Neale Monks boards the 5-mile long space station that is Babylon 5.
Some shows age well and some shows don’t. It doesn’t help if the show was ambitious, and Babylon 5 was certainly that. Watching it now, almost 20 years after it first aired, Babylon 5 looks dated. More than anything else, it’s the CGI that’s aged. At the time, computer-generated imagery was in its infancy. It had of course been done amazingly well on movies like Jurassic Park, but getting believable CGI on a TV-budget remained a stiff challenge.
But Babylon 5 is a show that’s about more than space battles and funky aliens, though it had plenty of both. It was one of the first TV science fiction shows to be about the characters. For sure Star Trek and Doctor Who had characters, but those characters didn’t really change much except in the most superficial ways — Will Riker growing a beard by way of showing his maturity being an obvious example.
We take character-driven story arcs for granted now in science fiction and fantasy television. From Buffy to Game of Thrones, we’re all primed to expect our favourite characters to grow, change, sometimes succeed and sometimes fail. But that was an entirely new sort of television in the early 90s, and when you watch Babylon 5, you’re seeing some of the best character-driven stories ever put into TV sci-fi.
Signs and portents indeed…
The phrase ‘Signs and Portents’ was used as both as a title for a Season 1 episode and as a name for the entire first season, and with good reason. While seasons 1 and 5 are probably the weakest of the five Babylon 5 seasons, albeit for different reasons, both seasons contain a lot of good stuff. Looking back at Season 1, you can see all sorts of things that point out where the show was going. But like all the best prophesies, there’s a lot there that distracts you from the real message. Sometimes wooden acting, budget-priced sets and props, and the at-times clunky CGI if you want to be uncharitable.
So where to start? Obviously working your way through the whole of Season 1 would be the best approach, but you could also do a lot worse than diving straight into the mid-season episode ‘Signs and Portents’. Lots of good character work, plenty of action, and more than its fair share of prophecies…
Waking up with Susan Ivanova
The episode kicks off with an alarm clock and Commander Ivanova having trouble with early mornings. Let’s be clear about this up front: Susan Ivanova is one of the most engaging characters in the show, and a kick-ass female character before kick-ass female characters were fashionable. Combining Russian fatalism with a sarcastic sense of humour, she managed to be both strong and flawed at the same time. Unlike a lot of contemporary female characters her role wasn’t there as part of a boy-meets-girl romantic subplot; indeed, she was even more unusual to be (apparently) bisexual but not in a rammed-down-your-throat sort of way.
As the show progressed actress Claudia Christian shows us lots of different aspects of Ivanova’s character including her secretiveness and her inability to express affection towards those who care about her. One of most unusual things the show did with her was to refer to her Jewish background from time to time. Again, this was done with a lightness of touch unusual in television at the time, but it all helped to deepen her character and make her choices more understandable. Basically, everything the show did with Ivanova ensured she became a fan-favourite, and surely one of the most interesting female characters ever created for TV science fiction.
What do you want, Londo Mollari?
The MacGuffin that drives ‘Signs and Portents’ is an object called the Eye, a jewel-encrusted artwork that goes back to the dawn of the Centauri Empire. Needless to say, the Centauri are anxious to get it back, and early on in the episode Centauri ambassador Londo Mollari buys it from a finder of such things, apparently paying enough to buy a small planet! The Eye of course goes missing, and in trying to get it back Mollari finds himself making a deal with someone called Mr Morden.
At this point Morden seems to be nothing more than a mysterious fixer, while Mollari is, at best, a foolish-looking but patriotic throwback to an age of glory long since gone. But the clues are all there to be seen. Morden has asked others that fateful question, “What do you want?”, but only Mollari’s answer satisfies him, or more specifically, his shadowy masters. By Season 2 we’ll see that Mollari has very much made a deal with the devil, and all there way through to the final episodes of Season 5 we get to watch him both embracing and then trying to nullify this Faustian pact.
In the process Mollari becomes a fascinating character. Actor Peter Jurassik manages to do both comedy and pathos, often in the same episodes. While he sometimes does terrible things, we never lose sympathy for the character, and at each step towards the darkness, we understand his motives and to some degree respect them. Science fiction likes to take popular characters and make them edgy, dark or even outright evil, and more often than not this feels forced (Tyr Anasazi on Andromeda is an obvious example from the TV world, but Anakin Skywalker is perhaps the quintessential case). Mollari is never this sort of suddenly-evil character. His motives make sense, his strengths and weaknesses obvious from the start,
Tear down their cities! Blacken their skies!
