Sunday, 8 April 2018

SF&F Questions: Will there ever be a BABYLON 5 reboot?


The Basics

Babylon 5 is a popular space opera television show which aired from 1993 to 1998. Set on a massive space station, it was notable for being a heavily serialised story which unfolded over five years. It’s been cited as a major influence on everyone from Joss Whedon to Damon Lindelof to the Wachowskis.

After the main series wrapped up twenty years ago, it was resurrected for a series of TV movies and a spin-off show, Crusade, which only lasted half a season. In 2007 there was a further straight-to-DVD movie which sold very well, The Lost Tales, but since then no further Babylon 5 material has been released. Since then fans have asked for either a continuation of the series via a movie or new TV show, or a HD remastering of the original series of the kind that many contemporary shows (such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Star Trek: The Next Generation) have received, to keep it relevant and watchable for future generations.


Who owns the rights?

Babylon 5’s TV rights are held by Warner Brothers, who produced the first four seasons of the original series and the pilot movie, as well as the Legends of the Rangers and Lost Tales TV/DVD movies. TNT funded the fifth season, Crusade and several of the TV movies, but no longer have the rights to them.

Babylon 5’s creator, J. Michael Straczynski, held onto the movie rights and he alone has the right to make and market a Babylon 5 film for theatrical release.


Authorship

Babylon 5 is unusual in that it is almost completely identified with the work of one man, its creator J. Michael Straczynski. Straczynski wrote 91 of the show’s 110 episodes, most of Crusade and all of the TV movies, as well as acting as executive producer and showrunner. Most Babylon 5 fans would be reluctant to watch or accept a B5 project that Straczynski was not involved in or did not at least have his seal of approval. Although Warner Brothers have the legal right to make a new B5 series without Straczynski’s involvement, it’s clear they are reluctant to do so due to the negative coverage this would engender from fans.


Success of the Original Series

A B5 reboot, remake or remaster is only viable if the original show was successful in the first place. Babylon 5 actually had reasonably strong ratings when it was on-air, often outperforming its alleged rival, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. It had a very strong and passionate fanbase. Most crucially, it has made a lot of money for Warner Brothers. Given the original show was made on a shoestring budget – 110 episodes for $91 million – it had made Warner Brothers over $500 million in profit by around 2010 in overseas sales, licensing, merchandising and DVD box sets alone. Podcasts, YouTube rewatches and rewatch blogs for the show are all very popular. Straczynski has a popular and well-followed Twitter account where he talks about the show and his other projects.

The show also has major name recognition, first among fans from that era and people who’ve watched it since, and also due to the show being the subject of a long-running joke on popular (but terrible) sitcom The Big Bang Theory.

The name recognition and the strong profits made by the show mean that the series is ripe for resurrection in some form.


Why a reboot or remake? Why not just make more stories with the original cast?

Tragically, despite having a relatively young cast and only airing a quarter of a lifetime ago, Babylon 5’s cast has had a ridiculously high attrition rate. Since the show ended the following castmembers have passed away:
  • Michael O’Hare (Commander Sinclair)
  • Jerry Doyle (Security Chief Michael Garibaldi)
  • Andreas Katsulas (Ambassador G’Kar)
  • Richard Biggs (Dr. Stephen Franklin)
  • Johnny Sekka (Dr. Benjamin Kyle)
  • Jeff Conaway (Security Chief Zack Allan)
  • Stephen Furst (Vir Cotto)
  • Tim Choate (Zathras)
  • Robin Sachs (Satai Hedronn and Warleader Na’Kal)

Making a new Babylon 5 TV movie or series not involving any of these characters (almost all of whom survive to far beyond the lifespan of the series) would be logistically difficult, if not impossible.


Why not just remaster the original show in HD to introduce it to a new audience?

This has been mooted several times but it is particularly challenging for Babylon 5 due to the sheer volume of CGI (computer-generated imagery) used in the show. All of this CG was rendered in standard definition only and mastered on video, so it would need to be re-rendered from scratch. This includes not only every space scene, but every composite scene, every scene with weapons fire, every scene with the characters on a virtual set and every scene with a CG creature. A conservative estimate has it that Babylon 5 had approximately three times as many scenes involving a CG or effects element as Star Trek: The Next Generation, despite having 68 fewer episodes to work with.

This makes putting Babylon 5 through a HD remaster prohibitively expensive. Another conservative estimate of the process is that it would cost between $30 million and $40 million, twice what ST:TNG cost to go through the same process, and ST:TNG struggled to make a profit on its remastering despite being the most-watched and most popular space opera TV show ever made (which is why a HD remastering of Deep Space Nine and Voyager has not taken place yet).

