On Friday, the greatest adventure to take place in the 23rd century finds a whole new audience. Since the height of its popularity in the '90s, the epic story of the space station Babylon 5 has subsided on a cult following of dedicated fans. After the show ended in 1998, creator J. Michael Straczynski went on to write the story for the first Thor film in 2011 and is also a co-creator of Sense8. But his most enduring creation is still his sci-fi "novel for television," all five seasons of which are now streaming on Amazon Prime.
Newcomers to the series will face some tough questions. First and foremost, if you've never watched Babylon 5, should you start at the very beginning? Or jump around? If you're pressed for time, and want to quickly understand why this show is so beloved, there's a shortcut to get the best of Babylon 5 without having to sit through any of the bad stuff.
First off, you might be wondering why you wouldn't just binge the whole show and just start with the pilot episode, "The Gathering." Well, there are two reasons for that. First, unlike prestige TV today, TV seasons were really long back then, meaning, in the first couple of seasons of Babylon 5, there's a lot of filler. In particular, Season 1 has a lot of standalone episodes designed to attract a more casual viewership. Second, while Babylon 5 is brilliantly greater than the sum of its parts, not all of its parts are great. If you were to start with Season 1, you might not understand what all the fuss was about. With that in mind, here's a guide to getting the gist of the series, without watching all of it.
Any spoilers below are very light. No huge plot twists are revealed.
SKIP MOST OF SEASON 1
This sounds crazy, but in Season 1, any hardcore fan will tell you Babylon 5 did not put its best space boots forward. The pilot episode "The Gathering" is clunky, and the numerous standalone episodes feel a little generic. Though lead actor Michael O'Hare is great as Commander Jeffrey Sinclair, his charisma might be too low-key for some. O'Hare was replaced by Bruce Boxleitner as Captain John Sheridan for Season 2, which while probably unfair to O'Hare is ultimately what the show became. O'Hare's return in Season 3 as Sinclair is pretty awesome, and you need to know what's up with him, so if you watch any of Season 1, you can probably just stick to these four episodes.
"Midnight on the Firing Line" – Season 1, Episode 1
This is basically a second pilot, and sets up the series a lot better than "The Gathering."
"And a Sky Full of Stars" – Season 1, Episode 8
Essential backstory stuff about Sinclair, which matters a lot in Season 3.
"Babylon Squared" – Season 1, Episode 20
Time travel episode, also really important for stuff in Season 3.
"Chrysalis" – Season 1, Episode 22
This one sets up everything for Season 2 and, arguably, the rest of the show. It also explains why Delenn (Mira Furlan) looks totally different as the show goes on.
WATCH ONLY ABOUT HALF OF SEASON 2
Season 2 is really when all the big story arcs about the mysterious aliens called "The Shadows" start to be revealed. It also features the introduction of Captain Sheridan, who is basically the main character for the rest of the show. If you can't handle the fact that the guy who played Tron in TRON is the hero of this series, you probably won't like the rest of the show. Despite being a lot more cohesive than Season 1, this season still has problems and a lot of side plots that don't go anywhere. If you're pressed for time watch this season like this:
"Points of Departure" – Season 2, Episode 1
This is the first episode with Sheridan.
"Revelations" – Season 2, Episode 2
"New Delenn" is revealed in this one, also pretty important for her journey.
Annnnnd... you can probably skip everything after that until about midway through the season. Sure, there will be some stuff referenced here and there you might not totally understand, but things don't really get going until...
"The Coming of the Shadows" – Season 2, Episode 9
As its title suggests, a ton of stuff is set up in this one.
From that point, you can just watch the rest of Season 2. However, if you still wanted a hack, and only needed the most essential episodes, you could finish the season quickly like this.
"All Alone in the Night" – Season 2, Episode 10
Sheridan gets captured, crazy revelations occur.
"Comes the Inquisitor" – Season 2, Episode 21
Another one where Sheridan is captured/tortured, but this one is kind of essential. Also, maybe one of the weirdest/best episodes of the whole series.
"The Fall of Night" – Season 2, Episode 22
The Season 2 finale. Totally essential.
WATCH ALL OF SEASON 3
If you're not totally hooked on the whole show by that awesome finale, you're probably not going to be into Season 3. But, Season 3 is LIT. This is where the show totally hits its stride and has not only its most epic episodes but also makes some of its strongest statements. Still, if you're feeling a little lazy, you can jump to Episode 10, "Severed Dreams," and watch the rest of the season from there.
WATCH ALL OF SEASON 4
In almost every way that is reasonable, Season 4 is the real final season of Babylon 5. Because the show was constantly in danger of cancellation, Season 4 seems to wrap up a bunch of storylines more effectively and neatly than you thought possible. This season feels brisk, but that's a good thing. The final episode, "The Deconstruction of Falling Stars" is also one of the most thoughtful and bold episodes in sci-fi TV, pretty much ever.
SKIP MOST OF SEASON 5 — EXCEPT THESE EPISODES AND THE FINALE
Uh, Season 5 is... not the best. In the real world, Babylon 5 enjoyed a soft reboot for Season 5, owing to the fact it was pulled from syndication and rescued by the cable network TNT. (This is kind of like what is happening right now with The Expanse maybe getting saved by Amazon.) But, though Season 5 is great for the diehards, it mostly feels inessential, or at best, a kind of extended coda to the overall core story. There's also a notably strange casting change: fan favorite Susan Ivanova (Claudia Christian) does not return, which, if you've seen Season 4, will be really frustrating for one obvious reason. She's basically replaced by Tracy Scoggins as Captain Elizabeth Lochley, which is okay, but the fact she's also Sheridan's ex-wife is just weird.
However, the Season 5 era did produce several standalone TV movies, two of which are great. (Note: it's unclear where Amazon Prime will place the TV movies in the streaming lists, or if they'll be included at all.)
Babylon 5: In the Beginning
This was a self-contained prequel that happens before the very first episode of the show. It's excellent and, in many ways, a great introduction to the show. Think of it as a third pilot.
Babylon 5: Thirdspace
This is a great standalone sci-fi adventure which happens during the third season of the series, arguably, a moment when all the characters are at their best and coolest.
But, overall, if you want to have a clean, quick experience, after you finish "The Deconstruction of Falling Stars" at the end of Season 4, you can skip right to the final episode of Season 5.
"Sleeping in Light" Season 5, Episode 22
Though this was aired as the final episode of Season 5, it was actually filmed during the Season 4 era because everyone involved was unaware the show would be rescued by TNT for a 5th Season. And you can tell. It's a great series finale and a great episode.
DON'T WATCH THE SPIN-OFFS
Pretty much everything that came out after "Sleeping in Light" is only for diehard fans who want the entire story. Though it's probably not going to be on Amazon Prime anytime soon there was an entire second spin-off show called Crusade which was set aboard a spaceship on a... well... space crusade. There's also a TV movie called Legend of the Rangers, and several standalone short films called The Lost Tales, all of which are truly tough to watch after the total excellence of the show's best moments.
In fairness, the world building of Babylon 5 is part of what made it such a triumph in the history of science fiction television, and so, once you get into the show, you may want to watch all of it. But, if you want to just remember the good times, you're better off thinking about the dramatic and bold final moments of "Sleeping in Light" and putting Babylon 5 to bed after that.
Babylon 5 is now streaming on Amazon Prime.