Looking back it feels like we owe a lot of the current trends in serialized storytelling on television to Babylon 5. It was one of the first shows that I remember watching that was telling a story much larger than single episodes, or even the occasional two or three parter. Every season had an overall story and theme, and all of the seasons taken together were part of this epic story that J. Michael Straczynski had created for our enjoyment.
I’ve been enjoying various TV Rewatch article series over on Tor.com for a while now. I kept hoping that eventually someone would put together a Babylon 5 Rewatch, but it finally occurred to me that with this site launching, it might be a better use of time to just start one here.
Let’s start with The Gathering, which aired in 1993, the 90 minute TV movie that ultimately led to the launch of the Babylon 5 TV series.
The Babylon 5 space station has recently come online and is operational, with most of the diplomats from the various governments who have an interest in the station are already aboard:
- Delenn, the Minbari ambassador, played by Mira Furlan
- Londo Mollari, the Centauri ambassador, played by Peter Jurasik
- G’kar, the Narn ambassador, played by Andreas Katsulas
The final alien representative, Kosh from the Vorlon Empire, is due to arrive shortly. In fact, his ship arrives two days earlier than expected, but within a minute of disembarking the ambassador mysteriously falls ill. The cause of the illness is eventually determined to be poison, and the commanding officer of Babylon 5, Commander Jeffrey Sinclair (played by Michael O’Hare), is fingered as a suspect in the attempted assassination. Ultimately Commander Sinclair is exonerated as he confronts the true assassin, who was using a device called a ‘changeling net’, which allowed him to take on the appearance of other people.
While these events unfold, some extremely dense world-building and a number of mysteries are set up that become recurring themes throughout the first season of the show and have repercussions throughout the series:
- Ten years prior to the start of The Gathering, the Earth Alliance and Minbari Federation were at war with each other, with the Earth forces severely outmatched by the more advanced Minbari. The war culminated in what came to be known as ‘The Battle of the Line’, where every available Earth ship that was combat worthy was called in to defend Earth. As G’kar put it when discussing events with Delenn, the Minbari were “one stroke” away from defeated the humans completely. But for as yet unknown reasons, the Minbari suddenly surrendered to end the war.
- There were 4 prior Babylon stations that were built for the same purpose to serve as a neutral place to foster diplomatic relations, and hopefully to prevent another war like the recently concluded Earth-Minbari war. Babylons 1-3 were all destroyed before they were completed, by acts of sabotage. Babylon 4 disappeared without a trace 24 hours after coming online.
- The Earth Alliance knows next to nothing about the Vorlons. They’re extremely old, have extremely advanced technology, and are never seen outside of their encounter suits. No one knows what they look like, or anything about their culture. And the Vorlons like it that way.
- Full blown telepaths have emerged among most races, including humans. Human telepaths are registered with, and monitored by, the Psi-Corps. The Psi-Corps has very strict rules regarding how telepaths are to act in the performance of their jobs. One specific proscription mentioned is that an unauthorized mind scan, performed without a court order or consent of family members, is illegal. (That’s not to say that such things don’t happen. After all, how would most people even know that a telepath had taken a look around?)
- The Minbari are governed by a group known as the Grey Council.
- The Minbari are divided in castes, but the only caste mentioned by name at this point is the Warrior caste.
- The Narn were, until relatively recently, essentially enslaved by the Centauri. The Centauri occupied the Narn homeworld for 100 years, and were extremely brutal during that time.
- The Narn are the only race specifically pointed out in the series that have no telepaths at all.
- The Centauri Republic, once a significant military power in the sector, is now much diminished in power and dignity. Londo, the Centauri ambassador, wistfully describes how they were once a mighty power, and have now become little more than a tourist attraction.
- Mars has been colonized by humans, but the relationship between Earth and Mars is strained, at best. At one point there were ‘Food Riots’ on Mars due to the unrest there.
