Babylon 5 is one of the best science fiction television shows of all time and if you are unfamiliar with it, you should go watch it. Hell, even if you have seen it you should go re-watch it.
Why am I writing this now? I am writing it because I’m a little worried. While it was once quite well-known, I have an inkling that Babylon 5 may have started to fall into oblivion. Unlike Star Trek, it never achieved immortality through a tenacious cultural movement that managed to cement it in the public consciousness. Everybody knows the Spock sign and even if they haven’t actually seen any of the television series or movies, most people can spot a Star Trek reference thanks to its pervasive cultural presence.
Not so with Babylon 5. The original television show had a successful run between 1993 and 1998, but even though it spawned a short-lived spin-off show in 1999, the franchise faded away. Odds are that if you mention it to someone who isn’t a science fiction nerd, you will get a blank stare in return.
Now, don’t get me wrong. It isn’t some super obscure genre secret. Among sci-fi fans above a certain age it always gets a mention in top 10 lists and the like. But it’s rare that it’s mentioned with the passion of an active fan. I imagine the amount of Babylon 5 fan fiction has tapered off and that it’s becoming less common to see Londo cosplays during Comic Con.
So why should you invest all this time in watching an almost thirty-year-old television series? I’m glad you asked. I already made the rather bold claim that it is one of the best science fiction shows of all time. But why is it so good? I could ramble on about all the great things about the series here, but I will condense it into three parts:
Before I start, I just want to give fair warning about a few things. You need to remember that this is a science fiction show from the early 90’s. It did not have a huge budget and the aesthetics of those days might not be what you are used to. Oh, and with so many of these types of television shows, the first season is a little rough. Not bad by any stretch of the imagination, but Babylon 5 doesn’t truly find its sea (space?) legs until the second season.
With that out of the way, Babylon 5 was one of the early examples of television shows having a series-wide story arc. Up until around that time, television series mainly operated on a monster of the week basis. J. Michael Straczynski, the creator of Babylon 5, wanted to do a longer story set across 5 seasons. He envisioned the structure like a novel, where episodes were like chapters and most importantly: it would have an end.
By the way, I really appreciate the ending part. One of the things I think is wrong with so many television series is that they just…won’t…end. It seems that the TV business is intent on taking interesting premises and story ideas and either stretching them out until there is nothing left or re-animating finished stories into shambling narrative zombies.
But I digress.
It wasn’t just that there was a series-wide story arc. It was also very well executed. That is quite impressive considering that they rushed the story arc in the fourth season. They did this because the network that Babylon 5 ran on, Prime Time Entertainment Network, was shut down in 1997 during the shows’ fourth season and there was doubt if the fifth and last season of the series would happen at all. So Straczynski hurriedly tied up the major story elements so that the complete story could be told by the end of the fourth season. Not optimal, but it still worked out well. It did have the side effect that the fifth season felt a tad vestigial even though I think they made the best out of an awkward situation.
Closely tied to the story arc are the characters arcs, and oh boy, this is the strongest point of Babylon 5 overall. The development of the characters during the span of the show is some of the best I’ve ever seen. Not only does the characters change in believable, clever and poignant ways, but added on top of that they are also multi-faceted and complex. You go from loving a character to hating them and then feeling sorry for them. And it all feels completely organic and plausible. In hindsight, it even feels inevitable. Like it couldn’t and shouldn’t have gone any other way for these characters.
The third reason why Babylon 5 is so great is the social commentary. Yeah, I know it is hardly unique to science fiction, but it is one of the reasons we love the genre. Babylon 5 tackles some big ones too. The big one Is authoritarianism. And considering I’m writing this in June of 2020, it feels like a particularly pressing issue. The main storyline deals with this in a deeply philosophical and profound way using speculative analogies. I won’t go into spoiler territory here, but let’s just say that aside from the fantastical metaphors that Straczynski uses, he also paints a more grounded and achingly familiar picture of a government gradually sliding into becoming a dictatorship. One step at a time. Each step doesn’t seem damning on its own, but at the end of the march, the result is still the same.
It also delves into things like the cycle of violence of war. This is where some of the strongest characters really shines in their personal journeys across the series.
There you have it. I have made my case why Babylon 5 is one of the best science fiction television shows of all time. I hope that it has convinced some of you to give it a shot.
I will leave you with a few clips from the show below. I tried to use ones I like that aren’t too spoilery. There may be some cheese here. Of both the comedic and dramatic variety.