‘But I’ve never heard of it!’: Babylon 5, the first, best attempt at a TV novel

The Babylon Project was a dream given form, a self-contained storyline five seasons long. A shining beacon of interconnected writing ten years before the The Killing or the MCU made it cool, all alone in the night (because hardly anyone watched it). This is a blog about the first of the TV novels. The year is 2020. The place…

…fuck it, not like anyone is getting any of those references, is it?

Someone? Anyone?

Babylon 5 was a cult sci-fi show that ran between 1994 and 1998. Made on a lower budget than its storylines demanded and then hit by the collapse of its host network midway during its fourth season, it was never more than a cult hit and is probably destined to remain that way, loved by those of us who discovered it (in my case through my dad, who once joked that if I was ever assigned to a space station it would be Babble-on 5) and getting a confused ‘Huh?’ from anyone else.

This is a crying shame.

Partly because the time is never going to riper for a reboot than it is right now, and I genuinely think B5 would scratch the itch created among many Game of Thrones fans for its perceived failure to stick the landing. Partly because, so much of this ‘Golden Age,’ of TV I keep being told we’re living in started with B5.

Ok, so some elements can be seen in Star Trek: The Next Generation, which had a Klingon-Romulan story arc threaded throughout its fourth season. Babylon 5 was the first show which really pioneered the idea, so common today, of telling a single interconnected story across not only multiple episodes, but multiple seasons. It was the first show that proved that this could be done. It was the trailblazer for the rebooted Battlestar Galactica, Game of Thrones, and every fantastic piece of fantasy and sci-fi television that has come since 2010. And whatever the fuck Lost was.

Crime drama came to this same formula via a different route, it really took off with The Killing and elements of this approach can be seen in all three iterations of the CSI franchise starting about the same time. I’d be surprised if Babylon 5 was a major influence on The Killing, since I’d be surprised if anyone in Denmark had much heard of it. But, when The Killing came along and changed how crime drama worked, it was pushing on an already-weakened door, pushing a concept that was already proven.

Babylon 5 created a lived-in, fleshed-out universe across five seasons, with a cast of developed characters and a single, fully interwoven story told as a televisual novel. Missing an episode meant missing out on crucial plot details. It also brought us betrayals, battles, a love story, a desperate battle against an ancient evil, and important characters dying or leaving in heartbreaking fashion, all before it was cool. Simply put, Game of Thrones, Umbrella Academy, The Expanse, Star Treks Discovery and Picard, hell, arguably even Line of Duty and Broadchurch would never have been made without a 90s cult sci-fi show, that first proved that a TV novel was a workable concept, and that audiences would respond to it, watch it, and start to care passionately about it.

*Sigh* Ok, so from L to R we have Delenn (Minbari), G’Kar (Narn), John Sheridan, Susan ‘Will personally rip your lungs out,’ Ivanova, Londo Mollari (Centauri), and Kosh (Vorlon)

So how good was it?

In a (so far unsuccessful) attempt to persuade a friend to give it a try, I said, ‘Think Game of Thrones, but in space.’ GoT was a huge popular hit, way beyond the cult success that was as much as B5 enjoyed, but fans grew increasingly critical of its last two seasons, and there was a general feeling of a let down at the end. There were three main complaints:

  1. No one really knew who the White Walkers were, what they were, or what they wanted.
  2. The resolutions of a lot of character arcs were really unsatisfying, and
  3. Bran Stark ending up as King. It’s been eighteen months, I’m not giving that a spoiler alert.

Being familiar with the historical source material behind Game of Thrones, I personally wasn’t too bothered about that last one, as Bran becomes king for basically the same reason as Henry VII of England after the Wars of the Roses – everyone else was dead. But the other two complaints are definitely valid. Oh, and I suppose there’s a fourth.

4. None of the prophecies paid off.

Thing is, none of these complaints apply to Babylon 5.

We knew who the Big Bad were, what they were, and what they wanted. In fact, the answers to those questions were crucial to the resolution of the whole Big Bad storyline.

The characters developed in really satisfying ways. One initially dastardly villain was transformed by his encounters with the Big Bad, and the defeat and enslavement of his people, into a noble and selfless leader. One loyal friend eventually succumbed to temptation and became just another man who couldn’t take no for an answer. Yet another quipping badass ended up crushed by the death of a man who loved her.

