Rating: Babylon 5, Season 1

Babylon 5 is something you either fondly remember or have forgotten ever existed. There isn’t much middle ground for this ambitious, expansive, flawed masterpiece of science fiction television. Here’s what we thought on our rewatch of season 1 (note that this does not include the pilot movie, “The Gathering”):

Babylon 5 season 1 DVD cover
  1. “Midnight on the Firing Line” – 5.5
  2. “Soul Hunter” – 4
  3. “Born to the Purple” – 4
  4. “Infection” – 3
  5. “Parliament of Dreams” – 8
  6. “Mind War” – 6
  7. “The War Prayer” – 2.5
  8. “And the Sky Full of Stars” – 4
  9. “Deathwalker” – 2
  10. “Believers” – 3
  11. “Survivors” – 4
  12. “By Any Means Necessary” – 7
  13. “Signs and Portents” – 6
  14. “TKO” – 2.5
  15. “Grail” – 5
  16. “Eyes” – 5
  17. “Legacies” – 6.5
  18. “A Voice in the Wilderness, part 1” – 4
  19. “A Voice in the Wilderness, part 2” – 3.5
  20. “Babylon Squared” – 5
  21. “The Quality of Mercy” – 5
  22. “Chrysalis” – 3.5

The average rating this season is a rather low 4.4. It’s a shaky start for a series that aimed to do so much, perhaps unavoidably so since the greater story Babylon 5 wanted to tell required so much background and worldbuilding. Some episodes this season end up falling flat because they were there not so much to tell an episode-long story as to fill us in on things we would need to know later. The idea of telling a connected arc story over dozens or hundreds of individual episodes was still new and largely untested in US media (apart from soap operas, which occupied a very different space in entertainment than B5 aspired to). Season 1 played it safe, probably by necessity, convincing both an uninitiated audience and a hesitant network to buy into the world of the show before striking out into such new territory. Three decades on and arcs are everywhere, even in series that don’t really need them. B5 may seem quaint now, like a Model-T car, but without it our modern television landscape might look very different.

Babylon 5 is a collection of contradictions. It is two parts Star Trek and one part Tolkien, with too much geeking out over the physics of space travel to be fantasy and too many ancient prophecies and mystical rebirths to be science fiction. It is the most Star Trek-like of all the shows that sold themselves as “not like Star Trek,” and the one that most strenuously insists on the difference. In some ways, it is timeless, telling a story that spans the lifetime of the universe and finding its narrative touchstones in everything from Arthurian legend to World War II. In other ways, it is unmistakably a product of the US in the nineties: a time when we believed competent military technocrats could solve everything, thought Russia was going to be our friend and Japan an alien menace, and bought collarless shirts and Zima.

But the contradiction that strikes us the most on rewatching is in the talents of the actors. Most of the main cast are adequate, if not inspiring. Guest roles are a mixed bag of lifeless line readings and overdone melodrama. There’s a lot of tedious under- and overacted scenes to get past if you want to watch Babylon 5 straight through. Yet amid these tepid talents are some blazing stars. Claudia Christian as the snarky second in command Ivanova owns every scene she’s in. Bill Mumy’s Lennier and Stephen Furst’s Vir, two junior diplomatic aides, are as endearingly awkward now as they were three decades ago and a delight to rewatch. But the most mesmerizing performances come from Peter Jurasik as the louche, cynical Centauri Ambassador Mollari and Andreas Katsulas as the canny, passionate Narn Ambassador G’Kar. Every scene with either one of them is elevated by their presence, and the scenes with both positively crackle with energy. Watching the two of them dance around one another like knife fighters, first as mortal enemies and later as fire-forged allies if not exactly friends, is as thrilling now as it was the first time around.

Babylon 5 is a parade of strengths and weaknesses, and it is in some sense to its credit that the two do not cancel each other out. Not surprisingly, the worst episode of the season falls under the weight of a lot of these weaknesses, and the best soars with the strengths. At the bottom of the heap we have “Deathwalker,” in which a war criminal from Narn’s past reappears offering the secret to eternal life. We rated it a 2. On rewatching, you can see that this episode helps set up the tensions between the galactic powers and the controlling hand of the Vorlons, but that comes at the expense of any meaningful development or resolution of the immediate conflict raised in the episode.

At the other end, the best episode of this season is “The Parliament of Dreams,” rating an 8. So much of what was great about B5 is on display in this episode. The main storyline, about a cultural exchange of religious traditions among the assembled ambassadors, gives depth and richness to the alien races while the secondary story, about an attempt on G’Kar’s life, gives the character some of his first opportunities for growth.

Do you have any special memories of the first season of Babylon 5? Let us know!

Image: Season 1 DVD cover of Babylon 5 via IMDb

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.