Friday 14 July 2017

The Genesis of Babylon 5

Babylon 5's original concept art, by Peter Ledger. More info here.

When Babylon 5 debuted on the Prime Time Entertainment Network in February 1993, it was the culmination of an epic, five-year struggle. At the forefront of that struggle was Babylon 5’s creator, showrunner, main writer, spokesman (or “Minister of Propaganda”): Joseph Michael Straczynski, popularly known to his fans as “JMS”.

Straczynski was born in July 1954 in Paterson, New Jersey, to parents of Polish descent. His father, a manual labourer, moved around a lot for work and by the time he was sixteen Straczynski had already lived in New Jersey, Illinois, Texas and California. Finding it hard to make friends when he knew he might leave them behind in a few months, Straczynski became a voracious reader, particularly of science fiction and fantasy. His favourite books included Dune, The Lord of the Rings, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Childhood’s End, the works of Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov, and Alfred Bester’s two seminal novels, The Stars My Destination and The Demolished Man. He was also a keen fan of comics and television, enjoying at an early age both The Twilight Zone and the original Star Trek and, a bit later during the PBS era of the 1970s, Doctor Who and Blake’s 7.

In 1974 Straczynski moved to San Diego to attend San Diego State University. He earned his BA with a double major in psychology and sociology, as well as minors in philosophy and literature. He was also a prolific contributor to the University magazine. After graduating he worked as a journalist and playwright. Although Straczynski enjoyed his time in San Diego, he also experienced a traumatic event when he was brutally mugged and left badly beaten on the streets of the city.

In 1981, Straczynski moved to Los Angeles with his future wife, Kathryn Drennan, and continued working as a journalist and writer. In 1984 he sent a spec script to Filmation for their animated series He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, which was purchased, and he was then brought on-board as a staff writer. He met and befriended Larry DiTillio and they worked on both He-Man and its spin-off, She-Ra: Princess of Power. Work on several animated series followed until Straczynski was hired to work on The Real Ghostbusters as script editor and writer.

Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future (1987-88).

In 1987 Straczynski was hired as a writer on Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future, an action show aimed at kids and young adults which had an accompanying line of toys from Mattel. Straczynski saw the potential to tell a bigger and more interesting story than was normally seen in science fiction: he suggested that the entire season tell a single story across its episodes rather than being a collection of stand-alone episodes with the “reset button” hit at the end of every episode. The result was a dramatic, impressive storyline but also one that had problems, particularly the tension between the post-apocalyptic, dark tone of the series, its selling of toys and the more light-hearted moments meant to appeal to kids. In trying to service many masters, it couldn’t serve any one very well and was cancelled after just one season. Still, Straczynski gained important contacts from the show, most notably befriending veteran Hollywood producer Douglas Netter.

During this period Straczynski was also given the chance to present his own radio talk show, Hour 25, which he used as a means of interviewing major science fiction and fantasy authors. Using this show, he met writers and creative forces such as Neil Gaiman, Ray Bradbury, John Carpenter and Harlan Ellison. Straczynski hit it off with Ellison – as a much younger writer he’d once asked Ellison why his work wasn’t selling and Ellison suggest he stop “writing shit” – and they became friends. Straczynski also got his first live-action credit for The New Twilight Zone, the back end of the production run that Ellison and George R.R. Martin had kicked off the previous year and then left when it became clear that the studio didn’t really want a successor to the Rod Sterling show (a conclusion that Straczynski also reached).  After this Straczynski went to work on Murder, She Wrote, which became his day job whilst he worked on other projects in the evenings and at weekends.

Straczynski had been toying around with two ideas for science fiction shows of his own devising for a while. The first was for a tightly-written character drama set on a space station, with special effects kept to a minimum and the focus firmly on a group of characters living on the station trying to coexist. He envisaged this a harder SF tale with a focus on realism.  The second idea was a grand space opera in the tradition of Star Wars, Lensman or Dune, with lots of alien races, spaceships and huge space battles. Aware of the restrictions in television budgets, Straczynski realised the latter was not a realistic goal, but he kept nudging at the idea anyway.

