I was there at the dawn of the Third Age of Mankind.
It began in the Earth year 2257, with the founding of the last of the Babylon stations…
This month marks the 25th anniversary of the airing of the Babylon 5 pilot movie, “The Gathering,” and the start of Babylon 5‘s five-year run.
In many ways, 1993 was a different time for television sci-fi. Star Trek: The Next Generation was riding high in its penultimate season, but several short-lived sci-fi series debuted this year: Space Rangers, Time Trax, and Exosquad to name a few.
TV sci-fi was episodic: a storyline would stretch at most into a two-parter. Character development was minimal. Computer-generated graphics in a weekly series were unheard-of.
Babylon 5 carried on the tradition of having a premise that fits into an opening monologue, but with its 5-year story arc, complex characters, and heavy reliance on computer-generated effects, blew away the other expectations.
Today, we take season-long story arcs, character-driven stories, and CG as the norm, and probably in no small part due to Babylon 5. Though (in creator J. Michael Straczynski’s own words) “there will never be a Babylon 6,” I wanted to take the time to mention six of my favorite moments from Babylon 5, from six of my favorite characters.
(This list may obviously contain spoilers, so if you haven’t watched Babylon 5 in the past 25 years… go watch it first.)
G’Kar – Ants
Ambassador G’Kar, portrayed by the late Andreas Katsulas, was the most stunning character transformation of the show’s run. G’Kar begins his arc as ambassador for the Narn, a race that recently liberated themselves from brutal subjugation by the Centauri.
Early-season G’Kar is loud, motivated only by self-interest, and vocal about his desire to take revenge (in the form of genocide) against the Centauri. But in his own words, “the wheel turns, does it not?” G’Kar progresses from a flat mustache-twirling villain into an introspective philosopher, bridge-builder, and religious icon.
One of the first hints at this hidden depth came in the episode “Mind War”. Catherine Sakai, a surveyor and on-again girlfriend of the station’s commander, sees something inexplicable while surveying the uncharted planet Sigma 957.
The encounter almost proves fatal, but G’Kar (who warned her of unexplained encounters in that sector of space) dispatches a ship to rescue her. Back on board the station, G’Kar reveals an unexpected depth and humility.
Catherine: While I was out there, I saw something. What was it? G'Kar: [pointing to something on a nearby flower] What is this? Catherine: An ant. G'Kar: [learning a new word] "Ant"! Catherine: So much gets shipped up from Earth on commercial transports, it's hard to keep them out. G'Kar: I have just picked it up on the tip of my glove. If I put it down again, and it asks another ant... "What was that?!" ...how would it explain? There are things in the universe billions of years older than either of our races. They are vast, timeless, and if they are aware of us at all, it is as little more than ants. And we have as much chance of communicating with them as an ant has with us. We know... we've tried. And we've learned that we can either stay out from underfoot, or be stepped on. Catherine: That's it? That's all you know? G'Kar: Yes. They are a mystery. And I am both terrified and reassured to know that there are still wonders in the universe. That we have not yet explained everything. Whatever they are, Ms. Sakai, they walk near Sigma 957, and they must walk there alone.
Delenn – Be Somewhere Else
Not only is Delenn an ambassador for the Minbari, she is also a member of their ruling body, the Grey Council. Since the Minbari are the oldest and most powerful of the younger races, Delenn often provides details on galactic events that happened a thousand years ago. (When she’s not being deliberately mysterious, of course.)
No one provides exposition like Delenn. No one reacts more genuinely to the horrors around her than Delenn. No one expresses righteous anger better than Delenn.
My favorite Delenn moment falls into the “righteous anger” category. In the episode “Severed Dreams,” the theme is division.
Earth President Clark, having risen to power through assassination and intimidation, has sparked a civil war. When Captain Sheridan discovers that Clark has dispatched military forces to place Babylon 5 under martial law, he is forced to declare Babylon 5 independent from Earth, rather than submit.
The other races are embroiled in wars of their own, and cannot assist Babylon 5. Even the powerful Minbari, due to political shifts within the Grey Council, are unwilling to help, despite Delenn’s efforts.
A battle ensues between Babylon 5 and Clark’s forces. The station barely survives the first wave of the attack. When reinforcements loyal to Clark arrive, all hope appears lost… until Delenn rides to the rescue, having broken the Grey Council and brought four Minbari warships with her.
Delenn: This is Ambassador Delenn of the Minbari. Babylon 5 is under our protection. Withdraw, or be destroyed. Capt. Drake: Negative. We have authority here. Do not force us to engage your ship. Delenn: Why not? Only one human captain has ever survived battle with a Minbari fleet. He is behind me. You are in front of me. If you value your lives, be somewhere else.
The Earth fleet immediately retreats into hyperspace.
Sheridan – Apology
Captain John Sheridan has his own great moments. In season 2 finale “The Fall of Night,” the Narn have fallen once again to the Centauri. Soon after, the only surviving Narn warship shows up in Babylon 5’s sector, asking for refuge.
Sheridan guarantees their safety, and does his best to keep its presence a secret. Word gets back to visiting Earth diplomat
Neville ChamberlainFrederick Lantze, who has been brokering a non-aggression pact with the Centauri.
