Babylon 5 Dopers, help corrupt me

I have heard a great deal about how wonderful Babylon 5 is through various threads on this board, and within a week or so, I will be watching the first of the scifi channel’s broadcasts. (My friend agreed to tape them for me, since he has the channel and I don’t). The first of them should be “Survivors”, the one after “Believers”. And so, I have a few questions that I’d like to ask (without spoilers for the rest of the series, please)…

  1. Who’s who? Landing in the middle of the first season, who are the main characters? What do they do? What sort of (revealed as of yet) backstory do they have?

  2. What’s happened? B5 apparently being an arc series, what plot threads have been set in motion?

  3. What is there to like and dislike? Compared to Star Trek, for example (as it is the only scifi series that I have been following), how does it do in terms of story, writing, special effects, music short- and long-term plotting?

Thanks for all your help.

The best place to get your questions answers is at The Lurker’s Guide to Babylon 5.

The major arcs came into play slowly in the first season; the first essential story in the arc was “Signs and Portents” halfway thought. The arc was coming into play before that, but in S&P it begins to take center stage.

Main characters at that point: Jeffry Sinclair (commander), Susan Ivanova (second in command), Michael Garabaldi (security chief), Delenn (Minbari ambassador), Londo Molari (Centarui ambassador), G’Kar (Narn ambassador), and Kosh (Vorlon ambassador).

As far as good guys/bad are concerned – that changes over the course of the show. Of those above, Sinclair, Ivanova, and Garabaldi are “good guys” halfway through season one. . Molari is something of a buffoon. G’Kar appears somewhat “bad,” and Delenn seems good, but maybe not. Kosh is a complete engma at this point.

What makes it a great show? Partly because the characters grow and change over the course of the run. Also, because it is one arc,* things that happen in any episode (even off-hand comments in the very first one) can mean something down the line. One of the joys of the original run was speculating on what people meant when they said something. It’s also fun seeing it all a second time so you can see the references to the future. In the very first episode, one character says one word that’s meaningless the first time around, but filled with meaning once you’ve seen the entire thing.

The storytelling is much more sophisticated than the episode by episode shows of Star Trek (later, in DS9, ST tried to work with a few small arcs, but they were standard TV arcs instead of a fully plotted one).

*Actually, the main arc ended in season four, since there was a fear the show wouldn’t be renewed. Season 5 is a new arc, and not as good.

Well, I dare say that simply watching the episodes should pretty much addict you quickly enough.

I’ve recently gotten the flu, and with so much time to spend doing nothing, the entire available series on DVD. Almost enough to make the flu worth catching!

In fact, I was just searching the board about a question I’ve formed, having been up all morning watching. I’ll save that for another thread, however.

Answering without spoilers will be difficult at best, considering the style of the storytelling. The entire series is ONE big story, and to tell part of it without telling the rest takes more skill than I believe I have. But I will try…

  1. Who’s Who? Everybody with a name is important; Narn #3, for example, is a bit player. G’Kar is a major character. They BOTH affect the plot, however, so pay attention! q;}

Season 1, Episode 11: Survivors, is a Garibaldi-related episode. Garibaldi is possibly the most important single character, in that he’s possibly the only character to make the entire 5-year run. In many ways he can be thought of as the protagonist of the show.

Garibaldi is the station’s security chief, sort of the detective character. He’s described as a bulldog by JMS in the commentaries, because he will lock-on to a problem and not let go until he’s solved it.

Jeff Sinclair is the station’s commander, Garibaldi’s boss. There is a lot of plot in this man as well…

Hmm, how to describe? Well, ok, a bit of question 2 needs to be answered first, so:

  1. What’s happened?

Earth, in the near future (2260 or so) has made it into space (obviously) and met a variety of alien races, many of whom are represented on Babylon 5, a neutral base for diplomacy.

The first race the met was the Centauri (the guys with the stupid hairdo) who, being imperialists and basically big fat jerks, claimed to ‘rule the universe’. This was quickly discovered to be a lie, of course, and they’re rather out of power these days. They’ve been at war with another race, the Narn (the lizard-looking folks with the spotty heads), which has recently reached something of a stalemate. This is one of the reasons the station (B5) exists… to facilitate relations between these races, and others.

