"I was there, at the dawn of the Third Age of Mankind. It began in the Earth year 2257 with the founding of the last of the Babylon stations..."
The term was coined by John Sheridan following the Battle of Coriana VI and the end of the Shadow War. He characterised the First Age as being the time when the Younger Races began in chaos and were too primitive to make their own decisions, and the Second Age as the time when they were manipulated by forces that thought they knew what was best for them. The Third Age therefore is the time when the Younger Races could stand on their own, take responsibility for themselves and "make their own magic". The period is however recognized to have truly begun in 2256 with the founding of Babylon 5, though none knew it at the time.
|The following is based on The Mongoose Publishing RPG books and contradicts canon sources.|
Mongoose Publishing produced a sourcebook called "Darkness and Light: The Vorlon and Shadow factbook" written by Gareth Hanrahan that puts details on the ages a race passes through since primitive beginnings to the transcendent stage of the First Ones.
Something worth of note is while a race may advance through the Ages, doesn't mean it can't fall back into a more primitive one. The humans on Earth, for example, were dragged from Third Age back into the First by the Great Burn.
Ages of a Race
There are five distinct ages in the lifetime of a sapient species, from birth into the god-like echelon of the First Ones – if a race lives long enough to achieve it, that is:
During their First Age, the race is bounded to its homeworld. It still lacks the technology to travel in space. Not only technologically, but the species is also culturally primitive and unenlightened. In this age, the race is considered an infant.
Most races never live beyond the First Age. They simply wipe themselves out through war, disease, pollution. A few of these, though, are destroyed by matters beyond their control like a cataclysm or genocide caused by another race. Such was the case of the Xon, the Neanderthal, the Daltrons and the Hyach-do.
The Second Age begins when the race reaches the stars, begins exploring the Universe, and meets other space-faring species. The Second Age is marked by the race falling under the influence of older, more powerful species. This process is unavoidable; it’s very much like a child growing up dependent on its parents. Like the parents teach and shape the child, the young race inherits cultural and technological characteristics of its elder. The Minbari inherited a lot from the Vorlons, as the Drakh learnt much during their time as disciples of the Shadows.
A Second Age race evolves and learns a great deal through its elder, but there’s a catch. Like a child grows and must learn to fend for itself without its parents, so must the younger race. If a race grows too dependent on its elder, it loses the capacity to evolve on its own. And when that happens, the race may permanently ruin its chance to mature into something more than a shadow of its elder.
For example, the Drakh are an old race and even though the Shadows are gone, they still pursue the cause of their masters instead of forging their own destiny. The Minbari, on the other hand, managed to grow into more than puppets of the Vorlons.
In the Third Age, a race has rejected its elder’s further guidance and influence and stands for its own actions. It could be compared to the young adulthood of a person. The child/race has grown into an independent - though still relatively young – adult/species ready to set out alone.
During the Third Age, the race goes through a technological boost since it’s no longer bound to the elders’ rules. However, with this new freedom returns the danger of self-destruction. A Third Age race could exterminate itself with its new technological discoveries. Such was the case of the Ikarrans, killed by the machines they created to protect themselves. Or the Markab, killed by the Drafa plague, but actually driven to extinction by their own ignorance. Or the Dilgar who failed to carve out a new homeworld for their empire before the death of their sun.
For a race to survive its Third Age, it must redefine itself. Like a young adult aging, the race must keep learning and go through a deep change. So deep that it practically severs its primitive roots, becoming an entirely different species. This cultural evolution is so hard that most races retreat from it.
The Fourth Age is the last step for a race to become a full-grown elder in its own right. Following the cultural change, the race has passed beyond its Third Age. If the Narns can heed G’Kar’s warnings and move beyond their hate for the Centauri, they may set themselves on a good course into eventually passing through their Third Age.
Following the cultural change, the race has reached its Fourth Age. It is now a fully grown adult species, free, wise and powerful enough to shape the Universe as it sees fit and walk among the stars like a giant. The Walkers of Sigma 957 and most of the other First Ones have existed in the Fourth Age for a long, long time. The Fourth Age is to many the last step for a race, since they are now like gods. The Fourth Age race is powerful enough to fight any outside threat, and wise enough to avoid killing itself with its power.
However, it could still kill itself culturally, if not physically. Should the cultural change of the Third Age have not being strong enough, should the race’s transformation not being deep-seated and complete enough, then it will simply begin to fade. When a race can fulfill all the dreams it had when it was young and has nothing more to search and achieve, it stagnates and begins to die off. At best, it degenerates, becoming a race of alien monsters who use lesser races for their pleasure, becoming cultural and emotional voyeurs. The Centauri are likely destined for this fate. It is possible the Thirdspace Aliens are a failed Fourth Age race, seeing as they have no goal but to eradicate all life.
Not all races enter a Fifth Age. As stated before, the Fourth Age is the official finish line and going beyond that won’t take much of an evolution. In the Milky Way galaxy, only three races have entered their Fifth Age. – Lorien’s race, the Vorlons and the Shadows. During the Fifth Age, a race becomes the parent of the galaxy and guardian of the younger races. It guides them through their Second Age until they’re ready to stand on their own.
And if there is a Sixth Age for a race, it lies out there, beyond the Rim.