Classic Sci Fi TV: Our ongoing look back at many of the classics of science fiction and fantasy television.
What Is It? This show takes place on the massive space station Babylon 5 that acts as a neutral meeting place for the various races in the known galaxy. Over the course of the show’s five-year run, it chronicles a war with one of the ancient races as well as the immediate aftermath of that galaxy-wide conflict.
When Did It Air? PTEN, 1993-98, 5 Seasons Totaling 110 Episodes + 6 TV Movies
Created By: J. Michael Straczynski
Starring: Bruce Boxleitner, Claudia Christian, Jerry Doyle, Mira Furlan, Peter Jurasik, Andreas Katsulas
Is It Must-Watch Sci Fi TV? Absolutely. The CGI might not stand up as well to today’s standards, but this show delivered an epic story-arc and a grand space opera saga that has had few rivals on television. This counts as a Top 10, possibly Top 5, entry among sci fi shows.
The Skinny: With Babylon 5, J. Michael Straczynski set out to tale a grand story over five seasons and he managed to do just that. The series unfolded across each season as its story became more and more intricate and involved and it set the gold standard for the story-arc format on television, essentially introducing it to the genre. What made the story work so well was that Straczynski himself wrote the vast majority of the episodes, meaning that he had a great deal of creative control over how the story progressed. He also masterfully engineered his tale, setting up “trap doors” to deal with the departures of actors like Michael O’Hare and Andrea Thompson and other unexpected changes. And unlike some later “story-arc” shows of the 21st century, he was not just making it up as he went along.
Of course, we must give credit to the cast as well who delivered such iconic characters as G-Kar and Mollari and Mr. Garibaldi and Ivanova and Delenn and many, many more. It’s true that the acting could be wooden at times, especially amongst the human characters, and the dialog often sounded stiff, but I blame that more on the stilted directing that was the result of hurried production to keep costs down. But the warts that you may find when you break the show down to its component parts are far out-weighed by the scope of the series and the greater story that it told (as well as some of its excellent stand-alone episodes). Babylon 5 delivered the grand space epic that sci fi fans crave, and while it may have suffered some from age (just like the original Star Trek and Twilight Zone), it still counts as must-watch sci fi television and a game-changing entry for the genre on television.
Essential Episodes: There are multiple lists out there that give you the main story-arc episodes such as this good run-down of the series over at io9.com. But don’t think that the core story is the only thing worth following on the show. It delivers some absolutely gut-wrenching stand alone stories such as “Deathwalker” (Season 1), “Confessions and Lamentations” (Season 2), and “The Illusion of Truth” (Season 4) that are must-see episodes. The fifth season has a lot of filler and after-thought episodes because JMS rushed through the story thinking the show might not survive past its fourth year. But it still has its moments as well.
Where Can You Watch It: The entire series is widely available on DVD and economically priced, but it has yet to get the Blu-ray treatment that it deserves. It has also finally made its way to streaming as Verizon’s Go90 has the entire series online.
Revival: The sequel series Crusade began the year after Babylon 5 wrapped up its final season, but creative differences between JMS and TNT lead to that one ending after only thirteen episodes. Later, the Sci Fi Channel aired the pilot Legend of the Rangers, but the network did not promote it well and it did not continue to series. The DVD-only movie Lost Tales was supposed to start off a series of mostly stand-alone stories, but no further releases resulted from that venture. There have been talks of a movie as well as the dreaded reboot, but nothing substantial has come from that.
Did You Know? Babylon 5 aired on PTEN (The Prime Time Entertainment Network) which was originally envisioned as a fifth broadcast network that would air across the syndicated channels. B5 was one of its flagship shows along with Kung Fu: The Legend Continues (which lasted for four seasons) and Time Trax (which survived for two). From its ashes came UPN (which would air Star Trek: Voyager) and The WB (which would give us Buffy, the Vampire Slayer and Angel), and those two would eventually merge together as The CW.