In addition, Babylon 5 had production restrictions when it was made which might make remastering it less feasible: many of the sets were made out of wood and painted to look like plastic or metal, and the limitations of this would show up more in HD. In addition, all of the viewscreens in the show are actual CRT monitors, and of course it’s not possible to “fix” those without invoking time travel, otherwise you’d have pristine HD images of people looking at fuzzy viewscreens.

B5 was also digitally upscaled (a little) for the DVD release and running the DVDs through a Blu-Ray player (which upscales them further) results in a very fine, good-quality (almost 720p, but of course nowhere near 1080p) image that looks pretty damn sharp. The quality decreases whenever effects scenes take place, but the non-effects footage already looks perfectly decent. The whole show being shot in widescreen has already helped it age better than many of its contemporaries, which have had to run through hoops to be converted to widescreen (like Buffy and The X-Files) or it’s simply been impossible to render them in widescreen in the first place (ST:TNG).


Okay, so is anyone interested in doing a remake or reboot?
Yes. Warner Brothers has said they consider Babylon 5 to be a valuable franchise to them and it’s certainly in the zone for a remake/reboot. I can imagine Amazon or Netflix being interested in the idea if they proceed, especially if they can keep the budget down to a sane level (which is what led to Sense8’s cancellation). J. Michael Straczynski also said a few years ago he had plans for a Babylon 5 reboot movie before he started work on Sense8 with the Wachowskis. Both projects appear to have stalled – and never got beyond idle musings at Warner Brothers – but I imagine behind-the-scenes discussions on the idea take place on a regular basis.

One thing holding back the idea is that, at this point, Straczynski seems to favour a movie over a TV series. As he notes in this interview, he’s already made the TV show once and it was an extremely stressful and time-consuming process. So, making a film as an alternate (and presumably much more concise) way of telling that story is understandable. However, most B5 fans, I suspect, want to see a version of the story unfolding over the long-term, as that’s what Babylon 5 was most successful at. Reducing 80½ hours of storytelling into maybe three or four coherent movies would be extremely challenging.

The result of this appears to be a logjam: Warner Brothers are at least open to the idea of doing a new Babylon 5 series but seem to be reluctant to proceed without Straczynski’s involvement due to the fan blowback they’d likely receive. Straczynski seems more interested in the possibility of a feature film, which Warner Brothers don’t seem to be as interested in. If this logjam can be cleared, progress could be made on a new project.

Answer: A Babylon 5 remake or reboot seems inevitable at this point and there is interest from all quarters (studio, creator, fans), it just depends on the creative personnel having an alignment of vision and agreeing on a project that is acceptable to all of them.

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5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Crazy that we got 110 episodes of B5 for less money than the last 7 episodes of Game of Thones, particularly when you consider all the Space Battles we got.

B5 fan said...

Worst idea ever. I would never watch a remake of Babylon 5.

ReptilianSamurai said...

You forgot to mention that we almost got a reboot series on a digital chance that Warner brothers were setting up a few years ago. It fell through, unfortunately. From JMS:

BABYLON 5 UPDATE
J. Michael Straczynski via Facebook
July, 2011

Last year, the studio offered a full season of a new and rebooted B5 as part of a new distribution venue they were creating (us and several other shows from the same studio were part of the same deal). We'd have a full season, a big budget, and total creative control. The negotiations (not between us but between the participants of the venue) dragged on for over a year, we were told repeatedly this is going to happen, but finally, the participants couldn't make the math work. So we and the other three shows that they were hoping to put out there got set aside.

At this point, I've told the studio that if this isn't going to move ahead, there's something else they need to consider and there's a very informal negotiation going on now in that regard. We'll see where it goes from there.

But again, B5 was never created to be a Deep Space Franchise, we wanted to do our 5 years and get out clean. That was my intent going into this, and if that's where this ends up, I'm happy to stick with that.

A.J. Bobo said...

Personally, I'd like to see a movie or show that finishes the story that Crusade was supposed to get to. Or is that covered somewhere else already (novels, comics, etc.)?

Anonymous said...

This was one of the best science fiction series that has come out in recent decades. JMS kept it going in a specific direction, with goal in mind, that many others have never been able to mirror or accomplish. I that I think the only series that has come close to that direction and specific end goal might be GoT.

If not for the defection of one it's main stars, and its terrible move to a new channel I think it would have been done already. Due to that move some of the best episodes were aired at late hours, in that final season before it made it's way to a new network.

The loss of so many of the cast makes a movie almost unthinkable. I knew of many of the passings, but just thinking of a movie without Garibaldi, G'Kar, Franklin and even Vir is just not realistic.

I hope someday it comes to pass that this series is revisited. It deserves it on so many levels