Babylon 3 1/2

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

I’ve been rewatching Babylon 5 lately, after finally getting around to picking up the 5th season on DVD, and I was torn about whether I’d bother reviewing it. On the one hand, I reasoned that Babylon 5 is quite old and was, at the time, a pretty major show, and I thought most people interested in space opera TV shows would already be familiar with the show anyway.

Then I reconsidered. Firstly, because it’s been over 10 years since the finale aired, and in those 10 years SF TV has moved on – we’ve had Battlestar Galactica, we’ve had Star Trek driving itself into the ground, we’ve had Farscape and more Stargate spin-offs than I can keep track of. It’s worth looking back at this point and seeing whether Babylon 5 still stands up to scrutiny now that there’s more choice on the market, or whether we latched onto it simply because it was epic space opera on TV which wasn’t some flavour of Star Trek. Secondly, 110 normal length episodes and a feature-length pilot is one hell of a time investment; it’s taken me a while to decide to take the plunge with the Battlestar Galactica remake, and that has a three hour miniseries at the start to act as a taster before taking on the main series. (The pilot episode of Babylon 5 isn’t as good a sample of the series itself because so many major characters were replaced between it and episode 1 of series 1.) If I were pondering whether to give something this epic a go I’d appreciate as many opinions as I could get my hands on.

I won’t be covering the much-maligned Crusade in this review, because it’s a separate show. Nor will I be covering most of the feature-length episodes that were produced for the series, because A Call to Arms was the pilot episode for Crusade, Legend of the Rangers was the pilot episode for another sequel series that never even made it off the ground, and In the Beginning, Thirdspace and River of Souls were prequels and side stories that aren’t necessary to following the main arc. As a matter of fact, In the Beginning, the prequel, covers events which are already perfectly adequately covered and explained in the main series, and the events of Thirdspace and River of Souls aren’t even alluded to in the core episodes.

Likewise, I won’t bother with The Lost Tales, a straight-to-DVD release with a pair of episodes that represented show creator J. Michael Straczynski’s last gasp attempt to squeeze a little more story out of the dried-up husk of B5. Straczynski himself has pretty much directly admitted since the Lost Tales debacle that the five year plot arc should be regarded as the heart of the series, and he isn’t going to be producing any more material unless he’s convinced it will actually add to that rather than detract from it (and even then only if he’s given enough budget to do whatever new idea he has justice).

I will, however, be reviewing The Gathering, the first feature length episode, seeing how it was actually the pilot episode for the whole show and is therefore an integral part of the 5 year arc rather than a subsequent embellishment of it.

The Gathering

The series kicks off in 2257, in the wake of a devastating war between upstart humanity and the Minbari, a civilisation vastly technologically superior to Earth. The war ended abruptly when the Minbari simply quit for mysterious reasons; realising that their technological disadvantage compared with most of the major powers of the galaxy would mean disaster if they got into another war, Earth has turned to diplomacy, and as part of that initiative has proposed the Babylon Project – a plan to produce an Earth-administered space station in neutral space which would act as an open talking shop to promote trade, scientific collaboration, and above all diplomatic contact between the various galactic civilisations.

Babylon 5 is the floating League of Nations the Babylon Project intended; it’s number five because the first three Babylon stations were destroyed by terrorist action before they went active, and the fourth just plain disappeared. Things are therefore tense as the station staff – led by Commander Jeffrey Sinclair (Michael O’Hare) – welcome the various diplomatic parties of the great powers onboard. When an assassin strikes at Kosh (Ardwright Chamberlain), ambassador of the enigmatic Vorlon civilisation – unthinkably technologically advanced, aggravatingly mysterious in their rare pronouncements, and so devoted to their isolation that they are only willing to appear in public wearing bulky encounter suits that completely obscure their true form – Sinclair has to tackle the first major threat to the station’s existence. It’s bad enough that Sinclair is forced to order station doctor Benjamin Kyle (Johnny Sekka) to breach Kosh’s encounter suit in order to save the ambassador, against the direct urging of the Vorlon government; it gets worse when he asks telepath Lyta Alexander (Patricia Tallman) to scan Kosh’s mind to discover any clues as to the killer’s identity, at which point she accuses him of being the assassin.

As with many pilot episodes, there were a heap of changes between The Gathering and the beginning of the series proper. Not least of this is the fact that with the exception of Sinclair himself and security chief Michael Garibaldi (Jerry Doyle), pretty much all the significant human characters were replaced when the series itself began. Whilst Patricia Tallman would return to the series in the second season as a guest star, and made a full return in season 3, Johnny Sekka would never come back and his character would be written out completely, as would Tamlyn Tomita, whose role as Lt. Commander Laurel Takashima – Sinclair’s second in command – admittedly is pretty slight this time around.

On top of that, the design of the alien makeup for some of the species, such as the Narn and the Minbari, would be altered – this is particularly jarring in the case of the Minbari, which actually look a lot more alien in The Gathering than they do in the series itself. This is probably because Delenn (Mira Furlan), the Minbari ambassador, would eventually evolve into being one of the most benign characters in the show, and the makers presumably didn’t want her to look too scary, but given that she metamorphoses at the end of season 1 anyway (more of which later on) that seems kind of daft. Seeing how one of the points that Straczynski constantly makes with the series is that fine appearances aren’t what counts and it’s totally what’s inside that matters, making the Minbari seem more alien even though they turn out to be in some ways more human than any of the other alien races would be entirely appropriate.

That said, most of what would ultimately define Babylon 5 is already in place. You’ve got the station commander battling to resolve a major crisis that threatens to shut down the station, you’ve got an immediate mystery whose resolution hints at wheels within wheels, and most importantly the ambassadors of the four major alien civilisations are in place – Kosh of the Vorlons, Delenn of the Minbari, G’Kar (Andreas Katsulas) of the Narn and Londo Millari (Peter Jurasik) of the Centauri – the rivalry between G’Kar and Londo being a major element of the series. Likewise, some of the series’ flaws are also evident – the acting tends towards the broad and heavy-handed, as does the writing at points, and the CGI has dated woefully. (More on that when I discuss the first season.)

Inevitably, there are also a few places where The Gathering isn’t up to scratch with the rest of the series – where Straczynski and crew are still rusty and need to tighten things up. In particular, there is a great gaping plot hole which Straczynski and his continuity people don’t manage to catch, and which is well in excess of any plot issues the rest of the series had – if Kosh was in his encounter suit when the assassination attempt happened, and the assassin used a contact poison, how did the assassin find any bare flesh to administer the poison to since Kosh was completely covered up? There’s a really groan-inducing scene in series 1 which was blatantly shoehorned into the episode it appears in to allow Straczynski to have Sinclar explain what happened to the missing characters from The Gathering (well, two of them, Takashima is never mentioned again), and also slips in a really unconvincing explanation for the plot hole. The scene in question is horribly stilted and consists of two characters standing around spouting facts at each other, and I’d almost prefer it if Straczynski hadn’t felt the need to cover that ground.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. To be honest, The Gathering is as good an introduction to the series as any, so long as you don’t get too attached to any of the human characters who aren’t Sinclair or Garibaldi. If you find The Gathering moderately entertaining and are interested in the mysteries it sets up you’ll probably enjoy the series, but if you absolutely hate it you can probably afford to give the rest of Babylon 5 a miss because Straczynski and company simply don’t make the sort of fundamental changes to their approach that would be necessary to win you over.

