Random Musings: Revisiting Babylon 5

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Babylon 5 season 1 box set

Science fiction is often called the literature of ideas and that was especially true of Babylon 5, a superb five-season novel for television, which ran from 1993-1998.

Yes, novel for television. It was written with the structure of a novel and was intended to run for five seasons.

It was also the first American TV series to take such an approach; and series creator J. Michael Straczynski wrote 92 of the 110 episodes (or about 84 percent), ensuring that the storyline hewed to his vision.

He also spent years trying to get the series made, a testimony to, as Straczynski himself put it, never surrendering dreams. One of the earliest references to Babylon 5 I’ve come across is in an interview with Straczynski in Starlog #136 (Nov. 1988, pg 58).

Among other things, Babylon 5 explored the relationships between individuals and among governments before, during and after a major war. One of the themes of the series is the importance of creating one’s own future and of determining one’s own destiny. As Straczynski says in his commentary for the season three finale, “individuals have power; individuals have strength.”

The story takes place from 2258 to 2262, primarily aboard the space station Babylon 5, located in neutral territory. Here, five interstellar dominions converge: The Centauri Republic, The Earth Alliance, The Minbari Federation, The Narn Regime and The Vorlon Empire.

The Babylon 5 station.

The Babylon 5 station.

Babylon 5, the last of the Babylon stations (the first three were sabotaged early in their respective construction phases; Babylon 4 disappeared 24 hours after it became operational), was built 10 years after the Earth-Minbari war, which nearly saw the human race annihilated. But just when the Minbari had Earth on its metaphorical knees, they mysteriously surrendered.

As the series begins, the Narns, once enslaved by the Centauri, are trying to make a name for themselves; the Centauri Republic, by contrast, is in decline; the Minbari seem to be ignoring signs that the prophecies of their greatest leader, Valen, are coming true; the Earth Alliance is becoming more isolationist; and the Vorlons—

Are an enigma

And unknown to most, a sixth race— known only as The Shadows— is on the prowl. And their presence is a very bad sign.

Some governments rise; some fall; some (including the Earth Alliance) are torn apart by civil war.

The characters also change over the course of the series. At first glance, Narn Ambassador G’Kar (Andreas Katsulas) appears to be the primary antagonist. But as G’Kar himself says, “no one here is exactly what he appears.” By the end of the series, he has changed in ways he probably couldn’t have imagined when he first came aboard the station.

And who could guess that Centauri Ambassador Londo Mollari (Peter Jurasik)— an apparent buffoon, a gambler and an overall has-been at the series’ start— would end up with so much blood on his hands?

G’Kar and Londo at odds.

G’Kar and Londo at odds.

Neither the Shadows nor the Vorlons are necessarily what they appear, either. To paraphrase something Straczynski said in an online forum when the show was on the air, the Shadows are the nominal “bad guys”, but their representative, Mr. Morden (Ed Wasser), is polite and charming. The Vorlons are the nominal “good guys”, but Vorlon Ambassador Kosh (Ardwight Chamberlain) all but terrorizes telepath Talia Winters (Andrea Thompson) and has an inquisitor (Wayne Alexander) all but torture Minbari Ambassador Delenn (Mira Furlan).

The always polite Mr. Morden has just one question: “What do you want?”

The always polite Mr. Morden has just
one question: “What do you want?”

The less-than-polite inquisitor, Sebastian, Interrogates Delenn.

The less-than-polite inquisitor, Sebastian,
Interrogates Delenn.

We also see the rise of a dictatorship on Earth. One aspect of it is an organization called the Night Watch. Initially presented in terms some might find palatable, it’s not long before it becomes much more sinister. Security officer Zack Allan (Jeff Conaway) joins Night Watch for the extra 50 credits a week, but he soon begins to have “buyer’s remorse.” Especially when Night Watch members are authorized to read E-Mails and look into individuals’ past associations.

Of course, those who were paying attention when Night Watch was introduced would have noted this phrase by another representative:

“Peace can be made or broken with a gun, a word, an idea, even a thought.” (emphasis mine)

Even when Night Watch was showing its “nice” face, it was still hinting at its true nature.

A Night Watch representative recruiting new members.

A Night Watch representative recruiting new members.

Then there’s Interstellar Network News (ISN), a once legitimate media outlet that becomes a propaganda arm of the EarthGov dictatorship. In the fourth season episode “The Illusion of Truth”, Captain John Sheridan (Bruce Boxleitner) allows an ISN reporter access to the station because he knows the man’s going to do a story anyway. But, as he later tells Commander Susan Ivanova (Claudia Christian), “we kept anything we said down to short, declarative sentences to make it harder to take us out of context.”

