Today I want to talk about J. Michael Straczynski. The man is a prolific writer, involved in projects in just about every medium you can imagine, but for me his greatest achievement is, and always shall be, the television series “Babylon 5.” For those who never watched it (and shame on you), Babylon 5 was the story of humans and aliens trying to build a future together on a space station. The first three Babylon stations were destroyed while being built, and the fourth one mysteriously disappeared just before going live, but Babylon 5 made it to completion, and it served as the platform for communication and understanding. When JMS created the show, he envisioned it in its entirety as a five year story, and that was how he pitched it to Warner Bros. And, incredibly, they said yes. Of the show’s 110 episodes, he wrote 91 of them, and he oversaw damn near every aspect of every episode. Sadly, even though the WB said they would give him his five years, later on they cut it to four, so he had to radically alter his timeline and change a great number of elements. In a strange twist, the TNT cable network picked up the show and gave him his fifth season, but of course that was after he’d truncated the five year story to four, so he had to take stories he’d removed and rework them for that final season, which in the end gave the show an uneven feel. Be that as it may, I think Babylon 5 is one of the greatest science fiction stories ever told, and certainly one of the greatest TV series. I think only the new Battlestar Galactica trumpts it in the sci-fi genre.
Now, what is it that made me love Babylon 5? First, it was the fact that JMS never let it JUST be a sci-fi story. I always felt like it had more of a “Lord Of The Rings” feel than anything else. The stories went to places I never imagined they would go, characters actually died off, and the stakes were always incredibly high. I loved the different characters, and each of them was true to their motivations, even if if made them do bad things. JMS never compromised his story or his characters to make them more palatable. And, I think most importantly for me, he had real vision. An example of that are the two big alien races in the story. On the one side of the conflict you have the Vorlons, who are supposed to be the good guys. In the show, their philosophy is represented in the statement, “Who are you?” On the other side of the conflict you have the supposed bad guys, the Shadows. Their philosophy is, “What do you want?” Now, those seem like simple questions, but they really aren’t, and how you answer them says everything about who you really are. And, by the end of the show, who is good and who is bad is not so easy to say.
Anyway, I loved Babylon 5. I thought it asked questions that no other show asked, and it told its story with characters who were real, who were epic, and who surprised you. If you haven’t watched the show, I highly recommend you do so ASAP.
JMS also wrote a comic book series that I greatly enjoyed called “Rising Stars.” “Rising Stars” was about a group of people who were born with special abilities after a mysterious ball of light flew over the town their mothers were in while they were in utero. It followed their lives, showing how a world would react to people with super powers, and how those “Specials” would react to that world. As with JMS’s other work, the stories and characters all felt honest and true, and the writing was top notch. There have been parallels drawn between Rising Stars and two TV shows – The 4400 and Heroes. And, I have to say, if JMS ever wanted to sue over it, he has a strong case, and some situations and characters are too similar to be coincidence.
And, with that, I bring this entry to a close. Babylon 5 is a show that is close to my heart, and I know that it has influenced my outlook on the sci-fi genre. I wouldn’t be writing what I am today, I don’t think, without it.