SF can attempt to predict the future, but since Jonathan Swift invented SF with Gulliver’s Travels, an adult political satire that I’d call the original Star Trek, SF has delivered its most enduring and provocative works by analysing the ethical content of the present. But Star Trek became so dominant on US TV through reruns and then resurrection as Star Trek: The Next Generation that it became a force stifling creativity.
The boldest, most innovative, and most influential counter to Star Trek dominance was Babylon 5, the 1993 to 1998 series that introduced the longform story arc with a predetermined beginning, middle, and end to US television. Set in the twenty-third century, the story was of the fifth and final Babylon station, a galactic UN created to end the cataclysmic wars and colonisations in which the cerebral and spiritual Minbari had nearly annihilated Humans, the humanoid Centauri whose empire was in advanced decline, and the reptilian and vengeful Narn who had thrown off Centauri subjugation.
Also involved were two mysterious races: the Vorlons, so alien they could barely be understood, and a shadowy race whose existence was unknown to most species, even while their power soon would be. Mixed into the five-year story arc were queer characters, old and new human religions, a Jewish funeral, a species change, political assassinations, allegories for racism, and the rise of fascism on Earth.
Babylon 5 offered stakes that Star Trek never had, and better yet, played them out for five seasons to results that television had never attempted. It was a long-overdue revival of science fiction TV.
From 1987 to 1994, Star Trek: The Next Generation had presented a 24th Century humanity that, by means unexplained, had stripped itself of its most enduringly toxic social and individual problems. In the Next Generation world, humans didn’t wage war against other humans, did not practice labour, racial, or sexual oppression or exploitation, or destroy ecosystems. The Next Generation presented a future in which “we”—the assumed Euro-American audience for whom the show was created—could do no wrong as a society; only aberrant individuals could cause suffering.
So the major sources of misery, degradation, and tyranny were alien societies. Given that Star Trek’s major social allegory was that the Federation, or at least humanity, was the United States, and that the Klingon Empire was the Soviet Union, the view that it’s always the aliens’ fault is an inherently xenophobic, jingoistic, and racist vision of the real world.
But Babylon 5 didn’t accept such simplistic and ugly ideas, and the space epic shows that followed B5’s lead, especially Farscape and Battlestar Galactica, seem to have taken its lessons, including by having more female main characters who actually drove the plot and had significant backstories that also drove the story’s direction.
In the episode “By Any Means Necessary,” Babylon 5 presented labour struggle on its station a decade before Battlestar Galactica dramatised the issue; similarly, B5 presented its military personnel wearing civilian clothes when they were off-shift, which virtually never happened in Trek, but later happened in Battlestar Galactica.
B5 presented not just a multiracial but a multireligious future for humans and aliens. Commander Sinclair studied under Jesuits; Lt. Commander Susan Ivanova was not religious but culturally was Jewish-Russian, and after her father’s death, sat Shiva with her family rabbi in the episode “TKO.”
In today’s episode of MF GALAXY, you’ll hear my conversations with two key figures behind B5: Joseph Michael Straczynski, and Mira Furlan. Joe Straczynski, or just plain JMS was a successful television writer on shows such as Murder, She Wrote before he launched B5. Before the days when creative producer/head writers were called show runners, JMS single-handedly wrote 92 of the series’ 110 episodes, and drafted the overarching plot for the entire five-year epic before the first frame was shot. He later co-created Sense8 with the Wachowskis, and wrote the screen stories for World War Z and Thor among other works.
Mira Furlan is the celebrated Yugoslavian stage and screen actor who played the Minbari Ambassador Delenn, after Furlan left her war-torn homeland. She’s best known in North America for playing Rousseau in Lost, and she’s also appeared on NCIS and Law & Order: LA.
Twenty-two years ago in 1994, JMS spoke with me by telephone from his production office in Los Angeles, just before season 2 began airing, and we recorded the call at CJSR FM88 in Edmonton. Mira Furlan spoke with me at the Earth Station Convention in 1997 in south Edmonton just before she left for the airport.
You’ll notice throughout today’s discussion, that JMS and I both say variations on the phrase “in other SF shows” when the SHOW THAT MUST NOT BE NAMED was definitely Star Trek. That deliberate phrasing was just as common in the Making of Babylon 5 half-hour special that aired when B5 launched, so as to avoid stoking the Trek-Always-and-Only kneejerk reaction of some fans.
While today it might seem laughable, twenty years ago SF screen fandom was infected with tribalism. Many fans couldn’t wrap their brains around the idea that you could publicly state that you liked two different story worlds at the same time. Maybe that began with Stan Lee hyping Marvel versus DC, as if liking DC was akin to pledging allegiance to a national enemy, or at least a group of stodgy idiots. But even now, of course, some of that lunacy remains. In fact, as Gamergate and the Hugo Wars demonstrated, it actually got worse. Some might say it metastasised into the US presidential election.
We began with JMS about why he wanted Babylon 5 to fall where it did on the predictive versus allegorical scale of science fiction.
To hear more than an hour of bonus content for this episode, including more discussion with JMS and Mira Furlan, and my feature-length conversation with Bob the Angry Flower cartoonist Stephen Notley—because he and I were both big fans of B5 when it came out--click on the Patreon link to become a sponsor for a dollar or more per week.
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The Making Of Babylon 5
JMS on why Michael O’Hare left Babylon 5
Michael O’Hare convention appearance
How I drank more to overcome alcoholism | Claudia Christian | TEDxLondonBusinessSchool
Michael O'Hare (Station Commander Jeffrey Sinclair), Jerry Doyle (Security Chief Michael Garibaldi), Richard Biggs (Dr. Stephen Franklin), Andreas Katsulas (G’kar), Jeff Conaway (Security officer Zach), Johnny Sekka (Dr. Benjamin Kyle), Tim Choate (Zathrus), Paul Williams (General Franklin), and Robin Sachs (ensemble member)