If You Go to Z’Ha’Dum, You Will Die; or, Rewatching Babylon 5, Remembering Harlan Ellison

“If you go to Z’ha’dum, you will die.”

Never throughout any of the television that I’ve watched in my 35 years has one line taken a really good show and marked it’s departure from just being a really good show to one of the greatest shows of all time. Does that sound like conjecture, because it’s not. Babylon 5 is a sci-fi series from the 90’s that suffers from the fact that it was a basic cable show on TNT, produced by Warner Bros. and featured some awful special effects. From a cursory glance, Babylon 5 looks dated, perhaps more dated than any Star Trek from the 80’s forward and definitely worse than shows like StarGate SG-1 that were its contemporary.

Yet Babylon 5 was incredibly special. What’s funny to me is that the showrunner, writer and visionary behind the show was J. Michael Straczynski, who, for the life of me, I can’t enjoy anything else that he’s produced in his long run as a writer outside of maybe his credit in being one of the people that tackled the story in the first Thor movie in Marvel’s hilariously bloated Cinematic Universe. What that means is something that seems timely, because I’d pinpoint what made Babylon 5 so special by making an outrageous claim that it was the now-late Harlan Ellison’s involvement. What that involvement was always seems murky, to say the least. His official credit was as a “Conceptual Consultant,” with only a few of the scripts to his credit while most are credited solely to JMS.

An old B5 information site lists a role for him that is nonsensical at best: “Harlan Ellison is the conceptual consultant for the series. He has written a “manifesto” for the show that explains to other writers how to write science fiction for television and Babylon 5 in particular. On a day-to-day basis, he has no preassigned duties (though he plans to write a script or two) but is something of a generalist, helping refine many aspects of the production, from writing to sets. JMS refers to Ellison’s position as ‘a free-roaming agent of chaos.'” What I’ve been able to glean from my research into what exactly Harlan did has brought up that he created a “bible” for the show that everyone referred to throughout the show. This guide was him wanting to avoid the pitfalls of most science fiction on television, from camera angles, lighting, dialogue, character development and everything else in between. People have talked about how he did everything from script doctoring and editing to being on set and being incredibly vocal throughout.

The reality of Harlan Ellison is that he wasn’t known for being a nice, easy-going guy. He was sort of a dick, but his work has stood the test of time and it feels like, at least from an outside perspective, that his influence working with JMS on B5 helped to create the most incredible science fiction series of all time. If this feels like a rather long preamble to me just talking about stuff that was happening in the show, it probably is, but I feel like it’s valuable information. Harlan Ellison died on June 28th of this year and the show made its way to Amazon Prime, finally having wide distribution in the digital era, on June 1st. Naturally, I dove right into it, having forgotten that the first season was indeed very good, but at times tedious.

The first season worked to establish the characters, setting, the struggles, the factions and everything else that a grand science fiction drama could need. Also in that first season was a leading man that was replaced in the second season due to health reasons, which turned out to be a godsend as Jeffrey Sinclair was a rather wooden character played by an actor that perhaps made him that way, although it was revealed later that he was suffering from debilitating psychological issues throughout filming, which led to his departure. Anyway, this led to the introduction of Captain John Sheridan, who is perhaps the perfect example of the “captain” archetype found in science fiction that can be a hard-nosed military leader who finds himself caring more about the people and the world around him than following orders. There’s a lot of stuff that happens, but it isn’t until episode 16, “In the Shadow of Z’Ha’Dum,” until the show really takes off.

So, if you’re reading this and you haven’t watched the show before, or you want to and haven’t gotten that far yet, this is probably all going to be sort of worthless to you. This is my blog so I’m not going to backtrack and write about the entire series, instead I want to document watching from this turning point forward because it’s so goddamned good. This is more for myself than anything else.

When Ambassador Kosh finally reveals the mystery of Mr. Mordin to a distraught Sheridan, the sense of weight is almost immediate. This is the moment where the stress of knowing that Earth’s president was murdered in a coup that was linked to shadowy organizations was the least of his troubles out on the frontier in a space station that serves as a convergence for alien societies. After being emotionally drained questioning Mordin about what happened to their ship and if his wife had somehow survived, he’s still laser-focused on the fact that these “Shadows” took her ship and was able to subjugate a few of the passengers, such as Mordin, to be agents for them. Sheridan’s desire to immediately head there is met by Kosh’s cold warning that if Sheridan goes to Z’Ha’Dum he will die.

