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Babylon 5
starring: Bruce Boxleitner, Claudia Christian, Jerry Doyle, Mira Furlan, Peter Jurasik, Andreas Katsulas, Richard Biggs, Bill Mumy

by david
May 6, 2001

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 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 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...

     -- Babylon 5 Season One Opening Voiceover

I didn't catch Babylon 5 the first time around. In 1995 when the series premiered, I was still in college and, between my class load, theater rehearsals, my girl friend and the intermittent lack-of-TV, I just missed it. After college (as the series was moving into its third season), I caught it a couple of times, but never spent any real time with it. Still, I have always been a huge sci-fi fan -- "Star Wars," all of the "Star Trek" series and movies, "TRON," "Blade Runner," etc., etc., and I remained curious about the series.

A few months ago, I was on an 8 week "forced vacation" from my most recent dot-com debacle, and one afternoon I stumbled upon an episode of "Babylon 5" on the SciFi Channel. Out of boredom, I watched it, and I was hooked. For the rest of my "vacation," I watched B5 every day at 4pm. I began halfway through the fourth season, so I was missing much of the back story, but I was blown away by the characters and story. When the fifth season finished and SciFi began running the show again from the beginning, I began to Tivo it every day and dump it to tape. I'm now 3/4 of the way through the second season, and with each episode my fascination grows.

Babylon 5 is the brainchild of J. Michael Straczynski. Straczynski was the host of a local sci-fi talk show in Los Angeles for many years before the series, and was a huge sci-fi fan and a screenwriter. He conceived of the idea for B5 (click here to read his original notes) by accident -- he was working on ideas for two different sci-fi series: one set on a space station, and one huge, sweeping series involving several worlds. Eventually, he came to realize they were the same series. The B5 story is striking because Straczynski pitched and sold it as a five-season story arc. Most new shows are sold in 8 or 13 episode chunks in the beginning, and then renewed every year -- the story of Babylon 5 was so striking to the producers that they committed to paying for five seasons of 22 episodes up front!

Since B5 was sold as a full, five-year story, its plot and flow is very complex, and nearly impossible to explain in any detail here. Distilled to its basest elements, B5 is the story of the struggle of a handful of humanoid races, all in various stages of growth or decline, to come to terms with their place in the universe. The whole thing centers around a five-mile long Earth-built space station in neutral territory, constructed as a meeting place for all alien races to work together and strive for peace, and the ambassadors of the respective races who live there. There is hostility and conflict between the races and those squabbles expand as the story grows (it takes place over 5 years, just as the series does) into a conflict that threatens all of the worlds and all civilizations.

There's a lot to like about this series. Since the story line was given so much time to develop, it is deep, rich and well-thought-out. While each episode stands alone as its own story, each also feeds the overall story. Acting is uniformly strong, especially from Bruce Boxleitner (yes, TV's "Scarecrow" from "the Scarecrow and Mrs. King"), Mira Furlan, Peter Jurasik, Andreas Katsulas and Bill Mumy (all among the core characters). Special effects are really top-notch -- completely computer-generated, they blow away most of what you'll see on "Star Trek: Voyager" or any other science fiction television show, and many sci-fi movies, for that matter. The costumes and makeup are brilliant as well.

The show is not without its weaknesses, however. While the episodes are pretty uniformly strong as whole entities, the dialogue is too-often stilted and mechanical. And, in each season, there are one or two episodes that seem to be pretty much just filler -- what little is revealed in them could have been folded into another episode. But, even these episodes are enjoyable (save one in the last season which features a couple of B5 janitors -- that is the one B5 episode I've seen that sucks ass).

After the B5 story ended in 1999, Straczynski worked on a short-lived spin-off called "Crusade," set a few years after the end of the series. It was not well received, and the few episodes I've seen were far weaker than those from the original series. Despite that, Straczynski is currently working with the Sci-Fi channel on a two-hour possible pilot for a new spin-off series called "the Legend of the Rangers" (the Rangers are a group of humans and aliens who've taken it upon themselves to police the universe and protect it from itself). With luck, it will live up to the B5 legacy as Crusade was unable to.

All told, I'd recommend Babylon 5 wholeheartedly to anyone who is a sci-fi fan, and to anyone who is not a sci-fi fan but wants to invest themselves in a long, grand, complex story. I really do love this series. And, if you wanna come over to my apartment to watch the tapes with me, I'd love to have you, provided my wife is cool with it.

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