Well, ok, we didn’t have a king, but the right person ended up leading the Interstellar Alliance.

And the prophecies paid off. All bar one very minor one, and I think there was definitely meant to be a pay-off to it but it got lost in the fucked-up production that cursed B5’s last two seasons.

So, let’s go through these one by one and I’ll tell you exactly why a cult sci-fi show from the 90s did Game of Thrones better than Game of Thrones ever did, and first blazed the trail for the Golden Age of TV we’re enjoying today.

One area where Thrones definitely wins

 Special effects. Hands down, no questions, the effect of Thrones were enormously better than those of B5. Partly this is due to technology; B5 was filmed in the 1990s when CGI was still in its infancy, Thrones in the 2010s when the technology had reached maturity. But, also, rewatching B5 today… wow, its effects do not hold up. The CGI looks cheap and poorly rendered, and the sets just look cheap. That’s because, they, um, are, B5 had a low budget even for a 90s sci-fi show, but it’s worth noting that Star Trek: The Next Generation holds up much better even before it was re-mastered and its early seasons were largely filmed in a garage. The poor-quality effects are probably the single biggest reason B5 hasn’t garnered some success in recent years on a streaming service, it just doesn’t look good anymore.

Game of Thrones looks majestic, sprawling, and epic, exactly the feel that it needed. It’s worth noting, though, that even something as visually stunning twenty years ago as Lord of the Rings and Battlestar Galactica is starting to look a bit dated today. CGI, it seems, has a very real shelf-life.

The awesome but poorly-rendered Star Fury from Babylon 5

Get to the comparisons, damn it! Start with the Big Bad

B5 and Thrones both feature an ancient Big Bad returning after thousands of years to wreak fresh havoc on the world. Game of Thrones has the White Walkers (referred to as the Others in the books), Babylon 5 has the Shadows.

The White Walkers are just kind of meh, as Big Bads go. There, I said it.

They start promisingly enough, of course, mysterious and powerful, but they start to lose this edge, for me anyway, in season 3, when Samwell Tarly kills one of them very, very easily. It’s a scene that works better in the books where Sam’s recollections of the Others tearing through a Night’s Watch patrol add menace, and the kill is clearly shown to be downright lucky, but still. It starts to dilute their power and fear over the audience if they’re actually just a bit cocky and overconfident and really, anyone can kill them if they’re not looking.

You wouldn’t kill a Shadow that easily.

The biggest problems with the White Walkers, though, were that we never really knew anything about them, and that they never really did all that much. Think about it: their entire origin story was basically ‘Something-something-dragonglass-something-something.’ We know that the Children of the Forest created them to fight their war against humanity, but as for how the Children lost control of them, why they have ice powers and necromancy, what the Night King actually wants… your guess is as good as mine. Why can their weapons break every sword except those made of Valyrian steel? Why are they returning now? So many questions, and not one of them answered. Some of their rituals with the dead appear to be about creating fear in their enemies, but why does that matter when all they appear to want is to kill anyone and everyone?

There’s so much we’re dying to know about the White Walkers and none of it is ever explained.

And, worse, but… and bear with me now… but, what do they actually do? The first scene of Game of Thrones is devoted to establishing them as a threat, and their menace is a constant throughout seasons 1 and 2. But, aside from giving Jon Snow reasons to exist besides brooding, moping, and knowing nothing, if you took them out of the series, would anyone actually notice? Did they affect the plot in any way at all? Game of Thrones, ultimately, was all about who’d get to sit on an extremely uncomfortable chair. The Big Bad had absolutely no impact on that at all. The warring factions don’t unite to defeat them and learn that they can compromise and live together in the process. Dany doesn’t selflessly sacrifice her army to save the world from them knowing it will cost her the Iron Throne. They don’t even figure greatly in her eventual descent into madness. Take them out, and nothing would really change at all. They were, in the end, less a Big Bad, than an eight-season-long mystery subplot that was never resolved and went nowhere.

You may look scary, but it’ll be at least five seasons before you do anything, and nothing you do will end up affecting the plot anyway.

Take the Shadows out of Babylon 5, and nothing would happen at all.

