Happy Birthday, Babylon 5!
By Michael Boyle and Daniel A. Kaufman
Twenty-three years ago, the pilot for a new American science fiction series, Babylon 5, was first broadcast. The following year, B5’s production team embarked on a five-year journey that would see the development of one of the most respected and admired science fiction series ever produced, netting several Hugo and Emmy awards. The brainchild of longtime TV writer and producer, J. Michael Straczynski, Babylon 5 was especially innovative in its use of years-long story arcs, rather than the more traditional stand-alone episodes or limited story arcs that one finds in shows like Star Trek and the X-Files.
The entire five years of the series was developed by Straczynski before shooting a single episode and is grounded in an ancient quarrel between the forces of order and chaos, represented by races known, respectively, as the Vorlons and the Shadows. The similarity between this overarching scheme and the creation stories of the Mesopotamian civilization that had inspired the series’ name was intentional, and throughout Babylon 5, major plot and thematic elements are drawn from myriad human religions and civilizations, providing the show with much of its realism and depth.
The series is set, for the most part, on a space station called “Babylon 5.” Five miles long and home to a quarter of a million humans and aliens of various races, the station is essentially an enormous “O’Neill cylinder,” orbiting a mysterious planet, revelations about which will have plot-changing consequences. (1) The “Babylon Project” was conceived in the wake of a devastating war between humans – who are depicted as newcomers on the galactic scene, in a manner reminiscent of David Brin’s Uplift Series – and the Minbari, one of the oldest and most advanced races in the galaxy, a war that began as the result of a simple misunderstanding. In order to prevent anything similar from happening again, the Babylon Project conceived the construction of a habitat in neutral space that could serve as one part intergalactic United Nations, one part intergalactic trading hub, and one part intergalactic city. It is not until the construction of Babylon 5, however, after a series of mishaps that led to the destruction or loss of Babylon Stations 1 through 4 – a narrative arc within the series that will also have long-reaching ramifications – that this dream is finally realized.
Although mostly centered on the station itself, the series avoids boring the audience by lapsing into over-familiarity or predictability. One of the ways this is accomplished is through creative and substantial character development, both at the level of its highly memorable main characters and its equally compelling secondary personalities. A kind of galactic soap opera in many ways, Babylon 5 involves constant political and relationship shifts and high drama and gradually depicts what will become a galaxy-wide, all-consuming war between the Vorlons and the Shadows and all of the lesser races caught in between. Audience attention is essential in watching B5, for every episode contains crucial details, all of which contribute to the series’ masterfully complex and deeply satisfying five-year narrative arc. Indeed, the first season, named “Signs and Portents,” foreshadows every major plot and thematic element that will unfold over the course of the show’s five-year run.
One of the series’ greatest strengths is its combination of a grand, space-operatic scope with a commitment to realism in the depiction of its universe, its people, and its central action. The world of B5 is not some already established, idealized order, in which trouble occasionally erupts, as we find in Star Trek, but one in which any sort of ideal society is far off — if even conceivable — and in which every race and every individual is flawed — sometimes catastrophically so — and challenged with constant struggles and conflicts, with ever shifting alliances between the races and between factions, within the individual races. By way of illustration of this combination of grand scope and realistic realization, here is just a small handful of some of the key personnel and institutions that we find in Babylon 5.
Jeffrey Sinclair – Babylon 5’s first commander and a former Jesuit, Sinclair is a veteran of the Earth-Minbari war and a hero of the “Battle of the Line,” the final battle, in which the Minbari, on the verge of a devastating, total victory over Earth, suddenly and inexplicably, surrendered. Sinclair was the last survivor of his squadron and blacked out during the final 24 hours of that battle. Much of the first season of B5 is devoted to exploring what happened to Sinclair during those 24 hours, and what we discover is crucial to what will become an intricate and mind-bending story of the relationship between humans and Minbari. At the end of the first season, Sinclair is removed from his post and reassigned as Earth’s Ambassador to the Minbari homeworld, a development that will set the stage for an even larger role for Sinclair — one with a truly cosmic scope — as well as for John Sheridan’s entry into the B5 universe, as the Captain who will command Babylon Five for three seasons and who will play as large a role in the fate of the galaxy as his predecessor, if not even larger.