According to Straczynski, in 1986 or 1987 he had a “Eureka!” moment in the shower, when he realised that the two stories – the space station and space opera narratives – were the same story. He could use the space station setting as a window onto the larger universe in which the space opera story unfolds. He quickly grabbed a noisome name out of the ether: Babylon 5. He came up with the idea early enough for the “Babylon 5 Genetic Engineering Colony” to even be namechecked in Captain Power.

From left-to-right: John Copeland, Douglas Netter, J. Michael Straczynski in 1996.

After Captain Power ended, Straczynski met with Douglas Netter and another producer, John Copeland. He unveiled his vision for Babylon 5 and suggested that the show could be made on an even lower budget than Captain Power (which cost a reported $1 million per episode, an extraordinarily large figure for the time which even Star Trek: The Next Generation wouldn’t surpass until its second season) with lots of pre-planning and respect for the budget. Straczynski wrote a script and an outline for not just one season, but five. Straczynski envisaged the entire series telling one epic story unfolding over five years.

Netter and Copeland were impressed, not just by the pilot script but by the way Straczynski had grounded what sounded like an unachievable goal – of doing a Star Wars-style saga on television – within a realistic framework of budgets and practical realities. They set out to woo the major networks, only to encounter strong resistance: CBS, HBO, ABC and Fox all passed on the project.

The team discovered that there were several key things working against them. First up was that the networks were not keen on science fiction that looked like overt science fiction. At one stage, they were passed over in favour of another show called Quantum Leap, which was a fine piece of character drama but very rarely engaged with its core science fiction premise. It was an ordinary drama with a tiny dollop of SF, which suited the studio very well. The team’s ambitiously low budget and production model was also not taken seriously, and Peter Ledger’s concept artwork sometimes confused studio executives. At one point, one executive pointed at a picture of B5’s cylindrical garden (where the people are held to the floor by centrifugal force), spotting some figures on the “ceiling”, and could not conceive of what they were doing there. Straczynski suggested they were held up by “crazy glue” and was dumbfounded when the executive took him seriously.

They did get support from source: Evan Thompson and the Chris Craft TV Group (later United Television) saw a great opportunity in the show to appeal to a young male demographic and were convinced that long-form, serialised storytelling (already pioneered, to an extent, on shows like Hill Street Blues) was going to be the future. Thompson came on board to help shop the show around.
The team encountered a new argument that there was room for only one space opera show on American television and that was Star Trek: The Next Generation. Other networks were simply not interested in competing with the Paramount juggernaut. Confronted by this argument one time too many, Thompson suggested they take the bull by the horns and pitch directly to Paramount themselves.

Paramount was intrigued by the pitch, which took place in early 1989. Internally, several executives appeared to like the idea of launching another, non-Trek show which was not riding the success of an earlier series (as ST:TNG would be accused of regularly until at least the end of its third season), but higher executives didn’t like the idea of cannibalising their own audience. They were also concerned about potentially confusing the audience with having two space opera shows, one set in the Star Trek universe and one set elsewhere. The two sides argued for about nine months, until Netter gave up on them and asked for the script and season outlines back.

The team finally caught two lucky breaks in a row. The first was in the realm of visual effects. Netter, Copeland and Straczynski had worked with a visual effects designer on Captain Power named Ron Thornton. Thornton was an old-skool British model-maker and effects guru, starting his career working on Doctor Who (specifically the Peter Davison years) and Blake’s 7; Thornton had built the Scorpio starship model in his living room. Thornton had then moved to Hollywood as there was a lot more work there. Whilst working on Captain Power, Thornton had a chance to see the show’s CGI (computer-generated imagery) in action and wasn’t impressed: there was no texture mapping and the effects had a very blocky look. He’d been more impressed by the contemporary film The Last Starfighter, which, at least in brief shots, had CG ships roaring through space that looked like models.

By 1990 Thornton had bought a Commodore Amiga 2000 and plugged in NewTek’s graphics card, the Video Toaster. This allowed him to run Lightwave 3D, a powerful graphics application which had a sophisticated system for generating texture maps and light sources. He’d stayed in touch with the Captain Power team and they’d told him about the new space opera show they were developing. Thinking it sounded cool, he presented them with some spaceship shots he’d generated on his computer. That got him a meeting with Peter Ledger, and the chance to translate some of the concept art into CGI. This finally resulted in a 30-second sequence showing the Babylon 5 space station floating in space above its planet (at this point called Euphrates, but later renamed Epsilon III).