Somewhat later, after purchasing wormhole technology from the Centauri, humans meet another race, the Minbari (the bald guys with the weird bone-ridge on their heads) and, for reasons best left unexplained here, get into a big-ass war with them.

During the Earth-Minbari war, Captain Sinclair (remember him?) does some amazing things, and is captured by the Minbari as they close in on Earth in the final stages of humanity’s defeat.

24 hours later, Sinclair is released with no memory of what happened during his capture, to learn that the Minbari have surrendered to Earth.

Keep in mind that the Minbari WERE going to win, they’re quite a bit more advanced than we are.

Ok… so… now we gotta figure out how to make peace with the Minbari, and the other races, and really become part of the galactic community… let’s build a space station in neutral territory that we can all visit and talk in. We’ll call it “Babylon” and we’ll all live there together… And so, humans and minbari and everybody builds a big-ass space station.

Which promptly blows up.

So we build another. It blows up too.

So we build ANOTHER one. Yep, guess what, THAT one blows up too. Now we’re getting rather suspicious… maybe, just maybe, someone doesn’t want us doing this?

So, of course, being humans, we convince all these alien races that this really IS a good idea, and if we can just try again, really, it will help a lot, come on…

And Babylon 4 is built.

And it DISAPPEARS into THIN AIR. Well, ok, thin space. Whatever. Blip! it’s gone.

Uhhh… ok, that was weird, we say. Hmm.

Alright, look, really this IS a good idea. We’ve got just enough support to try ONE LAST TIME… and Babylon 5 is built.

It doesn’t blow up. Yet. Heeheehee.

For some reason, the Minbari absolutely insist on putting Sinclair in charge of this one, vetoing any number of other more appropriate choices in order to get him the comission.

This is where the show really starts… four basic ‘major’ races, and a lot of others running around doing stuff on a big-ass spaceship thingy, with the humans nominally in charge.

In the first episodes, the Centauri-Narn conflict begins to escalate again, the ominous Psi-corps from Earth show up, tensions between Humans and Minbari increase, and any number of plot points are foreshadowed. Things which seem to be tiny, unimportant, throw-away lines and plot points re-appear later in the series, tying into the overall arc.

Fortunately, many of these are repeated later, and you won’t REALLY miss all that much by not seeing every single episode in order. Really. Ok, I’m lying, SEE THEM!

::;ahem::: anyway… where was I?

Ahh yes, the episodes. Survivors is a pretty good one, and the next one “By Any Means Necessary” is good as well, both providing lots of info about the characters and the universe around them which you’ll need for the NEXT episode, “Signs and Portents”, which is possibly the most important episode of this season. No I won’t spoil it for you, but you’ll want to be familiar with the characters and such by then.

By this point, the overall arc will be more or less visible, but not necessarily obvious. You will see a glimpse or two, at least.

Ok, so back to question 1 for a moment… characters.

Each race has its ambassador. Each ambassador has his or her assistant. They are the main characters, of course.

For the humans, I suppose Sinclair and Garibaldi, probably, but Ivanova is mighty important as well. She’s cool. We like Ivanova.

The Minbari ambassador is Delenn, the woman with the bone on her head. Her assistant is Lenier, who I believe was the super-psychic kid in the classic Twilight Zone episode or something.

The Eastern-European sounding guy with the big stupid-looking hairstyle is Centauri Ambassador Londo Mollari, and he’s a very important person, almost as important as he thinks he is. His aide is called “Vir” and he’s unimportant, apparently.

The lizard-guys are Narn, a once-peaceful race who pretty much got their butts kicked by the Centauri until they became warriors, and fought back. G’kar is their ambassador, and he’s possibly the most interesting character. His assistant is the female Narn Na’Toth, and I have no idea why I find her so attractive in that makeup. q;}

Ok, I think I’m officially rambling now… And I haven’t even mentioned the Vorlons yet! Ah, that’s probably for the best, I suppose… even this is too much of a spoiler about them, isn’t it?

