Friday, February 26, 2010

BABYLONian Progeny, Part I

As produced, Babylon 5 (1994-1998), Joe Michael Straczynski’s five-year television opus, tells the story of the build-up to, execution of, and the consequences following the last of the Great Wars.

As originally conceived, in 1986 and 1987, the story couldn’t have been more different: all five seasons were a long, slow burn to the war’s breakout, ending with a finale that was right out of the Empire Strikes Back playbook – a cliffhanger in which our band of heroes is dispersed and at the mercy of the forces of darkness arraying around and pursuing them.

The entirety of the story’s balance – the waging and winning of the all-out interstellar conflict, picking up the pieces afterward, and forging the galactic community into a new political and economic alliance – was reserved, then, for a second five-year series, a spin-off that, although set aboard a mobile platform as opposed to a fixed space station and inverting the previous show’s narrative mix of drama underpinned by action-adventure elements, would essentially function as Babylon 5 seasons six through ten. This show, headed by Commander Sinclair (yes, he was to have not only survived all five years of B5’s run [as produced, the character makes his exit after the first season finale], but to make it to the end of the sequel series, as well); his wife, Ambassador Delenn; and their son, David, was to be called Babylon Prime.

Prime, of course and obviously, never made it past the conceptual stages, a victim of Stracyznski’s complete and total overhaul of B5 once he lost the linchpin of his decade-long narrative, Jeffrey Sinclair. But the impetus to do a follow-up tale, along with the sketched-out structure in which to tell that story, was still there – and, like all stories left untold, it was an itch that needed to be scratched. Fortunately for the showrunner, albeit unfortunately for his first-born child, the opportunity wasn’t long to present itself.

After Babylon 5’s third season was completed and before prep on its fourth could begin, JMS, as he is affectionately called by his legion of rabid fanboys, was delivered some bad news: Warner Bros., the production studio behind the series, was pulling the plug that year, truncating his five-year show into a four-year run. He needed to make a second round of sweeping changes to ensure that all the relevant storylines were further compressed, allowing a satisfactory amount of closure for both the characters and viewers alike. But not to worry, Warners said – they wanted more B5, and they wanted it soon. When Straczynski unbelievingly suggested doing a fifth season to quench this apparent thirst, the execs brushed it off; that production was dead, but the brand was still strong among the uber-sci-fi geeks. A spin-off series is what was required, and they wanted him to provide it, ironically, for as early as the television season immediately following Babylon’s run.

Since he couldn’t produce a fifth season, JMS decided he would do a fifth season anyway, retooling Babylon Prime’s changed-venue-but-direct-continuation premise to fit the matter at hand. Captain Sheridan, Sinclair’s replacement as head of Babylon 5, would make the transition from commanding a space station to commanding a starship – a White Star, the ship class that help assure victory in the war – and he would bring his wife, Ambassador Delenn (and, more likely than not, their son, David), along for the ride. To help distinguish his now-starship-based series from others in the field, most notably the vast bulk of the Star Treks, Straczynski would make Sheridan the CO of not just one White Star, but a whole squadron of them, thereby allowing the audience to experience several different crews and ship cultures instead of being confined to just one. (To further expound on the theme, Sheridan would’ve also been the commander of several local squads, which he could rally together if the going got too hot, making him, apparently, something of a minor admiral.) Given John Sheridan and his myriad vessels’ quest to maintain order and keep the peace in a post-Great War galaxy, JMS dubbed his reworked spin-off Crusade.

(A large unknown quantity in this iteration of Crusade is just what Sheridan’s ultimate fate would’ve been at the truncated end of Babylon 5. As produced, Sheridan exited EarthForce at the end of season four to join the civilian leadership of the newly minted Interstellar Alliance [as originally conceived, this role would have been fulfilled by David Sinclair, the part-Minbari and mostly-Human love child of Jeffery Sinclair and Delenn]. More than likely, given the B5 finale’s placement in the timeline – it is set 20 years after the show proper – Straczynski wouldn’t have altered the final episode in any [substantial] shape, way, or form; this permutation of Crusade would have simply altered the route Sheridan took to get to where he was in 2281, and not his fate itself.)

