Babylon 5: Triumph and Tragedy in Three Acts

Article by Anthony Leong © Copyright 1999

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This article appeared in Issue 15 (April/June 1999) of Frontier, Australia's premiere sci-fi media magazine.
Some of the established empires in the pilot will fall. Some will rise unexpectedly. Hopes and fortunes will be alternately made or destroyed. At least one major race not yet known even to exist will make its presence known, but only gradually. Some characters will fall from grace. Others will make bargains whose full price they do not understand, but will eventually come to realize, and regret.

Excerpt from J. Michael Straczynski's 5-year Plan for "Babylon 5"

Babylon 5... the last best hope for peace

Towards the latter part of November 1998, the final episode of the epic science fiction series "Babylon 5" was aired, bringing to an end the ten-year struggle of series creator J. Michael Straczynski to turn his vision into reality. Having invested the first five years marketing his unique science fiction franchise, and then the latter five years producing it despite the annual threat of cancellation, this singular body of work stands as a testament to Straczynski's determination and his unparalleled skills as a writer.

"Babylon 5" may have started as 'just another science fiction series' in the vein of "Star Trek" or its ilk, but in the past five years, it has blossomed into truly one of the more well-written and thought-provoking television programs of the decade. Straczynski's creation is not just another genre show... it is better described as a 'genre innovator', unlike anything else on the air today.

In the beginning...

In order to understand how "Babylon 5" changed the rules of dramatic television, it is important to first understand the evolution of dramatic television over the last two decades. Up until the late 1970s, most prime-time dramas on American television consisted of a series of standalone episodes with very little continuity between each show (the events on one episode rarely had an impact on the events in subsequent ones). In addition, the events portrayed in the series usually revolved around a central character. The original "Star Trek" is a good illustration of this, as you can watch the majority of the episodes in any order without any continuity issues, and the stories tended to revolve around its lead character, Captain Kirk.

However, at the latter end of 1970s, a number of 'prime-time soaps' emerged ("Dallas", "Dynasty", etc.), which brought the ongoing and multi-episodic narratives of daytime soap operas to mainstream audiences. Furthermore, these 'prime-time soaps' were characterized by 'community creation', in which the action revolved around a number of individual characters related to one another through some means, and the dramatic conflict was often derived from the interactions between these characters.

The popularity of the prime-time soaps soon begat the 'ensemble drama', which combined the multi-episodic story arcs and community of characters with decidedly more serious thematic content. The first ensemble drama that exhibited these characteristics was "Hill Street Blues", which was cited as a 'groundbreaking show' and helped to pave the way for other ensemble dramas such as "St. Elsewhere", "L.A. Law", "Twin Peaks", and yes, even "Star Trek: The Next Generation".

And so it begins...

In essence, "Babylon 5" can be considered an ensemble drama, as it exhibits many of the telltale characteristics. However, labeling it as such would be incomplete, as "Babylon 5" exhibits a number of innovations to the genre that fall outside this classification. Specifically, "Babylon 5" is structured more like an epic novel and is characterized by:

  1. A preconceived narrative with a definitive series endpoint
  2. Adherence to the three-act dramatic structure
  3. Transformational character arcs
  4. Emphasis on 'people problems', not 'technobabble'

As it is popularly known, Straczynski went into "Babylon 5" with a 'five-year plan' that he originally conceived in 1986, an ambitious blueprint that outlined the events of every episode right up until the series finale. In addition to providing a roadmap for the development of the series, this five-year plan ensured a level of consistency unparalleled in dramatic television, which allowed Straczynski to use literary devices such as foreshadowing and allusion to great effect during the course of the series. This was exemplified by the various dream sequences and flash-forwards that sometimes took up to three seasons for their significance to be revealed. This, of course, rewarded loyal viewers who tuned in week after week, and required the audience to take on a more active role while watching the series, analyzing and interpreting each plot point and line of dialogue in the context of the overall story.