Season One: Signs and Portents

This is actually the most difficult season to review, because watching it again after seeing the rest of the series is a very different experience from watching it for the first time. When Babylon 5 first came out it seemed as though the episodes comprising the first season were all over the place, each week introducing a new crisis or plot twist which wouldn’t have very much connection to the show’s overall plot. In fact, whilst the main plot of individual episodes might just be another crisis of the week, almost every episode of season 1 introduces plot elements which would later become important, or contains pointers to the direction in which a particular element of the setting will develop. For example, the Vorlon’s dramatic intervention at the conclusion of Deathwalker betrays a high-handed and paternalistic side to their culture that would eventually come to the fore in season 4, as well as establishing the point that the Vorlons are so ridiculously advanced that none of the other races even consider protesting at their actions. Likewise, EarthGov’s attitude to the docker’s strike in By Any Means Necessary reveals Earth’s increasing tendency towards harsh, fascistic attitudes.

Eventually, this approach would work to set Babylon 5 apart from Star Trek – and most previous space opera shows on television, to be honest. In a show like Star Trek: the Next Generation or Blake’s Seven or the original Battlestar Galactica, the alien life-exchanging technology in The Quality of Mercy would most likely just be a MacGuffin to drive the action for an episode, and only a minority of episodes in any particular season would be of any long-term consequence; in fact, the machine plays an important role in saving a major character’s life at the start of season 2, and again towards the end of season 4, and season 1 Babylon 5 has almost no episodes which stand absolutely alone.

But whilst you can see that there’s no filler after watching the show from beginning to end, you’ll probably feel differently when watching it for the first time. And as with the pilot episodes, there’s some aspects to Babylon 5 which just plain take some getting used to. Straczynski’s often-corny dialogue doesn’t really improve much over the pilot, and never really gets massively better over the course of the entire season. The same is true of the quality of the acting, which (like the script) is something you can kind of overlook in a pilot episode because everyone’s still working out their roles and things but once a proper season gets underway you expect a little more, which isn’t delivered. There’s points in the show where sometimes it feels as though Straczynski decided to save money on actual actors by just hiring a bunch of LARPers to read the lines, because the quality of the acting on display isn’t that much better than what you’d see at your local Camarilla meetup. This is especially apparent when actors have to act deep and mysterious and alien and wise, when – with the exception of Ardwright Chamberlain, who voices Kosh and gets to benefit from spacey effects on his voice – they almost invariably come across like a LARPer trying to make their character look deep and mysterious and alien and wise when they just kind of look like a prat.

There are a very limited number of exceptions to the otherwise mediocre quality of the acting. A small subset of the actors – Michael O’Hare, Andreas Katsulas, and Peter Jurasik – seem to take the view that even if they provide good acting, they’re going to be dragged down by all the bad acting surrounding them, so they decide to go for “so bad it’s good”; O’Hare as Sinclair takes the square jawed starship commander archetype and cranks it up to 11, which is great, but the kings of scene-stealing ham acting are Kutsulas and Jurasik, who make the snarling feud between G’Kar and Londo a saving grace of the series. This latter point is especially important since the age-old conflict between the Narn and Centauri civilisations is not just a major element of the series as a whole, but one of the driving plot threads of the first season – the first episode, Midnight On the Firing Line, being dominated by the diplomatic fallout from a Narn incursion into Centauri space, and the finale, Chrysalis, featuring the consequences of Londo’s deal with the devil he’s struck to halt the slow crumbling of his civilisation in the face of the upsurgent Narn. The impression the early episodes give, in which the Narn seem to be the aggressors and the Centauri the sad, declining defenders, gives way to a more complicated picture in which a long cycle of aggression from both sides is eventually manipulated by a third force for its own ends. We wouldn’t care about any of that if we didn’t care about G’Kar and Londo by the time shit hits the fan, and we care about them because they are so hilariously over the top.

Another axis of acceptable acting centres around Jerry Doyle (who appears to have been cast as Security Chief Garibaldi on the the basis that he kind of looks like Bruce Willis a little) and Richard Biggs, playing replacement head doctor Stephen Franklin, who opt for underacting as opposed to overacting and just play their characters as normal, ordinary people who often get kind of frustrated about all the ridiculous over the top mayhem they have to handle but not so much that they can’t have a sense of humour about it. This also supports the themes of the five-year arc quite well, because this basis for the crew’s interpersonal chemistry – and episodes like By Any Means Necessary – underline the point that the colonisation of space can’t just be carried out by big heroic figures; if it happens, it will happen because ordinary people, cops and soldiers and doctors and dockworkers, all pile in. This is a point which sadly gets lost in the later seasons, and there’s at least one episode in season five which completely turns it on its head, so it’s nice to have it intact early on. (For what it’s worth, Claudia Christian in her role as Lt. Commander Susan Ivanova, the new Number Two, manages to blend both hammy scenery-chewing and normality into her role, veering dizzily from one extreme to the other.)

By Any Means Necessary is, come to think of it, the episode where Straczynski’s position as a left-leaning, liberal (in the US politics sense of the world “liberal”) Clinton voting sort, writing in the mid-1990s when the Cold War was over and the Twin Towers were standing and we all thought maybe the different countries of the world might agree to get along (after malcontents like Serbia were slapped into playing nicely) – well, it’s not written by him, but it was produced under his watch and it seems to fit his own position in the early episodes pretty well. The Rush Act, the fictional law which allows EarthGov to empower Sinclair to end the dockworker’s strike “by any means necessary” if the Senate chooses to invoke it, is named after Rush Limbaugh, who was as noxious and shrill back in 1994 as he is now, and seeing how it’s portrayed as a nasty fascistic measure which is used to justify atrocities on the off-world colonies in a populist manner which would appeal to Earth voters I think you can see where the show is coming from. I suspect most people reading this will see the show’s stance, and the clever way in which Sinclair subverts the point of the Rush Act, to be a plus, but if you’re a Republican it’ll probably grate. And even if you agree with Straczynski when his ideas are filtered through someone else’s writing, at points his own writing can come across as preachy. Whilst this doesn’t happen so often this season it does occasionally occur – the bit at the end of The Parliament of Dreams in which Sinclair arranges a demonstration of Earth’s dominant belief system by arranging a parade of one representative from every single religion of Earth might be warm and fuzzy and tolerant, but let’s face it, it’s also a really weaksauce copout when he could have just held up a wad of cash and credibly called it Earth’s dominant belief system.

The CGI graphics in this season and the pilot look severely dated; later seasons would ditch the old Amigas for more powerful PC-based systems, and that’s probably a good thing since the epic space battles of later seasons would probably be beyond the capabilities of the CGI in season 1. However, watching this season after coming from the pilot will bring you face to face with some of the mastering problems that plague the entire DVD set, and have made the chances of a blu-ray release for the series remote. Whilst the pilot was shot in a 4:3 aspect ratio and is presented as such on the DVD, the series was produced when Laserdiscs were sidling onto the market and HDTVs and DVDs, whilst not commercially available yet, where foreseeably about to come onto the market. This prompted the producers to try out a method of filming the series such that it could be broadcast originally in a standard 4:3 aspect ratio, but that on widescreen home media formats (such as the DVDs) they could be released in a 16:9 aspect ratio and still look great. The method used seemed to make sense at the time and was quite forward-thinking, but in retrospect has caused major problems for the DVD release.

So, all the live action sequences were shot in a 16:9 aspect ratio, which was trimmed to 4:3 for broadcast, and – as far as purely live action shots go – they look gorgeous on the DVDs. Better than they did on the TV, in fact, because you get the entire widescreen shot rather than the trimmed version for television, so you can take in all the details. The purely CGI shots were rendered in 4:3, but in such a way that you could trim them to a 16:9 image and not wreck the image composition; this was alright in theory, but in practice taking CGI shots like that is inevitably going to reduce the picture quality, so the quality of the space scenes is very slightly less than it was in the original broadcasts. It’s apparently even worse on the PAL DVDs, which I was watching, because the conversion from NTSC introduced more degradation in quality. In theory, they could get around these issues by simply re-rendering the scenes in 16:9, but unfortunately the companies who did those CGI sequences have gone bust so all the original 3D models of the planets and ships and space stations and jumpgates and things have been lost. But that’s not so bad.

