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In the episode "Matters of Honor", Delenn was asked to identify a Shadows ship. She later remarked to Sheridan she has never seen one but it fits the descriptions from the Last Great War which occurred thousands of years ago. With technological advancement, how can ships thousand of years ago look similar to ships thousands of years later? Don't the Shadows advance with time? Can you imagine today's Boeing planes looking similar to the first plane made by the Wright brothers 100 years ago?

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    What you're looking at is a "technological plateau". Once tech reaches a certain level, often there's no need (or even capacity) for it to advance further. My microwave oven, for example, is functionally identical to a 1940s Radarange. – Valorum Oct 21 '17 at 9:21
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    @Valorum: And my microwave oven does date from the '80s :-) The only real difference between it and the new one my friends bought this spring is that it uses a blue LED display, while mine's an LCD. – jamesqf Oct 21 '17 at 17:43
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    The Boeing Dash 80 (first flight: 1954) and the Airbus A350 (first flight: 2013) look remarkably similar despite more than half a century of rapid development in flight technology. There's a reason for that. – Mark Oct 21 '17 at 22:53
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    @Mark: And for a bit longer timespan, ichthyosaurs look remarkably like dolphins :-) – jamesqf Oct 22 '17 at 4:47
  • While I appreciate the checkmark, and it's your prerogative to choose the answer that you think answers your question the best, I still think that Darren's answer is the best one based on the evidence that we see presented in the show. – Dranon Oct 22 '17 at 5:47
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In addition to Darren's correct answer, one of the themes of Babylon 5 is that the societies of the Vorlons and the Shadows have stagnated. They have spent so long concentrating on winning the galaxy through the actions of the younger races that they no longer focus on much else, so it is plausible that they haven't improved their technology much.

Valorum's comment on your question is also plausible — the Shadows could have hit a technological plateau. While modern aircraft don't look like the Wright Brothers' original flyer, they are actually similar in many ways. And modern aircraft do look substantially similar to aircraft made in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s.

It's also possible that the Shadows simply like the mutant spider-crab look of their ships. Perhaps the technology has improved over the years, but the technology and the appearance are independent. Despite technological improvements, modern passenger aircraft are constrained in appearance by aerodynamic requirements, so they all look broadly similar. If there's no restriction (no need to be aerodynamic in space), the ships can be shaped however they like, and they like that look.

Maybe they even do change the appearance, but the younger races don't notice that shorter or longer legs are in this season because they're too busy being slaughtered. (I'd better post this answer before I get any sillier.)

(Note that this entire answer is somewhat speculative. The first paragraph is drawn fairly closely from what we see and are told in the show, the rest not so much. It should be taken as a supplement to Darren's answer that is drawn entirely from the show itself.)

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    And modern aircraft do look substantially similar to aircraft made in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. Not just aircraft. Take the vast majority of modern firearms and they'd be fully understood by a gunsmith from a hundred and fifty years ago after a few minutes of examination. Externally, most passenger vehicles today don't look very different from cars in the 1990s when aerodynamics and fuel efficiency became very important. And someone from 50,000 years ago would have no problem with an axe. – Keith Morrison Oct 21 '17 at 16:27
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    @StephenG "This would be more like a roman soldier seeing an RPG or a tank" -> no, this is more like a 17th-century grenadier seeing an RPG, who would probably have a rough understanding of how it works. You can't assume a "soldier" is "someone who knows how all military stuff from his era works." Does a 21st-century rifleman know how a hydrogen bomb works? Regardless, your "Roman soldier" could still go back 2k years to the Bronze Age or forward ~1500 to the 17th century and discuss swords just fine. – errantlinguist Oct 21 '17 at 22:25
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    Hand an RPG to a roman soldier for a few minutes and the only use he'll have for it is as a club. And the gap between a culture of thousands of years cannot be made up by a few minutes of casual inspection by anyone - this is a popular sci-fi myth. – StephenG Oct 21 '17 at 22:32
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    @StephenG: You're missing the point, which is that technological development has limits, which are approached asymptotically. Your Roman soldier might not understand an RPG (though a WWI soldier probably would), but he would understand a 19th century Japanese katana perfectly well. – jamesqf Oct 22 '17 at 4:51
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    @StephenG: "This would be more like a roman soldier seeing an RPG or a tank : perhaps impossible to understand in a lifetime for him, much less a few minutes" Roman soldiers weren't stupid. Romans weren't neanderthals. A modern human goes from knowing nothing about humanity to potentially knowing how to use an RPG or a tank, in the space of say 20 years. There's really no reason that a Roman couldn't do this, and he has a head-start (by not being a newborn)! – Lightness Races in Orbit Oct 22 '17 at 21:07
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The Shadows effectively lay dormant for the thousands of years between wars.

