So, Babylon 5. What do we know about Babylon 5?
Well aside from persistent rumblings from its creator that Paramount ripped him off with Deep Space Nine after he offered the pilot script to them (most likely they just went, “Hey, a space station’s a good idea, let’s do it in Star Trek”) and the fact that Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory doesn’t like it, most people would say not much.
The fact is that I loved this show back in the 90s. It was gritty. People argued, fought and died. Humanity hadn’t become some sort of enlightened super-race by the 23rd Century; we were still making the same stupid mistakes as ever. There was a real sense of proper physics being at work, with all Earth-built ships and installations creating artificial gravity through rotation, although there were some glaring errors (torque, anyone?). But it was epic, and by and large the first four seasons and the last part of Season 5 were pretty damn good television.
The basic concept is that humanity was almost wiped out in a war fought with an alien race called the Minbari in the mid-23rd Century, which only stopped when the Minbari ceased fire at the last possible second. With a new sense of co-operation brought on by near-extinction, Earth promotes the Babylon Project as a method of maintaining galactic peace: a huge space station located in neutral territory, hosting something akin to the United Nations to allow problems to be worked out peacefully. After problems befell the first four stations, Babylon 5 finally commissions nine years after the end of the Earth-Minbari war.
So when Watch announced that they were re-screening the series from Season 1 I was a happy bunny. Following a break for Christmas we were back into Season 2 and one of my favourite episodes, And Now For A Word. The episode is essentially a mockumentary, focussing on a news show called ‘36 Hours’, where journalists from Earth’s Inter-Stellar Network news board the station for a day and a half to record everyday life there.
The crew and prominent diplomats are interviewed, along with vox pops from an Earth Senator and opponent of the Babylon Project. As the station itself is supposed to be a free port and flying UN, you’d think this would be fertile ground for a documentary. Not half. The film crew arrives at the height of a war between the Narn and the Centauri, two of the galaxy’s dominant powers.
Narn and Centauri are fighting both inside and outside of the station, with frequent riots and merchantmen from opposing sides taking shots at one another. When one particularly brutal fight between armed freighters breaks out, Babylon 5’s fighters intervene and shoot down several ships. An analysis of wreckage from the Centauri ships provides evidence for Narn claims that the Centauri are using Babylon 5 to buy heavy weapon components for use in the war. When station commander Captain Sheridan threatens to impound and search all Centauri merchant ships, the Centauri government responds by sending a battlecruiser to blockade the station, threatening to fire on any ship trying to leave.
When the crew call their bluff by sending a remote-controlled shuttle past the battlecruiser, the Centauri don’t fire and ask to negotiate. It appears the crisis is over until a Narn warship shows up and the two belligerents blow each other to pieces in front of the cameras.
When this episode originally aired, it was pretty much unique. No attempt had been made to do a documentary-style episode in science fiction TV before and it remains an oddity even now.
Babylon 5 would go on to produce two more format-breaking episodes, the unique Intersections in Real Time and A View From the Gallery, which although different was very much in the vein of Lower Decks from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Regardless of the shaky Season 5, mixed bag of TV movies (two excellent, one ok, two crap) and truly woeful follow-up series Crusade (no comment), Babylon 5 remains an outstanding piece of television drama and remarkable in that creator Joe Straczynski wrote the whole of Seasons 3 and 4 himself. Hell, I even got my girlfriend watching it so it’s not all bad!