Where the picture quality goes completely to hell is in any scene which mixes live action footage and CGI. Whilst the purely live-action shots were stored in an HD-ready format, the shots combining CGI and live-action were stored in a standard definition 4:3 NTSC format, because they expected that they could just go back to the original companies with the original 3D models to redo the CGI bits for the HD release. They couldn’t, so any scene mixing live action and CGI has a 16:9 picture which is actually trimmed down from a 4:3 picture, and if you’re watching the region 2 DVDs is converted from NTSC to PAL. In non-technical terms, they look horrible, all grainy and low-definition. Even if you don’t understand aspect ratios and NTSC and all that, the drop in picture quality is very noticeable.

So there’s picture issues, corny dialogue and a political agenda which will irritate its opponents regularly and its supporters more often than it should, and uninspiring acting (except for the Ham Brigade and the Alliance of Normal People). What is there to actually like about the show? Well, the big thing that season 1 needed to do was draw the viewer into the Babylon 5 universe and make us interested in exploring it and learning about its destiny, and it by and large does the job. Episodes like Born to the Purple and Mind War tantalise us with little glimpses of Centauri politics, or the mysterious business of the Psi-Corps, giving us a look at the tip of a very large iceberg – and most importantly, you do get the impression that there is a whole iceberg under the surface to explore – and episodes like Signs and Portents and Babylon Squared establish enough of an aura of mystery about the overall plot arc to make you want to watch it to the end – as badly acted and heavy-handed as it might be. The first season also manages to be something which subsequent seasons, due to the increased prominence of the plot arc, don’t manage to be – a great collection of mostly (but not completely) self-contained episodes, many of which I’d say rank amongst the best the series had to offer.

If you weren’t sure about Babylon 5 after the pilot episode but were inclined to explore further, I’d suggest that the first season is the make or break point – if you’re not sold by the end of this season, nothing subsequent to it is going to prompt you to change your mind. Conversely, if you’re hooked by the end of this season, you’re probably going to want to keep going regardless of what I say in the rest of this review – at least until the end of season 4.

Best Episode: Probably Believers, in which Dr Franklin is faced with a medical ethics nightmare: he has a child patient, Shon (Jonathan Charles Kaplan), who has a life-threatening condition which could be corrected with a simple, safe and reliable surgical procedure. However, Shon’s parents Tharg (Stephen Lee) and M’Ola (Tricia O’Neil) absolutely will not allow it: for Shon, Tharg and M’Ola are of the Children of Time, a highly religious alien sect who believe that invasive surgery inevitably causes the soul to leave the body. Appalled that they would allow their child to die for the sake of such a belief, Franklin tries to convince Sinclair to intervene to give him permission to operate without the parents’ consent; ultimately, both Franklin and the parents are driven to drastic courses of action based on what they believe is best for Shon.

You can pretty much ignore the subplot in which Ivanova takes some of the station’s fighter pilots out on a pirate-hunting foray, which seems to have been slipped in to appease a desire to have some action each episode – though the brief shots of action in space do actually prevent the episode being a parade of heavy, emotional scene after heavy, emotional scene. What makes this episode great is the way that it takes a real-world issue, casts it in science fiction terms to allow us to get some distance from it (we all know about cases with Jehovah’s Witnesses refusing transfusions and the like, but the episode wants to make general points rather than go after the Witnesses specifically), and examines it from all sides. And, most of all, it pretty much refuses to take a side and declare whether Franklin, Sinclair, or the parents are right. Yes, by the end of the episode the parents have committed an extreme and regrettable act; but you can’t necessarily say that Franklin’s actions in operating without their consent were necessarily the right course of action either. It invites the reader to think about the issues at hand, but warns the viewer that there are no easy answers, and that one episode of one television series can’t really say who is and isn’t in the right on this one.

This is particularly good because it stands in stark contrast to some of Straczynski’s worst habits, indulged in the later seasons, of deciding that a particular position is definitely correct, and depicting those characters who disagree with it as not only being objectively wrong, but morally flawed in their incorrectness to boot. That’s probably because the episode wasn’t actually written by Straczynski itself, but was cooked up by David Gerrold – a veteran SF author and television writer who was also responsible for Star Trek‘s The Trouble With Tribbles. It’s more than possible that my love for season 1 Babylon 5 might be due to it being the season in which Straczynski wrote the least episodes – he wrote more in season 2, and the last 3 seasons were written by him alone, except for one episode in season 5 which was written by Neil Gaiman.

The part in which Tharg and M’Ola go to each of the ambassadors, imploring them to intervene to make Sinclair forbid Franklin to go ahead with the procedure, and in which each ambassador brushes them off is particularly good, especially since each ambassador has a good reason to stay out of it – Londo and G’Kar for pragmatic reasons, Delenn and Kosh for less tangible ones. It’s a nice way to both showcase different responses people might have to the situation, as well as reinforcing the characterisation of the four ambassadors – all of whom (with the exception of the ever-impassive Kosh) express a great deal of sympathy for the family, but none of whom can quite bring themselves to actually stick their head in this particular hornet’s nest.

I think it’s some of the cleverest writing in television.

Worst Episode: This is a tough one – whilst there are some episodes which just aren’t as good as the others in season 1, none of them are truly, unwatchably bad. I’d probably have to nominate Infection, simply because it’s so incredibly bland. Dr Franklin’s buddy, Dr Vance Hendricks (David McCallum of Man From UNCLE and Sapphire and Steel fame) arrives on the station with his henchman Nelson Drake (Marshall Teague) in tow. They have an alien biomechanical device with them – which actually they’ve illegally smuggled onboard, not that they’re telling Franklin. Franklin and Hendricks experiment with it, it possesses Drake and turns him into an alien supersoldier, Sinclair convinces the supersoldier not to blow up the station by showing it something its programming can’t deal with, the end. Like I said, not absolutely terrible, but not especially exciting either – especially since the Ikarra VII civilisation the artifact came from never plays any significant role in the series either.

The episode’s subplot revolves around an InterStellar News reporter’s repeated efforts to get an interview with Sinclair, which he eventually agrees to at the end of the episode. She asks him whether space is worth it; he says yes, because one day the Sun will go out and if humanity hasn’t spread into space by then the whole thing has been a waste of time. That’s true enough, but Straczynski (who wrote this episode) has him say it in such a toe-curlingly gushy and unashamedly preachy way that it makes you wish the Sun would explode just so that the episode will stop.

That monologue isn’t just cheesy – it’s also a pointer to an aspect of Straczynski’s writing which becomes more prominent over the course of the show: for a self-declared atheist, his outlook is in many ways awfully religious, and that’s reflected in the universe he’s created. Space is the promised land, and the salvation of mankind. The realm beyond the galactic rim is where the godlike ascended civilisations of the ancient past have retreated to, and where we will all go once we reach a certain state of enlightenment. For someone who doesn’t claim to be a Christian, Straczynski really loves his messiah figures. “Faith manages” is in many ways the motto of the show, and if you lack faith? Well, that’s a moral failing; you’ve got to have faith in something. There’s points – especially where he’s depicting the ascension of super-advanced minds into a non-corporeal state – where Straczynski reminds me of the sort of Transhumanist you can find by the dozen on the Internet, where the tropes and images and ideas of religion are swapped out for pseudoscientific ideas about the Singularity with no more solid basis in observable, empirical facts than the religious views atheist Transhumanists claim to discard.

In other words: get off my side, Straczynski.