JMS, of course, was happy with the theoretical components of his new show, but Warner Bros. was not. They feared a five-year mission of simply patrolling space and putting out martial as well as political brushfires was too vague for most viewers to either understand or relish and too difficult for marketers to sell (this despite the avowed success of Star Trek shows The Original Series and The Next Generation, which dedicated three and seven years, respectively, to a very similar open-ended premise – exploring space, the final frontier). They asked him to revise his prospective spin-off yet again, this time featuring a very specific and action-oriented hook that would grab audiences from the very beginning and never let go. Resigned and not a little frustrated, Straczynski right on the spot pitched the idea of a hostile alien species, angry over the outcome of the Great War, staging a sneak attack on Earth to eke out their revenge, seeding the planet with a techno-virus that would wipe out all life within a matter of five years. The crew of the Excalibur, an advanced, destroyer-class White Star, would be tasked with combing through the near-endless remains of long-gone civilizations on numerous planets strewn throughout the galaxy, desperately looking for some sort of cure. The studio executives were rapturous: not only would this premise present a gripping, and highly marketable, starting point, it would also infuse the subsequent narrative with the unrelenting tension that only a ticking clock could provide, something which Babylon 5 never could’ve or would’ve done. Crusade 2.0 (1999) was almost immediately greenlighted.

But before any follow-up series could be produced, B5 itself had to be finished. At quite literally the last minute, Warners division TNT swooped to the rescue of the suddenly abandoned show, securing its fifth and final season (and even ordering up four additional telefilms along the way). JMS had to implement a third wave of structural changes to his original five-year storyline to accommodate the new opening of 22 episodes, and in this revising, material from all his work on the various spin-off projects filtered through: the empire-building of Crusade 1.0 emerged as one of the dominant themes of the season, the construction project that would result in the Excalibur was formally introduced, and the Drakh, the aliens that would be behind the imminent terrorist attack on Earth, were sufficiently reworked from previous episodes to make them the chilling villains that they needed to be.

With Crusade scheduled to premiere some two months after B5’s finale (it would ultimately get pushed back another five months), Straczynski started work on the new series immediately. The finished show would bear a great deal of resemblance to both of its conceptual predecessors: the Excalibur, a large vessel containing an array of locations and characters both, was closer to Babylon Prime’s mobile platform than the previous Crusade’s White Star; the Rangers would play a significant, though technically only a supporting, role, scouting possible locations for the Excalibur to investigate; and the cast would include at least one holdover from Babylon 5 (which, after initially penciling in Ranger Marcus Cole, ended up being Captain Elizabeth Lochley, Sheridan’s successor as commanding officer of B5, due to Straczynski’s last minute decision to write Cole out of the Babylonian mythos).

But the biggest parallel between Crusade-as-produced and its forbearers is the trajectory of its five-year arc. Prime would have been about Commander Sinclair and Ambassador Delenn framed by and on the run from both of their governments, social outcasts for (allegedly) selling out their people during the Earth-Minbari War a decade earlier and becoming a Human-Minbari hybrid, respectively – all in addition to their attempts at rallying forces to fight against the Shadows in the Great War. Similarly, Crusade would have followed Captain Gideon and his crew, framed by their government for having uncovered a deep-rooted and notorious conspiracy whilst poking around long-deserted regions of space, attempting to clear their good names – while on their crusade to find a cure to the Drakh-delivered disease (Straczynski planned on alleviating the techno-virus roughly halfway through the second season, spending just enough time on the storyline to satiate the suits and lull the audience into a false sense of security on just what the series was and where it was going).

Unfortunately for all, however, it wasn’t meant to be. After a changing of the guard at TNT, the network decided to dump its 110-episode television series after only 13 installments were produced – and before it had even debuted on the air. To this day, 11 years after its cancellation, the ultimate fates of Matthew Gideon and his shipmates remain unknown, though not through the lack of trying by Straczynski and his franchise-that-wouldn’t-stay-dead.

This piece is part of Marc N. Kleinhenz's The Babylon Project series of articles, which comprises essays, reviews, and interviews. The other items can be found here:

The Passing of the Techno-mages and the expansion of previous narratives
November 2009
Blue Buddha

The Lost Tales and the undermining of worldbuilding
December 2009
Blue Buddha

The Shadow Within, The Passing of the Techno-mages, and the role of technology in love
January 2010

Sandy Bruckner and the dream of fandom
May 2010

Patricia Tallman, Lyta Alexander, and the path to extremism
June 2010

Matthew Gideon and the apocalypse
July 2010

Maggie Egan, ISN Jane, and the craftsmanship of delivery
August 2010

Jeanne Cavelos and the perfection of storytelling
November 2010

History and metatheater in the world of Babylon
December 2010

Joe Michael Straczynski and the dark side of Babylon 5
January 2010


Alexander said...

Interesting. I have spent a few years trying to spur some interest in mounting an ending to the show rather than the new attempts at pushing the show forward. I even wrote my own ending and posted it on Fan There are several endings posted there. I tried to make mine worthy of what I consider one of the best sci fi shows on TV. It could be done these days easily given the advancements in technology sine the inception o the show. I would really like to see a movie that could have connected the show before they tried to whatever they were doing with the "Legend of the Rangers" or "The Lost Tales."
TO tell the truth when I first heard of the latter, I was almost sure that they were going to finish the plotline involving Earth and the Drakh virus. Imagine my surprise at...that.
Like I said if you have any pull among your peers, I would still like to see an ending to the show. In a bit of vanity on my part, I'd like to see how it stacks up to mine. Keep postin.'

