And so, it begins.
I watched season one of Babylon 5 when it was first broadcast, and back then it seemed very episodic in nature. It is only when you go back and watch episodes and seasons in quick succession you can have a better appreciation of the “greater whole” of Babylon 5 than you ever could by getting it piece meal, week-by-week.
In reviewing season one, I don’t intend to give a blow-by-blow account of each and every episode, but more of a broad overview and my impressions of the season as a whole. There are some that would argue that you can’t or should not miss any episodes from season one. I would disagree and say that it really depends what you want to get out of it.
Apart from the week-to-week character development, there were three main threads to the Babylon 5 story, first, the shadow war, second, the break from and subsequent war against Earth and finally the telepath “war”. What I’ll hope to do with this review is provide indicators of which episodes are relevant to the major story arcs, should you just want to sink your teeth in to that and not have to watch every single episode. What becomes clear though on a second watching, is that even episodes that didn’t necessarily contribute to the greater story arc(s) had relevance in terms of just being great character studies – in helping the viewer understand these characters, their ideologies and motivations better.
Babylon 5’s five season arc covers five years in the story of the station. Season one corresponds to the Earth year 2258.
One of the first things that strikes you when beginning season one is the change in Babylon 5’s command staff compared to the pilot movie The Gathering. Lieutenant Commander Laurel Takashima is replaced by Lieutenant Commander Susan Ivanova played by Claudia Christian, Doctor Benjamin Kyle is replaced by Doctor Stephen Franklin (Introduced in Episode 2) played by Richard Biggs, and resident Telepath Lyta Alexander is replaced by Talia Winters played by Andrea Thompson. Considering the pilot aired a full year before season one began, I’m not sure anyone watching the original airing of Midnight on the Firsing Line would have even noticed or cared to remember these changes, but in my personal opinion they were all for the better.
In the first two instances because I thought Christian and Biggs were better actors than their former counterparts and in the latter case, because Andrea Thompson had the sexiest, huskiest voice this side of Mars Colony and I had a complete nerdcrush on her! She alone would have kept me tuning in! (Not that I had anything against Patricia Tallman who played Lyta, and who would return in later seasons)
Another change in the show was the addition of attache’s to each of the primary alien ambassadors and so we are introduced to the bumbling and downtrodden Vir Cotto of the Centauri (Stephen Furst), and the proud Na’Toth of the Narn regime (Caitlin Brown).
Sci-Fi fans would also recognize Bill Mumy, known for his role as Will Robinson in “Lost in Space,” as Delenn’s humble and loyal assistant, Lennier.
I grew to love all of these characters but in season one I particularly liked Caitlin Brown’s portrayal of Na’Toth, It was a small (and underutilized part, IMO), but Na’Toth was a super strong female character that Brown played with conviction. It was easy to believe that were you to ever cross Na’Toth she would rip off your head and spit down your neck. The character of Na’Toth would later be played by Mary Kay Adams but Caitlin Brown would guest star, as a human, in There all the Honor Lies in Season three.
Season one opens with the episode Midnight on the Firing Line. To be honest, it’s probably a better kicking off point than The Gathering. Firstly, because in this episode you will be introduced to the command staff that will populate most of the series’ first four seasons and secondly because, well, it’s just better.
In Midnight on the Firing Line, we learn that Ragesh 3, a peaceful Centauri agricultural colony has come under vicious attack by the Narns. This immediately sets up Londo (Peter Jurasik), the Centauri ambassador, as a sympathetic character but later we learn that the Centauri have enslaved the Narn homeworld and the attack is really a retaliatory strike. The ongoing feud between the Narn and the Centauri becomes a significant Babylon 5 subplot and is the primary motivation for many of Londo and G’kar’s actions throughout the series. In this first episode, G’kar (Andreas Katsulas) is portrayed more as a villain than a victim. As Babylon 5 progresses, we will come to learn that Londo and G’kar are more alike than they are different. One can sympathize with both of these character’s positions – Londo, more for when he gets himself mixed up with the Shadows and begins to question what he has done, G’kar because he is backed in to a corner and trying to fight back while his hands are tied by political correctness, bureaucracy and apathy. They are also both tragic characters, Londo because he clings to the ideals of a Centauri republic long since vanished and in doing so embarks on a path that he will later regret. G’kar because he is driven by a pathological hatred of the Centauri and a need for revenge. They are also both proud patriots, and over the course of five seasons, both of them will grow wiser and see the error of their ways.
