It was the dawn of the third age of mankind – ten years after the Earth-Minbari War. The Babylon Project was a dream given form. Its goal: to prevent another war by creating a place where humans and aliens can work out their differences peacefully. It’s a port of call – home away from home – for diplomats, hustlers, entrepreneurs, and wanderers. Humans and aliens, wrapped in two million five hundred thousand tons of spinning metal, all alone in the night. It can be a dangerous place, but it’s our last best hope for peace.
This is the story of the last of the Babylon stations. The year is 2258. The name of the place is Babylon 5.
The Babylon Diaries: Season 1 – Introduction
War on TV has been done to death: M*A*S*H, The Unit, Call to Glory, Combat!, Major Dad. From John Wayne to Hogan’s Heroes, I really think we have now seen war portrayed from every conceivable angle. Peace, or at least concepts of peace, can be far more interesting.
Season One of Michael J Straczynski’s Babylon 5 is all about peace, and what it takes to make peace work. The Babylon Project, commissioned at the end of the Earth-Minbari War, resulted in the creation of space stations where people of all cultures can live, work, and interact in a neutral environment. In 2258, Babylon 5 is the last of these stations. It houses four major ambassadors and a quarter-million residents from all worlds and backgrounds. Everything from treaties to bounties are plotted, negotiated and executed, and it is the job of Babylon 5’s long suffering but dedicated crew to keep residents of all species civil, if not entirely happy.
I am writing this introduction approximately one year after the rest of my article. The Babylon Diaries is a project I started in the late summer of 2007, unsure of exactly where it was going and how it would look when it was finished. What I wrote flopped pretty badly in its initial stages, but I always liked the idea of a journal-based review so I held onto it and let it simmer in the back of my brain. Today, I think I’m ready to pick it back up.
As was true at the beginning, I still have yet to see beyond the first season of this show. The thoughts that follow have been revised a few times for clarity but never for content, and, in places where edits proved unavoidable, I have strived to keep their tone as true to my initial reactions as possible. Given the length of the delay between my first draft and this posted one, I have to admit I now know a bit more than I wish I did about where the series is headed (A note to the uninitiated: B5 commentaries are only for those who have watched the entire series; Straczynski is ruthless with those spoilers), but it has not impacted any of these writings so far as I can tell.
As I detail in my entries, people have told me that these first 22 episodes are a time of stage-setting, which seems an important fact to keep in mind when trying to look at and understand a show like Babylon 5. Straczynski has gone on record saying his vision was always to tell a five-season story, even when he was given no guarantee the show would ever last into a second. That means that this first act was never about hitting a home run, although they do it anyway. It is instead all about meeting the people, learning their relationships, and understanding the universe. They lay the groundwork, set the pieces on the board, and it’s really not until the tail end of Season One that we see that not only is the game afoot, but it has been since the first episode.
The Babylon Diaries: Season 1 – Dramatis Personae
Commander Sinclair is the top dog on Babylon 5. He is an ex-fighter pilot and a hero of the Earth-Minbari War, but has a bit of a memory problem—one entire day, in the middle of a battle only he survived, has gone missing. He also knows his appointment to the station was met with a lot of resistance from a lot of powerful people, but refuses to let that stop him from stepping on toes when he feels he has to in order to run the station as he sees fit.
Sinclair’s executive officer and second-in-command. Like all XO’s, Ivanova is tough on her crew but good at her job. Unlike most XO’s, she has a bit of a wild side and a sense of humor, both heavily influenced by her Russian heritage. A childhood trauma has made her uncomfortable around psychics and is terrified of telepathic scans.
Garibaldi is an old friend of Sinclair’s and in charge of law enforcement on the station. He is likeable enough to the law-abiding public, but has a history of alcoholism that lurks in the background of his character and isn’t beyond bending some rules or breaking some noses to learn what he needs to know.
Talia is the government-assigned shipboard psychic. She is hired to mediate negotiations and act as the liaison between Babylon 5 and the government-sanctioned telepathic police, the PsiCorp.
As Babylon 5 opens, Stephen Franklin is introduced as the new Chief Medical Officer. He is dedicated to his job and rational to a fault, disliking religion and spirituality, especially in the contradiction of science.
