James Helsby

LRE #32: Babylon 5 Season 1

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Little Red Envelope

In my mailbox this week:
Babylon 5 Season 1

Release Year: 1994

Staring: Bruce Boxleitner, Michael O’Hare, Jerry Doyle, Mira Furlan

I can’t believe it’s been basically 17 years since Babylon 5 came out, and I am just now getting to a review of the first season!

Let’s dispense with the hate first. There are several schools of Science Fiction from the 90’s. You see, we were an in-between generation. There wasn’t too much awesomeness on TV, and even less on broadcast television. I for one, was raised in a household that didn’t have cable. So we only had access to around 8 channels. Before you start hating on a show, remember how limited of a selection it was at the time.

So, basically, there was Star Trek TNG, Star Trek DS9, SeaQuest DSV, Quantum Leap, and Babylon 5. Sure there were a few others scattered into the mix, but for the most part they were outside my normal viewing range, or on a channel I just didn’t get. When Star Trek TNG went off the air, it left a vacuum behind. DS9 did an admiral job filling the void, but lacked some elements of drama for me. For some reason, I just didn’t like the fact that everyone in the series was human-ish, and that the station didn’t move.

Babylon 5 didn’t really change too much of that, and in many peoples thoughts, it was a knock-off of DS9. But to me, it was always vastly different. Babylon 5 had something that DS9 always lacked; action. Babylon 5 played out more like a 4 season long battle sequence, with the station being the focal point of the galaxy, rather than DS9s planet-protector/worm-hole-protector persona.

Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed DS9. And when the broadcast tower in Utah shifted ever so slightly to the wrong direction, I was never able to watch Babylon 5 again. But luckily by that point I was 3 seasons in. And over the course of the next few months, should hopefully be able to revisit each of those seasons.

But for now, lets focus on season 1.

The universe is established perfectly in the opening title monologue:

It was the dawn of the third ago 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 tuns 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 years is 2258. The name of the place is Babylon 5.

Right from the get go, we understand much about the station; its purpose, its size, the year. What you don’t understand is that Babylon stations 1, 2, 3, and 4 all constructed first. Babylon 1, was destroyed by sabotage. Babylon 2, was destroyed by sabotage. Babylon 3, was destroyed by sabotage. Babylon 4, disappeared 24 hours after becoming operational.

Quite a pedigree. And a rather ominous history. But Babylon 5 endured. Under the leadership of the Earth Alliance Commander Jeffery Sinclair (Michael O’Hare), the final Babylon station became an extremely important hub for commerce. It was also essentially the only place in the galaxy where the major ambassadors for the galaxies space-fairing races could be found.

Humanity, represented by Commander Sinclair
Narn Regime, represented by Ambassador G’Kar (Andreas Katsulas)
Centauri Republic, represented by Ambassador Lando Mollari (Peter Jurasik)
Minbari, represented by Ambassador Delenn (Mira Fulan)
Vorlon, represented by Ambassador Kosh.

Each race brings its own trails and tribulations to the mix. Each with their own political motivation. Each seeks their own goals from the station, and more often than not those goals are in direct conflict with one another. But that is what works so well for this series. Whether it be that it is well acted, wonderfully written, or beautifully animated (several awards, and very much state of the art CGI for the mid 90’s) Babylon 5 is more fun to watch than many other shows of its ilk.

Many consider season1 the worst of the bunch, and I can somewhat understand why. Season 1 is more about establishing the universe, rather than advancing any kind of plot. The original 2 hour long pilot episode premiered back in 1993 as a TBS special: Babylon 5: The Gathering. Many of the actors change between the pilot and the regular episodes, but it still has the right feel. You almost feel like a short amount of time has passed between the pilot and episode 2. In the show, it’s roughly a year. Basically the same amount of time between when the pilot episode originally aired, and the start of the first season run.

I mentioned earlier about the special effects, and how for the time they were very good. The show was originally filmed in 16:9, and cropped to 4:3, much ahead of it’s time and the introduction of HDTV and the now standard format. The CGI cinematics themselves were shot in 4:3 with the intention of cropping to 16:9 by leaving mainly empty space in the margins. The CGI was performed on Amiga Video Toasters, and later switched to Intel and DEC alpha machines. All very advanced for its time.

The universe feels very real; travel between the stars by standard means is all but impossible. Hyperspace was introduced to humans by the Centauri in the 22nd century. Hyperspace allowed for travel between the stars, as sort of a cross between faster-than-light, and dimension jumping. The space of hyperspace was an in between area, where travel between distant points could be accomplished.

With this primer out of the way, I can start really talking about the show. Season one is a little slow in comparison with the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th seasons; but it is no less important. Just as how the story of Frodo leaving the Shire might be boring, it is still the beginning of the story. The first season of Babylon 5 starts the slow story arc that stretches across the next 3 seasons (1-4). We start to learn about the universe, and that there are things much older out there than we really want to know. Aliens who are terrifyingly powerful, but who remain to themselves.

And while we (humanity, minbari, centauri, and narn. aka ‘The Younger Races’) quibble about politics, economics, and invention, something dark and sinister is brewing in the galaxy. The Minbari know it, and the Vorlon have long anticipated it. And we are only getting a peak at what it to come during season 2.

Babylon 5 is a perfect flashback to mild SciFi drama on the 90s. It isn’t Battlestar Galactica (new version) but it also isn’t Battlestar Galactica (old version). It’s just a great mid-life TV series, that I strongly recommend.

How painful was it:  Maybe not as good as TNG, but better than DS9

Rating: 6/10. This season isn’t great, but you have to watch it to build the story for the rest of the seasons.

The Wife’s Retort: She won’t watch it with me ;-(

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