Thrown into the midst of this are the command crew of Babylon 5 who need to find a diplomatic solution to the latest flare up of the ongoing feud. In my previous review of The Gathering, I had said how much I liked Michael O’Hare in the role of Commander Jeffrey Sinclair. I seem to be in a minority with that sentiment, but for me he brought just the right amount of authority, level-headedness and philosophical reserve that were required of the commander in season one.
Ivanova, on the other hand, was a different story. I remember thinking back when the show first aired, that I wasn’t completely convinced by Claudia Christian’s portrayal of Ivanova in season one. She seemed a little bit stiff and a little bit unsure of herself in the role. However, on watching season one again, whilst I do think it took Christian a few episodes to settle in to character, that judgment was perhaps a little bit harsh and she is actually a lot better than I remembered. In hindsight, I think the thing that irked me most about the Ivanova character was that she was often treated as the comic relief – she always got the snarky, sarcastic lines – and the humor just didn’t work for me. Ivanova was at her best when she was being a hard-nosed, kick-ass Lieutenant Commander/Commander – they just should have left it at that. Midnight on the Firing Line reveals important information about the Ivanova character as, through her dealings with Talia Winters, we learn of Ivanova’s deep distrust of telepaths. Again, a recurring theme that will span the life of the show.
Like many of the episodes in season one, Midnight on the Firing Line worked on two levels: (1) It was its own, self-contained story, but (2) it put in place elements that would contribute to Babylon 5’s greater story arc(s). Episode two – The Soul Hunter – would continue in the same vein. On the surface it seemed like a very well contained individual episode, but there’s exposition here relating to Sinclair’s missing twenty-four hours that I personally think makes this episode unmissable. As an aside, episode two is also the episode in which we get introduced to Dr. Franklin and for that reason alone I’d recommend it.
After that, Babylon 5 meanders onward to episode six, Mind War – an important episode because it introduces the character of Bester (played by Star Trek veteran Walter Koenig).
Bester is the embodiment of the Psi Corps, the shadowy organization that watches over (read: controls) telepaths. Bester himself proves to be a somewhat underhanded character, working in surreptitious ways and revealing only enough information to get what he wants. As a result, he is not trusted and never gladly received on the B5 station. Bester is an important but background character and Koening guest stars in the role in all five seasons. Mind War is worth seeing for another reason though, as our assumptions of G’kar are challenged in this episode. Straczynski says numerous times in his various commentaries that he liked to set things up and then surprise the viewer and up until this point, G’kar has pretty much been painted as a villain. In a subplot in Mind War, Sinclair’s love interest, Catherine Sakai goes on a deep space exploration to a region that G’kar has expressly warned her away from. When she gets in to trouble G’kar makes arrangements for her rescue with no obvious gain to himself. It is the first chink in G’kar’s armor that we see and a sign of things to come. In fact, even he says to Sakai in the episode, “No one here is exactly what they seem.” G’kar’s monologue at the end of Mind War is still one of my favorite bits of the entire five seasons.
Episode eight – And the Sky full of Stars – is your next unmissable episode, as two covert knights come to Babylon 5 with the intention of interrogating Sinclair to find out what happened at the Battle of the Line. Pieces of Sinclair’s missing twenty-four hours start falling in to place.
….And then there’s Signs and Portents (Ep. 13)
If you were in any doubt as to whether there was something bigger than just the weekly storylines going on in Babylon 5, this was the episode to quash that doubt. Signs and Portents heralded the introduction of the sinister Mister Morden, emissary for the Shadows.
Morden was played absolutely perfectly by Ed Wasser and, like Bester, was a small yet significant character that flitted in and out of the show. To this day, I still think some of my favorite episodes were those with Morden in them. Morden has come to Babylon 5 at the behest of his “associates” to ask each of the alien ambassador’s a simple question – “What do you want?” The answers will have catastrophic results. Signs and Portents is really our first introduction to the Shadows and the start of the Shadow war thread that will run through to the beginning of season four.
