Watching Babylon 5 in 2018

Note: I’ve tried to avoid any spoilers, which significantly limits this discussion.

In June 2018, Babylon 5 became available on Amazon Prime. On Amazon Prime, the series starts with The Gathering, which is a 2 hour pilot that lays out the narrative framework with different actors from the main series. Then, it’s 5 seasons of 22 episodes of ~45 minutes a piece. So, if you want to watch it, you’re looking at investing about ~85 hours of your life. Is it worth it?

Babylon 5 was planned from the start to be a 5 season series. It has a multi-season narrative arc that uses an ensemble cast with characters and situations that evolve in a way that is interesting and engaging. From episode to episode, different characters are central to the story, which gives each character a depth that is unusual for any television series, even today.

It’s an epic science fiction story. It involves a couple of thousand years of history but is focused on just 5 crucial years within that span, with each season lasting a year. It’s a complete world, with multiple alien civilizations and individuals that are central to the narrative, where Earth is one culture among many. While evolving technology plays an important role in plot dynamics, it’s really the relationships and interplay between different people and cultures that drive the action. Every character and society has strengths and is flawed in some important way, which really breathes life into the series.

Clearly, Babylon 5 has had a major impact on rethinking what kind of story a television series could convey, and it was a precursor to the best television series of today. But, it does have some weaknesses.

The CGI from the mid-1990s has not aged well, but I don’t think it detracts significantly from the story. You could make the argument that while Season 5 ties up a lot of loose ends, it is the weakest season and could be skipped. Some of the acting is stilted. There are elements of the story that are reminiscent of a soap opera. There are also some story lines that end abruptly because of personnel changes or they are just left dangling. On the whole, Babylon 5 feels like an organic piece of story-telling, but it is a little messy. In many ways, it’s reflection of real life. It also explores universal questions about love, time, addiction, diversity, cooperation, brokenness, etc. There is much to consider beyond the story itself.

Watching it now, in the context of a global move to nationalist politics and fear of the Other, I found that there was much in the story that speaks to our historical moment, even though there is almost 25 years separating them. Despite its weaknesses, I enjoyed watching Babylon 5 in 2018. It may be eclipsed by the likes of The Sopranos, Band of Brothers, The Wire, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones and the many excellent series that exist today, but it is still good enough to be included in any conversation about important series worth watching. If you are a fan of other science fiction series beyond Star Trek variants and Star Wars, i.e., Farscape, Firefly, X-Files, Quantum Leap, Sense8 (also by J. Michael Straczynski, creator of Babylon 5), etc., chances are good you will like Babylon 5.

If you’re on the fence, try the first five episodes of Season 1.

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