So a half-hearted stab at #3, and I’ll sign off.

Why is this such a great show? Because it was unique, it dared to defy traditional ideas of what a television sci-fi show must be, and became what it was meant to become. Because it told a BIG story, not only in time and space but in mind, soul, and and well everything. The second episode of season one asks the question “What IS a soul, anyway?” and leaves the answer up to the viewer. That, I think, is the way a good story should be told, and this style is maintained through the entire arc.

Because they at least attempted to respect the viewer’s intelligence. Space battles, weapons, the aliens themselves, and the characters were all as realistic as they could reasonably make them. They didn’t just slap some deely on someone’s forehead and say “They’re an alien, see?”, they tried to explain things rationally. Well, ok, they DID just slap something on people’s heads and call them aliens, mostly, but geez… look at Kosh, at least HE’s something different. And space battles do not go ‘boom’… B5 at least toned down the sound effects, if not completely eliminating them.

Even the much-maligned Fifth Season is pretty damn good, really.

Go watch it, and enjoy, but be warned…

You’ll never watch Star Trek the same way again.

Now I must leave… season 3, disk 2, is calling…

I disagree with the sentiment that Garibalid is the main character, the show is very much an ensemble; and depending on your viewpoint I suppose you could see any number of characters as the “main” one. This is one of the shows strengths actually; it is complex enough that there is more than one way to look at the series.

I heartily agree with RealityChuck’s suggestion to check out the Lurker’s Guide.
Here is a good season one character guide:
Here is a good season one setting guide:
One other very cool thing about the Lurker’s Guide to Babylon 5 is at the end of each episode guide there is a transcript of J. M. Straczynski’s (Creator, producer, author of 85% of the episodes, and general God of Babylon 5) communications with the fans. All sorts of neat facts, behind the scenes info, explanations, and so on. Lurker’s Guide also has summaries so you can check out episodes that you missed.

Here’s a quote from JMS about Londo’s Hair:

Yes it weird. And, yes, much like having a heroic demon slayer with the unlikely name of “Buffy” you get used to it.

As for the special effects of Babylon 5; remember this show was done (compared to DS9) on an extremely low budget. One of the ways they accomplished this is by being one of the first shows to use computer generated effects. And yes, you can tell that these are computer effects and not real spaceships. However, the use of CGI freed them creatively, allowing them to do some really original spaceship designs as well as some truly epic battles latter in the show. Requires a little bit of suspension of disbelief to get past the CG feel perhaps, but very well done all the same.

And oh, yeah, be sure to get your friend to tape “Signs and Portents” when it comes one. It’s a good one….

Londo may be the single most important character in the series. Odd, but he’s at least in the top three. The longer it goes on the more important he becomes. Vir is, well, Vir is Vir.

Here is a thread I started a while ago on this very topic: Whoa, Babylon 5 is cool.

One thing to keep in mind for season 1, is that Quality Control for guest star parts was kind of overlooked. They had some reeeeeaaalllllllly bad actors who chewed up the scenery.

Jason Ironheart (a telepath who becomes godlike) is one such example. He smacks off enough to put William Shatner to shame. “I found…I could…obliterate…the entire universe…with but one flick…of…my…fingertip!”

In another episode, a character named Colonel Zane attempts to frame Sinclair in an interrogation so he can gain control of Babylon 5. This guy had a scar running down his face, practically goosestepped when he walked, and had an eye that looked like a monocle was supposed to go there. He looked fresh off a Hogan’s Heroes set. Vertible Acting de Fromage.

They start getting better guest stars from Season 2 onward. Brad Dourif puts in an outstanding performance in Season 3’s Passing Through Gesthemane.

All in all, don’t worry about getting lost. You’ll see enough of the major players and what motivates them to not forget them. Babylon 5 will get you hooked in a major way.

If I remember correctly, a number of viewers bashed the makeup artist who did the scar – except the scar was real.

I found it recently and watched in one looong sitting, being unemployed and all. Well, I slept, ate and did other mundane stuff too.

