At this festive time of year it’s fair to assume that most of our readers will have a bit more spare time than usual over the next week or two. Furthermore, more than a few of you will get those newfangled “TV sticks” (a slightly better term than “dongle” to my mind) as holiday gifts, or get somebody to pick up your Netflix or Hulu or Amazon Prime subscription for another year. So if you find yourself in need of some media to stream, allow me to offer you a recommendation. Forget the peppermint bark and binge on Babylon 5.
I just finished it today, via the old fashioned medium of DVD box sets borrowed from a generous friend. I haven’t exactly binged, but I watched every episode of six seasons over a few months, and the experience might have been even better if I’d moved a little faster. Babylon 5 was made to binge. I remember watching most of the first 4 seasons as it was broadcast back in the 1990s, liking it, but giving up on it in inertia. Today I can’t imagine why I did that, but that’s because I was able to follow the complex plot and appreciate all the little nuances of the character development without long waits between episodes and even longer ones between seasons. (Yes, the 1990s hair styles haven’t aged well, but don’t let that hold you back.)
For those who are entirely unfamiliar, Babylon 5 is a fairly serious science fiction novel told in the form of a space opera television series. Forget all the stupid debates about whether or not it is better than Star Trek. It is not the same thing as Star Trek, which is an open ended series of movies and TV shows that share world building and a common alternate history. Babylon 5 is a single story with a beginning, a middle and an end, with all the twisting story lines, foreshadowing, hints, plot hooks and actual changes to characters’ lives that you expect from the better kind of novels and so seldom find on television.
Set on the deep space station of the title, this story concerns itself with the lives of a group of people from widely different cultural backgrounds (they’re all aliens, really, including the humans), all of whom happen to be going about their business there when suddenly a great big ball of history rolls over them. (Bad luck, that.) Some of them will die, some of them will become great figures, good and bad, none of them will go on unchanged. These characters are rather extraordinary, first for being different from each other in more than looks, but also because they have genuine inner lives and well developed personal philosophies which actually influence their decisions and shape the plot and eventually affect the history that they are making. There are plenty of space ships and space battles and weird aliens with weird beliefs (including the humans), but there are also great romances and doomed romances and several truly epic friendships that will move you to tears if you are sensitive to that kind of thing. (Don’t watch the last episode without a handful of tissues that’s for sure.)
I was both glad and sorry to see the end of Babylon 5— glad because it was awfully good, sorry because I know there will never be any more of it. My generous friend probably wants his DVDs back, and he can have ’em any time, and thanks very much. But until then, I think I’m going to start over with season one now that I know how it all ends, just see the way they build the story. That’s not something you usually do with a TV show. Consider it a very high recommendation.