents’ (the introduction of Mr Morden and the Shadows), the two-parter ‘A Voice in the Wilderness’ and ‘Babylon Squared’ in which the crew investigate the sudden and mysterious reappearance of the missing Babylon 4 station. The big season finale ‘Chrysalis’ is a veritable congregation of ‘holy shit, did they just do that?’ moments as earth shattering cliff-hanger follows earth shattering cliff-hanger. Sinclair’s final lament “Nothing is the same anymore” couldn’t have been more appropriate.

At this early stage the characters were also something of a mixed bag to be sure. While G’Kar and Londo arrive practically fully formed (despite some rough early make-up effects) the rest of the cast all needed a little more work. Sinclair was too often stiff and po-faced while Ivanova had yet to develop something resembling a sense of humour. And I can’t be the only one who thought that Jerry Doyle looked like the product of a failed attempt to clone Bruce Willis?

The first season was certainly a patchy start for Babylon 5. Much of it hasn’t dated well. While they were groundbreaking and innovative at the time, much of the CGI effects now look rather primitive but still manage to stand up a lot better than most of the shows from the time (Space: Above and Beyond for example). The costumes and alien make up are all a little rough. And the dialogue constantly veers between clunky and cheesy. But the series potential was still there for all to see. By the second season the show would improve by leaps and bounds, culminating in some of the finest TV drama of the last 25 years.

Season Two - The Coming of Shadows

It was a year of change in season two of Babylon 5.

Due to illness, Michael O’Hare amicably agreed with creator J. Michael Straczynski to depart from the show. He was replaced by Bruce Boxleitner as the new station commander, Captain John J. Sheridan. The former Tron fitted in quite well on B5 and after a few episodes you’d easily be forgiven for thinking he’d been there the whole time.

The first episode ‘Point of Departure’ serves to introduce and establish Sheridan as the new station commander and show how he handles a crisis. It’s not until episode two ‘Revelations’ that JMS got around to resolving all the cliff-hangers from the previous season. Delenn came out of her cocoon with L'Oreal hair (because she’s worth it) and instantly caught Sheridan’s eye. Garibaldi woke from his coma to expose the man who shot him in the back. And G’Kar returned to the station with grave warnings about the darkness to come (that no one would listen to until it was too late).

Season two has the look and feel of a show more assured of its self, more confident in what it can accomplish. This was the year Babylon 5 stopped looking like just another Star Trek clone and became a small screen sci-fi epic to be reckoned with. There were still a number of rubbish standalone episodes such as ‘The Long Dark’ and ‘GROPOS’ to put up with, but they weren’t as bad as they had been in the first season. Besides, when you have episodes as good as the Hugo Award winning ‘The Coming of Shadows’, ‘In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum’ and ‘The Long Twilight Struggle’ what are a few duff ones here and there?

Walter Koenig returned as Bester in ‘A Race Through Dark Places’ and continued to make us forget he was ever Chekov. ‘And Now For a Word’ looked at life on the station from the perspective of a news program. Later in the season Lyta Alexander, not seen since the original pilot, would return in ‘Divided Loyalties’ to expose a sleeper agent on the station that had devastating consequences for Ivanova. And ‘Comes the Inquisitor’ sees the Vorlons test Delenn with the help of Jack the Ripper (no, seriously).

With the addition of Boxleitner the main cast was considerably stronger this season, albeit there were still a few redundant characters that needed to be gotten rid off such as Lt. Keffer, a hotshot fighter pilot character the network insisted that Straczynski add to the line up. But JMS was not one to let even an unwanted character go to waste and used Keffer’s fate to further along the Shadow War arc. The same could not be said for G’Kar’s aid, Na’Toth, who just sort’ve vanished after two episodes without anyone, her boss included, noticing.

It’s no small thing to say that Andreas Katsulas and Peter Jurasik were the series' best actors and this season they took their performances to another level. For most of the first season Londo was nothing more than the comic relief, but this season Londo’s story went in a much darker direction as he grew closer and closer to Mr. Morden and his ‘associates’. Similarly as Londo fell further into darkness G’Kar began his long and painful journey towards redemption and spiritual enlightenment.

