Raves Various and Sundry

A Viewing Guide for Babylon 5

With the announcement of a B5 animated feature, I have been reminded that many people have not seen the original Babylon 5, that ambitious and inventive science fiction series from the 1990s.

As of May 2023, you can currently watch the entire series for free on Tubi as well as renting or buying it streaming on Amazon.

But should you watch Babylon 5? My answer is a resounding yes if you:

  • Enjoy serialized space opera full of both action and intrigue
  • Want to see flawed characters in shades of grey, yet nevertheless have unabashed heroes and villains
  • Can abide by characters being frank, forthright, and often on the nose in their dialogue
  • Can deal with some clear budget limitations in the production — even for the era (I mean, if you can hang with classic Doctor Who, this has way better production values, but some folks can’t abide by early CGI and 90s space clothes)
  • Can weather the sometimes slow pacing inherent to TV seasons of the last century

This last factor of pacing is the reason this viewing guide exists. The show’s creator and writer-of-almost-every-single-episode, J. Michael Straczynski aka JMS, was meticulous and thoughtful in creating what was, at the time, an unprecedented “novel for television.” However, he was saddled with the broadcast TV norms that translated into 22-episode seasons. That leaves a certain amount of chaff amongst the wheat. Many of the early episodes have main plots that don’t do much for the paying off serial story arcs. Not all the subplots –even the ones involving ongoing characters– are as engaging as we’d like.

However, those ongoing characters, their relationships, foibles, dreams, and failures, are as much a part of what will propel you from episode to episode as will the big ideas that are explored along with a story that places humanity precariously amongst a galaxy of rising and falling empires as well as ancient powers. It may have been made for the small screen, but the scale of Babylon 5 is epic with echoes not only of sci-fi classics, but classic stories going back to antiquity. There’s a certain panache in much of the writing that leaves everything on the table. You hear it in the dialogue. You see it in the actions. It’s glorious. You just don’t need to see all the actions.

So, like the other viewing guides on this site, this is not a guide for completionists. For you, The Bablyon Project (a Wiki) has various suggested viewing orders. This guide is here to introduce and entice new viewers to a series that delivers audience payoff in ways I’ve seen few series deliver before or since. I have tested versions of this guide with over a dozen people over the past 20 years and am happy to say all of them have enjoyed the series. Not all of them have felt a compunction to go back and watch all the other episodes and TV movies (which is fine) but a few have.

So if you’re ready for the not-so-little Space-Opera-that-could (and does!), prepare to laugh, prepare to cry, and prepare to kiss far more than three hours goodbye, because it’s worth it.

Season One (Signs and Portents)

  • S1, E01 – “Midnight on the Firing Line”
  • S1, E05 – “The Parliament of Dreams”
  • S1, E06 – “Mind War”
  • S1, E07 – “The War Prayer”
  • S1, E13 – “Signs and Portents”
  • S1, E18 – “A Voice in the Wilderness, Part 1”
  • S1, E19 – “A Voice in the Wilderness, Part 2”
  • S1, E20 – “Babylon Squared”
  • S1, E22 – “Chrysalis”

The first season, can be a slow burn where one must be reminded that “your patience will be rewarded.” For this reason, I have not included the TV movie/pilot “The Gathering.” Half the test viewers saw it and half did not. Of the half that saw it first, they all said to skip it. Of the half that didn’t see it first, everyone who subsequently saw it said it could be skipped. I love “The Gathering” for personal reasons, but you can learn more about it and all the other TV movies below.

Some of you, who know every episode intimately, will realize there’s definitely some setup in some of the skipped episodes. But here’s the deal: just like “The Gathering,” almost all of that set-up and foreshadowing is handled with dialogue or flashbacks in later episodes and the test viewers enjoyed those episodes and the entire series just fine.

Season Two (The Coming of Shadows)

Note: I am listing the episodes in chronological order per the Babylon 5 wiki, but noting the season/episode numbers as you’ll see on Tubi. Tubi changes the order for some reason I haven’t figured out.

  • S2, E01 – “Points of Departure”
  • S2, E02 – “Revelations”
  • S2, E03 – “The Geometry of Shadows”
  • S2, E04 – “A Distant Star”
  • S2, E07 – “A Race Through Dark Places”
  • S2, E08 – “Soul Mates”
  • S2, E09 – “The Coming of Shadows”
  • S2, E11 – “All Alone in the Night”
  • S2, E12 – “Acts of Sacrifice”
  • S2, E13 – “Hunter, Prey”
  • S2, E16 – “Knives” (note different from default Tubi order)
  • S2, E14 – “There All the Honor Lies” (note different from default Tubi order)
  • S2, E15 – “And Now For a Word” (note different from default Tubi order)
  • S2, E17 – “In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum”
  • S2, E18 – “Confessions and Lamentations”
  • S2, E20 – “Divided Loyalties” (note different from default Tubi order)
  • S2, E19 – “The Long, Twilight Struggle” (note different from default Tubi order)
  • S2, E21 – “Comes the Inquisitor”
  • S2, E22 – “The Fall of Night”

If either you or the viewer-in-question aren’t on board to find out what happens after the firecracker of an episode that is “In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum,” well… a) you’ve been very patient, and b) this series isn’t your cup of illicit coffee. That episode is your point of departure.

