Sunday, 2 July 2017

Babylon 5 Rewatch: Canon and Sources

Before we start the Babylon 5 Rewatch series, some notes on the formatting, references and sources I'll be using in this guide.


Babylon 5 was the first multimedia franchise which tried to count everything passed under its banner as being fully, 100% creator-approved canon. Joe Straczynski, Babylon 5's creator, showrunner and chief writer, planned to approve every novel and comic, review every piece of merchandise and make sure everything fit together in the massive tapestry he was building.

However, due to simple workload and time, this ultimately provided unworkable and Straczynski was later forced to clarify what was canon and what was not.

All five seasons and 110 episodes of the TV show, plus the pilot and the six TV movies are counted as canon. The 13 produced episodes of the spin-off series Crusade are also counted as canon, although there is significant discussion among fans of the best viewing order for the series, since the production order, Straczynski's recommended viewing order and the actual chronological order of the episodes all differ from one another.

Of the novels, the three trilogies released by Del Rey (The Psi Corps Trilogy by Greg Keyes, The Legions of Fire Trilogy by Peter David and The Passing of the Techno-mages Trilogy by Jeanne Cavelos) are all counted as canon. The earlier novels The Shadow Within by Jeanne Cavelos and To Dream in the City of Sorrows by Kathryn Drennan are also both counted as 100% canon. The storylines for all of these novels were provided by Straczynski and these books were approved and reviewed by him.

The other seven novels are specifically non-canonical, as Straczynski was not as closely involved in their production and some of their elements contradict other sources. In particular, the events of the novel Personal Agendas do not appear to be possible as it is almost impossible for them to have taken place during the period they are supposed to happen. The first book, Voices, on the other hand features allusions to the main story arc and fits into the early Season 2 Psi Corps arc of episodes quite well, and helps resolve some minor continuity issues, so is often regarded as, at least, fanon.

Of the comics, the opening issue In Darkness Find Me and the following Price of Peace and Shadows Past and Present story arcs are both heavily referenced in the TV show itself (the TV show even features a later flashback to events in the comic, a notable first for multi-media projects) and are 100% regarded as canon. The Psi Corps and You! one-shot is likewise regarded as canon, since it features events later expanded on in Greg Keyes's novels.

The Laser-Mirror-Starweb duology, which was written by David Gerrold without any oversight from Straczynski, can be counted as non-canon due to featuring technology (such as energy shields on an Earthforce shuttle) and character developments not in keeping with the rest of the setting. The concluding story arc, In Valen's Name, was written by Straczynski directly and can also be counted as canon.

The Babylon 5 Interactive CD-ROM released in 1998 featured material directly written and contributed to by Straczynski, and is therefore counted as canonical. A lot of later materials, such as the timeline on the DVD box sets, also draws on this as a primary source and can also be counted as canon, even if debatable (such as the conflicting accounts given for the date of the Battle of the Line).

Other elements were not originated by Straczynski but created by others and found their way into common usage. These include many of the ship classes, names and technical specifications which were created by co-producers, other writers on the show or the effects teams at Foundation Imaging and Netter Digital. In many cases these names were picked up on fans and Straczynski himself, thus becoming canon after the fact.

The Babylon 5 Wars miniature game and the Babylon 5 D20 Roleplaying Game by Mongoose Publishing are both non-canon but draw on and incorporate a vast amount of canonical sources (including all of the above). Both projects got underway after Straczynski established an official channel for establishing canon information through his assistant Fiona Avery and thus incorporate a lot of reliable information. However, both also utilise a lot of original material created by the game writers themselves and this is often not differentiated from the canon material. Complicating matters further, Straczynski and Mongoose Publishing later fell out and Straczynski declared their material to be unreliable.

Material specifically regarded as non-canon includes The A-Z of Babylon 5 by David Bassom, The Babylon 5 Security Manual by Jim Mortimore and The Babylon Project Roleplaying Game by Titan Books (along with its sourcebooks). The almost-finished but unreleased Babylon 5 video game, Into the Fire, is also deemed non-canon.

