The Strange And Secret Evolution of Babylon 5

The Strange And Secret Evolution of Babylon 5



 

“All of life can be broken down to moments of transition or moments of revelation; this had the feeling of both.” - G’Kar, “Za’ha’dum”


Feb 22, 2013 marked the twentieth anniversary of the premiere of Babylon 5: The Gathering, the pilot film for what would eventually become the Babylon 5 television series. Not only did Babylon 5 up the ante for long-form storytelling on television, the show’s creator, J. Michael Straczynski, also broke new ground in television production by actively engaging his fanbase online during the show’s production and pre-production phases.

 

In the years since Babylon 5, show runners like Joss Whedon, JJ Abrams, Vince Gilligan and Kurt Sutter have followed in Straczynski’s footsteps, each in their way adhering to the principle that good show runners promote their shows while great show runners (also) promote themselves.

JMS’s discussions, archived and broken down by thread at JMSNews.com and by episode at The Lurker’s Guide to Babylon 5, offer a rare and fascinating glimpse into the day-to-day evolution of an innovative television series. Part publicity travelogue, part television production colloquium, part frontline report on the bleeding edge of CGI and digital editing, part confessional, part flame war, Straczynski’s diary of Babylon 5’s inception reads almost as triumphant, tragic, hope-filled and maddening as the show itself.

Noted here are moments of transition and moments of revelation in the evolution of Babylon 5 from The Gathering to the premiere of the series a year later.

And So, It Begins

Frustrated with the stagnation of science fiction television, Straczynski had set the following criteria for his show:

1) It would have to be good science fiction 2) It would have to be good television (rarely are SF shows both) 3) It would have to take an adult approach to SF and attempt to do for SF television what Hill Street Blues did for cop shows 4) It would have to be affordable 5) It would have to look unlike anything ever seen before on TV 6) It would present not just individual stories but present those stories against a much broader canvas (JMSNews 11/20/91)

An impressive list to say the least, but it was with his final criterion, posted two weeks later, that JMS truly captured the significance of what he was trying to accomplish: “for the fans, no cute robots, no kids.” (JMSNews 12/4/1991)

While science fiction literature had long ago matured into a genre fit for adults, science fiction television had stalled in a state of suspended adolescence, dominated by cleanly defined “good guys” and “bad guys” and simplistic adventure stories. Similarly, television police dramas had for years lagged far behind crime literature in sophistication of character and plot. The gritty, realistic crime stories presented in novels was absent on television, where (in the words of LA Confidential narrator Danny DeVito) “cops walk on water as they keep the city clean of crooks.”

Speaking of the evolution of police dramas and their relation to Babylon 5, Straczynski said: “Someone said recently of HILL STREET something rather profound, I thought at the time. That it was about the redefinition of heroes; the hero as bureaucrat (Furillo), the hero as ordinary man (Hill and Renko), the hero as psycho (Belker), the hero as sleazebag (Buntz), and that genuinely struck me as the core of that show...that heroes aren't always what we think they're supposed to be, and that there is that spark that can be found in the unlikeliest of places.” - (JMSNews 9/28/1992)

How did the characters on Babylon 5 evolve during the production of The Gathering and over the year leading up to the start of the show?

The Trapdoors

Babylon 5 was to be a “novel for television” (JMSNews 1/13/1993) with a defined beginning, middle and end to be played out over multiple seasons.

“The trouble, of course,” wrote Straczynski, “is that unlike writing a novel, where characters exist only on a sheet of paper, actors...can get sick, they can get into contract disputes, they can get hit by meteors...Consequently, in drafting the story for Babylon 5, I made sure...there is a ‘trap door’ built into the storyline for every character.” (JMSNews 5/19/1994)

A trap door is a character who may fill in for another and keep the story moving forward. A number of trap doors are set off between The Gathering and the premiere of the main series a year later. The doctor is replaced with Stephen Franklin, the second in command with Susan Ivonova and telepath Lyta Alexander is replaced by Talia Winters. When Andrea Thompson later left the show to join NYPD Blue, Patricia Tallman reprised her role as Lyta and finished off the telepath storyline, making her the only character on the show to execute the difficult “double trap door” maneuver.

In addition, trap doors in the form of assistants and attachés were added for each of the core ambassadors: Lennier of the Minbari was Delenn’s trap door, Na’Toth of the Narn was G’Kar’s, Vir of the Centauri was Londo’s. Since each ambassador is on a diplomatic mission and subject to bureaucracy, this scheme made it plausible to continue the storylines should any of the ambassadors leave the show. Thankfully, none did, and as a result the show had a rich stock of supporting characters to carry it forward.

But of all the trapdoors, the trickiest one was the door that was never meant to open: Jeffrey Sinclair, or more specifically, Jeffrey Sinclair’s love interest.

