The CW network has had a great history as of late with reviving various intellectual properties in science fiction and comics: Roswell, Charmed, Swamp Thing, even the Archie comics via teen drama Riverdale. Now, with the help of the original series creator, it looks like a legendary science fiction world is going to gain new life and a new look: J. Michael Straczynski’s Babylon 5.
The series, which first hit the airwaves in 1993 with the feature length film The Gathering, introduced the world to Jeff Sinclair, an Earthforce officer aboard the titular space station. In the wake of a first contact event that went catastrophically wrong, and the aftermath of a war in which the winning side abruptly surrendered, Babylon 5 became a location where other species could convene on neutral ground to settle their differences. The station, fifth of its name after its predecessors were destroyed by various acts of God and sabotage, went on to be a critical site upon which the survival of the human race would hinge.
Straczynski, who in recent years has earned his fair share of accolades by teaming with the Wachowskis on the Netflix hit Sense8, penning scripts such as Clint Eastwood directed Changeling, and writing for comics under both the DC and Marvel umbrellas, made history with the space opera that originally aired on PTEN (Prime Time Entertainment Network) and TNT (Turner Network Television).
In addition to introducing the idea of the five year story arc, with a clear beginning, middle, and end, the show addressed may unique issues for the time, such as delving into the political and social issues surrounding Earth’s first human colonies in space and how a government’s forays into authoritarianism can cause a backslide into dictatorship — a theme that is especially profound in the modern day political climate of increasingly authoritarian regimes worldwide. It was also one of the first science fiction shows to make reference to a same-sex relationships, presenting sexual orientation as being an issue as critical as being right handed or left handed.
While the series technically hasn’t been greenlit yet by the CW, it is slated as being in development. What’s more surprising is the approach that the CW and Straczynski are taking to the series: rather than building the reboot on the bones of its predecessor, they will be reviving the series completely from scratch, building it from the ground up. How it will live up to or exceed the history and acclaim of its legendary parent is as yet unknown, as the reboot will have to contend with a decades old following that will have some high, and likely fixed, expectations of the show.
While the show is held in high regard by its fanbase, a ground up reboot does offer unique opportunities. In addition to the fact that it has an opportunity to take on similar themes to its predecessor in a modern light, and with more modern history behind it, there are greater opportunities in shaping the visual landscape of this landmark series. Aspects of costume and make up that may not have aged well can be updated, and the rather period specific CGI showing the early birth pains of modern special effects can be updated with something more state of the art and far more impressive.
There are big shoes to fill, but regardless how Straczynski and the CW manage it, the word of a Babylon Five reboot is good news indeed. Now, a new generation will be exposed to one of the most prolific properties in sci fi history, and one of the greatest writers that media fandom has ever known.
Direct from JMS
Here is what J. Michael Straczynski wrote himself on his Facebook page, Hang with JMS:
To answer all the questions, yes, it’s true, Babylon 5 is now in active development as a series for the CW. We have some serious fans over at the network, and they’re eager to see this show happen. I’m hip deep into writing the pilot now, and will be running the series upon pickup. The network understands the uniqueness of Babylon 5 and is giving me a great deal of latitude with the storytelling.
As noted in the announcement, this is a reboot from the ground up rather than a continuation, for several reasons. Heraclitus wrote, “You cannot step in the same river twice, for the river has changed, and you have changed.” In the years since B5, I’ve done a ton of other TV shows and movies, adding an equal number of tools to my toolbox, all of which I can bring to bear on the question: if I were creating Babylon 5 today, for the first time, knowing what I now know as a writer, what would it look like? How would it use all the storytelling tools and technological resources available in 2021 that were not on hand then? How can it be used to reflect the world in which we live, and the questions we are asking and confronting every day? Fans regularly point out how prescient the show was and is of our current world; it would be fun to take a shot at looking further down the road.
So we will not be retelling the same story in the same way because of what Heraclitus said about the river. There would be no fun and no surprises. Better to go the way of Westworld or Battlestar Galactica where you take the original elements that are evergreens and put them in a blender with a ton of new, challenging ideas, to create something both fresh and familiar.
To those who have asked why we’re not just doing a continuation…for a network series like this, it can’t be done because over half our cast are still stubbornly on the other side of the Rim. How do you telling continuing story of our original Londo without the original Vir? Or G’Kar? How do you tell Sheridan’s story without Delenn? Or the story of B5 without Franklin? Garibaldi? Zack?
The original Babylon 5 was ridiculously innovative: the first to use CGI to create ships and characters, and among the very first to shoot widescreen with a vigorous 5.1 mix. Most of all, for the first time, Babylon 5 introduced viewers accustomed to episodic television to the concept of a five-year arc with a pre-planned beginning, middle and end…creating a brand new paradigm for television storytelling that has subsequently become the norm. That tradition for innovation will continue in this new iteration, and I hope to create additional new forms of storytelling that will further push the television medium to the edge of what’s possible.
Let me conclude by just saying how supportive and enthusiastic everyone at the CW has been and is being with this project. They understand the unique position Babylon 5 occupies both in television and with its legions of fans, and are doing everything they can to ensure the maximum in creative freedom, a new story that will bring in new viewers while honoring all that has come before.
Liz Carlie, the Mad Woman with a Box, a regular book reviewer for SCIFI.radio and a regular guest on ‘The Event Horizon’. She has been in and around science fiction fandom for years, and works with the American Red Cross on blood drives at science fiction conventions all over Southern California.