This angry desire is voiced by the Mollari’s counterpart from the Narn Regime, G’Kar, played under heavy make-up by Andreas Katsulas. Despite his costume, G’Kar is an absolute tour-de-force character. Simultaneously aggressive and spiritual, these two sides of his character jostle throughout the series, and in this episode we see some of this bubbling away nicely. Morden’s dangerous question results in G’Kar’s passionate plea for rough justice against the Centauri who enslaved his world, but beyond the Centauri, he’s not a malicious or greedy man, and doesn’t really have any goals beyond keeping his homeworld safe.
While ‘Signs and Portents’ isn’t a G’Kar-heavy episode (and alongside Mollari, he’s one of the characters that frequently carries the show) his scene with Morden is entertaining, and points out just how good an act the late Katsulas was, managing to convey frustration and passion despite the heavy make-up and prosthetics.
Leave this place. They are not for you…
Before we summarise ‘Signs and Portents’ there are three other characters are worth mentioning. Commander Sinclair, played by Michael O’Hare, comes in for a bit of stick at times. His acting is rather stagey, and he’s a quiet-spoken man who doesn’t really come across as an action hero very well. O’Hare was replaced at the end of Season 1, and at the time it was understood that the networks wanted a bigger star with a more believable hero persona. They certainly got that in Bruce Boxleitner, but with O’Hare’s death in 2012, series creator J. Michael Straczynski has revealed there was more to it than that, with O’Hare suffering from a mental illness that made it impossible for him to continue as a lead character. It’s a shame that O’Hare couldn’t continue in the show because he’s a likeable actor, and his somewhat distant manner actually works well given the psychological damage his character has endured.
Then there’s Minbari ambassador Delenn, played by Mira Furlan. She barely figures in this episode, and her strengths and weakness as a character aren’t really displayed. Suffice it to say that Furlan’s slightly overwrought acting in this episode isn’t out of line with her portrayal of the character generally. She suffers a bit from being overshadowed by her relationship with John Sheridan (Boxleitner’s character) in later seasons, but by the standards of the early 1990s she’s one of the stronger female characters you’ll find in TV sci-fi, and has a few episodes where her inner strength really shine through.
Finally, there’s Kosh, the Vorlon ambassador. Kosh rocks! He might look like a combination of a toilet seat, wind chimes and a psychedelic shower curtain, but that preposterous get-up makes sense when you understand its all about distraction. Vorlons don’t want you to know what they look like, and when we finally do get to see one in the flesh, and realise that what we see is only what they’ve programmed us to see, it’s one of the cleverest twists in TV sci-fi. Even so, Kosh is a character that Straczynski used sparingly, and that’s probably what makes him so effective. He gets one good scene in this episode, meeting with Mr Morden of course, and it becomes very clear they have a history. It isn’t until well into the second season that we really understand just how deep this hostility goes.
Taken as a whole
The battle scene between the space station and the raiders is a bit of landmark in many ways, whatever the CGI shortcomings. For a start, the battle comes across as realistic, with discussion of tactics and best use of available resources. It’s remarkably technobabble free, though the design of the Babylon 5 fighters, called Starfuries, makes good practical sense. Clearly shown as being designed for the deep space environment, viewers can see that they have the edge over the delta-winged raider fighters designed for use in both space and an atmosphere. It’s a thoughtful counterpoint to the usual portrayal of space fighters as basically F15s with rockets instead of jets. Furthermore, the idea that both sides have advantages and disadvantages plays though the battle, each side briefly taking the lead, before Sinclair finally drives the raiders away.
Other things to look out for include prophecies that do, in various ways, work out (but it’d only be later on in the show that we’d realise this) and security chief Garibaldi’s discovery of how Commander Sheridan got his job (again, connecting up with plot points and story arcs running throughout the show). Almost but not quite played for laughs is the unexpected meeting between G’Kar and Mollari while waiting for an elevator, arguing across a human visitor clearly wishing he was anywhere but there! In short, there’s a good mix of action, story arcs and character-driven set-pieces that show Babylon 5 at its best.
Neale mostly writes about fish, fossils and old computers, but in his
downtime can often be found feeding Daleks or rehoming unwanted