A Commodore Amiga 2000 - complete with the iconic, awful mouse - running a Video Toaster plug-in.

The second break was that both Netter and Thompson were acquainted with Dick Robertson, the head of Warner Brothers Domestic Television Distribution. Robertson, unlike any of his peers, was actually keen to get a space opera show to compete with Star Trek, but was aware that he was not going to have the budgetary resources to go toe-to-toe with the Paramount juggernaut. When Straczynski showed up with a costed, affordable show with a kick-ass, cutting-edge but also cheap way of generating the visual effects, Robertson invited him to formally pitch the show.
Warner Brothers were putting together a new way of marketing TV shows: the Prime Time Entertainment Network (PTEN). PTEN was a network of local channels stretching from coast to coast, a way of getting the same shows aired across the country at (more or less) the same time without the enormous cost of setting up a proper television network. A whole bunch of producers and writers were invited to pitch, although Babylon 5 was one of the most mature projects, having already had three years of development work and a completed pilot script.

Warner Brothers was then a competing morass of different departments and PTEN acted like a moth to a flame: the number of shows being pitched went from four to fifteen and when Team B5 showed up they found themselves competing against action shows, sitcoms and other shows which were less ambitious and hence cheaper and easier to understand. Straczynski was so stressed by the experience that he managed to split a molar lengthwise whilst grinding his teeth in the waiting room. Netter and Copeland suggested they rush him to the dentists but he refused, instead swallowing a bucket of ice and painkillers before going in to give the pitch.

How Straczynski’s painkiller-led explanation of the story and characters went is not recorded for posterity, but the attending studio executives sat up suddenly when they saw the budget forecasts and reports. These had been prepared for Steve Papazian, a senior programming exec at Warner Brothers who had cut his teeth as production manager on V, the 1984 SF mini-series which had been (briefly) extremely popular before dying as an extremely expensive and ill-advised long-run TV show. Papazian pointed out that the B5 production model expertly avoided almost all of the things that had caused V to spiral out of control, such as avoiding its expensive model shots and lots of location filming, which meant that controlling the budget was much more feasible. Ron Thornton’s demo reel convinced the last few doubters: Warner Brothers could have its own, proper science fiction TV show for a fraction of the cost of Paramount’s Star Trek franchise.

Babylon 5 was formally commissioned for a two-hour pilot movie in February 1991. Pre-production began early, Thornton began working on the 3D models of the final station layout and other ships, sets were designed, the producers started considering questions of casting and music and directors…

And Paramount announced the launch of its own, big-budget space station series. In a blaze of publicity, they confirmed that they were going to launch their own spin-off from Star Trek: The Next Generation, entitled Star Trek: Deep Space IX (later tweaked to Deep Space Nine after too many media queries about, “What is Deep Space Ix?”). It was going to use cutting-edge effects and would launch directly with the most expensive pilot in television history (a monstrous $12 million dollars, or just under $21 million in today’s money) into a first season of twenty episodes. It was a display of confidence and budget that got Warner Brothers seriously spooked.

How close DS9 came to killing B5 is something that Warner Brothers have never really admitted, except it was quite close. Warner Brothers eventually decided to stick with B5. They’d announced their project first, they’d already spent a lot of money on it and they’d already greenlit the pilot. Cancelling it would look bad for WB’s business reputation. In addition, despite being caught off-guard by the announcement, Warner Brothers didn’t want to look weak or on the run from what Paramount was doing. Finally, B5 was committed to leading the charge of the PTEN and cancelling it and developing another show would delay the launch of that project, which was something WB and its affiliates and partners did not want to do. So, after many delays, the project was resumed in late 1991, with shooting planned for mid-1992 for a November 1992 debut (later pushed back to February 1993, to allow more time for post-production).

Babylon 5’s pilot aired, got very good ratings and good reviews (especially versus DS9’s first season, which was a bit lacklustre until really good episodes like Duet started cropping up in the back half), so Warner Brothers felt vindicated and commissioned the full first season of Babylon 5.
For Joe Straczynski it was the end of a five-year struggle to get the show on the air. Now another five years remained to actually tell the story to its conclusion…which was not the conclusion he first envisaged.


Jens said...

Awesome essay as usual.
Your blog rocks!

FabianR said...

Loved it!! Long live the Amiga... :)