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Old 01-04-2013, 04:43 PM   #2 (permalink)
Trollheart
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Our last, best hope for peace: the genesis of Babylon 5

Probably the only TV drama, certainly the only science-fiction TV drama, to be conceived and laid out as a five-year story, a TV novel which was intended to span five full seasons of the show, and in the end did, Babylon 5 was the creation of Joe Micheal Straczynski, usually known as "J. Michael Straczynski" or more often just "JMS". Aficionados of the programme, like me and probably millions of others, as well as critics, will tell you that "JMS" was as instrumental to not only the creation but the development of Babylon 5 as Gene Roddenberry was to Star Trek. In fact, early in its inception JMS was heard to remark at a science-fiction convention that he believed his new series could end up "giving Star Trek a run for its money", to which an unimpressed reporter quipped "Yeah, and Bill Clinton will be in the White House!" Well, we all know how that turned out, don't we?

But the above serves to illustrate how tough an arena television sci-fi was in the early nineties. The Star Trek franchise had pretty much a stranglehold on TV sci-fi, while the world of cinema had really not come up with anything substantial at the time, leaving "Star Wars" as the main moneyspinner and seen therefore as the way forward. Cinema had mostly whimsical tales like the "Back to the future" series, Arnie in the "Predator" movies and Gremlins all over the place. Of course there was "Terminator 2" and "Alien 3", and later on "Stargate" brought a measure of respectability to sf movies, but up to even the end of the 90s the main movers in terms of sci-fi cinema were still those that trod Roddenberry's somewhat tired and hackneyed stories of all humanity living together in semi-Utopian peace.
(Joe Michael Straczynski, known as JMS, creator and driving force behind Babylon 5)
It wouldn't be till really the tail-end of the 90s, when "The Matix" burst upon our cinema screens like an avenging angel and slapped us all upside the head, that science-fiction would really achieve its rebirth on the big screen, and as for the small, well. Nothing could and did touch Star Trek for over thirty years, with series like "Logan's run", "Lost in space", "V" and though the UK did well to fly the sf flag with series like "Blake's Seven" and "Doctor Who", darker, more adult sort of programmes than their mostly light, fluffy, almost comedic in ways US counterparts, Star Trek was still seen really as the epitome of sci-fi, resulting in much ribbing for those the media came to dub "Trekkies". Sure, Doctor Who is now more aimed at a family-friendly market, but back in the sixties, seventies and eighties it was dark and disturbing, and we all hid behind the sofa when the Daleks came onscreen! Exterminate!


The problem was that most television networks didn't really take sci-fi seriously. It was the pervue of the geek, the loner, the misfit. Families would not watch it, so any programmes commissioned --- or most, at any rate --- in the US had to be "made family friendly", by adding in cute characters or comic relief elements, and having everyone back on the starbase in time for tea, as it were. Only the British ones dared to do things like kill off characters, see the aforementioned "Blake's Seven" and indeed "Space: 1999", some of the darkest sci-fi you will ever come across. Okay, so the sets were wonky and the acting wooden --- should that be the other way round? Er, no --- but the stories were often top-notch, and occasionally the stuff of nightmares.

Which is how it should have been, anyway. Space is a frightening place. Films like "Alien" and "2001: A space odyssey" showed us that, as did "Event horizon" decades later, though that was really more a horror movie set in space (then again, you could probably level that same charge at "Alien"...) The happy, jolly, everyone-gets-along-fine-whether-they-have-legs-or-tentacles idea was a nice one, but ultimately fatally flawed. After all, humans can't even get on with each other without trying to blow each other up or exterminate (!) one another, so what makes us think we'd get on with aliens? Or that they'd get on with us? Maybe they're the badasses of that sector of the galaxy. Either way, they're unlikely to just drop in for a cup of proto-tea and a mega-biscuit now are they?

So with Star Trek portaying its general idea of "humans are great and want to save everyone and don't you wish you were like us though if you're not that's ok because we're so tolerant of other cultures and lifeforms" all across our televisions and film screens, and movies like "The Matrix", "Dark City" and "Inception" years or even decades away, what serious science-fiction was there on the box? Although Ronald D. Moore later revamped it into a tough, dark, gritty and realistic portrayal of Man's struggle to survive against an implacable enemy, "Battlestar Galactica" in its original incarnation was little more than a shoot-em-up adventure buddy movie in space, on TV. "Buck Rogers in the 25th Century" was much worse, and although Star Trek would grow up with the third and fourth seasons and the newly-born Deep Space 9 would go on, after its second season, to redefine what mature, dark, intelligent televisual science-fiction could and would be, the airwaves were jammed with half-serious, half-comedic, in some cases downright awful attempts at sci-fi programs, as everyone tried to jump on the Star Wars/Star Trek bandwagon, making the fatal flaw of trying to be just like them.

