Babylon 5 (1994-1998) series review

Overall rating: 4.5 / 5

Introduction

There are times when I get sick of watching movies, and seek out great television shows.  Usually I seek out shows that have already been seen through to completion, and dive in at that point.  Because I hate getting into shows that have no ending, that were cancelled before they really got going.  I’m not one to get into ongoing shows, with some exceptions.  So a while back I decided to get into this show, knowing its reputation, knowing that it was wrapped up the way the creators wanted (for the most part), and knowing that it wasn’t episodic in nature so much as each episode progressed the overall story in some way.  A sci-fi show that lasted 5 seasons where each episode of each season progressed the overall story?  And it’s considered one of the best sci-fi television series of all time?  Couldn’t pass on this.

First, what the series is about.  It’s about a space station, in space, orbiting a planet that is well away from Earth.  The station is called Babylon 5.  The number 5 is significant because there were 4 Babylon stations to come before it.  The first 3 were destroyed either during construction, or soon after being built.  The 4th mysteriously disappeared.  So hopefully the fifth time’s the charm.  The space station is meant to be a politically neutral place of existence, where all races from all quarters of the universe can send their people and representatives to for coexistence and having their say with planetary talks.  No race is excluded, so long as they don’t go against the peace on board the station.

From there, Babylon 5 would eventually find itself to be caught up in a conflict that threatens the universe.

 

A Note on How To Watch This Show

So, if you should wind up diving into this show, there’s a certain order you should watch things in.  There’s more than just the 5 seasons, there’s also a few tv movies that may be watched in a certain order.

First there’s the pilot episode, The Gathering.  That is the episode that should definitely be watched before starting Season 1.  It’s a solid introduction, but you also have to pay very close attention to what’s going on.  Nearly every minute there’s information dropped about the species, the significant characters, and how they interact with one another.  And yes, some information is significant and gets brought up later.  Plus there’s a decent assassination plot storyline.

And honestly, the only other film I’ve seen that’s worth watching is Thirdspace, which should be watched in the middle of season 4 (best watched between episode 8 The Illusion of Truth, and episode 9 Atonement.  It’s basically a Lovecraftian tale in the Babylon 5 universe, and some say it’s the best out of all the Babylon 5 movies.  If its not the best, it’s close.

The nuclear wessels brought him here.

There are other films, but I didn’t find them to be all that memorable.  They don’t contain any information that’s necessary to enjoy the rest of the series either.  If you want to know more about where the stand-alone movies fit in, and what order they should be watched in along with the episodes in the show, there’s a couple decent sites out there which will help you out.  Such as: https://scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/10009/what-order-should-the-babylon-5-movies-and-series-be-watched-in#10015

That being said, I can only recommend The Gathering (must-watch before starting any season) and Thirdspace (optional, but entertaining).  The rest aren’t good enough to warrant a recommendation, especially since they don’t contribute much, if anything, to the main overall story.

 

 

Season 1

It was the dawn of the third age of mankind, ten years after the Earth-Minbari War. The Babylon Project was a dream given form. Its goal: to prevent another war by creating a place where humans and aliens could work out their differences peacefully. It’s a port of call, home away from home for diplomats, hustlers, entrepreneurs, and wanderers. Humans and aliens wrapped in two million, five hundred thousand tons of spinning metal, all alone in the night. It can be a dangerous place, but it’s our last, best hope for peace. This is the story of the last of the Babylon stations. The year is 2258. The name of the place is Babylon 5.

