“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon
Twenty years ago, J. Michael Straczynski’s epic, award winning series Babylon 5 first aired on broadcast television. The show marked an important shift in the way American TV series were designed, for instead of a typical episodic structure where the story returns to the status quo ante at the end of the hour and picks up the following week as if nothing had happened, Straczynski plotted Babylon 5 as a series of long story arcs, which were themselves contained within one narrative master-arc. The series follows the adventures of the human crew and multi-species diplomats aboard the space station Babylon 5. Set in a universe where humans are far from the oldest, most developed, or most powerful race, the five season arc is a kind of coming of age story of humanity as a whole. The people aboard Babylon 5, both human and alien, find themselves confronted with multiple dangers ranging from the galaxy-wide machinations of two truly ancient and powerful races; to the smaller scale, but no less deadly, intrigues of interstellar politics. Led by Commander Jeffery Sinclair (Michael O’Hare) and Captain John Sheridan (Bruce Boxleitner), the people aboard survive and overcome the myriad difficulties facing them and the universe by building new alliances, and most importantly, new communities, that link together previously disparate peoples. In the process, however, there are enough space battles, civil wars, and assassination attempts to keep the most hardened action-junky satisfied, and all of it part of a single, grand narrative.
In an industry where there was never any guarantee of renewal between one season and the next, Straczynski planned for a five season run with each season serving as the televisual equivalent of the five classic structural elements of a novel: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and dénouement – with Straczynski having plotted out the entire basic storyline before shooting even began. Further, by pushing the emerging technology of computer generated imagery to its limits and beyond, Babylon 5 was able to bring space opera to the screen better than anyone had before. Straczynski also created one of the first, truly transmedia productions in television history, integrating a run of Babylon 5 comic books from DC Comics and five two-hour television movies into the storyline while the series was on the air, as well as nine novels and several short stories published after the conclusion of Babylon 5’s fifth and final season that expanding on events prior to and after the series. Additionally, Straczynski broke new ground in being one of the first creator/showrunners to use the internet to connect with fans directly and while the show was airing through early BBS forums. Nothing like this had ever been done before. Indeed, nothing like this had ever been attempted before. Yet Straczynski and Company pulled it off and in the process set industry records, won multiple awards, received critical and fan acclaim, and fundamentally changed American television.
The key to this shift was the long arc. Babylon 5 moved radically away from the episodic structure of television, where every week a problem confronts the series’ protagonists, is overcome, and at the end of the episode things revert to the status quo. Different things would happen on different episodes of M*A*S*H, for example, but Hawkeye could be counted on to be the same ol’ Hawkeye, as could Radar, Hot Lips, and Colonels Blake or Potter, forever and ever, world without end. Character choices came with little or no consequences week-to-week. Straczynski changed this, and Babylon 5 became known for demanding that choices carry consequences, good, bad, expected, or unintended, because they do.
In the mid-1990s this was still the norm, but Babylon 5 went far beyond that to deliver a story that took years to deliver rather than 42 minutes, and problems that refused to yield to simple or tidy solutions. This type of storytelling demanded a more active role for viewers. Babylon 5 had memory, and history, and viewers needed to be able to call upon both not only between weekly episodes, but over the course of the series’ five-year run. This also required more from Straczynski, as showrunner, than had ever been required before. Straczynski plotted the entire series, including backstories and fallout before production began, building in exit strategies for every major character in case of an actor need to leave the show – planning that would pay off in a big way as the series progressed. Straczynski also wrote 92 of Babylon 5’s 110 episodes, an astonishing feat, and one that lends strength to the view of Straczynski on Babylon 5 as far more of a genuine auteur than is common in television. Indeed, actors and directors were strictly forbidden to change any dialogue during filming without the express permission of Straczynski or series executive story editor Lawrence G. DiTillio, because changing a line or two could affect events a few episodes or even a season in the future in a profound way – the curse of the grand narrative arc.
And it is that grand arc that marks the greatest of Babylon 5’s achievements, not merely because the stories within it are so good – and they are – but because Babylon 5 was one of the very first shows to reinvent storytelling in terms of the medium of television. Fundamentally, until Babylon 5, TV shows were flash fiction with recurring characters – things never really changed, character growth experienced in one episode was rarely evident in the next, and the narrative world of a series existed in a kind of recursive loop. Films were short stories, vehicles capable of carrying stories of greater depth and meaning, but ultimately limited to a handful of hours in which to tell the tale, and usually discrete productions. What Straczynski realized was that television provided the scope for a novel. Instead of the two to four hours of film, five seasons of television (at the time) gave you 110 hours that could be part of a unified whole. Babylon 5 was the first show to intentionally craft itself in this fashion, and the first to introduce viewers to what it is like to have a relationship with a show, to become deeply involved in the changing, evolving world of a televisual narrative. Let’s face it, Law and Order is a lovely show, but it’s a passing kiss, 42 minutes of entertainment and done, you can skip entire seasons and come back to it at any time, with no problems, no questions needing to be asked. Films are passionate encounters, sometimes affairs that you remember for a lifetime. A TV series, however, especially one like Babylon 5 that falls within the Ten Percent – that’s a relationship, a commitment, and the grandest adventure of them all. So if you have ever had that kind of relationship, whether it was with The Wire, Breaking Bad, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Farscape, or whatever, you can thank J. Michael Straczynski and Babylon 5. Together they changed the way television is made, and the way we watch it, and that, friends and neighbors, places them well within the Ten Percent.
Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz are co-authors of Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Bad, and of the forthcoming Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the Babylon 5 Universe (fall 2016). You can find Dale online at her blog unfetteredbrilliance.blogspot.com and on Twitter as @KDaleKoontz. Ensley hangs out at solomonmaos.com and on Twitter as @EnsleyFGuffey.