The Many Americas of ’90s Sci-Fi: Babylon 5 as SF of the Present

Black-and-white screencap from Babylon 5 featuring Captain Sheridan being spoken to by a piece of an ancient guardian species inside his head.

I recently re-watched Babylon 5 as a precursor to diving back into SF&F story-writing (after taking a month off to work on humanist essays and podcast prep for a project launching in November). The following is a reflection on what our SF legacies can teach us not just about the genre and its histories, but also about why an ever-shifting relationship to our writing practice and media consumption is not at all a mark against past work, so much as an affirmation of lifelong learning, and growth. Enjoy!

Image of G’Kar, alien counterpart to another alien, Londo, in Babylon 5’s overall narrative arc.

1. The Good

The “nostalgia” appeal of films and TV shows from our youth is famously a double-edged sword when it comes to revisiting old favourites, but as a writer, I think our shifting relationship to media has far more nuance to it. Certain stories affect us deeply because they reached us at just the right moment in our development as audiences and/or as creators. Then, as our creative lives and media exposure sets change, the elements that once seemed impressive in earlier productions might soon cease to feel as novel. Our needs will have changed. Our sense of what it means to produce nuanced work will have, too. And that’s not an indictment of the original work, either; it’s simply to say that if beloved media from our past has ever served to inspire us, to drive our imaginations forward, then the role of such work as stepping stones should make them feel less adequate, as narrative endpoints, if ever we go back.

When I first watched Babylon 5 while it was airing on CityTV in the mid-’90s, three elements of the series resonated deeply. The first was the great seriousness with which this “hard” SF show, about a space station in 2258 A.D. where humans try to navigate trade and diplomacy with a range of alien species embroiled in political crises on every imaginable scale, set about telling a gradually unfolding story over five seasons. At the time, very few TV shows were attempting similar, and even fewer were as good at signposting, every step of the way, that various details in specific episodes were building toward something more substantial.

In contrast, I remember being annoyed as a kid by Star Trek: Deep Space Nine when it changed from an episodic storytelling structure to a longer story-arc, as the Dominion War kicked into high gear in season five. My younger storytelling self wanted consistency – and also felt that DS9 was trying too hard to integrate recent Gulf War commentary into its storylines. (A recent re-watch of DS9 came off as far more seamless, mind you, but I’m simply noting how the show felt to younger-me when it first aired.)

B5 was the first time that I think I fell in love with the idea of having a vision as a sci-fi writer. When I later learned how much creator J. Michael Straczynski (JMS) had both planned out most everything in advance and had to adjust when FOX first forced him to compress his five-season storyline into four seasons, then gave him back a fifth season, I felt the possibilities for meaningfully ambitious sci-fi storytelling open up before me. (And yes, Ty Franck, of The Expanse series, is now my absolute favourite for also planning everything in advance to tell the best possible story he can. But that’s another essay.)

The next element that leapt out in B5 was the interwoven character arc for Londo and G’Kar, two alien diplomats whose dynamics are a fluid pastiche of a range of 19th and 20th century Earth oppressions, and who have by far the most interesting transformations over the series. Londo the Centauri has a sort of late-Bismarckian sensibility at the series outset, while G’Kar’s species, the Narn, very much fills the role of peoples oppressed by European imperialism. There’s also a strong Greco-Roman flavour to the Centauri’s customs and spirituality, which lends itself well to the Centauri also being preoccupied by fears of becoming an empire in decline.

The Centauri swiftly move into a more Third Reich-ian state politics to reboot their “glorious” empire, and the Earth Alliance quickly takes after Neville Chamberlain in its response to Centauri expansionism. Meanwhile, the Narn, in being a far more retaliation-prone people than history’s representation of Jewish people during Holocaust, pushes the narrative analogy into more immediately relevant Israel-Palestine territory. The Narn’s religious traditions, broken into differing interpretations of spiritual leaders over time, also has strong allusions to the many sects of Islam, and discourse around civil obedience emerges as their people are slaughtered en masse by the Centauri, while the human characters — our supposed heroes in this series! — scoff at the difference between “lost” and “stolen” lands, glibly shoot off about how “the first casualty of war is truth,” and generally scold the Narn for fighting back through violent acts.

