Jayne Nelson recalls how ’90s space opera Babylon 5 gripped her and millions of other SF fans.
It was the space opera to beat all space operas. Often compared to (or pitted against) Deep Space Nine – unfairly, as they were both entirely different beasts – Babylon 5 was a breath of fresh air, something brand new, deeply original and, most of all, unafraid to be out-and-out sci-fi. The show unravelled a story so thrilling that it’s difficult to explain to the uninitiated just how astonishing it was, but we’ll try our best. Jayne Nelson pays a visit to Babylon 5: our last, best hope for peace...
1 It wasn’t scared to be full-on sci-fi
In the early ’90s there was one science fiction show to rule them all – Star Trek: The Next Generation . We’re not complaining about this, mind you; it was bloody good and spawned the excellent Deep Space Nine . However, some science fiction fans may have found themselves yearning for something a little more adventurous; something nutty and colourful, with no allowances made for non-SF-literate viewers, and the guts to build a universe that wasn’t merely a bunch of blokes on a starship meeting aliens with funny foreheads. And thus, when Babylon 5 came along, it was like eating Lucky Charms after a lifetime of cornflakes.
Just because a show is science fiction it doesn’t mean it has to stick to hard sci-fi concepts, or throw spirituality and “magic” out of the window. Indeed, Babylon 5 made good use of everything from psychic powers to prophecy. Londo, for example, knew throughout the entire run of the show that G’Kar would be the man who killed him, and this knowledge understandably shaped his hatred of the unfortunate Narn Ambassador (and, by extension, his homeworld). Watching each prophecy unfold week by week was bloody good fun, although some of us strained our brains trying to figure out the plot twists in advance, to no avail.
3 The station’s size
To paraphrase the dear old Hitchhiker’s Guide , Babylon 5 is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to Babylon 5 . This was a space station so big that one character could go for a “walkabout” and get lost in it. An entire level was concealed for years without anybody noticing. And the fact that a handful of sets and some CGI could successfully get across just how big Babylon 5 was is to the show’s everlasting credit.
4 Centauri hair
This wasn’t just a hairstyle. This was J Michael Straczynski and everybody involved in the show poking a finger in the eye of critics everywhere. “Yes, we’re science fiction!” they were saying. “We’re sci-fi and we’re proud of it! Just look at this hairdo – look at it! Can you handle it?!
With crowd-pleasing geek credentials stretching back to The Twilight Zone, Bill Mumy was already onto a winner when he signed up to play Lennier, the gentle aide to Ambassador Delenn. Naturally likeable, he ensured that the innocent Lennier was a sweet, dependable member of Babylon 5 ’s crew – although he made a few morally dubious decisions, breaking our hearts in the process. The fact he was secretly in love with Delenn made him rather tragic, too.
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6 Sheridan and Delenn
Not to get sappy here, but... well, we’re going to get sappy here. The romance between Sheridan and Delenn was gorgeously handled from the first episode of season two, building to a heartwarming conclusion. They fell in love slowly and convincingly, with a sensitivity that overshadowed the fact that they were different species. Even when Sheridan’s wife returned, throwing a bit of a spanner in the works, the show handled the premise carefully, never once undermining either character. To sum up: Sheridan + Delenn 4 Eva, OK?
7 The Shadows’ ships
All the ships on Babylon 5 were brilliant, many of them seeming to be physical manifestations of the aliens using them. But nothing beats the idea of a race of bad guys whose ships look like spiders – giant, black, jagged spiders flying through space and killing innocent people. They even died like spiders, with their legs crinkling up into a dead-spider-like ball! It’s as if our primal fears built themselves vessels and flew into space. What next? Snake-ships?
8 “Babylon Squared”
We could fill this entire feature with examples of fabulous episodes, of course, but for sheer out-and-out balls you can’t deny that “Babylon Squared” was one of the finest. Revealing that Babylon 4 disappeared without a trace before Babylon 5 was built, it had the space station popping up again from nowhere and our heroes going on board to find out where the hell it had been. We didn’t get many answers – those came later – but we did get to witness a mysteriously aged Sinclair drifting through the station and being called “The One” to whet our appetites for things to come. The very definition of “WTF?” television.
9 “Now get the hell out of our galaxy, both of you!”
John Sheridan uttered this immortal line to the trouble-making Shadows and Vorlons in season four’s “Into The Fire”, prompting so many whoops of joy from fans you could have bottled their glee.