One of the major plotlines on Babylon 5 involves the discovery of Za’ha’dum, the homeworld of an ancient and malevolent race known as “the Shadows.”Originally, this discovery was to be made by Sinclair’s on-again-off-again romantic interest, Caroyln Sykes (Blaire Baron.) When Baron didn’t return to the show, her character was replaced with Catherine Sakai, also a planetary explorer, also Sinclair’s love interest. And when Sinclair was replaced with John Sheridan, the planetary explorer becomes Sheridan’s wife, Anna.

By the time the role of “commander’s love interest who discovers Z’ha’dum” fell to Anna Sheridan, there simply wasn’t time for that aspect of the story to unfold at a natural pace. We only hear about Anna’s disappearance retrospectively, with most of the creepy Shadow-inspired storylines having fallen to Mr. Morden, one of Anna’s colleagues who becomes errand boy to the Shadows.

Had Catherine Sakai or Carolyn Sykes remained on the show, the story may well have unfolded very differently. By transferring this storyline to a character who is not seen (except in a brief video log) until she returns corrupted by Shadows, JMS put the entire emotional burden of this storyline on John Sheridan. We the audience had no relationship with Anna Sheridan, so we could only feel the horror and loss of John’s predicament through Bruce Boxleitner’s performance, not through anything we’ve seen Anna endure.

This made the casting Melissa Gilbert, Bruce Boxleitner’s wife, in the role of Anna a particularly nice touch. Knowing that we are really watching a married couple helps restore some of the emotional impact lost by not making Anna a regular character.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L-enNj3gnZk

Delenn

“[The Minbari ambassador’s] name is Delenn. And he stays very close to Commander Sinclair.” (JMSNews 12/31/91)

Delenn (Mira Furlan, Lost) is the ambassador of the Minbari, an ancient, secretive and mysterious race against whom the humans had fought a long and bloody war which ended ten years earlier with the surprise surrender of the Minbari right at their moment of final victory.

Delenn was originally intended to be male but was always going to be cast as a female. The intention was that he would transform into a female in the episode “Chrysalis,” where he takes on human characteristics in order to act as a bridge between our two species.

What we have, basically, is a female actor playing a male character. Women simply *move* differently than men do; the gestures, the tilt of the head, the smile, it's just a shade different. So you now take that, and wrap it inside a male character, aided by prosthetics to make the face and body more masculine. Now, when you look at the finished product, you are looking at a male, but there's something wrong about it somewhere, and it makes you a little uncertain. The first time I saw Mira in full makeup, it looked great. And there was something very unusual about it, that sense that your eyes and your brain are in conflict somewhere about what you're seeing. - JMSNews (8/9/1992)

Sadly, what would have been a groundbreaking moment in transgendered science fiction was not to be, for purely technical reasons. The voice alteration technology needed to make Delenn sound male simply wasn’t up to the task and JMS ultimately chose to make Delenn unambiguously female from Midnight on the Firing Line on.

We've now gone through about every possible electronic alteration, and frankly, none of them sound as convincing as I'd like. Many of them sound *okay*, but we've taken a hard and fast position on this show that "okay" is simply not sufficient. So we've decided to leave Delenn female. (JMSNews 12/14/1992)

The remnants of “male Delenn” can still be seen in The Gathering. Delenn’s facial prosthetic extends around her jawline and down her nose, giving her face a more pronounced masculine quality. Delenn’s gender is never mentioned in The Gathering. In Midnight on the Firing Line, a year later, Delenn’s jaw is unmodified, her features more distinctly female and her gender is explicitly referenced as female.

The effect of this change can be seen most profoundly at the start of the second season, when Delenn emerges from the Chrysalis with human characteristics. The transition from season one Delenn feels less radical than it may have been had she been the more androgynous Delenn of The Gathering.

G’Kar

I have a strong hunch that Londo and G'Kar are going to be real break-out characters. (JMSNews 8/13/92)

G’Kar is the Narn ambassador. The Narn are a proud race of warriors whose homeworld had until recently been occupied by the Centauri, an aristocratic race of imperialists represented on Babylon 5 by Londo Molari. The evolution of G’Kar, whose name was originally spelled “Jackarr” (JMSNews 6/17/1992) went a bit more according to plan than the evolution of Delenn.

While it’s clear that JMS was getting a good deal of traction with his “Hill Street Blues...in SPACE!” premise, it’s also true that TV executives like easily defined heroes and villains. G’Kar represented a kind of a false flag, a comic villain who would initially provide some easy shenanigans but would over time evolve into something more.

