Late last year, I decided to close a major gap in my sci-fi television knowledge by burning through that other mid-90s space opera, Babylon 5. B5 has a cult following that I’ve never been a part of — I was too young to appreciate it first-run and it’s been available to stream only sporadically over the past decade. I recently had some time to kill and a good deal on a complete series set, so I finally took the plunge. Now that the series has just become readily available on a subscription service (HBO Max) for the first time in years, I find I’m on the fence as to whether or not to recommend it to new people. While I mostly enjoyed bingeing my way through its 110 episodes, one thought kept coming to mind throughout the entire experience — Babylon 5 is a prime candidate for a full-on remake.
I Certainly Wish It Was Less Relevant
Babylon 5 is the story of an eponymous space station that serves as a neutral base for trade and diplomacy between Earth and the community of alien cultures with whom humanity has become entangled in the 23rd century. At first a fairly low-stakes affair about the political intrigue between the major powers in the region, the story eventually explodes into a sprawling war epic in which they battle against an ancient and powerful enemy with all sentient life hanging in the balance. Victory will require that these squabbling factions put their differences aside and band together to defeat a threat that’s already nearly conquered the galaxy once before, generations ago. In between, there’s romance, betrayals, redemption, and more than a few Big Inspiring Speeches.
Long, complex epics about nations uniting against a common foe in a fantasy setting never really go out of style — B5 has a lot in common with The Lord of the Rings, the Mass Effect trilogy, and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (which aired concurrently to Babylon 5 and which some have alleged was the result of plagiarizing B5’s original pitch). But beyond that, Babylon 5’s other overarching plot — the rise of fascism on Earth — is more relevant now than when the series aired in the 1990s. Over the course of three seasons, the mostly unseen Earth President manipulates news to glorify himself and vilify his detractors, uses nationalism and xenophobia take hold over the public, and wields the military to crush dissent. Unwilling to stand by as EarthGov tightens its grip on its citizens, the crew of Babylon 5 resists, by which I don’t mean posting memes and hashtags online.
A Sky Without Stars
While the story of Babylon 5 is unquestionably timely, much of the actual production doesn’t hold up very well, beginning with the acting. As a lifelong Star Trek fan, I’m no stranger to broad performances in silly outfits and heavy makeup, and when struggling through the first two seasons of the series (before things really gets cooking) I had to ask myself whether or not this is how watching The Next Generation or Deep Space Nine might feel to someone who wasn’t indoctrinated as a kid. While that’s definitely a possibility, I don’t think it’s the whole truth. The problem with Babylon 5 is that the cast lacks a powerhouse lead actor who can bring out the best in everyone else. Both of the show’s leading men, Commanders Jeff Sinclair (Michael O’Hare, who left after the first season) and John Sheridan (Bruce Boxleitner) are on the bland side, with the latter only really coming to life via his love story with Delenn (Mira Furlan). Without a Sir Patrick Stewart or an Avery Brooks at the top of the call sheet, the whole cast suffers.
Babylon 5 has a sprawling ensemble befitting a modern cable drama, but only has a few characters who are all that interesting. Peter Jurasik and Andreas Katsulas are fantastic as rival diplomats Londo Mollari and G’Kar, outshining the rest of the cast by a light year, but they’re really only at their best when acting against each other. I’ve yet to mention Claudia Christian as Commander Susan Ivanova, Jerry Doyle as Michael Garibaldi, or the rest of the long term series regulars because, in truth, there is nothing to talk about. While there’s a lot of potential on paper, the characters are hampered by soapy or workmanlike performances by budget actors, and that goes double for guest stars. There’s an occasional quality one-off appearance from a Brad Dourif, Paul Winfield, or a very young Bryan Cranston, but many of the recurring bit characters (see Damian London as the Centauri Regent) are so hammy that they border on parody.
Put these characters — hell, even some of these same scripts! — in the hands of modern television acting talent, and you’ve already bumped the quality of the show significantly.
