You need to watch the most underrated sci-fi series on HBO Max ASAP
With a reboot on the way, which episodes do you need to watch?
Nobody ever made them like this! Never before in sci-fi history had an entire TV series arc been plotted out and executed almost entirely by one screenwriter. But this one underrated sci-fi show changed the game. Now, it’s (probably) making a comeback.
According to numerous reports, and creator J. Michael Straczynski himself, Babylon 5 is getting a new pilot script from the CW, which means “a from-the-ground-up reboot” of the ‘90s cult classic.
If you’ve never watched the show, how can you catch Babylon fever? At the risk of diminishing the actual point of the series — which was one of the earliest examples of a serialized TV structure actually working — here are the five most essential episodes of the show, all streaming on HBO Max. No major B5 spoilers ahead.
Is Babylon 5 getting rebooted?
The short answer to this question is obviously yes. That said, here’s one point of clarification. According by The Hollywood Reporter and subsequently confirmed by Straczynski — does not guarantee this new Babylon 5 reboot will enter production.
Right now, JMS has been asked to write an approach; as he said on Twitter, “I’m hip-deep into writing the pilot now, and will be running the series upon pickup.” JMS makes it clear that the CW is “enthusiastic” and “supportive” of the new take on B5, which was not the case with the original series. Having the support of an actual network is much different than the syndicated wilderness the classic Babylon 5 had to navigate.
JMS also made it clear that Babylon 5 will not continue the canon of his original. “We will not be retelling the same story in the same way,” he wrote. “Better to go the way of Westworld or Battlestar Galactica where you take the original elements that are evergreens and put them in a blender with a ton of new, challenging ideas, to create something fresh yet familiar.”
But what if you’re unfamiliar with the original series? The new show is a reboot, meaning it should be accessible to new viewers. And yet, you’re probably dying to know which are the best episodes of the old Babylon 5 to watch in preparation — right?
For those who love the series, what I’m about to attempt is sacrilegious, perhaps even offensive. Babylon 5 was innovative because it “introduced viewers accustomed to episodic television to the concept of a five-year arc with a pre-planned beginning, middle and end, creating a brand new paradigm for television storytelling that has subsequently become the norm,” as JMS succinctly put it on Twitter.
Doing a top 5 episode list of Babylon 5 is a little like telling someone that if they watch just five specific episodes of Breaking Bad or The Wire or The Sopranos, that they’ll “get” those shows, too. Babylon 5’s shoestring budget might not make it look like it's on par with the shows just mentioned, but it was written as a series to be “binged” before binging was even possible.
And yet. Back in the ‘90s, those TV seasons were long, and so there’s a lot of Babylon 5 to cover. Here’s a very brutal and short way to watch the biggest and best moments of the series. This will give you the gist — and hopefully make you want to watch more.
5. “Midnight on the Firing Line” (Season 1, Episode 2)
Technically the first regular episode of the series, it’s listed as episode 2 because the pilot, “The Gathering,” came first. And yet, in all real ways, this is the actual pilot. Although Commander Sinclair (Michael O’Hare) is written out by the beginning of Season 2, to be replaced by Captain Sheridan (Bruce Boxleitner, of Tron) you still have to know what Sinclair’s whole deal is. This introduces him, the complex and mysterious backstory of the Minbari-War, and sets up all the major players.
4. Season 3 Episodes 16 and 17
Did we just skip an entire season? Yes. Is it tragic? Yes. But that’s what this Babylon 5 list is all about — pure minimalism. After you watch the origins of Sinclair, you can fast-forward to the nitty-gritty of Sheridan and the crew trying to figure out the paradox of the Shadow War. Yes, this is two episodes, but we’re counting it as one. Arguably, if you ONLY see this two-parter, you’ll get why people love Babylon 5 and why the show was so freaking cool. Also, if you are already indoctrinated by post-2005 Doctor Who to think bootstraps paradoxes are awesome, you’re gonna love this.
3. “Z’Ha’Dum” (Season 3, Episode 22)
Directed by Adam Nimoy, this is the greatest season finale in all five seasons of Babylon 5, and one of the coolest season finales in all of science fiction, period. This episode also has several scenes where people sit around and tell you what the hell is really going on, which is not only helpful but, in the case of B5, raises the stakes considerably. Imagine that game-changing Loki Season 1 finale, where the characters have everything explained to them. It’s like that, but way more badass.
2. “Endgame” (Season 4, Episode 20)
Everybody has an “Endgame!” Before Star Trek: Voyager pulled a series finale called “Endgame,” and well before Avengers: Endgame, there was the Babylon 5 “Endgame.” This episode basically is the culmination of several story threads at once, but it mostly boils down to the idea that the gov’t of Earth is super corrupt. At this point in the show, Sheridan, Delenn, Franklin, and Ivanova are the freaking Rebel Alliance. In fact, from Season 2 all the way up to this episode, Babylon 5 actually creates a much more plausible outer space civil conflict that makes Star Wars seem silly, at least logistically.
Although you’re missing the end of a different conflict in this episode, nearly all the big dominos that need to fall from Season 1 fall here.
1. “The Deconstruction of Falling Stars” (Season 5, Episode 22)
Any rational person would tell you that, if you’re going to watch the end of Babylon 5, that you should watch the series finale, “Sleeping in Light.” Those rational folks would have a point. “Sleeping in Light” is awesome, and it is the Season 5 finale, and the last episode of the regular series. (Excluding some of the spin-off shows and standalone movies.)
However, “Sleeping in Light’ was filmed a year before it was aired because JMS and company were concerned they weren’t going to get a Season 5. As such, when Season 5 did roll around, the storylines got to unfurl more slowly and methodically, the opposite of the fast-paced of Season 4. And so, “Sleeping in Light” is still a bit incongruous as a series finale because you can tell they filmed it earlier. It’s great, but I’m not sure it conveys the wonder and weirdness of the series overall.
Anyway. Watch “Sleeping in Light” if you’re really into the series and you intend to watch all of it. That said, if you want to just get a feeling for what a thoughtful and future-facing Babylon 5 finale can look like, this episode — “The Deconstruction of Falling Stars” — is probably a better piece of science fiction.
The timeline of this one single episode spans the end of Season 4 in the year 2262, stops in the years 2362, 2762, 3262, and ends up one million years after that. It’s one episode and it looks back on the “history” of the show, projected into an even more distant fictional future. It’s weird, wonky, and bold. In other words, “The Deconstruction of Falling Stars,” demonstrates the one quality that made Babylon 5 so different: It never hesitated to go really big. Even back then, when it was hard to find your favorite sci-fi show in syndication, this was risky. Now, very few shows are as daring and unwieldy as Babylon 5.
B5 risked being misunderstood for the sake of doing something familiar, yet new. It redefined space opera-style sci-fi; hopefully, with the next reboot, it will be just as surprising, complex, and big.
This list left out some absolute bangers in favor of the thought experiment of trying to boil B5 down to five episodes. If you love these episodes, consider augmenting your journey by going back, and just watching all five seasons. Babylon 5 is not perfect, but it is utterly unique.
Where to Stream Babylon 5
Babylon 5 is streaming on HBO Max. The new Babylon 5 is in development at the CW.
Are the Babylon 5 movies on HBO Max?
No. The made-for-TV Babylon 5 movies — In the Beginning, Thirdspace, River of Souls, and A Call to Arms, are not on HBO Max. Those can be rented on Amazon Prime and elsewhere.