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Viewers who watched the pilot episode of J. Michael Straczynski's Babylon 5 could be excused for wondering what all the fuss was about. Characters are introduced to the Earth-led space station, the Babylon 5, where species from all over the globe come to trade, do business, and engage in diplomacy. Viewers are also introduced to some of the hammiest acting this side of a high school play.

Between the airing of the pilot and the actual series, however, things begin to come together. Straczynski's vision of a 5 year story-arc were revolutionary at the time. Nowadays we have shows like Lost where the writers have planned out their mysteries years in advance, but in the 90s, Babylon 5 was one of the only shows to plan story-arcs that would play out over the course of multiple seasons.

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Although a sci-fi show, Babylon 5 is less fantastic than its contemporary, Star Trek. The space station where the characters work is dirty, crowded, and dangerous. It is hardly the grim future of Battlestar Galactica, but Babylon 5 presented a world where wars end badly, good men died often, and the sadness of once great men runs deep.

Babylon 5 introduces a cast of characters, many of them aliens in extensive makeup, and forces the viewer to not only learn about their people's culture but to care as well. The backgrounds of the series' aliens are intricately detailed. For instance, the Minbari are a complicated race of warrior-priests whose mercurial nature make them difficult to read.

The show's reliance on political intrigue makes Babylon 5 a more cerebral sci-fi show. Right from the very first episode, political maneuvering and racial tensions are given just as much time as sci-fi action adventure. Humans have formed the Earth Alliance after barely avoiding annihilation in their last major war. Now, the Babylon 5 acts much like an interstellar UN, providing the five largest space empires a place to conduct diplomacy and desperately cling to peace.

Of course, peace never lasts. Whether the threat comes from within or without, war is always on the horizon. Babylon 5 explores the concept of just and unjust war, the abuse of military power, and the sometimes pressing need to enter into battle. Very rarely does the show take the easy way out; politics and war have casualties and there are lives lost in the wreckage.

Ten years before serialized television was most popular way to tell a story, Straczynski was crafting an amazing televised novel on basic cable. Although many of the CGI effects might appear dated to our more sophisticated palette, even today Babylon 5 holds up as an example of top notch writing for television. Whether you are a sci-fi fan or not, Babylon 5 is a thought provoking, gripping piece of modern fiction.

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