The Minbari fought against the humans in the last war, which eventually led to the Babylon Project and the creation of Babylon 5. Most are now friendly towards humans, but tensions can still run high. Of all the ambassadors, Delenn is the most outwardly friendly with Sinclair and his crew, but holds more power within the upper echelons of Minbari society than she lets on. She also has a secret past and was involved heavily in the Earth-Minbari War.
The Centauri civilization was once a great power of the galaxy, but is now in decline. Londo is getting on in years, and continually grasping at the remnants of his people’s glory. He has a constantly jovial exterior that hides an intimidating dark side and a mile-long mean streak towards Ambassador G’Kar and the Narn.
The Narn were a people held for centuries as slaves by the Centauri. With their relatively recent independence, they have abandoned what used to be a peaceful existence for a more ambitious bid to establish a territory in the galaxy they can call their own. G’Kar loves his people and their history almost as much as he loathes fellow ambassador Londo Mollari.
The Vorlon are easily the most mysterious aliens to inhabit Babylon 5. Kosh himself is always covered top to bottom in heavy robes and a helmet, ostensibly to help him breathe in the atmosphere of the station. Few have glimpsed under those robes, and even fewer are telling what they saw.
The Babylon Diaries: Season 1 – Signs and Portents
So, way back in 1994, while I was busy wrestling with fractions in math class and just starting to reevaluate my opinion of cooties, someone went ahead and decided to turn the science fiction world on its ear with a show named Babylon 5. I was neither warned nor consulted, but this program has apparently grown in reputation and popularity to become known by various sources (my friends John and Mike) as “the high-water mark of television sci-fi” and “the most perfect blend of serious science fiction and intellectual character interaction I have ever seen.” That’s some high praise coming from two men as unrepentantly geeky as these two (that’s said out of love, guys).
As of this date — Monday August 27th, 2007 — I myself have never seen a single episode of Babylon 5. I do not know the plot, the characters, or a single fact about the show other than there’s one guy (possibly an alien?) with crazy Shi’ar bird-hair and another guy (definitely an alien) covered in scaly liver spots. I’m also pretty sure Babylon 5 is a space station. Beyond that, I am entirely unaware of anything about this supposed Mecca of modern science fiction.
Now, anyone that knows me also knows I and my money are soon parted when given half a reason to splurge, and, riding a wave of confident expectation swelled by years of praise, I went ahead and bought all five seasons of Bab5 during a Best Buy ‘end of summer’ sale last week. They were cheap, I was bored, and now I find myself the proud owner a hundred episodes from a show I’ve never even watched. So, as an experiment, I’ve decided to give them a try and keep a journal of my thoughts on the episodes as I go. I don’t know whether they’ll be short entries or long ramblings or if it will be funny or not or if this will even work as a finished product, but it sounds like a good way to get my money’s worth.
Now then, the Season One DVD box is unwrapped, the menu is loaded on the TV, and my introduction is done. I’ve also only recently noticed on the box that the entire season is apparently subtitled “Signs and Portents.” Sounds neat. Let’s press play…
Well, I’m happy to report that, yes, Babylon 5 *is* a space station. And both those guys I mentioned are, in fact, aliens. The ones with the hair are Centauris, the scaly ones are Narns. They apparently hate each other and, as I can only imagine will be a reoccurring theme here, are pushed to the brink of war after what appears to be an unprovoked attack on a Centauri agricultural station. The Centauris seem slightly over the top, but if I can put up with three movies’ worth of Gungans, I’m sure I can deal with some goofy haircuts.
It’s an odd first episode, with not much in the way of introduction or context; we’re just sort of thrown in the deep end and told to swim. The humans onboard seem okay — the captain’s not doing much of anything for me, but the XO played Bill’s mom on Freaks and Geeks, so that earns brownie points right there.
Ooh, I liked these guys. This is our first look at Soul Hunters, galactic boogymen that are like wandering monks who steal a person’s soul just before death. One of them has slipped aboard Babylon 5 and, while most Soul Hunters will wait for death to come to the dying, this one (I don’t think he had a name) has found a much quicker and bloodier way to collect them.
