From 1994 to 1998, a scrappy sci-fi TV series chronicled an epic story concerning a pivotal space station at the crossroads of a variety of galaxy-shaking events, including a war that nearly destroys Earth. It was also a series that struggled to find its viewership while on the air but is now considered a classic.
Despite what you're thinking, this show is not Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, but instead one that came out around the same time. And while Babylon 5 lived in the shadow of Trek in the '90s, this little space-station-that-could actually thrived and broke new ground to change the science fiction genre forever.
Here are five ways Babylon 5 pioneered popular science fiction and changed the way we think about the genre, whether you know it or not.
The fandom was one of the first sci-fi fandoms born on the Internet
Created by J. Michael Straczynski and produced by Warner Bros., Babylon 5 actually created some advanced grassroots buzz on a platform that was relatively new in the early '90s: the Internet.
As early as 1991, Straczynski employed forums on Usenet, Genie, and Compuserve to essentially blog about the then-in-development series. Straczynski assumed huge sci-fi fans were early adopters of "going online," and he was right. Even after the show began airing in 1994, there was already a built-in fan base, one Straczynski could communicate with directly to answer questions about canon and continuity. The present-day corollary of this would be like there were suddenly only like 3 new sci-fi shows coming out next year, and only one of them had a Reddit AMA.
Tie-in comics and novels were intended to be canon
Though short-lived, DC Comics published an ongoing Babylon 5 comic book series starting in January 1995, a few months after the Season 2 premiere. The first few stories were written by Straczynski and told stories that filled in gaps missing in the TV series. Specifically, the first issue, "In Darkness, Find Me," was all about what was happening with Commander Sinclair (Michael O’Hare) on the planet Minbar after the character left the series in the Season 1 finale.
In Season 1, aspects of why Sinclair’s memory was erased were kept hidden, but the explanation — that Minbari souls were being reborn in humans — was revealed both in this comic book and in the Season 2 debut, “Points of Departure.” The point is, the comic book revealed all of this in greater detail, and from a totally different character's perspective. Sinclair would not appear on the show until Season 3, but this comic gave a preview and dropped hints as to what he was up to.
Similarly, 18 original Babylon 5 novels (not counting novelizations of episodes or TV movies) were published in the '90s. Of those, only 7 books are not considered canon, while all the other ones totally are. When it comes to tie-in media, specifically books and comic, this is almost never the case.
Computer-generated special effects
Part of the trouble Babylon 5 faced during its run was the fact that it was an epic show with a budget that was significantly lower than its competitors. An average episode of Babylon 5 had a budget of about $800,000 while an average Deep Space Nine episode had a budget of $1.6 million. (Sidenote: When you look at the finances, was Deep Space Nine really the black sheep many people claim it was?)
The point is, B5 had to find a way to work within that budget, but still tell its story. And though this may seem shocking now, in the early and mid-'90s, CGI was not the default for sci-fi special effects. Most big sci-fi shows and movies (like Star Trek) all still used physical models, which are notoriously more expensive. But all of B5's spaceships and space stations were made in a computer. It may not look amazing today, but an all-CGI approach was rare, particularly because unlike a CGI underwater show like seaQuest, the outer space scenes in Babylon 5 couldn't hide any of the limitations of early CGI with cloudy water or schools of fish.
Main characters died or left (and stayed dead or gone)
Famously a lot of characters die or are written out of Babylon 5 in very, very dramatic ways.
The main character of the show — Commander Sinclair — leaves mysteriously in Season 1 and doesn't reappear until a special two-part episode in Season 3. The resident telepath Talia Winters (Andrea Thompson) turns out to be a sleeper agent, and also never comes back. Plus, characters like the pilot Warren Keffer (Robert Rusler) and the beloved Ranger Marcus Cole (Jason Carter) both die and do not come back to life. At all.
Finally, and perhaps most relevantly, Captain Sheridan (Bruce Boxleitner) dies in the Season 3 finale, "Z'Ha'dum" (directed by Adam Nimoy!), and though he is resurrected by an alien, he is only given 20 more years to live. And in the finale of the show, "Sleeping in Light," he dies.
Golden Age of TV story arcs before the golden age
Sci-fi fans and television pundits alike will tell you that the biggest difference between TV "then" and TV "now" is that old school TV was usually constrained by episodic standalone episodes, rather than big serialized story arcs. These days, shows with big arcs are the norm — from Breaking Bad to Game of Thrones to Star Trek: Discovery — and it's super unlikely for shows not to invest in season-long story arcs.
When Babylon 5 started airing, doing complicated story arcs was basically unheard of; in 1994, The Sopranos was still five years away, and although Deep Space Nine did several have different story arcs, there were also plenty of standalone episodes sprinkled in the mix early on.
But, from the very start, Babylon 5 was actually pretty hard to watch if you hadn't watched the previous episodes. And unlike pretty much every single sci-fi show ever, there wasn’t really a writers’ room of any kind, as Straczynski wrote 92 of the 110 teleplays for Babylon 5’s five-season run. Keep in mind, this was the '90s, so these seasons were long. To date, no other sci-fi series has as many episodes actually written by its creator. To be clear, Straczynski doesn't just have "story credit" on these teleplays. He actually is the only person who wrote 92 of the 110 teleplays.
So, even if the special effects might not hold-up or the crazy hair of the Centauri is a little too much for you to handle, there's one thing Babylon 5 has more than almost any other sci-fi show: It was the vision of one writer, and that writer completed the story in its entirety. Straczynski called it "a novel for television," and there's never been another show like it since.
You can stream all five seasons of Babylon 5 on Amazon Prime. Here's a quick hack guide to watching the best stuff.