Babylon 5 is my most recently-acquired science fiction obsession. I'm about halfway through watching the fifth (and final) season on DVD, and have been enjoying every exciting and thought-provoking minute of this excellent series.
I actually watched the first few episodes with my dad back when the show premiered in 1994, but couldn't get into it at the time. I was bitter that Star Trek: The Next Generation (which had been my favorite show) had just been cancelled, and the early episodes of Bab5 just felt too much like "bizarro Star Trek" for me to be able to appreciate them on their own terms. Plus, in all honesty, I simply couldn't make head or tail of most of the dialogue in the show -- I guess I just didn't have the context as a fifteen-year-old to understand what was going on.
So, years passed, and eventually Babylon 5 faded away into long-term storage in my brain. I didn't give it much thought again until just a little while ago, when some friends brought Bab5 up and asked if I'd ever seen it. I told them that I'd not been able to get into it as a teenager and had also heard that the first season was fairly high on the cheese stick, and was summarily informed, "Oh, it gets much better! You'd really like it!" After hearing this sentiment repeated by several other people, and after learning as well that the series was basically one big long story arc (I love long story arcs), I decided to give it another try. And let me tell you: I have not been disappointed so far.
The first season was a bit rough in some respects, but since my standards going in were so low, I was pleasantly surprised by what I saw. Not only that, but I noticed during the opening credits of the very first episode that Harlan Ellison (one of my absolute favorite authors of all time) was the conceptual consultant for the series -- that alone made me figure the series was worth a careful watch, as Harlan Ellison is well known for being quite persnickety about quality in fiction, and parsimonious as far as what projects he'll actually put his name on.
This second time around, I found myself much better able to understand the dialogue and the situations presented in the show, and I became intrigued fairly early on by the characters (especially the Vorlon ambassador!). I also really liked the fact that the show begain with its story already "in progress" -- that really made me want to figure out how all the characters (and the station) had gotten to where they were.
Aesthetics and Aliens (and did I mention Vorlons?)
Aesthetically, the show seems to have aged incredibly well for a sci-fi series. The opening and in-show computerized graphics (particularly in the first season) are a bit blocky by today's standards, but definitely impressive for their time, and they got a lot better as the seasons progressed.
The costumes are also something of a relief, frankly, if you've seen as much sci-fi as I have, as there's nary a spandex jumpsuit to be seen -- people, whether civilian or enlisted, dress like actual people. The alien makeup is also quite decent, particularly in the case of the Narn (green-skinned reptillian-looking marsupial-people) -- the only thing that took some getting used to was the Centauri hair, but even that didn't faze me after a while.
And then, of course, there is the Vorlon Encounter Suit, worn by the reclusive and cryptic Ambassador Kosh. I am actually kind of freakishly obsessed with Vorlons right now (or, more properly, Vorlon aesthetics, communication, and technology -- I'm not too keen on Vorlon politics, but I won't say more about that here as I'm attempting to keep this relatively spoiler-free). I downloaded a whole bunch of .wav files to my HP Jornada 720 (tiniest of tiny computers) so now if I really wanted to be a pain, I could walk around communicating mostly in electronic-sounding monosyllables and the occasional "IMPUDENT" or Kung Fu-esque phrase (such as "Understanding is a three-edged sword.").
I also drew a picture of encounter-suited Kosh and worked it into a duct tape wallet design, so as of today I am the proud owner of a custom-made duct tape Vorlon wallet (see below).
(I'm guessing that's worth at least 50 Nerd Points. :P)
The presence of extraterrestrial sentients is common in science fiction, and it is always interesting to see how different stories and fictional worlds treat their nonhuman residents. Like many sf fans, I've got a laundry list in my head of things I look for whenever aliens are introduced -- e.g., if they speak English, how does the story account for that? Are they humanoid or non-humanoid? How did humans encounter them? How was communication first established? And so on. Babylon 5 opens after humans have already had contact with various alien races for a number of years, meaning that there was presumably time for members of those races to learn human language, and vice versa. There are also occasionally aliens presented who seem to understand human language but not speak it -- due to anatomical incompatibilities, culture, politics, etc.. Here we usually see a device of one sort or another introduced to "translate".
One thing I really rather liked in this regard was (surprise!) how Vorlon communication was presented -- Vorlons are radically different from humans in some very significant ways, and in terms of sci-fi tropes they'd certainly be considered a very technologically advanced people, but they cannot actually articulate human language, and must employ translation devices in order to do this. I really liked seeing that because whether intentional or not, it was a neat little subversion of the whole "human speech is the triumph of evolution" thing I see so often here on Earth in real life. Regardless of what you might think of the Vorlons from a moral standpoint, I don't think anyone could reasonably argue that they're somehow "suffering" because they can't speak English without assistive technology.
And in addition to having an atypical inter-species communication mechanism, Vorlons are also socially unlike typical humans in many respects. While they certainly share many of the same fears and ambitions as humanity-at-large (albeit on something of a different scale), they're not so much into the small talk, to the point of it being highly amusing whenever humans and Vorlons try to have a conversation. You really need to watch the series to get the full effect, but from the looks of it, talking to a Vorlon is a bit like talking to the combination of a robot, a Magic 8 Ball, and Yoda.
