A Tunnel in the Sky

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Babylon 5

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted July 27, 2000, with later edits

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I did not watch Babylon 5 when it originally aired, and I also missed taping several of the episodes when the Sci-Fi Channel began showing it, including "Mind War," which featured the first appearance of Walter Koenig (Star Trek's Pavel Chekov), but he did return in several other shows later into the series. He portrays an officer of the Psi-Corps of telepaths and his character's name is Bester, which has to be an homage to Alfred Bester's classic novel of telepathic policemen, The Demolished Man. Luckily, the Sci-Fi Channel continued repeat airings of the series, and I was able to tape a complete set of the show. All of the series is now available on DVD (which I have), so please check links to the right. Until Firefly came onto the scene I was of the opinion it was the best science fiction television show I had ever seen, but now I've had to reassess my opinion.

UPDATE: Now available streaming on Amazon Prime.

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Any SF fan who has not seen this show, or who did not give it a chance during its initial airings, is missing out on a remarkable experience. I am ashamed to admit that I was one of those who scoffed at it originally. My only defense of that reaction is that just prior to that several other very mediocre SF shows had soured me on SF television for a while. Also, since I had not seen the pilot movie, and missed a few of the first episodes, I had a very negative reaction to B5 when I did get around to watching it. One of the characters that turned me off at that time was the Centauri ambassador Londo Mollari, he of the perpetual bad-hair day. Even though that character is not one of my favorites, I now have a better appreciation for him, as well as all of the others in the talented cast. My favorite character is G'Kar, the Narn ambassador portrayed by the late Andreas Katsulas, who was originally a rather belligerent representative of his people, but who later became a very noble and sympathetic hero. Other actors who deserve special mention include Mira Furlan, Jerry Doyle, Bill Mumy, and Bruce Boxleitner.

This series was created and produced by J. Michael Straczynski, who had originally pitched his idea for the show to Paramount. They turned him down, then later they came out with Deep Space Nine. These two shows share a similar setting, a diplomatic space station deep in neutral territory that plays host to numerous species and activities, and I have heard rumors that Straczynski still harbors resentment about that fact. DS9's regular run premiered just a month before Babylon 5's pilot movie aired. It took longer for B5 to be picked up for syndication and its first regular episode did not air for another year. In the interim, not only had DS9 already established itself with regular SF fans, several actors that appeared in the B5 pilot movie had either moved on to other projects or for one reason or another were replaced by others. These included Tamlyn Tomita as the second-in-command Laurel Takashima (replaced by Claudia Christian as the Russian-born Lt. Commander Susan Ivanova), and Dr. Benjamin Kyle portrayed by Johnny Sekka (replaced by Richard Biggs as Dr. Stephen Franklin). Another change was in the licensed telepath assigned to Babylon 5; Patricia Tallman played Lyta Alexander in the pilot, but in the series it was Andrea Thompson as Talia Winter who portrayed the Psi Corps representative, although the character of Lyta returned about halfway into the series. The other main characters who remained from the pilot included Commander Jeffrey Sinclair (Michael O'Hare), Chief Security Officer Michael Garibaldi (Peter Doyle), Centauri ambassador Londo Mollari (Peter Jurasik), the Narn Empire's ambassador G'Kar (Andreas Katsulas), and the Minbari representative Delenn (Mira Furlan). The make-up effects for Delenn were also slightly altered from the pilot, perhaps to give her a more pleasing feminine appearance. Shortly after the beginning of the first season, Bill Mumy (who earlier in his career portrayed Will Robinson in the original Lost in Space series), was added to the regular cast as Lennier, an aide to Delenn.

Straczynski's intention was for each season to contain one major story arc - in fact each season was given a title, as were all the episodes - with the entire series comprising another all-encompassing arc. In a sense it can be compared to a book series, each episode comprising a chapter and each season one volume in the set. There was a definite consistency in tone throughout all the episodes, the majority of them written by Straczynski himself. By the end of the Season Three, Straczynski had accomplished what no other television writer had ever done before, writing every word of every script for an entire season, and he did it again for Season Four. Harlan Ellison served as "Conceptual Consultant," but he wrote none of the teleplays, however he did contribute to the story ideas behind two of the final season's episodes. Somewhere recently I read that Straczynski had been asked what Ellison's actual contribution to the show had been, and his reply was that he "consulted with us conceptually," thus still leaving the matter rather vague. I suppose it was his duty to review the scripts and hopefully correct any illogical flaws in plot or consistency.

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The special effects, while impressive for a television series of the early '90s (but not today), are too obviously computer generated. I realize CGI effects now make it possible to portray almost any conceivable scenario on the screen, but I really miss the more detailed model effects as were used in the original Star Wars trilogy, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and even Starship Troopers (I don't like that movie overall but the model work was superb). One other drawback that struck me as rather odd is that most of the alien species exhibit emotions and reactions that are too human-like. I realize that almost all SF can be viewed as fables with the intention of teaching us more about the human condition, but when you are looking at species so obviously different from us as are the Narn and the Minbari, then you expect their actions to be different as well. I must point out however that a few species are depicted as extremely unlike us, including an insect-like being that was a criminal figure in the "downbelow" sections of the station, and another murderous entity that somewhat resembled a walking octopus. Those are the types of creatures I think we will more than likely encounter (if ever we do) rather than the predominately humanoid types portrayed in not only this series but in the majority of others, Star Trek included.

At the beginning of the second season Bruce Boxleitner was introduced as the new commander of the station, Captain John Sheridan. The character of Sinclair was sent to the Minbari homeworld as an ambassador but he did return in a few episodes later in the series to complete the story arc begun in the first season. Sinclair had been an officer of the line during the preceding war between Earth and Minbar ten years before. Toward the end of the war he had been captured and interrogated aboard a Minbari warship, however he had never been able to recall what had transpired there. I had not seen this series during its original presentations, and am not that familiar with the reasons behind this cast change. I have purposely refrained from seeking out too much information about the show so as not to spoil any of the storyline. I was at first skeptical of the change in commanders since I had thought O'Hare had done a good job with his character, and also I had never been impressed with anything else in Boxleitner's career. The character of Captain Sheridan is more animated and volatile than Sinclair, but I now realize that is what was needed for the storylines Straczynski had in mind. I will not offer up any spoilers of my own, at least not at this time, but the continuation of the Sinclair story-arc also proved that his performance had been ideal for the destiny in store for his character as well. There were a few other alterations in the scripts made necessary by other changes in the cast, but I will also refrain from giving spoilers about them as well.


Related Links
The Lurker's Guide to Babylon 5
Brian O'Neill's B5 Encyclopedia/Dictionary


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J. Michael Straczynski

February 22, 1993

November 25, 1998

Michael O'Hare
Bruce Boxleitner
Mira Furlan
Claudia Christian
Jerry Doyle
Andreas Katsulas
Peter Jurasik

Full Credits at IMDb

Available on DVD
Season 1
Season 2
Season 3
Season 4
Season 5

Also currently available streaming on Amazon Prime

A purchase through our links may earn us a commission.