Season Two: The Coming of Shadows

With the last season ending on a major cliffhanger – President Santiago of Earth being assassinated, and Garibaldi being gunned down by one of his own men who were in on the conspiracy – season 2 already had a difficult task ahead of it in maintaining the momentum established by the first season, making the major plot arcs more prominent and toning back the number of stand-alone episodes. What made this even more difficult was Michael O’Hare leaving the show after season 1 concluded, forcing Straczynski to find a new commander for the station. Fortunately, the writing team had planned exit strategies for all the major characters, so in the opening scenes of Points of Departure Ivanova, who has been serving as acting commander during Sinclair’s absence, learns that Sinclair has been reassigned to become Earth’s first ambassador to the Minbari homeworld – a development which sets Sinclair on the path to his own special destiny, which becomes apparent in the third season.

The new leader of Babylon 5 is Captain John Sheridan (Bruce “Tron” Boxleitner), a former starship captain infamous for being one of the only Earth officers to do any significant harm to the Minbari during the Earth-Minbari war. He also has his own agenda; his superior, General Hague, and other figures in the Earth military and government are concerned about the increasing authoritarian streak in EarthGov, and in particular suspect that President Clark (Gary McGurk), who was Santiago’s Vice-President, may have had just a little to do with Santiago’s assassination. Sheridan’s covert mission is to assess which members of the Babylon 5 command staff can be trusted to put the interests of humanity above President Clark’s directives (as it turns out, almost all of them), bring them into the loop, and work with them to find any clues he can which might prove that Clark was behind the assassination.

This is all good stuff, but for the first few episodes of this seasons there’s a problem: Sheridan is just kind of a wuss. Boxleitner’s acting and Straczynski’s scripts overplay Sheridan’s disorientation at being reassigned to Babylon 5 just a little too much – it goes beyond being slightly nervous and overwhelmed and straight into “you wouldn’t put this pushover guy in charge of a primary school, let alone a battlestation” sort of territory. Yes, he does get to show his grit a little in a face-off against Minbari war cruisers, but he comes across more like a yappy dog than the big rottweiler he needs to be to make the scene work. That said, after the first few episodes Boxleitner starts to grow into the role and Sheridan’s character starts to get interesting; this is highlighted in In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum, one of the best episodes in the season, in which Sheridan discovers that the mysterious Mr Morden knows something about the fate of his wife, thought lost with an archaeological expedition to an uncharted world. Sheridan’s grim determination to get the truth out of Morden, whatever it takes, makes for great drama – especially when he faces off against Garibaldi, who’s appalled at the measures Sheridan is willing to go to in order to get the truth. (It’s also one of the last episodes in which in a disagreement between Garibaldi and Sheridan, Garibaldi is shown to be right.)

By this point in the series, the one-off episodes are beginning to become the exception rather than the norm (and a lot of the time they aren’t completely standalone, at least having a subplot linked to the ongoing arc). Some of them tell powerful stories that don’t necessarily fit into the overall arc – I particularly like Confessions and Lamentations, in which Franklin investigates the mysterious decline and fall of the Markab civilisation. Others seem intended to provide a little lightheartedness in the midst of all the heavy plot developments – one of the funniest episodes in the series is Soul Mates, in which Londo’s three wives arrive from the Centauri homeworld to discover that the Emperor has permitted Londo to divorce two of them (predictably – but amusingly – he keeps the one who openly declares her disgust with him, rather than the two who are all sweetness and light and poisoned daggers behind their backs), and Delenn asks Ivanova to help her work out what to do with her hair.

Oh yeah, Delenn’s hair. Another change from the first season is in Delenn’s appearance; in order to facilitate an understanding between Earth and Minbar, Delenn enters a cocoon at the end of the first season, and when she emerges she is half-human. This is an interesting idea which is difficult for the writers to convey visually, since (aside from the Centauri) the Minbari are the most human-appearing of the alien species depicted in the show – especially following the redesign that happened after the pilot episode. So, there’s only two things about Delenn that really change: the bone ridge on her head becomes smaller, like a headband, and she grows a full head of hair, where previously (like all Minbari) she had been bald. This frankly, looks ridiculous, especially since to keep her bone-ridge visible the hair ends up going under it, so it’s like this ridiculous cartilage hairband. Since Delenn ultimately becomes Sheridan’s love interest, I am inclined to suspect someone somewhere decided that the audience wouldn’t be into a love affair in which the female participant is bald.

Aside from the visual shortcomings of Delenn’s transformation and Sheridan’s shaky start, however, season 2 sees Babylon 5 still firing on all cylinders. Big, serious things happen, and everyone on the station is affected, and Straczynski and his fellow writers don’t pull their punches. Probably the biggest shock comes in the way that Talia Winters (Andrea Thompson), Lyta Alexander’s replacement as station telepath, is written out of the series in Divided Loyalties, the very same episode that the ongoing flirtation between her and Ivanova seemed to be consummated. (Then again, that episode does at least see the return of Lyta Alexander, who kicks several orders of magnitude more ass than Talia anyway.) The brutality with which Talia is ripped screaming out of the fabric of the station is one of several incidents which underline just how high the stakes are: with the Centauri on the warpath, backed by the mysterious Shadows, with Earthforce’s paramilitary Nightwatch making its presence felt more and more on the station, and with every one of the station’s command staff potentially up for being executed for treason if their activities as part of General Hague’s conspiracy come to light, it’s made clear that things are getting serious and that from this point on, every episode counts.

Best Episode: Probably the season finale, The Fall of Night, in which a large number of strands come together. We see the orbital bombardment of the Narn homeworld, there’s an attempt on Sheridan’s life which prompts Kosh to reveal his true form, and the shit of a dozen star systems hits the galactic fan. I also like it for the way Straczynski skillfully turns a burden into an asset; in this season the network pushed the producers of the show to include a dashing Starfury pilot on the ship’s crew, so Straczynski introduces Warren Keffer (Robert Rusler), who’s precisely what the executives ordered. After witnessing a Shadow ship pass by in hyperspace, Keffer becomes intent on discovering more about these mysterious entities. He succeeds in this episode in obtaining footage of a Shadow vessel… and is immediately killed by the Shadow vessel in question, with only the video evidence being recovered. The adaptability shown in taking an unfortunate circumstance (the network forcing a new character into the show) and working it into the arc is pretty smart; I wish Straczynski could have brought it out in season 5.

Worst Episode: If anything, this one is even harder to pick – this was a hell of a season. But if I had to pull out one, it’s probably A Distant Star. It’s not that it’s bad, so much as it’s overshadowed by other episodes which have more to do with the overall arc – aside from Keller’s encounter with a Shadow vessel, there really isn’t very much in this episode which ever becomes relevant again (and that only happened because Straczynski was forced to insert Keller into the series in the first place). It’s a shame, because I thought Russ Tamblyn did a good job as Captain Jack Maynard, commanding officer of the EarthForce exploration vessel Cortez, and it would have been interesting to see him play a part in the Shadow War or the Earth Civil War – both conflicts in which a vessel such as the Cortez could have believably played a major role. Really, my complaint about this episode isn’t anything to do with its quality as such – it’s more to do with its wasted potential.

Season Three: Point of No Return

With Straczynski taking over writing duties completely, season 3 is the one in which the plot arc dominates – and in which, I think Straczynski’s own writing is at its best. Because the Shadows cease hiding and begin openly moving to conquer much of the galaxy in this season, Straczynski opts to make a few additions to the setting to facilitate more off-station action, both of which are introduced in the season opener, Matters of Honor.

