Retro-Binge: Babylon Five (And Thoughts On The Reboot)
So, I have three seasons of Babylon Five and a collection of the movies on DVD. It used to be on Netflix for a long time and I kept desperately hoping that it would show up on streaming somewhere else, but it never did until HBO Max came along. Naturally, once we hopped on that train and I found out that they had not only all five seasons but a remastered version of all five seasons I had to hop on that binge-train and check it out.
First of all: massive props to HBO Max and WB for cleaning this up. It looks awesome... it even starts with 'The Gathering' (the backdoor pilot/movie that preceded the show by about a year or so, I think) before plunging into the first season and going from there.
Second: it would have been nice to have some of the movies included on streaming too- but given the transition to TNT after the end of the fourth season, there might be some rights issues there as well. (I have no idea how any of that works and maybe that's the reason, maybe it's not- it's purely a guess on my part. Maybe HBO Max just didn't think the movies were good enough? Who knows.)
Thirdly (and finally): Babylon Five still holds up really, really well after all these years. I think there are two levels you can appreciate this series for. As a science fiction fan, it's amazing. It wasn't Star Trek, Star Wars, or any of the old stalwarts- it was new. The characters had baggage and felt real. Humanity was still human- it wasn't in a post-scarcity society or hadn't "advanced beyond money." There's also war and even good old-fashioned religion that shows up. There were intra-genre shenanigans and controversy as people couldn't fail to notice that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine which also launched around the same time also took place on a space station.
The aliens are interesting as well-- leaving aside the main trifecta of Narn, Centauri, and Minbari-- there are genuinely alien races with different atmospheres and biologies that have to be accounted for in a way that other sci-fi shows (like Star Trek, for instance) would handwave away through the use of technobabble or other doo-dads. The main trifecta of races also has their appeal: the enmity between Narn and Centauri is a major theme throughout the show-- but the arc of G'Kar (Andreas Katsulas) and Londo (Peter Jurasik) is a fascinating counterpoint to that. Minbari and Humans are ten years clear of a war that nearly destroyed humanity. Real hatred and old wounds are evident throughout. Sci-Fi TV at the time (the early 90s) was very much Star Trek's world. The X-Files was a completely different beast and not at all a space opera. Babylon 5 was different and it stands out even today as a result of that.
The other level we have to talk about it is the structure of the show. Famously conceived as a novel for space, it's very deliberately serialized in a way that presaged the level of serialization we see on television today. But wait, there's more! JMS built-in exit clauses for each character- which is crazy and brilliant all at the same time- because he figured maybe an actor will want to leave the show, maybe something will happen- but he planned for that! The other thing I love was that the groundwork for character development is often really really subtle- the best example I can think of that is Dr. Franklin's stim addiction. Before we get into the meat and potatoes of the arc of that story- we see him start to take stims. At the time it's no big deal. Not really mentioned or commented on, but gradually as the episodes wear on, you see it start to grow, and then, suddenly, he's got a problem that you the viewer have seen grow over time and then you get into the real meat and potatoes of his struggle. JMS loves planting these seeds where you least expect it as a viewer and then they blossom beautifully throughout this show.
This brings us to the exciting piece of news that dropped earlier this fall: A Babylon Five reboot is in active development at The CW. Here's what Variety summarized:
In the series, John Sheridan, an Earthforce officer with a mysterious background, is assigned to Babylon 5, a five-mile-long space station in neutral space, a port of call for travelers, smuggles, corporate explorers, and alien diplomats at a time of uneasy peace and the constant threat of war. His arrival triggers a destiny beyond anything he could have imagined, as an exploratory Earth company accidentally triggers a conflict with a civilization a million years ahead of us, putting Sheridan and the rest of the B5 crew in the line of fire as the last, best hope for the survival of the human race.
The biggest reassurance about this idea is right off the bat: the original creator, J. Michael Straczynski is doing this. (Some more of his thoughts about why are summarized here.) So that's good, I'm excited about that- he's done great work- Sens8 is an amazing show that if you haven't seen, y'all should watch.
Simultaneously, the biggest reassurance is also met by the biggest hesitation: it's for The CW. Now, to be fair to the CW, they might be trying to diversify their show line-up a bit so they don't get pigeon-holed quite so much as being a home for DC Comics' TV Universe and various teenager-y shows. It would be a different show for them which might explain some of the appeals of the concept. 'In development' also doesn't mean 'done deal' either... I'll believe this is happening when we get casting news and a filming date and it's actually done.
Other than that, I think it's fantastic. You just have to look at the advances in CGI to see the possibilities about how good Babylon 5 might look in rebooted form. Plus, if a Battlestar Galactica reboot can work, why not B5? Also, the culture has shifted significantly since the early 90s- relationships that could only be hinted at (Talia Winters and Commander Ivanova, for instance) could be explored more deeply now. Characters like Delenn (originally conceived as being male who eventually changes into a female) could be closer to how they were originally developed. The possibilities are endless and even exciting, to be quite honest.
Looking at the summary above, it's obvious that it's not going to be quite the same story-but you know what? That's fine. The original is always going to be a favorite of mine and I'm really hoping they can get a reboot off the ground and that it enjoys similar success. As a franchise, it was very much ahead of its time and it's well past time for it to get the recognition it deserves- even if it takes a reboot to do it.