Another benefit of the five-year plan was the series' adherence to the three-act dramatic structure. The three-act structure is the cornerstone of dramatic storytelling, and most novels, television programs, plays, and films are crafted in this manner:

Dr. Franklin, Security Chief Garibaldi, Commander Ivanova, and Captain Sheridan

And though your average episode of "Star Trek" or "The X-Files" will follow such an outline, it is very rare for an entire series to be structured this way, since it is rare for a series creator to envision how the series will develop over time. Furthermore, the creative process in dramatic television writing tends to be organic, as events in the series will unfold based on the events that preceded it. For example, were the wars with the Klingons and the Dominion on "Deep Space Nine" forseen by its creators back in the first season? Of course not... these events developed over time through the input of its writing staff (and the same could be said for the increasingly convoluted and inconsistent 'conspiracy mythology' arc of "The X-Files").

The five-year run of "Babylon 5", on the other hand, could be broken down into three distinct acts-- the first act comprises of the first season (the introduction to B5), the second act covers seasons two to four (the Shadow War and the civil war on Earth), and the third act consists of the final season (the formation of the Interstellar Alliance).

Hand in hand with the series' three-act dramatic structure were the numerous character arcs. In many genre programs (and numerous 'old school' television dramas for that matter), the main character usually remained static over the life of the series. For example, Detective Columbo was the same person from week-to-week and only the situations he was in differed. Now contrast this with "Babylon 5", which offered true character development in which the characters grew and changed as a result of their experiences.

G'Kar, Delenn, Londo, Lennier, and Vir

Every major character, from Captain Sheridan to Vir, underwent a transformational arc that left them either for better or for worse. In addition, these character developments were not merely the result of external influences, as Straczynski stated in his five-year plan "every major character is running to, or away from something in their hearts, or their pasts, or their careers". The finest example of the level of orchestration involved in the character arcs would be the contrasting developments of Londo and G'Kar. At the beginning of the series, Londo was a philandering buffoon and ambassador for an empire in decline, while G'Kar was the sinister representative of an aggressive war-mongering race. However, their positions began to slowly shift during the second season, until the third season in which G'Kar evoked sympathy while Londo summoned only revulsion. Finally, by the end of the series, these two characters had become allies along very different paths-- G'Kar was a religious icon, while Londo had become a prisoner of his own ambition.

Finally, the one distinguishing feature of "Babylon 5" among other science fiction genre offerings in general was the focus on 'people problems' instead of 'technobabble'. What set "Babylon 5" apart from many other sci-fi series was the emphasis on personal development, relationships, and politics-- most other series will tend to rely on 'creature/battle/spatial anomaly of the week'. Each week, "Babylon 5" would explore issues such as ethics, beliefs, backroom deal-making, redemption, and empire-building. Problem resolution was never diminished to 'reinitializing the tachyon emitters' (a popular tactic on "Voyager")-- it was often a more difficult, drawn-out, and realistic process that attacked the underlying problem, often with unforseen consequences. Of all the other science fiction series on the air, only "Deep Space Nine" comes close to this.

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Triumph and Tragedy in Three Acts

With a firm understanding of the elaborate structure that forms the backbone for the series, let us revisit "Babylon 5" in its entirety, and see how the series evolved from season to season.

Season 1: Signs and Portents

It was the dawn of the third age of mankind -- ten years after the Earth-Minbari War. The Babylon Project was a dream given form. Its goal: to prevent another war, by creating a place where humans and aliens can work out their differences peacefully. It's a port of call -- home away from home -- for diplomats, hustlers, entrepreneurs, and wanderers. Humans and aliens, wrapped in two million, five hundred thousand tons of spinning metal . . . all alone in the night. It can be a dangerous place, but it's our last best hope for peace. This is the story of the last of the Babylon stations. The year is 2258. The name of the place is Babylon 5.

The purpose of a story's first act is to establish the setting and introduce its characters. Not surprisingly, the first act of "Babylon 5" established the basic premise of the series and introduced its 'universe'. More importantly, it illustrated the 'before' state of the characters, posed several unanswered questions, and provided the foundation for the numerous conflicts that would emerge later on.