The first season is when the show it at some of its cheesiest, 90s-est, episodic-est.  It’s the season that will make first-time viewers wonder what the deal is with the show’s popularity?  It’s not going to seem all that special compared to other shows out there like Star Trek: The Next Generation (on that note, there’s a bitter history between Babylon 5 and Star Trek: Deep Space 9, where one alleged that the other ripped off story elements from the one).  I mean, it wasn’t weak or anything (at least by mid-90s standards when it came to the special effects).  Just that it didn’t seem like anything all that significant compared to those that came before it like Star Trek.  However, the first season is basically just laying the groundwork for all that is to come for the next 4 seasons.  The stand-alone episodic nature of some conflict arising aboard the space station Babylon 5 (or off-board it) may seem random and just being there just to tell some made-up story to pad out the series, but it’s not random.  At least 90% of the episodes contain some character, faction, race, story arc, that will be further developed or referenced in later seasons.  This is basically a glorified introductory season to the universe of Babylon 5.

We get introduced to the Narn, Centauri, Minbari, and to a lesser extent, the Vorlons (they are expanded upon in later seasons, and left mysterious in Season 1).  As we learn later on, it’s not so simple as to have each alien species listed anymore than it should just list the human species.  There are factions within each species who each have their own agenda, in particular the psychic human faction who alienate themselves from everyone but other psychics (particularly the PsyCorp).  However, just about every race except the Narns (for reasons given later on) also have their own psychics, some with telekinetic capabilities.

Centauri on the left, Narn on the right, Minbari in the lower-middle, the Vorlon in the upper-middle.

And, of course, we get introduced to the central characters in the show.  Those shown in the above picture are the significant standouts for the alien races.  Commander Sinclair, a veteran of the Earth-Minbari war who always wants to be first to enter the action when conflict arises onboard the Babylon station.  Now, normally, stuff like this bugs the shit out of me in tv shows.  You know, how the central character(s) are always involved (or get involved) with every conflict that arises, when it would be more realistic and practical to get others involved first.  Like on that show Fringe, where the main detectives seem to be either the only ones on the scene of an ongoing crisis, or are always the one to put the villain of the episode down.  You know, as opposed to having other detectives go in and get the takedown.  Especially when there’s so much as stake with the central character for one reason or another.  This isn’t a problem with superhero shows because, well let’s face it, the superheros intentionally go looking for trouble to fix, which in-turn results in trouble coming after them.  I’m talking about shows with non-superheros in them.

While this show suffers from that problem (and let’s face it, a lot of shows have this problem to this day), it at least has a decent excuse for it.  Sinclair, the commander of Babylon 5 and the central protagonist of season 1, has a habit of always wanting to get involved in the action.  He views himself as a soldier first, a commander second, which makes him a bit rash and always wanting to take the enemies down himself, even if he risks so much doing so, as it would deal a huge blow to the station operations.  He preferred being a soldier than being a commander, which gives him a reason on a personality level for always being at the center of the conflict in most episodes.

As for the conflicts, while there are some that threaten the entire station, most aren’t too major, at least by the standards that would be set in later seasons.  The main significant conflict comes up during the last couple episodes, when something happens that breaks the mold of having a happy ending for each episode.  Something that causes Sinclair to say, “Everything’s different now.”  He’s right, and that change was only getting started.

 

Season 2

If more of our so-called leaders would walk the same streets as the people who voted them in, live in the same buildings, eat the same food instead of hiding behind glass and steel and bodyguards, maybe we’d get better leadership and a little more concern for the future.

The first half of the season is more or less the same as Season 1, despite some character change-ups.  Some revelations and profound insights to a couple races are revealed early on, but other than that, the show progresses basically the same as in the last season.  However, some extra cheese is added, mainly with the new character Sheridan.  Whenever he’s talking about his wife of the past, and his potential love interest of the present, the show just turns into a full-blown soap opera.  The fucking dialogue and the fucking acting, it pained me just as much as it made me want to laugh.  The good news is, when these bits come up, they don’t take up too much time in the episode they are in (10 minutes or less overall per-episode it’s in).

“Hi, I’m Sheridan, and I’m sad about my wife dying and hopeful for the prospect of having sex with an alien.  I wanna be like Captain Kirk.”
“Hi, I’m Sinclair, and you make me sick.”

