Babylon 5 Thoughts

The 20th anniversary of "The Gathering," the pilot of Babylon 5, was marked over the weekend just gone. With that in mind, I spent the weekend watching episodes of B5.

The first thing I noted about the show this weekend was that it has, in a way, become dated somewhat. The things we take for granted today, such as the internet and social media, don't exist in their worlds. People still relied upon broadcast news services such as ISN, there was no equivalent of Wikipedia, Google, YouTube, Facebook or local cloud computing, and while the command staff carried links, they relied on voice communications and nearby screens, with bulky data crystals to store data which could not be read by those devices.

Another thing I noted was that none of the alien races had anything resembling Earthforce; the closest they came to it was when the Narns were assigned to station security - and then, we never saw Narn soldiers piloting Earthforce Starfuries or those atmosphere-capable Thunderbolts.

There was no Centauri or Drazi equivalent of the GROPOS; no Brakiri jarheads in fatigues on forced marches up and down station corridors, no Minbari drill Sergeants (even though they had a warrior caste, it seemed to be more like the Samurai than an actual warrior caste - you never saw a Minbari Private being reamed out by a hollering Minbari Sergeant for falling asleep on the job, but they were real big on honour and blowing up their own ships if there was failure. None of that sense of "We're assigned to this mission, so we're going to be here until the job gets done;" none of the sense of discipline in ranks one saw with the regular human squaddies and grunts.

Having taken all that into consideration, however, there is something I should say about Babylon 5.

It stands on its own. As a work of television, Babylon 5 is unique. It was an attempt to tell a single story, a narrative about this Casablanca in space, a story about a meeting point in neutral territory in the future, taking place at a time of Galactic upheaval as two ancient Empires, one of Light and Order, one of Darkness and Chaos, awoke after a slumber of a thousand years and had as it like Gods in a small boat adrift in an ocean, with everybody else caught in the middle like ants.

It was a story that worked. And it was an experiment in storytelling on television which will never happen again - and can never happen again. Television studios nowadays have no patience for the new and innovative; moreover, the days of TV science fiction series set in space - Star Trek, Babylon 5, Farscape, Stargate, Firefly - those days are, sadly, now long gone. Nobody does space sf series any more. Not since the end of Star Trek: Enterprise, at least.

Babylon 5, twenty years ago, was a major highlight in sf television. It was, in its way, a jumping the shark moment for the whole Space SF genre. Shows which followed it might have had more advanced special effects; but nothing since the end of the Nineties has matched the grand, sweeping, epic, operatic, tragic scope of Babylon 5. Not even the last series of Star Trek came close.

Babylon 5's last episode aired in 1998. It has been fifteen years since "Sleeping In Light" broke our hearts; twenty years since "The Gathering." And for all that the show is definitely a product of the Nineties, with its disturbingly prescient hints of the tyranny that has saddled us in real life in these first thirteen years of this new Millennium mixed with technology which looks curiously antiquated compared with tech we have even today, the show still has power to draw me in, every time.€

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