John Sheridan – B5’s second commander, Sheridan is also a hero of the Earth-Minbari war. Called “Starkiller” by the Minbari, Sheridan is the only Earthforce commander to succeed in destroying a Minbari warship, during the war. His tenure at Babylon 5 begins rockily, nearly sparking another Earth-Minbari conflict, but he soon emerges fully into the role that we later discover he was destined for. By the show’s end, Sheridan will not have only commanded Babylon 5, he will have led a huge coalition of the galaxy’s races, in what will turn out to be its greatest and most consequential war. Equally skilled in warfare and diplomacy, Sheridan is the series’ strongest, least ambiguous, and most consistent character, providing a kind of ballast, beneath the ever shifting, ever developing plotlines and character arcs that develop over the course of B5’s run.
The Psi Corps – In the B5 universe, every race, with the exception of the Narn and – interestingly enough — the Shadows has telepaths, individuals with the ability to read and manipulate minds and at greater strengths, deploy telekinetic abilities. On Earth, concerns regarding the privacy of non-telepathic “normals,” as well as considerations of security, lead to the creation of the Psi Corps, whose ostensible job is to train telepaths in the use of their talents, teach them how to block out the thoughts of others, so as not to encroach on peoples’ privacy, and serve the state, in a number of capacities. (Interestingly, business negotiations always include a registered telepath, whose presence is to insure honest dealings among the parties.)
As Earth’s politics become increasingly troubled over the show’s five-year arc, we get a better view of the role played by the Psi Corps. While on the surface, it is an institution whose task is to protect the public from telepathic invasions of privacy, the Psi Corps emerges as a shadowy, highly secretive, “Black Ops” style agency that is at least involved in espionage, sabotage, selective breeding, and other ethically dubious activities and which may even be functioning as a kind of puppet-master, behind the scenes on Earth. It is worth noting that the Psi Corps character whom we see the most in the series is the slimy, truly despicable Alfred Bester, portrayed with great effectiveness by Star Trek veteran, Walter Koenig.
Delenn – The Minbari Ambassador to Babylon 5 and clandestine member of the Minbari’s ruling body, The Grey Council, Delenn has an intimate connection to Sinclair — one related to his lost 24 hours, during the Battle of the Line — as well as to the enigmatic Vorlon Ambassador, Kosh. Delenn’s arc is one that follows an ancient Minbari prophecy and involves her undergoing a shocking transformation that contributes to the already divided and unstable internal politics of Minbar. Her developing relationship with the station’s new captain, John Sheridan, provides one of the most post powerful and enduring romantic arcs of the series, and the role Delenn ultimately plays in the larger story that unfolds is unmatched by anyone in the series, other than Sinclair and Sheridan.
Londo Molari – When Babylon 5 opens, the Centauri are a people whose best days are behind them and whose Ambassador, Londo Molari, is a largely comic figure. The story of Londo, over the course of the series, is the story of the Centauris’ rebirth as a major power and their re-subjugation of the Narn, over whom they had exercised a cruel and exploitative rule, for over a century, until driven out by a fierce and resilient Narn resistance movement. Londo’s is a haunting, tragic story, the story of a Fall, not just of a man, but of an entire civilization, into darkness; the sort of Fall that only occurs, when one gets exactly what one has asked for and in which the line between triumphant hero and despicable monster is so fine as to be almost invisible. Even more remarkable is the relationship between Londo and G’Kar, the Narn ambassador, one that spans the entire spectrum of human relationships. From the direst of enemies to the closest of friends, the Londo-G’Kar relationship is one of B5’s strongest elements and is why the alien ambassadors are two of the most popular characters, among the show’s fan base.