Speaking of the role that G’Kar plays in the story, JMS said:

We've all seen the SF standard of The Villain Who Chews Scenery...I wanted to take that and use it just long enough to get folks comfortable with the convention...then pull the rug out from under them. (JMSNews 5/1/92)

G’Kar was set up in The Gathering to be the villain throughout the first season. He is seen negotiating with telepath Lyta Alexander for the use of her DNA to breed Narn telepaths, Narn telepaths having disappeared a thousand years earlier, and cannot resist offering her more money for a “natural” mating. Tasked with investigating the poisoning of the Vorlon ambassador, Kosh, G’Kar uses the assignment as an opportunity to grandstand and build alliances against the Centauri.

 

Throughout the first season and a half, G’Kar is essentially as JMS describes, a scenery chewing villain, played joyously by the late Andreas Katsulas. As the conflict between the Narn and Centauri becomes the key proxy war with the rise of the Shadows, G’Kar transitions from self-serving political player concerned with doing well to a beleaguered military commander concerned with doing good and ultimately to a respected spiritual leader concerned with doing right. It is the best and most touching character arc on the show. There is little evidence in The Gathering of the soulful, introspective warrior of peace whose monologue closed Babylon 5’s peak dramatic episode, Za’ha’dum: “no one knows the shape of [the] future...we only know it is always borne in pain.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dUbFHOXJaHI

The Other Show

“Honestly...you people get worried by the damndest things sometimes....” (JMSNews 9/30/1993)

We cannot end our discussion of Babylon 5 without bringing up the wormhole in the room, Star Trek: Deep Space 9.

In the midst of Babylon 5’s development, Paramount began production on their second next generation Star Trek show, Deep Space Nine. DS9 was to be a grittier Star Trek with more emphasis on long form storytelling, more conflicted characters, deeper exploration of a smaller number of regular alien races and fewer “alien of the week” episodes.

Similarities between the shows not only in theme, but also in specific execution, led some to accuse Paramount of outright stealing Babylon 5’s production plan after passing on the project. For his part, JMS never goes so far as to accuse Paramount of theft, writing “I have never, *ever* felt, or believed, or thought, that Berman or Pillar(sic) EVER saw or knew about the B5 information. Had anyone suggested anything of a less than straightforward nature, they would have refused; of that I have no doubt.” (JMSNews 6/19/1995)

His annoyance seems to stem more from the feeling that Paramount, having known that Babylon 5 was in development for years, should have chosen to modify the premise and details of Deep Space Nine once the similarities became apparent and that their stubborn refusal to do so stemmed from an arrogant sense of entitlement the Star Trek franchise had over space science fiction TV.

JMS writes that he “[knew] full well that even if the Warners PR machine got working 24 hours a day on this, half of all viewers [would] see this show, coming out after DS9, and think it's just a last-minute knockoff or ripoff of DS9”. (JMSNews 9/27/1992)

It’s one of the worst nightmares a writer can face: struggling for years to develop an idea only to be scooped, whether out of theft or innocent coincidence, by a more established name, and the raw emotion it stirred up clearly took its toll on Straczynski. His message dated 9/23/1992 begins: “I am trying very, very, *very* hard not to lose it as this moment” and is followed by an itemized list of the similarities between the shows: DS9 takes place at a port of call for business people, smugglers and diplomats, has a Promenade that resembles the Babylon 5 Zoculo (then called the Bazaar), has a casino, a bar, a brothel, is situated near a hyperspace jump point, features a shapeshifter, a female second in command and an unmarried commanding officer struggling with war trauma.

As for whether JMS succeeded in his mission to not “lose it,” the prosecution offers his signoff: “Hey, Paramount! Phthpfttttt!”

Two days later, he seems to be more optimistic about moving past the superficial similarities and allowing the two shows to evolve on their own: “the other show is about a space station at which stories take place;” he writes, “ours is a show about one particular story, one saga, which happens to take place on a space station.” (JMSNews 9/25/1992)

Addressing concerns raised by Majel Barrett about conflict between the shows, JMS reassured: “Majel should have no reason to be frightened; as I said, it would be only wonderful for me (and, I suspect, viewers) if both shows were around and healthy five years from now.” (JMSNews 11/9/1992) In the end, both shows were successful on their own terms and an armistice was reached when Majel Barrett-Roddenberry aptly appeared on Babylon 5 as the widow of the Centauri emperor, a man dedicated to peace and reconciliation.

If Deep Space Nine was an obstacle to Babylon 5, it was only because of the very prejudice JMS set out to confront in the first place, namely that no one competes with Star Trek for the TV science fiction audience.

Ultimately, JMS was right that the superficial similarities between the shows were just that: superficial, and that given time to evolve along their separate paths, those similarities would become decreasingly important.

Deep Space Nine may have been a frustrating obstacle to Babylon 5, but by succeeding right alongside “the other show,” Babylon 5 ultimately achieved more than it set out to: it proved that not only can good science fiction make for good television, but it also doesn’t have to be Star Trek to do it.