The Shadows, like the White Walkers, are a thousand-year-old ancient enemy that returns. Like the White Walkers, they’re set up as being terrifyingly powerful. But there, the similarities end, because everything we want to know about the Shadows, we learn. We know where they came from, we know why they’ve come back, and, most crucially of all, we know what they want. And it’s not what we think.

The Shadows are an ancient alien race, millions of years older than humanity or any of the other major galactic powers of the day. Most of the other alien races as old as the Shadows have long since left the Milky Way, with only the Vorlons also staying behind, and the reason for this, we eventually learn, is that the two have remained to guide and teach the younger races. Over time, their differences over how best to do this have evolved into outright enmity. The Vorlons believe in order and obedience, the Shadows in chaos and struggle, and the resolution of their ideological divide isn’t through battle, or even through debate, but when the younger races tell them that they’ve had enough. The aim of every teacher is for their students to surpass them, something the Vorlons and Shadows alike forget until they’re reminded. The Vorlons, in the show, are described as being like overly protective parents, telling the humans, Minbari, Narn, Centauri and the rest to tidy their rooms, clean their teeth, and go to bed. To extend that metaphor, the Shadows are like an anarchic vodka aunt who swills in every six months and teaches them how to smoke, drink, steal road cones and shopping trolleys, and throw up in gutters at three in the morning. Or shows up every thousand years or so to encourage the kids to nuke each other from orbit, but either way you get the picture. The Vorlons provide the stable home, the Shadows provide the tests of character.

Nothing the White Walkers do really impacts on the struggle for the Iron Throne at all; everything that happens in the Babylon 5 universe is catalysed by the Shadows. They destabilise Earth’s government and support the rise of the dictator President Clark. They set the Centauri and Narn against each other, and encourage dozens of other wars between the smaller alien powers. Telepaths exist in Babylon 5, created, we later learn, by the Vorlons to give the younger races some way of defending themselves against the Shadows, whose ships use organic technology so advanced no one is entirely sure how it works.

And why are they back now? Well, a thousand years have passed and the humans, Minbari, Narn, Centauri et al have tidied their rooms, cleaned their teeth and gone to bed like good little aliens, and the Shadows have decided it’s time make some memories/blow up a few planets. None of this Because Reasons bullshit we had to put up with from Game of Thrones. Seriously, they had a character who could see into the past and they still didn’t bother to explain it.

Oh, and the arrival of the Shadows causes the many alien races of the galaxy to unite against them, and then against them and the Vorlons when it becomes clear that they’re as great a threat as the Shadows in their own way. The White Walkers have no impact on Dany’s quest for the Iron Throne beyond being yet another reason it takes her eight seasons instead of three. The coming of the Shadows, and the need to unite against them, are what propels the races of the galaxy to create an Interstellar Alliance, and what propels John Sheridan to lead it.

The Shadows are a scary, complex, and thought-provoking Big Bad. Through their actions, and the actions of those who oppose them, the universe they inhabit is fundamentally and irrevocably changed. The White Walker start off scary, but that’s about all. Take them out of their fictional universe, and nothing would change within it.

There were no pictures of a Shadow ship I could use without breaking copyright, so here’s my own crudely-drawn one…

Character development

There are two main schools of writing, ‘Plotters,’ and ‘Pantsers.’ Really it’s more of a Bell Curve than two distinct blocs with no crossover at all, but the majority of writers lean one way or another. ‘Plotters,’ as the name suggests know every twist and turn in their story in advance, whilst ‘Pantsers,’ are just making it up as they go along, hence they are ‘flying by the seat of their pants.’ Personally I’m probably just about in the ‘plotter,’ camp, in that I know where I want my characters to go and I’m quite happy to twist their arms to get them there, even if I don’t know every bend in the road.

George RR Marton is an arch Pantser, and one thing that should be obvious to everyone who’s read A Song of Ice and Fire (the book series from which Game of Thrones was adapted) is that he really hasn’t got a clue where he’s going. Unnecessary subplots proliferate throughout already huge books, mostly created by his refusal to make his characters do anything that he feels is not in their character.

Babylon 5 creator J Michael Straczynski, on the other hand, is an arch Plotter. Rewatching a few B5 episodes lately I was struck by just how early some things were set up. JMS clearly had most of the show mapped out in his head from before the first season even aired. There wasn’t much room for the characters to develop in ways that he hadn’t already planned for them, it was all set in stone before the cameras first rolled.