What the previous åposters have said is right on target, but I wanted to add some €0.02 as well:

  • There are quite a few layers to this very long arc. And not all of them are on the surface. The way things work, you get one piece of the puzzle and have to wait another 34 episodes for the next piece. You don’t have to remember it, but it greatly enhances the show, since it won’t be just the straight forward story of B5, but also the three or four other stories that go on in the background.
  • CG, makeup and special effects tend to be a little… low budget. Which they were. When it was first on tv here, I skipped it, because it seemed like it was just a bunch of guys walking around with rubber halloween masks and talking all the time. Not very compelling. I was very wrong in this. B5 is about the story, and the story is about life, death, humanity, religion and above all else - faith. Faith Manages.
  • Watching B5 is like submerging yourself in a really, really good book. The fact that JMS took his time to plot the story and then go on to write 87 of the last 88 episodes is really amazing. There has never been anything like it on tv and for many years to come, this will stand out as the most daring and brilliant storytelling for a visual media, ever. If there are not university classes dealing with B5, there will be.
  • It’s very intelligent, drawing inspiration and themes from the great works of literature and the big moral questions throughout history. Surprisingly, the most humane character is not human.

Actually, that was the guy from Ceremonies of Light and Dark, the season three ep which followed Severed Dreams.

That said, yeah, just stick with B5 and you’ll be fine. Season One is mostly the Sinclair story arc (the formula is to answer mysteries no more than a year after they’re asked), so once S1 ends, you can get a fairly fresh start on things.

Season Two, though it has a rather bumpy start, is where the characters really get into the big arc story. Years 3 and 4 are simply spectacular. Some people fault the fifth year, but I consider it more of an epilogue.

If you’re enjoying the series this early on, you’re in for a real treat very shortly.

Another inexpensive way to get an intro to B5 is to rent the DVD of the series pilot, Babylon 5: The Gathering. Some video stores have it available for rental.

Side 2 of the DVD has a prequel called In the Beginning that was actually made after the series. I’m not sure whether it would help or confuse a B5 beginner.

Try a few episodes, and if you like it, buy/borrow/steal the S1 DVD set. I feel sorry for anyone that has to put up with the scifi channel to watch B5. Note that the pilot ep is NOT included in the S1 disk set!

It’s hard to fully appreciate what’s happening in the series if you start in the middle of the series or only watch every other episode. The main characters have very complex story lines, and you come to care about these characters because of everything that happens to them. In many ways, it’s like reading a novel.

Still, the series doesn’t kick into high gear until season 2. And I’ll warn that there is a change in cast at the beginning of Season 2 that is a bit disconcerting. I admit, I had serious doubts about the series when Bruce the Boyscout showed up, but he evolves in interesting ways, just as the other characters do.

B5 has a much more realistic tone that Star Trek ever did. It’s like a breath of fresh air if you’re tired of Star Trek. There is not a single main character in this series that does not go through a soul-wrenching crisis, and as in real life, no one comes through it unchanged. These changes can be either good or bad, and usually it’s both.

I try not to hype things. I understand that just because I like something, that doesn’t mean that everyone should. With that said, Babylon5 is easily the best sci-fi TV series ever. It’s one of the best TV shows ever, and I’m a big time couch potato.

What everyone else has said about the show is dead on, and I’ll add this: Even the “slow” episodes (THe quiet ones where everyone just kind of has a daily moment) are amazing.

Yeah, the special effects aren’t that good, except that they FEEL real, and the battles actually mean something. There’s also a refreshing lack of Trek babble. No phased gravitonic anti-polaron tritherizon rays HERE.

And even though Season 5 is just an epilogue, it ends the series perfectly.

The only thing I have to add is this… When it first came on I couldn’t get past it’s flaws. Then I accidently caught a few shows from season 3 and I was hooked. Now I can enjoy even the erractic season 1 shows to their full extent.

In short if you don’t find season 1 to your liking don’t give up just try out season 2 or 3 then GO BACK and watch season 1. You won’t be sorry.

How come Sci-Fi seems to be so erratic in the showings nowadays? It wasn’t on at all for weeks.

I dunno, at the conclusion of the main arc when:

Sheridan yells “Get out of our galaxy!”

I cringed. It was like a really bad Picard moment.