Yeah, good luck with that. The ISN broadcast (which takes up the second half of the episode and provides a juxtaposition between what viewers of the TV show saw vs. what people in that fictional universe saw on the news that day) is a hatchet job. Actual dialogue in some scenes is replaced by the reporter’s blatant lies in a voice-over; and rather than show the reporter asking the actual questions he addressed to Sheridan, ISN instead inter-cut shots of the reporter asking different questions— while in another room— with Sheridan’s answers. This gives the answers a different context.

In Vol. 9 of the limited edition Babylon 5 Scripts of J. Michael Straczynski (page 26), Straczynski said few people noticed that inter-cutting, “which of course is exactly why and how people get away with this sort of thing.”

He also said the episode has become required viewing at media and journalism classes at several major universities.

As it should be.

It’s not all gloom and doom on Babylon 5, however. There are many moments of humor. In the teaser of “Babylon Squared”, Commander Jeffrey Sinclair (Michael O’Hare) and Security Chief Michael Garibaldi (Jerry Doyle) trick a half-awake Ivanova into believing she slept through breakfast (“I’ll notify your next of kin,” Sinclair subsequently tells Garibaldi).

Sinclair “hypnotizes” a half-awake Ivanova.

Sinclair “hypnotizes” a half-awake Ivanova.

In the season two episode “The Geometry of Shadows”, Ivanova seeks to understand the reasons for fights among the Drazi— who’ve split into factions wearing green and purple scarves— so she can try to mediate the conflict. What’s the point of contention?

Turns out the scarves are selected at random, literally taken from a large barrel.

“Green must fight Purple; Purple must fight Green. Is no other way,” a Green Drazi says.

“Just my luck,” Ivanova replies. “I get stuck with a race that speaks only in macros.”

Later, Ivanova tries to get the Drazi to understand how asinine this is (especially after the two factions begin killing each other).

“Don’t you understand? This is insane. It doesn’t make any sense to go around killing each other over a piece of cloth.”

Ivanova attempts to mediate with the Drazi.

Ivanova attempts to mediate with the Drazi.

The Drazi situation reminds me of the Bloom County strip from July 6, 1982, where a soldier in the Falklands War says “they want our rocks. These are our rocks. I will die to protect the honor of our rocks.”

Babylon 5 was also rare among science fiction TV series in that it explored religious themes and beliefs. Ironic in some ways, because Straczynski himself is not religious. G’Kar is deeply religious; the Minbari are very spiritual; Ivanova is Jewish; and Sinclair was educated by Jesuits.

Also, characters often find themselves in situations where they must decide whether or not to forgive. As Sheridan notes in the episode “Passing Through Gethsemane”, “Forgiveness is a hard thing, isn’t it?”

When the Prime Time Entertainment Network (PTEN) collapsed, cable network TNT picked up Babylon 5 for the fifth season (and aired re-runs of the previous seasons). To introduce its viewers to the series, TNT broadcast In The Beginning, which told the story of the Earth-Minbari war as narrated by an elderly Londo Mollari.

If you’re going to watch (or re-watch) Babylon 5, I believe it’s best to start there. Then go on to the 1992 pilot movie, The Gathering (which was re-edited in 1998, with a lot of important character bits— and other things that should have been there all along— restored), and then the series.

Yes, starting with In The Beginning means you’ll know things viewers the first time around didn’t learn until much later; but while you’ll know, for example, that Londo one day becomes ________, you won’t know how or under what circumstances.

And finding that out is part of the fun.

Copyright 2015 Patrick Keating.

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6 thoughts on “Random Musings: Revisiting Babylon 5

    • True, individually and collectively, the League races played important roles in the story. Their help was crucial at several points over the five-year arc, especially in offering material support to B5 and the anti-Clark rebellion during the Earth Civil War and in helping to fight the Shadow War.

      • George Mitchell

        I’m interested in your thoughts of why JMS chose to treat the character of Lyta Alexander so horribly throughout the run of the series?

        As examples: Lyta uncovered the sleeper program, involving Talia Winters, at great risk to herself. She also was critical in proving the theory of telepaths being able to disrupt the Shadow vessels control systems. She also went searching for Sheridan, at great risk, when he went down at Z’ha Dum (sic). Controlling the Shadow corrupted telepaths in Sheridans Civil War against Earth, where again she took great risks. Critical in freeing Sheridan from capture/torture by Earth Alliance Forces on Mars, again, at great risk to her. Uncovering the Centauri/Drakh connection and the use of Shadow tech running drone Centauri starships against the league.

