In the annals of science fiction television, plenty of shows stand out as classics. Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek and its spinoffs presented an optimistic vision for the future in the 1960s, Ronald D. Moore’s revival of Battlestar Galactica was a gritty, realistic take on the stresses of genocide and war, while ABC’s Lost helped set the stage for the current television renaissance that we’re enjoying today.
Looking back at it nearly 30 years later, J. Michael Straczynski’s Babylon 5 remains a curiosity. New viewers might be turned off by its early (but, at the time, revolutionary) use of CGI, some of the extravagant costumes and, at times, silly plot-of-the-week adventures. But if you power through some of the rougher edges and excuse the stylistic and technological advances, you’ll find a series that is profoundly revolutionary in its vision of the future, one that doesn’t just skip ahead to an optimistic endpoint, but one that instead actively shows us how to build a better world for everyone.
Back in January, Warner Bros. brought the remastered series to its new streaming service, HBO Max, and after writing about its new home (and associated visual facelift), I found myself sucked back into the series and world. After a nightmarish four years of scandals, antisemitic dog-whistles, racial animosity and fascist tendencies, watching Babylon 5 felt like both a relevant warning for what was to come, as well as a roadmap for how to make sense of it all.
Kicking off in the year 2257, it’s set in a troublesome time for humanity. A century prior, we’d made first contact with an alien civilization known as the Centauri, and humanity begins to take its first steps into the larger universe, only to stumble into a devastating war against another civilization, the Minbari.
By the time that war ends, humanity and a number of other civilizations decide to build a massive space station as a diplomatic and trading port. “It was the dawn of the Third Age of Mankind, ten years after the Earth-Minbari War,” intones Commander Jeffrey Sinclair in the show’s season 1 opening titles. “The Babylon Project was a dream given form. Its goal: to prevent another war by creating a place where humans and aliens could work out their differences peacefully.”
That space station becomes the anchor for the series, and over the course of five seasons, Straczynski takes his viewers on a fantastic ride: various species clash in massive, genocidal conflicts, threatening the station’s neutrality, while an ancient interstellar enemy looms at the edges of space, fomenting an existential crisis for the future of the galaxy’s younger civilizations. Looming in the background is trouble back at home as Earth’s government slides into a totalitarian regime threatening the safety and security of everyone under its justification. The series is often described as a “novel for television,” and it’s structured accordingly, with ambitious plotlines stretching from the beginning of the series until the final episode.
Babylon 5 has always felt to me like a bit of a counterargument to Star Trek. Roddenberry’s franchise steers towards an optimistic future, one where technology has brought humanity to the stars and where we’re at the point where we can go out to the rest of the universe to build an intergalactic government to further our curiosity in the name of scientific discovery. It often feels bright and polished, and a place where we can eventually get to if we’re able to overcome some of our more troubling natures. That’s not exclusively the case—see some of the grittiness that’s worked its way into shows like Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Discovery and films like Star Trek Into Darkness—but even those shows are still informed by Roddenberry’s optimism.
By contrast, Straczynski’s series is a grimmer take on where we might be hundreds of years from now. Over the course of the series, he covers a lot of ground, looking at the perils of addiction to terrorism, to the ethics of using newly-discovered alien technology, and quite a bit more. But most pressingly is a constant drumbeat warning of the dangers of racism and fascism and how easy it is to slide from a healthy, vibrant democracy into deadly totalitarianism.
Throughout the series, Straczynski makes a critical argument: the emergence of a fascist government isn’t something that happens overnight. It’s a process that’s like the fable of a frog in boiling water: people often don’t recognize incremental dangers until it’s far too late. Early in the show’s first season, Straczynski begins to sprinkle in some early precursors: news reports about a paramilitary group known as Homeguard, which is violently opposed to humanity’s efforts to have diplomatic ties or relations with aliens. In the Season 1 episode “Survivors”, Babylon 5’s security chief Michael Garibaldi is framed by the group after a bombing ahead of a visit from Earth’s president. In “Eyes”, an Earth Alliance Marine Colonel named Ari Ben Zayn is dispatched to the station to administer loyalty tests. He bends EA rules and laws to try and achieve his goals, and prompts strong resistance from the station’s staff, who compare him to Adolf Hitler.
As the series progresses, it becomes clear that Earth is headed for trouble: President Luis Santiago is killed in a bombing at the end of Season 1, and is replaced with President Morgan Clark, who begins steering Earth into more authoritarian territory. The station gets a new commander, John Sheridan, who soon confides in his staff that there is a secret resistance movement forming within EarthGov as its personnel begin to recognize the trouble they’re headed for. A branch of Clark’s government called the Ministry of Peace forms a loyalist organization called Nightwatch for citizens to root out subversive activity, complete with black armbands. At one point, when a uniformed officer is confronted over the trouble that he’s giving a store owner over an anti-Clark poster he’s hung in his stall, he tells Sheridan that “he’s just following orders.” Within Nightwatch, its members trade conspiracy theories about unloyal members of EarthGov who are selling Earth out to alien civilizations.