(But we’ll get into how awful the humans are in a bit.)

Over the series, Londo gains his long-sought-after power at a terrible price that he recognizes and then has to live with every step of the way, leading to a final scene for him that still often haunts me in my dreams, while G’Kar gains his peace and ascendancy in the midst of unfathomable injustices in a way that would have surprised his earliest incarnation. For the young writer in me, though, what stood out most about the pair was how their storylines were written adjacent to real-world histories without ever quite being too on the nose about a given allusion. This offered me an excellent standard for my own work — because the aim, after all, is to strike at universal truths through specific, fictionalized examples of similar. I still think about the characterization of Londo and G’Kar when asking myself if my own stories are too on the nose, or too elliptical, in their pursuit of similar ends.

Thirdly, while I truly disliked the humans on B5 for reasons that were shored up by my recent re-watch, I remember being struck by one character, Chief of Security Michael Garibaldi, for a specific reason: He was emotionally honest, upfront, and accountable, and expected emotional honesty and accountability from everyone around him, too. SF has a terrible reputation for male characters who are all brawn and technical brilliance, and there’s an especially toxic slice of the genre that wants to chalk up “feelings driven” SF as effeminate and “soft” – but it’s profoundly in error to suggest that a) male persons somehow aren’t wired for emotional discourse, and b) the most masculine characters are detached from rich emotional lives.

Garibaldi is very Average-Joe masculine, in his hobbies, his sense of humour, his politics, and his struggles… and he also has immense integrity when it comes to owning up to his past, talking out his concerns for friends, and articulating what he needs from others to sustain healthy friendships going forward. Suffice it to say, then, I was deeply struck by Garibaldi’s performance of masculinity with such an open, practised, and mature language of emotional culpability, and it has absolutely played a role in how I write masculinized characters in my own work. I disagree with his politics even more on this latest re-watch, but the patience and time taken to establish him as a self-aware character stand up pretty well, decades on.

Image of Captain Sheridan, Commander XO Ivanova, and Chief of Security Garibaldi, on the command deck.

2. The Bland

When we feel a sense of loyalty or debt to a given franchise, though, it can often cloud us to various deficiencies, of which Babylon 5 has many. So many. I’m going to break them down here into the “bland” and the “unjust,” though, because while some are simple failures of the sci-fi imagination, others have deeper consequences.

One of the more amusingly “bland” failures lies with the worldbuilding — which, I know, is a bit surprising, considering how much I first adored this show for its long-term plotting as a kid. And yet, right off the bat, hard-SF lovers have to suspend disbelief in the story’s central location: a five-mile-long* space station in 2258-62 A.D. with extremely rudimentary internal monitoring equipment, such that a significant number of crises happen all the time due to poor surveillance, communications, and general station oversight.

*Amusingly, the rotational speed for the graphics for Babylon 5 have given some on the internet to conclude that the station is actually closer to eleven miles long — but since the characters say it’s five miles long in the show, we have to take that as canon.

Anyone familiar with space missions today knows the amount of monitoring equipment built into our current stations and shuttles, so why didn’t JMS’s future, a quarter millennium out from the show’s air date, dream even as big as the present with its space-station tech? Yes, one could perhaps argue “It was 1994 to 1998! The Internet hadn’t really taken off yet!”… except that Star Trek had already been imagining all kinds of ship-based interfaces, communications devices, and handheld instruments that would in turn inspire real-world technologies.

There are two obvious reasons that JMS didn’t go the same aspirational-tech route. One involves the added storytelling challenge of life on a station with a more advanced monitoring system: fewer plots you can spin around covert actions, and fewer dire-straits scenarios with characters needing to find something in time.

The other reason, though, ties into the overall “smallness” of JMS’s future-thinking: B5 is not actually a show about Earth and a range of alien species; it’s a show about the United States and a range of alien species. And boy howdy, does this impact the way its core stories unfold.

