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Babylon 5 Should be Resurrected for Today's World

Babylon 5,Science Fiction,O'Neill Cylinders
Keith Cooper
Kayla Donlin
October 25, 20228:00 PM UTC (UTC +0)

Through five years of exceptional space operatic storytelling, Babylon 5 captured the hearts and minds of 1990s sci-fi fans.

Now, three decades since it premiered, those same fans wait in nervous anticipation for positive news about a proposed reboot from series creator J. Michael Straczynski. While the powers that be at The CW and Warner Bros mull over whether to bring back B5, cynics who are tired of reboots and re-imaginings might legitimately ask ‘why bring back Babylon 5?’

The short answer — it was great. The long answer is far more interesting.

First, some background for the uninitiated. Developed, written, and produced as a five-year novel for television, the story focuses on the titular space station, a massive O’Neill-class cylinder, five miles long, orbiting a planet in the Epsilon Eridani star system. It was built as a place of diplomacy and commerce where ambassadors, hustlers, entrepreneurs, and wanderers from a hundred different alien worlds could meet and work out their differences.

Of course, that doesn’t quite go to plan, as million-year-old alien species with ideological plans for the younger civilizations, and the rise of fascism in the Earth Alliance threatens to destabilize the entire galaxy. It’s an epic story on the scale of E. E. Doc Smith’s Lensman series, or Isaac Asimov’s Foundation.

Like Star Trek, B5 has passionate fans, who were engrossed not just by the narrative and special effects, but by themes the series explored: that we all have choices and that we must take responsibility for the consequences of those choices. At the same time, the show warned of the dangers of nationalism and showed how good people doing nothing can allow fascism to take hold.

Plus, it has cool spaceships.

Babylon 5 “was exciting, funny, thought-provoking and gripping,” says Anna Watts, who is a professor of astrophysics at the University of Amsterdam and a long-time fan of the show. She credits B5 for having a major impact on her scientific pursuits.

Because, just like Star Trek, Babylon 5 has inspired fans to become interested in space, physics, and technology — and for some to even take these up as a career.

Visualizing the Future

Robert Hurt is an astrophysicist and a space visualization scientist at Caltech. You may have seen some of his artwork accompanying press releases describing astronomical discoveries, particularly from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. In one NASA artwork depicting the Epsilon Eridani planetary system, he and his collaborator Tim Pyle even snuck in a Shadow ship from B5 (it’s subtle, and you’ll have to zoom in to find it near the bottom of the picture). And Hurt’s history with the show goes way back to before Babylon 5 had even been made.

“Living in Los Angeles, I attended a lot of science-fiction conventions around town in the late 80s and early 1990s,” Hurt says. “I discovered Joe Straczynski at these conventions, and found him to be a great speaker and fascinating storyteller, and for years he teased this project that he was working on, called ‘Babylon 5’. So I was kind of pre-sold on it.”

Studying astronomy at grad school, Hurt developed an interest in art and graphics, and in particular he thanks Babylon 5 for showing him the way.

“You can really point to Babylon 5 as a turning point in the way that science fiction approached space because they would design color palettes for different systems,” says Hurt. “The idea of creating a geography by using color and texture as part of the narrative tool of explaining where the characters were worked in combination with what they were able to achieve with computer graphics.”

Babylon 5 was only the second television show to produce all its special effects with CGI (the first being SeaQuest DSV, while The Last Starfighter, Tron and the Genesis experiment section in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan paved the way in movies the decade before). Babylon 5’s special effects were created by Foundation Imaging, led by British visual effects maestro Ron Thornton, using software such as NewTek’s Lightwave 3D, first on Commodore Amigas, and then on PCs.

“I was a Foundation Imaging groupie, and I’d go to computer conferences and hang out at the NewTek booth,” remembers Hurt. “I was so excited that this tool that they used to create this TV show was available for me to run on my home computer. Babylon 5 played a really critical role in my career in terms of giving me the idea that yes, this is possible, I can do this on my own desktop.”

Hurt began creating scientific visualizations for press releases using Lightwave and other similar graphics programs, and eventually landed a full-time job doing astro-visualization and infrared astronomy at IPAC, the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at Caltech, which has supported missions such as Spitzer.

Ron Thornton, who had previously worked on Doctor Who, Blake’s 7, and Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future, and who sadly passed away in 2016, is one of the unsung heroes of Babylon 5. When other TV shows and movies were using models for their special effects, Thornton pushed for the use of CGI in Babylon 5, partly because it was a budget-friendly means of getting lots of spaceships on screen, but also because it allowed the show’s creators greater latitude to depict many things on screen that could not be achieved with models.

These depictions ranged from a record-breaking number of spacecraft on screen at the same time in B5’s pilot episode The Gathering (which garnered Thornton and Foundation Imaging an Emmy Award), to alien landscapes, the interior of Jupiter, dramatic nebulae, enormous armadas in battle and even the horrors of planetary bombardment. It was Thornton who designed the Babylon 5 space station and who pushed for more realism.