And I wasn’t too crazy about the Sheridan character for a while.  He comes off as too much of a goody-to-shoes, a guy who is flawless and too good-natured in-spite of his reputation of being feared by the Minbari because of his combat tactics.  In other words, I feared this show was going to have a Gary Stu character (ie the male equivalent of a Mary Sue).

Oh yeah, he’s in this too.

But then comes the point of Season 2 when the episode titled In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum happens (about 2/3rds through the season).  Not only does this episode actually showcase some depth to Sheridan’s character by showing some faults within him, it brings a sense of dread and high stakes to the entire series.  This is the episode that acts as a pivotal turning point for the entire show.  It’s the episode that let’s viewers know their patience will be rewarded.  The mysterious enemies, the Shadows, and the threat they pose to the universe is known, and how there are several parties within and outside of Babylon 5 that have a stake in all this, and their own motives, and their own knowledge that both the viewer and the central protagonists do not have.  This was the episode that made me go all-in.  This was the episode that made me look forward to the next, and the next, and the next.

So if you think the show is testing your patience too much, that you fear it may not be worthwhile in the end, try sticking though Season 2.  That’s when the show starts to take the gloves off (including having the Babylon 5 station get involved in an actual space battle during the finale).  The next season is when it would start swinging.

 

Season 3

Everyone lies, Michael. The innocent lie because they don’t want to be blamed for something they didn’t do and the guilty lie because they don’t have any other choice.

When we get to this season, we get to see all sorts of shit happen.  Stories regarding time travel, alternate realities, alien races beyond the outer rim, conflicts within each alien race, etc.  This is the episode where everyone is getting revved up for a war against the Shadows.  Think of this season as the equivalent Mass Effect 2 (tv season equivalent to game entry into that trilogy [anything beyond Mass Effect 3 is irrelevant as far as I’m concerned]).  The Babylon 5 station beginning to realize how pivotal its role is with defending the universe from the Shadows by using its neutrality as an advantage.  But it comes at the cost of realizing that they will have to take a side at some point, which will pit them against people they once considered friends.  Plus there’s infiltrators, those who are allied with the Shadows, and characters who begin to go down dark paths they may not be able to recover from.And the season ends with one of the most intense and thought-provoking episodes the entire series is likely to ever have; making everyone eager for the next season, the season many consider to be the best out of all of them.

 

Season 4

If I take a lamp and shine it toward the wall, a bright spot will appear on the wall. The lamp is our search for truth… for understanding. Too often, we assume that the light on the wall is God, but the light is not the goal of the search, it is the result of the search. The more intense the search, the brighter the light on the wall. The brighter the light on the wall, the greater the sense of revelation upon seeing it. Similarly, someone who does not search – who does not bring a lantern – sees nothing. What we perceive as God is the by-product of our search for God. It may simply be an appreciation of the light… pure and unblemished… not understanding that it comes from us. Sometimes we stand in front of the light and assume that we are the center of the universe – God looks astonishingly like we do – or we turn to look at our shadow and assume that all is darkness. If we allow ourselves to get in the way, we defeat the purpose, which is to use the light of our search to illuminate the wall in all its beauty and in all its flaws; and in so doing, better understand the world around us.

And this is it, the high point of the show.  Everything was building up to this, and it does not disappoint.  The Shadow war is in full string, and there are other civil strifes going on with each race, threatening to tear alliances apart that are desperately needed to go against the Shadows.  The civil strife is also prevalent with the Vorlons, the one race fully capable of taking on the Shadows, yet it’s revealed they have their own ulterior motives that may go against that of the human race.  And I won’t say anything about how/if any of this is fully resolved, but I will say that things won’t always go the way you think.  There are victories, and there are losses, and there are bittersweet moments to show that even victory comes with a price of its own, just as some losses are complete devastating defeats one can’t recover from in some way.