First and foremost, we have a US-styled military outfit in charge of deep-space trade and diplomacy, while most every civilian group involved with intraspecies negotiation on Earth’s behalf is portrayed as meddlers and threats (except for the monks) to this heir-apparent for managing human-alien relations. There’s an unquestioned sense of manifest destiny built into B5‘s portrayal of soldiers who served in the last great war as being among the best people to sustain the peace now — even when it’s abundantly clear that B5‘s command staff are out of their depth with many fairly basic diplomatic problems.

Relatedly — and dishearteningly — this deep-space station is heavily informed by US approaches to healthcare, social welfare, public-private enterprise, and justice, as if these would naturally have become the global standard in 250 years’ time, instead of the US actually learning from and falling in line with the rest of the world’s most affluent, and much more socialist, economies. There’s even a “President” of Earth, so that Earth’s major political arc in this series can play out McCarthyism with a little Jingoism thrown in.

(Where’s Her Excellency, Chrisjen Avasarala, when you need her, am I right?)

What tweaked the hard-SF writer in me most on my latest re-watch, though, is how profoundly inconsistent B5‘s militarism really is. If you’re going to make the station a military installation — which, fine, is a legitimate storytelling choice — then how in blazes does one justify the sheer chaos of life on a recently built five-mile-long outpost where all incoming and outgoing traffic is stringently regulated?

In what still amounts to a fragile tin can floating in the unforgiving expanse of outer space, the existence of a whole “Downbelow,” an underworld of drifters, druggies, and other “Lurkers” with nowhere to go but many places perilously close to the outer hull and key operations facilities, is a cosmonautical nightmare. How does this come to pass on an outpost built and governed by a supposedly competent and cohesive military presence? And how does a military installation justify its meagre surveillance and communications infrastructure, when it knows it has ever so many unstable people on the verge of busting holes through the hull? I’m guessing that, in the logic of this universe, if there were emergency tools on hand to help with hull damage or air loss in various poorer sectors, they’d all been stripped for black-market sale… but that too doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in the fitness of Earth’s military to lead. 

This profound inconsistency exists, though, because it doesn’t actually matter to JMS’s storytelling aims. The station’s class strata exist simply as an excuse to make pointed comments about the US’s existing class strata (as a few episodes on station poverty make expressly clear), while the command crew at the heart of the show is meant to give a loosely idealized notion of the all-American values that define the members of a deserving middle-class.

And, yes, this “all-American” vibe even goes for Susan “As a Russian Jew…” Ivanova, who is painfully tacked on to the cast to check off a number of boxes, without any of her “alt” identities meaningfully contributing to any of the socio-politics and histories explored on the show. (Such as they are: Babylon 5‘s crew has conveniently deep gaps in its history, with the writers picking and choosing a select thread of literary and Western-political references from the 19th through mid-20th centuries, but somehow omitting other critical references even from the same contexts when they are most pressingly relevant to a situation at hand.)

There’s even something quite ironic about Walter Koenig, actually a Russian Jew by heritage (Ivanova is played by someone of German and Irish descent), elevating B5‘s prestige among SF fans by playing a Psi Cop named Bester, after his first iconic role as Chekhov in Star Trek: The Original Series. In TOS, after all, you didn’t have Chekhov going around saying “As a Russian…” any more than you had Uhura giving her every answer “As a Black woman…”, and yet, in both cases, the naturalized presence of their characters on screen were in direct, challenging conversation with what Star Trek‘s first viewers thought the future (and present) could and should entail. Conversely, B5 really doesn’t know what to do with non-white, non-American, non-male humanity — and it shows in how wretchedly, stiffly, and incompletely it writes every other part.

But while I could go on for paragraphs about how poorly the show represents humans as a totality, it’s also clear that full representation was never its aim, so that’s not the fairest critique to dwell upon. Instead, then, I’ll just emphasize what this smallness of imaginative scope does to the show’s overall worldbuilding: namely, it creates a vision of the future where the triumph of an all-American can-do attitude is everything.

