Happy 20th Anniversary, Babylon 5

bab5

I wouldn’t be here now if the pilot for Babylon 5 hadn’t aired on February 22, 1993. The show spawned six television films and a spin-off series, Crusade, and garnered two Hugo awards, a Saturn award for Best Genre Cable/Syndicated Series, the E Pluribus Unum award for best TV drama series, several primetime Emmy nominations and one Emmy win for makeup.

For those who haven’t seen it or don’t remember, B5 was science fiction space opera set between the years 2258 and 2262. The title came from the name of the space station that was a center for trade, diplomacy and conflict between humans and several alien species. B5 was the first TV program to use CGI as the primary method for its visual effects, the first to use virtual sets, and one of the first shows to have a strong Internet presence.

Creator and executive producer J. Michael Straczynski wrote 92 of the 110 episodes of Babylon 5, including all 44 episodes in the epic third and fourth seasons. Other writers who contributed scripts to the show include Neil Gaiman, Peter Allen David, and D.C. Fontana. Fontana also wrote for the original Star Trek series.

JMS promised his viewers “no cute robots, no kids.” He wanted B5 to be mature science fiction television for adults, to transform the genre the way Hill Street Blues changed cop shows and to feature unlikely heroes with compelling character arcs, rather than simplistic good vs evil tropes. (See: The Strange, Secret Evolution of Babylon 5)

I grew up with science fiction, Star Wars, Twilight Zone reruns, Buck Rogers, Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek in the 1970s. I played with spaceships instead of Barbies. But in my teens and adult life, I wrote fantasy. For a job, I wrote non-fiction and, later, designed jewelry. Not exactly someone on her way to becoming a SF author.

In 2008, coworkers told my husband that B5 was some of the best SF TV ever made, if you can push through season one. So we watched it. A long chain of events led to my writing and publishing Stellarnet Rebel, and subsequently joining Contact-Infinite Futures, but B5 was the catalyst. G’kar was a template for my Duin, the space station Babylon 5 an inspiration for Asteria Colony, and the Lennier/Delenn/Sheridan triangle affected my choices when structuring the love story between Duin, J’ni and Belloc. The Stellarnet Series also features complex characters and storylines intended for mature readers.

Phoenix Comicon will host a B5 anniversary gathering of JMS and several cast members, including Bruce Boxleitner, Bill Mumy, Claudia Christian, Jerry Doyle, Mira Furlan, Walter Koenig, Pat Tallman and Peter Jurasik, on Memorial Day Weekend.  I so wish I could go to see them and other SF stars Jewel Staite (Kaylee in Firefly), Anthony Michael Hall (Weird Science, Edward Scissorhands), and Nichelle Nichols (Lt. Uhura in Star Trek) who will be attending the convention. But it’s just not going to happen. Anyone in Arizona, or nearby, and planning to attend?

What are your favorite SF TV shows? For the other authors out there, which SF movies, TV and books influenced your decision to write futuristic tales?

* * *

2012-jenJ.L. Hilton is the author of the Stellarnet Series published by Carina Press, including Stellarnet Rebel (January 2012) and Stellarnet Prince (November 2012), and she is a monthly contributor to the Contact-Infinite Futures blog. Her artwork is featured in the books Steampunk Style Jewelry and 1000 Steampunk Creations. Visit her at JLHilton.com or follow her on Google+, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Goodreads and deviantART.

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11 comments

  1. Babylon 5–definitely Babylon 5. It spoiled me for television SF from that point on. It introduced me to the possibilities of the genre like no other show that came before it could. Once I saw that series, it became the yardstick by which I measured everything that came after.

    Was the plot tightly written? Were there clues to long term arcs inserted in the story? Were the characters believable? Did they suffer obstacles and change and grow? Did they suffer consequences for their actions or even die? Was the wider setting believable? Did the politics sound plausible? Was the science reasoned out or was it flashy technobabble?

    For me, Firefly was the series that measured up.

    How? The writing for both shows was incredibly good, but Firefly had room for others to play in it. Why was that important? Speaking strictly as a fan of the show and a writer-by-hobby, it’s important because it allows me to *live* there vicariously through the stories I write for it. It’s just an expression of my fandom to write stories for the shows I love.

    Now, I love Babylon 5. I love how tightly its written (up to Season 5 which, alas, read looser due to a lot of things beyond Straczynski’s control). However, it is a story with a definite beginning, middle, and end. There were few gaps to explore as a writer, fan-fic or otherwise. Perhaps it’s because Firefly was cancelled well before its time that the setting is easier to write in–fewer episodes means fewer avenues closed by the show’s continuity. Or perhaps it’s simply because the two shows inhabit two different universes and different rules apply.

    Nevertheless, both shows are the standard by which I measure science fiction as a viewer, a writer, and a fan. Furthermore, I believe had it not been for the trail blazed by Babylon 5, television executives might very well have given science fiction genre a pass … and that would have made the universe a poorer place.

