Babylon 5 – Reflecting upon times past
The recent death of Jerry Doyle got me thinking about many things, not least of which was mortality. A lot of people in the US knew Jerry as a syndicated, right wing talk radio host, with passionate opinions and a thirst for making people think by shaking their certainties, no matter which direction they leaned. Another group, not limited to America, knew him by another name, though: Michael Garibaldi of the space station Babylon 5.
Jerry was one of the leads of the SciFi series Babylon 5, which started in 1994, and ended in 1998. Encompassing 5 seasons, 110 episodes and 6 television films (not to mention 10 novels acknowledged as Canon), Babylon 5 had an arc storyline with a beginning, middle and an end, as well as numerous other stories for characters and groups that interwove with this, sometimes affecting it, sometimes merely passing alongside for a while. Running alongside Star Trek: The Next Generation and then Start Trek: Deep Space 9, Babylon 5 had a troubled genesis, changing from one TV network to another for the 5th season, after almost ending early, causing it to have an uneven final season.
It spawned a couple of spin offs, neither of which matched the success and quality of the original, and was lucky to have been blessed with a number of very good actors in leading and supporting roles, as well as a showrunner and Executive Producer who also wrote 92 of the episodes: J Michael Stracynski.
The show was often controversial, rarely afraid to drag politics, religion and racism into the future, arguing that there was no panacea for these things – That they were common to all sentients and needed to be dealt with together. Babylon 5 showed that scifi on TV didn’t have to be Star Trek to survive, that you could grow and thrive, and things didn’t have to return to ‘normal’ every week.
It dealt with adult themes like terrorism, betrayal, free will, love and growth. It’s characters loved and hated each other, sometimes at the same time. There were strange bedfellows, secrets and lies, and allies of convenience. Friends betrayed friends, enemies became allies, warriors became philosophers and Gods were brought low by their own hubris and overconfidence. As you watched the series, sometimes someone would say something, or something would happen, and your mind would go back an episode, or a season, or even several seasons, and you’d think “Ah.. THAT’S what that was about!”
Babylon 5 was rarely boring, only simple if you weren’t paying attention, and the fact that JMS wrote the entire third season without any assistance still blows my mind. He started the series with an idea and a dream, and through 110 episodes and 6 films, he managed to make it happen more or less as intended. Writers creating scripts who weren’t JMS would be told certain things needed to happen, and to work around it, little knowing they might be setting the stage for an epic disaster a year or 2 later for a character not even introduced.
Actors and characters came, and went, but many stayed. Guest stars proved they could be every bit as entertaining, if more sinister, without their silly Russian accents, and geeks fell in love, and sobbed many times. I may never be able to listen to a rendition of “A Modern Major General” with a straight face again. And on top of this, JMS made time to talk to the fans, and answer their questions on the nascent internet – He recognised that the fans had a stake in the series, and nurtured their enthusiasm in the newsgroups, before social media.
Very few of the lead characters were what, or who they seemed – They all had tragedies and hidden strengths, and non were even close to perfect. But they believed in each other, even when they didn’t believe in themselves, and they often refused to give up when a sensible person would have been tapping their heels together and whispering “There’s no place like home” repeatedly. Sometimes the surprises were chilling and sinister, as with the blameless and tragic Talia Winters, the object of Michael Garibaldi’s (slightly stalkerish) interest.
Often, though, the surprises were what they found themselves, and each other, and what others found in them – Inspiration,and leadership from people who were thought of by their own leaders and allies as liabilities or pawns. Often, their growth was a positive thing, but sometimes it was also an illustration of the old warning – “Be careful what you wish for, you might just get it!”.
None of them were who they started as when we reached the end of Season 5. Some of them served as inspiration, some as warnings Some as both in equal measure.
When we first met G’Kar, he was a bombastic, irascible figure, a fanatical leader of the Narn guerrillas who had fought the Centauri and made them bleed, until they left his people to try and rebuild their civilisation. He became the Narn Ambassador to Babylon 5 to protect his people and punish the Centauri, by any means necessary.
Londo Mollari was a tragi-comic figure, an Ambassador who was only there because he was so unimportant nobody could be bothered to dispute to his appointment, bragging of the days of glory long past and seeking to be as important as he claimed to be, scratching for scraps of power. His people were tumbling back to their core planets, looking out at the remnants of an Empire they were too old, decadent and weak to hold onto, and bragging of their resurgent glory to come. Desperate enough to grasp at straws, they almost ended themselves and everyone else.
