Saturday 9 October 2021

Babylon 5 rebooted for The CW

After news broke that Russell T Davies was returning to Doctor Who, The CW announced a reboot of Babylon 5 with series creator J Michael Straczynski at the helm.

Coincidentally, Straczynski had expressed an interest in showrunning Doctor Who and has commended the decision to bring back Davies for the 60th anniversary in 2023.

Nick Smith, our US-based stellar scribe, speculates on new adventures aboard the beloved Babylon 5.

Guest post by Nick Smith

The CW is a guilty pleasure for me. The shows are formulaic and repetitive but they’re also cosy, glossy and filled with glamorous actors. The channel has proved a good home for DC Comics superheroes, teen romances and the odd spot of demon hunting. But is it the right place for Babylon 5, a show that originally left the air in the late ‘90s?

Should recycling be left to garbage, or is J Michael Straczynski’s TV opus ripe for rebooting? The show is being redeveloped by its creator, who is writing the pilot and will be, ‘running the series upon pickup,’ according to a late September tweet.

A reboot of such a fan-shipped show has its challenges. Here are my top 5 comments and concerns:

1). Reboots are rubbish (usually).

Nine times out of ten, reboots are a bad idea! Without their original creative team or cast and the rocket fuel of ingenuity that blasted them off in the first place, reheated shows are a pale imitation of their former selves. Exhibits A to Z include Bionic Woman, Knight Rider and Matthew Perry’s version of The Odd Couple (oh dear). Fortunately, there are exceptions, which build on the originals instead of simply rehashing them (including and Battlestar Galactica, so say we all). "You cannot step in the same river twice,” Straczynski told the Twitterverse, quoting the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus, “for the river has changed, and you have changed.” In the years since Babylon 5, I’ve done a ton of other TV shows and movies, adding an equal number of tools to my toolbox…’ So he’s approaching the franchise as a brand-new show.

2). Arc plots are old hat.

Arc plots, where early episodes of a season or series pay off at the conclusion, are common in all kinds of shows from Heroes to Supergirl to manga/anime like Bleach and Naruto. JMS wasn’t the first arc plotter but he is one of the best. A line uttered by a character in the pilot took greater significance as the show developed. Enmity between two old foes was the starting point of their burgeoning friendship. A mysterious alien was revealed to be more powerful than the heroes ever expected. We still enjoy plotline payoffs but they’re no longer as surprising as they were in the ‘90s. In shows like Doctor Who and The Mandalorian, they’re almost expected. The original Babylon 5 was full of storytelling surprises. Will the same characters mean the same revelations?

3). Characters like Delenn, Londo Mollari and G’Kar are in Babylon 5 for a reason, symbolizing a political position or mindset. Like all the best sci-fi, these aliens provided JMS with an opportunity to comment on our own society. Other than switching the sexes or ethnicities of the actors, how many new observations can be made? How many new characters can be added without losing the sense that we’re on the same station as before?

4). Audience expectations are greater than they were a quarter-century ago.

We’re used to better effects and more metafictional nods to what we’ve seen before. With the new Babylon 5, more time and money can be devoted to computer-generated gee-whizzery – The CW’s recent Krypton (AKA in my household, ‘The Adventures of Superman’s Grandpa’) created believable alien cities and worlds - but Straczynski’s show is far more than that interstellar eye candy. Despite its primitive CGI, the original series’ makeup effects were often astounding for the time but the focus was always on characterization and plot rather than hardware. Now CGI can create everything from aliens to galactic wars, will the balance shift?

5). A new best hope.

A Babylon 5 reboot offers the chance to reinvent the saga with better effects and contemporary acting. But the emphasis still needs to be on the main cast, character motivations and their revelatory experiences.

The remake is in good hands with J Michael Straczynski. The CW seems like an appropriate home, with a teen-friendly cast and more chance of being nurtured than on a big American network. We are fortunate to have the creative talent of Straczynski with a prominent show like Babylon 5, let alone any intelligent sci-fi, on our screens at a time when what we need more than ever is hope.

Are you looking forward to the Babylon 5 reboot? Let me know in the comments below.

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