Tensions are high when a Centauri cruiser arrives just as the Narn ship is making its escape. The cruiser fires on Babylon 5, and Sheridan returns fire, destroying the Centauri ship.
The Centauri are not pleased, and neither is Lantze. EarthGov forces Sheridan to make a public apology to the Centauri. He is free to deliver it in his own words. “After all, it’s the thought that counts.”
We next see Sheridan rehearsing his apology in the mirror, while putting on his dress uniform.
I apologize. I'm... sorry. [sigh] I'm sorry we had to defend ourselves against an unwarranted attack. I'm sorry that your crew was stupid enough to fire on a station filled with a quarter million civilians, including your own people. And I'm sorry that I waited as long as I did before I blew them all straight to hell! [long regretful look, wry smile] As with everything else, it's the thought that counts.
Londo – Now that you mention it.
Londo Mollari went through many turns of fate during the run of the show. A drunkard from a Centauri empire in collapse, assigned to Babylon 5 because it was considered a joke assignment, Londo desires nothing more than a return to the “great old days of the Centauri Republic”.
It is this ambition that makes him the perfect target for a deal with the devil. And that devil takes the form of Mr. Morden, representative of the mysterious and powerful Shadows.
Thus, it is also Mollari’s ambition that eventually threatens the Centauri homeworld itself. The Shadows are longtime adversaries of the Vorlons, and a Vorlon planet-killer begins to destroy any planet hosting the Shadows.
Through many twists and turns, lost loves, prophecies, and assassinations, Londo Mollari seizes power on Centauri Prime just as the Vorlon planet-killer arrives. In the episode “Into the Fire,” Mollari summons Mr. Morden to the emperor’s palace, shoots his Shadow companions, then gives Morden an ultimatum: remove all Shadow vessels from the island of Selini, where they have established a base.
Morden: You're insane. Mollari: On any other day, Mr. Morden, you would be wrong. Today? Today is a very different day. One last time. Remove your ships. Morden: No. You don't frighten me, Mollari. If you try to attack our forces, you'll lose. Mollari: Yes, your ships are very impressive in the air, or in space. But at this moment, they are on the ground. Morden: Right. They're on the ground. But they can sense an approaching ship miles away. So what are you going to do, Mollari? Huh? Blow up the island? Mollari: Actually? Now that you mention it? [reveals a handheld remote detonator] Morden: No!
Three large explosions engulf the island as Londo presses the button.
Vir – Wave Like This
The previous moment leads into a payoff for an incident from the previous season episode “In the Shadow of Z’Ha’Dum.” Vir Cotto, the good-natured assistant to Londo, portrayed by the late Stephen Furst, meets with Mr. Morden to deliver a message.
The Shadows are always known to ask, “What do you want?”
When Mr. Morden asks Vir what he wants, the normally mild-mannered Vir responds:
I’d like to live just long enough to be there when they cut off your head and stick it on a pike as a warning to the next ten generations that some favors come with too high a price.
I would look up into your lifeless eyes and wave, like this.
Can you and your associates arrange that for me, Mr. Morden?
As it turns out, he got his wish. A moment without dialog, that manages to be simultaneously gruesome, funny, and satisfying.
Sinclair – Earth’s Dominant Belief System
Season one of the show started slowly: the show had to both find its identity and start setting up five years’ worth of storylines. But Babylon 5 season one also showed a lot of promise, in large part due to moments such as the ending scene of “Parliament of Dreams.”
Unlike the other moments I’ve listed here, this scene contains no battles, no deaths, no great conflict. In the episode, Earth decides to promote understanding by asking all of the alien worlds to demonstrate their belief systems.
Station commander Jeffrey Sinclair, portrayed by the late Michael O’Hare, is given the difficult task of explaining Earth’s predominant belief system. (Certainly not a controversial decision, right?) The various ambassadors wait impatiently.
Londo: Mr. Garibaldi!? Garibaldi: I know! He said it'd be just a few more minutes. Delenn: Exactly what sort of demonstration does he have planned? Ivanova: Unknown; he wouldn't even tell us. Just said it would showcase Earth's dominant belief system. Na'Toth: I don't hear any drums. Vir: Or bells. Lennier: Or chants. Are you sure that we've come to the right place? G'Kar: That's it. I'm leaving! Garibaldi: This is where he said to wait, and this is where we're waiting.
Commander Sinclair’s solution, as I’ve said before, is not just my favorite moment in Babylon 5; it’s one of my all-time favorite moments in television. As the camera sweeps past a long line of humans, each dressed in various ceremonial or traditional clothing, Sinclair introduces each to the gathered ambassadors.
This is Mr. Harris. He’s an atheist.
Father Cresanti, a Roman Catholic.
Mr. Hayakawa, a Zen Buddhist.
Mr. Rashid, a Muslim.
Mr. Rosenthal, an Orthodox Jew.
Running Elk, of the Oglala Sioux faith.
Father Papapoulous, a Greek Orthodox.
Ogigi-ko, of the Ebo tribe.
Machukiak, a Yupik Eskimo.
Sawa, of the Jivaro tribe.
Isnakuma, a Bantu.
Ms. Chang, a Taoist.
Mr. Blacksmith, an aborigine.
Ms. Yamamoto, a Shinto.
Ms. Naijo, a Maori.
Mr. Gold, a Hindu.