An oral history of Babylon 5: The beloved TV novel that showed a different way to tell sci-fi

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Jun 27, 2018, 1:00 PM EDT

Twenty-five years ago, Babylon 5 arrived on television to tell an ambitious science fiction story, charted to last the course five seasons. Set on a space station where humans and aliens could gather in peace, the series introduced viewers to fascinating, complex characters as its stories addressed a range of subject matter. It showed everyone a new way of telling a science fiction story and even 20 years after fans said farewell to the station, Babylon 5 remains one of the most beloved entries in the genre.

At the time of Babylon 5's release, it was breaking barriers and offering viewers something that wasn't being done quite yet. It had serialized plots and adventures to follow from episode to episode and season to season with characters that didn't just reset every week but evolved over time. It was something that a sci-fi series like Star Trek was only just beginning to slightly change course to explore with its own new series. Fans looking to binge the 110 episodes of this five-season TV novel like other shows have had a difficult time finding it on a streaming service over the years, but that changed in June when it finally made its way to one of the big platforms: Amazon Prime.

With this news and the milestone anniversaries Babylon 5 is celebrating this year, SYFY WIRE decided to take a trip back to the last of the Babylon stations and talk to cast and crew in separate phone interviews and the creator in an email interview about how this series came to be and what they think of new audiences discovering it now.

Journey to Babylon 5

Babylon 5 debuted with the pilot movie "The Gathering" in February 1993, but efforts to make the series a reality began long before then.

John Copeland (producer): Doug Netter, Joe Straczynski and I were all involved in making a kid live-action science fiction show called Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future... In the aftermath, Joe came to Doug and I and said he had an idea for a science fiction show that was character-based and had the potential to, in his opinion, cross over the boundaries of science fiction and interest more people than that narrow niche. We read the material. He had an extensive bible and pilot script. We were very enthusiastic about it.

J. Michael Straczynski (creator/executive producer): I wrote the bible and pilot movie for Babylon 5 around 1989. It took five years to sell it because — as we were told repeatedly during this period — television executives believed there was no market in this genre for anything other than Star Trek. To a degree, one can't argue with them because the truth at that time was that other than Trek, no American space-based TV series had gone more than three seasons in something like 25 years. So while there are some who say that Trek paved the way for B5, the truth is that it was a huge obstacle to us, which is why it took five years to get someone to buy it.

There was also a lot of skepticism about what we said we were planning to do with the show, both creatively and from a production standpoint. I designed B5 with a five-year arc with a clearly defined beginning, middle and end, which no one had ever done before in American TV. Back then every TV episode ended with a push of the reset button so the next episode could begin clean. There were the occasional two-parters, and soap operas had ongoing arcs that were never intended to end, but execs didn't think that viewers had the attention span to follow a story that set up threads that might not be paid off for years. Now, of course, everyone's doing multi-year arcs, but Babylon 5 was the first.

Another obstacle was cost. The budget set aside for B5 was well under a million dollars per episode. (I think we started at about $650,000 per episode and ended up five years later at about $875,000/per.) Given our mission statement, which included big action scenes, lots of extras and effects and prosthetics, nobody including Warner Bros. thought we could pull it off for that kind of money. We were also the first show to pioneer CGI on a regular basis to create ships, worlds and virtual environments that would've been impossible to afford using the traditional methods of miniatures and matte paintings.

Finally, the decision by Paramount to launch Deep Space Nine, with a very similar location, plot, setting and characters to what we had on B5, almost simultaneously to our show (the assumption was that they wanted to undercut Warners which was competing with them for independent TV stations) came within inches of torpedoing our show.

Copeland: Even after we jumped through hoops and illustrated that we had the fiscal responsibility, the production know-how, and the creative know-how to do the show, they didn't give us a series right away. We did a pilot TV movie "The Gathering." We achieved the ratings plateau they wanted us to and so we got an order for the first series...

The cast brought on for Babylon 5 had varying levels of experience with science fiction. After being brought on, the actors were able to make the characters their own.