All right. Fine. You really want to know what I want? You really want to know the truth? I want my people to reclaim their rightful place in the galaxy. I want to see the Centauri stretch forth their hand again and command the stars. I want a rebirth of glory, a renaissance of power. I want to stop running through my life like a man late for an appointment, afraid to look back or to look forward. I want us to be what we used to be! I want... I want it all back, the way that it was. Does that answer your question?
Yes. Yes it does.

Jeffrey Sinclair, the commander of the station, was unsure of his assignment to Babylon 5, and plagued by two mysteries: a 24-hour 'hole' in his mind, and the reason for the sudden surrender of the Minbari on the eve of certain victory. Minbari ambassador Delenn was an elusive figure with a hidden agenda and a keen interest in keeping an eye on Sinclair. Centauri ambassador Londo Mollari dreamed of the halcyon days of the faded Centauri Empire and yearned for another chance at personal glory. G'Kar, ambassador for the aggressive Narn race, was seen embroiled in a series of clandestine activities, aimed at settling scores with the Centauri, who had until recently occupied the Narn homeworld for over 100 years. Finally, ambassador Kosh of the powerful Vorlon race remained in the background, divulging little about his intentions while on the station.

Great War. Terrible War. There is much killings. Everyone fighting. A great darkness. It is the end of everything. Zathras warned but, oh no, no one listened to poor Zathras, no. Great War, but great hope of peace. Need place. Place to gather, to fight, to organize.
You need Babylon 4 as a base of operations in a war, is that it?
To help save galaxy, on the side of light. So they tell me. Must have. Or it is the end of all. The One leads us. The One tells us to go, we go. We live for the One. We would die for the One. We pull this place through time to save us all.

And while most of the initial episodes tended to be 'generic' sci-fi stories (such as 'monster of the week'), a number of important story threads for the second act had already been established by season's end. Sinclair and Garibaldi learned that the sudden reappearance of Babylon 4 may have repercussions on the future of Babylon 5. The first signs of political unrest gripped the Mars Colony, while the Narn and Centauri clashed over a number of issues. Finally, Mr. Morden, the agent of the soon-to-be-revealed Shadows, began to make discreet inquiries with the governments of various races.

Nothing's the same anymore.

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Season 2: The Coming of the Shadows

The Babylon Project was our last, best hope for peace. A self-contained world five miles long, located in neutral territory. A place of commerce and diplomacy for a quarter of a million humans and aliens. A shining beacon in space... all alone in the night. It was the dawn of the Third Age of Mankind -- the year the Great War came upon us all. This is the story of the last of the Babylon stations. The year is 2259. The name of the place is Babylon 5.

The Shadows attack

The beginning of the second act is often labeled as the first 'turning point', in reference to the fact that an important event propels the story and its characters in a new direction. In your typical drama, this is the point in which the hero or heroine sets off on a journey, makes an important discovery, or meets the love of their life-- an event that forever changes their priorities and sets up the action for the rest of the act. Similarly, the second season of "Babylon 5" set the series in a new direction-- whereas the episodes of the first season more-or-less showed 'business as usual' on the station, the episodes of the second season depicted increasingly volatile events that shook up the series' universe.

For a hundred years the Centauri occupied our world, devastating it. We swore we would never let that happen again. This attack on our largest civilian colony has inflicted terrible damage and loss of life. They've crossed the line we can not allow them to cross. As a result two hours ago my government officially declared war against the Centauri Republic. Our hope for peace is over. We are now at war... we are now at war.

Commander Sinclair was re-assigned to Minbar, and his replacement, Captain Sheridan, was a war hero with little love for policies or politics. President Luis Santiago, the peaceful leader of the Earth Alliance, died under mysterious circumstances, paving the way for the taciturn President Clark to take the reigns of power. Londo struck a deal with Mr. Morden to restore his standing in the Centauri Senate, while G'Kar found evidence that an ancient enemy was gathering strength on Z'ha'dum. Finally, Delenn emerged from a chrysalis as a human-Minbari hybrid, though the reason why was shrouded in mystery.

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Season 3: Point of No Return

The Babylon Project was our last, best hope for peace. It failed. But in the year of the Shadow War, it became something greater: our last, best hope -- for victory. The year is 2260. The place: Babylon 5.