The most intriguing episode of this entire season, in my opinion, is the one most relevant to today.  Outside of the conflict and war episodes, there is one that showcases propaganda and biased news reporting.  The episode titled The Illusion of Truth (fitting), where a news reporter from Earth is given a walkthrough of the station.  Sheridan hopes for the best with the reporter reporting on things objectively, but during the last 15-20 minutes of the episode, we see how the news can twist facts around in the most extreme ways by only inserting partial truths amidst the whole lies, leaving out footage and dialogue, and altogether painting a picture that is meant to smear the Babylon station and unite Earth and its factions against it.  It’s episodes like this that demonstrate just how intelligent and relevant the show is.

Damn robot-paparazzis.

It should be mentioned, however, that you should skip the last episode of this season (The Deconstruction of Falling Stars).  Save it for either after the last episode of season 5, or viewed just before the last episode of season 5.  Personally, I’m thinking it should be viewed just before the last episode of season 5, for reasons I’ll give later.

 

Season 5

I believe that when we leave a place a part of it goes with us and part of us remains. Go anywhere in these halls, when it is quiet and just listen. After a while you will hear the echoes of all of our conversations, every thought and word we’ve exchanged. Long after we are gone, our voices will linger in these walls for as long as this place remains. But I will admit that the part of me that going will very much miss the part of you that is staying.

The final season, and this one is a mixed bag unfortunately.  Seasons 3 and 4 are the seasons everyone agrees are the best.  Seasons 1 and 2 were warmups for those central seasons.  And then there’s season 5, which starts out rough.  The reason it starts out rough is because the show creators weren’t completely certain they would be renewed for a fifth and final season, so they crammed more into season 4 than they would’ve liked for pacing purposes (though it did result in the most intense season yet).  Because of this, they had to make up a few stories they didn’t have penned down prior to season 5.  The blunt of this is during the first arc, where this group of rogue friendly semi-hippy psychics show up and stick around for a while.  They do too much to make these people seem happy and cheerful and innocent, it made me sick, and made me want to see them all fucking die.  But to the show’s credit, it did partially give me what I asked for in that regard (spoilers by the way, like you’ll give a shit for that subplot).  All that said, the subplot with the psychics did provide some intriguing revelations, and did serve as a turning point for some central characters in the show.  A good kind of turning point.

In regards to the big question, “Does the show wrap up all plot threads in a convenient way?”  The answer is no, but that’s a good thing in this case (probably the only show in existence where it’s a good thing).  It carries on a theme that becomes more and more apparent as the show goes on.  The theme that, “It never ends.”  That every time one foe is (or appears to be) vanquished, another comes to take its place.  For every victory, there is a defeat.  For every moment of happiness, there is a moment of sadness and pain.  When it seems like things will be fine now with all the previous conflicts dealt with and new ways of life that should improve everything, it turns out there are leftovers from previous conflicts that rise up to botch everything up.  When a goal is accomplished, those that united to achieve that goal now threaten to dissolve into separatist factions.

In other words, there will always be conflict.  It’s never-ending.  Even if victory is achieved, that victory usually results in unforeseeable shockwaves that result in the creation of new enemies, despite the best of intentions.  All we can do is make the best of it.  But then again, conflict is a necessary evil.  Conflict is what causes alliances, what keeps people strong (giving them a reason to maintain strength), what drives technological and diplomatic development.  Conflict continues to allow us to grow as a society, as a race, until we are developed enough and wise enough to finally move on to the next dimension, to the outer rim.  One day we may get there, but it will not be today.  So until then, continue fighting the good fight.

In regards to the last episode of this season vs. the last episode of season 4, the last episode of season 4 deals with how history will remember important historical figures who have accomplished much.  And it’s fascinating to see how opinions change and become more radicalized as the years/centuries go on.  How those who were once revered can become tarnished by those who don’t know them yet judge them all the same.  Similar to how many now judge the founding fathers of the United States.  Season 5’s ending is about giving the protagonist a definitive end.  The commander we’ve spent so many seasons with has his last goodbye before moving on.  Revisiting old friends and old places, revisiting nostalgia, looking back on his life, before it all ends.  While the conflicts may be never-ending, one’s story does end at some point.

