Babylon 5 was a hugely influential piece of sci-fi television, telling both an episodic tale of the crew of a multi-racial space station in the future and a number of complex, war-driven story arcs running across the five years of the show. As it celebrate the show’s 25th anniversary, we look back at the top five episodes of each season, starting with season one.
Season one is all about the scene setting before all the big events and long-running story arcs really kick off in later years. In many ways, it is also the least consistent and most episodic season, trying to decide where to tell stories about political machinations, war-mongering between species, setting up the Shadows and seeds of Earth’s corruption or where to stick to more standard Star Trek-style formulas of storytelling.
There are certainly a few trial and errors throughout season one, most notably in the switch from the 1993 pilot episode ‘The Gathering’ to the first episodes of season one in 1994. Delenn’s appearance changes radically while Doctor Benjamin Kyle, telepath Lyta Alexander and first officer Lt. Cmdr. Laurel Takashima are all replaced by Doctor Stephen Franklin, Talia Winters and Lt. Cmdr. Susan Ivanova respectively. And these were to be the first of many changes the show would experience, creator J. Michael Straczynski making great use of his infamous ‘trapdoors’ to switch storylines to different characters when actors suddenly became unavailable.
It is quieter in focus than later seasons but just as rich and vibrant, with characters like Andreas Katsulas’ G’Kar and Peter Jurasik’s London Mollari stand outs from the very beginning. Claudia Christian brought toughness and vulnerability to Ivanova from her very first episode, Jerry Doyle had the wit and paranoia for security chief Michael Garibaldi down from the very beginning and series lead Michael O’Hare was a commanding but more introspective leader as Cmdr. Jeffrey Sinclair, compared to the later John Sheridan.
What is most significant about season one is how it sets up so many things that pay off later on; the first appearance of the Shadows, Londo’s dream of his death at G’Kar’s hands, the first appearance of the Great Machine, the discovery of the alien healing device, the death of President Santiago; they all happen right back in year one.
Here are the five greatest episodes from that first season…
Midnight on the Firing Line
The very first episode after the pilot is a great, action-packed scene setter for the Narn / Centauri conflict that would be a huge focus in the series. It opens with a Narn attack on a Centauri colony in retribution for their earlier occupation of the Narn homeworld. The interplay between Londo and G’Kar is electrifying, showcasing Katsulas and Jurasik at their best; interestingly G’Kar is the real villain here, fuelled by vengeance, a far cry from the person he would become…
And the Sky Full of Stars
The mystery of what happened to Sinclair at the Battle of the Line, the final battle in the Earth / Minbari war, was one of the most intriguing storylines in the first season, setting up the huge revelations behind the commander’s identity in season three. This episode is a harrowing piece of television as he is abducted and mind-probed to discover what really happened. This episodes gives our first real look at the conflict that precedes the series and suggest that Delenn could be a villain after all. A compelling episode full of psychological drama, tension and mystery, this is a key episode in the early years of Babylon 5.
Signs and Portents
The Shadows are one of the most terrifying villains of the sci-fi genre and this is the episode where we first get a hint of this dire threat to come. Ed Wasser’s Mr Morden comes to the station, asking each ambassador “what do they want?” and it is his encounter with Londo that sets the scene for all the tragedy and darkness to come as he speaks to bring glory back to the Centauri Empire. Londo’s tragedy is also intertwined with the death of his friend Lord Kiro (Gerrit Graham) who plans to bring an ancient relic back to their homeworld before it is stolen by Raiders in the series first major battle with he station itself. The ominous appearance of the spidery shadow vessel in Hyperspace and the potential destruction of Babylon 5 through the visions of Lady Ladira (Fredi Olster) set the scene for the darkness to come…
While the ‘Voice in the Wilderness’ two-parter almost made it into the list, the subsequent episode ‘Babylon Squared’ was a clear winner. This is the episode that dealt with the return of Babylon 4, introduced us to Zathras (Tim Choate), gave us glimpses of the past (Garibaldi’s memory of leaving Lise) and the grim future to come (Babylon 5 falling to the Shadows). It’s a hugely epic episode. and hugely prophetic too and while it doesn’t make a huge amount of sense in isolation, it sets up the superb season three two-parter ‘War Without End’. Essentially it is a narrative experiment – part one of a story that won’t be picked up for another couple of years. But at this point, late in season one, it continued to build on the encroaching darkness, delivery mystery and action in equal measure with the promise of more to come.
Season finales of Babylon 5 were always dramatic affairs (though season four’s ‘Intersections in Real Time’ is more experimental). But this is perhaps the most exciting, kicking off a number of hugely narrative arcs that will impact the show to the very end. Morden returns to help Londo in his grand plan to bring glory back to the Centauri Empire with the first terrifying appearance of the Shadow vessels as they lay waste to a Narn colony…the first steps to the war that will consume the show’s second season. Delenn goes into a cocoon, transforming forever and Garibaldi learns too late of a plot to assassinate President Santiago, getting shot in the back by his deputy before he can warn anyone. The scene where the crew watch Santiago’s ship explode is a epic turn of events that changes the course of the show forever.
As Sinclair notes at the end of the episode “Nothing’s the same anymore”.
As for the the worst episode?
I would have picked ‘TKO’, a god-awful episode about alien boxing, but it did have a wonderful, emotive sub plot about Ivanova mourning the recent death of her father. Unfortunately, earlier season one episode ‘Infection’ doesn’t much in the way of redeeming qualities, except maybe David McCallum as the doctor who brings an alien artefact onto the station. The episode flits between a human fused with alien tech that goes on a killing rampage and a wily ISN reporter that tries to get an interview with Sinclair. Except for the first mention of Interplanetary Expeditions, this episode is one that can easily be skipped.
The first season of Babylon 5 has some hugely significant episodes as it laid the groundwork for the larger story arcs to come. What are your favourites from the series’ debut year? Was the pilot overlooked? Are there other stand alone episodes more worthy of consideration? Let us know in the comments below…