At this point I really must stop to talk about the writing on this show. I’m not talking about the dialogue but the attention to detail in the overall story arc(s). There are moments in this show when I find it truly mind-boggling that Straczynski managed to plot out five seasons in the manner he did. In fact I would go so far as to argue that you shouldn’t just watch this series again for pleasure, you should watch it again after that, just to pick up on all the references you missed first (and second) time around. For example, when Morden avoids Kosh in Signs & Portents, you really have no idea why he’s doing it. Sure, you could pass it off as Kosh being a little bit weird but only when the shadow war is over (3 seasons later) are you really going to understand why. Another example is Delenn’s first words to Lennier in The Parliament of Dreams (Ep. 5). Only much, much later in B5’s run are you going to understand the significance of it, or of Neroon’s (a warrior caste Minbari) line in Legacies (Ep.17) when he says to Sinclair – “You talk like a Minbari, commander.” These are just a few examples of easily missed but crucial references that pepper the entire five seasons of Babylon 5.
Fans of the show get it. They understand that B5 was epic in its reach and scope; that it was attempting to do something that had never before been done in science fiction on television – and that is why they are so passionate about it. The writing is the reason you should go out and buy the box sets of this show, and the reason you should watch episodes and seasons in quick succession so that you can really appreciate Babylon 5.
Again, after Signs and Portents, season one takes a hiatus from the major story arcs and then runs a series of self-contained, easily missable episodes. For me, most seasons of B5 had at least one episode that I really disliked and season one is no exception. I would suggest missing TKO (Ep.14) of season one. TKO revolves around a kind of extra-terrestrial Fight Club that Garibaldi’s friend, Walker Smith is excluded from because he is human. I’m sure the episode is meant to be an allegory for racism and honor or something like that but personally I don’t think it adds anything to any of B5’s story arcs and really is a one-off episode. I’d even go as far as to say season one would be better without it.
The season then ends with a flurry of must-see episodes. First comes A Voice in the Wilderness parts one and two (Eps 18 & 19), and I recommend these because there is foreshadowing here that bears fruit in season four. Then comes Babylon Squared (Ep. 20)
Babylon Squared was Babylon 5’s first WTF moment (and trust me, there were a few of them). As Babylon 5’s moniker would suggest, B5 is the fifth in a series of space stations and, as we learn in the pilot movie and in other season one episodes, the first three stations were sabotaged before they could be completed. Babylon 4, on the other hand, vanished twenty-four hours after going “on-line.”
In Babylon Squared, B5 receives a distress call from the supposedly lost B4 station. Only thing is, the time stamp on the message is four years old, corresponding exactly to when B4 vanished. Sinclair and Garibaldi go to investigate (because of course you’d send your commanding officer and chief of security into a dangerous situation instead of a couple of starfury pilots who are just sitting around twiddling their thumbs waiting to be scrambled), and, as it turns out, Babylon Four has been caught in some kind of temporal time rift and is now “unstuck” in time. Thus ensues much rushing around, flashbacks, flashforwards and lots of talk about there “being no time” or “all the time in the world/galaxy/known universe.” Throw in to this mix a new (incredibly irritating) character called Zathras (Tim Choate) and you’ve got one hot mess of paradoxes that will leave you thinking to yourself “What the hell just happened?”
Looking back on it now, I keep thinking that Babylon Squared was a risky episode in as much as it really could have been a make-or-break moment for much of Babylon 5’s viewership. I mean there we all were, watching this seemingly episodic show, the first appearance of the shadows was now a distant memory, having aired seven weeks earlier – and now we were confronted with this. Now I don’t care what you say, but there was no way to put this in to context with anything that had come before, or with anything that would come soon after, and if you weren’t heavily invested in the show, you could have easily said, “That’s it, I’m done,” after watching Babylon Squared. B5 fans simply had to assimilate all of Babylon Squared and move forward with the blind faith that this episode actually meant something (and of course it did).
I also think it was risky for the show itself. After all, B5 was in its infancy but nearing the end of its season run. If it was looking to get picked up for a second season, throwing everyone for a loop this late in the game was a brave move indeed.