The season finale ‘The Fall of Night’ managed to end the season on a suitably downbeat note, but lacked the universe shacking impact of ‘Chrysalis’. While the future looked bleak for the characters the show’s future looked ever brighter. With the flaws and weakness of the first season overcome Babylon 5 would continue from this point to go from strength to strength.

Season Three - Point of No Return

In my humble little opinion season three of Babylon 5 is one of the greatest seasons of television in the entire history of the medium. This was the absolute peak of Straczynski’s small screen space opera. Admittedly, it’s not 100% perfect. It was at this point that Straczynski started writing every single episode himself (an impressive achievement to be sure) so inevitable dreck like ‘Grey 17 is Missing’ gets sandwiched in between all the great stuff. And we were pretty much spoilt for choice with great stuff this season. After two years worth of build up this was the season where things finally started to pay off.

The season started quietly enough with a group of mostly standalone tales of varying quality and significance. But by the time we got to ‘Messages from Earth’ the fan was well and truly hit and hit hard. The entire status quo of the series was suddenly turned upside down and there would be no going back. Straczynski didn’t so much as jettison the reset button as completely obliterate it. ‘Point of No Return’ saw the Earth Alliance become a fascist dictatorship under President Clark forcing the crew of Babylon 5 to break away into an independent state. This all lead to the epic ‘Severed Dreams’ (another Hugo winner) in which our heroes fought to defend the station from Clark’s forces. From now on Sheridan and company were cut off from home on their own (and got some nifty new uniforms to boot).

The season settled down for a bit after that until the Shadow war finally kicked off in full. ‘Interludes and Examinations’ sees Kosh make a devastating sacrifice on Sheridan’s behalf. The two-parter ‘War Without End’ saw the return of Sinclair and finally revealed the true story behind the disappearance of Babylon 4. After the big battles of ‘Shadow Dancing’ everything comes to a head in the season finale as Sheridan goes with his not-so-dead wife, Anna, back to Z’ha’dum. They should really use this episode in media studies classes as an example of how to write a truly great season finale. It’s simply a breathtaking 45 minutes of television that (again, IMHO) no one has yet to come close to equalling or surpassing.

With so many big events jostling for screen time JMS wisely doesn’t let the characterisation get lost in amongst the explosions. Sheridan and Delenn kept making gooey eyes at each other. Ranger Marcus Cole arrived on the station and wasted no time hitting on Ivanova. G’Kar finally found inner peace and a new purpose in life. Franklin struggled with drug addiction and resigned. And Londo’s decent into darkness continued despite his best efforts to escape his destiny.

Season three was the middle chapter of Babylon 5 and the point in which it got seriously worse for our heroes before it could eventually get any better. Creatively the show was riding on a high. From the acting to the special effects everything was at its absolute best. Sadly the show would never be this good again. Outside factors would eventually derail Straczynski’s carefully constructed five-year-plan. But season three still stands as a shinning beacon of everything that was, and still is, great about Babylon 5.

Season Four - No Surrender, No Retreat

So much for best laid plans, eh?

When he first conceived of Babylon 5, J. Michael Straczynski had a definitive five year plan for the series. By the fourth season that plan was in serious danger of falling apart. The Prime Time Entertainment Network, the series’ home from day one, was not long for this world and as such the future of the series was uncertain. Fearing that his show would be cancelled before he could conclude the story, Straczynski went in to emergency damage control and started wrapping up the all major storylines far earlier than he’d initially planned. As a result season four is the most densely packed season of the show’s entire run, as barely a single episode is wasted in Straczynski’s mad rush to bring his story to what seemed at the time to be a premature end.

After nearly three years of planning and build up the Shadow War, for many years the very driving force of the entire series, was over in the space of just six episodes. The whole thing raced to an underwhelming conclusion that basically amounted to nothing more than Sheridan telling the Shadows and Vorlons off for being naughty and sending them to their rooms without any supper for the rest of eternity. Babylon 5 was the first notable sci-fi series to start using extensive story arcs (something that’s practically the norm nowadays) but it was also the first to bring its story arcs to a disappointing resolution (something else that's practically the norm nowadays).

