A Retrospective on “Babylon 5” Season 1 “Signs and Portents” (Part 1)

Box Art for Season 1 of “Babylon 5”. Source

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.

Opening Narration by Jeffrey Sinclair, Babylon 5

As the opening narration posted above states, Babylon 5 starts with a grand vision of the future that is born from a devastating war. It is the vision of its creator, J. Michael Straczynski, who spent five years trying to get this show off the ground. And even once it was up and running, each year was almost guaranteed to be its last, only getting renewed at the last moment.

The series was ground-breaking for a number of reasons. It was the first American science-fiction show to utilize computer-generated effects rather than models (which Star Trek was still using at the time). It was also designed from the beginning to be a contained, five-year story arc rather than an ongoing series that didn’t have a definitive end. We take for granted serialized storytelling now in the streaming age but in the late 1990’s, this was an untested idea in American television. It cannot be understated that without a show like Babylon 5, shows such as 24, Lost, or any of the Netflix original shows would have been considered.

Cast for Season 1 (from R to L): Security Chief Michael Garibaldi, Lieutenant Commander Susan Ivanova, Ambassador Londo Mollari, Ambassador Delenn, Commander Jeffrey Sinclair, Talia Winters, Ambassador G’kar, Dr. Stephen Franklin. Source

The most important aspect of Babylon 5, however, are its characters and how their decisions impact not only themselves but the universe around them. The Milky Way galaxy of B5 is a lived-in universe, full of terrors and wonders to satisfy all. As Straczynski explained in an interview once, he had two competing ideas for a story: a grand epic with the rise and fall of empires and a United Nations-style personal drama set in space. As the creator put it, the idea to combine those two occurred to him while in the shower (creative people tend to have brilliant ideas in the strangest places). From the merging of those two ideas, the show was born.

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Season One of Babylon 5 is a rough season to get through, admittedly. I’m a fan of the show and it is not the easiest string of episodes to plow through at times. The first season is twenty-two episodes in length and is largely filled with standalone episodes that plant seeds for further stories to be told. One of the hallmarks of B5 is that stories don’t have a definitive climax at the end of the episode. There are plot hooks and stories that don’t receive a payoff for years (or ever in some cases). This season really is about setting up the universe, the characters that exist in it, and the show finding its rhythm and voice.

Among the diverse characters we are introduced to, the stand-outs are Commander Jeffrey Sinclair, played with cool grit by the late Michael O’Hare; Lieutenant-Commander Susan Ivanova, a steely-eyed second-in-command played by Claudia Christian; the wise-cracking Security Chief Michael Garibaldi, played by the late Jerry Doyle; the enigmatic and secretive Delenn, played by Mira Furlan; the late Andreas Katsulas as the mercurial Ambassador G’Kar; and last but not least, the buffoonish blowhard Ambassador Londo Mollari, played by Peter Jurasik. There are a number of other prominent characters that play a key role in the narrative across the course of the show but these are the main focal point characters that much of the action revolves around during the first season.

Ambassador Londo Mollari (portrayed by Peter Jurasik) and Ambassador G’Kar (portrayed by the late Andreas Katsulas). Source

The first half of Season 1 (counting the pilot The Gathering and the first 12 episodes) serve as a means of establishing who these characters are and what they stand for. Sinclair and Garibaldi are shown as close friends and comrades, with Ivanova having to be the voice of reason between the two of them. The enmity between Ambassador’s G’Kar and Londo Mollari is set in the first episode as a blood feud. As we discover in that episode, the Narn (Ambassador G’Kar’s species) were once the subjugated slaves of the Centauri (Ambassador Mollari’s species). The Narn were able to free themselves through a war of attrition and since then have been expanding outward in order to protect themselves from such a fate occurring again.

Londo: We should have wiped out your kind when we had the chance.

G’kar: What happened? Run out of small children to butcher?

Ambassador’s Londo and G’kar, “Midnight on the Firing Line”

The main backdrop of the series and the first season is the Earth-Minbari War, a terrible conflict that began over a misunderstanding and the death of the Minbari’s greatest leader that was caused by that misunderstanding. Commander Sinclair fought in that war, in a climactic battle called The Battle of the Line. Ambassador Delenn, a Minbari, was also part of that conflict but we are not given many details of that at first. The carnage caused by the Earth-Minbari War is the reason that the Babylon stations were created, to foster peace and avoid such a costly conflict in the future. The reason the space station is called Babylon 5 is that the first four Babylon stations were either destroyed or disappeared. Over the course of the first half of Season 1, we get to see the consequences of that war’s end and how it has affected the people who survived it.

