The early 1990s were not a good time for science fiction on television outside the Star Trek franchise, with the genre seemingly out of favour with the networks. And yet somehow writer-producer J Michael Straczynski, fresh off a successful run revitalising Murder, She Wrote, got Warner Bros’ PTEN network to fund the production of probably the most ambitious television space opera of all time – Babylon 5, currently just coming to an end of reruns on the UK Watch satellite channel.
Straczynski’s aim was laughably, absurdly ambitious: to tell the story of the rise and fall of huge empires across space, yet do it on a shoestring television budget and over five seasons. This was long before the likes of HBO got into throwing tens of millions of dollars at Game of Thrones, and must have seemed like sheer folly to everyone watching on from the industry sidelines. if the practical concerns weren’t enough to daunt Straczynski and his partners, then the naked enmity coming from the Trek camp at this incursion into their final frontier was clear from the very start.
It didn’t help that the Star Trek team was just launching its latest addition to the franchise called Deep Space Nine, which was about life on board a space station, because that was perilously close to Babylon 5′s own core concept. In this case, the titular location was “a port of call, home away from home for diplomats, hustlers, entrepreneurs, and wanderers” and something of a 23rd century equivalent of the United Nations. The first season spent much of its time establishing its characters and an initially bewildering array of different alien races – including the elegant Minbari, the warrior Narns, the faded Imperialism of the Centauri and the enigmatic all-powerful Vorlons as well as the Humans themselves spreading out from Earth – but the single-episode stories were also tied together with the overarching mystery of what exactly had happened at the climax of the recent Human/Minbari war that come alarmingly close to resulting in the total destruction of Earth.
At the centre of that mystery was the original series star Michael O’Hare as station commander Jeffrey Sinclair. A respected New York stage actor with limited TV experience at the time, O’Hare decided to leave after the first year by mutual agreement (he would return in cameo appearances) and a new lead was brought in. Established TV star Bruce Boxleitner as Captain John Sheridan proved a much warmer and accessible presence at the heart of the show alongside Claudia Christian, Jerry Doyle, Richard Briggs, Bill Mumy, Jeff Conaway and Stephen Furst. The show was also the first starring role on US television for Croatian actress Mira Furlan, whose experiences of having just had to flee Civil war in her native land added immeasurably to the emotional depths of a particularly fine performance.
Furlan was one of several respected actors labouring under a ton of make-up and prosthetics to play an alien; arguably having the worst of it in the regular cast was Andreas Katsulas playing the Narn ambassador G’Kar, but as far as having a mountain to climb in terms of believability it was Peter Jurasik as his Centauri equivalent Londo Mollari, labouring under (intentionally) farcical crested hair, sprouting eyebrows and fangs. Many prospective viewers of the series were doubtless put off watching the show by the menagerie of aliens on display here, and also by the cheap-looking sets, the occasionally clunky writing and some terrible wooden performances of supporting guest cast members.
But for those prepared to invest in the characters and who stuck with it, something quite extraordinary happened: Straczynski’s vision of a ‘TV novel’ told over five years gradually coalesced and overcame the inevitable production limitations. The characters transcended their initial outlines and the problems with the heavy make-up, and some truly inspired writing and performances ensued. The plot strand that caught the early imagination of the fans was the rise of the sinister unseen Shadows represented by their ‘associate’ Mr Morden (recurring guest star Ed Wasser playing it memorably as a silky smooth, oily travelling salesman), but the build-up of problems on the Earth home front as an increasingly fascist government rose to dictatorial power was also compellingly laid out in increments over the second season.
The third season saw everything that had previously been bubbling under the surface suddenly break out into the open: full-blown war with the Shadows and Babylon 5 forced to declare independence from Earth. The fourth year then depicted the consequences of those events and brought both the Shadow War and the Earth War to their climactic resolution. Straczynski was forced to truncate his original plans for a five-year run after the network told him they were calling it a day after that, but after having wrapped up the storylines to a satisfactory point Straczynski was then told there would be a season five after all. That required some fast-thinking to pull off and sadly meant the loss of one of the show’s most popular characters, the deadpan Commander Susan Ivanova played by Claudia Christian who was replaced by former The Colbys star Tracey Scroggins.
I watched and supported the show at the time when it aired in the 6pm spot on Channel 4: season 1 was inevitably very uneven as the show bedded in and laid its groundwork. Now, looking back in the recent syndicated rerun on UK Watch, it’s hard to believe it survived into a second year – but then again, just watch the quality of the first two years of Star Trek: The Next Generation! After that the show’s epic novel sweep took off and I was a firm fan for the duration, until personal events in 1997 meant that I ended up unable to see the rest of the show after the conclusion of the Shadow War early in season 4. Knowing the troubles Straczynski had with getting a fifth season I rather blithely assumed that from there on it was just a load of ‘odds and ends’ that had been squeezed out of the original run and therefore largely unnecessary spare parts not worth bothering with.