With that major arc out of the way Straczynski got to work setting up the Drakh threat, built up the growing conflict between Sheridan and Garibaldi, dashed through a Minbari civil war in record speed before finally kicking off the war against President Clark’s fascist government in ‘No Surrender, No Retreat’. The conclusion of the Shadow arc might’ve been a letdown but the Earth civil war was Babylon 5 at its absolute best. Only problem was that it was over almost as quickly as it had started. Originally the plan was for the Earth conflict to be carried over into the fifth season with the fourth season ending with Garibaldi’s betrayal and Sheridan’s capture. But with the show’s future in doubt everything was wrapped up with ‘Endgame’ and ‘Raising Star’. Straczynski was all ready to end the series then and there, but when cable network TNT agreed at the last minute to finance a full fifth season the final episode 'Sleeping in Light' was pushed back a year and a new season finale was quickly shot on the cheap.

Despite it's ups and downs season four is still a strong season. Although there are no Hugo winners, there are still several standout episodes, most notably Sheridan’s brutal interrogation in 'Intersections in Real Time'. The acting was excellent across the board this season, but if there’s a single standout star without a doubt it’s Jerry Doyle. Straczynski sent Garibaldi to hell and back this season and Doyle rose to the challenge with gusto. Sadly this would be the final season for Susan Ivanova as a contract dispute would prevent Claudia Christian returning for the fifth season. With no time to shoot a proper goodbye scene her departure is clumsily handled in voiceover, a disappointing exit for one of science fiction's finest heroines.

Season Five - The Wheel of Fire

The last minute renewal for Babylon 5 was something of a mixed blessing. On one hand it meant that the show would continue and J. Michael Straczynski would now be able to complete his much talked about five-year-plan. But since Straczynski had wrapped up almost every single significant plot thread during the previous season he was now stumped about what to do next. Sure, he had a lot of great stuff with Londo planned, but that didn’t get going until towards the end of the season. So what the hell was he going to do until then?

Straczynski had twenty-one episodes to fill up and barely enough story material to cover a quarter of the season. Rather than relinquish some creative control by bringing in a load of new writers and some fresh ideas, Straczynski continued to write virtually every single episode himself even though it was clear by this point that he’d reached his burnout stage. Granted, the only time he did allow someone else to write an episode it resulted in Neil Gaiman’s dreary ‘Day of the Dead’ but that's still no excuse for not sharing your toys, Joe. Actually, in many ways the series came a full circle with season five as Babylon 5 went back to the sort standalone filler dreck everyone thought we’d seen the last of in season one. Worst offender being the abysmal Tom Stoppard homage ‘A View from the Galley’ which looks at an attack on the station from the perspective of two repair workers who sadly, unlike Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, don’t end up dead at the end.

The lack of decent episodes wasn't the show’s only problem this season, as its previously strong characterization seemed to have vanished entirely. They might’ve looked the same, they might’ve even sounded the same, but these were not the same characters we’d been following faithfully over the last four years. Despite now being President of the Interstellar Alliance (with all the power and influence of a UN Secretary-General) Sheridan still stomps around the station like he owns the place becoming the type of character you’d rather punch in the face than follow into the jaws of hell. Delenn, meanwhile, has been relegated to the prestigious role of ‘her indoors’. Elsewhere, Garibaldi roamed aimlessly around the station in a futile search for a decent plot line, while Londo and G’Kar spend most of the season working on perfecting their buddy comedy routine. And with Claudia Christian gone (but sure as hell not forgotten) Tracy Scoggins was brought in to replace Ivanova as Captain Elizabeth Lockley, the station’s new commander and Sheridan’s ex-wife (huh?). Try as she might, it is difficult to take Scoggins seriously as a tough military leader.