The failure of Babylon 5

The halfway point of the second act is often referred to as 'the point of no return'. At this juncture, events have unfolded in such a manner that it is impossible for the hero to go back to the way things were at the beginning of the story-- they are too far from home, they know too much, or they have invested far too much time. As a result, they have no choice but to see the situation they are in to the very end. It is also at this halfway point where the hero's strengths have been demonstrated, whether they have had a scuffle with terrorists, survived a tornado, or shown true love to their one true love.

He has a wife back home, three small children, an abessinian cat named Max. That's what makes this war different from anything we have ever gone through before. This time we know everyone we kill.

Interestingly enough, the middle season of "Babylon 5" was called "Point of No Return", and for good reason. It was during the third season that the entire narrative structure of the series went off in a completely new direction, specifically in "Severed Dreams". It was in this episode that Sheridan and his command staff decided which side they were on. Instead of carrying out their actions covertly as they had always done up to this point in time, Sheridan and his staff confronted their aggressors openly and declared independence from the Earth Alliance in retaliation to President Clark's unconstitutional actions. After this episode, "Babylon 5" was no longer the 'United Nations' in space... it was now a launching point in the war against the Shadows and the civil war on Earth.

What is there left for Narn if all of creation falls around us? There's nothing. No hope, no dream, no future, no life. Unless we turn from the cycle of death toward something greater. If we are a dying people, then let us die with honor, by helping the others as no one else can.
I don't understand.
Because you have let them distract you. Blind you with hate. You cannot see the battle for what it is. We are fighting to save one another, we must realize we are not alone. We rise and fall together. And some of us must be sacrificed if all are to be saved. Because, if we fail in this, then none of us will be saved. And the Narn will be only a memory.

In addition to the strife on the station, a number of other significant events occurred during this tumultuous season. The Narn homeworld was conquered by the Centauri, while the first conflicts between the Army of Light and the Shadows took place. Londo further cemented his place in the Centauri Royal Court, while G'Kar had a revelation that began his path towards enlightenment. Finally, Sheridan sacrificed himself by going to Z'ha'dum, where he 'died'.

It was the end of the Earth year 2260, and the war had paused, suddenly and unexpectedly. All around us, it was as if the universe were holding its breath . . . waiting. All of life can be broken down into moments of transition or moments of revelation. This had the feeling of both. G'Quon wrote, 'There is a greater darkness than the one we fight. It is the darkness of the soul that has lost its way.' The war we fight is not against powers and principalities -- it is against chaos and despair. Greater than the death of flesh is the death of hope, the death of dreams. Against this peril we can never surrender. The future is all around us, waiting in moments of transition, to be born in moments of revelation. No one knows the shape of that future, or where it will take us. We know only that it is always born in pain.

Season 4: No Surrender, No Retreat

It was the year of fire. The year of destruction. The year we took back what was ours. It was the year of rebirth. The year of great sadness. The year of pain. And the year of joy. It was a new age. It was the end of history. It was the year everything changed. The year is 2261. The place: Babylon 5.

A Shadow vessel attacks a White Star

The fourth season marked the end of the second act and the beginning of the third. The juncture between the second and third acts is typically referred to as the second turning point. At this stage of the drama, the predicament of the hero reaches its lowest point and the outlook is very grim-- the hero is stranded in the middle of a desert, they have been arrested by the police, or their love interest is about to married to someone else.

You may not believe this, G'Kar, but all I ever wanted is what is right for my world. I'm a patriot, as you are. I have made some .. very poor choices in the last two years. Because I did not think, those choices almost destroyed my world, and yours. That is a humbling realization, G'Kar. If with a single wrong word I can become the enemy, do I any longer really understand who the enemy is?

As the title of the season 'No Surrender, No Retreat' implied, Sheridan's crusade almost came to an abrupt halt as the season progressed. And though the Shadow War had come and gone, there was still the issue of the civil war back on Earth. While moving against President Clark, Sheridan was captured and tortured. And this was made worse by the fact that he had been betrayed by one of his most trusted officers, Security Chief Garibaldi. A number of other characters also experienced low points during this season: Delenn found her homeworld torn apart by a civil war, G'Kar was imprisoned and had his eye removed by Centauri Emperor Cartagia, the Vorlons turned on Sheridan and his allies, and Garibaldi learned that he was unwittingly under the control of Bester, a powerful Psi-Cop.