Peter Jurasik (played Londo Mollari): It was set to be shot during or right after the pilot season. The sooner you can grab a pilot when you're an actor in Los Angeles, the sooner you can grab something after the pilot season is over, the quicker you are back to work... All I knew it was going to be was a two-hour movie. I hadn't really done any science fiction since I did a small part in Tron and didn't really know science fiction very much. I was bouncing around cop TV and stuff like that.

The way I got the script was that the casting director [Mary Jo Slater] was somebody I had known and she said "I think you might like the script, read the script." I didn't think that I would love it. I was anxious to get back to work. My wife always reminds me I went outside and sat on the front porch, read the script, came in and said I definitely want to do this. My response was very positive.

Bill Mumy (played Lennier): My wife Eileen and I were getting ready to leave for holiday and I got a call from my agent saying "I got an audition for you. It might be more than one episode and it's a sci-fi thing..." I got the sides and it was for that introductory scene when Lennier comes to the station, connects with Delenn and gives her an update on what's going on. He's very shy and humble and all of that… I had no idea what the character looked like. I went out there and did a couple scenes… We went on our holiday and then I get a call that I booked the part, but they want to make a five-season deal. It's a series regular...

I'm like OK, but if I'm not mistaken this guy's not human. The level of my agents I have to be honest at this point in time was not exactly where it had been in the past and I wasn't really impressed with my representation. It was very clear to me they just wanted to book a deal. I said, what does this guy look like? I grew up on Lost in Space. I know what aliens can be. They did a movie of the week pilot, but they're changing the design of the race or something so they don't want to show you that. I said, look I won't wear lens. They said OK. A couple of hours went by and I said to myself this is silly and for the second time in my life I picked up the phone and I called the producer.

I called John and said I'm flattered you guys want to make a deal. No one's telling me what this guy looks like and I know what that can be. The bottom line is, how long am I going to be in the makeup chair? He said about an hour. I look at my wife and say it can't be that bad. She said go for it. We closed the deal.

Jurasik: I knew [Joe] wouldn't mind that I ask. I said listen, I've never done an alien before. I don't know what you want him to look like or sound like or what and Joe got back to me and said you make him sound and do whatever you want. We have no expectations and no parameters at this point. I didn't have any idea what to do so everything that I did physically and vocally, was just something I made up out of my head. I liked that idea that I could do that. He let me do whatever I wanted.

Mumy: Lennier's arc was created by me and Joe approved it. I went to Joe and said to him after only a few episodes, "Joe, I want you to think about this. Lennier is infatuated deeply soulfully forever in love with Delenn." He said, "Let me think about that," and he came back after the weekend break said, "OK, we're going to do that. We're going to start seeding it right away, but it's going to take a long time for those scenes to pop out of the ground but yes. That's who he is."

He called him Lancelot and so my point in sharing that is in the beginning of Babylon 5 I had a television series in development Space Cases and I was writing the Lost in Space comic book that Joe and Harlan Ellison were reading and liking. They knew I was a guy who had not only grown up on television, but had written television and was writing comic books and so Joe was very receptive and very cool about my input to the arc of the character.

Jurasik: What I liked about the character was the position Joe placed him in… Londo was a character in a really wonderful position. He was trapped in a corner and he was at a desperate spot in his life. He was basically drinking too much. He was in a losing spot. He was stuck in a corner and had nowhere to go but up or down. I loved that's where Joe placed him.

Sets, Makeup, Action

To make it all come together was a team effort, with work behind the scenes on costumes, sets, and so many other aspects that were essential to transporting actors as well as viewers to this new sci-fi world. They were successful even without the budget or acclaim of other shows.

Jurasik: Ann Bruice did a beautiful job with the costumes and that really stood out. Once again, I'm spending most of my time as an actor in just the regular world of cops and whatever. I'm ending up in a lot of suits and stuff and then someone comes in with boots and a cape. Her costumes were gorgeous and she came from a theatrical background and we connected on that level. My background is as a theater actor. I really liked talking to her about her work and I could see she really put her heart and soul into the designs. I think they're fabulous. When you look back on them they're a wonderful gift to the actors. When you get it you think wow this is my costume. It takes you somewhere.

