One year after its pilot, Babylon 5 was given new life
“Midnight on the Firing Line” still holds up 29 years later.
One year after its slightly inauspicious pilot, Babylon 5 was back. And this time, things were different. While the 1993 pilot movie “The Gathering” set the tone for the series, the real first episode of the series — “Midnight on the Firing Line” — aired on January 26, 1994. This episode gave Babylon 5 the second chance it needed and, 29 years later, still holds up as a fine hour of sci-fi television.
In almost every conceivable way, “Midnight on the Firing Line” was a reboot for Babylon 5. Several characters from “The Gathering” were suddenly new people. Dr. Ben Kyle (Johnny Sekka), and Lt. Commander Laurel Takashima (Tamlyn Tomita) were replaced by Dr. Franklin (Richard Biggs) and Lt. Commander Ivanova (Claudia Christian). And, somewhat hilariously, resident telepath Lyta Alexander (Patricia Tallman) was replaced by Talia Winters (Andrea Thompson), although Lyta would later return in Season 2 and replace Talia. But, the rest of these changes stuck, including a massive aesthetic overall for the pivotal character of Ambassador Delenn (Mira Furlan). In 1997, series creator J. Michael Straczynski took a refreshingly organic view of Babylon 5’s canon, saying, “My feeling is that fiction, like life, is open changes, and let’s use that to our benefit.”
But, other than character set-ups, the story of “Midnight on the Firing Line,” begins the larger political story of B5, and demonstrates the show’s ability to tackle big allegorical themes in a way no other sci-fi series ever really had. As the Narn Regime attacks Centuri civilians in disputed territory, the series makes it clear this all could be read as a metaphor for the conflicts in the Middle East. B5 doesn’t try to draw any direct parallels, but the message is clear: the show will not shy away from big issues just because those issues are uncomfortable.
“Midnight on the Firing Line” also made Babylon 5 a more action-oriented series. The fighter ship Starfury, the B5 answer to the X-wing, was introduced for the first time here, and in a bold move, Commander Sinclair (Michael O’Hare) personally leads a squadron of Starfuries on a mission against nearby Raiders. If ‘90s sci-fi fans were looking for a change of pace from the slightly more contemplative lead actors in the Star Trek franchise, Babylon 5 was making it clear their characters would get messy early and often.
When viewed retroactively, with knowledge of what’s to come in the entire series, “Midnight on the Firing Line,” is surprisingly packed with world-building. We learn about the rules for the ruthless telepath group, the PsiCorp here. And, in a Philip K. Dick-like twist, telepath Talia Winters prevents a murder before it happens. Woven into all of this is the idea that on Earth, it’s election day. We’re told about this only through news flashes and conversations in the background, and in the end, incumbent president Luis Santiago wins by a small margin. In the next four seasons, the nature of Earth’s government would be turned inside out, and all of those storylines begin right here.
The episode also highlights what makes Babylon 5 so good, and so enduring: The characters are down-to-earth and somewhat realistic, which allows for a brilliant mix of tones. Although the episode is deadly serious, one of the final scenes finds Mr. Garbaldi (Jerry Doyle) watching old Looney Tunes cartoons featuring Daffy Duck as “Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2 Century.” Throughout the episode, Garibaldi has been dropping hints about getting someone to hang out with him to enjoy his “second favorite thing in the universe.” What sounds like a raunchy joke turns out to be something quirky and meta. Garibaldi has somehow convinced Delenn, the ambassador for the Minbari, to watch Daffy Duck with him, while they share a bowl of popcorn.
There’s no romantic implication. And there’s really not any social comment made about this. It’s just an alien and a human watching Looney Tunes while an immense epic story of interstellar conflict is starting to unspool. Babylon 5 was both large and small, and the tension between those two extremes was perfectly exemplified in its second coming. “Midnight on the Firing Line,” put B5 on the path to the show it was destined to become. And almost three decades later, it’s as impressive as it is gripping, and occasionally, very funny.
Babylon 5 is available for purchase on iTunes, Amazon, and elsewhere. As of January 25, 2023, it is no longer streaming on HBO Max.