Heck, it’s right there in the intro speech for every episode in Season Three: “Babylon 5 was our last, best hope for peace. It failed. But in the Year of the Shadow War, it became something greater: our last, best hope… for victory.”

How sordidly ‘Murican, to treat peace as a mere pause or holding period between more exciting opportunities for triumph through military strife.

On a worldbuilding level, then, Babylon 5 is a show about a poorly maintained, inadequately outfitted military installation in a post-interplanetary-war future where, despite all the staggering possibilities for species advancement created by a sudden wealth of aliens to share with, learn from, and grow alongside, the primary recreational activities for its main cast are… drinking, dating, and visiting strip-clubs; and where human gut feelings about law, order, and punitive justice are rarely interrogated or found to be in serious error, so long as their central aim was to keep others’ chaos at a minimum.

And that’s just the bland side of things, inasmuch as all of these storytelling factors reveal JMS’s indifference to imagining anything but a future that looks pretty much like one major slice of US nationalist exceptionalism in the 1990s.

Then we get to the deeper problems with telling SF stories in this limiting way.

A telling moment in Babylon 5, when Captain Sheridan’s deep resistance to the possibility of other forms of justice is clearest.

3. The Unjust

I’ve already alluded to many of the injustices baked into B5‘s worldbuilding. To be more explicit about some of them: The US death penalty is now joined with a “death of personality” on a global scale, with zero signs of humanity having considered more rehabilitative approaches despite ever so many other nation-states already enacting similar by the 1990s. Poverty, too, is still seen as individual failure — perhaps to be pitied, but never to be actively combatted with transformed social policies, and always to be met with full punitive justice when it leads to breaking the law. Addiction, too, is a choice, and one has to choose to make better choices on their own to climb out from under it. And, of course, officers supposedly well-suited to the role of “diplomat” glibly dismiss allegations from long-oppressed, now actively slaughtered species, then get angry when such people lash out in turn — because, again, law and order come first; better justice, second.

There are other major ethical problems here, of course. I haven’t even delved into the creepy spiritual eugenics at the centre of the Human-Minbari storyline, wherein a Minbari who supposedly represents spiritual enlightenment shows far greater interest in reuniting spirit-genes than in actually sitting with the galaxy’s sites of greatest spiritual conflict  — not least of which include the plight of G’Kar, a fallen diplomat after the Centauri take his homeworld. Her visible distaste in later dealings with him is not treated as a spiritual failing, but as something we’re supposed to support. We’re supposed to see his struggle with anger amid helplessness as a distraction from her greater mission, to reunite Minbar and Earth in a way that echoes Old- and New-World civilizations coming together over a shared genetic heritage, and destiny.

But the greatest performance of injustice in B5 emerges at the episodic level, when each plot is compelled to play out against such a narrow vision of the future. Right off the bat, JMS limits his ability to explore philosophical and sociopolitical quandaries to their fullest by flattening human vantage points to such a meagre political range — with maybe only the doctor being someone on command staff who doesn’t ever openly long for retributive and corporal-punishment-based solutions to the problems at hand.

Then there’s the way that even this limited range of human perspectives is presented: When Michael “I’m an eye for an eye kinda guy” and “if they were normal they wouldn’t be [Downbelow]” Garibaldi openly endorses policies of severe consequences for human trespass, irrespective of causation, his arguments are sometimes “balanced” by the presence another character disagreeing… but barely, and certainly never in a way that encourages a serious reconsideration of his views. And B5’s second captain, John Sheridan, is no better; he routinely says and does things that endorse a retributive worldview as the status quo, and which are presented as him simply saying aloud what the whole audience must surely also be thinking — because his character is meant to serve as the measured stand-in: the average, vaguely culturally religious man seeking to understand his purpose in the cosmos, who speaks for us all.

The whole approach to storytelling, in other words, treats many of this show’s most potent moral quandaries as foregone conclusions. The human characters are bold and decisive and know they’re fundamentally in the right; and so, even when they’re found “wrong” in a specific situation, they’re almost never shown to be in need of deeper introspection after it transpires.

