KatieBug’s Geekapalooza, Week One: Babylon 5

Welcome to the first weekly installment of my new series, Things Katie Bug Geeks Over (AKA The Geekapalooza, AKA Nerdstock 2013).  It should come as no surprise that the first entry in this series is dedicated to the great love of my life, J. Michael Straczynski’s Babylon 5.  First of all, I’d like to state that this post is not meant to spark a flame war: I love Star Trek, Star Wars (well, apart from the prequels that never happened), Dr. Who, and a whole wide world of geeky goodness. I will discuss these in turn.  They are like my children; I could never choose between them. I’d appreciate if my gentle readers would love them all likewise. See also: Haters gonna hate.

My second point: I will attempt to avoid major spoilers in any way possible, but I make no promises. Hopefully I’ll inspire some new fans, but this is really a love letter to the fandom, because they are lovely people.

A part of what makes geeks geeks is that a series, book, or movie is never just that: there’s always a story behind the association, a starting point.  When I was a child – Babylon 5’s pilot aired in 1993, the year I turned 5 – my dad used to watch the show, but I didn’t rediscover it until I found it on Netflix Instant my junior or senior year of college. I devoured five seasons in about two months.  I don’t remember eating, sleeping, or showering during that period, so I’d like to apologize to my classmates and friends for that period of time. Rather, I would apologize if I regretted any of it, but as you might have guessed, I regret nothing. I’ve rewatched it several times since then – and it’s the one I keep coming back to.

Yes, it’s the black sheep of the space operas.  It doesn’t have the Roddenberry touch; its dialogue isn’t Whedon-snappy; it lacks BSG’s flashy action sequences and gritty style.  There’s that regrettable Spaced scene (and that’s all we shall say about that particular moment). Its set design shows the budget (or lack thereof), and who knew everyone in the future had awesome ’90s hair?  The first season can be difficult to get through, but you have to watch it the whole way through (more on that later). I admit all of this.

So why does this Geek Girl love Babylon 5 so much that she is seriously naming her firstborn child Susan Ivanova?

I could say that it’s for the brilliance of the story arc.  Five seasons, one main plot (well, one-and-a-half, kind of.  Season Five’s debatable).  This series takes continuity to a whole new level of wonderful, with events from the pilot reoccurring as late as the final season.  We geeks love this. I believe it’s because we want to have to work a little bit for our plots.  Intellectual masochism? Maybe.

I could say it’s because of the universe JMS has created.  It’s not a utopia. Nor is it a dystopia.  Rather, it is the future – cosmetic elements aside – of the human race as we are.  Poverty, mental illness, prejudice, and violence still exist, but these do not comprise the core identity of the human race.  We’re a work in progress.  This universe is a little worn around the edges, a little bit raw, but full of potential.  A significant example of this characterization of the future comes from JMS’s inclusion of a variety of human faiths.  I could dedicate a blog post simply to faith in B5 – in fact, I probably will. Suffice it to say, human beings are not universally religious, but neither are they “beyond” faith.  In fact, new faiths have sprung up in response to contact with alien races.  People of faith are neither all bigots nor all saintly and pious.  It’s an evenhanded portrayal that characterizes the universe created in the series.  As a person of faith (and also an unapologetic open-minder), I find this resonant.

I could say it’s because of the number of badass women in the series.  In a world where strong women are almost always portrayed as either repressed hardasses or hypersexualized femme fatales, it’s refreshing to see women presidents, ambassadors, commercial telepaths, resistance leaders, and military personnel.  It’s even more refreshing to see that their strengths are not determined by their sexuality or lack thereof. Again, this is another blog altogether.  I live a B5 appreciation life.

All of these elements are, of course, lovely and wonderful and delicious.  However, that’s not why I keep revisiting this series.  It’s because of its scope, its powerful emotional scope. It’s about the people, whether they have fanlike hair or spots or bonecrests, whether they wear Jedi Ranger robes or hideous Cosby Show sweaters. At the core of Babylon 5 is the belief, stated by Delenn (paraphrasing Carl Sagan), that “we are starstuff. We are the universe made manifest, trying to figure itself out.”  This is, above all, a story about people trying to comprehend their relationship to the unknowable forces governing their lives: destiny, history, love, hate.

It’s because these are people who feel like real people.  They are a dizzying mixture of virtues and vulnerabilities, and we both love and hate them in turn. The goodnatured, easy-going security chief is also a recovering alcoholic.  The bombastic, corrupt Centauri ambassador is an unexpected romantic. The severe, mysterious Vorlon has a hidden sense of humor.  War heroes cope with battle scars, both physical and spiritual.  No character is completely “good” or “evil,” and no one is beyond the power of redemption or sacrifice. We watch as a favorite character sells his soul, and as another one finds his after a lifetime of hatred.  We are troubled by the paths traveled by these people as they struggle to discover their purpose in the universe, how best to serve, and who they can trust.

It’s because of the moments.  As Dr. Franklin states at one point in Season 3, “The moments are all we’ve got.”  It’s because this series is heartbreakingly beautiful in its exploration of betrayal, redemption, sacrifice, and love – love of every kind.  It’s because of those moments when prophecy is revealed and the moments when prophecy is fulfilled in ways no one could have expected.  Yes, the series starts off a little slow, but if you stick it out, you get the most beautiful of stories which, like all beautiful stories, takes a little time to grow.

In the end, it’s because these beautifully flawed people – straight, not-straight, alien, human, progressive, conservative, believers and questioners – all find a place in the wide, frightening universe. They make choices, for better or for worse. They refuse to accept the status quo.  And in the end, it’s not because they are special, but because they’re us.  I can’t say it better than JMS does in the final episode (don’t worry, it’s not too spoilerrific):

“Babylon 5 was the last of the Babylon stations. There would never be another. It changed the future and it changed us. It taught us that we have to create the future or others will do it for us. It showed us that we have to care for one another, because if we don’t, who will? And that true strength sometimes comes from the most unlikely places. Mostly, though, I think it gave us hope, that there can always be new beginnings. Even for people like us.” – Susan Ivanova

That’s why I keep coming back to B5.  Because of the hope.



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