    1. Though I have a vague memory of seeing a few B5 episodes in the 1990s, I didn’t watch the whole series until after I saw Firefly, and I now realize that I had confused parts of B5 with ST:DS9 (which I also didn’t watch in its entirety until a couple years ago). So, for me, Firefly was the yardstick and B5 had to measure up. 🙂 I remember thinking, “THIS is actually a show that I love more than Firefly,” and I didn’t think that would ever be possible. Firefly inspired me to design jewelry for Browncoats, and I totally agree it is a fun, wide open universe to play in (so true!). But B5 is what made me love SF so hard, I had to write the Stellarnet Series.

      1. Babylon 5 renewed my faith in televised SF. I had become disappointed in the then-current offerings but was going along with them, despite. B5 offered a different perspective of humanity in space and all the faults and foibles of its characters rang truer to me than on those on the other shows. The characters got me in the door, the writing made me sit down and listen, and the quality overall made me come back week after week.

        I watched Babylon 5 during its original run, catching it initially toward the end of the first season. Back then, they’d rerun the episodes during the hiatus, so I got caught up on what I’d missed before the second season began. By then I was completely hooked.

        Firefly didn’t happen for me until well after it was cancelled. I caught the pilot episode in August of 2005 when Sci-Fi Channel ran the series prior to the release of the movie in September. By the time the pilot cut to commecial after the teaser, I was hooked. I’ve been a Browncoat ever since.

        If I had to compare what I liked between the shows, I’d have to say that Babylon 5 attracted me for the sheer grandness of it. Aliens and Humans. Faster than Light travel and communications. Epic battles. Ancient histories and myths. Stunning space shots (from the Hubble Space Telescope).

        Firefly was cozier, almost claustrophobic. Dingy spaceships and settings. No aliens or FTL anything. Compared to Babylon 5, it was almost like theatre with the actors sitting on boxes on a bare stage. Even so, the bread crumb trail for the Blue Sun/Miranda arc was being laid from the pilot on, hinting at something that would later be revealed as vast and sweeping, shadowy and sinister. I can only imagine what the show would have done with it across several seasons instead of a single two-hour movie.

        It’s been ten years since the show first aired and almost eight years since the movie’s release. I don’t know what the show will tackle if it’s revived. I only know I want more of iit. Unlike Babylon 5, whose story got to play to its natural end, Firefly was cut short, leaving us with the what-ifs and if-onlys.

        I will always remember Babylon 5 with affection. I got to read to the end of that book, put it on the shelf, and walk away satisfied. Firefly will be remembered with regret for the opposite outcome, even as I continue to enjoy it for the series it was and could have been.

      2. Okay, you ladies have convinced me to finally watch all of B5. I bought the first series a few years back on DVD, loved it, but couldn’t afford the rest. I particularly liked how mature the themes were, how politically charged much of it was, and the hotness of Claudia Christian. So I’m going to dive back in and enjoy the rest.

      3. LOL. Yes, Claudia Christian stole every scene she was in. Hell, she didn’t even have to say anything. Just raise that eyebrow of hers. I’ve always suspected Ivanova was Straczynski’s favorite and when he wrote her lines, he let his inner snark come out and play. I can’t imagine any other actor who could have delivered those lines as well or as memorably as Claudia Christian. I will always wonder what Season Five would have been like had she stayed with the show, even though her absence gave Patricia Tallman a chance to step up and really shine.

      4. I loved the stoic Russian thing she had going. It made her prickly to outsiders, but fiercely loyal to her friends. Three more seasons to look forward to, and then the one without Claudia. :grins:

        Who’s your fave B5 character?

      5. Ivanova.

        Period.

  2. And no, I won’t be going to Phoenix Con. Hell, I won’t be going to the Browncoat Ball in Phoenix, either, however much I’d love to go to both. The travel expenses from where I live is just too prohibitive.

  3. Oh, BABYLON 5! 😀 We adored B5 in our house and we even still have the original SHVS tapes that my partner taped all the episodes on, even though we then bought the whole series on DVD at our earliest opportunity!

  4. Star Trek: TNG was the big one for me growing up. I don’t think I’d be writing SF without that. It has a lot of similarities with B5–the politics, the social allegories, the alien-human relations–but I personally love the romantic vision Rodenberry had. The Enterprise is his version of the Napoleonic ship of the line, wandering the oceans in search of adventure, and Picard is straight from that era.

    But IMHO, the Battlestar Galactica remake is the best SF series ever produced. The richness of those characters and that scenario blows my mind. ST:TNG, Firefly and B5 are tremendous, but BSG tops them all for me. I think it’s a stunning, stunning achievement.

    1. Oh yes, I agree. Stunning series. It introduced a lot of actors to American audiences, getting them work in other series and spin-offs. I loved Bear McCreary’s soundtrack for the series as well. BSG was most excellent listening and viewing.

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