This is an article I’ve been considering for quite some time now: much as I love losing myself in books, I do enjoy a well-made show that can be as complex and entertaining as a novel. Babylon 5 is such a show: with its 20-odd years of life it’s far from new, and considering the swift recycling speed of the medium it could be seen as positively ancient, yet I believe it still holds out against younger competitors. I know it does for me, and for its many fans, gaining in depth with each rewatch and still capturing new viewers who are introduced to it.
Granted, the CGI and special effects DO show their age, but with Babylon 5 this is hardly an issue, because eye-candy is not what matters here: this show was written as a novel, each of its parts encompassing a season, and the story and characters don’t need FX to stand up on their own. I’ve often thought that it could have been presented as a stage production, and it would not have lost one little bit of its enormous appeal, mostly thanks to the strong writing and the amazing performances of so many talented actors.
What makes Babylon 5 special, and what captured my attention back in 1999 when I discovered it, is that its story is conceived as a whole – exactly like a novel – rather than a collection of stand-alone episodes. There is a number of those as well, especially in the first season, but as the drama unfolds and evolves you can see how some apparently unrelated detail shown in one of those episodes leads to an important revelation at a later time. The sense of continuity is strong and it requires you to pay attention, to be alert: until I started watching Babylon 5 I had not realized how much serial tv relied on the “reset factor”, on the viewer’s forgetfulness about information given in one episode and contradicted a few episodes later. This was something else, a thought-provoking show, one that made demands on a spectator’s intelligence instead of trying to put it to sleep, or altogether denying its existence.
One of the show’s characters at some point says “Nothing’s the same anymore”. Well, after B5 nothing was indeed the same anymore for me, at least for televised science fiction: it set the bar higher, and made me more demanding in the matters of overall quality. It changed the rules.
The time-frame of the story is set in the middle of the 23rd century: Babylon 5 is a space station that serves both as a commercial transit point and as a diplomatic hub for the various races inhabiting the explored part of the galaxy. The overall situation is far from easy: Earth is still recovering after the end of the war with the Minbari, ten years previously, and the uneasy truce between the two races hangs on the unexplained reasons for the Minbari’s sudden surrender after coming very close to wiping out the human race; the Centauri empire is on a downward spiral and under threat from the Narns, seeking revenge after a century-long, bloody Centauri occupation; the mysterious Vorlons present a puzzle everyone wants to solve; various minor civilizations keep clashing with each other in search for military or economic supremacy. Telepaths are an everyday reality, and Earth’s Psi Corps represents both a powerful political force and a darkly disturbing entity. Social strife is far from removed from day-to-day life, represented on the station by the multitude of dispossessed people – unkindly named “lurkers” – that eke out a miserable existence in the “Down Below” slums.
This is not a peaceful, enlightened universe; there is no utopia to be enjoyed by all. And for this very reason, because B5 is a mirror of our present set in a futuristic background, it feels more real. Characters are not clear-cut good or bad, they are flawed and many of them hide secrets, even the ones that are represented as positive, at least on the surface. There is a sentence that encapsulates the entire story-arc and the evolution of the various players: No one here is exactly what he appears. Because people change, they react to what happens to them and they don’t remain the same episode after episode: evolution or regression, a walk toward enlightenment or a plunge into darkness, they are organically real. Believable. It’s certainly one of the reasons for the strong connection they establish with viewers: I can say from personal experience that you come to care for them, share in their triumphs or suffer for their downfalls. After a while they stop being characters on a screen and become flesh-and-blood people, and the viewer feels invested in them. And in the story.
Tv shows (like books) are often defined as either plot-driven or character-driven: I think that Babylon 5 is both. If the characters are its strong point, thanks to the solid writing and the equally stellar performances of the actors giving them life, the story stands on an equal footing. Conceived as a novel, with the backbone of a narrative arc deployed over the five years of the show’s run, it employs not only the usual elements one can find in a science-fiction medium, but introduces other details that might very well be termed as fantasy: there are prophecies, and a strong vein of mysticism, and even a touch of sorcery in the figure of the Techno-Mages, who use science in such ways as to appear to wield magic in the truest sense of the word.
The first season is all about laying the groundwork for what will come later, and probably for this reason is considered the weakest: the ratio between stand-alone episodes and arc-episodes leans more toward the former, but with hindsight one can perceive how little clues are put there, more often than not in an unobtrusive way, only to become triggers for revelations at a later date. If you can get past the apparently unconnected events and look deeper, you can perceive the sense of something brewing in the background, of a menace slowly growing. This becomes more evident with Season Two, when several plotlines move toward the inevitable war: a war that ends up being fought on many fronts – the open skirmishes for power, and the subtler and even more dangerous political maneuverings. While the true peril creeps closer.
Season Three and Four are by far my favorites: here the various narrative threads and the clues deftly placed along the way blossom into a gripping, many-layered story that sees the main characters face both external foes and their own inner demons. The outcome is never taken for granted and there are pain and loss to deal with, but these elements pave the way for some truly astounding and memorable characterization work. The troubled road for this show seemed to point for a while toward a cancellation that was revoked almost in extremis: for this reason, the first part of Season Five feels a little disconnected, only to pick up speed and strength and move toward an ending that is both epic and moving in its intensity.
I’m aware I’ve been more than cryptic with the series’ summary, but it’s next to impossible to write about it in any way without revealing vital details. What I can safely say is that you will discover the same complexity of narrative, the same three-dimensionality of characters you could find in a book: the deep, wonderfully phrased dialogues will give you the same depth you can find inside a book’s pages (something that tv shows rarely manage), and as it happens with great books, each revisitation of the story will gain you new insights and new discoveries – again, something that the little screen is not greatly known for.
The best summation I can think about for this amazing show comes from the voice-over at the end of its last episode, one of the many great sentences I have committed to memory over time:
It changed the future, and it changed us. It taught us that we have to create the future, or others will do it for us. It showed us that we have care for one another, because if we don’t, who will? And that true strength sometimes comes from the most unlikely places. Mostly, though, I think it gave us hope that there can always be new beginnings… even for people like us.