Anonymous said...

While I find it mildly interesting to learn what JMS's previous plans were for the B5 story arcs, I really can't work up more enthusiasm than that -- because the story arcs as they were finally filmed worked very well indeed. Much as I loved Michael O'Hare's Jeffrey Sinclair, I can't buy the notion of any romance between him and Mira Furlan's Delenn. Sometimes, two actors working together have one kind of chemistry, sometimes they have another kind, and sometimes none at all. It was obvious from the first few episodes of B5 that Delenn and Sinclair were going to be friends for a long time; but their interaction lacked any believable romantic spark between the two actors. Just wasn't there, and the acting isn't to blame: a romance doesn't seem credible between those two. Now when Boxleitner's Sheridan was first introduced to Delenn, there was just something there between them on screen that made you believe a romance might be possible -- and later, they made a very persuasive and completely grown-up couple. The kind you wish you knew in real life. As for Sinclair returning and then becoming Valen, that was both a nice surprise and a very, very satisfying turn of events, complete with a rational, credible explanation of the disappearance of B4. Wonderful!! Couldn't have turned out better. And it's a hell of a lot more interesting that this exiled nomad-couple thing JMS had originally conceived.

Besides, I liked the way Crusade and the Excalibur's mission turned out just fine. Again, much better than the original concept. Sometimes, a rethought and edited version is much better than the original (besides: EVERYBODY needs an editor; I, too, am in the writing business, though not show biz, and there's not a day that goes by that doesn't prove that old maxim again and again).
-- webdiva

Anonymous said...

ps -- My only complaint is that Crusade got precipitously canceled and SciFi Channel wasn't able to pick it up, and then the series languished into oblivion. I still think that were the principal actors available and a studio had money and interest, Crusade could be picked up not that long after it left off -- say, a year into the journey, with an encounter with some alien microbe responsible for premature aging of the crew or some other such explanation for an older-looking crew. And the FX and CGI are so much better today. Even the possibility of just two or three 22-episode seasons would be enough for me.

Yet JMS is tired of the fight and declares Crusade to be a closed book now, forever. Sigh ... spare me the fanfic, please, as a substitute: fanfic is usually poorly plotted and badly written, and I don't subject myself to it. JMS might consider, however, handing over the future of Crusade to established sci-fi writers and letting them further the story arcs, much as Lucasfilm has done with its Star Wars book series. I don't mean using beginning or lesser known writers, either, or ones known primarily for science fantasy; I mean real, hard sci-fi authors. Just as Crusade used the folks at JPL for consultants, any future Crusade/B5 books should stick to the science in science fiction. That was exactly the choice made when it was decided to expand Isaac Asimov's Foundation series after his death. There are real sci-fi writers who are themselves scientists, like Gregory Benford, or are at least exceptionally well versed in science, such as Ben Bova and Robert J. Sawyer, who would be perfect for expanding the Crusade and B5 universe. I say this because the writing in the few B5 books written to date has been mediocre to godawful. For heaven's sake, hand over the duties to pros who know what they're doing! But make them promise to bring back the techno-mages, yes? Especially Galen. He was one of the best things about Crusade (and got some of the best lines! I still smile watching the reruns). Yeah. Do it like that. -- webdiva

Alexander said...

I love people that think they know judge everything by one bad episode. OF course some of the offerings you find on fan fiction are going to be as bad as you seem to think they all are but some are well thought out and well written. And I have read several of the books that came out after the cancellation of both shows. While they lacked the full effect of JMS's work, they were answers to questions that the shows left in some cases and that was enough. In my opinion no single book could equal the intensity of the original story simply because it won't be long enough. The story I wrote was not a competition with the original, just something I and most use to practice.Most like an honest assessment of their writing, good or bad. Given the popularity of blogs, most recently illustrated by an ABC show that has to have its name bleeped based on a blog, it's the way things are going. As I have learned recently, the world of literature is changing rapidly, between ebooks and Kindle readers, self-publishing sites and fan-fiction,there will be more books on the market that may or may not meet your standards but tomorrows writers may just come from a place very similar. I'm not defending them, just trying to get you to understand that not everybody hits the ball out of the park the first time. We all have to learn and that is as good a place as any.As for what JMS could have done, let's leave it at he didn't.I wrote my ending simply on a dare and I'm damn proud of it. I doubt it's perfect but I found more than a few problems with work by other authors.You are the type that I like to read it because it meets with your approval, it could be worth the trouble.
The point is, try reading a few of the stories there and you might actually be surprised. A lot of them are exactly as you say,but I dare say there are more than a few that will surprise you.