Author’s note: This article contains spoilers for selected episodes of Babylon 5.
No dictator, no invader can hold an imprisoned population by force of arms forever. There is no greater power in the universe than the need for freedom. Against that power, governments and tyrants and armies cannot stand. . . . Though it take a thousand years, we will be free. —G’Kar, Babylon 5, “The Long, Twilight Struggle”
February 22, 1993, marked a turning point in the history of science-fiction television. On that day, a TV movie called The Gathering aired on PTEN. It was the pilot for a new series called Babylon 5, set on a space station of that name. In the story, the station was “a place of commerce and diplomacy” between alien species—“the last, best hope for peace” following a devastating war between Earth and the devoutly religious Minbari. The pilot established a complex web of conflicts and alliances between the major alien governments, with hints of larger mysteries ahead.
In the five years that followed, Babylon 5 did something no science-fiction show had done before: unlike previous shows, in which each episode was a stand-alone narrative with little or no inter-episode continuity, Babylon 5 told a complete, preplanned story across its 110 episodes. It explored topics such as war, leadership, the conflict between tyranny and freedom, personal responsibility, addiction, the rise and fall of civilizations, and the meaning of life. Despite airing in direct competition with three different Star Trek series and nearly being canceled, the show attracted a loyal fan base that is still growing three decades later. This is largely thanks to the tireless effort and artistic devotion of creator J. Michael Straczynski, who took such pride in his creation that he insisted on writing the entire third and fourth seasons singlehandedly.
Although Babylon 5 is best known today for its pioneering use of long-form storytelling and computer-generated effects, the richness and depth of its philosophic themes and characters make it timeless and well worth watching for anyone interested in complex drama.
‘Standing between the Darkness and the Light’
Science-fiction films and television typically promote one of two worldviews. The more common is the dark or dystopian kind, represented by such films as Alien, Blade Runner, and Terminator, and TV shows such as Lexx, Blake’s 7, and the reimagined Battlestar Galactica. These depict bleak worlds with great suffering and little or no hope of change. The second, rarer kind is represented by the likes of Star Trek, which depict utopian futures in which humans have overcome their differences and spend their time exploring the universe.
In Babylon 5, Straczynski did neither, opting for a more realistic future in which humanity has progressed in some ways but retains some faults. Problems such as homelessness, terrorism, and substance addiction still exist on Earth, and people continue to argue and fight over religious and political ideas. Earth’s nations have joined together in a peaceful “Earth Alliance,” and a telepath gene has emerged in a small segment of the human race. This has evoked a great deal of hatred and resentment among some people, similar to present-day racial prejudices.
Although Babylon 5’s depiction of the future is neither optimistic nor pessimistic, the show is far from morally ambiguous. The storyline and character relationships set up conflicts that, in one way or another, always highlight a moral issue or choice, such as tyranny versus freedom, dogmatism versus rationality, or evasion versus personal responsibility. In many of the major conflicts between factions, one side represents “light” and the other “darkness.” The light serves as a metaphor for life, standing against both the darkness of space and the dark forces that seek to destroy life. This reflects Straczynski’s humanist worldview:
As an atheist, I believe that all life is unspeakably precious, because it’s only here for a brief moment, a flare against the dark, and then it’s gone forever. No afterlives, no second chances, no backsies. So there can be nothing crueler than the abuse, destruction or wanton taking of a life. . . . for there is always just one of each.1
Straczynski’s view of the sanctity of life is perhaps best represented in the character of Dr. Stephen Franklin (Richard Biggs), the station’s chief physician. In one of the earliest and most controversial episodes, “Believers,” Franklin has to choose whether to operate on a dying alien child and save his life, which would mean overriding the parents’ religious conviction that the operation would release his spirit, a fate they regard as worse than death. Franklin, although from a religious background himself, rejects this irrational view and operates to save the child’s life in spite of the parents’ refusal to allow it. When the station commander asks him, “Who asked you to play God?,” Franklin answers,
Every damn patient who comes through that door, that’s who! People come to doctors because they want us to be gods. They want us to make it better, or make it not so. They want to be healed, and they come to me when their prayers aren’t enough. Well, if I have to take the responsibility, then I claim the authority, too. I did good. And we both know it.
Another episode that makes Straczynski’s respect for life explicit is season four’s “Moments of Transition.” During a civil war on the Minbari homeworld, the leader of a violent warrior faction comments that Delenn (Mira Furlan), against whom he is fighting, “values life above all things.” To this, one of his fellow warriors asks, “Is it wrong to value life? I thought that is why we fought.” The leader answers, “We fight because it is our nature. It is the calling of our heart. Life and death are simply two consequences, both equal, neither valued or feared above the other. For a warrior, death is simply the release from our obligation.” The leader represents the disregard for individual lives and the valuing of one’s group identity and “obligation” over the rights of others, as against the life-valuing philosophy of the protagonists fighting against him.
