The Alexandrian

Babylon 5

Babylon 5 is one of my favorite TV series. In the late-’90s, when the series was being rerun daily on TNT, I would set my VCR to record each new episode before leaving for my nightly shift at Hollywood Video. When I would get home, I would immediately head to the TV, rewind the tape, and watch the next episode. It was absolutely compelling television.

With that being said, I’ve found it very difficult to convince people to try to the show. The difficulty is that the first season is fairly dreadful. Unfortunately, the first season also establishes a lot of stuff that gets huge payoffs later on. B5’s ability to manage its meta-arc — setting up material that gets paid off years later — is one of the things that makes the show great. And so I’m always loathe to tell people to just “skip the 1st season”, because I think that actually does degrade the rest of the experience.

So what I used to tell people was, “Just try the first season. Its got some rough patches, but it’s worth it for the payoff. If you just can’t stomach it, then skip to the second season.”

But most of those people would hit the first season wall, bounce off, and not bother trying the second season. The result was like being stuck in the Kobyashi Maru when trying to get people to give this amazing show enough of a fair shake for it to blow them away.

To that end, I prepared a viewing guide for the first season. It worked for my wife, so I’m declaring it a complete and utter success.

  • WATCH – Must watch to get essential arc developments. Some of these are mediocre, but it’ll be worth it for the pay-off. Trust me.
  • SKIP – These are the episodes which will probably make your eyes bleed. For the love of god, don’t watch them.
  • OPTIONAL – These episodes are decent or better. Some of them are very good.
  • OPTIONAL (CLASS 1) – These episodes are recommended for arc reasons, but not required. Basically, there’s nothing essential here, but there may be a few minor developments that will heighten your appreciation of later material.

Some of the Optional and Skip episodes on the list below include some key exposition. This has been indicated with a note where appropriate.

So if you’ve bounced off Babylon 5 in the past — or know someone who has — give it another shot and let me know how it goes. (And, seriously, if the first season is completely intolerable give the second season a shot.)

EPISODE LIST

  • The Gathering – WATCH
  • Midnight on the Firing Line – WATCH
  • Soul Hunter – Optional (Class 1)
  • Born to the Purple – WATCH
  • Infection – SKIP (1)
  • The Parliament of Dreams – WATCH
  • Mind War – WATCH
  • The War Prayer – Optional (2)
  • And the Sky Full of Stars – WATCH
  • Deathwalker – Optional (Class 1)
  • Believers – Optional
  • Survivors – Optional (Class 1)
  • By Any Means Necessary – Optional
  • Signs and Portents – WATCH
  • TKO – SKIP (3)
  • Grail – Optional (4)
  • Eyes – WATCH
  • Legacies – WATCH
  • A Voice in the Wilderness – WATCH
  • A Voice in the Wilderness, Part 2 – WATCH
  • Babylon Squared – WATCH
  • The Quality of Mercy – WATCH
  • Chrysalis – WATCH

NOTES

(1) – There is an organization known as Interplanetary Expeditions. They are reputedly a front organization for a bioweapons corporation.

(2) – Anti-alien sentiments on Earth are turning violent.

(3) The B-plot of this episode is good. If you’re feeling adventurous, skip any scene that doesn’t have Ivanova in it.

(4) There’s a ghetto called Down Below populated by Lurkers who came to the station looking for a better life and have fallen through the cracks.

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14 Responses to “Babylon 5 – First Season Viewing Guide”

  1. Alex says:

    And so it begins.

  2. Alex says:

    But wait… Soul Hunter sets up and echoes certain things regarding Sinclair and the Minbari.

    “They’re using you! They’re using you!”

  3. Astronut says:

    My sentiments and experience (except for Hollywood Vide0) almost exactly… and the 2nd-4th seasons are so worth the effort!

    I remember having an argument with a Trekkie friend who was planning to abandon it half-a-season in – I convinced her by pointing out that she’d given The Next Generation 2 years to get good! (And it was still producing the likes of “Shades of Gray”…)

  4. Leland J. Tankersley says:

    I didn’t watch B5 initially during Season 1. I figured it would be another sucky TV SF show. But then I just happened on an episode in reruns — Signs and Portents, and at the end I think I said aloud, “WTF was that?!” The next episode I saw was Chrysalis, right before the start of season 2. I never looked back after that.

    I converted some friends to B5 while Season 2 aired. (Specifically, during the long hiatus between most of Season 2 and the “final four” episodes that were held over to run immediately before the start of Season 3. So in effect episode 18 of S2 was the de facto season finale, although it wasn’t designed to be one. Strange programming decisions.) I had tapes of S2 up to that point, and I just told my friends the basics of the show background and of the key developments of Season 1. Then I stuck in Points of Departure and we were off. I skipped the weaker early S2 episodes at first, until the hook was set. 😉

    Seasons 3 & 4 of Babylon 5 are, for my money, probably the best two-year stretch of any TV show, ever. Certainly any SF show. Season 5 was a bit of a letdown by comparison — not bad, but not as strong in aggregate as what went before. Season 2 has some amazing episodes, and some that are ho-hum – but the awesomeness overwhelms the mediocrity.

    I would recommend you watch the revised edition of The Gathering that aired on TNT and was released on DVD along with “In The Beginning” if possible — it moves with better pacing, AND it has more in it (the editing of the original version left a lot to be desired).