Recently, a new, two-volume Babylon 5 Encyclopedia has been produced by B5 Books, a venture Straczynski is involved in. At over 800 print pages in length, the encyclopedia draws exhaustively on every episode, book and comic to create the most accurate guide to the B5 universe yet created whilst jettisoning non-canon elements. Unfortunately, it is also cripplingly expensive, so I have not been able to use it as a source. This is particularly irritating as the Encyclopedia also uses every single deleted scene from the series itself, which is material not available anywhere else. Hopefully at a future point the price will drop to the point where it becomes a reasonable purchase.


During the course of Babylon 5 being on-air and the nineteen years that have elapsed since, the show has been discussed and dissected online in astonishing detail (even by modern standards). Actors, writers, producers, effects personnel and, of course, J. Michael Straczynski himself would frequently comment on the series as it aired in online and print interviews, and Straczynski made a point of discussing each episode with fans after they aired. Almost all of this material is collected together at the still-extant Lurker's Guide to Babylon 5 (the first website I ever bookmarked, back in 1996) and the J. Michael Straczynski Message Archive, which collates discussions about the TV series going right back to January 1991, just after Warner Brothers formally optioned the project but twenty-five months before the pilot movie even aired!

Additional official sources include David Bassom's 1996 book Creating Babylon 5, which contains invaluable information on how the show was shot on a day-to-day basis, and the five Babylon 5 Season-by-Season books by Jane Killick, which contain episode-by-episode production discussions about the show. This series of books is particularly useful for sourcing comments and information by people involved in the show other than Straczynski. About 99% of the comments ever made about the show come from Straczynski, which is mostly great but occasionally these comments drown out the contributions of everyone else, so it's good to get an alternative perspective.

Likewise of value is the Babylon 5 Scrolls resource, which is currently being renovated but much of its content is available via Facebook. B5 Scrolls is an interesting project which looks at CG, production design and artwork and features extremely extensive interviews with just about every major behind-the-scenes figure apart from Straczynski, including producer John Copeland (who dealt with the nuts and bolts of production from the studio floor while Straczynski handled writing duties and post) and the late CGI genius Ron Thornton, who created many of the show's more iconic ships and designs. This site has been extremely useful in clarifying many technical points, particularly the early days of the show and how it was originally commissioned, as well as the contentious replacement of Foundation Imaging with Netter Digital halfway through the show's run.

Of the various books and websites covering the series from a critical perspective, Andy Lane's Babylon File (two volumes, published in 1997 and 1999) is easily the best, dissecting the series from various thematic angles and not being afraid of calling out weaker episodes and moments of confused and muddled storytelling. It also quite rightly praises the show for its strengths and better episodes.

The Guide

Throughout the guide the following system to is used to refer to episodes, comics and novels in the Babylon 5 universe. For the television series each season is denoted by a letter: A for Season 1, B for Season 2, C for Season 3, D for Season 4 and E for Season 5. A number denotes which episode of which season is in question. For example, A21 is the twenty-first episode of Season 1, The Quality of Mercy. D9 is the ninth episode of Season 4, Atonement. PM stands for "Pilot Movie" and denotes the pilot episode, The Gathering. The six Babylon 5 TV movies made for the TNT and Sci Fi Channel networks are denoted TVM1 (In the Beginning), TVM2 (Thirdspace), TVM3 (River of Souls), TVM4 (A Call to Arms), TVM5 (The Legend of the Rangers) and TVM6 (The Lost Tales). That covers all of the TV episodes.

The novels follow a similar pattern, with each book being branded NOV followed by a number. There is a slightly more complicated pattern here, because the novels do not take place in the same order they are published and they also tend to leap around the time-frame of the series, some taking place long before the series itself begins, others decades later. Additional confusion is caused because the books are published by two different companies. NOV1-NOV9 were published by Dell (Boxtree in the UK) and numbered as Babylon 5 #1: Voices, Babylon 5 #2: Accusations and so forth. However, the books from NOV10 onward were published by Del Rey. To clear up any confusion, The Psi Corps Trilogy is covered in NOV10-NOV12, The Legions of Fire Trilogy is NOV13-NOV15 and The Passing of the Techno-mages Trilogy is NOV16-NOV18. Just to create more confusion, the novelisations of the TV movies have extra scenes and background information not found in the episodes (but these are covered under the episode entries themselves).