Now that the Shadows were gone and President Clark had been overthrown there were no more enemies to fight and our heroes were all getting ready to live happily ever after. As a result virtually nothing happened for the majority of the season. The only significant event in the first half was a limp rebellion by Gap model telepaths lead by Byron, a walking personality black hole. The only upside to this arc was more focus on Patricia Tallman's underused Lyta Alexander and the always welcome return of Bester, who even gets his own episode this season, the disappointingly bland ‘The Corp Is Mother, The Corp is Father’. Once all the dull telepath malarkey is done with the season finally starts to pick up some much needed steam as the Interstellar Alliance goes to war with the Centauri. But even this conflict fails to provide the same kind of high drama and epic battles the show used to give us. Only the tragic conclusion of Londo’s story in ‘The Fall of Centauri Prime’ makes any kind of emotional impact.

The remaining episodes are all used for some last minute wrap up and a shed load of teary goodbye scenes to rival anything Peter Jackson could come up with. After everyone has gone their separate way Straczynski closes the book with ‘Sleeping in Light’ an elegant and beautiful epilogue to the series and one of the best series finales of all time. Although it did manage to end on a high note (notably with an episode left over from the previous year) overall season five is a disappointing dud.

 Despite this less than grand farewell, Babylon 5 still remains one of the greatest sci-fi series ever produced. Admittedly it was something of a flawed masterpiece thanks to the occasional wooden acting, clunky dialogue, dodgy standalone episodes, cheap sets and a tendency to get lost up its own mythology. But with this show Straczynski created something truly unique, an epic science fiction novel for television with a definitive beginning, middle and end. Yeah, the beginning was a bit uneven and the end part didn’t work out as planned, but that middle section, boy, was that good.

Mark Greig has been writing for Doux Reviews since 2011. More Mark Greig.


Billie Doux said...

As I've told probably everyone who reads reviews here, I was deeply obsessed with Babylon 5, especially during its second and third seasons. JMS did stuff no one had ever done before, or had never done as well before. Like, doing a show on the cheap by using CGI instead of models. (Although that made the show age poorly.) The mature and emotionally satisfying love affair between Sheridan and Delenn. The incredibly intertwined and changing story of Londo and G'Kar, which I still can't think about without getting teary. One of the best heroines on TV (Ivanova). The sheer size of the story arc. It's such a shame that JMS wasn't given a guaranteed fifth season so that he could have ended it the way he had planned.

This is a terrific series review, Mark.

mazephoenix said...

Wow great overview. I loved Londo and G'Kar's double act and Ivanova and all the others. LOL at "gap model telepaths"-yeah nobody liked Byron.
I liked Lyta's arc in that season-that was mostly well-done. Ah-Bester-such a great villain. This show was amazing-but not flawless. The Talia-Ivanova stuff broke my heart.

Patrick said...

I never got into Babylon 5 very much when it aired, I was definitely more of a Deep Space Nine guy(still am, honestly). Yes, I've heard all the conspiracy theories about DS9 ripping off JMS. All I can say to that is besides the fact that both feature space stations, they're VERY different shows. Later on after B5 was out on DVD, I had a chance to start watching the whole thing, and I found much of it to be enjoyable. Mark, I would definitely agree with your assessment that Seasons 1 and 5 were pretty weak, while 2-4 were what makes the show so beloved. Whenever I go back and re-watch any of the show, I skim through Season 1, and I barely touch Season 5.

I think overall, JMS deserves a lot of credit for what he was able to accomplish under difficult circumstances. It would have been interesting to see how the original story played out over 5 years without the rushed climax and mostly filler 5th season. Then again, it sounds like the original plan also called for Sinclair to be around a long longer than he was. When you look at the arc Sheridan goes through, not to mention the brief coda for Sinclair in Season 3, you really have to wonder what JMS' original story arcs actually looked like. I'd love to find out someday what Sinclair's role in the overall story was originally supposed to be.

In the end, Babylon 5 did some things very well, had its share of flaws & crappy episodes, and deserves to be remembered at least for its ambition if not always for its execution.

Arie said...

