The Name of the Place? Babylon 5.

Apologies to everybody who came hither through Galactica or Game of Thrones. This show was my first true love: 

Over the course of the first season, the show focused on crisis-of-the-week storylines, such as the station dockers going on strike after Earth refuses to pay for more advanced and safer equipment after a horrendous accident kills several workers, and also on a series of longer-running mysteries. Sinclair’s missing memories (which gradually start to return) is the most prominent of these, but there are also the military provocations by the resurgent and belligerent Narn Regime against their former conquerors, the Centauri, which infuriate the proud Centauri Ambassador, Londo, whose constant plans to stymie the Narn are frustrated by what he considers to be a cowardly government…until he is offered a deal with the devil that rapidly spirals out of control. Other storylines are more mundane, such as Security Chief Garibaldi’s constant struggles to stay sober and first officer Ivanova’s constantly painful family and love life. In Season 2 the show unexpectedly has the Babylon Project’s mission of peace ending as two of the major powers go to war, manipulated by shadowy forces behind the scenes. Later seasons see the outbreak of a massive galaxy-spanning conflict, with the station’s crew going from bureaucrats and pen-pushers to big damn heroes, doing whatever it takes to make sure they and their homeworlds survive.

This show and the battle behind it came into my life through the very early fandom internet, where a big sprawling listserv run by the creator and writer J. Michael Straczynski broke down not only every episode but every bit of maneuvering behind the scenes to tell the story the way he wanted it told. He’d answer fan questions for HOURS, sometimes the same one three times, and talk and talk and talk about the writing of the show:

There will always be short-term setbacks, but as long as we climb back a few inches higher than we were before we fell down, we keep moving toward the goal of becoming a better people, and getting off the planet. Taking our place among the stars. While it’s vaguely possible that I may *see* a Mars colony sometime within my lifetime, I know that I will never live there…but that ain’t the point, it isn’t a victory if *I* do it, and a failure if *I* don’t, it’s if *we* do it or not. Maybe we’ll do it today, maybe we’ll do it tomorrow, the point is to decide to DO it, and then by god DO IT.

It’s all still online as the Lurker’s Guide to Babylon 5, and you have to know what you’re looking for but it’s there: 

… the most any writer can ever ask for. To tell a tale worth telling. To make people cry. To make people laugh. And even, once in a while, make them think about things, and see the world just a little differently than when they began.

And then they can centerpunch me on the freeway, or throw a plane at me, and I won’t even mind. Because everything I set out to prove, I proved. Everything I set out to say, I said.

I’ve carried this story like a hermit crab carries its shell for five long years, counting the pilot. It’s been an *awfully* long and difficult road, and no one will ever really know just how hard this show was to make. Nor should they, because it isn’t the difficulty that makes the story, the *story* makes the story.

I used to go back to that passage from the listserv (which refers to the end of the series as it was intended to end, not as it might have been cancelled by some capricious bunch of suits which was a serious fear at the time) over and over. I can recite it to you from memory. I used to read it in the middle of the night and I’m pretty sure at certain points in my life it kept me alive.

See, Babylon 5 was about an isolated place that became a symbol, an outpost that became a cause, and the unlikely victory it won against impossible odds, against cosmic forces, against cowardice and pettiness and revenge and death itself. It was about taking all the broken shit you have, and banging on it with a hammer until it became something useful, something good and true, something capable of saving.

It was about what happened afterward, too, about the aftershocks of war and the way symbols are twisted and turned, the way friends and comrades change, the way all the dark things you put aside in the struggle wait, and come to claim you.

And as all works that become important to you do, this hit me at a time when I needed what it had to offer.

I was part of an organization that was almost dying, that my friends and I were fighting every day to keep going. We fought outside forces and we fought each other, too, and then I’d go home at night and watch this group of people try to keep their station alive, and I’d log on to watch somebody try to keep his show alive, and I’d send friends who didn’t even watch the thing quotes I thought might help them, because we were all alone in the night. We had a lot of broken shit. We had a lot of hammers, and not a lot of hope.

May the gods always stand between you and harm in all the empty places where you must walk.

The effects look cheesy now. Some of the standalone eps rely on outdated sci-fi tropes, or are dumb. But oh, these people are real, and their story — about what we owe one another, about the futility of vengeance and the need to reach upward, always — is more important than any 20 “prestige TV” shows I’ve watched in the past decade.

Delenn of the Minbari, a woman alone, saying to a bunch of nasty old fossils who’ve ruled her world since time immemorial: Your system serves us no longer so we will tear it down.

(Also Delenn of the Minbari, pulling her derpy boyfriend out of an interstellar jam and making her enemies glad they wore the brown pants that day.)