Eventually, Sheridan decides that he wants to learn how to fight them, without forgetting that his true purpose is to go there and try to rescue his wife. We also see Vir struggle with the fact that Londo is so closely associated with Mordin, who Vir considers to be a monster. There’s one of those truly incredible, rare moments where Vir shows the character that he’ll turn into in the future when he confronts Mordin and when pressed with the same question that was posed to Londo and led to the beginning of a new Centauri/Narn war, all that Vir wants to see is Mordin’s head on a pike.

If anything, it’s cold, colder than we’ve ever seen Vir before, but also more passionate and less anxious about being his own person. Londo had finally decided to give Vir a pat on the back for his service and friendship through all of these tough times, demanding that Vir stay as his attache and not be replaced by the Centauri government. In Babylon 5 it’s a rare case where the main characters themselves are very good, but the real meat of the series rests on the secondary characters a lot of the time. The growth of Londo, Vir, G’Kar, Lennier and others is the driving force of the show and what really pushes it into greatness. These characters are all faced with incredible personal, professional and cultural struggles throughout the series and most of the time make very poor, but relatable decisions.

The next episode, “Knives” is a great example of this, as the focus is on Londo Mollari and his newfound fame and respect on his homeworld. His good friend and former sparring partner, Urza, makes an appearance, which causes the two men to reminisce about the good old days only for it to be abundantly clear early on that Urza considers the new war against the Narn — the war that Londo started to gain favor — to be absolutely bullshit. He was one of the few that knew of the now-deceased Emperor’s intentions to make a lasting peace with the Narn, even apologize, only for Londo to be the willing pawn of Lord Reefa to ensure that the Emperor’s message didn’t get out before he died before Reefa took over the government.

Peter Jurasik is perhaps not the most attractive actor in the world and the character design on the Centauri is downright laughable at times. I mean, they’re dressed like British aristocrats but have this weird hairstyle that is like if a monk that was bald on top grew their hair out and fashioned it into a wrap-around mohawk. It’s absolutely ludicrous. The thing is, Peter Jurasik is an amazing actor and everything that he does in this absurd role makes it not just believable, but one of the best characters in television history. Hard stop. There’s an actual feeling that these men were best of friends and the look of shame that washes over him when he hears his good friend say out loud what he already knew about his own decisions it’s impossible not to feel for this despicable, awful man.

When Urza shares with Londo that he was looking for help against the government essentially banishing him and shaming his entire family, Londo proudly beats his chest because of his untapped power, until Urza’s excitement isn’t about Londo backchanneling, but instead to go public, which Londo refuses to do, knowing that it would be the end of his power within the republic. Even knowing that Reefa was to blame, Londo still goes to Reefa for assistance, only to understand that this man was not his friend, but he was linked to him because of his poor decisions and couldn’t escape it.

The duel that ensued between Urza and Londo, which was, of course, to the death, was nothing but a ploy by Urza to have Londo murder him and assume control over Urza’s family. Their shame would be erased and Londo has this realization that his decisions have truly awful consequences to them. He never did find love in his life and dedicated himself to accruing power, but never considered the cost of it. This episode was Londo realizing all of the errors that he’s made and that turning back would mean the end of his life. Urza knew that by dying he’d secure the fate of his family in Londo’s hands and perhaps it was always the plan B that he had with him when heading to Babylon 5.

By all accounts Londo is a villain. The deaths of so many were on his hands, as was the re-emergence of the Shadows. Granted, if it wasn’t Londo that Mordin had gone to, there would have been someone else. The power that Mordin offered was unrivaled and difficult to resist. Yet, Londo remains a sympathetic character throughout the series, with that sympathy waxing and waning along with his decisions. There are times when he owns up to his mistakes and will do something truly noble, while there are other times where his lust for power or fear of being obsolete push him to do truly reprehensible things.

Damn, I’m happy that I’m watching this again.

Read part two of this Babylon 5 retrospective here.