“The two most impressive features for me were the design of the station itself, and how the starfury fighters moved,” says Charles Adler, who is a professor of physics at St Marys College of Maryland and author of Wizards, Aliens and Starships: Physics and Math in Fantasy and Science Fiction, which extensively uses the Babylon 5 station as an example of good physics.

Babylon 5 was designed around the engineering concepts introduced in the 1970s by Princeton professor of physics Gerard K. O’Neill, who found fame with his book, The High Frontier.

Just like in O’Neill’s designs, Babylon 5 “was spun to provide artificial ‘gravity’ via centrifugal force,” says Adler. “There was mention in the show that gravity decreased as one approached the central hub, which was a plot point in one episode [the second-season finale, ‘The Fall of Night’] and which was absolutely correct. And the station rotated at the correct rate, based on the size of the station.”

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The little starfury fighters, which looked like squat, snub-nosed X-wings, were flung out from their ‘Cobra Bays’ by the station’s rotational speed when they launched. And the passing resemblance to X-wings was less about homage and more about practicality. The main engines and maneuvering thrusters were positioned at the end of each of the four stanchions, while the cockpit (where the pilot was positioned vertically) was at the center to minimize g-forces. The design was so clever, NASA even took an interest.

“The starfury moved in accordance with Newton’s three laws of motion,” says Adler. “They moved at constant speed unless they fired their thrusters, they needed to fire thrusters in pairs to rotate, and there was no ‘up’ or ‘down’.”

“When they first introduced the starfury [in the season one premiere, ‘Midnight on the Firing Line’] I just squeed in delight when they launched and when they got to a point where they had to slow down, they fired their front thrusters to decelerate,” adds Hurt.

“I was like, ‘yeah, that’s how it works’!”

One early episode that displayed the maneuverability of a starfury involved Commander Sinclair having to take one of the fighters to try and latch onto a tumbling alien spacecraft that was threatening to crash into the station. By carefully firing short bursts of his thrusters, adhering to the laws of physics, Sinclair was able to match rotation with the tumbling craft and grapple it before hauling it to safety.

“That scene, in particular, was just outstanding,” says Hurt. “Foundation Imaging turned [the starfury’s capabilities] into an exciting, visual and dramatic storytelling element, and it just blew my mind. I’ve not really seen a show try to be that grounded in physics until The Expanse.”

Fast Forward

During its time on the air, Babylon 5 won two Emmy Awards (for Foundation Imaging’s special visual effects, and Optic Nerve’s alien make-up) as well as two coveted Hugo Awards, for the episodes ‘The Coming of Shadows’ in 1995 and ‘Severed Dreams’ in 1996. That’s the same number of Hugos that The Expanse has won, although in B5’s day it was also up against big Hollywood movies in the category of Best Dramatic Presentation before that category was split apart to give TV and movies their own awards. It shows the level of admiration that science-fiction fans held for B5, comparable to the dedicated modern-day following for The Expanse.

“The Expanse is the only show that I think has ever come close to matching [Babylon 5],” says Watts.

Both shows, along with Battlestar Galactica (2004–2009) are ‘grown-up’ science fiction – no cute robots or Klingon weddings. “The universe that Joe Straczynski created seemed much more believable than the bland society implied in the background of the Star Trek series of the time,” says Adler. “Babylon 5’s world had politics, religion, economics, sports, and moral ambiguity.”

Watts echoes those sentiments. “The thing I loved the most about B5 was just how expansive it was, in terms of culture, politics, science, exploration, technology, and the way that societies and individuals deal with these things,” she says.

This dedicated fan base, commitment to realistic physics, and rich world-building would be enough in itself to warrant a reboot — but Babylon 5 could also benefit massively from modern TV production value.

“B5 suffered from very constrained budgets, and was shot on sound stages that were basically set like theatrical set-dressing with first-generation TV computer graphics,” says Hurt, who was invited to visit the Babylon 5 set during season five. “There’s so much that can be gained from bringing it into the modern production era but still sticking with this amazing story that is about our choices as individuals and as cultures, and how the decisions that we make have implications that come back to haunt us, which from a narrative point of view is the thing that was so powerful about Babylon 5.”

Ultimately, Babylon 5 had a very specific message: we have to build the future together, and care for one other, because if we don’t, if we allow others to build it for us and if we don’t look out for each other, then we might end up with a future that is not what we hoped for. Given the horrors of war and disease, of hatred and poverty afflicting the world today, it’s a message that could not be more timely.

And if that’s not a reason to bring it back, I don’t know what is.

If you want to support J. Michael Straczynski’s Babylon 5 reboot be sure to follow the hashtag #B5onCWin23.

Keith Cooper
Kayla Donlin
October 25, 20228:00 PM UTC (UTC +0)