First off, the station gets its very own White Star – a new class of hyperspace-capable craft based on a fusion of Vorlon and Minbari technology. When I originally watched Babylon 5 I was mildly concerned by this turn of events, since it seemed as though the addition of the White Stars would lead to the series evolving into a Star Trek knockoff, but thankfully the majority of episodes in this season remain firmly focused on the station. (After all, it does declare independence from Earth this season.) The White Star does add a new dynamic to the series, since it means that the characters can interact with events happening far from the station, but it isn’t permitted to become the focus of the series in the same way as the station is – its crew members are never developed to the same extent. And it does play a particularly awesome role in the season finale.

I was also a little put off by the other major addition in Matters of Honor, and unlike the White Star I never quite warmed to this one: Marcus Cole (Jason Carter), a member of the Rangers – a secret society of humans and Minbari led by Sinclair. Marcus is meant to be an ass-kicking mystical spy, but he’s just so incredibly wet. It doesn’t help that Jason Carter is one of those Babylon 5 cast members with a tendency to sound like they’re LARPers trying to be all serious and important who I was talking about earlier; that sort of thing you can overlook for a bit-part character, but not for a major addition to the cast. But what really gets on my nerves is his naive schoolboy outlook – hell, he even talks like his voice hasn’t quite broken yet. He gets into this really creepy unrequited love thing with Ivanova where he makes declarations of love to her in Minbari (which of course she doesn’t understand) and generally acts as though he’s got Nice Guy syndrome coming out the ears, combined with a complete failure to acknowledge when he’s aggravating her. No, Straczynski, it isn’t cute or endearing when he does that, it’s just irritating, in the same way as it’s irritating to include a hand-to-hand combat specialist in a setting with perfectly reliable and accurate laser blasters and in which the main characters haven’t really needed a badly-socialised guy with a staff fighting alongside them so far.

I don’t know; maybe Marcus is the Marmite of the series or something where you either love him or hate him. Personally, I can’t stand the guy. Every one of his lines is the most irritating thing he could have possibly said at that point in time. It’s uncanny how reliably he gets on my nerves. The only thing worse than Marcus is the way Marcus’s story ultimately ends in the far future, as written by Straczynski in a short story; it involves him waking up from a long time in cryogenic suspension to find that Ivanova is long dead, so he creates a clone of her, provides the clone with her memories up to a certain point in her lifetime, and then strands the clone and himself on an isolated planet with no hope of rescue and pretends it’s still the middle of the Earth Civil War and they’ve been shot down and stranded in deep space. Talk about creepy.

But aside from these new additions, season 3 progresses much as season 2 did, only this time both the Shadows’ conspiracies and the Babylon 5 command staff’s resistance to Earth cease being covert. The major events of the season include Babylon 5 declaring independence from Earth, Ambassador Kosh being assassinated by the Shadows after he convinces his fellow Vorlons to openly join Sheridan’s alliance against them, Sinclair returning in the two-parter War Without End to reveal his unique destiny and to take Babylon 4 on a one-way trip through time, and Sheridan’s own wife returning from the Shadow homeworld of Z’ha’dum to invite him to peace talks. This latter sets up the events of Z’ha’dum, the incredible season finale which sees Sheridan finally encounters his opposite number amongst the Shadows – who turns out not to be Morden, the negotiator, but the mysterious Justin (Jeff Corey). Although Justin only appears in this episode, wasn’t mentioned before, and isn’t mentioned again, I really like his meeting with Sheridan, partially for the implication that just as the Vorlons have been working to build up Sheridan is this big shining figurehead, the Shadows have been helping Justin establish himself as the ultimate manipulator behind the scenes, sending emissaries like Morden, Sheridan’s wife and others out to do his dirty work, helping to hook the Shadows up with just the right people in EarthGov, and so on. The way he explains the Shadow agenda to Sheridan with complete sincerity but without any malice or anger is compelling, and I do like the idea of the master manipulator behind everything being a nice tea-drinking old man shuffling about in a cardigan.

What makes this season work is how Straczynski makes sure that the grand sweeping events spanning the galaxy have a direct impact on people onboard Babylon 5 itself – characters we’ve already been introduced to and care about – and the interactions of those characters play out those historical events in miniature. The Londo-G’Kar double act reaches its peak in this season, with their rivalry playing out in a series of fantastic episodes – including Convictions, in which a random act of terrorism causes both Londo and G’Kar to be trapped together in an elevator with poor odds of rescue. Under the terms of the Centauri occupation of the Narn homeworld, G’Kar can’t kill Londo because that would cause widespread punishment killings back home – but he can take pleasure in sitting back and watching him die. Both Jurasik and Katsulas take the opportunity to chew the scenery with gusto, but I think Katsulas ends up ahead – you can’t help but smile with him as he expresses his glee at Londo’s impending end, or feel for him when he wails with despair at his vengeance being snatched from him as the rescue teams make their way into the elevator. The rivalry also helps set up the action of And the Rock Cried Out, No Hiding Place, a memorable episode in which Londo is able to use his well-known feud with G’Kar a key part of his plans against his political rival, Lord Refa (William Forward).

Straczynski also manages to work in an interesting subplot in which Dr Franklin realises he’s become addicted to the stimulants he’s been taking to work long shifts in medlab, and so goes on a long walkabout across the lesser-seen parts of the station in order to find himself. As well as providing a springboard for some Franklin-centric episodes (which are usually pretty good), it’s a nice way to remind the viewer that despite the cosmic events unfolding life does go on in the scuzzier areas of the ship – as Franklin witnesses. Due to the action of season 4 being contracted in order to complete 2 seasons of the planned arc in one, there wasn’t space for such an ongoing off-arc plot, and I think that season was poorer for it. Of course, season 5 consisted entirely of off-arc plot, and sucked for it, but I’m getting ahead of myself there…

Best Episode: Although this season is packed with great moments, overall if I had to pick out one episode to rewatch in isolation it would be Passing Through Gethsemene, mainly because as well as being a welcome break from the major arc it also manages to tell a really good SF story in its own right, giving Straczynski a chance to really explore the implications of one of the imagined technologies of the setting. Borrowing an idea from Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man, the setting of Babylon 5 doesn’t have the death penalty so much as it has the death of personality; those who have committed especially dire acts, or who are found to be dangerously and incurably insane, are subjected to a complete mind-wipe, so that their old deviant personality can be erased and a more socially acceptable one can take its place.

Often the new personality has no idea about its criminal past; this is the case with Brother Edward (Brad Dourif), a peaceful monk who is part of a small Cistercian Order community on Babylon 5, led by Brother Theo (Louis Turenne). However, a series of bizarre events brings Edward face to face with reminders of his past as a notorious serial killer; the accompanying spiritual crisis soon becomes a dire threat to Edward’s life, as vigilante relatives of his past victims close in on him.

As I said before, for an atheist Straczynski often has an extremely religious way of looking at the world, and in this case it’s helped him, because it enables him to create this SF-themed meditation on guilt, forgiveness, criminality, the death penalty, and whether a person can ever change to the point where you can set aside their past deeds. The Christian trappings he chooses to dress the plot in are carefully chosen; whilst not subtle, they do manage to add flavour to the story whilst at the same time showing respect to the religious basis of the ideas in question. Brad Dourif is, of course, an asset in anything he appears in, and his performance as the genuinely good man forced to face up to a terrible past is heartbreaking to watch.

Also Lyta Alexander makes her return in this episode, which I approve of.

Worst Episode: The titular mystery in Grey 17 is Missing is just plain stupid – I don’t buy for a second that the station command staff in general could have forgotten about the existence of an entire level of the station, especially not someone as paranoid as Garibaldi. And if it was really intended to be an abandoned level, why keep the life support turned on in there? No, the whole plot surrounding the missing level is just a big heap of filler, and not particularly interesting filler either.

