Why Bablyon 5 Was So Special
Babylon 5 is the single most underrated science fiction universe from the 1990s. It was a unique story for a unique time.
Science fiction in the 1990s was dominated by two big names: Star Trek and Star Wars.
Me, I’ve never been much of a partisan for any particular science fiction universe. Each offers its own unique take on a possible world, and I’m the kind of person who enjoys exploring — and building — hypothetical worlds.
But Babylon 5 has always held a special place in my heart for a simple reason: Aliens were allowed be themselves.
If you think about it, in both the Star Wars and Star Trek universes, the Human perspective is the default setting. The main characters are always Humans, with Aliens present but in supporting roles.
A lot of the time Aliens on screen serve as scenery enhancements in the same way rich white Europeans would import “primitive” people from Africa or the Americas to live in zoos. They play a vital role — reminding the audience who they were supposed to identify and sympathize with: Humans and friendly, controlled Aliens.
In Star Wars, almost every Alien is indistinguishable from every other member of their species. They are also from a planet that is entirely desert or jungle or forest or whatever, where they are culturally tied to the ecosystem in ways that seem to defy normal Human understanding — a classic colonial trope.
Humans, on the other hand, are from everywhere and move freely between cultures. Chewie is a Wookie and all Wookies are tall, furry, and savage when provoked. Ewoks are miniature Wookies whose inevitable extermination after the destruction of the Second Death Star remains suppressed knowledge. Humans come from Coruscant, Corellia, Mandalore, and Naboo, with even potentially Alien characters like Boba Fett invariably being of the distinctly Human-looking Mandalorian people.
Sure, there are some Alien Jedi and Alien politicians, who ostensibly have richer inner lives — the now canonically-defunct (except when Disney wants to mine something popular without credit to creators, of course) Extended Universe teased at Star Wars’ hidden depths. Games like Knights of the Old Republic 1 and 2 went even further.
But all in all, Star Wars is about the Humans, with Aliens there as scenery. A tool for Humans to show other Humans whether they’re part of the tolerant and noble Light Side or the selfish and violent Dark Side. Side characters in the great Christian moral play that lies at the heart of (and arguably dooms) most Star Wars stories.
On the surface, Star Trek looks better, yet it too falls into many of the same basic anthropocentric traps. Earth and its associated Federation are always presented as the center of the universe, a beacon of civilization that has beaten poverty and greed and environmental impacts.
The Federation is, of course, a gathering of equal parties who together comprise a galactic democracy, but Humans are at the center. Where Earth goes, the Federation goes, as Star Trek’s audience is led to believe in real life Earth’s real-world counterpart, the United States, leads what its leaders call the “West” or “Western World” despite Earth being, of course, a sphere with no Western or Eastern pole.
Aliens in Star Trek are subjected to a simple dichotomy that mirrors the dualist Christian ideology at the heart of Star Wars. There are Good Aliens, those who join the Federation and embrace its values, and then there are the Troublesome Aliens, first the Klingons then the Romulans, Borg, and Kardashians.
Er, Cardassians. I meant to type the Cardassians. Common mistake ;)
In any case, you can see the Alien-Human divide rearing its head most notably in the case of Spock, who half Human and half Vulcan is constantly forced to reconcile his Human and Alien natures. Ultimately the need to get along with is Human peers pushes Spock to accept a subordinate integration of his Vulcan heritage, where Alien qualities that are acceptable to Human tastes like scientific, computer-like thinking are valorized, and others, like Vulcans’ periodic extreme physical need for sex, are cast as a problem or challenge.
Even in a world of equality, tolerance, and justice for all, with every material need magically sated without people becoming greedy, this tendency to make Aliens conform to Human — or rather, white middle-class American — norms remains a blind spot with Star Trek. Data, like Spock, becomes seen as a threat when he doesn’t act Human enough — or in a way Humans can write off his differences as amusing quirks.
Again, I’m not trying to critique these universes or make people feel guilty for enjoying them. No creative work is perfect or appeals to everyone and I like both the Star Trek and pre-Disney Star Wars universes.
