Writing Heroes: J. Michael Straczynski

Most likely, you either already know who Joseph Michael Straczynski (JMS) is, or you’re scratching your head. But even if you don’t know the name, chances are you’ve seen some of his work. He was a writer on the original He-Man and the Masters of the Universe cartoon, as well as writer and co-creator of She-ra. He wrote for The Twilight Zone, The Real Ghostbusters, Murder She Wrote and Sense 8. The first Thor movie. Changeling. A raft of comics titles including Superman, Wonder Woman and Spider-man.

All Alone in the Night

But of course, if you do know JMS’ name, chances are you do so because of Babylon 5, a science fiction show that ran from 1994-99. JMS created and produced the show, as well as wrote a vast tract of its episodes. It was his baby, beginning to end and everything in-between. And it’s why we’re talking about him today.

As with JMS, you probably know plenty about B5, or nothing at all, so in summary…

The story of Babylon 5 begins in the year 2258. Humanity (in the form of the Earth Alliance) has expanded into the stars, and is now one of five dominant civilisations. Babylon 5 is a neutral waystation in unclaimed space, an attempt to forge and maintain a lasting peace between humanity and the various alien factions. It’s a trading post and diplomatic hub, with the station commander as much an ambassador as a military leader. An ambitious project at the best of times, but as the show gets underway, it becomes apparent that not only are tyrannous factions at work behind the scenes of the major empires, but also that an ancient and terrible power is on the rise.

The inevitable comparison to Babylon 5 is Star Trek. At the time, The Next Generation had just wrapped up, and Deep Space Nine was still in the process of finding its voice. Then and now, the perception of Babylon 5 was of the a poor cousin to Roddenberry’s leviathan. And if I’m honest, the first season sometimes feels that way as it struggles to break free of convention. But the truth is that B5 was groundbreaking in ways the Star Trek of the time wasn’t.

For the record, I love Star Trek: TNG and the original (Kirk) series, and I have a lot of fondness for DS9 (nothing since has quite clicked with me, though). I don’t really subscribe to the theory that you can only love one show in the same genre. Star Trek, Star Wars, Babylon 5, Battlestar Galactica? They all have their own strengths, and their own vision. But in B5 JMS gave me two things I wasn’t getting from Star Trek: a long-running meta story, and characters who changed as a result of that story.

An Interstellar Epic

B5, more than anything, was an ambitious attempt to tell a sweeping sci-fi epic across years of TV. This wasn’t something ret-conned in – it was there from the start. This, in an era where a parade of standalone episodes was still the norm to avoid confusing audiences and remove the need for strict airing order. With a few exceptions, you can just about watch any season of ST:TNG in whatever order you choose. Even by the time DS9 was hitting its stride, that remained true more than it was false. This was comic-book storytelling applied to TV, and it was revolutionary.

X-Files (another 90s staple) flirted with meta-story, but as with the notorious Lost some years later, delighted in setting up clues and puzzles without any real plan to have them pay off. B5, by contrast, started putting its pieces in place from the very start. The meaning and intent of lines was so important that improvisation was forbidden for the knock-on effect changing even a few words might have.

In B5, Straczynski created a show that rewarded you being in for the long haul. For every scrap of darkness you saw gathering on the galactic rim, there were two or three others closer to home whose significance you missed at the time, but never felted cheated by in hindsight. JMS applied the principle of Chekov’s Gun (simply expressed as ‘foreshadow and earn your payoffs’) in precise and prolific form, with character arcs, geopolitics, wars and tragedies foreshadowed long before they come to pass. The two big status quo changes that occur over the course of the series were planned from the start, and the breadcrumbs are always in plain sight.

Consequences, Consequences

And the characters… Doing away with the episodic ‘one and done’ formula allowed JMS to craft characters that grew and changed with their situations. Villains became heroes, heroes plunged into the depths of rock bottom and all the while you were yearning for them to find that one, perfect moment of redemption. There was no reset at the end of each episode. No clean slate from which to begin anew. No good deed went unpunished, and no vile act could ever be fully washed away. Decisions mattered on B5.

This impermanence, wedded to some fantastic performances, gave us characters full of the tiny contradictions and foibles that made them real. I’ll argue with anyone who doesn’t believe that G’Kar (Andreas Katsulas), Londo Mollari (Peter Jurasik) and Delenn (Mira Furlan) don’t deserve a place amongst the finest characters to appear in any media. They’re all of them angels and demons and everything in-between, and they never could have existed in a more traditional show, where an episode’s consequences have to play out before the end credits roll.

Of course, we’re used to that now. A steady diet of Netflix and HBO tempts us to remember that TV was always this way, but it wasn’t. B5 was right in the vanguard of the change from episodic to true serial TV (At least in genre TV. Soap Operas are a different matter, and a different audience). Is it a coincidence that DS9 began to move away from the standalone format just as B5 was gaining its audience? I don’t believe so.

Sleeping in Light

Ultimately, Babylon 5 ran for five years. Spin-offs were attempted after, but none captured the magic of the main show. And in the spirit of scrupulous honesty, Season 5 is mixed, and far from necessary viewing for the ‘core’ experience.

Taken alongside Warner Bros’ reluctance to celebrate the show (to this day the only available version is a mangle of aspect ratio conversions) and genre fan partisanship, it suggests B5 is destined to be remembered as a curiosity, rather than a genre-defining creation. It’s a show you love, or don’t understand what the big deal was about. Like most pioneers, what JMS did back in the mid-90s seems so stark and simple in its necessity that it’s easy to forget it needed to be done at all.

Or maybe I’m biased, because Straczynski opened up my eyes to how an episodic show could unfurl into a grand epic. By creating a mythology broader and deeper than ‘this alien has godlike powers’. By crafting characters I loved even though I hated what they were doing. By having the determination to bring his vision to completion in such meticulous, encompassing detail that Babylon 5 felt like a world you stepped into for 43 minutes at a time, rather than simply something you watched. By showing how even the grandest stories are composed of individual tales that effect one another and are effected in return.

That’s why J. Michael Straczynski is one of my Writing Heroes.

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