In the ‘90s, Babylon 5 was the last, best hope for non-episodic sci-fi TV. Although Star Trek: Deep Space Nine eventually became a heavily serialized show, Babylon 5’s five-season arc was pre-planned by creator J. Michael Straczynski — an approach that was an utter novelty both then and now.
All five seasons of the 1994-1998 show, Babylon 5, are currently streaming on HBO Max but everything will leave on January 25, 2023. So, how do you get the basics of the show before then? While B5 is intended to be watched all the way through, from start to finish, there is an unholy hack. The following are just five episodes of Babylon 5 which, when watched in order, will give you the broad strokes of the entire show, and create the illusion of having watched the whole thing.
Mild spoilers for Babylon 5 ahead.
Today, the idea of serialized storytelling is commonplace, which might make Babylon 5 seem quaint. But, the notion that a showrunner also would write the vast majority of teleplays is basically unheard of, both then and now. Out of 110 episodes, Straczynski wrote 92. While Seasons 1 and 2 featured a handful of other writers, Straczynski personally wrote every single episode from Season 3 to the end of Season 5, with the exception of two episodes in Season 5, one of which was co-written with Harlan Ellison (“A View From the Galley”) and one (“Day of the Dead”) which was written by ... Neil Gaiman!
The point is, that’s a lot of one writer’s vision for a huge sci-fi epic. So, how do you condense the entity of that vision down to just five episodes? Well, at the risk of B5 blasphemy, there is a way. Here are five carefully selected Babylon 5 episodes that you can watch, in this order, which will, basically, tell the story of the entire series.
5. “And the Sky Full of Stars,” Season 1, Episode 9
Season 1 of Babylon 5 is the most uneven of all the seasons, and the least like what the show would eventually become. That said, it’s still ambitious as hell, and you can see the bigger swings getting laid down early on here. Notably, the character of Commander Sinclair (Michael O’Hare) has a strange arc throughout the show and is not the main character after Season 1. Although Sinclair’s basic arc was planned by Straczynski, O’Hare departed the show early because of mental health struggles.
Still, in terms of world-building, and setting up the larger story of Sinclair, the Minbari, and certain full-circle paradoxes, this episode is a perfect place to start.
4. “In the Shadow of Z'ha'dum,” Season 2, Episode 17
Season 2 began with Captain Sheridan (Bruce Boxleitner) taking over the command of Babylon 5 from Commander Sinclair. If Sinclair was like B5 version of Captain Picard, Boxleitner is more like Captain Kirk. In some senses, Sheridan is a great replacement main character because, in Season 2, he knows almost nothing about the situation he’s walked into, making him the perfect audience surrogate for everything that’s happening.
Interestingly, some of Babylon 5’s best and most satisfying world-building comes from scenes in which a few people are in a room explaining stuff that’s already happened. “In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum,” may not be a classic episode, but it does two things perfectly: Establish how far Sheridan will go to beat the aliens known as the Shadows, and also reveal the hidden stakes of most of the series pre-Season 5.
3. “War Without End Parts 1 and 2,” Season 3, Episodes 16 and 17
Perhaps the most satisfying and delightful moments in the entirety of Babylon 5 comes exactly at its center. Putting this episode on the list as a single episode is a bit of a cheat since it is a two-parter. But, if you really wanted to you, could just watch Part 2 and get the basic gist.
Here, Sinclair’s arc from Season 1 is resolved in the most interesting way possible, Sheridan gets a glimpse of the far future, and everybody gets involved in an awesome time-travel heist that brings the entire series together. While the events of this episode revisit the Season 1 episode “Babylon Squared,” for the purposes of this condensed binge, you kinda get everything you need to know about “Babylon Squared” from this two-parter.
“War Without End” also gives Babylon 5 its only “captains team-up” episode, since both Sinclair and Sheridan appear together here. This alone makes this episode both essential and rad.
2. “Z'ha'dum” Season 3, Episode 22
Possibly the finest episode of Babylon 5 simply because the emotional stakes are just as high as the galaxy-wide-war stakes. Sheridan’s wife Anna (Melissa Gilbert) returns from the dead and is working for the enemy alien race, the Shadows. Instead of invading, the Shadows have invited Sheridan to go to their homeworld, the dread planet Z'ha'dum.
The rest of the episode plays out as one big long crescendo. Sheridan gets to debate the merits of progress through conflict, as opposed to progress through peace. There are several twists, which all culminate in one of the best sci-fi TV season finales of all time. If Babylon 5 has one defining, epic badass moment, it's right here. (Bonus, this episode was directed by Adam Nimoy, son of Leonard Nimoy! Really!)
1. “Sleeping in Light,” Season 5, Episode 22 (Series finale)
Whoa! Did we just skip over all of Season 4? Weirdly, yes. Although two major story arcs are resolved in Season 4 — the Shadow War and the political corruption on Earth — for the purposes of this condensed binge, all you really need to know is that the heroes won and that the villains (mostly) lost. To be clear, Season 4 is amazing. Perhaps not as patient and near-perfect as Season 3, but still truly classic and wonderful.
But, in a sense, “Sleeping in Light,” is a Season 4 episode, even though it was aired at the end of Season 5. During the filming of Season 4, Straczynski wasn’t sure if Babylon 5 would find a network that would produce and air the planned Season 5. And so, “Sleeping in Light” was filmed as a flash-forward capper on the entire series, which effectively wraps up the entire story of the entire show into a beautiful, neat bow. Straczynski himself even cameos as a random Babylon 5 worker, who literally switches off the lights of the space station.
Because “Sleeping in Light” was filmed well before the rest of Season 5, it retains the same emotional quality of everything that fans loved about Seasons 2, 3, and 4. Watching “Sleeping in Light” before you’ve seen the bulk of the rest of the series may be a bit strange. But, as series finales go, this one is so good, you’ll instantly want to go back and watch more.
Babylon 5 is streaming on HBO Max until January 25, 2023.