But Babylon 5 will always remain a source of inspiration because it went further than any other contemporary show in letting Aliens be Aliens. Farscape remains a partial successor in my mind, but it was focused on the relationships between characters caught in a desperate situation in a small, remote part of space.
Babylon 5, on the other hand, had the same galactic focus as Star Trek and Star Wars. It emerged at a unique moment when globalization was taking off after the Cold War’s end. For about a decade, until America decided to get obsessed with terrorism after 2001, science fiction started exploring the possibilities of vast uncharted places and new forms of interaction between species.
Stargate did a great job of starting to explore this world. Yet if the Star Trek universe is an analogy for a future where liberal democracy triumphed across the globe then Stargate is one that saw the United States and its allies transforming into a shield against the many threats that would inevitably emerge in this brave new world.
While a neat show I’ll always like, it became progressively more fearful and dark, matching the trajectory of most science fiction in the early 2000s. The age of the Battlestar Galactica reboot that made everything into misery porn as a result of the impact of the War on Terror.
Even Star Trek started to fall prey to this shift, and Star Wars under Disney has in its own way been deeply impacted. That’s why the recent trilogy was rooted in nostalgia and escapism, reflecting a yearning for simpler times and simpler worlds that probably explain the odd persistence of the Marvel Universe despite it generally churning out the same boring good against evil dreck as Star Wars.
Looking back to Babylon 5 it is apparent how much better people hoped the future would be in the 1990s. And because of this openness, Babylon 5 managed to be this strange offbeat show that despite being kicked around by the networks survived and told a unique story that still resonates today.
Babylon 5 didn’t entirely escape the anthropocentric trap — Humans are still in charge of most of the action, running a space station a few dozen light years from Earth on the fringe of neutral space. The captains of Babylon 5 are white Anglo-Saxons all, and white people are notably over-represented. And not all Aliens were well thought out, to be sure — the show had more than its share of narmy sentimentality and human-in-rubber-suit Aliens.
But on the whole Babylon 5 does an amazing job of relegating Earth and Human affairs to the sidelines, leaving space for Alien stories to be told. Where the story is clearly intended for an English-speaking and predominantly white audience, at numerous points it gently questions many of its audience’s assumptions about the wider world.
In Star Trek plots are usually intended to explore a hypothetical world where society is dominated by a major point of variance from the Human norm. In Star Wars the plots most often revolve around finding Light Side allies and trinkets and working out how to use them to defeat the Dark Side.
Babylon 5, on the other hand, allowed for plots where Humans are routinely kind of a side show. A bit of a galactic joke, even. Powerful and numerous, sure, but not particularly sophisticated or wise or even relevant to a given situation.
Most of the time things characters need or want to do involve getting Aliens to do — or not do — certain things that force the protagonists to come to a better understanding of a situation that reveals the best possible solution to a given problem. The station is meant to be a diplomatic outpost, and as in the real world different perspectives lead to conflicts that can only be resolved through dialog.
Because of this ability to accept and explore nuance, Babylon 5 presents a future that feels real. There is a distinct history leading humanity from the 21st century into the 23rd that has lasting consequences for the protagonists and the galaxy at large.
Even the way the main arc of Babylon 5 begins, with an Alien fleet nearly wiping out human civilization for what turns out to be a very understandable reason, in and of itself sets the story apart. Rather than portray the invading Minbari as bent on subjugation, they are instead taking revenge for a dumb Human attack on them, only ceasing their genocidal vengeance campaign once they decide Minbari souls are showing up in Human bodies.
From start to finish, the Londo-G’Kar relationship exemplified Babylon 5’s ability to let Alien minds be Alien. Londo, a Centauri, and G’Kar, a Narn, start out literally wanting to murder each other. The former has had a vision of his death at G’Kar’s hands, the latter is driven by a need to defend his people and strike back against generations of Centauri occupation and repression.