Simply put, Game of Thrones was character-driven and Babylon 5 was plot-driven, which from a writing perspective makes it all the more remarkable that B5 had better, more developed characters, with more satisfying arcs.

I think the best way to highlight this is to compare some of the most similar characters from each show. Not all of them have direct equivalents – there’s no answer to Delenn, Ivanova, or G’Kar in Games of Thrones, and Babylon 5 has no version of Tyrion, or Cersei, or Bronn. Characters such as Ned Stark and Jon Snow in GoT, and Jeffrey Sinclair and John Sheridan in B5 have obvious parallels, being noble hero types, but I think there are three more interesting parallels. Centauri Ambassador Londo Mollari and Jaime Lannister; Londo’s aide Vir Cotto and Sansa Stark; and Shadow agent Mister Morden and Littlefinger.

Londo and Jaime are both classic morally grey characters, ones who do too much good to be considered evil but too much evil to ever be considered good. Their main motivation for much of their evil is pretty similar too: they’re both trapped. Londo by his sense of duty, his sense of his people’s rightful destiny, and then by his deals with the Shadows, Jaime by his loyalty to his family, his incestuous relationship with his sister, and the need to protect their children. Both of them carry out actions that are utterly monstrous, and both later seek redemption. Neither is ever able to break free of their traps, however, and both ultimately die. The difference is that, for Londo, his death is his escape, and also his final victory – I think there’s even a measure of dignity and heroism to it. Jaime’s, on the other hand, is just tragic and wasteful. Just as he finds love and might be able to finally escape Cersei, he chooses to go back to her as Daenerys Targaryen launches her attack on King’s Landing. Having broken away from her and seeming overcome her hold on him, he goes right back to her, and leaves the audience wondering what the point of his going to fight the White Walkers was in the first place. Londo, meanwhile, does manage to escape, at least for a while, as the Shadows leave and he personally roots out much of the corruption they embedded in his world. His final trap, being enslaved to a Keeper implanted by the Drakh, one of their servant races, is one he submits to willingly to prevent the destruction of his world, and his death is one he fully accepts knowing that his sacrifice will allow his friends to escape death by the Keeper’s hand. Yes, ok, he’s drunk himself half to death to get some measure of control over the Keeper, but he gets as much dignity and heroism as possible in his final moments. Jaime Lannister never escapes and never develops beyond the harms inflicted on him by his father and sister; Londo eventually does. And, in making Vir Cotto his successor as Emperor, I like to think even wins a final victory for the good of his people. Only Londo knows Vir’s true strength and integrity, and Vir is the only man he can trust to free the Centauri from the Drakh. And there’s no chance the Drakh ever saw him coming.

‘Now, if I was a landing thruster, which one would I be?’: Possibly Londo’s finest moment.

Vir and Sansa. Oh, Vir, you’re far too good and innocent for this universe, and that’s the whole point of your character. How to survive in such a brutal reality whilst still remaining true to yourself. Vir becomes expert at hiding his feelings of revulsion from Londo whilst always trying to nudge him back towards good (and do some good whilst Londo isn’t looking). By season 5 he isn’t the doe-eyed innocent who stumbled onto Babylon 5 in the first episode, but his fundamental goodness (and gawky awkwardness) haven’t changed, and do we ever love him for it. Sansa, too, is far too good and innocent for this universe, but whereas Vir always stays true to his inner nature, Sansa’s is changed across the series. Vir never sinks to the level of Londo and actively fights against his mentor’s worst instincts. Sansa, on the other hand, develops a capacity for duplicity and suspicion to match those of her mentors (arguably Cersei and Littlefinger). Her suspicion of Daenerys helps tip the latter over the edge into madness, and her reluctance to trust Jon Snow nearly leads to disaster at the Battle of the Bastards, but these are held up as examples of character growth. Look at the fairy-tale Princess from Season 1, now she’s a hardened and flinty decision maker! But she completes this journey by sinking to the same level as her abusers, not rising above them. Vir achieves the same thing by staying true to his core principles, and it is so much more satisfying.

Character who fail to rise above their destiny are a real feature of GoT. Jaime never escapes his abusers, Sansa becomes just like hers, Daenerys becomes a worst monster than her father. It’s a relentlessly negative view of humanity that even such a grim show doesn’t need.