On the plus side, Marcus gets the shit beaten out of him in this episode, which warms the icicles of my heart. On the downside, him getting beaten up is treated as this big and awesome and inspirational and heroic thing. There is nothing inspirational about Marcus. Unless you want to inspire someone to hit him, I guess.

Season Four: No Surrender, No Retreat

Straczynski and crew produced this season under the impression that the show was almost certainly going to be cancelled at the end of it, so they decided to wrap up the major arc and cover the outcome of the Shadow War and the Earth Civil War in a single season, as opposed to concluding the Shadow War this season and having the war against President Clark unfold during season 5. There are advantages and disadvantages to this. On the plus side, both plot arcs unfold at a breakneck pace, which both helps avoid prompting the viewer to overthink some of their less convincing elements and keeps things edge-of-your-seat exciting. Sheridan comes back from the dead! Ancient aliens from the dawn of time intervene! The Vorlons go apeshit and start annihilating any planet with a whiff of Shadow influence! Londo and G’Kar are forced to team up to take down the insane Centauri Emperor Cartagia (Wortham Krimmer)! Plots within plots are exposed! Earth stands on the brink of destruction as President Clark sets a scorched earth plan into operation!

Heaps of fun all round, to be sure, but the contracted space which Straczynski has to tell these stories in also means that he can’t really have that many non-arc related subplots going on, so the season isn’t quite as rich and detailed as season 3 was. What’s more, the major arc plots also have to undergo a certain simplification in order to get them wrapped up; the resolution of the Earth Civil War is just a little too neat and easy, and during the first half of the season in which the Shadow War is raging EarthForce’s fascistic elements seem to have completely forgotten that Babylon 5 exists. I mean, if you were President Clark and you observed that Sheridan seemed to be sending most of his forces off on an apparently doomed attempt to face down both the Shadows and the Vorlons simultaneously, wouldn’t you at least consider trying to snatch back the station? I suspect that if the arc hadn’t been contracted at this point, you’d have had several self-contained episodes in season 4 revolving around the command staff neutralising Earth’s latest attempt to retake the station, just to remind the viewer that shit is fucked up back on Earth right now; there’s parts in the early parts of this season where you would be forgiven for forgetting that anything bad has happened between Babylon 5 and Earth at all.

More troubling for me, though, is the way Straczynski is such a sucker for messiah figures in this season – and the way that he completely stops trying to actually engage with anyone who might disagree with the way his elected messiahs do things. Basically, from this point on in the show Sheridan, Delenn and G’Kar are right – objectively, demonstrably right and correct about all things. Anyone who disagrees with them in any respect had better get down on their knees and beg Straczynski, the harsh and unforgiving god, for mercy in the punishment he doles out to those who bicker with his chosen prophets. If they are lucky, he will only humiliate them. More likely, he will completely demonise them.

Let’s take someone who’s humiliated first. When Sheridan returns from Z’ha’dum with a messianic glow about him, Garibaldi is all “this is fucked up” and “Sheridan’s changed” and “there’s something really creepy and culty about this whole thing”. These are actually all completely fair and legitimate statements. Perhaps at the end of the third season, when Justin was explaining how Sheridan had been erected by the Vorlons as a figurehead, we could have questioned whether figureheads like Sheridan are actually a healthy thing to follow at all; however, in season 4 that is not allowed. Great Men like Sheridan will free us from the bonds of fascism and injustice, not the common man! Consequently, Garibaldi’s concerns, his subsequent resignation, and the way he is drawn into a nebulous conspiracy against both Sheridan and the Psi-Corps all prove to be the result of implanted subconscious commands forced upon him by his Psi-Corps nemesis Bester (Walter Koenig), who cackles as he exposes his scheme and pulls from him the information he requires to both shut down the conspiracy. So, because Garibaldi wasn’t in his right mind when he expressed those doubts, Straczynski is spared having to actually address the matter of whether they had any legitimacy.

Here’s another one: there’s an episode in this season entitled The Illusion of Truth, which harks back to the season 2 episode And Now For a Word. The earlier episode was presented as a documentary by the Earth-based InterStellar News (ISN) on Babylon 5, and presented an interpretation of the station which was clearly oversimplified and in some respects flawed, like any journalism, but in general was pretty even-handed: it had some criticisms to make of the station, but it signed off with the point that had only been operation for a few years, and needed to be given time to meet its full potential.

The Illusion of Truth borrows this format to show how the Earth media has become utterly distorted under President Clark. In the first half of the episode, we see an ISN team come aboard the newly independent station to do a feature on it; Sheridan reluctantly (and naively) gives permission, after being assured that ISN will slip out as much of the truth as it possibly can under Clark’s restrictions. We see them go about their business, stick their noses into things, and occasionally come up with some legitimate criticisms – like what, exactly, is Sheridan doing for the Lurkers? (The Lurkers are the residents of Down Below – poor people who came to the station seeking a new life but, finding no employment and being unable to afford a trip home, end up living in the scuzziest part of the station.)

In the second half of the episode, of course, we get to see the ISN piece in all its grotesque glory – an incredible, audacious hatchet job, distorting every single fact that they reporters encountered in order to support an utterly fantastical and untrue conspiracy theory about Sheridan’s true motives. In that respect, at least, it’s a great episode; the resemblance between this transparent propaganda and actual TV journalism is occasionally deeply disturbing, and the conclusion in which the conspiracy theory is spelled out is so incredibly audacious it’s breathtaking. The final shot of the show, depicting the stunned leaders of Babylon 5 drifting away one by one in silence as Sheridan, speechless with fury, turns the television off is a great one.

But actually, isn’t Straczynski behaving a bit like a propagandist himself? In depicting the ISN reporters as utter distorters of the truth, he pretty much absolves himself of any need to address the legitimate points they occasionally make at the start of the episode. The matter of Down Below and the Lurkers is a constant over the entire series, and Sheridan never makes any concerted effort to actually do anything positive for them. In fact, the only member of the command staff who proactively tries to do anything to help is Dr Franklin, who is shown running a free clinic for them in his spare time in the season 1 episode The Quality of Mercy. Actually, to be fair Ivanova does start helping Franklin out in the clinic once she discovers he’s doing it, but just for that episode – for the rest of the series, she and the rest of the command staff tend to dismiss Down Below as a wretched hive of scum and villainy, and the Lurkers as a bunch of criminals and ne’er-do-wells. The abject failure of Sheridan and company to actually do anything positive for the Lurkers seems incredible, since Straczynski himself seems to make it completely clear that many of them end up in Down Below through genuine misfortune. But I suppose helping out the poor and resolving a major social injustice on the station – why can’t these people find good work onboard? – just isn’t important enough for Sheridan, Pharoah and living god.

Oh, and how about Sheridan’s blatant war crimes? Yes, I went there: war crimes. In season 3, the team discover that the Shadows have been abducting human telepaths, scrambling their brains, and using them to power their ships. Those who have been subjected to this treatment are in deep comas; if they awaken, the Shadow mind control prompts them to attempt to interface with anything computerised or mechanical nearby, which inevitably causes severe problems. So, what does Sheridan do? In the final battle against President Clark’s space forces he has a large number of these coma patients smuggled aboard enemy vessels, and then awakened by a telepathic signal from Lyta Alexander. This prompts them to try and interface with Clark’s battleships, causing chaos. Although it isn’t explicitly said that they all die, I think it’s pretty clear that this is a suicide mission for most of them – the only rational response for the naval personnel on those ships to a mad telepath wrecking their computer systems is to waste the saboteur, after all.

So, essentially, Sheridan uses coma patients as suicide bombers. That is a beautiful and glittering galaxy of not OK.