Copeland: One of the things that is quite commonly done in theater is that the folks doing the wardrobe and designing the sets collaborate together so things feel like they all fit together. John [Iacovelli] and Ann were absolutely exceptional at that. You look at G'Kar's wardrobe and when he stepped into his quarters, it looked like he belonged there. It looked like it was a real place. The same with Londo. Any of the characters. The textures, the colors, all kind of played off each other in a really integrated way.

Straczynski: The main task was maintaining visual and story-consistency. Every department would start from the nature of the character and the culture, then extend outward. G'Kar's species, the Narn, lived on a hot, desert-like world that had been strip-mined by the Centauri over hundreds of years so the lighting he would have in his quarters would be red-tinted to go with the color of his world's star which he was accustomed to. His wardrobe would reflect harsh conditions and a warrior's perspective. This would also bleed into the design of their ships. Everything had to be sufficiently consistent that when you cut to his world, or another, you instantly knew where you were by the color palette and visual sensibilities involved.

Mumy: I'm in the chair getting [my makeup] done and it took four hours and 10 minutes to become Lennier. I was like, this is not what I was told. It kind of made me nervous because if someone had said in the beginning, before anybody had accepted a contract, you're playing an alien and this is what you're going to look like and it's going to take four hours in a makeup chair for you to become this character, I would have said, thanks I'll pass…

Babylon 5 was an isolated production. It wasn't something that was shot at a studio. For some people in the cast it was a huge drive. For me it was 35 minutes, but still at 3 o'clock or 3:30 in the morning, we were driving out to this funky little hot tub factory off of a freeway off-ramp. They made a great studio out there. I will make it clear: The little independent place that we worked at was cool. It was a little like the Alamo, so to speak. You're out there all alone and you're surrounded by reality, but most people in the cast the Peter Jurasiks, the Bruce Boxleitners, Claudia [Christian], me, Stephen Furst, those people had all spent their professional experience in studios where it's more when it's lunchtime you go to the commissary and there's a million other people.

We were in a hot tub factory. It was a totally different kind of guerilla television-making process. We're the little sci-fi show out here at the hot tub factory and we all grew to be kind of cheerleaders for it.

Jurasik: Warner Bros. never really embraced our show and they didn't quite know what to do with it… That was a double-edged sword. It also tended to make them leave us alone. They would come around very rarely, once a season usually, and then be on their way. We didn't work on the Warner Bros. lot. We worked in a little place up in North Hollywood that had been a hot tub factory. At one point you feel like, hey what are we? But also, we were separated and that felt good. We were our own group. We knew who we were. Joe worked there and everybody was there.

Mumy: I went to Doug, John, and Joe and asked for a meeting after the first episode. I said, "Look I'm in a very awkward position here. I asked what the guy was going to look like. Nobody would tell me. I called you personally, bypassed my agent and asked you how long I was going to be in the makeup chair. You told me about an hour. Well it's taken four hours and ten minutes every day in the makeup chair. If I had known this, I would have said no thank you, but now I've signed a five-season deal."

This is exactly what I said. "I'm here to tell you this now. If you have any plan to make this guy the guy, forget it. You can kill me off next week, but if you keep this guy, let me be George Harrison. I'll get one song an album or something. I want to be interesting. I want to be integral, but there's no way I'm doing this five days a week. You got to work me a handful of days." They apologized and Joe said to me, "There will be episodes that you work one day in, episodes you work every day in, episodes you will get paid for that you won't work at all in. I'll promise you that and I'll try to keep it to the schedule you just explained to us." He was very honest about that and so I stuck it out for five years.

Completing the Novel

Throughout the seasons, some of the original plan for the show may have changed, but as expected the story came to a close in five seasons and ended with the last episode "Sleeping in Light" airing November 1998.