        And, what did she get for that sacrifice? Isolation, penury, betrayal, exile, and according to JMS death. She would have been better off just taking G’Kar’s initial offer and doing for herself.

      • I don’t quite agree that JMS chose to treat Lyta so horribly— in the sense that he created the character specifically to be a metaphorical punching bag (he wouldn’t have made her sympathetic on many occasions if that were the case). It’s the other characters who treat her so badly.

        To some degree, it’s almost understandable. First, you have the general wariness around, if not distrust of, telepaths. Then there’s the fact that Lyta has been altered by the Vorlons, about whom there’s also a general wariness. Hell, even Zack, who was in love with Lyta, had certain doubts and hesitations about her.

        JMS actually addresses Lyta’s treatment on pages 23 & 24 of Vol. 10 of The Babylon 5 Scripts of J. Michael Straczynski:

        “Bester is also right in his appeal to Lyta. She has been abandoned by those she helped. She’s been forced into smaller quarters, there’s no money, no reward… she’s taken for granted at best, shoved into a corner and forgotten at worst. (The other metaphor I was striving for here is how a culture often treats those who fight for us when they are no longer needed. Once they’re done fighting, we’d rather they just disappeared and didn’t bother us anymore, which is why there’s plenty of money for machines of war but very little to support the veterans who return from war scarred, shattered and injured.”

        In another volume of the script books, JMS talks about being a child of the 70s; and though he doesn’t come out and say it in Vol. 10, his discussion of Lyta’s treatment could almost be a commentary on how the country, as a whole, treated returning Vietnam veterans.

        In Sheridan’s defense, I think making Lyta move to smaller quarters was, in large part, just what it was presented as in the actual episodes: The station, cut off from Earth, needed to generate all the revenue it could to stay operational. Anyone staying in those quarters would have been asked to move, unless they could pay the rent. I don’t think they were targeting Lyta specifically.

        Still, they could have found a way to better accommodate her, given all she’d done for them (without pay). But then Babylon 5 characters often make stupid mistakes and/or suffer from “foot-in-mouth disease.” Garibaldi’s interactions with Byron and his telepaths comes to mind as one example. Possibly without meaning to or even being consciously aware of it, Garibaldi alienates the telepaths Byron arranges to have work with him. Ironically, they’d have probably willingly helped him get revenge against Bester.

        But back to Lyta. She was supposed to be the resident telepath all along, but a breakdown in salary negotiations resulted in Patricia Tallman not coming on for the series. Thus, JMS created the character of Talia Winters. In discussing the episode “Divided Loyalties” (in which Lyta returns) in vol. 4 of the script books (page 37), JMS says the original intention was that Lyta’s additional telepathic abilities would have come about from her contact with the injured Kosh in the pilot. But with Lyta out and Talia in, Talia got her abilities boosted by her encounter with Jason Ironheart, since JMS obviously expected Talia to be the telepath character who’d play the big role in season four.

        However, by season two, Andrea Thompson wanted to leave and there was an opportunity for Patricia Tallman to come back in as Lyta. But suppose JMS had convinced Thompson to stay and it was Talia who’d controlled the Shadow-corrupted telepaths, etc. Would the end result (being taken for granted or forgotten) have been the same? I think so.

        Of course, had Talia’s character stayed and been shunted aside by the others as Lyta was, much of the unease about her would be because she was more than just a regular telepath, due to her “upgrade” by Ironheart.

        And, of course, the whole “the war’s over, go away” mentality would still have applied.

      • George Mitchell

        While, I agree “It’s the other characters who treat her so badly.” JMS wrote those characters. The Shadow War was supposed to be about learning to navigate between chaos and order. Instead, it appears, that the characters had unlearned what they had learned.

        Note that Sheridan, Ivanova, Garibaldi and Franklin did not move to smaller quarters. I would put Lyta’s contribution equal to theirs for the preceding reasons. In fact, Sheridan took money from combat preparedness to pay for his own and Susan’s quarters.

        I respectfully disagree about the point with Talia. Clearly, Ivanova was in love with Talia, and said so when Delenn was injured. If Talia had remained at B5 she and Susan would’ve taken up their relationship in full (your first lesbian relationship on TV, way in advance of the SCOTUS rulings). Garibaldi trusted her ( I think he was smitten with her as well: could’ve been a bisexual relationship, triangular?) to the above made point. Although, we know she hid the corps involvement in the alteration of Abel Horn S02E06. Would she’d really been tossed aside? She was still a member of PsyCorps and all the baggage that went along with that association. The Jason Ironheart episode was in S01E06, and they still wanted to enlist her into the cabal.