Who would have thought that 2 beings who despised each other, and everything they each stood for, could come to respect each other, in their way, and help to build a new galactic order, let alone that their destiny would intertwine them so thoroughly throughout the years of their prime, and their twilight.
Lyta Alexander, the minor telepath who saw too much, and paid the price – The slayer of shadows, and the spark that lit the fuse on the Telepath War. Ultimately her desperate need to belong was stronger than the power that was foisted upon her, and she became a pawn, traded off, but never truly appreciated… I’d like to think she found a way to get past her memories and mistakes.
Michael Garibaldi, the hard working security chief who did everything right, and cared too much, but was only saved from the trash heap by an old friend who valued his tenacity and loyalty. That his caution (bordering on paranoia) and drive would be twisted and used to hurt him and those he cared for, and yet ultimately lead him to a lost love and a beloved family was a tragic journey with a bittersweet ending.
Poor, poor Lennier, who served Delenn so faithfully and wouldn’t hurt a fly, and yet, ultimately would be an unexpected Judas, betrayed by his own love for her. And not forgetting Vir Cotto, the stumbling, bumbling Centauri aide to Londo Mollari, who would become the Emperor of the Centauri after the Shadow war and everything that followed it, and finally got his wish from Mr Morden…
There were moments of triumph as well as tragedy, and Babylon 5 constantly reminded us that the light is not so bright without the dark, and nothing is black and white. The vicious, chaotic Shadows, lurking at the fringes of knowledge, and the mysterious Vorlons, champions of Order, moving people and populations like chess pieces, neither quite who they appeared to be. The strangely exultant truth of the Hole in Sinclair’s mind, and his destiny, bittersweet in it’s own way. And Mr Bester, who did what he felt was right for his people, no matter the cost to those abut him, but occasionally redeemed himself a little. His actions and motivation made more sense later, when the veil of secrecy was lifted,and his actions were judged in context.
As a group, the cast and crew of Babylon 5, with a couple of exceptions, get on well, and regularly interact with each other and the fans.
One thing that stands true for them, and for the fans of Babylon 5, is that we have got used to loss. Actors, artists and professionals who we might never have met (Though the fans that have, and do meet them, tell us how awesome they are) have taken us to far off worlds and shown us wonders, and then left holes in our hearts when they unexpectedly pass beyond the veil – For a group that was, relatively speaking 20 years ago quite young, many have gone earlier than expected, though you often find that all made the most of the time they had.
Richard Biggs, who played Stephen Franklin, died quietly in his sleep aged 44, in 2004.
Andreas Katsulas, known once as ‘The One-Armed Man” in the Fugitive, who made G’Kar so dynamic and engaging beneath much, much makeup and latex, left us at the age of 60 in 2006.
Jeff Conaway, Zack, also known as Kenickie in Grease, left us sadly as the result of many problems with addiction in 2011, at 61.
But many fans will mourn the most Michael O’Hare, who played Commander Jeffrey Sinclair, the first commander of Babylon 5. Leaving at the end of Season 1 to be replaced by John Sheridan, he passed away in 2012, aged 60. Only after his death, when a promise had been kept, did we learn how troubled he had been, and how he had fought his demons to ensure that Babylon 5 got it’s first season intact, and the crew wouldn’t lose their jobs. The fans took him into their hearts when revisiting his performances in Season 1, 2, and his final visit in Season 3 after learning the truth.
Unlike Star Trek, or Firefly, Dollhouse or Jericho, Babylon 5 got 5 seasons. Also unlike Star Trek, however, it never got a successful spin off, or theatrical films. There are rumours JMS may try a relaunch, or a film in the years to come. I hope it will be a better spin off than Legend of the Rangers, with the potential Crusade had before the networks crushed it. A remake seems troubling – You can’t help but think that it won’t be the same – That without the actors that breathed life into his wonderful characters, the lightning may just decide not to strike twice. But then you think of Battlestar Galactica, and there is a glimmer of hope.
I’m planning to revisit Babylon 5 over the next few months, and I’m hoping you’ll join me in thinking about it, both the good and the bad. For some of you it will be a chance to meet new friends, for others it will be a return to meet old comrades, including some who are no longer here to grace us with their with and talent. But I’ll let you in on a little secret. When I watch the end of Sleeping in Light, the last episode of the 5th season, I still, all these years later, shed a tear as we say goodbye to everyone. Though we met some of them again later, it was never really the same, and all these years later, saying goodbye to warriors, diplomats, leaders and friends is bittersweet, knowing that so many who were in Babylon 5, or worked behind the scenes to make it what it was, are no longer with us.
And so, without further ado, I bid a “Zooty, zoot, zoot!” to you all…