And now, after being overly negative about season one of Babylon 5, here’s my mostly positive wrap-up of my re-watch experience. Hopefully, I can explain why I felt in 1994 that B5 would have been a great achievement at that point even if it had gotten canceled after the first season.
The music for Babylon 5 is different from just about any other SF show. I remember when B5 debuted that the music was jarring, “new age” rather than the standard John Williams/Jerry Goldsmith symphonic score. But almost 20 years later, I can’t imagine any other sound for B5 besides Christopher Franke. For the first season, he was still working out the kinks. The occasional “funny” music cues strike the wrong note, and some of the “exciting” music used during action scenes or cuts to commercial comes across as melodramatic. But there are moments of greatness already. The main title is a great start, signifying both the mystery and drumbeats of war which are recurring themes of the show. Also, the theme from the battle of the line, used memorably first in “And the Sky Full of Stars”, is haunting and gives me chills just about every time I hear it.
After listing everything that’s wrong with the computer graphics last time, I need to mention a few things that were and are great. I briefly mentioned the camera movement. That’s something that doesn’t still impress the way it did 20 years ago. But at the time, Star Trek was still working with models, so I had never seen such dramatic space scenes, except for big budget movies like Return of the Jedi. Babylon 5 brought that to TV. A few years later, the Star Trek franchise adopted CGI and most recently Battlestar Galactica has taken CGI space battles to the next level.
One thing that no other space science fiction show to date has shown us is realistic physics. BSG made some nods in that direction, with thrusters on the Vipers, but ever since the X-wings first went swooping through space in Star Wars, we’ve been led to expect space ships to fly like airplanes. The Starfury in B5 is the first space fighter that uses physics to fly differently in space. It’s probably hard to explain to a non-nerd how exciting it is to see a Starfury rotate 180 degrees without cutting its momentum to fire on a fighter that is following directly behind it. If you are in Clan Geek, I’m sure you understand.
The other great thing about the space scenes is that there is no sound in space. B5 cheats on this in later seasons as I recall, but for the first couple of seasons, the only sounds over space scenes are Franke’s musical cues, giving a good dramatic flourish and avoiding violating physics by having the bangs of explosions and whooshes of fighters.
The quality of acting is one of Babylon 5’s greatest weaknesses throughout its five year run, however, there are many outstanding performances along the way. And there are two that were fantastic from nearly the first frame.
Peter Jurasik’s Centauri ambassador Londo is pitch perfect almost as soon as he appears on screen. He is a clown, mostly played for laughs through the early episodes, but hints are dropped constantly about his dark destiny which truly begins to manifest later in the season. And Jurasik is able to portray that undercurrent of desperation perfectly, creating in Londo a tragic figure who is nevertheless one of the funniest characters of the show.
Londo’s foil is the Narn ambassador G’Kar, played by Andreas Katsulas, best known for his roles as the one-armed man in The Fugitive and Romulan Commander Tomalak from ST:TNG. Katsulas gets off to a bit of a rough start with G’Kar in the pilot and early episodes. I like to think it’s because JMS hadn’t given him enough backstory on his character and he was leaning toward the over-the-top melodrama of his Star Trek character. Or perhaps it’s just that G’Kar lives more in the melodramatic end during the first episodes so that the fullness of his character will be more of a surprise in “Mind War”. Whichever it is, Katsulas quickly manages to create in his lizard-man alien more humanity than most of the rest of the cast put together. It is truly a bravura performance, and a reasonable argument could be made that Babylon 5 be the Londo and G’Kar Show, since they are the best actors, characters, and story arcs of the series. It’s a damn shame that one or both of them didn’t pick up Emmy’s for their acting in B5, but that would have been a pipe dream. (Instead they were too busy giving it to Dennis Franz three times! The critics sure did love NYPD Blue back in the 90s.)
One of the strongest features of Babylon 5 is its plotting. JMS has claimed that the entire five year arc was planned out from the beginning. Without getting into too many details here, I think he has exaggerated that point a little. The details and vagaries of television production mean that it’s hard to tightly plan five years in advance. The main protagonist might change, for instance. The change from Sinclair to Sheridan as station commander at the end of season one can’t have been foreseen, even with the trap doors that JMS is supposed to have built in for each character. However, with the exception of the the first third of fifth season, JMS rolled particularly well with the punches, bringing to completion a show that fells like a complete story; a true novel for television. It’s something that no show since has completely successfully pulled off, with the spectacular late season deteriorations of Lost and Battlestar Galactica as prime examples of how difficult a trick this is.
The quality of plotting shows particularly in the development of consequences, and the building up of small details into larger plot developments. The Earth Alliance presidential election is a minor plot thread in the first episode, “Midnight on the Firing Line,” that develops into a major plotline in the season finale, “Chrysalis,” and culminates in a huge story arc in the fourth season. Likewise, arguably the strongest arc of the series between Londo and G’Kar, the Centauri and the Narn, is a one episode plotline in the first episode which is flipped and becomes a galactic war in the second season.
Actions have consequences. No reset button is hit at the end of each episode. This doesn’t seem as revolutionary now as it did at the time, but coming off of series such as Star Trek: TNG and X-files and much of the rest of broadcast TV, it was unusual in the days before cable TV-produced programs, and was almost unheard of in television science fiction. And no other science fiction show has done it as well, even though there have been some excellent efforts.
The dialogue in Babylon 5, however, tends toward the unnatural. This is both a good and a bad thing. For typical character interactions, it means that they often come off sounding stagey and wooden. But for the larger-than-life galactic interactions that are the stock in trade of space opera, it means that JMS is free to put declarations and soliloquies and speeches into the mouths of his characters. This is uncommon in modern drama. I can’t think of any other shows or movies or plays where it is done. (Feel free to educate me if you can.) It gives Babylon 5 a feeling more of 50’s television (JMS is an admitted fan of Twilight Zone) or even a Shakespearean quality.
The first season leans a bit more toward the wooden dialogue, but there are the first hints of great speeches that will come later. For instance, the ambassadors’ responses to Mordan’s question in “Signs and Portents”.
The first season also focuses too much on the plot lines surrounding the battle of the line and the Psi Corps, both of which have diminishing returns over the course of the series, with the departure of Sinclair and the rotating chairs of the telepath characters. I’m not sure if that would be noticeable to a first time viewer, but it made me impatient in my umpteenth re-watch. However, the Shadow War, Earth conflict, and Narn/Centauri War have a solid set-up in the first season, just pointing once again at how well planned and executed the story arcs were from the very beginning.
Now, after Firefly and BSG, we sci-fi TV fans have come to expect morally ambiguous characters in our shows, but in the early 90s it was unheard of. If the characters of Star Trek: TNG acted unchivalrously, they were either a clone or possessed. But Babylon 5 began to subvert expectations. “Believers” puts all of its characters in an intractable situation, then ends the show with the death of a child. G’Kar goes from being an apparent bully to being the persecuted. Londo starts as a tragic buffoon and transforms into a megalomanical war criminal, though no less tragic.
And in the final episode, Delenn goes through a literal transformation as the Earth Alliance president dies in an apparent assassination which has been covered up. The expressions on the faces of the actors, especially Claudia Christian’s Ivanova, in C&C after Earthforce One explodes is one of the strongest scenes of first season. And it heralds what Babylon 5 did so well. From a small reference at the beginning of the season, the story arc becomes a major development in the universe of the show, which will eventually wash over the characters and have consequences for their lives and choices. Sinclair’s last words for the season sound like a prescient prediction for television SF: “Nothing’s the same anymore.” And though it’s an expectation of the dark times ahead for him, it’s a happy note for us. More good TV ahead.