        Moreover, the Humans distrust of telepaths was misguided (to put it mildly). OMG, Susan’s latent telepathy uncovered the critical piece of evidence of Pres. Santiago’s murder by Clark and his agents. Writing about mistrust of Vorlons, for christsakes if Kosh didn’t send elements of Vorlon forces to engage the Shadows the league would’ve never coalesced behind Sheridan. Again, Kosh giving the final measure for Sheridan, paid the price for Sheridan’s miscalculation, and lack of foresight. “You do not understand, but you will.” It’s like in the case of Sheridan to Kosh, arguing with your father about what’s moral when he a philosopher, and your a bricklayer. In the episode “And the Rock Cried out No Hiding Place” the minister said: “we are all alien to one another.” This could not have been truer for Lyta. While Sheridan, arguably, was in love with Delenn (those two black dresses would’ve swayed me also), she was alien, and he could somewhat manage that affair. But, he could not manage being kind to Lyta. And, in fact, forced her to suffer Bester, a person who would gleefully take her into custody and dissect her. I would not want to be trapped with Hannibal Lecter who had just prepared some Fava Beans, yet he subjected her to that torture. Clearly, Sheridan is not a man who thinks about the outcome of his actions.

        It makes it difficult to watch the majority of Season 4 and all of Season 5. The hypocrisy of Sheridan where on one hand he cajoles the aliens of the non-aligned worlds into supporting him. While on the other hand subjugates the “alien” Lyta and others like her for his own goals, to their detriment. I guess you could say he did a double trap door protagonist/hero antagonist as hero transformation.

        You would think the JMS would want his hero to be heroic, but he has feet of clay, and the ethics of Richard Nixon (ouch, that even hurt me).

        Finally, and I thank you for the rich discussion of something that been bothering me for years (as if you couldn’t tell). Why in the world did Sheridan keep Lochley after the first episode. She said she could guarantee his safety. But the guy, whom she knew previously, got two shots at him. Shouldn’t e-systems register the shots fired in his rented quarters? In Valens name, the ambassador who was assassinated. In fact, how did he get access to the level (yes, I know the systems were all made on Earth, but still you don’t want a repeat of the Season 1 ep 7 where Delenn’s old friend who composed T’la (sic) poetry was branded) you would think that she, and Zack would’ve beefed up security around the emissaries, and the Diplomatic sector, especially during the inauguration. Lochley wasn’t at the inauguration. Lochley wasn’t in C&C to take the shot that took the assassin out after Garibaldi grappled onto his StarFury and flung him into the interceptor fire. How did he ever get out of the launch bay? Moreover, I can’t think of one scene where she contributed to the safety of Sheridan. Any commander I’d served under would’ve had her thrown off the station after the first foul up, never mind the 4 or 5 foul up. Finally, take the issue of Bester coming for the rogue telepaths (Byrons group) and Lochley clearly disobeying Sheridans order: “he can’t have them” and giving him security staff anyway. If I were Sheridan, she would’ve been leaving with those PsyCops. I note that aliens died more at the hands of Babylon 5 security than earthlings did in similar circumstances.

        This I believe was the single reason for the telepath war which JMS never wrote (AFAIK). If there was a way out of slavery rather than revolution, I believe the telepaths would’ve taken it, especially Byron and with him Lyta.

        Sheridan was Earth centered to a fault. Even though, he was paid and elected by the Interstellar Alliance. He campaigned and coerced Delenn into talking the Minbari into designing and Earth developing/financing a new class of starship. Although, Earth had nothing to do with the Shadow War, earned no accolades, spilt no blood as a planetary participant. Provided no ships, even the rebel Earth ships. The Drazi, Pak’ Ma’ra (sic), Brakiri, Vree,..etc would’ve been more worthy to benefit from the technologies than Earth. They already received artificial gravity after joining the IA that should’ve been enough.

        In closing, those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Sheridan did not learn from history. What are your thoughts to this point?

      • “The Jason Ironheart episode was in S01E06, and they still wanted to enlist her into the cabal.”

        None of them knew that Ironheart had amplified Talia’s abilities. Keep in mind that none of the characters had a problem with Lyta (and more than they’d have with any other telepath who wasn’t Bester) until after it was clear her abilities had been boosted. In this hypothetical alternate reality where Talia stayed, I’m sure they’d have looked at her askance once she demonstrated expanded abilities.

