Foreword: Looking Back Over Five Years
When Babylon 5 began, in 1992, many claimed that the series was destined to fail, Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski recalls. "The odds against us were considerable. I was saying, 'This is going to be a five-year show, period.' They would say, 'What makes you think you will get five years out of this?' [I'd reply] 'We're on a mission from God, okay?'" [Starburst, special 35]
The very achievement of making the show last its full, planned five years has been incredibly important for the people who lived through it. Few shows make it that far--and Babylon 5 nearly didn't. The threat of cancellation was always hanging over it and nearly destroyed it altogether at the end of the fourth year. It was only pulled back from the brink by a change of network, from Warner Bros.' PTEN consortium to cable channel TNT when the former network collapsed. But the commercial success that kept producers, cast, and crew employed for five years is only a side issue in Babylon 5's achievement. Its main success has been fulfilling the story plan that lay at the heart of the show, its famous "five-year arc."
The phrase "five-year arc" has become so synonymous with the show that it tends to get trotted out in a blase fashion. But back in 1992, this was a new concept. Some shows, particularly soap operas, used continuous story lines that progressed with each episode and were often planned as much as two years ahead. But no one had attempted a story on such a grand scale, where the plot points introduced in the beginning would continue to play a significant part throughout the show's entire length until it reached a predetermined conclusion. Television is a fickle business where shows can be canceled on a whim without warning, leaving the rest of the story untold. Television audiences themselves can be fickle, flitting from channel to channel, picking up on a program halfway into its season or missing the odd episode, and so finding it difficult to follow an ongoing story. Then there are production considerations, like the risk the story line is going to be wrecked by the lead actor getting run over by a bus or the producers wanting to change direction after judging the response of the audience. But Joe Straczynski had worked out his story in such detail that he had faith it could work, and with his famous "trap doors" for every character, he could keep his story on track no matter what production considerations intervened. No one actually had an unpleasant encounter with a bus, thankfully, but when there was a need to replace Sinclair with Sheridan, and when the actress playing Talia Winters (Andrea Thompson) wanted to leave to pursue other work, the trap doors came into play and the story continued because it was the story that was important.
And it was the story that excited audiences. The idea of a story arc that lasted five years may have sounded daunting to the television industry, but it hooked viewers in a way that few television programs ever achieve. "We were able to tell a story over five years where things were foreshadowed in year one and it paid off in year three, in a medium where often you set things up in the teaser and pay it off two acts later," Joe says. "We extended it by years and the audience follows it and gets it ... We can say to the television community, 'You're wrong--the viewers are not morons, they're sharp people. If you would teach them and talk to them in a straightforward fashion they will react and come to you.' And they have done that." [Cult Times, issue 31]
This fresh approach to storytelling kept people talking about Babylon 5 down at the pub, over the phone, and on the Internet. Speculation about what was going to happen next, what was the meaning of a certain line of dialogue or a certain scene became more profound precisely because it was all planned out ahead of time. Viewers developed their own theories about everything: What was Kosh hiding under his encounter suit? Could he be an angel? How did he know so much about the future? Could it be that the Vorlons age backwards? Is his apparently benevolent nature hiding his true dark side? It was a series that got people involved, made them think, and kept them coming back week after week for the next installment. It was an intricate story in which every detail could have significance, where watching and rewatching the episodes could provide new insight. "We proved we were right, right on the production, right on the story," Joe says. "They said it would never work. Now, of course, Dark Skies said they had a five-year arc, the new Roddenberry show [Earth: Final Conflict] has a five-year arc--this term has now entered the vernacular. We have created something new. That's a good thing." [Cult Times, issue 31]
What was also new for science fiction television was Babylon 5's nod of respect to the tradition of the written genre. For a long time, even into the nineties, science fiction television was regarded as something for kids. It was about rockets, robots, and ray guns, people with silly costumes and annoying whizkids. That's not to denigrate the many excellent series that preceded Babylon 5--indeed, some of them such as Blake's 7 directly influenced it--but that perception continued to exist and be reflected in some of the shows getting on the air. Babylon 5 broke through that barrier and tapped into an audience that had been brought up on written science fiction. The aliens were real aliens. They may have been limited by the practicalities of a television show in that they had to be played by a human actor--although Kosh was an acknowledgment of that restriction, with his true form hidden under the encounter suit--but they were three-dimensional, with a culture and a philosophy all their own. They walked onto Babylon 5 with a fully sketched background that gave them a depth and a believability rare in science fiction television. The aliens are not simply a metaphor for a part of human nature--e.g., a "warrior race"--but complex peoples with different facets that are gradually revealed. Moreover, the individuals of these alien races have their own personalities, so both G'Kar and Na'Toth are decisively Narn in the way they behave, but are also characters in their own right.
It is clear that the people behind the show understand science fiction. Not only does Babylon 5 get the terminology right--even Star Wars thought a parsec was a length of time, when it's actually a measurement of distance--it also has respect for the concepts that have developed within the genre over the years. In other shows, telepaths tend to be people who can do clever things with their minds, but in Babylon 5, the implications of what it might mean to be telepathic, both to the individual and society, are taken into account. This is a testament partly to the amount of thought put into the framework of Babylon 5 and partly to the tradition of science fiction literature. The Psi Cop played by Walter Koenig is even named in tribute to Alfred Bester, the author of the seminal telepath novel The Demolished Man.
Some of the key people on the show, including Joe Straczynski and producer John Copeland, were fans before they were ever television producers, and it is an enthusiasm that can be seen on the screen. "We brought that passion, our passion for man's exploration of space, our imaginations that were stretched by reading science fiction and fantasy growing up, here to this show," John says. "I know Joe is an avid reader and I think that all translated into this show. This is a thinking person's show, this is a smart show. This is a show that deals with the types of material and things that you normally encounter in books, and that's not the case with most science fiction which is on television, or has been on television, or has been in the movie theater. A lot of them are just shoot-'em-up action adventure stories. I think that folks that read science fiction tend to be brighter, are more thoughtful about things, and you have to deliver that to them if you want them to buy into your show. It has to be a smart and interesting and intelligent show, and I think we've tried to do that here."
The intelligence lies in the nature of the story. Science fiction has often been described as a genre of ideas, and Babylon 5 always delivered compelling ideas, whether they were in the truth about the Vorlons and/or in Sinclair's destiny to become Valen. They stretched the mind and resonated in today's world. If Babylon 5 has achieved its aim in telling a great story, then it has also said something to its audience along the way. Joe Straczynski said he wanted to show that choices have consequences that bring responsibilities, and that theme is explored over and over again. The most demonstrative example of this is probably Londo's story. He hoped his alliance with the Shadows would return the Centauri to greatness, but it only took them into a war that threatened his Homeworld and eventually pulled Londo down with it, to face his responsibility as an aging, ailing emperor of a ravaged people. If you want to sit back and enjoy the adventure, that is fine, but if you want to look deeper there are other issues to consider.
One of the things that science fiction does so well is comment on the present day at one remove, whether that comment be about racism and the benefits of working together, or about the realities of war. It also shows there are no easy answers. Where a traditional television episode might end on a moral high note with a pat answer to a problem, Babylon 5 presents an issue in shades of grey, where there is not always a right answer. One early example is Season One's "Believers," where Franklin must decide whether to save a child against his religious beliefs or let him die. "That's the wonderful thing about doing a story that is set in the future," John Copeland says. "That is something that is done again and again in great works of science fiction. They pose the same ...