B5 is one of my all-time favorite shows, yet I also found it a very challenging show to wrap my head around. What you see on the screen is often rough and feels cheap, yet its lasting effect is profound. B5 was a cable series at a time that when that didn’t mean much. It suffers from low production value, stiff acting and dialog, and never quite gets over some problems in its presentation. And yet the show lives on, having created a rich, layered mythology; it truly is a powerful epic.
Yet the show was a challenge to tackle. To start with, the pilot TV-movie, THE GATHERING, isn’t included as part of Season 1. So you have to go out of your way to find an obscure TV film before you can even start the show, a film that features several cast members who are different from the eventual series. Add to that the fact that THE GATHERING, even by J. Michael Straczynski‘s admission, isn’t that good, and Season 1 then takes a while to find its voice. As the series began, I had a tough time caring for these stoic characters, who felt like they belonged on a daytime soap. G’Kar initially seems like not only a villain but a very obvious and cliched one! And then, finally, the story starts to spin forward and surprises us all.
It’s almost impossible to summarize the many plotlines here, but suffice to say this: on a space station that serves as a port for every civilization in the galaxy and home to their ambassadors, every character has a role to play. From G’Kar and the Narns’ open antagonism of Londo and the Centauri to Delenn’s strange transformation (and feminization) to Garibaldi’s alcoholism to the threat of Psi Corps to the rebellion of the Earth colonies on Mars to the Minbari’s strange fascination with Capt. Sinclair. And unlike DS9 (ah, I said I wouldn’t reference TREK, but there, I went ahead and did it), all of these plotlines do successfully come together. As wars eventually start and Earth is revealed to be in the wrong, the Babylon 5 station becomes a sovereign state and the most important place in the universe. Throughout all this, there’s a medieval motif that’s always present, leading to the famous description of the show as LORD OF THE RINGS in space. Marcus Cole dresses like a medieval knight and despite the war going on, always seems to have come straight from a salon.
I had long heard that B5 felt like a novel on television. Serialized storytelling was not new to the medium, but this was one series that had been evidently planned out before the practice became commonplace. As the Shadows and Vorlons enter into the picture, we get the sense we are seeing something part of a greater canvas. Multiple episodes reveal the backstories of this world, with WAR WITHOUT END giving us a major revelation about the ancient past, and THE DECONSTRUCTION OF FALLING STARS revealing events in the far off future. And while I must agree with the frequent criticism that Season 5 felt like a weak anti-climax, it still generally works. Whereas other shows jump the shark, B5 had enough foreknowledge of its narrative path to lead its final season through to the end.
The characters were all interesting. Londo is likely to be many fans’ favorite character, due to his hammy Eastern European accent yet moral ambiguity. He sounded like an exaggerated Peter Lorre. His dynamic with G’Kar was probably the heart of the story. The initial lead of the series, Sinclair, is replaced with Capt. John Sheridan in Season 2, which I feel was for the best. Sinclair is a spiritual man, and often seems bored running a space station. Sheridan is a more compelling action hero, and both men are interesting mirror images of one another. Ivanonva will probably always be best remembered for this scene:
I even liked Elizabeth Lochley, who did the best she could, coming into the series so late. In fact, there really was only one character I actively disliked: Lyta Alexander. For all the hate that Byron gets in the last season, I found Lyta to amplify them, as well as come off as petulant and dull. Talia Winter may not have been a great character, but she was far more interesting than Lyta. As for the villains, well there are three main ones: Mr. Morden, President Clark, and Alfred Bester. Bester is the only one given moments of depth, and I must agree that this is Walter Koenig‘s best performance.
Straczynski is also a pretty interesting dude, personally writing 92 of the 110 episodes of the series, including the whole of Seasons 3 and 4. He was also one of the first media-figures to use the Internet as a way to interact directly with fans and promote a work through a community fanbase.
Finally, I must make note of all the many supplements to the series itself, including five more TV films! One of them, THIRDSPACE, is worth watching as it takes place within the narrative of the show itself. Another, IN THE BEGINNING, is a prequel that shows the events leading up to the series, revealing new things. Both of these should be watched at designated points within Season 4. However, as far as the three remaining TV films, the short-lived spinoff CRUSADE, and a direct-to-DVD adventure entitled VOICES IN THE DARK, I have no interest in watching. I’m a believer in keeping a story tight and B5 worked fine as a stand-alone series. I don’t want the story marred by any future unnecessary tangents.
Looking back at B5, I find it to be an interesting beast. I think maybe I liked the idea of the series more than its actual execution; its far-reaching scope and ideas intrigued more than what actually was shown on screen. In that sense, I would concede that the show was heavy on ideas and not always great at emotion; I can’t think of any episode with a moment as powerful as the end of THE VISITOR or Picard playing that flute at the end of THE INNER LIGHT. Still, B5 endures because of its love of Story and the intelligence in that storytelling. It’s a 5-season journey I’m glad I took and one I plan to take again soon!