 

Conclusion

We all believe in something… greater than ourselves, even if it’s just the blind forces of chance.

Don’t let the 90s sets and the outdated computer and green screen effects throw you off, this is a very intelligent sci-fi show that understands humanity (who we are, where we were, and where we are going) in many ways.  It may take a while to get going, because it’s a show that understands the importance of build-up, of laying the groundwork, of not throwing everything at you so fast that it becomes difficult to follow.  The pacing is deliberate.

And it is, without a doubt, the best sci-fi television show I have ever seen in my life.  It blows Star Trek, The Expanse, Farscape, and Lexx out of the water.  That doesn’t mean it’s flawless.  The 90s cheese is still there (especially in the first 2 seasons), the special effects dated (but you can still understand what is going on, and after a while you get adjusted to them), and the acting is of typical 90s tv acting at the time (though many of the actors eventually work wonders with their characters).  But it makes up for it with a truly epic tale that has many twists and turns, many complex characters, complex races, complex factions, and complex morals.

It does have that innocence of “the 90s good guys should win” semi-naivety found in most shows from the 90s and earlier, but it is one of the earliest shows that evolved its characters to become morally grey at times.  It shows that while some characters stay the same through various scenarios, there are situations that can arise which can cause them to change under the circumstances, and they may not be able to go back to who they once were.  Their intentions may start out good, but they are eventually forced to make difficult decisions where there is no right answer.  Again, the 90s innocence is still there, but it does enough to go into the grey and dark areas to satisfy the more wise and mature of us.

But that 90s innocence is deceptive, as the show tackles a lot of heavy-handed topics, which are not limited to the affects of propaganda, racism, friends becoming enemies, enemies becoming friends, purpose, mysteries of life and the universe, where we are headed as a race, spying on others, the ethics of being able to read other’s minds (metaphor for government/technological spying), philosophies to live by, the best form of government, what it takes to unite those we have our differences with and the struggles to maintain such unions, the use and misuse of power, our personal ambitions and struggles compared with that of the struggles of all the worlds in the universe, how a religious figure-head can gain an image/reputation that is unwanted, etc.  At some point, there’s an episode that deals with one or more of those, sometimes in a thought-provoking manner.

So, great story, memorable characters (especially G’Kar and his memorable sayings, though each character manages to have their own shining moment in that regard), memorable moments, some thought-provoking episodes.  It all adds up to a show no one should miss.  That being said, they did make a sequel show titled Crusades, but I can’t recommend watching it simply because it was cancelled after season 1, even though it had the potential to be as great as Babylon 5.  But I can recommend something else for those interested in a sequel to the series.  There is a book trilogy called Legions of Fire which takes place after the events of the series (minus the final episode of Seasons 4 and 5).  It doesn’t take into account every dangling plot thread that was in the show (again, the conflict never ends), but it may fill in some plot details people were left wondering about by the time the show ended.

So overall, highly recommended show.  There is nothing else quite like it, nor as epic (though Deep Space Nine tried, but that show ripped off this one and it’s overall not as good, so…).  I kinda wish I could delve more into this series, but the only real way to do that is by reviewing it episode-by-episode, and I just don’t feel like doing that.  Just take my word for it, start with the pilot episode The Gathering, then proceed with the rest of the show until the last episode of season 4; save that for the end of season 5 (just before the very last episode).

3 thoughts on “Babylon 5 (1994-1998) series review

  1. I never really watched this movie (a bit before my time of catching this on TV). I only remember seeing the TV movie Babylon 5: Legend of the Ranger, which I liked.

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    • Legend of the Rangers. Definitely not the best place to start (especially since it sort of acts as a bridge between Babylon 5 and the cancelled sequel series Crusade. But the series is definitely worth watch. You just have to hang tough through seasons 1 and 2 (it’s not that they’re bad, just mostly by-the-numbers towards what we’re used to for shows like this in that time period).

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