With all that said, watch this episode. It’s a must-see. You won’t understand a thing that is going on first time around but trust me, this might be the single most important episode in the whole five season run of the show.
After Babylon Squared there was a single episode before the season finale. On the surface The Quality of Mercy, (Ep. 21) was another self-contained episode, but like many others, it contained elements that would be significant much later on.
Episode 22, Chrysalis, like all good season finales was a cliffhanger. Sinclair announces his engagement to Catherine Sakai, Garibaldi uncovers a plot that will have repercussions for the next three seasons and Delenn begins a startling transformation. And with that season one is/was over.
I have mixed feelings about season one. As a fan, I love it, because it is the introduction to a show that I followed for years, but as that same fan, I’m almost disappointed because at 22 episodes long, I still don’t know if it’s that strong of a season, and by that, I mean I don’t know if season one alone could convince a non B5 fan to continue watching it. Yes, there are glimpses of the greatness to come but they are scattered among (some not so good) stand-alone episodes. It saddens me that when I recommend Babylon 5 to people I feel like I have to add the caveat “Just get through season one, it gets much better after that.” Agreed, this does not sound like a ringing endorsement of the show, but unless you’ve been on the B5 merry-go-round before, you can easily overlook all the references and foreshadowing that are so important in season one and DO make it a good season.
One of my complaints of The Gathering was that there was a lot of information that needed to be conveyed in a relatively short period of time. Conversely, one of the problems with season one of B5 is that so much groundwork needs to be laid to set up subsequent seasons that it is literally drip fed to you, episode by episode. I feel that at many points during season one, especially during streaks of stand alone episodes, viewers could literally not realize that they are being drawn into an intricate web of plotting and storylines – and that’s a shame, because they could easily decide that B5 is not worth their time. Again, for this reason I would recommend you getting your hands on a box set and plowing through them. If you can make it past Babylon Squared, I think you’re on for the ride.
At the start of this post, I said I would give suggestions as to which episodes in season one I think are crucial to following the greater story arcs in Babylon 5. If you have the accompanying booklet that comes with the box set, I’d say as a general rule of thumb, watch anything written by Straczynski and/or directed by Janet Greek. Similarly, avoid anything that has special guest stars of the known actor variety.
So, without further ado, here is a breakdown of season one.
Ep 1. – Midnight on the Firing Line – Sets up ongoing feud between Narns and Centauri. G’kar painted as villain. Introduction to Talia Winters, Susan Ivanova. Vir. Ivanova’s dislike of telepaths revealed.
Ep. 2 – Soul Hunter – Introduction to Stephen Franklin. Delenn revealed to be Satai (member of the Grey Council)
Ep. 6 – Mind War – Introduction to Bester. Talia Winters backstory. First signs of G’kar’s change.
Ep. 8 – And the Sky full of Stars – What happened to Sinclair at the Battle of the Line?
Ep. 13 – Signs and Portents – Introduction to Mr. Morden and the shadows.*
Ep. 18/19 – A Voice in the Wilderness Parts 1 & 2 – Garibaldi’s backstory. Introduction to Epsilon 3, the planet that lies close to Babylon 5
Ep. 20 – Babylon Squared – Fate of Babylon 4 revealed. Introduction to Zathras.
Ep. 22 – Chrysalis – Garibaldi uncovers a devastating plot. Delenn begins a startling transformation.*
*Commentaries by Straczynski available on DVD
Ep. 3 – Born to the Purple – Good character study of Londo.
Ep. 5 – The parliament of dreams – Introduction of Lennier, Na’Toth, Catherine Sakai. Sinclair and Sakai’s back story. Good character study of G’kar
Ep. 10 Believers – Good character study of Dr. Franklin.
Ep. 11 Survivors – Good Character Study of Garibaldi
Ep. 12 – By Any Means Necessary – Good for ongoing feud between Londo and G’kar.
Ep. 17 Legacies – Good character study of Delenn. Introduction to Neroon
Ep. 21 The Quality of Mercy – Franklin discovers an alien healing device.
Meh – Watch if you have time:
Ep. 4 – Infection
Ep. 7 – The War Prayer
Ep. 9 – Deathwalker
Ep. 16 – Eyes
Ep. 14 TKO
Ep. 15 Grail