(Take, in contrast, the way in which the crew of Star Trek: The Next Generation is routinely found troubled at the end of an episode that involved a chewy moral dilemma: not entirely sure if their actions were the right ones after all, affected by the weight of what just transpired, and simply sitting together with the consequences, processing everything, as we pan out to the stars.)

And therein lies the easiest way of closing off a sci-fi story — or any story, really: by presenting scenarios wherein characters already “know” all the right moral calls, and where the script is structured so that none of them faces any real, sustained challenge to the cultural assumptions underpinning their gut feelings.

Again, G’Kar and Londo (and Vir, Londo’s abiding conscience and diplomatic aid, played splendidly by the late Stephen Furst) are wonderful exceptions to this rule. G’Kar is always seeking ways out of his and others’ past mistakes, while Londo struggles throughout the series with his fatalistic belief that a vision of his future is a destiny he cannot avoid, and Vir grapples with his complicity and values from a seat of lesser power.

But the flatness of the humans and their morality on this show, a flatness which leapt out ever so much more to me on my recent re-watch, made me realize that the very storytelling lesson I had so adored as a kid — and which had served me well through earlier periods as a writer! — was misguided.

I first loved Babylon 5 because it had a plan. Because it knew where it was going, and it told viewers every step of the way. Trust me, follow me, because a clear ending is guaranteed from the outset. And in the interim years, when creators like J.J. Abrams made careers out of messing up sci-fi by intentionally going in without knowing the end — to avoid spoilers, to make everything a surprise — how could one not love and lean into creators who had respect for their viewers wanting a meaningful pay-off for their investment?

Now, though, it occurs to me that there are essential midpoints on this storytelling spectrum — essential, that is, if one really wants to grow the moral and ethical dimensions of one’s work as a creator. If you go into telling a story knowing what the “right” answer should be, it becomes ever so much harder to build individual scenarios where your heroes are faced with robust challenges to their gut-feeling convictions… and ever so much less likely that you’re going to be able include all the critical data that a meaningful and real-world relevant solution to your story’s core dilemmas will require.

A key moment of transition, when a character needs to decide who they are in the story ahead.

4. The Hopeful

I titled this essay “The Many Americas of ’90s Sci-Fi,” though, because I, too, fell into an info silo when first recoiling from Babylon 5‘s limitations on re-watch. I found myself saying, “Ugh, this is so American“… as if Star Trek wasn’t shaped by United States idealism, too? It was, of course — both franchises, and others from the same period, like Stargate and Farscape, were performing slices of the “American dream” — just, from different foundational data sets and premises.

And so, no, obviously we writers are never really able to transcend our present moments even when setting our stories in far-flung sci-fi futures — if only because we’re also inevitably writing for the present, and because the dilemmas we stage in alternative fictional contexts are invariably going to be read against the real crises of our audience’s present moment, too.

But that gives us more responsibility, not less, when choosing the “present” we want to advance, and to entrench as our most probable future.

Some of those “presents,” after all, are more small-c conservative than others, by which I mean that they contain a more limited range of possibilities than others, and cannot accommodate a multiplicity of distinctly coexisting points of view. They are risk-averse, chaos-averse, and thus real-quandary-averse.

I once adored the control that JMS had over his narrative vision. It served me well, that admiration, for a time. But in watching Babylon 5 anew, as a far more seasoned writer and participant in the complexities of our shared and hurting world, I now know that it’s possible both to have a vision — to set a course — and to accept a lack of full control over where that vision will take you: to course-correct as often as is necessary, that is, until all of us can find more satisfactory answers for our problems in the stars.

M L Clark uses a recent Babylon 5 re-watch to explore how narrative lessons can, and should, change over the course of one’s life.

P.S. Starting September 1, 2021, I will be publishing a monthly newsletter, 3reedom!, through TinyLetter. This is my solution to “checking out” of traditional social media processes and into a deeper conversation. Each newsletter will contain a range of materials, all grouped in “threes” by general category (reading and viewing recommendations, current events, literary/personal reflections, and miscellaneous bonus materials), to diversify your reading experience. If you choose to sign up and follow along, many thanks!


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