It was the dawn of the third age of television, many years before networks would discover the power of long-form storytelling, when Warner Brothers helped former Murder She Wrote writer J. Michael Straczynski realize his dream to cross The Lord of the Rings with Casablanca...IN SPACE!
The resulting series would revolutionize television storytelling. The year is 1994, the name of the show is Babylon 5! Join us, both B5 novices and veterans, as we recount this great series' absolutely essential moments.
It's easy to forget now, in the age of Battlestar Galactica, The Walking Dead, American Horror Story, Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy, Lost, Deadwood, The Wire, Homeland, and oh so many other series, that there was once a time when long-form storytelling was all but nonexistent on television. Prime time audiences, it was believed, were too fickle and inconsistent to follow stories that play out over multiple seasons.
Now, in the age of internet recaps, fan and insider podcasts and the proliferation of media about media, the long form is seen as a way to promote viewer loyalty and online buzz. It is the one-off, bad-guy-of-the-week series that now feel like the dying breed.
Babylon 5 represented not only a turning point in the form of television drama, but in the relationship between show creators and their audiences. Straczynski and Warner Brothers were aware that the show would rise or fall with word of mouth and were thus unprecedentedly open about their process and about the production of the series.
The pilot movie, The Gathering, was heavily promoted online in an era when few people knew what "online" meant. Transcripts of discussions Straczynzki had with the fan base during the production of the series can still be found, along with synopses and analyses of each episode, at The Lurker's Guide to Babylon 5.
It is impossible to do any sort of analysis of this series without significant spoilers. Babylon 5 has a great many enjoyable set-ups and payoffs, so if you are interested in getting into the series but do not want to read the spoilers in the article below, I have created a separate list of essential episodes broken down by season which you can find here. Stop reading now if you don't want to know what happens.
The Setting and Backstory
The show takes place aboard the eponymous space station Babylon 5, located in neutral territory in deep space. Babylon 5 is the fifth of the Babylon stations. The first three were destroyed by terrorists and the fourth mysteriously disappeared before coming online.
Babylon 5's primary purpose is diplomatic. It's a galactic UN/WTO, providing a place where the galaxy's different alien races can negotiate trade and territory. It was established 10 years after a war between Earth and an alien race known as the Minbari ended with the mysterious surrender of the Minbari just at the moment of their final victory at The Battle of the Line. Basically Gettysburg...IN SPACE!
The Major Players
Jeffrey Sinclair - The first commander of Babylon 5, Jeffrey Sinclair was abducted and held by the Minbari during the Battle of the Line. Sinclair was hand-picked by the Minbari government to run Babylon 5, bypassing several more-qualified candidates.
Delenn - The Minbari ambassador to Babylon 5 and member of the Minbari government's ruling Grey Council.
G'Kar - The Narn ambassador to Babylon 5. The Narn are a prideful, warrior race who had once been subjugated by and are now in ongoing conflict with an imperialist race known as the Centauri.
Londo Mollari - The Centauri ambassador to Babylon 5, Mollari's conflict with G'Kar is both political and personal. Mollari's life is the tragic tale of a man ever caught between goodness and greatness.
Alfred Bester - a high ranking member of Earth's secretive "Psi Corps," an only somewhat totally fascist organization run by telepaths. Played in "Evil Chekov" mode by Walter Koenig, this character could only have been improved by the judicious application of a goatee. Bester was not a regular character on the show, but he does play a critical role in the unfolding of the main story arc.
John Sheridan - Babylon 5's second commander, assigned to the station after Jeffrey Sinclair is recalled to Earth for bad acting. Sheridan is the only human captain to have ever scored a victory over the Minbari in battle. Sheridan's wife, Anna, disappeared along with the rest of the crew of the archaeological research vessel Icarus while investigating a mysterious alien world, giving truth to the old adage that one should never sign up for duty onboard a ship named "Icarus."
In addition to these main players, there are a number of well-developed supporting characters, including Babylon 5's human command staff (security chief Michael Garibaldi, first officer Susan Ivanova, chief medical officer Stephen Franklin) and diplomatic support staff (Vir of the Centauri, Lennier of the Minbari, N'Toth of the Narn.)
These characters acted as so-called "trapdoors" for the main characters. Straczynski knew that telling a five-year story on television would leave him vulnerable to losing actors, so he always made sure that there were backup characters available to fill in for each of the main characters. Ever the author of virtuous lemonade from necessary lemons, Straczynski makes this "trapdoor" strategy a theme of the show. Many of the characters, most notably Delenn, are heard to comment that should they fall in their struggle, others will rise to take their place.
As with Farscape, it is foreseeable that fans of the show will consider nothing short of "all of them" to be the correct answer to the question "what are the essential episodes of Babylon 5?" (And, as always, I am open to suggestions for how to persuade io9 to pay me for a three-word article.)