I absolutely wouldn’t be doing my job now if I didn’t compare Matthew ‘Mees-ter Morden,’ Morden, and Petyr ‘Littlefinger,’ Baelish, the arch-manipulators of their respective universes. These are both fantastic villains, both well-written and acted love-to-hate characters whose actions spark the entire plot – Morden as an agent of the Shadows, Littlefinger as an agent of Littlefinger. Their death scenes are satisfying pay-offs (I won’t complain about Sansa’s actions towards Littlefinger) at the hands of victims of their manipulation who turn the tables, although personally I prefer Morden’s. Partly because Londo didn’t need to see Morden try to turn him against his family to realise how dangerous he was, he worked it out for himself, partly because Londo so comprehensively out-manoeuvres him. There’s very little that can match watching the schemer get out-schemed, seeing the player get, himself, played. Babylon 5 understood this, Game of Thrones went with ‘Everyone works out he’s a dick and kills him.’ It’s not that it’s a bad scene, or not cathartic to watch, it’s just… not as good. It doesn’t scratch the itch. I also think that Morden has more about him because all his scheming and plotting is for something, whereas Littlefinger really only believes in Littlefinger, but this I recognise is down to taste. Littlefinger’s nihilism gives his character a different edge to Morden’s, and many might prefer the exploration of a character with no loyalty to anyone but himself, but I think schemers who scheme for their own benefit are ten-a-penny. Emperor Palpatine and Captain Lorca are two Sci-Fi examples just from the top of my head. Any of the antagonists from Line of Duty could match Littlefinger in their own way. Or Frank Underwood from House of Cards. Morden, on the other hand, schemes and plots and double-crosses because he believes in something. I feel like that’s a bit rarer.

A photo of Littlefinger actor Aiden Gillan that I can actually use

But the final, important difference between them is that, although their schemes are the catalysts for the plot, Morden remains central to the events of Babylon 5, whilst Littlefinger gradually fades into irrelevance. Morden is tied to the Shadows, the Big Bad, and is crucial to their corruptions of Earth and the Centauri. He only dies as they are defeated. Littlefinger has absolutely no connection to the White Walkers and loses his role when they grow in importance.

Ultimately, the plot-driven writers of Babylon 5 understood their characters, and the roles they were playing, better than the character-driven writer of Game of Thrones. Thrones never knew where it was going until it got there, so it never knew how its characters actually fit into its story. Coupled with George RR Martin’s well-documented refusal to make his characters do anything he didn’t see as consistent with what he’d already established, and instead of developing and learning from their experiences, we saw them repeating the same old established patterns, time and again. B5’s learn, and grow, and develop, and the show is richer for it.

When I searched for pictures of Morden that I could actually use, this was the first hit… so I guess, don’t confuse him with the Tube station?

The ending

As I said earlier, I have no issues with the ultimate resolution of Thrones’ power-plays. Martin understood the ultimate lesson of Henry VII’s ascension to England’s throne at the end of the Wars of the Roses, and applied it to Westeros.

Was it the best answer to the Iron Throne question? By the end of the Season 8, Bran Stark was the only answer left.

Was it the best ending to the series?

I don’t think it was. Because, and I’m sorry to bring this up again but I’m also not sorry, what was the point of the White Walkers?

In Babylon 5, the Minbari, the Narns, the various alien races who make up the League of Non-Aligned Worlds, are all forced to recognise the need to unite against the Shadows. The formation of the Interstellar Alliance is an outgrowth of that unity, a direct result of the intervention of the Shadows. The various warring factions are forced to look beyond their petty grievances and confront an overwhelming threat that will annihilate them unless they fight it together.

The White Walkers of Game of Thrones do none of this, as the power players by the time of their breach of the wall continue to scheme against each other. Only Jon Snow ever recognises the threat they pose. Daenerys sees them as, at best, a distraction, Cersei thinks she can use them to weaken her enemies, Sansa is more worried about the threat Daenerys poses to her position. Although Dany and Jon Snow, somewhat begrudgingly, combine forces against them, Cersei keeps the Lannister armies out of the fight. And once the White Walkers are defeated, Jon and Dany’s relationship quickly collapses into mutual distrust and suspicion. No one learns anything.

This is the wrong ending.

