February 22, 2013, marks the 20th anniversary of the premiere of Babylon 5: The Gathering, the pilot film for what would eventually become the Babylon 5 television series. The show arguably changed the way narrative television works, and Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski also changed the rules for TV creators by actively engaging his fanbase online during the show's production.
Straczynski's online discussions reveal how drastically Babylon 5 changed from its initial pilot to its actual premiere a year later. Archived and broken down by thread at JMSNews.com and by episode at The Lurker's Guide to Babylon 5, these discussions offer a rare and fascinating glimpse into the day-to-day evolution of an innovative television series. Indeed, Straczynski's diary of Babylon 5's inception is almost as triumphant, tragic, hope-filled and heartbreaking as the show itself.
And So, It Begins
"For the fans: no cute robots, no kids." (JMSNews 12/4/1991)
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 scifi shows both)
3) It would have to take an adult approach to scifi and attempt to do for scifi 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
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 heroes and villains, simplistic plots and storytelling that wrapped everything up neatly at the end of each episode.
Years earlier, television police dramas had found themselves in a similar predicament. Speaking of the evolution of police dramas and their relation to Babylon 5, Straczynski wrote: "[Hill Street Blues] 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)
More than anything else, the idea that heroes are found in the most unlikely places is what distinguished Babylon 5 from its forebears. But who were these unlikely heroes? And how did their story evolve in the early development of the show?
"A destination may be fixed on the horizon... but sometimes the most fun you have is getting lost from time to time on the way there." (JMSNews 1/16/1995)
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: Doctor Benjamin Kyle is replaced by Doctor Stephen Franklin, Lt. Commander Laurel Takashima is replaced by Lt. Commander Susan Ivanova and telepath Lyta Alexander (left) is replaced by telepath 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.
Additional 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 was on a diplomatic mission and subject to bureaucratic oversight, 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.
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, planetary explorer Carolyn Sykes (Blaire Baron.) When Baron didn't return to the show, her character was retconned over with Catherine Sakai, also a planetary explorer, also Sinclair's love interest. When Sinclair was ultimately 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 (left), 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 dialogue 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 until she returns corrupted by the Shadows (except in a brief video log), Straczynski put the entire emotional burden of this storyline on John Sheridan and Delenn, with whom Sheridan had fallen in love. 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'd seen Anna endure.
This made the casting of Bruce Boxleitner's wife Melissa Gilbert in the role of Anna a particularly nice touch. Knowing that we are watching a real-life married couple helps restore some of the emotional impact lost by not making Anna a regular character.
"[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. That war ended ten years earlier with the surprise surrender of the Minbari right at their moment of victory.
Delenn was originally intended to be male but was always going to be played by 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... 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... that sense that your eyes and your brain are in conflict somewhere about what you're seeing." (JMSNews 8/9/1992)
Sadly, what the left hand of darkness gives, the right hand often takes away. For purely technical reasons, what would have been a groundbreaking moment in transgendered science fiction was not to be. The voice alteration technology needed to make Delenn sound male simply wasn't up to the task and Straczynski ultimately chose to make Delenn unambiguously female when the series premiered: "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 the premiere episode a year later, her jaw and nose are 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 Minbari to human feels less radical than it may have been, had she been the more androgynous Delenn of The Gathering.
"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 ambassador for the Narn, 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 Delenn's.
While it's clear that Straczynski 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, Straczynski 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 scenery-chewing villain Straczynski describes. When negotiating with telepath Lyta Alexander for the use of her DNA to breed Narn telepaths, he cannot resist offering her additional money for a "natural" mating. You stay classy, G'Kar. And 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.
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."
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 nuanced, 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 general theme but also in specific execution led some partisans to accuse Paramount of outright stealing Babylon 5's production plan after passing on the project some time earlier. For his part, Straczynski 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 seemed to stem more from Paramount's refusal to alter the details of Deep Space Nine once the similarities became apparent. Straczynski felt that the similarities between the shows would generate confusion among fans and Paramount's stubbornness stemmed from an arrogant sense of entitlement that the Star Trek franchise "owned" the television space opera market: "I know full well that even if the Warners PR machine got working 24 hours a day on this, half of all viewers will 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 September 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 Straczynski succeeded in his mission to not "lose it," the prosecution offers his sign off: "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)
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. Addressing concerns raised by Majel Barrett-Roddenberry about conflict between the shows, Straczynski 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)
If Deep Space Nine was an obstacle to Babylon 5, it was only because of the very prejudice Straczynski set out to confront in the first place, namely that no one competes with Star Trek for the TV science fiction audience. Ultimately, he 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. 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. As the old Vorlon proverb goes: understanding is a three edged sword, your side, their side...and the truth.
Jason Shankel is a writer and creative developer who ran to the rock to hide his face, but the rock cried out "no hiding place."
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