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 I don’t know! Maybe the universe blinked. Maybe God changed His mind. All I know is that we got a second chance!

Commander Jeffrey Sinclair, “And the Sky Full of Stars”

Among the first 12 episodes of the first season, the best episodes are “Midnight on the Firing Line”, “Soul Hunter”, “Born to the Purple”, “Mind War”, “And the Sky Full of Stars”, “Deathwalker”, and “By Any Means Necessary”. Each of them serves to highlight specific characters and how their choices impact the story and those around them.

No. We have to stay here. And there’s a simple reason why. Ask ten different scientists about the environment, population control, genetics, and you’ll get ten different answers. But there’s one thing every scientist on the planet agrees on. Whether it happens in a hundred years or a thousand years or a million years, eventually our Sun will grow cold and go out. When that happens, it won’t just take us. It’ll take Marilyn Monroe, and Lao-Tzu, and Einstein, and Morobuto, and Buddy Holly, and Aristophanes, and all of this…all of this…was for nothing. Unless we go to the stars.

Commander Jeffrey Sinclair, “Infection”

As mentioned above, “Midnight on the Firing Line” establishes the animosity between the Narn and the Centauri as well as the personal hatred between G’Kar and Londo. We also get to see all of the major characters in their element. It’s a good in media res episode (since the station has been online for almost a year by the start of this episode).

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“Born to the Purple” is a Londo-centric episode, which gives us a peek at the man behind the title Ambassador, showing us that the buffoonish character we’ve seen up to that point has some wonderful dimensions. Londo’s traits are well-established: he’s an alcoholic, a womanizer who has no issues cheating on his wives, and he’s a rather boorish character. Beneath all of that, though, is a deeply passionate man who longs for better days.

“Mind War” introduces the audience to the character of Alfred Bester, a recurring character played with relish by Star Trek alumni Walter Koenig. “Mind War” also serves to help establish that telepaths exist in this universe and what the Psi Corp is: a branch of the Earth government meant to police and contain those humans with the telepathic gift. It is a wonderful showcase for Andrea Thompson as the character Talia Winters, a human telepath who is torn between her conscience and her duty to the Psi Corp.

Fan Art for Babylon 5. Source

“And the Sky Full of Stars” delves deep into Sinclair’s backstory, revealing the events of The Battle of the Line and the mystery of why the Minbari surrendered on the eve of wiping out the human race. We begin to see that the human government, EarthGov, is not an idealistic utopia similar to the Federation from Star Trek. We also see that Delenn has played a much bigger part in Sinclair’s life than just being his friend.

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“Deathwalker” could be considered by some to be a throwaway episode but for me, it helps to establish the moral clarity of the show and its characters by casting them against an all-too familiar monster in Jhadur, a member of a dead species known as the Dilgar, that was responsible for unspeakable atrocities. Contrasting Jhadur with even the most nefarious actions of characters like G’Kar and the various criminals on B5 gives Straczynski the chance to make a statement as to where the moral high ground exists in this universe and where everyone stands by comparison.

You and the rest of your kind take blind comfort in the belief that we are monsters, that you could never do what we did. The key ingredient in the anti-agapic cannot be synthesized. It must be taken from living beings. For one to live forever, another one must die. You will fall upon one another like wolves. It will make what we did pale by comparison. The billions who live forever will be a testimony to my work. And the billions who are murdered to buy that immortality will be the continuance of my work. Not like us? You will become us. That is my monument, Commander.

Jha’dur, “Deathwalker”

“By Any Means Necessary” is a wonderful character study of Sinclair as he is forced to deal with a strike from the dock workers that help run the infrastructure of B5. It is very clearly a pro-union message and continues to show the cracks in the moral foundation of EarthGov. I got the feeling that Straczynski had done some research into the documentary Harlan County, USA (which profiled a labor strike by coal miners in Harlan County, KY).

Overall, the first half of Season 1 has a more hits than it does misses. The pacing may be a bit too slow for some but that pacing is what allows each of the characters to have their moments and show them growing in new directions. I would encourage anyone who has the opportunity to sit down and begin the series. The effects may look slapdash at this point and there are times the acting isn’t that great, but for the most part, this is a show that can and will hook you in for the entirety of its run.

Babylon 5: The Complete Collection. Available on Amazon

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