I'm a big B5 fan, and I think JMS was one of the first show creators to be responsive to the internet and to share details and information about the creating process with fans. Bruce Boxleitner was an excellent actor, and it is worth mentioning Mira Furlan was one of the finest actors in her native Croatia before immigrating to the US. Sheridan and Delenn were my favourite couple. :) Londo and G'Kar were awesome as well, and I was sad to hear of Andreas Katsulas' passing in 2006. Both actors brought an incredible depth to what were originally quite silly characters. Londo's journey quickly becomes sinister, and there's a terrible inevitableness to watching him move past the point of no return. G'Kar's journey to spiritual leader was well done, and very believeable.

While I liked Michael O'Hare in Season 1, Seasons 2, 3, and 4 were easily the best of the series and are still very watchable today. As noted, Season 5 is not great, although the finale is not to be missed. I cry and cry every time. :(

JRS said...

And the writing. When the show was great, the writing was beyond excellence, something you'd quote somewhere. Remember G'Kar's light on the wall speech?

TJ said...

This is it. My big project. The project I've started before but failed. It's Babylon 5.

I know I must see this show...I just know it. But the last time I tried I think I kinda lost interest by the 5th-6th ep or something...

So, the first season is weak at the beginning? When does it kick in? I think I need a map here...

(I haven't read the above review, the answer might be there, but I don't want any spoilers). I just want to know what the struggle-rate is for this show. Is it 10 eps? 20? 30?

Billie Doux said...

TJ, when B5 started airing, I thought it was awful and I gave up on it early. And then I was at a con where a guy from the crew was telling everyone to hang in until 'Chrysalis', because 'Chrysalis' was awesome. He was right, and it was.

Kayne said...

I watched this show a couple of years ago, and I was simply stunned at the 3-4 years story arcs, politics, etc. Amazing show! I don't really remember that the last season was that bad, but I remember you have to struggle through the first season to get to the awesome. Kind of like Farscape, where the first season (and a half) are really boring before kicking in.

How do DS9 and Voyager compare with it? I never dared starting those because of how many seasons they are...

Jes said...

Hi, one of your German readers here. Back then I was actually a big fan of DS9 and totally ignored B5. I watched it for the first time last year and loved it so much that I purchased the complete box and watch it again at the moment. As a writer myself I'm sometimes just plain jealous of the complex arcs and the wonderful storytelling. :)

Jess Lynde said...

What a great read, Mark. Such a nice stroll down memory lane. Not just the reminder of what happened in the series, but the reminder of how I reacted to it. This show was one of my earliest hardcore obsessions (along with The X-Files). I loved reading the message boards and the Lurker's Guide to B5! So much depth and detail to ponder. Such incredible payoff for the unanswered questions and long-simmering plot threads. And, as others have noted, so many great characters and pairings, particularly Sheridan and Delenn, Londo and G'Kar, and the glorious Susan Ivanova.

The middle was definitely the best part. I watched the show as it aired back in the day, but then later watched it on DVD with my husband for his first viewing. Once we got into Seasons 2, 3, and 4, we would end up glued to the couch for hours, binging through 3-4 episodes at a time in the evenings (probably the only time he has ever binged a show that way). We just couldn't stop watching some nights! I was intensely jealous when we got to that killer S3 finale, and the husband just got to immediately pop in S4, Disc 1 for resolution. (I had to wait at least a whole summer to find out what came next!) S5 was rather a letdown after the intense ride of S3 and S4, both from a plotting and character aspect, but I did love that series finale. So many tears, as Arie says.

Thanks for highlighting this wonderful, ground-breaking series, Mark. It was and remains one of our favorites around here, and I encourage everyone to give it a try, even if some aspects seem dated and clunky now. As Mark and others note, the first season can be very tough to push through --- I had to repeatedly tell my husband during his first viewing "I swear it gets better! I swear! Just trust me!" --- but it is ultimately worth it.

Anonymous said...

Just finished rewatching from start to finish... definitely plenty of cheese but the high points more than make up for that. At times it wss deeply thought-provoking and moving tv.