    One cool thing about B5 is that, even in the episodes that are wretched, there is usually something about them that makes them not complete garbage. It might be a short character moment, or a subversion of expectation somewhere, but there is some gold even among the dross.

    You’re probably aware, but there’s an archive (jmsnews.com) that archives every post that JMS (B5’s creator and head writer) made about the show to GEnie and Usenet during and after the show’s production. Lots of interesting insights there, into the show and into how television is made as well.

  5. James C. Bennett says:

    Color me skeptical. I was a huge B5 fan when it aired, but all the fans I count among my friends have warned me against rewatching it, saying it has aged very poorly.

  6. Astronut says:

    @James, I respectfully disagree – having watched it through again a year or so ago, it’s aged at least as well as the contemporary Treks and much better than the likes of the X-Files. Its pacing is slow by “modern” standards, but frankly I get tired of never getting a chance to breathe until the ads. Oh, and I wouldn’t watch it on an HD set-up – despite promises to the contrary, they never did redo the SFX. When you know the plot you can also spend more time chasing the background details. Crusade actually gets significantly better with rewatching.

    Now Legend of the Rangers and The Lost Tales are a whole other ballgame – just … don’t 😉

  7. Malimar says:

    I watched the first episode of Babylon 5 when it first came to Hulu, then didn’t get around to watching any more before whoever owns the rights rescinded them.

    Then I watched the next couple episodes when it came to Netflix, then didn’t get around to watching any more before whoever owns the rights rescinded them.

    It looks like I could watch most of the first two seasons on http://www.thewb.com/shows/babylon-5. Or, more likely, put that into my website queue, get around to watching one or two episodes, and then have to find another new place to watch it when the rights get shuffled again.

  8. Justin Alexander says:

    Re: “Soul Hunter”. There’s definitely arc material here (Sinclair stuff, Dukat stuff, Minbari religion stuff, etc.), but nothing unique. If you watch the other episodes, everything from “Soul Hunter” will get repeated (often while being the focal point of the episode).

    Probably should be a “Class 1”, though. I’ve edited the post to reflect that.

    @James: I just got done rewatching most of the series again. It stands up pretty much the way I remember it: First season is rough. Second season is good. Third and Fourth is some of the best TV ever produced. Fifth season was a missed opportunity.

  9. Zeta Kai says:

    I dunno. This past year, I finally talked my wife into watching the entire series (the first season or so on Hulu, & then the rest on the WB site). We agreed that the first season was a bit rough, but it was still very watchable. My wife is a very tough audience; if she didn’t like it enough to stick with it, then there wouldn’t been no way to keep her watching through the second season & beyond. She liked the year of Sinclair, though, & so we stuck with it all the way through. We laughed, we cried, & we enjoyed some of the best TV sci-fi ever broadcast. It was great. Season 5 may not be up to the vaunted level of seasons 3 & 4, but the whole series was very, very, very good, & it still holds up as well today as it did 15 years ago.

  10. Leland J. Tankersley says:

    A great resource for B5 is the Lurker’s Guide at http://www.midwinter.com/lurk/. You can use it for synopses of episodes you can’t watch (or for a quick update on what happened in episodes you don’t want to watch), read JMS’s responses to questions about the episode, read analysis and be reminded of unanswered questions, and so on.

    I would say that B5 still holds up very well. The story certainly does. The effects aren’t groundbreaking like they were 15 years ago, of course, but they’re certainly serviceable.

  11. Sebastien Roblin says:

    It’s great to see this classic series get some of the attention it deserves. The thing of beauty about Babylon 5 is that its long-arc story is a thing of beauty and incredible pacing, planting subtle seeds of rumor and discension early on which germinated into incredible epiphanies and epic conflicts- but the filler episodes are dodgy and only occasionally worthwhile. Second season is about 50% arc and 50% filler, and is brilliant to mediocre in like quantities, whereas Seasons 3 & 4 are basically 100% long arc and brilliant. Season 5 suffers because Season 4 basically ended positively having resolved virtually all of the problems established before, so the series could only progress by introducing new, somewhat disjointed, misfortunes and effectively ending on a low note.

  12. James Davis-Mann says:

    Am now getting my step-son into B5 and myself haven’t rewatched it for a few years – Whilst I remember which episodes to avoid like the plague itself I couldn’t fully remember which episodes had good arc-stuff.
    We are currently skipping certain episodes and are now getting to the juicy stuff of season one – now about to watch Signs And Portents which is quite frankly still one of the best B5 episodes.
    I also think I am possibly the only one who liked S5 – although I haven’t seen it for some time so opinion might change.
    Thanks for this, has been helpful.

  13. Tom Grogan says:

    Thanks for this info. I am rewatching the series from the beginning with our daughter who was too yojng to remember it well or appreciate it when she watched it previously. Home from college she waid, “Hey dad, I wanna watch Babylon 5.” I was sure we could skip, Infection, as I know it is widely thought of as the worst episode of all of B5 but, I couldn’t remember if there was anything juicy in it. Thanks for a guilt-free skip on to, The Parliament of Dreams!

  14. Miss J says:

    Thank you for posting this! It’s been a huge help getting friends to watch B5. The first season can be a challenge for those new to it.

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