The series never took off truly big time like "Xena" or "Buffy" let alone "Star Trek: The Next Generation" and its endless spin-offs over the past two decades. But it managed to complete its slated five year run and has enjoyed a healthy afterlife in cable network syndication ever since. Right now, if you set your VCR timer in the morning before going back to work, the Sci-Fi Channel is helpfully repeating all five seasons in sequence at 9 am Eastern Standard Time. When you get back in the evening, it is just the kind of thing to thaw out to.
For in theological terms, just as "Star Trek" and its spin-offs were the Hallmark cards of science fiction, "Babylon 5" was the Dietrich Bonheoffer of the genre. Like Bonhoeffer, it accepted the possibility, indeed the necessity of salvation and grace, but like him did not devalue the concepts by making them too easily attainable. The good guys -- and gals -- can win on "Babylon 5" but often -- all too often -- they don't. And even when they do, they often have to pay a fearsome price for it.
The eponymous "Babylon 5" of the title is, 250 years in the future, "The last of the Babylon stations... two million five hundred thousand tons of metal ... alone in the night". It's home to a quarter of a million humans and aliens and is "our last best hope for peace." Its inhabitants leave the supposedly "tough" and "realistic" characters of "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" looking like the supporting cast for "Clifford the Big Red Dog."
The security chief Michael Garabaldi had a bad drinking problem and still has lots of others. The station's heroic doctor gets addicted to stimulants. Heroic characters go mad, die, kill each other. It's even grittier than ER. But it also has a rich, amazingly complex and compelling plot line masterminded by the show's creator and guiding genius J. Michael Straczynski who wrote most of the episodes.
Straczynski is from New Jersey and it shows. For "Babylon 5" is nothing more than "New Jersey in Space" - and not the Garden State part either. It is dirty, heavy industrial and gritty. It is a Melting Pot that resolutely fails to melt.
The series rejects the easy, flip sentimentality of "The Cosby Show " and the two decades of mass-produced TV sitcoms and drama that followed it. Sometimes, its characters Learn Their Lesson at the end of the episodic hour. More often they do not.
In one episode the ambassadors of the Narn and the Centauri -- two spacefaring races that have genocidal hatred for each other -- are trapped together after a terrorist bomb goes off. Their air is running out and they must learn to cooperate and work together to survive. In any "Star Trek" spin-off, the plot arc is foreordained. Of course they will, after some cozy or mildly dramatic but safely de-fanged verbal sparring first.
But not on "Babylon 5". Ambassador G'Kar of the Narn hates Ambassador Londo Molari of the Centauri so much as the mastermind of the re-enslavement of his race it is his greatest happiness to see Londo choke to death in front of him -- even if he must lost his own life at the same time. At least he will die happy.
At the end of the episode, both beings are rescued by outside agents. No reconciliation has occurred. No lessons have been learned. Londo grumbles that he would give his life to get off "Babylon 5". G'Kar quickly interjects, "I'd take it." A weary Londo then has the last word, "Oh, shut up!" Fade to black.
A few years ago, covering a regular annual meeting of ASEAN, the Association of South East Asian Nations, I had the weird feeling that, from an American perspective, the rival, feuding races that interacted on the Babylon 5 space station were a perfect template or metaphor for the regular diplomatic minuets being conducted there.
All the alien races in Babylon 5 are overshadowed by the overwhelming power of the Vorlons, a mysterious and secretive ancient race who keep their diplomatic contacts with Earth to a minimum. Whenever a human space ship ventures into Vorlon space it disappears, and the Vorlons blandly say it had an "accident." China anyone?
. Japan's relations with the seven ASEAN nations, especially the Philippines and South Korea, resemble those of Babylon 5's advanced Alpha Centauri people, a technologically advanced trading and colonizing race, with the Narns, a people they once brutally colonized. Perhaps the most chilling thought ever penned in modern popular culture is in the words Straczynski penned for Ambassador G'Kar when he is asked why such a cultured, sophisticated and advanced people as the Centauri should have enslaved his planet and inflicted such hideous suffering on its inhabitants. G'Kar simply replies, "Because they can." Give people enough power and they will be capable of anything.
Another impressive ancient race on the station, the Minbari, resembles America's experience with Vietnam over the past 40 years. Ten years before the series opens, Earth had fought the most terrible war in its history against the Minbari, losing a quarter of a billion dead. The Minbari are peace-loving, scientifically and culturally advanced and generally admirable. But they are also utterly relentless and merciless if you cross them the wrong way. The scars of that terrible conflict are still raw on both Earth and Minbar, but the peoples of the two worlds must now learn to trust each other and cooperate as a terrible new menace, the Shadows, diabolical beyond comprehension, is threatening them both.
Life on the Babylon 5 space station is often violent and always messy. It is usually not a pretty sight. But the series' theme remains constant that mutual communication and cooperation between the races is still far better than letting them loose in a shooting war. That is another obvious metaphor for ASEAN and similar global and regional forums.
Above all, "Babylon 5" completes the work that Galileo started in debunking Aristotle's contention that the heavens were perfect when he turned his telescope to the sky and saw pockmarks on the Moon. Going into space has not eradicated Humanity's many flaws and the inter-stellar races it discovers there are not perfect either. Perfection has not been attained, yet improvement -- and hope -- are possible provided you approach it realistically and do not ask too much. The show's philosophy is a needed antidote to the crazed search for the magic formula for perfect happiness, what Count Leo Tolstoy called "The Green Stick."
Along the way there are also wonderful sci-fi and mythological concepts handled in a fresher way than anyone since Rod Serling in "Twilight Zone" and Gene Rodenberry and his great collaborator Gene L. Coon did in the first two epic series of "Star Trek." The special effects and space battles are stunning. Nothing better has ever been done on network or cable television
Amid the endless repeated drek of the electronic universe, set your VCR and sample an episode. Most of you won't be disappointed.