Our Last Best Hope
Two months ago, I had never seen an episode of Babylon 5. I had heard of it, and I was a fan of a lot of the comic book writings of the Babylon 5 creator, J. Michael Straczynski but I had no desire whatsoever to watch the show. There wasn’t any hatred of the show or any real reasoning behind the fact that I hadn’t seen it. It was just one of those things that I hadn’t gotten around to in my life. There are plenty of things in this world that I haven’t gotten around to doing yet, and I have to be honest when I say that shortening that list by watching Babylon 5 wasn’t very high on my list of priorities.
But….if I’ve learned nothing else, I’ve learned that I should listen to the advice of my friends. So on the advice of one friend and the insistence of another, I said I’d give Babylon 5 a shot and see if it was a good as they said it would be. Comparisons were made to Joss Whedon and Firefly, so the bar was set pretty high and I went in expecting to be disappointed. I had read Straczynski’s work on Spiderman and Fantastic Four and in particular his amazing, creator owned series Rising Stars so I knew that he was a great writer, but Whedon comparisons still seemed like they might be a bit far fetched.
Once I took the plunge and started watching, I was hooked. Babylon 5 currently consists of one hundred and ten episodes of the hour long TV series, seven ninety-minute TV movies and a short lived spin-off series called Crusade which lasted for 13 episodes (one less than Whedon’s short lived Firefly) and it took me less than fifty days to devour the whole lot.
Even before I watched the first episode, what struck me was the age of the show. Having premiered in 1993, the show is only one year away from being legally old enough to drink alcohol and vote, though obviously not at the same time. But given the state of Irish politics, that could actually happen more often than one may think. The reason that I was looking at the year of production was that in the initial recommendation of the show that I received, I was also given the caveat that the special effects, and in particular the exterior space effects were a bit dodgy by today’s standards. The effects that were used throughout the shows and the movies were revolutionary at the time, and Babylon 5 was the first science fictions show to solely use computer generated imagery for the exterior space scenes. While I will concede that the exterior effects aren’t quite up to the standard of Firefly or any Star Trek series since The Next Generation, the effects are not what the series is about. The main selling point of Babylon 5 has always been the quality of the writing and acting on offer.
The series’ time line ranges from the year 2245 to 2281 and though the majority of the one hundred and ten episodes of Babylon 5 happen within the five years between 2258 and 2262 we get to see glimpses of Straczynski’s universe as far back as one thousand years and as far forward as one million years in to the future. And in a million years’ worth of narrative, there was almost no errors in continuity save for a few who-met-who-and-when inconsistencies in the movie In The Beginning. Straczynski famously spends ten hours of each day writing and he clearly spent a lot of time sketching out the in-universe chronology, framework and character histories. Some of Straczynski’s planning was made apparent through big revelations like the history of Valen. Some of it was always present but never explained or even mentioned on screen, like the mystery of why Walter Keonig’s character never unclenched his left fist. Out of the one hundred and ten episodes in the show’s run, Straczynski wrote ninety two, and holds the record to this day for writing fifty nine consecutive episodes ranging from the second season through to the fifth. The run was broken by an episode written by Neil Gaiman, which is the only episode in Season Five of the show not written by Straczynski.
One of the reasons that I didn’t watch Babylon 5 when it originally started airing on this side of the Atlantic was that I felt that it was too similar, too much of a rip off of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. But in fairness there was also a time when I didn’t listen to Bill Hicks because I thought his material was too similar to Denis Leary’s. You live and learn.
The similarities at first are obvious and plain for anyone to see. The two shows are about space stations that are located near a travel hub and have titles that end with a number Both space stations are home to a myriad of different races, some of which have been at war with one another in the recent past. But there are more subtle similarities than that. In the early days of each show, the story was primarily based on the respective space stations but after a few seasons, both shows introduced a top-of-the-range starship that was initially the only one of its kind but later would serve as the namesake for an entire class of ship. The two shows also heavily featured a storyline involving a war with a mysterious enemy from a different part of space, and in both series it’s arguable that the representative for the two respective enemy races was the main villain for both series. These may still see like fairly obvious comparisons but consider the fate of two characters, both of whom were minor players in their own universes but still managed to rise to prominence. Rom in Deep Space Nine and Vir in Babylon 5 both served much the same purpose and had the same fate. In both cases, Rom and Vir played second fiddle to a decadent master who seemed to embody the classical virtues of their respective societies.