Season Three (Point of No Return)

  • S3, E01 – “Matters of Honor”
  • S3, E02 – “Convictions”
  • S3, E03 – “A Day in the Strife”
  • S3, E04 – “Passing Through Gethsemane”
  • S3, E05 – “Voices of Authority”
  • S3, E06 – “Dust to Dust”
  • S3, E07 – “Exogenesis”
  • S3, E08 – “Messages from Earth”
  • S3, E09 – “Point of No Return”
  • S3, E10 – “Severed Dreams”
  • S3, E11 – “Ceremonies of Light and Dark”
  • S3, E12 – “Sic Transit Vir”
  • S3, E14 – “Ship of Tears”
  • S3, E15 – “Interludes and Examinations”
  • S3, E16 – “War Without End: Part One”
  • S3, E17 – “War Without End: Part Two”
  • S3, E18 – “Walkabout”
  • S3, E19 – “Grey 17 is Missing”
  • S3, E20 – “And the Rock Cried Out, No Hiding Place”
  • S3, E21 – “Shadow Dancing”
  • S3, E22 – “Z’ha’dum”

You may have noticed that, at this point, just about every episode advances the overall plot as Babylon 5 becomes an unabashedly serialized show before it was cool. The one exception for this is “A Late Delivery from Avalon” which, if one is being objectively unsentimental, is a filler episode. However, if you’re in love with the characters at this point –or even a fan of Michael York and Arthurian legends– you’ll enjoy an episode chock full of heart and soul. “Walkabout” and “Grey 17” are also not the most pulse-pounding episodes, but do have some important continuity.

Regardless, nearly all the test viewers reported racing from the season three finale straight into season four, because, by the First Ones, just wait until you see how season three ends!

Season Four (No Surrender, No Retreat)

  • S4, E01 – “The Hour of the Wolf”
  • S4, E02 – “Whatever Happened to Mr. Garabaldi?”
  • S4, E03 – “The Summoning”
  • S4, E04 – “Falling Towards Apotheosis”
  • S4, E05 – “The Long Night”
  • S4, E06 – “Into the Fire”
  • S4, E07 – “Epiphanies”
  • S4, E08 – “The Illusion of Truth”
  • S4, E09 – “Atonement”
  • S4, E10 – “Racing Mars”
  • S4, E11 – “Lines of Communication”
  • S4, E12 – “Conflicts of Interest”
  • S4, E13 – “Rumors, Bargains and Lies”
  • S4, E14 – “Moments of Transition”
  • S4, E15 – “No Surrender, No Retreat”
  • S4, E16 – “The Exercise of Vital Power”
  • S4, E17 – “The Face of the Enemy”
  • S4, E18 – “Intersections in Real Time”
  • S4, E19 – “Between the Darkness and the Light”
  • S4, E20 – “Endgame”
  • S4, E21 – “Rising Star”
  • S4, E22 – “The Deconstruction of Falling Stars”

That’s right: Just watch the whole season. How did this comparatively breakneck-paced season come to pass? Well, for a while, they weren’t sure if they would get to shoot season five, so some of the plot lines originally slated for that season were retrofitted into this season. That’s also why you might want to take a break after episode 6, “Into the Fire,” which feels almost like a season finale or at least a mid-season break. Go ahead, pause and possibly enjoy some Swedish meatballs and then forge ahead.

Season Five (The Wheel of Fire)

  • S5, E22 – “Sleeping in Light” (series finale)

Yup, that’s it. You can go straight from the season four finale to the season five finale without undue angst. In fact, I find the double-dose of “Deconstruction of Falling Stars” and “Sleeping in Light” to be one of the most satisfying conclusions to any TV series I’ve ever seen. Watch it in one sitting if you can.

There you have it: 72 episodes of ambitious space opera. If you find you just need to know more, dive deeper, and find out what happens next, you can go back through the series. Watch all 110 episodes and get those tantalizing character tidbits, plus some guest stars familiar to SF fans like Michael Ansara and David Warner. There are also a number of TV movies (see below) and a whole other spin-off series (Crusade) that sadly got cancelled very early on. You may wish to delve into the aforementioned Babylon 5 wiki which has all sorts of extra details, including more comprehensive viewing orders.

The TV Movies

Short version: None of the TV movies are critical for a binge watch.

Per the overarching purpose of the viewing guide, these aren’t crucial for continuity. The reason to watch ’em is if Babylon 5 becomes one of your favorite bands and you really want to hear all their albums.

The Gathering
This one gets nostalgia points for me as well as anyone else involved in video production when it aired in early 1993. You see, with its ambitious visual effects, we realized just what the Video Toaster could do. There’s also bonus points for the amount of indignation G’Kar imbues in pronouncing every syllable of “Lieutenant Commander Takashima.” But really, every bit of enjoyable origin story is accomplished in the season one opener “Midnight on the Firing Line.”

In the Beginning
Perhaps the most satisfying of all the TV movies because it shows you the backstory of Sinclair, Sheridan, et al and has some nice visuals. But let’s be honest: they’ve already described basically everything you’re seeing here during the series proper. So it’s an enjoyable narrative victory lap.

One caveat: some fans suggest this as that initial test for whether you want to go through the Babylon 5 jumpgate in the first place. So ask yourself: do those 20-odd episodes I suggest before the decision point of “In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum” seems too much? If yes, start here (and then follow the order above).

Ancient Lovecraftian evils in space and lots of pew-pew action. Mainly worth it for Vir explaining his dream, which is dark comedy gold.

River of Souls
If you need to picture Martin Sheen in a role other than President Bartlett, you’re in luck! Okay, not really. I still think President Bartlett: Soul Hunter whenever I re-watch this thing. I’m not saying that’s a dealbreaker, but I am saying he doesn’t call the Butterball Hotline, which would also be comedy gold.

A Call to Arms
If you’re going to watch Crusade, this is an important precursor.

The Legend of the Rangers
Very enjoyable outing with mainly new characters that, alas, did not kick off a new spin-off series for B5.

2 thoughts on “A Viewing Guide for Babylon 5”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.