Mumy: Everyone I'm sure would agree that Joe's tenacity to stick to what he wanted was legendary yet he still got notes and things from Warner Bros. where things had to change. Joe's initial vision of where everything was going to land and where everything was going to go turned out to be quite malleable. He went with the flow brilliantly, but quite honestly Babylon 5 ended at the end of the fourth season. In my opinion, Babylon 5 is a four-season show and then it got this last-second reprieve. We had told Joe's show. The end of the fourth season, the last episode "Sleeping in Light" had already been filmed and done and it ended there really.

The fifth season was just this kind of extra, like on how a DVD you get extra bonus bits. Somebody will release an album that's 50-years-old and all of a sudden, they'll add six songs to it that never came out on the album because for one reason or another they either weren't good enough or just didn't get finished or somebody said no. To me, that's what it's like.

Straczynski: Because no one had ever done a five-year arc before, there were no roadmaps for me to follow; I had to figure out the process on the fly. I knew the first season would be mainly stand-alones with some threads quietly introduced to set up what was to come later; year two would lean more heavily into arc episodes; then by year three you'd be almost all arc-stuff. For self-protection I built in trap-doors in case any actors might leave or otherwise not be available (and had to use a few of them along the way). So there was a huge learning curve. But in the end, as much to my surprise as anyone else's, I figure I got about 80 percent of everything I wanted when we first started the show.

Mumy: Lennier's resolution came in that fifth season and we can all argue what that was, but I think that was a personal little jab at me. I don't think that was Lennier's true destination, but that's what they did to me and I think they kind of did it out of spite. I didn't like it and I told them I didn't like it and I acted it out to the best of my ability. I understand the whole Lancelot thing and blah blah blah, didn't feel right and if you really analyze that scene, Lennier sees Sheridan in a near death situation and as it played out he chooses to go, nope I'm not going to save him because now Delenn will be mine. He starts to abandon him and then comes back and realizes I better save him. He'd already been saved so now [Lennier] is just on the run as this terrible loser, but let's look at that scene from one more angle.

There's a fellow ranger in there with Sheridan. There's an innocent guy in there who would have died too. There's no way Lennier would have let that guy die. There's no way he would have let Sheridan die either. In my opinion, Lennier would have saved them both and then he might have gone to Delenn like, see don't you get it? It's me, it's always me. I'm pulling these guys butts out of the frying pan all the time. He might have done that if he was really bold, but he probably would have done it and looked at Delenn with a little smile like yea see, ok whatever.

Welcome to Amazon Prime

In June, the entire series became available for streaming on Amazon Prime so it could be rewatched by fans and discovered by a new audience. Even after all these years, cast and crew believe the show can still resonate with viewers.

Straczynski: This is the first time the show's been easily accessible to new viewers in over a decade, so seeing the reactions online from both viewers who saw it during the original run but not since, and new viewers who have heard about the show but weren't about to plunk down X-bucks for the DVDs sight unseen, shows pretty clearly that the series still works. If anything, the political aspects of the show seem even more relevant than ever in our current political climate.

If there's any particular motif to my work, any message I'm trying to communicate, it's that a) we have the power to change the world, and b) that no matter how awful things become, there is hope if we hold to what is true and best in the human spirit. And those messages are as needed, and as true, now as before. B5 is also about the idea that we are better together than we are apart, a theme that runs through some of my later work, including and most recently Sense8. And if there's a better or more important time than right now for that message to be conveyed, I can't imagine it.

Copeland: The stories have a great universality to them. Joe and also the other writers that contributed to the series, they all took great questions and dealt with them in the episodes. It's about faith, about overcoming hardship, about renewal, and I think the stories still work. Unfortunately, I think our visual effects are going to look a little dated. Often those do not age well, but as a whole I think it all still holds up and works because ultimately with a TV show what you're doing is you're not tuning in to watch the hardware or visual effects. You're dropping in again and again to spend time with the characters that you identify with and I think that still holds up.

Jurasik: Does it still have a place? I hope so. Joe created really interesting people and I always approached it that way. They were aliens, but they were interesting people going through their own stories and I think it's still going to resonate.