Straczynski, seeing all this, did not want to go that route. He had come up watching the likes of "Hill Street Blues" reshape and change what was perceived as the general cop show, and he wanted to do the same for sci-fi with his own new show. This would be a heavily character-driven series, where people's decisions would weigh on future events, where one road taken might lead to war whereas the other might lead to peace, or something as simple as a chance meeting or offhand remark might have huge ramifications down the line. Most importantly, JMS decided to introduce, or at least expand on, the idea of a story arc. This was seen almost as television suicide by the networks: the idea that people would follow a series, noting all the little "clues" to future events, and that they would have to see almost every episode or risk missing a big piece of the puzzle and thereby end up being confused or missing a vital point, seemed to the execs beyond the American people's capabilities. More, it was not, they believed, what the audience wanted. They didn't dedicate their lives to a TV show. They watched and flipped between channels, and a series like Star Trek or Buck Rogers could certainly be watched one week and not for the next three, and then if they liked pick up after that without fearing they had missed some vital developments. By and large, sci-fi shows --- and this included Roddenberry's behemoth --- did not attach huge significance to events that transpired from week to week. The story arc would of course eventually prove to be the way to go, with later series like "Lost" and even "24", two of the most successful shows ever on US TV, requiring constant, regular viewing.

The first to do so of that franchise was Deep Space 9, where once it got into the main plot, there were standalone episodes, but even then something might happen in one of them that would reflect back in future ones. But the series followed a basic storyline, and like reading a novel, you couldn't just pick it up again three chapters in and know what was going on. Of all the series at the time on TV, sci-fi or otherwise, DS9 was the closest in terms of structure to what Babylon 5 would become.

And there was some controversy surrounding both series, as they hit the air around the same time. Not only that, Paramount --- who produced the Star Trek franchise --- had been offered the chance to back Babylon 5 but passed, and then mere months later announced the debut of their new Star Trek series. Both were set on space stations --- the first time any sf TV show had been located such a place --- and both would have major, galaxy-spanning wars and draw on elements of ideologies and religious themes throughout their run. Both would allow for major characters to be killed off, and of course as already mentioned both would follow a series arc. The similarities have been a topic od contention and hot debate between opposing fans of the series, but I'm not going to concern myself with them here, as I don't feel they're relevant to this article.

And so, on February 22 1993, the lead-in pilot movie for the series, originally just called "Babylon 5" but later changed to "The Gathering", aired on Warner Bros PTEN channel, although I have a personal story about that. Living as I do in Ireland I of course had and have no access to the US networks, and happened to stumble across the movie in a video (look it up) rental shop and thought it looked good. Taking it home and watching it I was rapt, and thought my god how can someone not make a series out of this? It seemed to be setup for at least a sequel, with its closing line "Babylon 5 is open for business!" and I just thought damn it, another great movie that could have led to a series, and left it at that. Well, I didn't. When I brought the video back I asked the guy behind the counter if he knew if there were any more movies, or a series even, and he grunted (no doubt very interested in my query as he carefully polished the slipcase on "Vampire serial killer babes IV: Fangs Baby" or some such nonsense) that he didn't know. Substitute the word know for the word care and I think we had a better and more honest answer to my question.

So home I went, dejected but not surprised. Surprise was, however, to the nth degree when some months later Channel 4 announced a brilliant new science-fiction series coming soon, called, yeah, "Babylon 5"! I could not believe it, and quickly set about making sure I had enough blank tapes (I said, look it up! What do you think Wiki is for?) to ensure I recorded every episode, as through some cruel caprice of the gods it was airing at something like 5pm, while I was still at work. Ah, but with a video recorder (look, I'm getting really tired of you...) there was no reason I should miss a moment of what I felt sure would be my new favourite science-fiction programme!

As, of course, it proved to be.
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Last edited by Trollheart; 10-05-2013 at 05:20 AM.
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