Babylon 5 – Then and Now

Babylon 5. A groundbreaking show for its time and resources, season one left quite an impression on my twelve-year-old self at the time.

This January marked the 20th anniversary of the initial airing of its first season. I recently rewatched the entire five-year story arc on DVD, and just today I saw rumblings of the possibility of a theatrical reboot of the series.

“It can be a dangerous place… but it’s our last best hope for peace.”

And so it begins…

When Babylon 5 first aired, it was one-of-a-kind — “a shining beacon in space,” to steal a line from its opening monologue.

The show is widely credited as bringing CGI to sci-fi television. Believe it or not, visual effects like the one above were cutting-edge when the show aired. Virtually all the other successful space sci-fi television of the time used physical spaceship models. (Of course, virtually all the other successful space sci-fi had the words “Star” and “Trek” somewhere in the title.)

It wasn’t just about visuals. In a time of episodic television, Babylon 5 was planned from the beginning as a five-year story arc. Story arcs became popular in SF shows around this time: Star Trek: Deep Space 9 also introduced several story arcs, as did The X Files, which began its run around the same time. Withinn the show, these arcs made it possible to string out complicated storylines across seasons, and enabled deep character development.

Babylon 5 also heavily featured a used future quite different from the shiny, squeaky clean image of Star Trek: The Next Generation, which was just ending its run when Babylon 5 started airing. Other shows had starships with artificial gravity banking and turning like fighter planes; Babylon 5 had ships with spinning sections, and Starfury fighters that (mostly) obeyed Newtonian mechanics.

The strong cast of characters, developing storylines, and groundbreaking-for-their-day special effects kept me watching the show as a kid. Despite its unenviable and way-past-my-bedtime 2AM syndicated timeslot, I always set the VCR so that I could continue following what its creator often described as a “visual novel”.

What made it possible for such a different, low-budget syndicated show to complete a five-year run? The entire cast and crew deserve credit for this Herculean feat, but someone had to have the vision, the writing talent, and the determination to produce a five-year-long SF television saga. This nearly omnipotent being is known to the Babylon 5 loyal cult fandom by three letters: JMS.

There is a hole in your mind

Twenty years later, nostalgia comes easy. It wouldn’t be fair to sing the praises of Babylon 5 without also looking at its weaknesses.

For new viewers, the biggest problem is its dated visual effects. Graphics that were rendered on Amiga-based devices in the mid-90s simply don’t hold up well nowadays. Technology marches on, and the CGI doesn’t even hold a candle to what is rendered realtime in fairly old video games.

JMS also tends to write expository dialog. A lot. If you hear someone say “A thousand years ago…”, sit back and prepare for a bedtime story. This could have been worse, but the delivery (usually by Delenn) often saves the day.

Additionally, Babylon 5 spawned several TV movies, a spinoff series, and even occasional rumblings of a theatrical movie over the past sixteen years. Maybe it was executive meddling, maybe it’s because the movies did not — could not — tie into the story arcs that made the show so interesting, but most of the movies felt like postscripts. They might have been set in the B5 universe, but they weren’t really Babylon 5.

A dream given form

Did I mention that there’ve been plans for a theatrical movie in the past? I’m pretty sure I did. It would have been called Babylon 5: The Memory of Shadows — or at least that was its working title. The recent news concerns a reboot, so presumably it’s not based on that script.

A reboot could be a good thing. Rebooting gives us a chance to get away from that original B5 universe and see something new. JMS could take the story in a completely different direction. After all, twenty years is time enough to think of all that could have been… Without the baggage of the entire Babylon 5 backstory, and with a new cast, it would be possible to deliver a fresh perspective on a classic SF series.

Contrariwise, a reboot could go horribly wrong. The strength of Babylon 5 always seemed to be in its strong story arcs and characterization. The show’s ensemble cast of military officers, diplomats, and scoundrels would be very difficult to develop fully in a single feature-length movie. Further, the reboot has to walk a fine line: similar enough to the original to attract nostalgic fans, but independent enough to attract moviegoers who have never heard of Babylon 5.

So what would I hope for in a Babylon 5 reboot movie? Well… I’ll cover that another time.


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