More than a decade has passed since Babylon 5's journey began, but the memories of that time are still strong with the cast and crew as they recalled working on the show. The show's legacy is clearly one not only to be seen in larger pop culture, but with the people directly involved with it who remember what it was like working together, their favorite moments from the show, and those fond friends no longer with us.

Copeland: Seventy-five percent of the crew that we started with on day one was still with us at the end of Season 5. That was unheard of at the time on TV. It was also a series where the entire crew even the grips read the scripts when they came out because they wanted to see what was going to happen. There was an atmosphere and a family feeling that we all had on Babylon 5 that is often not easily recaptured or created to begin with. Joe and I used to both comment that the most common sound heard in the corridors between the stages and the production office was laughter.

Straczynski: The Classical Greek definition of happiness is "The exercise of vital powers (your talents and abilities) along lines of excellence (striving to be the best) in a life affording them scope (a wide enough range to let those talents flourish)." The very best part of making Babylon 5 was creating an environment where everyone there, from the costumers to the prop designers to the cast to the CGI folks, was encouraged to take their craft as far as they could go.

My task was to shepherd everyone toward a given goal, but there was great latitude in the steps they took to get there. I like to keep a light hand when possible, so people have a sense of ownership of a scene, a set, a look. If they go off the beam I pull them back, but otherwise it's important to respect the creative vision of those you're working with, and these were pretty spectacularly talented people. So creating that environment, in a place where the number one sound you heard in the hallways was laughter, is one of the things I'm most proud of.

Other than that, it's mainly just moments of perfect beauty. Watching Andreas Katsulas and Peter Jurasik take what was written as a fairly serious scene in an elevator (meant to turn the "we have to work together to survive" trope upside down when the former refuses) into something hysterically funny. Watching director Mike Vejar turn an otherwise straightforward action scene (Sheridan's capture in "Face of the Enemy") into something of disturbing beauty. Seeing the camaraderie between the cast and the crew grow over five years to create friendships that endure to this day. Those were and are the best parts.

Mumy: I don't think there's ever been a show ever and I say this with almost 60 years of television experience and film experience under my belt, that has lost so many of its regular cast members to early death. I know it creeps me and Bruce Boxleitner out. You got Michael O'Hare, Richard Biggs, Andreas Katsulas, Jeff Conway, Stephen Furst, Jerry Doyle, and then there are plenty of other people who all left at very early stages in their life. That's very unsettling. It makes trying to raise a toast to Babylon 5 with a smile on your face and go yea, 25 years, you realize how many glasses aren't there to clink with you. It resonates with me I know and Peter and Mira and Claudia, we look at each other and go wow there's a lot of us that aren't here and it's sad…it's unsettling when you think about the number of cast regulars from Babylon 5 that aren't around anymore. It's bittersweet.

Straczynski: The show's legacy wound up being far more extensive than I could ever have imagined the first time I sat down to write the pilot movie. On a purely technical side, in addition to being the first show to use CGI in a significant way, we were the first show to shoot 16x9, and one of the first shows to use an aggressive 5.1 sound mix rather than just mixing in stereo (my professed goal was to blow up subwoofers around the world), all of which are standard practice now. We were the first SF series to feature a Jewish character in a lead role, show a bisexual relationship (which would have gone farther had the actress not left), and address gay marriage in ways that were extraordinary because we didn't treat them as extraordinary: our position was that by this point in the future nobody will care about any of that, especially once we have better targets for our prejudices in aliens.

The biggest legacy in many ways has been the five-year arc. In the years since B5, starting with Lost and Battlestar [Galactica], which took that concept to its next level, nearly every dramatic series now has a multi-year arc. What started out the aberration has become the rule. That one singular development changed the television landscape forever in ways that we are still discovering.

But the most significant legacy rests with our viewers, who have supported the show for over twenty years, during most of which we weren't even on the air. They met in fan groups, got married, formed friendships, named their kids after characters in our show, used some of the speeches in wedding vows and funerals, and formed a community much akin to the one in the show itself: diverse individuals from distant places brought together by a desire to create a new and better world.

If there's a reward greater or more profound than that, I can't imagine it, and as Babylon 5 demonstrates, I can imagine a lot.