What is even less OK about it is the fact that all the “good guys” pretty much excuse this behaviour – in fact, most of them were in on the plan. Yes, some of those on the side of right and justice think it’s a bit extreme, but they calm down once it is explained to them how necessary it was. The only person who comes up with a serious and sustained objection to this and doesn’t let the command staff’s brush-offs overcome their objections is Bester, for crying out loud, and he’s mollified as soon as he’s reassured that his wife wasn’t one of the suicide bombers.

Even Dr Franklin, who thanks to episodes like Believers and his other actions (such as his participation in an underground railroad smuggling telepaths away from the Psi-Corps’ sphere of influence in the excellent season 2 episode A Race Through Dark Places) is one of the most compelling and credible moral voices on the show, pretty much excuses this as something that happened to be done. In fact, one of the things which makes me really angry about this particular plot development is that Franklin is absolutely and 100% complicit in this plan, which considering that in every other moral dilemma before him he holds that the lives of his patients are paramount is absolutely sickening.

It’s just plain grotesque, and it frankly worries me that Straczynski honestly doesn’t seem to see anything wrong with this.

If you can get past Straczynski’s absolute moral conviction that everything Sheridan and Delenn and G’Kar do is roses and bunny kisses, season 4 is a fairly good conclusion to the plot arc. Yes, things are tied off a little too neatly, but there’s plenty of excitement and – when Straczynski isn’t engaging in wide-eyed worship of his own invented messiah – some really great episodes. It’s not quite worthy of what’s gone before it, but it’s not a complete fucking embarrassment. If you want to, you can stop watching here; not only does season 5 suck with the force of a thousand black holes, but the final episode of season 4, The Deconstruction of Falling Stars is a great ending to the show. It’s actually a better ending than Sleeping In Light, the series closer which was filmed during season 4 but moved to the end of the 5th season once it was confirmed that there was in fact going to be a 5th season. Whilst Sleeping In Light is basically a 45 minute blowjob for Sheridan, in which all the major characters line up to take his messianic member in their unworthy mouths one last time before he shuffles off the mortal coil, The Deconstruction of Falling Stars is an epic sketch of the future of humanity from the end of season 4 to the destruction of Earth and humanity’s ascension to an enlightened state of being a million years in the future, stopping off along the way to pay loving tribute to A Canticle for Leibowitz. Honestly, please do consider stopping here. It only gets worse from here on in.

Best Episode: Far and away the best episode is Intersections In Real Time, which would have been the season finale if the arc hadn’t been contracted. It consists entirely of Sheridan being interrogated at length by an EarthForce interrogator, the bureaucratic and officious William (Raye Berk).

The show had seen a couple of interrogation-themed episodes before – Sinclair was given the Prisoner treatment in And the Sky Full of Stars back in season 1 (which was going to guest star Patrick McGoohan as one of the interrogators, but that fell through), and Sheridan and Delenn were interrogated by a Vorlon-controlled Jack the Ripper in the season 2 episode Comes the Inquisitor. What makes Intersections In Real Time special is two things. Firstly, it’s a lot more realistic than either previous episode; a remote-controlled pain collar is about the only invention Straczynski allows himself. What we have here is a dark room, a prisoner, and an interrogator using all the tried and tested methods developed by various charming state security organisations over time. William doesn’t resort to physical torture so much as he tries to psychologically break Sheridan, using any means necessary, though he isn’t afraid to cause him severe physical discomfort if that will help. With only minor changes, Sheridan and William could be a French Resistance operative and a Gestapo agent, or a purged Communist Party member and a NKVD man trying to convince him to confess to a wholly fictional conspiracy against Comrade Stalin, or a Guantanamo Bay detainee and a CIA goon demanding to know where Bin Laden is.

The second thing which is so special about this episode is the intensity of it. There’s no subplot to distract from the interrogation; aside from Sheridan and William, there are almost no other participants. The fraught nature of the interrogation and the absolute focus on these proceedings to the exclusion of everything else creates one of the most intense televisual experiences I’ve ever encountered; the only thing I can think of that compares is Once Upon a Time, the penultimate episode of The Prisoner in which, likewise, Patrick McGoohan and Leo McKern had the entire episode almost completely to themselves.

It doesn’t hurt, either, that we see Sheridan beaten down and humiliated in this episode, which takes the edge off the messianic tendencies he develops this season; similarly, he isn’t actively committing any war crimes at the moment, which makes it completely possible to sympathise with him. An unequivocal thumbs-up to Mr Straczynski for this one.

Worst Episode: Probably Endgame. Yes, it’s the one with the liberation of Earth and all. But it’s also the one with the war crimes. War crimes, guys, war crimes. Oh, and Marcus dies of Nice Guy Syndrome. I’m glad he dies. But not glad he dies of Nice Guy Syndrome.

Season Five: The Wheel of Fire

Yeah, so about that five-year plan: by this point, it was completely fucked. Having expended the final plot points of the major arcs in season 4, Straczynski was left with a fifth season in which he and his characters literally had nothing to do. The upshot of this is that Straczynski ends up flailing around trying to look busy, and the characters end up doing the same. Sheridan’s got a new job as the head of the Interstellar Alliance (think a waaaaay more interventionist and liberal-dominated UN), but the Alliance doesn’t really have any major galactic threats to tackle; Straczynski has the Centauri start shit under the influence of shadowy dark forces yet again for the sake of giving the Alliance something to do. Elizabeth Lochley (Tracy Scoggins) comes onboard as the new commander of the station, replacing Ivanova who has had to take early retirement due to lack of actress, but Straczynski can’t think of anything to do with her – even though there was scope for some fun to be had with the fact she fought for President Clark in the Earth Civil War. (I might wonder why she isn’t being prosecuted for war crimes… but it’s probably for the same reason Sheridan isn’t being prosecuted for war crimes.)

Oh! There’s a telepath community who set themselves up in Down Below and want to be free from the Psi-Corps! That could be interes… oh, they’ve gone and Waco’d themselves. And their leader Byron (Robin Atkin Downes) is this unlikeable floppy-haired cult leader who lacks the charisma to be a cult leader – he’s more Sooty than Charles Manson. And he’s got an irritating habit of saying “telepaaaaath”, with a long a, when every other actor in the show says it with a short a. What, Downes, you think you’re fucking special or something because you are playing up an English accent? Half the characters on this show are playing up an English accent, don’t fucking get ideas. I mean, I know you think you’re doing something important what with your group’s tragic end foreshadowing the Telepath War, but I’d much rather see the actual Telepath War bring some closure to Bester and Lyta’s plots than you swanning about being pouty.

Likewise, Londo, G’Kar: I love both of you guys, but I thought you’d made up and become firm friends by the end of season 4? Why the cooling off? Oh, it’s to set up The Very Long Night of Londo Mollari, one of the shittiest things Straczynski has ever written in which a whole lot of dead horses are beaten onscreen. And, yes, I like you going along to Centauri Prime to set up Londo becoming Emperor and foreshadow the Drakh War, but… you didn’t actually get around to showing us the Drakh War, did you? We were all looking forward to the two of you strangling each other to death, as has been regularly foreshadowed since the beginning of the show, the least you can do is off each other onscreen before the final credits roll.

As you’ve probably gathered, one of the things which really annoys me about this season is how much screen time is devoted to setting up conflicts which look like they could be really interesting, but simply never kick off during the season. Londo discovers that the Drakh, servants of the Shadows who have inherited their old technologies and conspiratorial ends, have infiltrated Centauri Prime, and the Drakh pretty much force him to accept a parasite which will control him so that he can be their puppet-Emperor; under their direction, he gives Sheridan and Delenn a gift to give their son when he comes of age, and he quarantines Centauri Prime until the day when the Drakh emerge to have their vengeance against the rest of the galaxy. All cool, but the chaos of the Drakh war happens after the end of the season, in fucking spin-off novels. Garibaldi and Lyta establish a conspiracy to overthrow the Psi-Corps, enabling Lyta to free her people and Garibaldi to finally get revenge on Bester – all cool, but all that happens after the end of the season, in FUCKING SPIN-OFF NOVELS. There is absolutely no earthly reason for all this to be set-up on screen for an audience of whom only a minority are likely to read spin-off novels anyway, especially since the sequel series, Crusade was set after the Drakh War and the Telepath War anyway.