G’Kar – G’Kar is the Narn ambassador to Babylon 5, a member of the Narn governing body, the Kha’ri, and was a freedom fighter, during the Centauri occupation of Narn.
G’Kar’s evolution represents perhaps the straightest, least complicated arc of any character in the series. Beginning as an angry, vengeful, somewhat petty diplomat, whose main interest is to punish the Centauri for their invasion and occupation of his homeworld, he develops slowly, gradually, and seamlessly, into a skilled and generous negotiator, a dogged, loyal advocate of galactic peace, and finally, a statesman, writer of constitutions, and even a religious figure. As already mentioned, G’Kar’s relationship with Londo Molari, who over the course of the show is both his closest friend and his greatest nemesis, is one of B5’s strongest and most compelling elements.
Babylon 5 is connected in a number of different ways to Star Trek, that most iconic of all American science fiction TV franchises. The creative consultant to Straczynski for the duration of the series was Harlan Ellison, one of America’s most respected science fiction authors, who penned some of the most highly acclaimed episodes of the original Outer Limits, and who also wrote for the original Star Trek. Ellison had famously feuded with Star Trek creator Gene Rodenberry over what some consider to be the greatest single episode of the original series, “City on the Edge of Forever,” which was written by Ellison and then changed significantly, by Roddenberry, without his approval. He thus found a welcome opportunity in Babylon 5 to present a science fiction show from his own perspective, without the sort of meddling that caused his decades-long rift with Rodenberry. Also worth noting is that Paramount began broadcasting a new Star Trek franchise, Deep Space Nine, less than two months before the Babylon 5 pilot aired. The similarities between the two shows and the fact that Babylon 5 had been pitched to Paramount in 1989, led Straczynski to consider a lawsuit, something he eventually declined to pursue. (2) A number of Star Trek franchise cast members also appeared in Babylon 5, including the aforementioned Walter Koenig, Majel Barrett (Rodenberry’s widow, who also played in Deep Space Nine and whose appearance in Babylon 5 was an olive branch of sorts), and Andreas Katsulas, who played G’Kar.
Straczynski’s vision of Babylon 5 was that it should do for science fiction what Hill Street Blues had done for police dramas. Hill Street Blues, which ran from 1981 to 1987, redefined police shows and effected a shift in television toward more realistic depictions of law enforcement, rather than the more sanitary and tame versions that had been the norm in the 1970’s. Straczynski wanted to make the same kind of “grown-up” show for science fiction audiences, with realistic characters, in a setting that facilitated character growth, adaptation, and difficult choices. This matched up fairly well with Harlan Ellison’s own perspective on American science fiction, which he felt was largely puerile.
In terms of Babylon 5’s production, the original five-year sequence was marred by the fact that the American Prime Time Entertainment Network (PTEN), on which the first four seasons aired, folded in 1997 after the fourth season. Season Five was eventually picked up by the TNT Network, but very late in the show’s production timeline. Nonetheless, the series had resolved the major plot developments by the end of the fourth season, with Season Five then devoted to continuing some of the general history and the major characters’ stories in the aftermath of the action concluded in the previous season. Besides the original five years of the series, Straczynski was also able to film four B5 made-for-TV movies, as well as re-releasing the series Pilot and filming thirteen episodes of a successor series — also planned on a five year scale — called Crusade. That series, alas, never took off and was canceled after the first season.
Included below is a recipe for Bagna Cauda, a fondue-style dip from the northwestern region of Italy, known as Piedmont. It is a favorite of the station’s Chief of Security Michael Garibaldi, who learned to make it from his deceased father Alfredo, and who cooks it annually on Alfredo’s birthday. The dish is part of the subplot of the second season episode “A Distant Star,” and involves Garibaldi chafing under a new diet, imposed on the senior officers by the station’s chief physician, Dr. Stephen Franklin. At the end, Franklin and Garibaldi share the delicious meal, the diet quickly forgotten by the doctor, after he tastes Bagna Cauda for the first time.