As mentioned earlier, only NOV7 and NOV9 onwards are regarded as 100% canon.

The comics are slightly easier to follow, since they can be easily divided between three big stories which are all sequential and straightforward, and a few independent storylines. These are coded DC since they were published by DC in the USA (and as graphic novel collections by Titan in the UK). The only confusion to be found here is that what I have chosen to label DC12-DC14 (the In Valen’s Name storyline) was actually published as a stand-alone mini-series of comics with its own numbering system (i.e. Babylon 5: In Valen’s Name #1-#3) rather than as part of the on-going monthly series which wrapped up eighteen months beforehand.

Each episode, movie, comic or book is given a plot synopsis, notes on the arc and background info, and, where possible, a date. Dates are either directly given, appear on computer displays, or are worked out due to anyone mentioning how much time has elapsed since such-and-such event. The Babylon 5 DVDs also have a timeline included in their special features. It is assumed for the purposes of this guide that these dates are correct, save for where they conflict with the series itself. Each episode is also given its production number (since the order the episodes was made in was not always the same as the order it was transmitted in) and its first UK and US airdates. Notice that ten episodes aired in the UK before the USA due to a variety of production and scheduling factors.

The Series and the Spin-Offs

The story told by Babylon 5 is a huge one, spanning around two dozen major characters and extending back and forth across thirty-six years of history (from the start of In the Beginning in 2245 to the end of Sleeping in Light in 2281). This isn’t helped by the story being an essentially multimedia one. Unlike, say Star Trek, where the novels and comics are not canonical (i.e. they are never referenced in the series itself), Babylon 5's novel and comic spin-offs are considered as reliable as sources as the series itself (though the series is always considered right when the two sides contradict one another).

The continuity order for the different incarnations of Babylon 5 to be fully appreciated is as follows. Codes are as explained above and are followed in brackets by the years they take place in. NOV10 (2115-89), NOV11 (2195-2258), TVM1 (2245-47), NOV7 (2256-57), PM (2257), A1-A22, NOV16 (2258), DC1, B1-B2, DC2-DC4, NOV1, NOV 17, B3-B4, DC5-DC8, B5-B8, NOV3, DC9-DC10, B9-B10, NOV2, B11-B19, NOV6, B20-B21, NOV4, DC11 (2259), B22-C2 (2259-60), NOV5 (2260), C3-C17, NOV 9, C18-C22, NOV18 (2260), D1-D3 (2261), NOV8, D4-D6, DC12-DC14, TVM2 (2261), D7-E21 (2261-62), TVM3, NOV12 (2263), TVM5 (2264), TVM4 (2267), NOV13-NOV15 (2263-78) and, finally E22 (2281). The Crusade spin-off series takes place shortly after the events of TVM4, in 2267-68 (although it was supposed to run from 2267 to 2271).

The above list is not totally official and it should be pointed out it is the order events take place in, not necessarily the best order to view the series in to preserve the central mystery of the main storylines. My recommended viewing order for a beginner would be to simply start with the pilot and then watch the first four seasons in order, then the first two TV movies, then Season 5 and the third, fourth and fifth TV movies before sampling the debatable pleasures of Crusade. The books and comics generally add background detail not essential to enjoy the series by itself, but if possible try and read issues 5-8 of the comic series before watching episode C8, as it makes for quite an interesting (and possibly unprecedented) cross-over between the two mediums. Books 13-15 also resolve one of the major plotlines left dangling from the TV series, namely the fate of Londo, G’Kar, Vir and Centauri Prime after the events of Season 5. Book 12 also deals with the ultimate fate of semi-regular villain Bester.

The next entry will actually kick off the rewatch project with the pilot movie itself, The Gathering.


wps said...

Looking forward to this. Just started the rewatch with PM and A1.


Alex said...

Wow, Lurker's was one of my regular visits back in the day too. Good stuff.