This enigmatic, unlikely couple’s shift from mutual hatred to respect and eventually friendship takes place without reference to any distinctly Human moral arc. It isn’t a story meant to show the reader how forgiveness is essential or how old wrongs have to be let go — on the contrary, the two take literal chunks out of each other on multiple occasions before both wind up in a situation where they have to rely on the other, trusting them, so that each can protect their own people.
Babylon 5 wasn’t afraid to tell a story of interdependence, probably because the creator, JMS, was deeply inspired by Tolkien and deployed numerous direct Tolkien references in the script. Though outwardly a classic old white dude and a deeply conservative Catholic, J.R.R Tolkien in fact incorporated a deep strain of anarchism into his work, evident throughout Lord of the Rings if you know what to look for.
This strain of anarchist thought is not individualistic, and is really just a modern statement of something all our ancestors once knew: that life is only possible through structured interdependence. One person or people’s perspective is fundamentally limited, and whether you believe in God or gods or nothing at all there are always unknown factors somewhere in the cosmos you ignore or neglect at your peril.
The solution? Let people be as free as they can be, and where conflicts over freedom arise to survive people have to build social institutions, rules backed by collective power, that keep their interdependence balanced. No one can have too much power, to the degree possible in every domain of human life, political, economic, or social, power must be distributed wherever it can be.
Maximum Self-organization is the only way to keep the peace in the long run. Concentrations of power eventually lead to conflicts over it that destroy everything for everyone.
But this requires more than just the liberal ideals of tolerance and equality, which are secretly only granted to those who accept the correct ideology, a form of secular Christianity where white supremacy was the founding norm. Real freedom allows self-organized groups their own spaces, languages, and truths, with only public behaviors subject to control for the good of the community.
That basic ethic is what I have taken from Babylon 5 and now work to incorporate into the very bones of Bivrost Nine, which in my mind is a sort of spiritual successor to B5. Anyone who enjoyed the latter will recognize many of the tropes I play with in the first book of the saga.
Each Alien species has its own history, philosophy, and dominant culture — but there are oddballs and others outside the norm who defy stereotype, and they are attracted to Bivrost Nine. Under the hood of my world building is a consistent application of systems science.
Since the 1990s, our understanding of the cosmos has been radically altered. Once it was speculation to wonder if there were planets orbiting distant stars — now, thousands have been detected and the statistics of exoplanet discoveries imply that planetary systems around stars are common. The Human genome has been cracked open and is pushing a revolution in medical science that has only just begun.
And as cheap global communications and travel have brought all kinds of Humans into close contact, we’re finally learning that even those people on our own planet who seem so “alien” are in fact not all that different from us. Not to say we all agree on everything — in a world that will eventually house 10 billion people this is impossible — but we are daily confronted with evidence proving that we depend on each other.
Taken together with the fact that the processes that give rise to life don’t appear to require anything more special than energy, materials, and time, it is more likely than not that life is everywhere in the cosmos. Intelligent life capable of leaving its home planet is also likely, the question is how frequently it arises — and, of course, what forms space-faring intelligent life might take. How their ways of viewing reality might compare to our own.
My understanding of science leads me to believe there will be more similarities than differences overall. The structure of the universe seems designed to produce life, and likely intelligent life, though why will probably always remain a question for philosophers destined to never reach consensus on the matter.
Those are the kinds of questions I like to explore in my fiction — and hopefully, someday, in other forms of media too.
I think Babylon 5 was more than just a cool sci-fi show — it was an important one. If humanity wants to survive the coming century, people have to learn how to accept the fact we’re all Aliens to each other.
But this doesn’t mean we can’t work together, cooperate to build a better world. If we don’t, worse than the Plague will come for us in the end.
A Babylon 5 reboot is apparently in the works, which in no way conflicts with my plans for Bivrost Nine. I’ll be more than halfway through the saga by the time the first episode makes it onto the air, so if anything maybe JMS’ long-hoped for revival will interact with my own take on the idea of a diplomatic outpost in deep space.
Who knows — maybe someday I could even help write an episode. By the gods, now wouldn’t that be cool?
Regardless, it’s good to see an old classic is still appreciated. May the reboot get the treatment it deserves!