If the warring factions of Westeros won’t unite against their common enemy, then they deserve to lose. Jon and Dany should have been defeated at Winterfell – narrowly, with it being clear to the audience that if only Cersei had sent her troops, they could have won. From the moment Cersei couldn’t look past her own selfish interests, the best ending – the ending that the White Walkers, as a Big Bad, needed and deserved – was for the Night King to sit the Iron Throne, Westeros a land of shambling undead wights, because his enemies refused to unite against him.

Wouldn’t it have been cool to see the Night King sit on this?

None of Thrones’ prophecies paid off

There are two major prophecies in Game of Thrones, that of the Prince or Princess Who Was Promised, who is supposed to defeat the White Walkers and end the Long Night, and that of Cersei, who learns of her future from a local fortune-teller as a girl. Now, to be fair, for most of the time when Thrones is following the already-written books, Cersei’s prophecy plays out in interesting and ironic ways, as the actions she takes to avoid her fate in fact bring it closer. She’s told that she’ll be queen until another queen comes along, younger and more beautiful, that she will have three children who will wear gold crowns and gold shrouds, and that she will end up being strangled to death by her little brother.

The first two of those things come to pass largely through her efforts to avoid them, but the last… what I think will happen in the books is that she’ll be killed by Jaime Lannister, who seems to have been at least partly turned against her by her hatred of Tyrion, which is driven by her fear that he is the little brother who will kill her (it never enters her head that it might be Jaime). In the TV series, there’s no pay-off to that at all. She and Jaime are killed together by the collapsing Red Keep during Daenerys’ dragon-holocaust in King’s Landing, no fingers anywhere near her throat.

It was disappointing, not least because the showrunners had dropped some hints that it would be Jaime who killed her before, I think, just plain abandoning the idea.

As for the Prince or Princess Who Was Promised… anyone have any idea who that was supposed to be? Something something magic sword something something? Daenerys turned from Nelson Mandela into Bomber Harris and then got killed by Jon Snow; Jon Snow left to live a life apart north of the Wall; Bran Stark was many things but a fit for that prophecy, he was not; Arya Stark killed the Night King, but didn’t fit the prophecy in any other way.

Again, disappointing. And all the more so because that prophecy had been built up a lot in the preceding seasons, and was then dropped in season 8 with no apparent warning at all.

If you want a series with major prophecies that completely pay off in every way possible, where the pay-offs were mapped out in advance and the showrunners knew the answer before the first cameras rolled, you’re looking for Babylon 5.

The major prophecy in B5 is that of Valen, who’s basically Minbari Jesus, a great leader who appeared at the darkest point of their first war against the Shadows to take them to victory, restructured their society to end the inter-caste violence that had marred it for years, and predicted the opening moves of the Second Shadow War. Valen is eventually revealed to be (MAJOR spoiler alert) Babylon 5’s first commander, Jeffrey Sinclair, who travels back in time to fulfil this destiny, and it’s entirely clear that J Michael Straczynski knew this from the start. Lines setting this up can be heard in the second episode of the first season. Valen’s knowledge of the future is explained; he knew what would happen because he’d been there. After Sinclair leaves for the past, his settlement of Minbari society starts to collapse and it’s left to his descendant Delenn to repair it, pointing out as she does so that the Minbari can no longer rely on Valen’s words to guide them, as Valen only knew what Sinclair knew.

It shows the value of having a roadmap in your head of where you want a prophecy to take you before you get there.

There are other prophecies in B5 that largely relate to Londo Mollari, as the Centauri seem to have some ability to see the future. He dreams of his own death at the hands of G’Kar; he dreams of the arrival of a Shadow fleet on his world; both of which occur on screen as the show progresses. In season 3, he is warned that he has only three further chances of redemption having already wasted two (one probably being when he lamely objected to, but did nothing to prevent, the bombardment of G’Kar’s home planet Narn). He must save the Eye that Does Not See, he must not kill the One who is Already Dead, and at the last he must confront his greatest fear knowing it will destroy him.

Now, I will admit here that we never do find out what the Eye that Does Not See was supposed to be – I think it was a casualty of the hectic and messed-up season four and five production schedules. The show does feature a Shadow early warning system known as the Eye of Z’Ha’Dum, so my guess is that it was something to do with that. ‘Not kill the One who is Already Dead,’ almost certainly refers to Sheridan, although the audience sees Londo allow Sheridan to escape the clutches of the Centauri Royal Palace at a point where they don’t know he’s the One who is Already Dead. And his greatest fear, his death at the hands of G’Kar, is something he does in the end confront willingly, knowing it’s the only way to ensure Sheridan and Delenn’s survival.

