Babylon 5 redefined TV science fiction, so why isn’t it better known?

Babylon 5 redefined TV science fiction, so why isn’t it better known?

With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD every day, it gets harder and harder to keep up with new shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. If you watch those 10, you’ll have a better idea of what that series was about, without having to watch the whole thing. These are not meant to be the 10 best episodes, but rather the 10 most representative episodes.

The ’90s were a fertile time for speculative fiction on television, and the genre’s experiments in serialization and other narrative techniques presaged the “Golden Age” of drama in the ’00s. Some of these series are well known for their contributions to the form, like The X-Files, which survived disappointment in its ongoing storyline to be recognized as one of the best and most influential shows of the era. There’s also Buffy The Vampire Slayer, which has seen its reputation improve from cult hit to essential part of the canon. Still others—Hercules, Xena, Sliders, SeaQuest—are largely forgotten. 

Then there’s Babylon 5, a show that deserves wider recognition, even though it’s entirely understandable why few know it as well as Buffy or X-Files

Creator J. Michael Straczynski wrote the bulk of Babylon 5, a science-fiction epic set onboard a space station, and came up with a five-year plan that the series largely stuck to. In addition, the show pioneered the use of computer-generated special effects. But Babylon 5 starts slowly, alienating would-be viewers. Its dialogue and acting lack subtlety (grating for those used to irony-drenched post-Whedon dialogue), and the shoestring budget leads to sometimes distracting low-production values. 

Yet debating Babylon 5’s importance and how, why, and when it was weak detracts from its most significant legacy: Babylon 5 was often fantastic television during its mid-series peak, and it could still hit high points during its weaker seasons. Part of the reason those middle seasons seemed so revelatory is because they’re simply more competent than what had come before. Virtually every important speculative fiction show of the era arrived partially formed, often struggling through hit-or-miss early seasons—like those of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Buffy, and even The X-Files—and Babylon 5 was no different in that regard. There’s a steady increase in technical competence, including from the actors, throughout the series, reaching its peak in those middle years.

There’s also that five-year plan, which starts to bear fruit after a season and a half. Very few TV series come anywhere near Babylon 5 in terms of willingness to alter the core relationships of its characters and its Shakespearean levels of tragic mistakes, partial redemptions, and inescapable destinies. The character of Ambassador Londo Mollari embodies this in particular. Initially the most ridiculous character on the show, thanks to his bizarre hair and generic science-fiction name, Londo became the show’s soul with time, and actor Peter Jurasik got into the character quickly, devouring scenery and playing up Londo’s humor and flaws, even in the worst early episodes. Meanwhile, his rival, G’Kar, started as a cartoon villain, slowly acquiring depth before making some dramatic changes. The story led these two characters to trade places: The aggressor became the victim; the victim transcended pain; rivalry became friendship. All of this was foreshadowed, surprising, and explicable.

That’s how the series became so compulsively watchable: All the world-building, all the different characters and their factions, all of the time spent building the sandcastle of what’s expected of television, all of that gets knocked over and deconstructed and rebuilt, and it all makes sense as part of a larger coherent narrative. Babylon 5 may ruin and rebuild every major planet in its universe, and it may dramatically or subtly alter the motives of all of its major characters, but these things never feel like stunts. It is a success because its developments are organic, and because the lack of subtlety lets it work at an archetypal level.

These 10 episodes demonstrate Babylon 5 at its most dynamic in content and form.

“Signs And Portents” (season one, episode 13): Babylon 5’s weak first season engaged primarily in procedural world-building, with individual episodes developing small corners of the show’s universe to make room for bigger dramatic changes later. But it was often difficult to see the benefits of those detached episodes. Not so with “Signs And Portents,” one of the most obviously serialized episodes of the first season and the first episode about the Shadows, a powerful and destructive group of aliens. This is an episode whose very structure implies that bigger and better things await. It also serves to introduce viewers to each of the major alien races, their concerns within the show’s universe, and the characters who represent their interests on the station. It is, like much of the first season, a flawed story filled with potential.

“The Long Dark” (season two, episode five): The second season saw a dynamic new leader of the station in Bruce Boxleitner’s John Sheridan, as well as more focus on the overarching storytelling. “Something bad is coming” is the theme of the first half of the second season, like Legolas announcing that “A foul wind rises in the east” in The Return Of The King (one of B5’s many influences). This is the most effective standalone episode at developing that theme, as an unknown evil arrives at the station, hitching a ride on a historical curiosity. This is Babylon 5 experimenting with serialization, pushing the limits of its special effects, and striving to become a great television series.

