Early 1993 and the pilot of a new science fiction series hits the air.
The new commander of a far-flung space station arrives at his new post and finds himself the peacemaker in a melting-pot of humans and aliens — and trying desperately to keep apart two races, one of which has recently departed the homeworld of the other after decades as an occupying power.
But that's enough about Star Trek: Deep Space Nine!
While the basic premise of the pilots to both Babylon 5 and Deep Space Nine are uncannily similar, and both space-bound series would go on to be remembered for the ongoing plot arcs that developed through their later seasons, it's to Babylon 5's credit that such a structure was intended from the outset.
Created by J Michael Straczynski (The Twilight Zone (1980s) / Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future), Babylon 5 was one of the 1990s greatest television triumphs. Initially set in the year 2257, the series revolved around a two-mile long space station which was used as a meeting place for the five main races in our galaxy — the Minbari, the Centauri, the Narn, the mysterious Vorlons, and humans.
Babylon 5's pilot, The Gathering, aired in February 1993 and, as pilots tend to do, set in place all the necessary pieces of the puzzle that would be required if the show was to return for a full series. Arriving on Babylon 5 was Commander Jeffrey Sinclair (Michael O'Hare), a fighter-pilot hero of the Battle of the Line, a last-ditch defence of the Earth in a war against the Minbari nearly a decade earlier. Representing the Minbari was Ambassador Delenn (Mira Furlan). The decadent Centauri were represented by Ambassador Londo Mollari (Peter Jurasik). The newly liberated Narn were represented by Ambassador G'Kar (Andreas Katsulas), while the sole Vorlon on the station was Kosh, a mysterious figure who was permanently out of sight inside a bulky environmental suit — supposedly to provide the necessary atmosphere for him/her to stay alive. The remainder of the main cast were made up of Sinclair's second-in-command Lt Commander Laurel Takashima (Tamlyn Tomita), Dr Benjamin Kyle (Johnny Sekka) and telepath Lyta Alexander (Patricia Tallman).
Despite being well made, and also well received, what eventually became Season 1 would see a number of changes from the rather pedestrian pilot. Lyta Alexander (Patricia Tallman) was replaced by Talia Winters (Andrea Thompson) — another telepath. The wooden Dr Kyle was replaced by Dr Stephen Franklin (Richard Biggs), and Laurel Takashima was replaced by Lt Commander Susan Ivanova (Claudia Christian. New additions to the cast included aides for each of the ambassadors in the forms of the Minbari Lennier (Bill Mumy from Lost in Space), the Centauri Vir Cotto (Stephen Furst), and the Narn Na'Toth (Caitlin Brown).
Unlike the various other space-based series of the time such as Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the space battles and shots of the Babylon 5 station itself were to be completely CGI creations. This was the first time that computer generated graphics would be used in such an extensive way on a weekly sci-fi drama series, and added greatly to the distinctive look of the show.
Over the course of the next few seasons the number of scripts written by J Michael Straczynski would increase greatly. In fact, over the course of the final three of Babylon 5's five seasons he was to write all but one episode, Season 5's Day of the Dead which was scripted by Neil Gaiman. And in writing such a high proportion of the stories, he was able to closely follow the story arcs which he had planned way in advance of The Gathering ever making it to production. As luck would have it, these plans would also include enough leeway to accomodate changes in the cast...
The major ongoing plotline through the early years would be the re-awakening of the mysterious Shadows, whose plans for the inhabitants of our galaxy would cause major problems, and the seeds of this storyline were sown in Season 1, which mainly consisted on standalone stories. The first episode of Season 2 was to see a significant change for the series as Commander Sinclair had departed for pastures new between seasons and who was replaced by Captain John Sheridan (Bruce Boxleitner), another hero of the war against the Minbari.
Seasons 2 and 3 saw the number of Shadow episodes increasing greatly, and a major arc within Season 3 saw Babylon 5 declaring its independence and breaking away from the increasingly totalitarian and isolationist regime on Earth.