He could have been goofy — he looked kinda like Santa Claus with a big, puckery, somewhat suggestive crevice in his forehead — but instead managed to be suitably creepy and cryptic and definitely makes you believe that the other aliens onboard would be sent running in fear. There was an entertaining bit of ideological sparring between the Hunter and Delenn, the bald lady who I found out is called a Mimbari, which went a long way towards humanizing the Soul Hunters and making them all the creepier. I really hope we see more of this as time goes on.
Londo, the Centauri ambassador, falls for a local dancer who is attempting to gain access to sensitive information he possesses for her master. Meanwhile, Security Chief Garibaldi attempts to discover the source of covert transmissions leaving the station on a restricted channel.
Nothing to write home about here. Born to the Purple is an interesting glimpse into Centauri politics, but I can’t help feeling like they’re borrowing their entire race pretty liberally from the Ferengi. Also, we’re introduced to Lennier, another Mimbari, who I’m only mentioning because he’s played by Bill Mumy (Will Robinson!). Garibaldi is reminding me of Season 1 William Riker.
A scientist sneaks an alien artifact through quarantine that transforms a crewman into a living weapon. A nearly perfect warrior, it stalks B5 with a mission to wipe out all imperfect beings, i.e. everyone.
Another ‘meh’ episode. I like to see that they’re not afraid to do action-oriented shows, but this falls a little flat and has a weird preachiness to it. I am happy to report, however, that someone has finally called Commander Sinclair on the stupidity of sticking his neck out every episode when he’s responsible for the lives of a quarter-million residents onboard. Dope. That’s why you have security teams. Some bits at the end make me wonder if this is one of those Signs and/or Portents the box is referring to, but, seeing as we are a whole four episodes into the show, I’m not holding my breath. Oh, and Lloyds of London is apparently alive and well in 2258. Glad to hear it.
Wow, G’Kar just completely stole that episode out from under every other character. In the midst of a festival on the ship that explores and celebrates the faiths of all the resident races, he discovers that an assassin has been hired to murder him. His freak outs over the death threat are absolutely hilarious, and I think just turned him into my favorite person on the show. Also, it was nice to get a little bit of insight into Sinclair through an old flame that shows up; I hope she sticks around.
Walter Koenig! W00t! Chekov’s here as Alfred Bester, a Psi Cop on the trail of a rogue telepath with unstable telekinetic powers. It’s not a standout episode plot-wise, but I really like the Gestapo stylings of the PsiCorp, and, knowing that the show gets pretty involved later on, I can only imagine that the loose talk of psychic conspiracies are going to pay off eventually. And Catherine, Sinclair’s old girlfriend (from the last episode) gets a peek at big honkin’ space giants. It’s been done before, but they handled it well.
I’m debating whether this is a filler episode or not. An anti-alien group called The Home Guard is attacking diplomats aboard Bab5 as more tendrils of vast conspiracies are showing up in the dark corners of the station. Sinclair and Garibaldi get to act tough and preach the virtues of tolerance, in case we weren’t aware we should be nice to everybody.
I’ve been told, since I first started writing this article, that much of the first season is laying foundation for the rest of the series, so I don’t know if I’m reading too much into these things or not. Like Infection and Mind War, I feel like this is a mediocre episode just deigned to hint at much bigger things lurking down the way.
I finally have a reason to like Sinclair! A Human Supremacy group sends two of it’s agents to capture and interrogate the Commander, and we get to delve a bit more into his past as a fighter pilot. Something happened to him in the Earth-Mimbari war, something even he doesn’t remember. Something involving the Mimbari Grey Council, of which Delenn is secretly a member. A great character episode that finally establishes just why I ought to care about our fearless leader.
I guess this is the B5 take on Nazi doctors. Deathwalker is a Mengele-ish scientist who escaped capture thirty years ago but now has resurfaced claiming to have discovered the secret to immortality. Okay stuff, but not outstanding. I’m bumping the episode half a grade for the B-story involving Kosh, one of the mysterious Vorlon, who I haven’t mentioned until now but is awesome enough to run away with every single scene he’s in.
A closer look at Doctor Franklin, who is struggling to save a dying child against the wishes of the parents’ religious beliefs. The station’s neutrality policy forbids him from operating without consent, but he is determined to perform the simple procedure that will save the boy’s life. This one is more of an E.R. story, I guess, but a solid philosophical-type episode nonetheless.