Bagna Cauda (“Hot Bath”) (3)
Raw vegetables of your choice (see below) and/or a good, crusty bread.
2 cups heavy cream
6 to 8 cloves garlic
1/4 cup butter or extra-virgin olive oil (or a combination of both)
10 finely chopped flat anchovy fillets packed in olive oil, drained*
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley (optional)
1 (1 pound) loaf crusty Italian or French bread, cut into 2-inch sections
* Use only good-quality Spanish or Portuguese anchovies. Anchovy paste may be substituted (approximately two inches squeezed from the tube will provide the equivalent taste of one anchovy fillet). More anchovy fillets may be added according to your personal taste.
Wash and prepare the vegetables several hours before using them. Cut vegetable into strips about 3 inches long and 1/2-inch wide. Place all the vegetables in ice water to crisp.
In a large heavy saucepan over medium-high heat, add cream and garlic cloves; bring just to a boil, lower heat to medium, and cook, stirring constantly to prevent scorching or boiling over, approximately 15 minutes or until the cream has thickened and reduced by half (approximately 1 cup). Remove from heat and let cool slightly.
In another saucepan, melt the butter (or olive oil). Mash anchovies with a fork and add to butter, along with cayenne pepper and parsley; cook until the anchovies dissolves into a paste, about 5 minutes.
Put the reduced cream, garlic cloves, and anchovy mixture into a blender and purée until the mixture is very smooth. (The recipe may be made ahead to this point.)
In a saucepan, reheat the Bagna Cauda at a very slow simmer, stirring constantly, but do not let it boil.
Serve in warming dish over candle (a fondue pot works well). If sauce begins to separate while standing, a few turns with a whisk will bring it back together. Sauce may be made ahead and kept refrigerated in covered jar. To re-warm, place jar in cold water in a pan and gently raise the heat until mixture is liquid again.
Dip vegetables into the Bagna Cauda (a fondue-style fork will help), holding a piece of bread under the vegetable after dipping. After dipping a few pieces, the bread will be fragrant with oil and delicious to eat.
Makes 6 to 8 servings (1 1/2 cups).
(2) Straczynski’s comments online (lack of italics in original), on 2/4/1992, ten months before the airing of Deep Space Nine (DS9):
“When was B5 announced? Check the trades. November 21st , several articles appeared with the info. When was DS9 developed? That, too, is a matter of both record and other information. Was B5 brought to Paramount? Yes, it was, and I have the correspondence to prove it. Were some of the development people at Paramount who read the B5 screenplay and saw the [Babylon 5] series treatment and bible [i.e, the pitch materials Straczynski had sent to Paramount in 1989] also involved in the DS9 development? It seems that this is indeed the case.
Were Pillar and Berman [Rick Berman and Michael Pillar, creators of Deep Space Nine] aware of B5 at any time? No. Of that I am also confident. The only question in my mind is to what degree did the development people steer them? One scenario is that they did not steer them at ALL…but knowing of B5, and knowing how swell it would be if they could co-opt B5, if Pillar and Berman came up with a space station on their own, they would likely say nothing, even though they might be viewed as being under a moral obligation to say something. Another scenario is that they gave direction to the creative folks without telling them the origin of that direction.
There are several ways of dealing with this. One is to launch a major suit with full powers of discovery. The result is that DS9 gets tied up for months, maybe even years in litigation, and maybe the show doesn’t go forward. It also means hundreds of thousands of dollars spent by Warners and me and others pursuing this…not to mention the sense of ill will that will fly back and forth.
And while all options are still open, the general consensus for now seems to be to live and let live. (I assume you want to see DS9, do you not? If you’d like me to take this out of the realm of discussion and into the courts, there’s a better than even chance that we could kill it — is that what you want?) We are content to try and let the market decide which is the better program…or allow both to continue on and on indefinitely, in the hope that they will be sufficiently different that both can succeed.”
(3) Bagna Cauda recipe from http://whatscookingamerica.net/Appetizers/BagnaCauda.htm