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TVS Starter Kit: Babylon 5

by Jason Hughes, posted Aug 5th 2008 11:04AM
Babylon 5's G'Kar (l) and Londo Mollari
During our Buffy the Vampire Slayer Retro Squad week, I put out a call for an episode of Buffy a newbie could watch to get a feel for the show. And you guys came through in a big way. Most insisted it was a show that needed to be watched from the beginning, but at the same time warned that there was some cheese-factor in those early episodes. Your votes pushed me to "Hush," which I found to be incredibly enjoyable and a perfect introduction to the cleverness and tone of the show. Even better, it made me that much more eager to go back and watch the entire run of the show.

In the comments to that piece Doug Nelson asked if someone could do something similar for Babylon 5. That got me thinking about other serialized shows of this nature like The X-Files, The West Wing and to an extent Doctor Who and Quantum Leap. We're a community of TV-lovers here, so we should help each other out. Thus, the TVS Starter Kits. And for Doug Nelson, it starts with Babylon 5.

Babylon 5 was set up as a "television novel." From the beginning, creator J. Michael Straczynski, or JMS as he goes by, envisioned a single five year story arc after which the series would end, a proposal unprecedented at the time. Despite a few bumps along the way, including the loss of two principal actors, one after the first season and the other the fourth, and even the near cancellation of the show several times over its run, Straczynski was able to complete his vision. And yet, early on he fell victim to the tendency to mimic the more episodic nature of the sci fi shows of the time, particular Star Trek: The Next Generation, and the just started Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

It wasn't until a portion of the way into the second season that JMS took over fully the writing reigns of his epic and maintained this iron grip nearly all the way to the end. All in all, he penned 92 of the series 110 total episodes. Unfortunately, the show doesn't really find its rhythm completely until the second season, though there are a few gems sprinkled here and there throughout. And, as it is one massive story, there are plot elements that will pay off down the line strewn about as well.

So the problem for many new viewers is how to take on a show that really needs to be watched sequentially without getting turned off by some of the, let's face it, subpar entries. Well, I certainly don't want to spoil any of the big payoffs for those of you who do want to give this excellent saga a try, so I've compiled a brief list of six episodes that will set the stage for you and give you all you need to determine if this is a show for you.

All six episodes are from the first season, as it would be a disservice to you to drop you any further along in the larger story arcs. And not surprisingly, all six were penned by JMS himself. This is a world that is far more grim and gritty than typical space-faring sci fi, especially for the time in which it aired. The characters are flawed, their dramas are real and some of the acting is just brutally stellar, particularly from the late Andres Katsulas as the reptilian G'Kar and Peter Jurasik as Londo Mollari. "No one here is exactly what he appears," G'Kar once said, and it couldn't be more true.

Babylon 5 is a space station situated in neutral territory. There are representatives from across the galaxy that use it as a place of diplomacy and commerce. Most importantly, it is hoped to be a sort of peace keeping place where ambassadors from the major and minor races can come together and settle their differences without bloodshed. It was built shortly after the Earth-Minbari war, the cause of which is somewhat less than worthy.

"Midnight on the Firing Line"

While not the pilot movie, this was the pilot episode for the regular series. Despite some rather horrible hair on Mollari (a point JMS admits on the DVDs to struggling with throughout the first season), this is an important episode establishing relationships between the characters, and particularly the ongoing struggles between the Narn and the Centauri, two of the five major races who have been at war forever. Just recently the reptilian Narns have gained their freedom from the garish Centauri, but their hatred of one another runs deep.

[Watch "Midnight on the Firing Line"]

"Signs and Portents"

The title of this episode also became the de facto title for the entire first season. Each of Babylon 5's seasons had a subtitle like this. While much of the first season is almost throwaway fodder, this thirteenth installment introduced us to Morden, a seeming human who wandered around the station asking all the important figures "What do you want?" Really, though, he's seeking something of his own through their answers. I won't spoil anything of what anyone says, but it establishes an important connection between Morden's "associates" and one of the principal cast members that will spell certain damnation for many on board the station and sets up the major conflict of the first four seasons. Morden, brilliantly played by Ed Wasser, is a great "villain" in the series, always used to great effect.