Ivanova and her bravado and her fear. Garibaldi and his impulsiveness and his regret. G’kar and Londo and Vir and acts of courage alone in the dark where no one will ever see them. The writing the writing the writing, good God, read this:

Mary Ann Cramer: I have to ask you the same question people back home are asking about space these days. Is it worth it? Should we just pull back? Forget the whole thing as a bad idea, and take care of our own problems at home?

Sinclair: 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.

I mean good God. Sometimes you’re reading or hearing someone’s work and you can just tell they were in a complete and total OTHER FUCKIN’ PLACE when that happened, and they must have come back to themselves stunned and bewildered.

And if there’s a message we need to hear more than this right now, I don’t know what it is:

Ivanova: This is Commander Susan Ivanova of Babylon 5, and this is the first official broadcast of the new Voice of the Resistance. We’re sending this signal out to every ship that wants to hear the truth, to our fallen comrades and freedom fighters on Mars and Proxima 3, and to Earth, which, despite what you may have heard, is still our home and still the one dream that we are as loyal to now as we ever have been. Over the last three years, ever since President Clark took over after arranging the assassination of President Santiago, you have been hearing nothing but misinformation, propaganda, and outright lies. Now we’re going to tell you the truth, and we’re going to keep telling it until they shut us down or until President Clark steps down and returns Earth to the hands of its people. You can kill us, you can bomb our colonies, destroy our ships, murder innocent civilians, but you cannot kill the truth. And the truth is back in business.

So happy anniversary, Babylon 5. And thanks for everything.

A.

9 thoughts on “The Name of the Place? Babylon 5.

  1. Peter Adrastos Athas says:

    I didn’t watch it but I think I should give it a shot. Good writing and strong characters are more important than effects.

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  2. gratuitous says:

    I got interested in Babylon 5 casually watching an episode (season 1?) where the news show was reporting that the Earth President was rounding up dissidents and revolutionaries in order to keep the peace. The newscaster (the media outlets were already co-opted by the corrupt government) was praising President Clark for the crackdown while the names of those arrested were flashed on the chyron at the bottom of the screen. The first name was Paul Jarrico, and I thought, “Hey, wasn’t he . . .?” Then it was replaced by Dalton Trumbo, then Ring Lardner, and I knew, “These are the names of the Hollywood Ten!”

    At that point, I figured the show just might appeal to me in a way that science fiction usually doesn’t.

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  3. suilebhan says:

    My wife and I were big fans back in the day ( as we oldsters say), and I’m struck by the many parallels to the present one finds in the series. I feel like we are living during the return of the shadows, with Trump as their compromised president. In our ICEstapo I see the disgusting Night Watch. I see people of color, Muslims, Dreamers and others reduced to the status of Lurkers.

    Fortunately, I think we are seeing the rise of large resistance movements in groups such as BLM, Never Again, Me Too and the Women’s March.

    Parallels aside, Babylon 5 was a great story. I watched all five season again last year with one of my kids who’d never seen it. He loved it as much as I did.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post on the 25th anniversary.

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  4. CONNIE COLVIN says:

    TO ME, B5 IS THE BEST ON ALL LEVELS, I DON’T THINK THE EFFECTS ARE CHEESY AT ALL. THE SHOW HAS HAD A PROFOUND AFFECT ON MY LIFE. IT IS IN MY DNA. THANKS FOR YOUR ARTICLE.LOVE B5, FOREVER. NOT SHOUTIONG, BAD HAND, CANNOT TYPE.

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  5. filkertom says:

    Still the best science fiction TV series ever. I was a fan before it even came out (I had an Amiga computer, and we got lots of early articles on the show’s SFX), and when I finally got to see it — a friend hosted a nine-episode marathon for a bunch f us — I was absolutely hooked. Superlative acting, great scripts, romance, intrigue, action, philosophy, you name it.

    Best. Show. Ever.

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  6. James Jacobs says:

    I’ve watched the whole series at least 15 times or more. Many scenes still give me chills or goosebumps (Severed Dreams). Great writing and acting is timeless. The similarities between Presidents Clark and Trump and their actions are eerie. Scarily, it appears that Trump does not fear “Scorched Earth”.

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  7. mhjohnsen says:

    Reblogged this on Oh, the horror… and commented:
    A lovely appreciation post for Babylon 5 over at First Draft. B5 was always my first sci-fi love.

    Like

  8. NoPublic says:

    G’kar-Lando, Lando-Garabaldi, and Lando-Vir are some of the best written high tension relationships I’ve ever seen on TeeVee. Mr Morden is such a great catspaw.

    “The avalanche has already started. It is too late for the pebbles to vote.”

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  9. Jon says:

    Athena that whole other place he was writing from? You have been there. I have read it. It’s why I read this blog . (Intermittently) And yes I agree it was a great show, although not without flaws. Now only if it were streaming…

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