It is revealed that

the Icarus awoke the Shadows when it visited Z’ha’dum.

So there wouldn’t have been any technological advancement in the intervening years.

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    3x08, Messages from Earth, pretty much confirms that there's been no advancement, whatever the reason is. – Izkata Oct 22 '17 at 5:22
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I was going to just comment, but I can't yet...

In his comment, Valorum mentions the concept of technological plateau. Dranon further notes that one of the themes of B5 is that the Vorlons and Shadows have both stagnated. What I wanted to add to this was the connection between these two things, as well as one additional point: The Shadows are repeatedly referred to as "the oldest of the First Ones." This makes them billions of years old. After so long, 2 things will be true:

  1. For a race that is billions of years old, it's highly unlikely there is any further technological advancement available to them. One of the things we note is that while the Vorlons use normal hyperspace jumpoints/jumpgates, the Shadows do not - they simply "shift" in and out of hyperspace without opening jump points. They're way beyond even the Vorlons - even after a few thousand years dormant. There's just no technological room left for them.

  2. And even if there is, they are SO OLD that they are simply going to change very, very slowly. Lorien later says that he was waiting for them on Zha'Ha'Dum for millions of years. These races do not do things quickly, and for such races, even 10,000 years is the blink of an eye. It's reasonable to think that over the few thousand year period we are talking about, they simply haven't changed at all.

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    +1. I'd add that even the Vorlons are so far ahead of the younger races that why would they need to advance? They and the Shadows ended up in a technological stalemate -- in my opinion -- and shifted to competing by proxy. Plus they had advanced into technologies whose unintended consequences were universe-threatening, like the interdimensional gate the Vorlons made, that humans stumbled onto in hyperspace. Almost destroyed everything a second time. Further technological advance was very risky and unnecessary. – Wayne Oct 22 '17 at 18:52
  • @Wayne yesterday indeed, as they say "necessity is the mother of invention" and by this point, there is simply no need. – RmxPatrick Oct 23 '17 at 20:32
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May I contribute that AFAIK both Shadows and Vorlons used organic, living ships that didn't rely on technological innovation in a usual sense. It definitely takes more than a thousand years for biological evolution to take place. So, with the masters in hibernation (someone already mentioned it), there would be no way for these ships to change.

This was sort of an obvious explanation ... less obvious would be that neither Shadows nor Vorlons actually wanted to evolve any more themselves. They wanted the younger races to evolve as quickly as possible, so they'd be released from their role as guardians. All they wanted was to join the other "first ones" beyond the rim. Their conflict with each other was about ways to speed up evolution around them!

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    "It definitely takes more than a thousand years for biological evolution to take place" Citation needed. We witness generations of viruses and bacteria mutating almost in front of our eyes. The difference of course being the vastly reduced lifespan (and accordingly vastly increased reproduction rate), relatively speaking. – Lightness Races in Orbit Oct 22 '17 at 21:10
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The answers here are good, but there is something else to consider: the overall goal of the Shadows.

At the end of the day, if the Shadows wanted to just kill everyone, they could do that. They could have whipped out their Death Clouds and went on a rampage across the galaxy way back at the beginning of the series. But they didn't. And not just because the Vorlons would have in turn whipped out their planet killers. It simply wouldn't further their ends.

What the Shadows wanted was to encourage wars, "kick over the ant hills", and so forth. To teach the lower races by getting them to "evolve" to evade destruction.

Past a certain point, being that kind of force simply doesn't require improvements in technology. So long as you have weapons that can one-shot the enemy's best ships, you're doing OK. If the younger races have become stronger, just add more ships.

And if things go sideways, you always have those Death Clouds to fall back on...

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