[Watch "Signs and Portents"]

"A Voice in the Wilderness"
This two part episode introduces Draal, Minbari Ambassador Delenn's mentor. While his introduction is innocent enough, his ultimate fate is far more significant. The main thrust of this two-parter comes from the supposedly uninhabited planet, Epsilon 3, that the Babylon 5 station orbits. As it turns out, the planet has a lot more going on that initially suspected. A secondary story that will have major significance later in the series involves station security chief Michael Garibaldi, whose former love is on the Mars colony, where riots begin breaking out as a prelude to a war for independence.

[Watch "A Voice in the Wilderness: Part One"]
[Watch "A Voice in the Wilderness: Part Two"]

" Babylon Squared"

It is with this episode that Babylon 5 became something beyond a typical television series. A time travel epic partially revealing the mysterious fate of the Babylon 4++ station. Amazingly, forty episodes later, in the midst of the third season, time travel would be used again to bring the characters and events of the middle third season smack dab into the middle of this episode. And if you watch them both, it all works. Mysterious figures from this episode are revealed in that one. It is a stunning accomplishment and shows just how intricately plotted and planned out all of this was.

[Watch "Babylon Squared"]

The first year of Babylon 5 ends. Each season is one full year in the lives of the station's inhabitants, so we end in December 2258. Morden returns and offers his aid and assistance in the growing conflict between the Narn and the Centauri. His associates, however, are far more than anyone bargained for, as we begin to see here. Meanwhile, closer to home, Garibaldi uncovers some startling information about the fate of the existing Earth government. Meanwhile, Ambassador Delenn is beginning a startling change of her own, one more literal than the changing political structures around her. With this cap on the first year, the stage is set for escalating complexities and conflicts to come.

[Watch "Chrysalis"]

Right away, in the second season, changes are afoot. Commander Jeffrey Sinclair, who was the principal lead on the series throughout the first season, is gone, replaced by Bruce Boxleitner's Captain John Sheridan. But the story of Sinclair is nowhere near complete, and in fact is a fulcrum on which much of the series' plots hinge. And Sheridan himself ... well, I don't want to spoil anything for you, but let's just say that I liked him a hell of a lot better than I ever liked Sinclair. And the things that happen to him--

But I don't want to spoil it. Babylon 5 has some warts, sure, but in the end it stands as one of the greatest achievements in television history. It is the reason that I so love shows, like Lost, that are brave enough to tell one long comprehensive story. More than a two to three hour movie, and more than a typical one hour episode, there's just something so amazing about one hundred and ten hours of visual storytelling to build and complete one majorly satisfying story.

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And for God's sake people don't forget Christopher Franke's soundtracks!!! I've actually gotten a couple of people interested in B5 just from giving them the soundtracks (volumes 1 and 2 specifically) to listen to! You can actually "feel" the whole story, from start to finish, just by listening to those soundtracks. They are truly awesome. Each season I would eagerly await the opening credits sequence. Each year it was different from the year before and always with a new kick-ass piece of music from Franke. And listen, anybody who watches the entire series from beginning to end and doesn't get even a little bit choked up at that final piece of music over the end credits of the final episode, well ... there's just something wrong with them. I once read somewhere that Franke asked JMS what he wanted for that final piece of music and JMS said, "I want you to break their (the fans) hearts." Man! Did he ever.

"A shinning beacon in space! All alone ... in the night."

August 07 2008 at 1:39 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
A Gould

Couple things to remember about Babylon 5
* Yes, that was state-of-the-art CGI. It looks dated now, but when this was done, Trek was still using models. :)
* Some of the plot arcs are a bit clunky, but B5 was one of the first to do arcs - everyone else got to learn from their mistakes
* I personally find most first seasons to be at least a bit rough on the edges - actors are finding their characters, writers are finding their voices. So, when you watch the whole thing, first season is when you look for moments and foreshadowing (and this is a *lot* of foreshadowing in season 1)
* Season 5, as mentioned above, suffers from "crap, we already finished the story, now what?" It does have some very good episodes - the big problem is that it happens *after* the arc completes, so it has a lack of gravitas.
* JMS deserves credit for publicly stating that some episodes (like Grey 13) are actively bad/didn't work the way they envisoned. (He was very active on the 'net during production, and very honest - another pacesetter).