In fact watching the show in daily syndication has shown me that the series really hit its stride with the beginning of season 3 and then carried on with a great sense of momentum not only through the next two years but right into season 5 as well. Yes, the stories might not have been ‘essential’ to the core story and there are a higher number of experimental ‘bottle shows’ than usual, but the episodes also pay off long-standing storylines. There’s an uprising of the telepaths who had been a key part of the series since the pilot movie, and the impact of the necessary comeuppance for the Centauri Republic over their earlier complicity in the Shadow War. On the way the series established the most sublimely wonderfully Odd Couple relationship between the two former bitter adversaries G’Kar and Londo, and also delivered the conclusion to Londo’s story arc. It’s one of the most effective and well-depicted bits of writing I’ve seen on television in the way it takes the gambling, drinking buffoon with the absurd hair and eyebrows that we met at the start only to deliver the final sight of a tragic, broken figure who had achieved all his dreams and yet ended up with only his nightmares for company as he becomes Emperor – fantastic work all round by Jurasik and Straczynski.
One thing that I hadn’t appreciated at the time when I originally watched Babylon 5 was how influenced it was by the great fantasy stories and in particular by The Lord of the Rings. Most obviously there is the presence of the secret army of Rangers, but the parallels run everywhere with the Minbari analogous to Tolkien’s elves, the Narn similar to the Dwarves, and the Centauri story matching that of the decline of the old great cities of Men; and when the Vorlons decide to pack up and leave they talk about going “beyond the Rim” in much the same way that Tolkien’s heroes head into the West when their own time is done. I didn’t pick these up at the time because I didn’t read The Lord of the Rings until Peter Jackson’s film was imminent in the cinemas, but armed with that knowledge now makes the whole run of Babylon 5 that much richer to revisit.
Perhaps the thing that Babylon 5 will be best remembered for more than anything else is its revolutionary approach to FX. Prior to this point any shots of spaceships would have been done the traditional way using models, but that was far too costly and time-consuming for Babylon 5′s minuscule budget and production schedule. They gambled instead on new technology and in particular by opting to use a network of Commodore Amiga PCs to create and render the scenes set in space. It was the only way to visualise the space operatic nature of Straczynski’s concept, and while the effects inevitably look dated today (even comparing against video games, let alone modern TV series and movies) they were still hugely impressive at the time. Moreover they freed the look of the show from the restrictions of building physical models – the concepts for the nightmarish Shadow vessels for example would have been impossible under old-style traditional methods. The ships of each alien race were able to have their own distinctive look and feel, and new ways of depicting realistic strategies for space warfare could be developed all of which added immeasurably to the texture of the show as a whole. If you’ve seen the Battlestar Galactica reboot then you’ve seen one of the legacies of Babylon 5′s radical approach to creating FX.
Initially, the Star Trek team sneered at the use of this low-rent visual effects technology and declared that they would never use CGI in their shows. Of course we all know how things went from there and today computer effects are endemic and indeed crucial to shows such as Stargate SG-1, Farpoint and Defiance being viable in the first place. Even the Star Trek franchise was using them within two or three years for Deep Space 9 and Voyager. The breach between the two great science fiction franchises of the 1990s was eventually healed, helped by original Trek star Walter Koenig taking on a recurring role as evil telepath agent Al Bester and sealed by a guest appearance by none other than Majel Barrett, widow of Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. Babylon 5′s genre status was also boosted by the presence of legendary science fiction author Harlan Ellison as a creative consultant, and the show even boasted a season 5 episode written by Neil Gaiman – one of the few episodes not written by Straczynski himself, in a display of work ethic that would surely have impressed even notorious workaholic Russell T Davies.
Yes, the show has its clunkers here and there when the demands of weekly production meant that the final on-screen product failed to live up to the hopes of its creators. What show doesn’t, especially in such an ambitious and costly genre as science fiction? But the fact remains that it succeeds vastly more than it stumbles and the end result is an inspiration for anyone who dreams of getting a show made that everyone says just can’t be done. Straczynski got to achieve the dream with Babylon 5, and it’s worth going back and checking it out all over again from the start anytime you can.
Babylon 5 is just finishing its rerun on UK Watch (weekdays at 12noon and 5pm). It is available as individual season boxsets as well as the complete set consisting of all five seasons and several spin-off TV movies.