However, by the end of the season, the outlook was certainly more optimistic, as both the Shadow War and the civil war on Earth had come to a close, and the Interstellar Alliance rose from the ashes of the League of Non-aligned Worlds, naming Sheridan as its President.

Season 5: Wheel of Fire

Sheridan and Delenn

The third act of "Babylon 5", embodied by the show's fifth season, resolved a number of outstanding issues in the series (such as the formation of the Interstellar Alliance and the aftermath of war). It also concluded many of the character arcs that had been established in the first two seasons.

In your typical war drama (which "Babylon 5" could be arguably classified as), the story usually ends once the major conflict has been resolved and it is assumed that 'everyone lives happily ever after'. However, what Straczynski did with the third act of his epic was to illustrate the momentous challenges faced in maintaining the peace and rebuilding. President Sheridan, who saw himself more as a soldier than a politician, had the difficult task of trying to holding fragile Interstellar Alliance together, which was constantly threatened by the suspicion and animosity cultivated by the conflicts with the Shadows and the other races. Back at home on Earth, the situation was tense with the lingering memories and bitterness from the recent civil war. Lyta Alexander and her fellow human telepaths, 'discarded' like the other weapons of the Shadow War, found themselves unwelcome and without a home. Garibaldi, haunted by his inability to be free from Bester's control, sought refuge in the bottle.

It's going to be a pretty night, the last one I will ever see.
You shouldn't talk that way, Regent. You still have many years ahead of you. That's why it's important to recall the ships. We can still make peace.
Oh, there will be peace, for a while. It never lasts, really. They said so. They said two things, actually. That there will be peace and that it won't last. They also said I would be dead by morning and that tomorrow, you will be emperor. They said many, many things. Things I didn't want to hear. Things I didn't understand. And things I didn't want to understand.
They? Who are they, Regent?
Oh, you will find out for yourself soon enough, Londo. You shouldn't rush your last free hours. And there was something else they told me... to do. And I did it just a few moments before I came to see you. The last thing I will ever have to do for them. And in a way, I'm glad it's over.
What did they ask you to do?
To send away all the ships... guarding Centauri Prime on a false emergency and turn off the planetary defense network.
I think I'll stay and watch from here. The sky should be lighting up any time now. I imagine it will be quite beautiful.

Like any good story, the long and tumultuous build-up of the series concluded with a strong note. The series' finale was filled with moments of triumph: Sheridan and Delenn successfully guided the Interstellar Alliance through its growing pains, Garibaldi finally confronted his alcoholism, and the station finally earned its distinction as 'the last, best hope for peace'. However, it was also marked with moments of tragedy: Lennier betrayed Sheridan and Delenn's friendship for unrequited love, Lyta and G'Kar had to leave the station because of their 'power' over others, and perhaps the greatest tragedy of all, Londo became emperor of the dying and occupied Centauri homeworld, a tragic rebuke for his own blind ambition.

What does the candle represent?
Whose life?
All life, every life. We're all born as molecules in the hearts of a billion stars, molecules that do not understand politics, policies and differences. In a billion years we, foolish molecules forget who we are and where we came from. Desperate acts of ego. We give ourselves names, fight over lines on maps. And pretend our light is better than everyone else's. The flame reminds us of the piece of those stars that live inside us. A spark that tells us: you should know better. The flame also reminds us that life is precious, as each flame is unique. When it goes out, it's gone forever. And there will never be another quite like it. So many candles will go out tonight. I wonder some days if we can see anything at all.

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Return to the end of the beginning

The airing of the final episode of "Babylon 5" was bittersweet. On the one hand, it was the triumphant conclusion to Straczynski's 'dream given form', a piece of television history completely unlike anything seen before. On the other hand, it was also a poignant moment, as it is doubtful that another series with as much vision, foresight, determination, and ambition will ever be seen on television again.

Images courtesy of Warner Bros. Television and TNT

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