And if nothing else, Babylon 5 deserves recognition for the longest setup-to-punchline time I've ever seen (setup is in the premiere, punchline is in the second last episode of season 5.)

August 06 2008 at 1:29 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

#14, There are actors who play their characters "in process" and actors who play their characters "in results"

I had heard a story that O'Hare had once asked JMS where Sinclair's character ends up (to help i with his acting process) and was told his character's fate. He then played his role "in result" Which, if you know what happens to him, makes his character much more interesting to watch.

from the outside, tho, Sinclair was duller than dirt.

Season 5 was abysmal. If they had made it the actual telepath war instead of "we will all go together, when we go" Branch Davidian" telepaths. It might have had some merit.

August 06 2008 at 8:56 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Season 5 isn't nearly as miserable the second time around as it felt when the series was first airing. The telepath groupies are still horrible, along with the endless attacks from "raiders", but the rest was more bearable than I remembered it.

August 05 2008 at 4:33 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Great intro to an amazing show. Thanks, Jason.

I find 90% of Season 5 to be a waste. The character of Byron was like nails-on-chalkboard to me. The finales of both Season 4 and Season 5 are departures, stylistically and thematically, but are both exceptionally well done.


August 05 2008 at 4:28 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

After having seen Babylon 5 years ago, I'll give a non-spoiler tip for those of you out there who haven't seen it...

Don't watch Season 5. Only watch Seasons 1-4. That was the original arc that JMS wanted, which had to be time-compressed because the series was going to be canceled by the syndicator. The series finale, which aired at the end of season 5, was actually filmed at the end of season 4 for this same reason. They just stuck that episode in the can for a year.

Season 5 was like "Mayberry RFD" or "Archie Bunker's Place" .. it was too much. It amounted to character assassination of these people you came to love so much.

So, just watch Seasons 1-4, and then watch the series finale at the end of Season 5. You will think its one of the best TV shows you've ever seen.

August 05 2008 at 1:28 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to Derek's comment
Akbar Fazil

I will see your suggestion and actually raise you a challenge. Skip the entire Telepath soap opera of season 5. Stick around for "Day of the Dead" and the happenings on Centauri Prime. Then see if you can say Season 5 is a waste.

August 05 2008 at 3:46 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I agree to an extent with ignore S5 - but there is a couple of absolute great moments in it. Day of the Dead was potentially the best episode ever, had they got the right characters involved!

I do however think Sinclair was far superior to John "Get the hell outta our Galaxy" Sheridan. He was punished for overacting to hell in Infection but just found him a better fit and he ended up being awesome by the end of S1. In the end it all works out well.

I love a good B5 chat.

August 05 2008 at 4:14 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I've seen seasons 1-4, and unfortunately never got into the new storylines of season 5. I'm sure I'll pick it up soon, though.

August 05 2008 at 1:27 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I'm surprised people call this series grim and gritty. It's neither...it's just a realistic drama. It's also one of the more hopeful and optimistic looks at humanity that is grounded in the real world instead of the faux-humanity of Trek (which I'm a fan of on some days, and not on others). Grim and gritty is misused here...it's just realistic in all ways.

Some other season 1 episodes that are not directly related to the story line that would show people what the series is about:
The Parliament of Dreams (one of the best Londo moments in the series)
Mind War (introduces Bester)
Believers (shows the complex ideas the show will regularly tackle)

August 05 2008 at 1:05 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

B5 is one of my favorite scifi series ever. For newbies, please don't be turned off by Jeffrey Sinclair, or rather the actor, Michael O'Hare. I was never fond of how he acted, but the character of Sinclair is very intriguing.

Love, love, love this show. And thanks for bringing it to other folks' attention. It's such a smart show.

August 05 2008 at 12:55 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I'd say that's a pretty good primer for the show. It took a while to get going, but I found B5 to be incredibly satisfying before too long. Didn't get into the show until I got the DVDs a couple of years ago, can't believe I used to see this as a lame Star Trek ripoff! I will agree with Mind War and Sky Full of Stars being good alternatives to "Wilderness" for this little kit. One gives us Walter Koenig's Bester, the other digs deeper into a core mystery of the season.

August 05 2008 at 12:53 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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