Liz Tells Frank What Happened In “Babylon 5”

Dear Frank,

So I don’t think it’s any secret that I pretty much spent the 1990s watching whatever sci-fi television was readily available to me. But one that I’ve never given much thought to was Babylon 5, J. Michael Straczynski’s five-year tale of a space station caught in the middle of intergalactic war. Maybe a part of it was the fact that my heart at that point belonged to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and there were only so many space station shows to which I could pledge eternal fealty? I dunno, to be honest. I just know that it’s weird, because I have been rewatching Babylon 5 this week, Frank, and Babylon 5? Actually kind of awesome.

The basic deal was this: Babylon 5 was a space station created as a port of call for a Mos Eisley cantina’s worth of alien races as well as a neutral seat of politics for various planetary federations — ostensibly doing what the United Nations did after World War II to prevent another interstellar war.

Instead, though, it ended up becoming an independent political force that led a war against a totally ancient first evil called the Shadows (you know they were evil because their space ships looked like giant spiders, and yes, it’s a first evil with space ships, just go with it), not to mention an Earth gone completely fascist and no shortage of inter-species fighting. It’s an incredibly dense four seasons of narrative, covering the political situations on at least four different planets simultaneously with the on-station intrigue, while also managing to find time for some incredibly endearing characters, romance, time travel, religious symbolism, telepaths and the occasional Looney Tunes clip.

I mean, when I said on Twitter that it was a space show about a magic space station with terrible CGI, I wasn’t exaggerating — I mean, Babylon 5 wasn’t exactly magic, except of course for the angels and the ghosts and the souls and Ambassador Delenn going into a cocoon and coming out half-human. And the CGI… Well, okay, if you pretend that you’re playing a video game on your old Sega Genesis, they don’t look so bad.

And yeah, a lot of the dialogue was kind of terribly hamfisted, delivered by a cast of actors who are constantly picking bits of scenery out of their teeth. But while the acting tends toward the histrionic, some of the characters were truly kick-ass.

Not necessarily folk like Captain Sheridan (aka your friend and mine, Tron), who was pretty much Military Guy With A Wry Sense of Humor. I mean, Sheridan was fine. But Garibaldi! Hard-boiled Garibaldi, who was pretty much just an old-timey detective with a strong moral compass.

And tough as hell Delenn, who didn’t let falling in love with Sheridan keep her from being a ruthless politician and military leader of her people (while also still being kind of adorably naive). G’kar, noble leader of the Narn people! The conniving Londo, and his deceptively sweet and savvy assistant Vir!

And fuck me freddy, IVANOVA. Frank, if you’re wondering how I managed to become so awesome as an adult, having role models like Ivanova around during my adolescence was probably a big help — second-in-command Ivanova showed me that being smart and strong and funny were totally normal things for a girl to be. I could try and explain to you in detail why Ivanova is awesome, or I could embed a clip of Ivanova being bad-ass, and frankly the latter is a lot more fun.

Fun fact: Ivanova was also gayer than an entire season of Xena Warrior Princess — she actually had a lady-on-lady romance that is historically overlooked in studies of gay people on TV, possibly because it suffered from a fade-to-black treatment so extreme that most people don’t actually remember it happened.

But that didn’t keep the totally hunky Marcus from having a crush on her! Marcus was great. He had a British accent and a quarterstaff like Donatello and while he was an awesome mystical warrior, he seemed totally content to just follow Ivanova around like a puppy.

Ivanova never loved him back, though (see second-to-last paragraph) and when he met a tragic end she said one of those lines that shook me to my teenybopper core: “All love is unrequited.” FRANK IT WAS SO SAD. Who needs shit like Twilight when you have Babylon 5?

I’m totally doing a disservice to this show by focusing on Ivanova and how awesome she was, but the beauty of the show is how many facets there were to it. Interested in Shakespearean histories? Then the story of Londo’s rise to power on Centauri, and the ruin that came with it, is for you. Enjoy post-modern media satire? There are not one but TWO episodes shot as news reports for the Earth network ISN, the second showing how corrupted Earth has become. Like yourself a Jesus allegory? Fuck, man, Sheridan dies and then comes back from the dead.

Babylon 5, in short, has no shortage of flaws but was all in all a great four seasons of television. I keep saying four seasons, Frank, because Straczynski was kind of a crazy person when he set out to do this show, demanding a commitment of five seasons from whoever agreed to make it because he had the whole thing all mapped out. Then the show nearly didn’t get a fifth season and so the important aspects of the Babylon 5 storyline were compressed into season 4, capped off with an insanely cool season finale that covered the next thousand years of history, showing how our pals Sheridan and Delenn changed the course of human events.

The only problem? TNT stepped up at like the last minute to say, oh, hey, we’ll totally fund a fifth season. Thus, yes, technically there was a fifth season, despite the fact that there was no plot for it. So we don’t talk about the fifth season. No one talks about it. It was a terribly disappointing waste of time. Forget I even mentioned it.

But maybe check out the other seasons of this show, Frank! (It’s on Netflix Instant and everything!) Because perhaps you will not worship Ivanova the same way I do, or have any patience with the visual effects, or enjoy its more flowery touches. But it was bold, interesting, moved like lightning and made you think. In short — it deserves to be remembered.


About Liz Shannon Miller

Liz Shannon Miller is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor, and has been talking about television on the Internet since the very beginnings of the Internet. She is currently Senior TV Editor at Collider, and her work has also been published by the New York Times, Vulture, Variety, the AV Club, the Hollywood Reporter, IGN, The Verge, and Thought Catalog. She is also a produced playwright, a host of podcasts, and a repository of "X-Files" trivia.

Posted on February 7, 2011, in Some Spoilers, TV and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. Thanks for covering B5, Liz. Truly one of the great Sci-Fi shows, I feel.

    It’s hard for some folks to get into, largely because (as you pointed out) there are so many individual embarrassingly cringe-worthy moments linked to just awful dialogue and terrifyingly bad acting, especially in the first 10 episodes (the acting & dialogue make the pilot almost unwatchable, despite being terribly important to the story).

    Fortunately, after the first season the main cast really finds its legs and, while that never stops the under-fives from being downright awful at times, those core characters and the overarching plot are absolutely fantastic. As a whole the show shines as a fantastic example of serial season plotting combined with individual episodic resolution.

    And, while Lennier will always be my favorite B5 character, I’ll give your Ivanova an 11 on the bad-ass scale.

  2. YOU FOUND THE IVANOVA IS GOD CLIP! That is my favorite mantra in the world.


  3. You know I was with you up until you start talking shit about the 5th Season. You are dead to me now.

  4. I feel so much happier now I udnesratnd all this. Thanks!

  5. Just been googling appearances of “all love is unrequieted” and came on this site. Kudos to you (knowledgeable) B5 fans. I speak as someone who fell in love with said show in his 40s, after having long experience reading SF and usually being disappointed in film/TV SF. I acknowledge all flaws of B5 mentioned in comments. Compared with Battlestar Galactica, every show of the latter was individually better than (almost) every show of B5. Acting and production values superior in latter show. And yet … B5 to my mind still stands as the greatest TV science fiction show yet aired. Why? Because it was a unified story. If you followed BG, and were waiting for the big pay-off that it seemed repeatedly to promise, when we got there, a bit of a thud. Somewhat like Lost, it was clear by the end that the show’s creators didn’t have the end all planned out from the beginning. And that’s where JMS’s B5 has it all over BG. So especially from a literary point of view, B5 still rocks.

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