Why Babylon 5 Is The Greatest Sci-Fi Show Ever Made
You know that conversation you have with fellow nerds about which is the best sci-fi show, where everyone argues about whether Firefly is better than Battlestar Galactica while someone else insists that Doctor Who is clearly the best? I can't help vehemently disagreeing with all of the above because if you ask me, the finest sci-fi show of all time is unquestionably Babylon 5 (1993 – 1998). Stick with me and I'll try to persuade you of why.
Let's Acknowledge The Bad
I can't in good conscience start off an essay praising Babylon 5 without admitting that it had plenty of flaws. The show had some pretty terrible visuals, even by 90s CGI standards. The costumes and alien designs were creative but have not aged well, and the overall visual style oscillated between occasionally striking and frequently hideous. Characters were occasionally introduced as being important to the story and then dropped and never heard from again. And sometimes the choices of material to build a story around were downright odd.
Remember the Jack the Ripper episode? Yeah, I tried to forget about that one too. Or that movie where they got Martin Sheen of all people to guest star, and they dressed up one of the greatest actors of our generation like this? That one is best consigned to the history books where it belongs. There were times when the writing of the series was downright clunky, and there were far more filler episodes than would be optimal in a story-driven show.
But for all its faults, Babylon 5 had an utterly unique quality that I'd argue makes it the best sci-fi show ever made, and that is structure.
Why Structure Is So Important For Time Travel Plots
When you watch B5 for the first time it might strike you as standard 90s sci-fi fare. However, when you look more closely, you'll see that plot threads are woven throughout the series, tying one season to the next and creating a complex long-term narrative.
This is most obvious in the episodes about time travel. One of the series' greatest plots is a time travel adventure about the mysterious Babylon 4 station. The B4 station is introduced when it strangely re-appears near the end of the first season after disappearing years before. Where the station came from and what caused it to reappear is a mystery which isn't answered until two seasons later, when it transpires that the crew of Babylon 5 go and steal the station for themselves. In the attempt to rescue crew from B4, they accidentally send the station further into the future. Finally, in the future, the station is transported back in time even further to the Mimbari-Shadow war which takes place before the timeline of the series. This explains the setup for the show itself and how the current B5 crew has created the history that they have been learned about throughout the series.
It's a bit overly complicated, sure, but this plot works beautifully throughout the different seasons of the show – and more importantly, it shows the very real effects that the actions of the crew have had on the history of the galaxy. There are aspects of the characters and their interactions from the first season which are explained only at the end of the fourth season. And the parts of the B4 story that you see in season one are explained once you see the characters coming back to the same time and location as before in season four when you see from their perspective and gain an understanding of the overall story.
A similar thing happened with the death of Londo Mollari, a fan-favorite character who acts as ambassador for the untrustworthy Centauri empire. In the film In the Beginning which described events which happened ten years before the start of the series, you learn that Londo has had a vision of his death at the hands of G'Kar, his long-time enemy. This prophecy is referred to over the course of the show and contributes to Londo and G'Kar's animosity towards each other in the early seasons. But as the show progresses, the two become reluctant allies and eventually even fast friends. When the day of Londo's death finally arrives, the audience learns that Londo has asked G'Kar to kill him and his former enemy is now helping him to die as he wishes. What the characters and the audience assume – that this prophecy means that these two characters will hate each other forever – is actually quite the opposite of what eventually transpires.
The unique characteristic of B5 comes from the entire show being plotted almost entirely by one writer: J. Michael Straczynski, who meticulously planned out each aspect of the show. Before a single shot was recorded, Straczynski had a concept of where every character and plot thread would end. And that's what allowed him to write such complex long-term plots.
What's Unusual About B5
Why is all this monkeying about with time travel important? Because it shows the kind of stories that you can only tell when you have a show thoroughly planned out in advance. At the time B5 was on the air, shows like Star Trek: The Next Generation were still largely reliant on episode-by-episode plots, and had only just started to experiment with season-long arcs. And here came Babylon 5 with not just a single-season story arc but several complex multi-season arcs. This kind of storytelling was and still is a rarity in television.
Nowadays we're more used to the 13-episode season prestige TV format made popular by Netflix shows. And this format definitely has some advantages – dropping the average number of episodes per season from 22 to 13 has drastically reduced the number of filler episodes you see in many shows and forced writers to create tighter, more action-packed plots.
But shows are now written with the specter of renewal hanging over them. Every season that is produced could be the series' last, so there's no chance of planning far ahead in the future. Further, it's expected that audience reaction and network influence will change the format and style of a series over time. While there are advantages to a show being adaptive and responsive to criticism, this has lead to a situation where it's almost impossible to write a long-term multi-season story arc.
What Good Structure Allows You To Do
You might wonder why we need multi-season story arcs though. Is there anything which B5-style writing allows you to do that more season-focused writing doesn't? I'd argue that for sci-fi specifically, taking a longer-term view allows you to show a more complex development of characters, places, and technology over time, giving you the opportunity to build mythology. And most vital for a sci-fi show, it lets you play with time travel. You can retroactively squeeze a time travel story into your show, as Doctor Who is wont to do with things like flashback images of previous incarnations of the Doctor. But to really integrate a time travel story into your show, you need to have the story planned before you start shooting.
Other sci-fi shows have suffered from the lack of an overarching vision. The ending of Battlestar Galactica was weak because the writers had penned themselves into a corner and didn't have the skill to pull together all of the different plot strands that were sprinkled throughout the earlier seasons. Stargate SG1 tended to use shout-outs to its long-term fans in the form of callbacks or jokes, but its ten seasons lacked a coherent overarching narrative. Comparatively, Babylon 5 rewarded you for watching the previous seasons and for paying attention by giving you the satisfaction of working out plot elements for yourself, and by these plot elements paying off in a neat, contained way.
There is hope for those of us who love complex sci-fi though: apparently, HBO has been following B5's lead by planning out five whole seasons of its drama Westworld. For an intellectually, twist-laden show which is highly conceptual, this seems like an ideal approach. Personally I hope that carefully planned multi-season arcs don't die out just yet, when they have so much to offer sci-fi fans.