After all that chatter of the last two episodes, it’s good to see some action! Survivors is a good old fashioned chase episode that makes up for any failings I saw during Infection. Garibaldi is framed for a crime and goes on the run from an officer with a vendetta. We’re also given our first extended look at the station’s Downbelow, the seamy underbelly that’s become the only place for him to hide.
Even though he’s still radiating that hamfisted, half-smarmy Will Riker vibe, Garbaldi’s has really grown on me and I’m glad to see him put in the spotlight.
Sigh. I am so sick of labor union episodes on my TV shows. They’re all exactly the same. Workers strike, lawmakers protest, and the main characters have to find a unique compromise. And it’s always painted the exact same way: the laborers are noble, hard working, beaten down angels; the lawmakers (in this case, the slimy negotiator Orin Zento) are evil, greedy, emotionless devils. Booooring.
I will bump this up to the ‘B’ level because of the G’Kar/Londo religious subplot, however. G’Kar smacks it out of the park again, up in arms over an impending religious ceremony and Londo shows a serious mean streak under his epicurean exterior by refusing to release the Narn holy object in his possession. Also, what appears to be more of those pesky Signs and/or Portents show up when we find out Commander Sinclair has embarrassed some powerful men back on earth and has become the new face on their dartboard.
Well, you *know* an episode is going to be important when the name the entire season after it; so, naturally, I had to watch it thee times before I got through it without falling asleep. It’s no fault of the show, however, which is tightly wound and thick with plot involving Londo coming into possession of an ancient Centauri artifact, long thought lost. At the same time, a seer comes onboard to predict death and destruction for Babylon 5, the history between Sinclair and the Mimbari deepens, and a mysterious young man is visiting everyone on the station, intent on asking just one question.
An excellent, jam packed episode that smacks of what’s to come and even manages to top itself off with a good old-fashioned space battle. Plus, G’Kar says “Kiss my pouch!” which had me in hysterics.
A standalone episode, solid enough but unremarkable. Ivanova is visited by her family’s Rabbi from Earth, who is attempting to help her grieve in her father’s death (back in ‘Born to the Purple’). Meanwhile, an old friend of Garibaldi’s is on station to try and enter in an aliens-only fighting tournament.
Not a lot going on here, but Claudia Christian is given a bit of room to breathe in her character, which I enjoyed. I don’t know if it’s the actress or the show’s creators, but I really like the fact that Ivanova can exercise the responsibilities of being second in command without turning her into an unrepentant hardcase. Although the scripts haven’t given her a lot of latitude to show it, there’s a lot of very human touches that maker her character work on a better level than the standard ‘high school vice principal’ sort of XO. Not that that has much to do with her in this episode, I just thought I’d comment.
In Grail, we get a brief look into the seedy underworld of Bab5 and discover it’s controlled by… E.B. Farnum? I guess it’s not their fault Bill Sanderson ended up in Deadwood, but, man, talk about two characters cut from the same cloth. Anyway, a hapless engineer nicknamed Jinxo finds himself caught between a rising gang of B5’s Downbelow and a knight-errant, played by the awesome David Warner (Jor-El!), who is searching for the Holy Grail.
Again, not much to report on, really, it’s a very Trekish episode, but we get a little history on the Babylon project and find out what happened to make Babylon 5 “the last of the Babylon stations.”
The PsiCorp are back, teamed with Earth Central Internal Affairs, known as ‘Eyes,’ to investigate some of Sinclair’s recent command decisions. No Bester this time, but Colonel ben Zayn is introduced (obviously the bad guy since he has a scar on his cheek) and is a perfectly slimy adversary for Sinclair. Also, Ivanova shows us what a headcase she can be by completely freaking out over the prospect of a telepathic scan; Garibaldi and Lennier build a 1992 Kawasaki Ninja (‘Cause, y’know, why not?); and the Commander gives a great ‘stand up and cheer’ speech at the end.
Really, everyone is just stellar in the episode. The case is their usual excellent selves, and ben Zayn really plays his role to the hilt. I hope we see him again.
OK, so the subtitles have informed me that it’s ‘Minbari,’ not ‘Mimbari.’ My bad. But speaking of the Minbari, one of their greatest generals has kicked the bucket recently and his body is being brought onboard for mourning when it is stolen out from under everyone’s nose. Humans and aliens are suddenly back at each other’s throats, so Sinclair and Garibaldi must search the station to try and avert another war. Meanwhile, Ivanova and ship psychic Talia Winters play tug of war over the fate of newly-discovered psychic Alisa Belden. Really, I have nothing to say about this one. Not a riveting episode, but okay.
