Babylon 5

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"The Babylon Project was our last, best hope for peace. It failed."

– Commander Ivanova

Babylon 5 was a science fiction television franchise dating from the 1990's. The show was noteworthy for being one of the first television shows to make extensive use of rendered cgi battle sequences rather than motion control photography, as well as pioneering the novel-for-television format with season-spanning story arcs (as opposed to the episodic format common to most science fiction shows). Set on the eponymous Babylon 5 space station, the show depicts an interstellar great powers struggle in which humanity is only a contributing player among many others.

Where Star Trek is the embodiment of noblebright, and Star Wars goes for a swashbuckling hero-with-a-thousand-faces space opera, Babylon 5 aims to be a slice-of-life series about the command staff of a station caught in a war in space.

The value of Babylon 5 to the gaming community lies in how good a job it does at combining character development with story arcs and worldbuilding. This is a setting that over the course of its run has an armored Arthurian knight, an alien monk meditating over the repair manual for a Kawasaki, Jack the Ripper taken by aliens, battles with planet-killing super warships, a season-long arc about someone's decline into substance abuse, a character who literally rises from the dead (only to be called out for the messianic cult forming around him), an alcoholic cop who's favorite pasttime is Daffy Duck cartoons, a predestination paradox that slow boiled for two seasons, and Walter Koenig playing lawful evil, and none of it feels forced or contrived.

Setting[edit]

The show is set on Babylon 5, a 5 mile long space station at the edge of Earth's territory, roughly between Earth and Minbar although the lay of the territory is never clearly defined and frankly doesn't really matter. Four stations preceded it, three of which were bombed during construction and the fourth outright vanished shortly after being finished. It exists as an explicitly neutral territory for trade and negotiation between the myriad stellar nations, many of whom have recently been at war.

Factions[edit]

  • Babylon 5 - The protags. The station command staff and their allies. Initially part of Earthforce but circumstances force them to secede later on.
  • Earth Alliance - Surprisingly Earth are not the good guys in this show. A decade prior to the show, Earth beat up a regional bully in the Dilgar War which won them a lot of friends, but then picked a fight with the Minbari and realized they'd kicked a sleeping dragon. Over the course of the series Earth becomes increasingly isolationist, under the leadership of a paranoid dictator. Earthforce ships tend to be giant metal boxes covered in guns and thrusters with gravity-ring segments because they don't have gravity tech.
  • The League of Non-Aligned Worlds - A motley collection of alien states, most of whom had been pushed around by the Dilgar until Earth went to bat for them. Generally the only thing the League can agree to do is continue bickering among themselves.
  • Minbari - The closest thing this series has to noblebright. The Minbari are a monastic, caste society that was fiercely isolationist until the war with Earth. They're allied with the Vorlons and their ships look like Eldar corsair cruisers. The Minbari almost used exterminatus on Earth but stopped themselves for reasons.
  • Narn - Bipedal lizard warrior people, with the "never again" attitude of the Bajorans in Star Trek. The Narn were occupied by the Centauri prior to the show, and drove them out through decades of resistance.
  • Centauri - Imperial Rome in space. Almost literally and unironically. Enslaved the Narn for a while, might do it again for the hell of it.
  • Vorlons - Super-enigmatic energy beings. Really old. Likes telepaths and turning other races into pawns.
  • Shadows - Invisible, maybe-energy spider beings. Really, REALLY old. Likes fomenting war and turning other races into pawns.

The Vorlons and Shadows are ancient races, embodying and championing the precepts of lawful neutral and chaotic neutral respectively. The Vorlons go around turning races in to telepaths, and every now and then the Shadows appear out of nowhere like a Black Crusade and start encouraging everyone to go to war, weeding out the weak. They've tolerated each other doing this for a loooong time, despite having the power to annihilate each other and virtually everyone else many times over; like America and the USSR they're content to let their pawns fight endlessly, intervening directly on occasion but only showing their full might when it became clear the protags were onto the game and trying to end it for good.

Themes Explored[edit]

  • Order vs Chaos - The third and half of the fourth season are dominated by the Shadow war, which is an explicitly lawful vs chaotic conflict, over the question of whether evolution is better served through cooperation or competition. The protags end this conflict by refusing to choose, telling both sides to "Get the hell out of our galaxy."
  • Dictatorship will come draped in the flag - Bookending the Shadow war is the Earth civil war. Earth gradually falls into the governance of a paranoid, police state regime that uses telepaths and fear of alien subversion to undermine liberty, while ironically receiving support from the Shadows. Mars and a number of peripheral colonies (including Babylon 5) secede in response, and portions of the military go renegade. The writers of the show very accurately depict the kind of disinformation tactics used by real dictatorial regimes, and these episodes have only become more poignant in light of the 21st century culture war.
  • Stress & Addiction - Over the course of the series, one character becomes addicted to stimulants while another relapses on alcoholism. The effect this has on their lives and relationships is very genuinely and painfully depicted.
  • Arthurian Legend Arc - Babylon 5 is not a traditional heroic space opera. It has a couple heroic figures with heroic arcs, but their stories are not the whole story. Instead the overarching theme can be very broadly described as Camelot in space, complete with the round table.
  • Faith without Gods - In this regard Babylon 5 is a direct rebuttal to a prior work, Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek The Next Generation. Roddenberry had conjectured that by eliminating scarcity with limitless energy humanity would be freed to embrace higher ascetic virtues of discovery and charity, and that religion would vanish in favor of the pursuit of greater knowledge of the limitless cosmos. The writers of Babylon 5 rejected this as utopianist drivel. Free of want? Humans will want more. Exploration and discovery? The hard questions elude science: "Who are you? What do you want? Do you have anything worth living for?" In the world of Babylon 5, beings tend to be selfish and competitive. A rare few aspire to be more, to seek for higher truths and aspire to nobler causes. The writers eventually make their point bluntly clear in a character's monologue: gods didn't create people, people created gods because they were searching for meaning, and will never stop searching for meaning; the seekers are the best of us, not the worst of us. Star Trek Deep Space Nine was ultimately saddled with Roddenberry's baggage on this subject and thus had to make the Bajoran prophets a tangible thing, an alien life form that could be experienced and comprehended so as to give the Bajoran faith legitimacy in Roddenberry's universe. Babylon 5 has no such limitations and thus features catholic monks studying alien faiths and a human wanderer claiming he's the continuation of Sir Percival's quest to find the grail.