In addition to the big world-building story points, there are also a variety of character specific storylines that are introduced (or at least alluded to) here:
- Commander Sinclair fought in the Battle of the Line. He was a squadron commander, and his entire squad was destroyed in the battle. He attempted to ram a Minbari cruiser, but something made him black out. He woke up 24 hours later in his ship, with no memory of the missing time, only to find that the Minbari had surrendered. That’s not suspicious at all.
- In the recut version of The Gathering that was made after Babylon 5 moved to TNT, one line of dialogue was added to the scene where Kosh meets the disguised assassin (wearing the appearance of Commander Sinclair). Kosh says, “Entil’Zha Valen.” Why he says that is a mystery that will have to wait until Season 3 to be resolved.
- In one of the final scenes of the movie, we’re introduced to Sinclair’s fondness for poetry. When asked by Delenn why the humans took such pains to build Babylon 5, after the first 4 stations were such disasters, he specifically quotes Tennyson: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
- Prior to the assassin killing himself with a bomb, he tells Sinclair that “there is a hole in your mind.” Sinclair makes the obvious connection that this is a reference to the 24 hour gap in his memory at the Battle of the Line. When mentioning this to Delenn, she plays it off as just an “old Minbari insult,” but the implication that the Minbari had something to do with what happened to Sinclair has already been made.
- Michael Garibaldi, the station’s chief of security, has something of a checkered past when it comes to his job performance. While he is heading the investigation into the attempted assassination on Kosh, a Senator from Earth Gov questions if Garibaldi is the right person from the job, given his history.
- Londo Mollari dreams of the glory days of the Centauri Republic, but is quite honest about the fact that his purpose on the station is to “grovel before your wonderful Earth Alliance in the hopes of attaching ourselves to your destiny.” He later caves to blackmail against him by G’kar. He desperately wants a restoration to glory, for the Republic and for himself as well.
- G’kar is, in a word, angry. He orchestrates the assassination attempt and the framing of Commander Sinclair in order to upset the balance of power, hopefully in his favor. When all is said and done, Sinclair knows that G’kar is responsible for everything that has happened, but has no hard proof to act on.
- Dr. Ben Kyle, the Chief Medical Officer of Babylon 5, breaches Kosh’s containment suit in order to treat him, and sees what he really looks like (though we as the audience are left to wonder on that point). Lyta Alexander, the recently arrived commercial telepath from Earth, reads Kosh’s mind in order to find out what happened to him. Neither character makes it into the Babylon 5 TV show, and we’re given the explanation that they were both reassigned due to their close and unprecedented contact with a Vorlon. Dr. Kyle never appears on the show again. Lyta will eventually return, at first as a recurring guest star, and eventually as a series regular.
I’ll admit to not being a fan of Babylon 5 when it first started. I was a die hard Star Trek fan at the time, and Babylon 5 was just so…different. The look of the show was so different when compared to the science fiction I was used to seeing on television. What won me over though was the realization that the entirety of the show would give me a complete story.
As much as I loved the Star Trek television series, I will also mock them mercilessly for their rampant use of the Universal Reset Button. No matter how big the problem may be in act 1, by the end of act 3 everything is back to the way it was at the top of the hour. No problem is too big to be resolved, and there are rarely lasting consequences. Yes there are some rather exceptional, well, exceptions to that rule in Star Trek, but generally the reset button was standard fare there.)
There is no reset button in Babylon 5. The choices that the characters have to make will all have consequences that will ultimately need to be faced. Sometimes by the character that originally made that choice, sometimes by other characters entirely. It’s in the making of those decisions, and reacting to the consequences that emerged from them, that these characters begin to change. Some of them grow into the best possible versions of themselves. Some of them make horrific mistakes that they end up paying for for the rest of their lives. And both processes are extremely painful for the characters involved. That’s why I love this show.
Have you ever watched Babylon 5? What did you think of the movie pilot? Let us know in the comments.