In the UK the series was shown on the terrestrial Channel 4 and, unexpectedly for fans, a number of episodes from each of the first three seasons received their premiere in the UK. Season 1's conclusion, Chrysalis, was the first episode to be screened in this manner, enabling UK fans to be the first to see Delenn enter her chrysalis (before eventually becoming half-human) and also Garibaldi being shot in the back by his aide whilst attempting to prevent the assassination of President Santiago. Season 2 saw the final four episodes being shown on Channel 4 some three months in advance of their US transmission — much to the dismay of fans in the US — which included such delights as Lyta Alexander returning to Babylon 5 and unmasking a regular character as a spy (albeit an unwitting one) in Divided Loyalties, the explosive invasion of the Narn homeworld by the Centauri in The Long, Twilight Struggle, and The Fall of Night which saw Sheridan jumping out of a shuttle aboard the station to avoid a bomb and plummeting to the ground before being caught and lowered to the ground by Kosh. Season 3 was equally as exciting with the final five episodes all being shown around a month in advance of the US broadcasts, with the final episode, Z'ha'dum, featuring Sheridan leaping into a chasm on the Shadow homeworld, just as two nuclear devices detonate...
With the arrival of Season 4, things were building impressively, but behind the scenes there were problems. So far the series had been produced for syndication, but all the indications were that Season 4 would be the end of the show. With this in mind, Straczynski chose to accelerate the pace of the Shadow storyline in order to finish it by the conclusion of the season, resulting in a breathless pace during the latter half of the year. The season also saw the longstanding storyline of President Clark's regime on Earth being tackled, with the Alliance taking on and defeating EarthForce. The season also saw the setting up of a plot which would eventually be picked up in Season 5 in the form of a telepath war. With the series seemingly due to end, the final episode of Season 4, Sleeping in Light, was designed to wrap up the series, and was to be set some twenty years after the conclusion of the series.
As things were to turn out, Babylon 5 was eventually picked up for a fifth season by TNT who had bought the repeat rights for the series and who also commissioned two new Babylon 5 TV movies for screening on the channel. In the Beginning looked back at the war between Earth and the Minbari, while Thirdspace was a standalone story which was set during the frenetic action of Season 4.
However, with the regular series moving to TNT, the budget for the show was cut and contracts had to be renegotiated. Unfortunately, Claudia Christian didn't sign up, forcing J Michael Straczynski to introduce the new character of Captain Elizabeth Lochley (Tracey Scoggins) who took command of Babylon 5, replacing John Sheridan who was now the President of the Interstellar Alliance. With the series now having an extra year on air, Straczynski was also forced to hold back Sleeping in Light, and wrote a new episode, The Deconstruction of Falling Stars, which was broadcast as the final episode of Season 4.
Season 5 began with the introduction of a groups of telepaths, under the leadership of Byron (Robin Atkin Downs), who wished to set up an independent colony. To the dismay of many fans, this tedious storyline dragged on for the opening half of the season, with the second half turning to rather more interesting material as the Centauri homeworld was attacked by the Narn and the Drazi when the Centauri Regent (under the control of the Drakh — allies of the Shadows) turned off the planetary defence network, and Londo finally accepted his fate, becoming Emperor of a defeated world and being controlled by a Drakh Keeper. The final episode, the delayed Sleeping in Light, saw an elderly Sheridan saying his goodbyes and travelling beyond the Rim with the mysterious Lorien who had given him an extra twenty years of life after he had died on Z'ha'dum at the conclusion of Season 3.
This wasn't quite the last that was seen of Babylon 5, however. Two more TV movies were produced for showing on TNT, with the standalone River of Souls being shown while Season 5 was still on air. The fourth and final movie was A Call to Arms which saw the launch of the Excalibur — the first of a new design of ships incorporating Minbari technology — and an attack on Earth by the Drakh in which a biogenetic plague was released into the atmosphere. This formed the basic setup for the short-lived spin-off series Crusade, in which the crew of the Excalibur, under the command of Captain Matthew Gideon (Gary Cole), are given the task of searching out a cure for the plague, which will wipe-out the population of Earth within five years. Sadly, from the outset it became apparent that TNT were unsure of exactly what is was that they wanted from Crusade, resulting in a new opening episode being produced well into production. In the event, just thirteen episodes had been produced (with none of them having even reached the air) before TNT pulled the plug.
Since then two further Babylon 5 scripts have seen production. The dismal Legend of the Rangers was broadcast to little aclaim on the Sci-Fi Channel in January 2002, while Babylon 5: The Lost Tales appeared as a direct-to-DVD production in 2007.
Over the course of its five seasons Babylon 5 managed to overcame the early loss of its lead actor, cancellation and then swift re-commission. In terms of its ongoing plotlines, the likes of Battlestar Galactica and Lost owe Babylon 5 a huge debt, with stories seeded early on finally coming to fruition years later. The series is now rightly regarded as one of the most memorable and intriguing science fiction dramas ever to reach the small screen.