Eventually, Clark’s government goes on the offensive, instituting martial law and attacking its own colonies, prompting Babylon 5 and some warships to declare their independence from their home, and wage a brutal war against their former friends and colleagues, culminating in a fantastic campaign and some stunning hours of television.
At the core of this fight is Straczynski’s core cast of characters: Sinclair and Sheridan, each a principled military officer, their second-in-command, Commander Susan Ivanova, Garibaldi, Minbari ambassador Delenn, and others, all of whom possess a strong moral compass that often helps guide them and the station through crisis after crisis. They’re clear-eyed about what is right and wrong, which sometimes puts them in conflict with others around the station who don’t recognize some of the warning signs, like security officer Zack Allen, who is recruited into joining Nightwatch.
Babylon 5 was already a little different from its overseers back on Earth: as a trading/diplomatic post, it was home to residents from many worlds and civilizations. It was also culturally and racially diverse: while rewatching, I was impressed that Straczynski utilized an ethnically-diverse cast, ranging from Doctor Franklin (a Black man) to Susan Ivanova (a Russian Jew) to numerous secondary and background characters of varying ethnicity, religion, and sexual orientation, often in places of authority, ranging from medical staff, security officers, fighter pilots, and more. Babylon 5 created an environment that was an inherent anathema to the budding fascist tendencies taking root on Earth: culturally, spiritually, and ethnically diverse; a firewall to the emboldened racist and xenophobic characters taking over the government back home.
This isn’t limited just to humanity’s struggles: a central plotline in the show follows the rise of the Centauri Republic as they ascend—with the help of an ancient and violent alien civilization known as the Shadows—and undertake a genocidal campaign against a long-time enemy known as the Narns. In the middle of this plotline is Centauri Ambassador Londo Molari and his beleaguered aide, Vir Cotto. While Londo is bent on gaining power and influence, paving the way for his government’s horrific war, Vir recognizes and pushes back against his mentor, but often caves, sighing and doing what Londo asks, even though he knows that what he’s doing is wrong.
Watching Babylon 5 in 2021 helps highlight—more than any other time I’ve watched it—that the most critical weapon in the fight against fascism is for someone to take a principled stand when they recognize injustice, even when it might be sanctioned by their rules, chain of command, or government. Sheridan and Sinclair frequently rail against unjust orders that come their way, and recognize that there’s an imperative for soldiers to interpret those orders against that inner moral code, and to recognize that there will be times when their orders and their morality might diverge. Others follow their example. The Ranger Marcus Cole provides a steadfast moral compass in seasons 3 and 4, ultimately leading to his death, while Starfury pilot Lieutenant Warren Keffer met his end tracking down signs of Shadow vessels, disobeying orders and ultimately sacrificing himself to warn the station of impending danger. Those characters that take a stand are the ones who ultimately change the tide and push against the encroaching fascist tendencies, rather than sit by and let the waves of complicity wash over them.
For Straczynski, this isn’t an abstract argument, which makes watching the series all the more powerful. In 2019, he released Becoming Superman: My Journey from Poverty to Hollywood, a memoir that detailed his struggles growing up. His grandparents immigrated to the US from what is now Belarus, and his father Charles, along with his sister Theresa returned to Europe just as Nazi Germany began to invade its neighbors. He describes his father in harsh terms: “The truth is that Charles quickly developed a fierce appreciation for all things Nazi. With his mother’s temper, his father’s sense of entitlement, and their mutual inability to take responsibility for their actions, the Nazi philosophy gave him a focus for his anger, and he embraced as a strong anti-Semitic philosophy that would stay with him for the rest of his life.” He recounts how his father kept Nazi memorabilia in the house when he grew up, and even tried to force him to wear the uniform, and later reveals that his father likely took part in a massacre in a town called Vishnevo.
Watching Babylon 5 after reading about Straczynski’s life paints a new picture of his intentions for the series. A notable scene in the Season 1 episode “The Parliament of Dreams” sees the station celebrating each civilization’s “dominant belief system”, which prompts Sinclair to invite a line of religious figures, introducing the various aliens to priests, rabbis, imams, and more, the scene fading out as the camera passes an endless line of people. It’s a powerful scene that highlights Earth’s diversity of religions and belief systems. Rabbis appear frequently in the series as they visit various characters and provide some wisdom at key points in the series.
It’s that sense of righteous morality that is at the heart of Babylon 5—the station and the show. Through both, Straczynski highlights the importance of diversity, of strong principles to guide our behavior, and a willingness to work collaboratively with our neighbors to construct a framework that rejects racism, fascism, and totalitarianism. It’s an argument and a roadmap that is compelling as we move past the Trump administration and its four years of aggressive, hateful rhetoric and actions. It’s a series that highlights the importance of mutual support, of anti-racism, of anti-fascism, and that to forge ahead into a better future, we need to be constantly wary of letting one’s guard down, lest one invites the shadows in.
© 2021 Andrew Liptak