And his death at G’Kar’s hand, predicted from the first episode of the show, doesn’t happen the way anyone expects. Knowing he can never be free of his Drakh Keeper, and that it will force him to prevent Sheridan and Delenn from escaping, Londo asks G’Kar to kill him (and it) before it can do any more damage. The storytelling is fresh, inventive, and unpredictable in the best way – for all their mutual loathing, G’Kar and Londo were always so similar in so many ways that the audience could buy that they would eventually grow to respect one another.

The best literary prophecies never mean quite what they seem to mean, and honestly I am a huge fan of how, in the Song of Ice and Fire books, Cersei’s efforts to prevent her prophecy from coming to pass actually bring it about. But, her eventual fate suggests that George RR Martin has not decided which of her little brothers will kill her, or how, or why, and the showrunners didn’t (either wouldn’t or couldn’t) choose for him. And it also seems equally clear that, five books out of seven in, he himself hasn’t decided who the Prince Who Was Promised actually is. Prophecies demand a degree of structure and planning that Martin as an author appears to despise. J Michael Straczynski pulled off one of the best literary prophetic reveals with Valen precisely because he knew the answer from the start (and had a good understanding of how to create a mystery).

Babylon 5’s prophecies always paid off. Game of Thrones could never work out if it actually wanted to have prophecies in the first place.

Bonus point: better battles

Ok, so I’m not even gonna try and argue that the special effects in B5 can hold up against Thrones because they don’t. At all. And Thrones does some exceptional battle scenes, some of which even hold their own against Lord of the Rings. But, I have to say, I think the battle sequences in Babylon 5 show a better understanding of (1) how battles can move a story along and (2) the horror and tragedy of war.

Actually I don’t think Thrones understands the tragedy of war at all, but we’ll get to that.

The Battle of Gorash VII in B5 and the Battle of Hardhome in Thrones serve a similar narrative purpose, the first time we see the Big Bag unleash their full power. And, personally, I came away from the Battle of Hardhome feeling that they weren’t all that threatening, and that I wasn’t terribly invested in any of it either. The only character present I cared about was Jon Snow, who I already knew would live at least two more episodes from reading the books. As for the Wildlings… Tormund was likeable, but I couldn’t name any of the others with a gun to my head. ‘Lady with Two Axes,’ anyone? The wights were only a threat to Our Heroes in large numbers and Jon kills a White Walker quite easily. Only the (now-dead) character of Mance Rayder had seemed especially bothered about the Wildlings escaping south before, and without any hint that the White Walkers were coming I had no sense of foreboding or menace. I didn’t feel any sense of stakes, and came away thinking that the White Walkers were pretty beatable. When an enemy’s only strength is numbers, you know the heroes will find some clever way to beat them.

The Battle of Gorash VII shows us this same thing, the Shadows at full strength, and absolutely nails it. For starters, I am far more invested in the Narns they fight than I ever was in the Wildings. We’ve seen the Narns gradually lose their war with the Centauri for most of the second season, we know that the attack on Gorash VII is their last throw of the dice, the general leading them is G’Kar’s favourite uncle so there’s a personal tie, and we know that the Shadows are coming. The Centauri government asks Londo to use them to defend their supply depot while they strike straight at the Narn homeworld. G’Kar tries to warn his uncle, but it’s too late. And, whereas the White Walkers need a huge advantage in numbers to even pose a threat, the Shadows only send five ships. Five ships which then proceed to carve through the Narn battle fleet without ever seeming to break a sweat.

Captain Sheridan is able to destroy two Shadow vessels by out-thinking them in the third season before discovering that they can be jammed by telepathic interference, but in this battle there’s no lucky-kill-for-Jon-Snow moment, even with an enormous advantage in numbers the Narns are no match whatsoever for the Shadows. They are the Big Bad, they are almost unstoppable, and good luck to the crew of Babylon 5, which must surely face them soon. The Battle of Hardhome gave the audience hope and a way to defeat the White Walkers even as it was trying to show us what an onslaught they were. The Battle of Gorash VII showed the audience insurmountable odds and no apparent way to win.