10 G’Kar and Londo’s relationship
Blimey, did these two hate each other. Londo Mollari came from a race that had enslaved and mistreated G’Kar’s people, which obviously made G’Kar hate every spiky hair on Londo’s otherwise bald head. As the show wore on, Londo grew in power, G’Kar lost everything and they both became obsessed with the other. They fought; they tortured; they drove each other nuts, and yet... and yet. Somehow, the relationship between Londo and G’Kar became a strained kind of friendship, if by “friendship” you take into account the fact they each wanted the other one’s head on a stake. It was a war of minds that was beautifully enhanced by the fact that both Peter Jurasik and Andreas Katsulas were at the top of their game as actors, playing the roles of a lifetime. Who cared if Londo had a bonkers barnet and G’Kar had a face like an armadillo? They were players in a grand Shakespearean tragedy that just happened to be set in space.
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11 Psi Corp
As if there wasn’t enough going on already on Babylon 5, an entire hush-hush subdivision of the government on Earth was rounding up anybody with psychic powers and making sure they were all well-behaved, brainwashed little soldiers. Naturally this oppressive behaviour eventually came to a head, with bloody results. Best of all, we got to meet Psi-Cop Bester, played with relish by Walter Koenig, who visited the station many times to perform dastardly deeds. Be seeing you, Bester.
12 Susan Ivanova
Battlestar Galactica’s Katee Sackhoff could have played Starbuck as Ivanova and we would barely have noticed the difference. But Claudia Christian did it first.
13 War! What is it good for?
The show’s opening credits announced that the station might be the “last, best hope for peace” and yet, sadly, as the series wore on, war sprouted everywhere. It made great viewing, though: the Shadows enjoyed kicking over anthills and wiping everybody out; the Centauri reduced G’Kar’s home planet to rubble; Earth erupted into civil war... And holy cow, the drama of it all! “Epic” just about covers it.
14 The five-year mission
Much has been said about J Michael Stracyzinski’s initial plan for Babylon 5 to play out in five seasons like a giant novel. These days arc-plots are all the rage (although many shows still limit them to one per season), but such writing wasn’t the order of the day in the early ’90s; even two-part episodes of sci-fi shows were deemed radical back then. Sure, the threat of cancellation brought that five-year plan forward and ensured it ended by the season four finale, leaving the final year of the show without anywhere major to go, but that didn’t matter. It was still brilliant to see a sci-fi series reward viewer loyalty with payoffs from plotlines hinted at several years beforehand.
15 The Minbari fighting pike
The 700-year-old extendable fighting staff belonging to Ranger Marcus Cole was such a brilliant idea that it popped up in The Phantom Menace a few years later in the hands of Darth Maul, only this time as a lightsaber. Funny, that.
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16 Crazy Kosh
One of the most fascinating aspects of Babylon 5 ’s early seasons was Kosh. Nobody knew what a Vorlon looked like beneath that special suit. Nobody knew what the Vorlons wanted. They were just... there. As their Ambassador, Kosh spoke in perplexing riddles and remained so inscrutable he may has well have been communicating through Sudoku puzzles. Even when he unveiled himself he didn’t enlighten us much. Was he an angel? A projection of our innermost thoughts? Either way, his eventual demise at the hands of the Shadows was utterly shocking, and we missed him when he was gone.
17 Mr Morden
The Shadows’ right-hand-man, played by Ed Wasser, won a place in our hearts with his Cheshire cat smile despite being the poster boy for evil. He seemed like such a nice guy, but once you struck a deal with him you were doomed. He rarely travelled alone, either, although his invisible companions rarely registered on those around him... except when poor Kosh found out they were there. Ouch.
18 Londo and Vir
Peter Jurasik threw every ounce of his acting prowess into the role of Londo Mollari, investing him with so much charm and arrogance that you could understand why the Centauri chose to make him an Ambassador. His faithful aide Vir Cotto (Stephen Furst) was the Laurel to his Hardy, nervously bumbling around him as he tried to make his boss happy when only money, power and fame would really do that job. The character arcs these two took during the course of the show were astonishing, and there wasn’t a single second when they weren’t fantastic viewing.
19 The mystery of the Battle Of The Line
From the very start of the series there was a beautiful paradox surrounding the enigmatic Minbari. The side of them we saw through Delenn and Lennier seemed peaceful, deeply spiritual and noble, yet they viciously kicked our butts after our first encounter with them, showing no mercy. How could we as viewers reconcile those two facts? Plus, more importantly, after a brutal and bloody war they eventually surrendered at the Battle of the Line for no good reason – they were winning, after all. Why? Mystery was piled on mystery but the big reveal (clue: it’s about Commander Sinclair) was impeccably thought-out.
20 It made television history
J Michael Straczynski was the first person ever to write an entire season of a television show himself: all 22 episodes of season three. It was a mind-boggling feat and yet, despite what must have been an extraordinarily punishing schedule, the quality of that season is unimpeachable.
The show also paved the way for digital FX on TV. It wasn’t the first show to use them, but it was the first show to use them so extensively, and to use them to create “realistic” virtual sets on a regular basis. (Okay, the FX have dated badly, but at the time they were the bee’s knees.)