I’m going to get counterfactual here and suggest something which Straczynski could have done to save this. He had the end of season 4, where Sheridan becomes head of the space UN. He had Sleeping In Light in the can, in which Sheridan dies some twenty years after being resurrected on Z’ha’dum. What Straczynski could have done to make this season interesting would be to abandon the 1-year-per-season structure, in which each season played out a year in the life of Babylon 5. Instead, season 5 could have spanned the entire 20 years between the end of season 4 and Sleeping In Light; a clump of episodes at the start to depict Babylon 5’s role in the birth of the Interstellar Alliance, a clump a bit later to depict the Telepath War, a clump later on to show the Drakh War, the purging of Centauri Prime and the ultimate fate of G’Kar and Londo, and then Sleeping In Light to top the whole thing off. Then the season wouldn’t be in the position of establishing background material which only comes to a head in spin-off novels, Bester, Lyta, Garibaldi, G’Kar and Londo could actually get some closure on-screen, and all the useless filler could be excised. The lack of any real closure for all five of those characters’ stories severely hurts season 5 – in particular, the lack of an episode in which Bester finally gets taken down, which has been coming since he first showed up in season 1, is a glaring omission, but Bester’s downfall – let’s say it once more for emphasis – only happens in a FUCKING SPIN-OFF NOVEL.

Yes, it would be ambitious, but Babylon 5 was a show that positively thrived on ambition. You could say that season 5 failed precisely because Straczynski lost sight of that ambition. You could also say that season 5 failed because his writing turned to shit; there are a lot of episodes this time around which are just bad, not least because in the second half of the season it feels as though half the scenes involve characters standing around going “so, you’re leaving the station?” and replying “yeah, I hear you’re doing the same” and then the first character says “yes, I will miss this place, and I will miss you”, and the other character goes “yes, you too”, and shut the fucking fuck up and actually do something you self-congratulatory fucks.

But there are also some woefully bad character arcs this time around. Lennier (Bill Mumy), Delenn’s secretary, suffers a terminal case of Nice Guy Syndrome and does something mean to Sheridan solely so that the penultimate episode (the aptly named Objects at Rest) can have something interesting happening in it and so that Straczynski can give us a filler episode – Meditations on the Abyss – which proves that plots which aren’t centred around Babylon 5 really are less interesting. Even worse is the alcoholism plot surrounding Garibaldi.

Garibaldi being an alcoholic is something which was established in earlier seasons, but was handled reasonably sensitively, and likewise Dr Franklin’s addition to stimulants was actually quite nicely observed. The season five alcoholism plotline is this incredibly lazy rendition of every single lazy alcoholism plotline shat out by third-rate TV writers since the 1950s. Garibaldi has a stressful day. He is depicted opening a bottle and pouring himself a generous glass of something. DRAMATIC MUSIC. Garibaldi fails to turn up to dinner one evening; cut to him lying on the floor of his room with an empty bottle next to him doing the first year acting school rendition of being drunk (complete with singing “Show Me the Way to Go Home”, for crying out loud). DRAMATIC MUSIC!!! Garibaldi’s bride-to-be arrives on Babylon 5 and finds a half-empty bottle of spirits at the back of one of the kitchen cupboards. DRAMAAAAAAAAAA! It’s like J. Michael Straczynski panicked when he realised that he didn’t have enough material for a 5th season and started stealing rejected scripts from a third-rate soap opera writer’s bin.

Another one of Straczynski’s sins is his utter waste of talent: Neil Gaiman pops by to write an episode this season, and his Day of the Dead has an absolutely fascinating premise – a particular alien culture “buys” a segment of Babylon 5 for the day in order to perform their Day of the Dead rituals – which mystically cuts off that area of Babylon 5 from the rest of the station, since on a spiritual level it’s back at this alien race’s homeworld, and the people stuck therein encounter the spirits of dead people from their past. There’s a lot you could do with that, and Gaiman does so – he manages to make Lochley an interesting character briefly, he lets Garibaldi have a bit of fun for once, he confronts Lennier with the spirit of Morden to point out that the way Lennier’s thoughts are taking him aren’t actually healthy or good. But even this island of comparative interestingness is hampered – in this case, by a guest appearance by Penn and Teller as asinine Earth comedians Rebo and Zooty. The idea of Rebo and Zooty as being these utterly shit and incomprehensibly popular Earth comedians was perhaps one better kept offscreen, because whilst it’s fun to laugh at a character’s affection for really shit comedy, it’s not actually fun to watch really shit comedy yourself. And seriously, you’ve got Penn and Teller there, why not have them do something that’s actually funny?

There is pretty much no reason to watch season 5 unless you’re a completist. It adds absolutely nothing of worth to the series. About the only good thing you can say about it is that Marcus isn’t around.

Best Episode: Probably The Wheel of Fire, in which Garibaldi and Lyta hatch their conspiracy against the Psi-Corps. But that’s mainly for the glimmerings of potential that the plotline has rather than anything else. Actually – especially once she is disentangled from Byron’s cult – Lyta is probably the best thing about season 5. Her anger at Sheridan for his complete failure to find anything for her to do mirrors my anger at Straczynski for failing to find a use for any of the characters this season nicely. And the bit at the start of one episode where Garibaldi wakes up to find her burrowing her way into his mind and she makes him forget it is pretty much the scariest thing that ever happens in the series. I have big cartoon hearts for Lyta; it’s a bit of a shame that Straczynski turns her into a cartoon fanatic by the end of this season. But at least she’s doing something interesting.

Worst Episode: Without a doubt, A View From the Gallery, in which an alien invasion of Babylon 5 is experienced not from the point of view of the command staff, but by blue collar maintenance mechanics Mack (Raymond O’Connor) and Bo (Lawrence LeJohn), who offer their own commentary on the main characters of Babylon 5 as they observe them going about their business. This was apparently a story idea suggested by Harlan Ellison, who’s credited across the entire series as a “conceptual consultant”, and it really isn’t a bad concept. In Straczynski’s hands, it becomes a nightmare.

Where he could have used this new point of view to present the criticisms and opinions average workers might have of Sheridan, the Interstellar Alliance, Lochley and the rest, in this case Mack and Bo engage in unadulterated, unending hero-worship. By the end of the episode they’ve met most of the main characters and think they are all totally awesome people. I genuinely think that Straczynski would have depicted them licking the ground that Sheridan and Delenn walk on if he thought he could get away with it. It’s the most appalling and disgusting example of Straczynski’s hero-worship bordering on actual full on religious worship that the series offers.

The contrast to the political views espoused in By Any Means Necessary back in season 1 are profound. Whereas that episode – penned by Kathryn Drennan, admittedly, but still produced under Straczynski’s watch – shows the working class as a necessary component of space exploration and decries those who would crush them underfoot in the name of keeping the starports open, this episode casts them as mere insects who would be honoured to have even the slightest interaction with their betters. Contrary to what he may believe about himself, Straczynski’s writing in latter-day Babylon 5 reveal his politics to be odious in the extreme. What’s most disturbing is not the way he depicts these workers grovelling at the feet of their betters, but the way Straczynski kids himself into thinking he’s on their side.

Seriously, don’t watch the fifth season. It will actually make you forget why you liked the show in the first place.

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