“The Coming Of Shadows” (season two, episode nine): Sometimes, a struggling show slowly gets better, and there isn’t really a single moment that pinpoints when the series realized its potential. Not the case with “The Coming Of Shadows.” It’s a defining moment in the series’ run, a dividing line between what came before and everything after. Like Buffy’s “Surprise/Innocence” tandem, this is a specific event where the rules that viewers thought would hold true for the entire series are no longer true. But this isn’t just an issue of unexpected plot twists. It’s the way those twists are portrayed via magnificent moments, like an instant of horrible luck destroying the possibility of peace. It’s the way a year of developing characters who seem to embody right and wrong is flipped entirely in a scene of impressive dramatic irony. Before the mid-’90s, television didn’t work this way. Babylon 5 was one of the series that opened the door to the possibility that good wouldn’t always defeat evil, when a space station devoted to peace ended up triggering a war.

“The Long, Twilight Struggle” (season two, episode 20): The idea of the “five-year plan” can seem imposing, but Babylon 5 isn’t a mystery show like Twin Peaks or Lost, building toward a single, specific reveal. Instead, it’s a series of interlocking storylines that last for a season or less, then build from one another. The war started in “The Coming Of Shadows” ends in “The Long, Twilight Struggle,” after fewer than a dozen episodes, and it does so in magnificent fashion. The character and plot development up to this point comes to fruition, and the groundwork is laid for the next season’s stories.

“Comes The Inquisitor” (season two, episode 21): Babylon 5’s scope may be epic, but it’s often at its best when it shoves its characters in a room, shuts the door, and sees what happens. That’s what happens in “Comes The Inquisitor,” where two of the main characters’ leadership credentials and purity of motive are tested by their most powerful ally in preparation for the conflict with the Shadows. It’s a philosophical debate about the nature of altruism, with life-or-death stakes.

“Passing Through Gethsemane” (season three, episode four): One of Babylon 5’s very best standalone episodes, “Passing Through Gethsemane” is a straightforward, traditional science-fiction story. In the series’ imagined future, the “death of personality,” or a mind wipe, is used as a form of execution. “Gethsemane” deals with the ramifications of that policy, as well as questions of revenge and the nature of the soul.

“Interludes And Examinations” (season three, episode 15): One of Babylon 5’s greatest strengths is that its most important episodes are often its best. This episode, where the Shadow War—the massive, mythological struggle that guides much of the series—finally boils over, is one such episode. It’s also about the personal stakes of such a conflict, where trying to do the right thing, even doing the best possible thing, can have devastating consequences.

“The Long Night” (season four, episode five): Babylon 5’s five-year plan was in jeopardy in its fourth season, when the show looked as if it might be canceled at the end of the season. This had the effect of compressing the storyline, creating a rare level of serialization for the era. For example, the first six episodes act as one long story about the climax of the Shadow War, which makes picking any individual episode difficult. “The Long Night” is the final preparation before the big climax—look for Bryan Cranston playing a pivotal role—but it’s also the climax for Londo and G’Kar’s major story.

“No Surrender, No Retreat” (season four, episode 15): Most television shows would use the end of the Shadow War as a series finale. Babylon 5 wisely downplayed its importance by ending it early in the fourth season. What came next was a battle for Earth, where the corrupt, ineffective human government had descended into dictatorship. “No Surrender, No Retreat” is the fourth season’s best single episode, demonstrating the messiness of civil war by forcing Sheridan to negotiate with a set of warship captains, as he feels out who of them might join him, who might avoid confrontation, and whom he’d have to fight. It takes a wide, ungraspable conflict and turns it into a poker game—an especially tense one, since the audience doesn’t know how the one-time characters are going to bet.

“Sleeping In Light” (season five, episode 22): Unlike many of the episodes on this list, “Sleeping In Light” isn’t about the first shots or the climax of a war. It’s more important than that. It’s about saying goodbye to friends and family. It’s about an ending; it’s about ending in a way that requires having known that this was going to be the end for years and being able to play all the most effective emotional beats, manipulative though they may be, and have them be justified, dammit, because viewers have spent 110 episodes with these characters and the end of that relationship is meaningful. 

And if you like those, here’s 10 more: “A Voice In The Wilderness” (season one, episodes 18-19); “Chrysalis” (season one, episode 22); “The Fall Of Night” (season two, episode 22); “Dust To Dust” (season three, episode six); “Severed Dreams” (season three, episode 10); “And The Rock Cried Out, No Hiding Place” (season three, episode 20); “Into The Fire” (season four, episode six); “The Face Of The Enemy” (season four, episode 17); “The Fall Of Centauri Prime” (season five, episode 18); “Objects At Rest” (season five, episode 21).

Availability: The first season and a rotating set of episodes from the second season are available for free on the WB’s website. DVDs of every season as well as the (mostly disappointing) TV movies are widely available.

Next week: Travel back to the ’50s for the nostalgic trip of Leave It To Beaver.

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