Rom was the subordinate to his brother Quark. Quark ostensibly was the perfect Ferengi, dishonest, greedy, amoral and devious. But underneath all of Quark’s bluster and protestations was a being who knew the difference between right and wrong, whether Quark liked it or not. And most of the time, Quark didn’t like it. In the face of a crumbling society and a leadership that was less than capable, Quark fought to keep alive the traditions that he believed in and fought to keep alive the world that he believed in. No matter how much his home changed or how much his own people changed around him, Quark tried to uphold the principles that he was brought up to believe in. In Quark’s mind, contact with humans didn’t weaken him or corrupt him, it merely provided him with more opportunities for profit. Quark was an old school Ferengi who stood for everything that he felt his society should be.
In Babylon 5, Londo Molari shared a lot of character traits with Quark but ultimately was a much more tragic character. Like Quark, Londo stood for very thing that his world used to represent. Londo was never a child or at least he never had a childhood. He was brought up from a very young age to believe in the ways of his world and never wavered from the duty that the devotion to his world. Where Quark’s ambition always outweighed his ability to succeed, Londo ended up getting exactly what he always desired. Though as he said himself, he had all the power in the world and absolutely no choices. Londo is one of the greatest tragic characters in any form of literature.
Neither character though would ever have thought that their subordinates would end up rising to the positions that they did. But that’s only because neither Londo nor Quark knew that Deep Space Nine borrowed pretty liberally from the Babylon 5 series bible and scripts.
It’s difficult thing to write about a subject as expansive as Babylon 5. No matter how much you write, there’s bound to be more unwritten. Even if I wrote of character-trap doors, O’Neill cylinders, Newtonian physics, the numerous Lord Of The Rings references, the numerous 1984 references, the outstanding quality of the guest stars, the speeches that were in the show, and Straczynski’s naming of the show’s two main characters after himself; I’d still be leaving out more than I care to admit.
No matter though how much I write or how much I neglect to write, there’s no way that I could possibly cover the subject of Babylon 5 without mentioning G’Kar. G’Kar is, in my humble opinion one of the finest fictional characters ever created. Often serving as a counterpart to Londo Mollari, G’Kar ran the gamut from arms dealer to loud mouth comic relief Ambassador to resistance leader to leader of his people to prophet and explorer. On his own, G’Kar was a magnificent creation, but his constantly changing relationship with Londo was often the heart of the series. From the beginning, we are told that Londo is destined to die at the hands of G’Kar, so their evolution of rivals/enemies/colleagues/co-conspirators and finally ending up as friends was a joy to watch. Londo’s destiny was indeed fulfilled and we got to see it from a few different perspectives, but it wasn’t what he or we initially thought it to be.
More than any other character on the show, I think that G’Kar became the voice of Straczynski on the show. G’Kar was able to rail against tyranny and speak about the search for meaning in religion, extol the virtue of kindness to your neighbour and deliver one of the best farewell scenes that has ever been committed to celluloid. G’Kar got most of the best lines and best speeches in the show, and Andreas Katsulas who played G’Kar delivered the lines as few could have and brought the character on his odyssey in a truly believable and relatable way. Even if he did look like a snake.
Babylon 5 truly is a novel made for television with sweeping story lines, interweaving character arcs, joy and heartbreak Neil Gaiman, in the introduction to the first trade paperback collection of Straczynski’s Rising Stars stated that Straczynski had done the impossible with Babylon 5. Ironically enough, Gaiman’s Sandman comic book series was then one of the few times that a similarly impossible task had been achieved. And it’s no exaggeration to state that Babylon 5 paved the way for modern day shows like Lost which also have large casts and preplanned story arcs.
Throughout the five year run of Babylon 5, the opening monologue was different each and every year, changing to reflect the status of the story in each year. But one thing remained constant each year, and that was the use of the words “Our last best hope”. I don’t think that it was strictly accurate though, I don’t think that it was our last best hope, I think it was an example of how science fiction should be done, and how a story should be told. I think it’s our best example.
- Simon Fitzgerald
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