Ooh, our first two-parter! The big story this time around is the discovery of a dead planet that’s actually not quite dead yet (its getting better!). Sinclair and Ivanova shuttle down in hopes of making First Contact with what seems to be an underground race, but instead find one giant computer system and one shriveled, old, noseless alien. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Delenn receives a visit from an old friend named Draal, who is preparing himself to ‘go to the sea,’ which, based on her reactions, appears to be not so much buying a condo in The Villages as it is committing suicide.
Lots of setup here and clearly a big chunk of the season’s effects budget went towards this episode, but I honestly wasn’t nearly as blown away by anything here as I’m sure they were hoping I would be. Bonus points are awarded, however, for Ivanova’s reaction to discovering the massive computer (“I think I need to go to the bathroom.”) and the alien guy’s creepy “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi” messages.
Things go from bad to worse for our heroes. Sinclair and Ivanova have taken the alien they found back up to the station and unwittingly send the planet, now without a babysitter, into self-destruct mode. At the same time, the Earth Central military has arrived to plant a flag on the newly-discovered technology inside the planet, but more noseless aliens show up out of nowhere claiming the same thing and a gun measuring contest ensues. Glad to see some things never change.
A well-executed conclusion to the episode, but, seriously, when someone has to make the ‘sacrifice’ and the candidates are Sinclair, Londo, Delenn, or the guy they introduced last episode, I can’t say the dramatic tension is overwhelming. I’m also seeing an emerging theme here about the struggle to find your place in the universe. Not that I’m digging terribly deep or anything, but I figured I’d mention it.
Another excellent episode, this time delving more into the fate of Babylon 4, which mysteriously vanished right after it’s launch many years ago and has suddenly reappeared in Sector 14. Also, Delenn is called back to the Grey Council and finds out that she has been chosen as new leader of the Minbari, a position she does not want but has not been refused in a thousand years.
Clearly there’s some important stuff going on here; they actually say the phrase ‘signs and portents,’ which is their way of flashing a giant neon sign: PAY ATTENTION, STUPID! The big reveal during the last few minutes was half-expected but still a worthy payoff, and the Sinclair/Garibaldi flashforward to what I assume is the Great War is pretty chilling. They seem to really be ramping up for something; I hope these last two episodes stay strong. Oh, and I think Delenn has a piece of the Triforce. No, really.
Huhbuhwha? So much for my hopes and dreams. How do you build and build and build for three episodes then snatch the rug out from under everything with filler material about serial killers and magical healing devices? Oh, that is frustrating as hell.
So, The Quality of Mercy gives us a bit of insight into the justice system of the year 2258 and a closer look at the impoverished conditions in B5’s Downbelow, where medical treatments are exceptionally hard to come by and people throw their trust into anyone promising a miracle. On the lighter side of things, Londo Bueller gives Lennier an education in strip clubs, poker, and barroom brawls, which would have been fun if I wasn’t so irritated. Honestly, I think it’s a better episode than I’m going to give it credit for, just because the timing of it is so totally inappropriate. Well, I’m completely deflated for the season finale, but here’s to hoping.
Now THAT’S a season finale! I mentioned to a friend that I was keeping a journal on Babylon 5 for this article, and he told me how I may want to think of it. As I mentioned earlier, Season 1 is mostly focused on world building: setting the stage, introducing the characters, establishing the universe of our story. Seasons 2 through 5 are all about tearing it apart.
In Chrysalis, the ropes are definitely fraying, if they haven’t snapped outright. The Narns and Centauri are back at each other’s throats after a Narn-controlled quadrant is suddenly slaughtered to the last man (er, last Narn) and Garibaldi is unraveling a conspiracy that goes way over his head and potentially all the way to the very top of the government. At the same time, Sinclair makes an important decision about his future, the shadow people from “Signs and Portents” make their chilling return with their human(?) intermediary, Morden, and something is happening to Delenn that involves Ambassador Kosh. Tense, exciting, and intelligent—this was outstanding. I can’t wait for Season 2.