Other species (notably the Narn, Centauri, and Minbari) are all much more humanlike both in their social presentation and linguistic faculties; they have their own languages (and accents, though the accents aren't really consistent and seem to often reflect the accent of the actor(s) more than anything else, at least when it comes to minor characters), and sometimes you see them speaking their own languages, but mostly they are shown conversing in English. Their societies are presented as being somewhat monocultural in the usual sci-fi sense, but at the same time, there's plenty of intra-cultural disagreement to be seen, and Bab5 is definitely a cut above a lot of shows as far as minimizing the "every alien is a walking stereotype" issue.
Story and Plotting
Plot-wise, Babylon 5 manages to be both fast-paced (in the sense of there always being something going on; there aren't too many "lulls" in the series) and thoroughly "fleshed out" with regard to details. It really is the kind of series that you have to start at the beginning and watch in order all the way through, as later episodes play heavily on earlier ones, and in order to know what the characters are going on about, you really have to have "been there", so to speak. This is a huge element of the show's appeal to me, actually: I'm kind of a nut for what are colloquially known as "nit-picky details", and Babylon 5 promises vast rewards here for those willing to exercise their observational faculties and long-term memories a bit.
Another appealing element of Bab5 is its character development -- that is, when decisions are made, things change as a result and don't just magically snap back to the status quo at the end of each episode. Characters are shown dealing with the ramifications of their choices and actions and experiences over the long term, and you can see them changing and growing and reacting differently to new situations.
Additionally, as much as I still maintain affection for Star Trek, Babylon 5 seems to me much more realistic in the way it portrays events as progressing and problems as being dealt with. Rarely is any solution neat and tidy, rarely does everyone agree, and rarely are the results of even the most well-thought-out and well-intentioned plan "perfect". Still, the show also manages to avoid beating the viewer over the head with constant defeat in an attempt to portray "gritty realism"; the Bab5 writers and creators seem to have done a better job than most at maintaining a balance here and also showing how the same outcome can spell positive consequences for some and negative consequences for others.
Babylon 5 also has an extremely rich philosophical thread running through it, a thread quite close to a lot of what I personally consider rather a neat way to look at existence. I won't get too much into it here, as it's really something that ought to be seen in the context of the story, but I will say that the way the story explains life, consciousness, time, and meaning is a beautiful thing to behold.
The Scientific and the Fantastic
Babylon 5 seems to walk the line between hard sf and science fantasy, sometimes edging more into one side than the other, but altogether maintaining a decent overall balance of realism and pure myth-metaphor-made-manifest.
The show's more realistic speculative elements are found primarily in the depictions of Earth and Earth culture -- Earth's ships look bulky and boxy just the way you'd expect human-government-commissioned spacecraft to look in a spacefaring future two hundred and fifty years down the timeline. Earth has also colonized Mars at the point the story takes place; the Mars colony does actually look like something that could presumably happen, as it doesn't employ anything really ambitious like mass terraforming, but rather presents a bunch of climate-controlled domes.
Also, I really really liked the fact that people were still shown using paper and pens in the future -- honestly, does anyone really believe that the future will be paperless? Or that someday there won't be any demand for a zero-power-consumption writing medium? Sheesh!
The medical technology was one thing that stuck out to me as fairly "primitive" -- aside from some newfangled and oddly-named medications and the capacity to treat the injuries and illnesses of a variety of nonhuman extraterrestrials, the medical lab on Bab5 doesn't really seem much better off than the average (assuming we're talking about an industrialized nation) Earth hospital today. People seem to die of the same things more or less at the same frequency that they do on shows that take place in the present day (i.e., stab wounds), which certainly isn't a totally unrealistic potential outcome for the year 2258, but I guess I was just kind of surprised to see so few "sick bay tropes". They don't even seem to have those little laser-y things that knit broken skin and bone back together in seconds. And as far as longevity goes, human lifespans seem to have increased somewhat on average per the Bab5 timelines, though quite modestly. The notion of living to 100 is discussed on Bab5 about as casually as living to 70 is today.
Then, in addition to all the fairly plausible stuff, we have the Plot Devices, which sometimes take the form of actual devices and other times take the form of quasi-supernatural phenomena (though thankfully no midichlorians!). There is no "warp speed" in the Bab5 universe, but there is such a thing as "hyperspace", through which ships can travel to cover long distances in short enough periods of time to make skipping across the galaxy a practical endeavor. Ships enter hyperspace through "jump gates" (which do exactly what you'd expect), or in the case of sufficiently powerful ships, "jump points" created by said ships.
We also see telepathic humans (and nonhumans), suggestions of something like reincarnation, time travel, and a few examples of prescient ability in some life forms (though in Bab5, the future is definitely presented as malleable; when people "predict the future", it's more a statement of "this will happen if nobody does anything to change how things are going now" than a statement of "this is going to happen and there's nothing anyone can do about it", with a few notable exceptions).
/end fangirl rambling
(oh, one more thing: in light of this recent upsurge in B5 fangirldom on my part, I've been enjoying The Babylon Podcast tremendously...check it out if you are similarly inclined!)