        Yes, the humans’ mistrust of telepaths was misguided (for the most part; hello, Bester). And vice versa. But conflicts between different groups— and a general unwillingness to say “maybe we were wrong about them”— is nothing new. In “The Corps is Mother, the Corps is Father”, Bester declines Franklin’s offer to be scanned, to prove that he wouldn’t have let Bester fall from an exam table because he’s a telepath.

        “Or would you rather go on believing that our kind and your kind have to hate each other, no compromises?” Franklin asks.

        Bester’s response is to call Franklin an optimist, but these are the stage directions from the script, which come before Bester’s dialogue:

        “Bester locks eyes with him… and the fact is, no, he would rather not know that such kindness might exist…, it would be almost too painful to bear. So he simply, sadly, smiles.”

        Bester can’t admit that some way of living peacefully together might exist. Just as Garibaldi can’t see past his hatred of Bester (and distrust of telepaths in general) when interacting with Byron’s people. And again, they could have been potential allies.

        True, Sheridan, Ivanova and the rest of the command staff didn’t relocate to smaller quarters; and yes, Sheridan did reallocate funds so he and Ivanova didn’t have to move. However, those instances are unrelated to each other and the latter had nothing to do with Lyta. It was a directive issued before Babylon 5 declared independence, an annoying bit of penny-pinching back home. Sheridan fought back by paying the rent increase by reallocating certain funds so that, as Ivanova says (paraphrased) Earthforce pays itself rent.

        As to the command staff not moving to smaller quarters after B5 has gone independent, but expecting Lyta to do so, that could be attributed to the fact that she’s not really one of them (i.e. a member of the military command structure) and to the whole “unease with returning veterans” thing JMS described.

        The “returning veteran” in this case being a Vorlon-enhanced telepath. Which, as I recall, is a point Zach addresses in one of his conversations with Lyta.

        I don’t agree that Sheridan “subjugates” the “alien” Lyta. Remember, she took a lot of extreme steps— especially after Byron’s death— and became a serious danger, at one point threatening Lochley while controlling everyone around them.

        Even before Byron even showed up, in the season four episode “Epiphanies”, Lyta was something of a loose cannon. She took it upon herself to send a telepathic signal to Z’ha’dum, which led to that planet’s destruction. In discussing with Sheridan what “theoretically” might have happened, she “suggests” that what happened might have been a means of getting back at Bester. Sheridan tells her that while he might agree with her reasons, should she make a command level decision without consulting her he’d turn her over to Psi Corps.

        In that instance, Lyta, while not under his direct command, was on board a ship (the White Star) under his command and thus was out of line to take matters into her own hands. Sheridan was furious in that instance and had a right to be.

        Would he have turned her over to the Psi Corps? In that moment, yes. Once he’d calmed down, probably not. I can’t imagine he’d want to take the chance that they’d somehow “reverse engineer” her abilities.

        “You would think the JMS would want his hero to be heroic, but he has feet of clay, and the ethics of Richard Nixon.”

        People can be heroic and also have feet of clay. Remember, everyone on Babylon 5 is flawed in some way, just as people are in the “real world.”

        I think the Nixon analogy is going too far, though.

        As to why Sheridan kept Lochley after the first episode, the actress was under contract.

        Seriously, though, much of the Sheridan/Lochley conflict— especially with regard to the handling of Byron’s group— comes about from the fact that while he is head of the Interstellar Alliance, she is in command of Babylon 5. And they’re on board Babylon 5. Also, Lochley doesn’t answer directly to Sheridan. As an Earthforce officer, she answers to President Luchenko.

        As to your critique of the events of “No Compromises”, the most likely answers to “how did…?” and “what about…?” questions probably center around the fact that JMS had lost most of his season five notes at a convention (cleaning staff threw them out for some reason) and he had to deal with bringing in a new character (Lochley) and with a new network (TNT). In short, maybe that first episode of season five could have used one more draft to better address some of those questions.

        I don’t agree that Sheridan failed to learn from history. For one thing, if he hadn’t, he wouldn’t have realized he needed to out-think the Vorlons and Shadows to end the cycle of civilization-destroying wars every thousand years. For another, the Interstellar Alliance doesn’t really have a historical precedence. True, in some ways you could compare the IA to the U.N., but the U.N. doesn’t have an independent body of Rangers keeping the peace.

        Thanks for the interesting discussion.

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