This Babylon 5 article contains spoilers.
Like Billy Pilgrim before him, John Sheridan has become unstuck in time. Again!
On May 13, 1996, Babylon 5 aired the first part of a two-parter epic called “War Without End.” In it, the crew of the White Star are tasked with stealing the space station Babylon 4 and sending it back in time 1,000 years to defeat the Shadows in a previous war, all so the Shadows are weaker in the present. But, if they fail, another, much darker parallel universe will unfold. And while we’ve only seen glimpses of that universe before, in the new Babylon 5 animated movie, The Road Home, this specific alternate timeline is explored in a way that calls back not just to “War Without End,” but to the season 1 banger, “Babylon Squared,” too.
In The Road Home, John Sheridan leaves Babylon 5 in 2262, but finds himself slipping between timeframes and parallel dimensions after a tachyon-based generator pushes him out of his own timestream. As Sheridan jumps between dimensions and times, we briefly see him revisit the moment in “War Without End” in which his time stabilizer was damaged. As Sheridan says, “It’s happening again,” but this time, he doesn’t just end up in a bleak future, he sees alternate pasts, including one timeline which longtime fans are probably familiar with.
About 25 minutes into the movie, after witnessing the Shadow awakening on Z’ha’dum, Sheridan believes he’s found his way home already. Yes, he’s back on Babylon 5, but this is a version of the station where Jeffrey Sinclair is still in command in roughly 2260. In this timeline, Sinclair clearly didn’t go back in time and become Valen, and the Shadows are stronger than ever. This calls back to the beginning of “War Without End,” in which Garibaldi and Ivanova discovered a transmission from Sector 14 and heard Susan’s voice saying, “They’re all over the place…they’re coming through…they’re killing us!”
In The Road Home, Claudia Christian has re-recorded this dialogue, to the point where you’ll have to go back and watch “War Without End” to double-check to see if it is, in fact, a new version of the same dialogue. It is, but it’s very close to the original take and the phrasing is identical. Meanwhile, Sheridan is stuck with Garibaldi and Sinclair as they’re about to make a “last stand” against the Shadows, who are physically invading the station. In this version of the timeline, Sheridan gets to help Garibaldi and Sinclair in their fight, but we’ve actually seen a version of this desperate moment before, too. In the Season 1 episode “Babylon Squared,” Sinclair first glimpsed this timeline in 2258, which, at that time, was a possible future for him. At that moment, an unknown enemy was invading Babylon 5 and he and Garibaldi were trying to hold off the attackers until the last moment. In “War Without End,” it was implied that this was, more or less, the same alternate timeline the crew was trying to prevent.
What makes The Road Home unique in all of this is that, unlike the flashes and snippets of that timeline we saw in “Babylon Squared” and “War Without End,” this time we get to actually inhabit it for a little longer via Sheridan. Now, as the movie makes clear, just the existence of Sheridan in these various universes alters them, meaning this isn’t quite the same alternate timeline we saw in the classic show. Also, in at least one version of the Shadows-Destroy-Babylon 5 timeline, Susan had on her black post-Earth Force uniform, whereas here, she has on her classic blue one. So, maybe there’s more than one dark timeline.
Or, perhaps, The Road Home presents a slightly more unified version of creator J. Michael Straczynski’s vision for some of these timeline shenanigans. As outlined in the wonderful (and out-of-print) behind-the-scenes Babylon 5 books written by Jane Killick, Straczynski didn’t have the luxury of being able to assume viewers had seen Season 1 while Seasons 2 and 3 were airing in 1995 and 1996. As he explains in the book Point of No Return, “A lot of folks came to the show in the second season, and the [the television stations] weren’t running the first season, so, a large portion of our audience hadn’t seen the first episode [‘Babylon Squared.’]”
Almost 30 years after Babylon 5 concluded, we live in a different world. TV audiences interact with serialized stories much differently than they did in the mid-1990s, proving that once again, Babylon 5 was ahead of its time. We also now know that Jeffrey Sinclair departed the show when he did, partially because the late Michael O’Hare faced severe mental health difficulties. In some ways, these parallel worlds were created because of that fact. But then again, not entirely. As Straczynski said in 1997, “All I can say is that had Sinclair stayed, a character like Sheridan, or Sheridan himself in a different venue, would have had to come into the story at this point.”
In The Road Home, Straczynski proves the point he made back in 1997, Sheridan became the main character of Babylon 5, not just because of real-world struggles, but out of necessity of the story. One of the reasons why B5 remains such a foundational piece of art in all of science fiction is because it honors the idea that plot and character are not separate things. Story and character are identical, even if there are parallel timelines where characters might have zigged instead of zagged. No amount of getting people “unstuck in time,” really changes the heart of what B5 is all about.
Because Sheridan is reunited with several characters originally played by actors who have passed away in real life — Mira Furlan, Jerry Doyle, Richard Biggs, Andreas Katsulas, and the aforementioned Michael O’Hare — there’s a bittersweet quality to this particular parallel timeline. Sinclair was B5’s first hero, and seeing him and Ivanova side-by-side in this sequence is thrilling, but also affecting in the best way. What makes The Road Home so smart is that it’s a big multiverse sci-fi epic about real people. In the 90s, Babylon 5 was the equivalent of an indie rock band, trying to compete with The Rolling Stones. But, after all these years, this little space-station-that-could has proved that even in its darkest timelines, there’s still so much light.
Babylon 5: The Road Home is out now on Blu-ray and VOD.