At Least You Can Play Wing Commander
The acting isn’t the only place where Babylon 5’s production falls short of its peers, let alone today’s television. B5 stretched a relatively small budget (between $650,000 and $850,000 an episode) as far as it would go, and it shows. While creator J. Michael Straczynski boasts about B5’s early adoption of computer-generated images of space effects, he really shouldn’t — the reason why Star Trek wouldn’t switch to CGI until half a decade later is because, even with their superior budget, it simply did not look good yet. Babylon 5’s space effects shots are more complex and dynamic than those on its rival show with a lot more moving pieces, but the models and elements themselves look like an early 90s PC game. No matter how cool the space battles ought to be in theory, there’s no weight or texture to anything. This problem also extends to green screen composites and digital set extensions — the technology to do this well on B5’s budget simply wasn’t there yet.
There’s admittedly a charm to the degree to which Babylon 5’s under-funded production is apparent on screen, a charm that’s compounded the more behind-the-scenes details I learned. It was shot in a former hot tub factory rather than on a studio lot, was one of the few original series airing on the doomed Prime Time Entertainment Network (which the series outlived), and was up against Star Trek at the height of its popularity. Straczynski cultivated this scrappy underdog perception and used it to rally fan support in a similar way to what Gene Roddenberry did for Trek in the late 1960s, by interacting with them directly and flattering them with personal attention years before social media made this commonplace. Unlike Roddenberry, however, Straczynski’s efforts didn’t transform his little engine into a big budget franchise.
More Like This:
- The Death and Life of Star Trek’s Utopian Fantasy
- A ‘Last of Us’ HBO Show Might Seem Redundant, But There Are Gaps Left to Fill
- Meet the Fuel Rats, the Players Making Elite: Dangerous a Little Safer
Adapting the Novel
Babylon 5 is written almost exclusively by creator J. Michael Straczynski, also known for his six-year run on Amazing Spider-Man and his collaboration with Lana and Lilly Wachowski on the criminally underrated Netflix series Sense8. Dissatisfied with the state of space sci-fi on television in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, Staczynski set out to create a complex, adult, Hill Street Blues in space. He created an unprecedented five-year story outline for what he called “a novel for television” with a definitive beginning, middle, and end, and contingency plans to accommodate the departure of each cast member in case of emergency. Through Straczynski’s web presence during B5’s run and the sale of script books afterwards, fans have become privy to just how many of these contingency plans had to be implemented, and the answer is “A Lot.” There was a great deal of cast turnover during its five seasons and a number of story arcs had to be truncated, dropped, or reassigned to other characters, likely diminishing their impact on the audience.
A few examples: When lead actor Michael O’Hare had to bow out after the first season, most of Commander Sinclair’s storylines got rewritten for his successor Commander Sheridan, with the threads that couldn’t be transferred being burned off in one (admittedly excellent) two-part episode. Actress Patricia Tallman was cast as telepath Lyta Alexander in the pilot movie but was unavailable for the series, so Andrea Thompson replaced her as a similar character, Talia Winters. When Thompson left the show to join the cast of NYPD Blue, her character was written out in a hurry and the only reason her storylines didn’t have to be transferred to a third actor was because Tallman became available to return as Lyta. All this is further complicated by the series being canceled during its fourth season, forcing Straczynski to compress the final act of the show, and then being suddenly un-canceled, leading to a weak fifth season that’s missing two more lead actors and feels like post-campaign DLC.
Having to adjust for unexpected production complications over an extended time period is to be expected and can even be part of the magic of television, but Babylon 5 is deliberately not like other television series. It is, in Straczynski’s own words, a novel, one that has yet to be adapted faithfully on screen. And the more I learn about the original plans, and the way the production had to undercut those plans due to circumstances beyond their control, the more I wish that I’d been able to see the show that they wanted to make. The Babylon 5 we got is a mostly solid, if very dated television series. But if you could make Babylon 5 today, as it was originally intended without compromises, it could be fucking killer.