On February 22, 1993 in the U.S.A. “The Gathering” was broadcast, the TV movie pilot that introduced the saga of “Babylon 5″, created by J. Michael Straczynski.
In 2257, “Babylon 5″ is a space station built in a neutral space to be a place for diplomatic and commercial meetings between a multitude of sentient species. In 2248 the Earth-Minbari war ended: it led humanity to near extinction but the Minbari surrendered for mysterious reasons just when they were about to destroy the last defense of the planet Earth.
After the catastrophic war, started because of a disastrous first contact, the Earth government decided to build a space station that served as a meeting place to try to prevent more wars. The first three Babylon stations were destroyed as a result of sabotage or accidents while Babylon 4 vanished into thin air 24 hours after becoming operational.
“The Gathering” aims to introduce the protagonists of the saga and the various alien species but also the various mysteries that will then be developed. The commander of Babylon 5 Jeffrey Sinclair had fought in the “Battle of the Line”, the last desperate human attempt to stop the advance of the Minbari and had been captured and interrogated by the attackers. In Sinclair’s memory there’s a hole in those hours and that’s one of the mysteries that will be developed in the first season.
“The Gathering” focuses on the arrival of Kosh, the Vorlon empire ambassador. The Vorlons are so mysterious as to be considered almost a legend even by the other advanced species. Kosh doesn’t show his appearance but is closed in an encounter suit, officially because he needs a certain atmosphere.
During the pilot move, there’s an attempt to assassinate Kosh and his life must be saved at all costs because otherwise the Vorlons could destroy Babylon 5 in retaliation and their technology is so advanced that noone could stop them.
“Babylon 5″ cast consists of:
- Michael O’Hare as Jeffrey Sinclair (pilot, season 1)
- Bruce Boxleitner as John Sheridan (seasons 2-5)
- Claudia Christian as Susan Ivanova (season 1-4)
- Jerry Doyle as Michael Garibaldi
- Mira Furlan as Delenn
- Peter Jurasik as Londo Mollari
- Andreas Katsulas as G’Kar
- Richard Biggs as Stephen Franklin
- Stephen Furst as Vir Cotto
- Bill Mumy as Lennier
- Jeff Conaway as Zack Allan (seasons 2-5)
- Jason Carter as Marcus Cole (seasons 3-4)
- Patricia Tallman as Lyta Alexander (pilot, seasons 2-5)
- Andrea Thompson as Talia Winters (seasons 1-2)
- Robert Rusler as Warren Keffer (season 2)
- Tracy Scoggins as Elizabeth Lochley (season 5)
- Julie Caitlin Brown as Na’Toth (season 1)
- Mary Kay Adams as Na’Toth (season 2)
Only a year later the actual series aired, debuting on January 26, 1994 with a few changes in the cast from the pilot movie. The first season basically aims to plant the seeds of the various subplots that will be developed later. The mysteries behind the surrender of the Minbari and what happened to Sinclair are solved. Elements concerning the hostility between the Centauri and the Narn are also introduced, including the intervention of a mysterious species.
In the second season, Commander Sinclair is replaced by Captain John Sheridan and the various subplots are developed at a higher and higher pace up to the war between the Centauri and the Narn. In the third season, the increasingly authoritarian Earth government leads to the secession of Babylon 5 and the mystery of Babylon 4 is solved for good.
The fourth season is epic with the great galactic war but since there was the possibility that the series got canceled at its end J. Michael Straczynski was forced to create a conclusion also to the various subplots related to the situation on Earth and various other planets.
Eventually, “Babylon 5″ was renewed and in its fifth season the direct and indirect consequences of the war were explored. It’s a bit controversial because not all the storylines work well: in particular, the one about a group of telepaths who tries to escape Psi Corps has a number of flaws.
When the series was still on the air, the production of a series of TV movies started and went on even after the end of the series. In 1998, “In the Beginning”, “Thirdspace” and “The River of Souls” aired. In 1999 “A Call to Arms” aired, in 2002 “The Legend of the Rangers” aired and in 2007 “The Lost Tales” was released straight to DVD. Over the years many books have been published, including several comic books, and other products related to the saga.
In 1999 the spinoff series “Crusade” made its debut, set in 2267. The Drakh have released a sort of plague on Earth which in a few years will destroy all life on the planet. The starship Excalibur leaves in the search for a cure. Unfortunately, TNT wanted a series with sex and violence and the differences of opinion with J. Michael Straczynski led to the cancellation of the series, which had only 13 episodes.
Although the level fo the TV movies and of “Crusade” isn’t always very high, “Babylon 5″ remains an extraordinary saga. At a time when TV shows were made to have episodes as autonomous as possible, J. Michael Straczynski managed to create one strongly based on story arcs often long and complex.
J. Michael Straczynski had prepared a number of “trap doors”, elements of the characters background that would allow to minimize the impact any actor’s departure from the show. In this way, he was able to plan various seasons from the beginning and then adapt the many subplots to the cast actually available in every season.
In a huge galactic landscape, “Babylon 5″ is a series focused on characters, who have an extraordinary evolution in the course of the show. They have to make choices, even difficult, sometimes make mistakes but take responsibility for their choices and come to make great sacrifices on a personal level to do what they think is right.
The themes covered in “Babylon 5″ are deep because war isn’t only a military clash but also philosophical. The conflict between the factions controlled by the Vorlons and the Shadows is a clash between order and chaos but gradually it turns out that order is authoritarian. Even in the Earth’s government a creeping fascism grows eroding individual freedom by providing the illusion of safety from alleged internal and external threats.
Other important issues are dealt with in the show. There are religions, human and alien, sometimes a central element of the plot of the episodes with various characters who express different points of view. There’s the issue of addiction, especially about Michael Garibaldi and his drinking problems that are a big part of his story.
“Babylon 5″ is also considered the series that brought the use of CGI special effects to a new level. Twenty years later, inevitably those special effects often look poor because the hardware and software progress have been enormous. Today we’re used to realistic special effects even in series with limited budgets but if they can exist part of the credit goes to the work done in “Babylon 5″.
There’s some sadness in this anniversary because too many members of the main cast passed away over the years: Michael O’Hare, Andreas Katsulas, Richard Biggs and Jeff Conaway. Some actors who appeared as guest stars in a few episodes passed away prematurely too such as Tim Choate (Zathras) and Robin Sachs, who played various roles. It seems just fair to finish this article remembering them.