Jan 30, 2019, 4:31:05 AM1/30/19
For quite a while, science fiction on TV was a tough sell. Hell, even
the original run of Star Trek barely made it three seasons. There are
quite a few reasons for that. First off, to convincingly depict the
world of the future you need to have a budget, and for decades TV shows
just didn't have that kind of money. Second, the serial nature of TV
drama means that you can't just have one big idea - you need to have
enough to keep viewers tuning in episode after episode. So for much of
the 80s and 90s the closest we got was semi-futuristic procedural
dramas like Automan.
But then, something changed. Star Trek returned with The Next
Generation, and the rise of cable meant that there were new avenues for
all kinds of programming. Into this brave new world stepped a writer
named J. Michael Straczynski, who had worked on He-Man, Twilight Zone
and Murder, She Wrote. He had an idea for a different kind of science
fiction show, one that demanded to be watched in order and told a
massive, galaxy-spanning story. And, amazingly, he got it made. 25
years ago this month, Babylon 5 had its post-pilot series premiere and
laid the groundwork for where TV sci-fi would go.
So what made Babylon 5 so important, and why is it worth re-watching
today, awful CGI and all? Read on, dear geek, and we'll explain.
First, a quick geeksplainer if you've never watched the show. Babylon 5
was set on a space station of the same name set up by Earth's
government to serve as a trading and diplomacy hub. Ten years after a
war with the alien Minbari that humanity barely survived because the
other side mysteriously surrendered, the crew of the station is still
wrestling with that defeat and keeping the peace.
Eventually, we learn that all of this conflict is in service of a
long-spanning battle between two ancient races, the Vorlons and the
Shadows, who are both tasked with helping younger species evolve
through conflict. Having lost sight of that original goal, the two
civilizations instead manipulate for their own petty victories.
This is a horribly reductionist summary, of course - there was a _lot_
going on in each episode of Babylon 5, from the political machinations
of the Centauri to the rising xenophobia back on Earth and the
interpersonal relationships on the station. Episodes are dense and
reward multiple viewings. Now let's figure out how they got that way.
Straczynski wrote the series bible way back in 1989, while working on
live-action kids show Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future. The
gimmick of that series was that a tie-in toy from Mattel would interact
with the screen using a mechanism similar to the NES's light gun. Not
the highest concept. But he and his co-writers imbued it with some
remarkably mature concepts, including the death of a main character.
They were already reaching for something bigger, and that work inspired
the throughline of Babylon 5.
The cards were stacked against the series from the beginning. Babylon 5
was pitched as a five-season show with a clearly defined beginning and
end. This was unheard of anywhere outside of soap operas - sure, every
once in a while a prime-time drama would do a two-parter, but more
often than not TV series had no inter-episode continuity to make things
easier for new viewers. But this would not be a show for the casual
Finally, Warner Brothers bit. They were launching a new syndicated
network - PTEN - in 1993, and needed programming for it. With a budget
of a million dollars an episode, it was a big risk, so the studio
attached a caveat: if the pilot movie broke a certain ratings
threshold, they'd commit to a series. It did, and they were off to the
With his dream project, Straczynski knew he'd have one shot to do
things differently. He wanted to do for science fiction what Hill
Street Blues had done for cop shows in the 80s - bring them out of the
world of procedurals and car chases and into a deep, rich examination
of characters and their world. He banned a number of tropes from the
series - one famous edict was "no kids, no robots" - and maintained a
staggering amount of control over the show, writing 92 of the 110
episodes that aired. And the other scribes were no slouches - Peter
David, Neil Gaiman and Harlan Ellison all wrote for the series.
He also understood the many vagaries of writing for television. At any
time, an actor could get a better deal or get sick of spending hours in
the makeup chair every day and leave the show. So Straczynski wrote
every character with a "backdoor" that he could use to write them off
in a way that was consistent with the show's premise. The level of
control he had over the story paved the way for the modern showrunner
But he wasn't a dictator - one of the most interesting aspects of the
show is the input he took from the actors who played the space
station's various resident aliens. There's a great story from this oral
history of the show where actor Bill Mumy suggested an arc for his
character Lennier and Straczynski folded it right into the narrative
without pause, knowing that it would deepen the narrative even further.
To make budget, the show had to cut corners every way it could. Instead
of a fancy studio, the production filmed in a former hot tub factory
that was built out to contain interior sets. The show was one of the
first to use extensive CGI instead of models for space scenes, which
allowed them the freedom to shoot multiple angles. That said, the CGI
looks incredibly primitive today and is upscaled for modern TVs badly.
Things got even tougher when the show premiered - Paramount had put
Deep Space Nine into production, which had not only a higher budget and
the backing of a classic franchise, but a very similar premise.
Comparing the two shows was inevitable. Even worse, after the show's
fourth season, network PTEN shut down, causing the producers to have to
scramble to find a home for the fifth and final year.
But with adversity comes strength, and the team behind Babylon 5 was as
close as any in the business. A staggering 75 percent of the crew of
the show that was there at the beginning of Season 1 was still there at
the end of Season 5, and very few of the main actors moved on to
greener pastures while it was filming.
Babylon 5 is now streaming in its entirety on Amazon Prime if you want
to see it for yourself. I'm midway through my own rewatch and it's
funny how much of it found expression in later sci-fi shows. One of the
most obvious is Battlestar Galactica, which did many of the same things
- wrestling with an ancient mythology unknown to the major players
while still telling compelling, human-scale stories built around the
personalities of its characters. And, of course, it's tough to find any
prestige drama that doesn't think about season-long - and multi-season
- arcs in telling its stories.
Keep in mind, if you watch, that the show doesn't really pick up steam
until midway through Season 2, and the scriptwriting definitely seems
like a relic of a different time before Buffy made us expect sharp,
witty dialogue from all of a show's players. It all feels a little
stilted and theatrical. But it's definitely worth the ride, and once
you're in you won't be able to quit until the show's remarkably moving
climax. It's amazing that a low-budget show that lost its network
halfway through was so influential on the genre, but a solid plan can
make up for a lot of other stuff.
Dems & the media want Trump to be more like Obama, but then he'd
have to audit liberals & wire tap reporters' phones.