Babylon 5 In Depth – How To Do Space Combat
It’s one of those little facts that’s easily forgotten about Star Wars that in early edits before cinematic release that old dogfight footage was used in place of the actual space battles until decent special effects could be put into place. This translated to the X-Wings and Tie Fighters taking great swooping loops and arcs to follow one another, and the same can be said of the Enterprise vessels in Star Trek, along with the many others who mimic the same style.
Simply put, they use aeroplane battles and set them in space. We seem to snap to a 2-dimensional plane, having a clear definition of up and down, ships meet facing the right direction, no one is ever sideways or upside down, and while they may sit above or below one another they generally face some universally accepted axis system, even amongst species we’ve never met.
It’s one of the reasons I love Babylon 5, and it’s not just orientation and physics. Let’s talk how B5 does space battles damn well.
Tactics In A Vacuum
Even with my fairly limited knowledge of aerodynamics, inertia and so forth, I’m well aware that the main reason aeroplanes can’t flip upside down and go into reverse is because the air gets in the way. For a small vessel in a vacuum where such resistance is less of an issue such ridiculous manoeuvres are far more possible, and yet you never see an X-Wing turning to face an enemy ship while flying backwards.
The Earth Alliance one man fighter, the Starfury is amongst the more iconic ship designs, a cockpit with four propulsion arrays to allow for a complete range of movement. In combat, a Starfury can tumble, reverse, and perform incredibly precise motions in any dimension, limited only by what forces the pilot can endure. In a chase they can hit the brakes hard enough to be behind their opponent in a heartbeat, reversing the chase and gaining a temporary upper hand, the major risk being the possibility that the pilot might blackout.
So far I have only seen the revamped Battlestar Galactica do better, six years after Babylon 5 had ended. The 70’s series was as much a victim of aerodynamic thinking as everyone else, but the 2004 version made every fight so much more intense.
A Note On “Jump” Technology
The B5 equivalent of hyper-drive, warp, and FTL is the Jumpgate or Jumpdrive. Gates open portals into a separate dimension, Hyper Space where physics works differently, and travel across great distances in a fraction of the time with occasional exits so as not to get lost. Larger ships are capable of opening their own Jump point, escorting smaller vessels with them, but the technology can be volatile, and dangerous if opened in the wrong place.
In war, Earth cruisers will open up a Jump point and bring through the fleet. It’s fairly typical of most races, it’s efficient, and if the fight isn’t going well another ship can make your exit for you. The Minbari however will have every war-cruiser open their own point, filling the sky with ships emerging from hundreds of vortexes. It’s a fear tactic that works well for them, and looks amazing, because for the time Babylon 5 really knew how to make a war look like a war.
Combat is vast, dozens, hundreds of ships engaged in full scale, fast paced combat, all the while bringing home the horrifying truths of the suffering and tragedy that war can bring. More on that another time.
Credit to Star Wars here, there was a scene in Rogue One where a swarm of Tie Fighters come pouring out of the shield aperture on Scarif that gave me chills, but then only because of how strongly I was reminded of the Starfury launches. Rogue One also made planetary obliteration feel as horrifying as it ought to be, another area in which B5 excelled when the ancient races began to scour planets of all life with their tremendous weapons.
For all this series will mostly be unbridled love for the series I grew up enjoying, let me say that the graphics are really starting to show for their age, and now, so am I. I notice the bad texturing, clunky movements, and simple models used on less important ships. They cover up a great deal with camera angles and some great acting to hype the tension but let’s face facts, it was the 90’s. Also makes it rather hard to take a decent screenshot.
Firefly has taught me to wince whenever a series makes activities in space audible. No one can hear you scream, no one can hear your engines, no one can hear the big crackly electric net. While Babylon 5 explores the possibilities of space combat it rather overlooks a few fundamentals; while it might drive up the drama, it rather kills some of the accuracy.
And on the subject of accuracy, as I sit here, taking notes on episodes for the first time ever, I can’t help but notice how bad these supposed soldiers and pilots are. It’s a good job I know how the Narn/Centauri War ends because if I didn’t know better I’d say that it could go on for centuries, both sides missing their targets like a Stormtrooper on a rodeo machine.
And yet such issues are mildly forgivable when you recognise how Babylon 5 still echoes in space-fairing sci-fi series for many years to come, and do not undermine the thrill of a damn good space fight.