The Battle of the Bastards in Thrones and the battle in Severed Dreams in B5 also had a similar purpose in the story, showing the horrors of war, and featuring Our Heroes being dramatically rescued at the last minute. And again, the 90s show does it better.

The Battle of the Bastards, between Jon Snow and Westeros’ answer to Ted Bundy Ramsey Bolton, has some properly fucked-up imagery, more graphic and gruesome than anything in Babylon 5. The corpse wall, and Jon’s near death-by-crushing, are memorable and awful, even if the corpse wall is a little bit silly. The death-by-crushing is something that happened in many medieval and ancient battles. But then, Jon emerges with some artistically splattered mud, hair strategically arranged to look rakishly out-of-place, not a scratch on him, all ready for his final showdown with Ramsey. He’s a bit tired, but otherwise just fine. More glamour than horror. And that’s how I felt the mud and confusion of the Battle of the Bastards is presented, glamourised and cool. Real Men like Jon Snow take it all on the chin and go and punch bad guys in the face. Yeah, war is horrible, but… it’s also kinda cool, right?

For such a one-sided, against-the-odds fight, it’s notable how not one of the major characters gets so much as an Ouchie. And, again… it was quite low-stakes. It was entirely obvious that Sansa would dramatically save the day. I never felt the slightest bit worried about the outcome.

The battle in Severed Dreams, on the other hand, nails both the horror of war, and even more, the tragedy of it. The Earth Alliance’s President has declared martial law, and bombed civilian targets on Mars when Mars refused to comply. Sheridan and Babylon 5 break away in protest, and Earth sends a military task force to retake the station. The result is a battle between the task force, and Babylon 5 and two allied ships. It’s probably the best battle in the series (and in my view one of the best space battles ever), and it’s hammered home at every turn that it’s a tragedy. Every death is an unnecessary waste of life, caused by President Clark’s ambition, none of this should be happening. As well as the lasers firing, we get a scene of brutal hand-to-hand combat, and its aftermath with bodies strewn across the deck, one wounded soldier tugging at her body armour trying to breathe.

For me, this communicates the horror of war far more effectively than the ‘Isn’t this cool? Grisly deaths are so glamorous! Look at the cool visual! Look at it!’ corpse wall.

Jon Snow, Ser Davos, Tormund, Sansa, all come through the Battle of the Bastards unscathed (if a bit muddy). Not so the B5 crew. Ivanova’s fighter is damaged and she has to eject, Security Chief Garibaldi’s ribs are broken and he collapses after the boarding party is subdued. There’s a price to pay. For a show that previously delighted in killing off main characters, Thrones’ seem very immortal at this point. B5’s never looked more human or vulnerable.

Oh, and Delenn’s last-minute rescue of the crew actually is unexpected, and I still get chills watching her fly in in the White Star, telling the task force captains ‘If you value your lives, be somewhere else.’

Babylon 5’s writers understood their story, their characters, and their action sequences better than Game of Thrones’.

So, what is the lesson? What is the takeaway?

First, that Babylon 5 was fifteen years before its time, never trusted by networks that wanted monster-of-the-week type stories to bring in weekly audiences.

Second, that as good as many TV novels are, Big Mystery ones only ever work when the writers know the answer at the start. Game of Thrones couldn’t stick the landing because its writers, in both book and TV novel format, didn’t know the answers. Hell, George RR Martin has two more books to write and probably still doesn’t know the answer. The same charge clearly applies to Lost as well. Battlestar Galactica’s writers probably knew roughly where they were going at the start, but lacking a detailed map they took some major diversions, not all of which made sense at the end.

Babylon 5’s writers knew where they were taking the story, and how it would get there, in detail, from the start, and far from stifling the characters this allowed them to grow into their roles within the story. It gave us noble heroes, quipping badasses, tormented demagogues, and evil schemers to rival the best of Game of Thrones, it gave us a far more terrifying, and interesting, Big Bad, and it had a satisfying ending to tie it all up. It’s just a pity that hardly anyone watched it.

He found the landing thrusters eventually…

And also, some shameless plugs…

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4 thoughts on “‘But I’ve never heard of it!’: Babylon 5, the first, best attempt at a TV novel

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