In later seasons, when the larger forces behind the initial conflicts are revealed, the light versus darkness theme becomes explicit, with one side embodying chaos, destruction, and conflict while the other embodies order and control. As that conflict reaches its climax, the characters and the factions they lead must choose whether to ally with one of these philosophies or reject both in favor of something new.
Alongside the essential themes of light versus dark and freedom versus tyranny, the show also dabbles in philosophic questions about the meaning of life. Unfortunately, this sometimes takes the form of mysticism; certain characters talk about “the universe” as though it is conscious and purposeful. Many thoughtful characters come from deeply religious cultures. For example, Delenn and her aide Lennier (Bill Mumy) also sometimes advocate irrational ideas such as collective responsibility and self-sacrifice for the group. However, it is unclear whether these constitute part of the show’s message, as they are consistent with the tribal nature of Minbari culture.
Nonetheless, the show deserves credit for discussing such issues, and the way it explores them in later seasons through the conflicts and interactions between the different species makes clear that the overall theme of the series is the triumph of life and freedom over darkness and tyranny.
Personal Responsibility and Standing Up to Tyranny
Almost every major character in Babylon 5 at some point faces a choice between “loyalty” to his or her race or nation and doing what he or she knows is right—standing up against tyrants and fighting for freedom. For the human characters, the assassination of the Earth Alliance president in the first season sets off Earth’s gradual descent from representative republic to outright tyranny, which spreads to Babylon 5 with the arrival of the 1984-inspired Night Watch, a sinister group whose members spy on their friends and colleagues and report “disloyal” behavior back to the regime. When a reporter working for the regime comes to Babylon 5 and claims that the new government on Earth has eliminated poverty, Captain Sheridan (Bruce Boxleitner) asks her when exactly that happened. In another 1984-inspired moment, she replies, “When we rewrote the dictionary.”
Another arm of the regime is the Psi-Corps, a government agency that forces all human telepaths to either join it or take mind-suppressing drugs. The Psi-Corps is personified in the character of Alfred Bester (Walter Koenig), a power-mad “psi-cop” who revels in hunting down rogue telepaths, considers “mundane” non-telepathic humans inferior and rightless, and uses any means necessary to maintain the power of the Corps. Throughout the crisis on Earth, Captain Sheridan and his crew are forced to decide between their loyalty to Earth and their principles, and not everyone on the crew makes the same decision. As the larger galactic conflict intensifies, other characters face similar challenges on their homeworlds.
But the choice to stand up against tyranny isn’t the only hard decision characters have to make. Many must choose whether to stop evading truths about their own lives. Substance addiction is a recurring theme; Doctor Franklin at one point develops an addiction to stimulant drugs after using them to work longer shifts. He evades acknowledging this until his best friend threatens to tell the captain. Franklin runs a blood test on himself to prove his friend wrong, but the result makes clear that he is addicted. He goes to the captain and comes clean about his addiction. Then he leaves his job to go on a “walkabout” to overcome the addiction and think through his life and priorities. “I’ve got a lot to figure out,” he tells the captain, “and it’s time that I started.” The importance of such honesty, both with oneself and others, is a recurring theme and is captured nicely in a line spoken by G’Kar (Andreas Katsulas): “I find, if you cannot say what you mean, you can never mean what you say.”
Although Babylon 5 narrowly avoided cancellation at the end of season four (in response to which Straczynski rushed some storylines to a premature conclusion), it built up enough of a following to spawn a number of spin-offs. Most of these are also worth watching, most notably Crusade, which would have been another of Straczynski’s epic five-year stories had it not been canceled prematurely. But although these spin-offs are worth watching, it is the main five-year run that best displays Straczynski’s artistic achievement.
Babylon 5 is a unique series that tells an epic story rich in philosophic ideas and moral messages. Further, it was the first to prove that another space-based series could hold its own against the dominance of the Star Trek franchise. In doing these things, it set the stage for an explosion of heavily thematic science-fiction television shows in the late 1990s and 2000s, including Stargate SG-1, Farscape, Andromeda, Firefly, and the 2003 reboot of Battlestar Galactica. But Babylon 5’s integrated story and complex subject matter set it apart from all others, making it one of the most interesting, most intelligent works of science-fiction television ever made.
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1. “Passing through Gethsemane,” The Lurker’s Guide to Babylon 5, http://www.midwinter.com/lurk/countries/us/guide/048.html#JS.