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. . . .
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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.