Babylon 5: “And so, it begins.”

As today is the 20th anniversary of the premier of Babylon 5: The Gathering, the pilot babylon5that marked the beginning of a six-year fascination for me, I thought I’d share some things about the show you might not know.

But first…I really loved B5.  I’m not looking to start an argument about how good a series it was, or whether it was better/worse than Star Trek: The Next Generation, or anything like that.  While those, um, “discussions” can be fun as long as things remain civil (no biting, no pinching, no throwing furniture/animals/children), I tend not to indulge in them any more for a few reasons.  One, no sci-fi show in the history of ever has been perfect, and B5 was no exception. Neither was ST:TNG.  Two, I watched and enjoyed both, for very different reasons.  And three, you love what you love.  No series of arguments, however well-reasoned, will diminish that.

Okay, on to some Babylon 5 “secrets”…

Ambassador Delenn is a man, baby! – Yep, that’s right.  The Ambassador Delenn we all came to know and love was originally going to be male, but to help give him that alien feel was going to be played by a woman.  To quote J. Michael Straczynski himself:

What we have, basically, is a female actor playing a male character. Women simply *move* differently than men do; the gestures, the tilt of the head, the smile, it’s just a shade different…

It was hoped this slight disconnect would heighten the alien feel of Delenn, and add that slight bit of tension into his interactions.  Then, when the episode “Chrysalis” came along, he would transform into a woman as well as becoming part human.  Unfortunately, technical concerns sidelined this plan.  JMS could only get the necessary voice-changing technology to work “okay”, and “okay” wasn’t good enough.  So the idea was scrapped and Delenn became very definitely female when the series began.

Watch your Step: Trapdoors at Work – Given the way JMS wanted to tell the story of B5, there was the possibility of running into a problem with the actors on the show.  While the characters in a story are at the beck and call of the writer, the actors playing those characters have lives of their own.  To combat the potential problem that actors may get other work and not be available for the run of the series, JMS gave each character a “trapdoor”; a character that could step into the role another character was to perform if necessary.  This was most easily done with the diplomatic characters, and why each diplomat (Londo, G’Kar, Delenn) had an attaché or aide ( Vir, Na-Toth and Lennier respectively).

But other characters had them as well.  A key plot point was the discovery of an ancient base for the “evil” alien race, and that planetary base was going to be discovered by the station commander’s love interest.  Jeffrey Sinclair’s love interest started out as planetary explorer Carolyn Sykes (played by Blaire Baron); when she didn’t return to the show his love interest became planetary explorer Catherine Sakai (played by Julia Nickson); when Sinclair eventually left and John Sheridan (Bruce Boxleitner) came on board (trapdoor!), the planet was revealed to us by his long-thought-dead planetary explorer wife, Anna Sheridan (played by Bruce Boxleitner’s real-life wife, Melissa Gilbert).  Whew!  Even the location of the base was trapdoored; while briefly placed on Mars and even Earth, it eventually got it’s own planet, Za’ha’dum.

Season Five: The Season That Almost Never Was – If Babylon 5 takes flack for any particular part, it is usually season five that bears the brunt.  And I will admit, compared to the three seasons before it S5 is a bit of a kludge.  But you can’t really blame JMS for that.  Though the exact details are somewhat murky, what basically transpired was that S4 was going to be B5‘s last season.  So JMS tied up the Shadow War, brought some early closure to some characters, and filmed what was going to be the final episode of the S4 and the series, “Sleeping in Light”.  And that would have been that, fade to black.

Except then the studio decided they could have a fifth season after all.  Fade back to full, JMS films “The Deconstruction of Falling Stars” as the final episode of S4 and shelves “Sleeping in Light” for later. And then had to figure out how to fit characters back in, and what to do with them, with only a season to do it.  Plus, we apparently see Mr. Garibaldi killed in the final episode of S4, so…

So yes, the fifth season is a bit of a mess when compared to S2-4.  But there is still a lot of really good television in those 22 episodes; the telepath problem, the heart-breaking intertwined fates of Londo Malari and G’Kar, and my personal favourite episode, “Sleeping in Light”.  I cry every single time I watch that episode, the only thing that varies is when I start.

Okay, I hope you enjoyed my pontificating.  If you are a Babylon 5 nut like me you likely already know about these two sites, but I will recommend them anyway: The Lurker’s Guide to Babylon 5, the perfect site for all your B5 facts, fables and foibles; and JMSNews, where you can stay on top of the news in JMS’s life in his own words.

Let me hear from you.  What did you love/hate about B5?  What would you have done differently? Let me know in the comments below.

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