'Babylon 5' turns 20: Creator J. Michael Straczynski reflects on the show's legacy

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babylon-5-cast.jpgIt has been 20 years this week since "Babylon 5" premiered as a weekly series, a year after its pilot aired as a TV movie. The popular science fiction series was a pioneer in many ways and has certainly left its mark on many television shows that followed.

Zap2it spoke with creator J. Michael Straczynski about the show, looking back on some of its groundbreaking features, like planning a five-year story arc, or having a same-sex couple. Straczynski says it's terrific to see the way his show has affected other projects.

Zap2it: Can you believe it's been 20 years since "Babylon 5" premiered?
J. Michael Straczynski: No, it takes my breath away to think about it sometimes. For me, those characters are all still alive. There are times in parts of the day when they still talk to me. In the middle of the night, they'll be there in my head. Really to this day there are still scenes popping into my head. Those characters are still talking, I can't get 'em to shut up [ laughs]. But it's been 20 years since the show first went on the air, that's stunning. What's been cool about that is the way the show's had a long-term effect it's had on television.

That was actually our next question: Do you see the effect of "Babylon" on other shows?
We were the first show to have a five-year arc. Before we did that, television was very episodic. There were no recurring developments along the lines of a novel, which is how the story was built.

Once we did it, then "Battlestar Galactica" picked up the thread and said they were actually looking at what we had done, and then "Lost" came along and Damon Lindelof said we've kind of patterned our five-year arc on your five-year arc. ... [Lindelof] made no bones about how they wanted to incorporate a five-year arc like we had done. It's fun to see the long-term effects from the show.

Another thing you were seemingly doing before anyone else was interacting with fans on the Internet, such as it was 20 years ago.
Definitely. Back then, there were no other showrunners really on the 'net talking about their shows. The average showrunner I knew would say, "I'm not going there, they're mean out there." My reason for doing so was my thought at the time was that viewers can't get what they want without understanding the process.

So I wanted to create a living document covering all five years of the show of how a show was made, from writing to production to marketing, so that they could understand that process and therefore demand better programming in the future. There was all this mythology about how you produce a television show and I wanted to get the truth out there. And the fans responded in a very positive way, and that's still going on to this day. The social media around "B5" is still quite strong. ... You create a genuine connection. Don't treat it like a marketing thing. Treat it like a conversation, give your audience the respect of that and they appreciate that. They keep us honest.

j-michael-straczynski-babylon-5.jpg Can you talk a little bit about being one of the first shows to feature a same-sex couple -- it almost seems like there was less uproar 20 years ago than there might be today.
We treated it like it was a non-issue. My feeling certainly was that 200 years hence, when you're dealing with aliens that have three heads and feathers, the idea of our differences based on gender or on ethnicity will pale by comparison and it simply will not be an issue.

Even before [the lesbian storyline] I had put down the word that whenever we did the big shots of the restaurant area and people would hang out at tables, I don't want to see just men and women eating at tables, I want to see same-sex couples. I want to see guys and guys and gals and gals. We never made a big deal out of it because at that time, it shouldn't be a big deal.

We also had an episode where two of our male characters went on a mission to Mars and went on it as a married couple. We didn't make a big deal out of them being married. We played it exactly as if it was a male-female couple being married, or pretending to be married. I think it didn't have much of a fuss about it because it's science fiction, you're expected to be able to do those sorts of things more readily than you can in a mainstream show. But yeah, we were out there in the forefront of these things 20 years ago.

The problem with our society is it tribalizes us and marginalizes us and gets us to stumble and look at our feet. When you look at your feet because you're afraid of stumbling, you take your eyes off the horizon. And the role of science fiction, good science fiction, should be to raise the audience's eyes to the horizon. Say "This is where we are going, this is where we could go, and how do you feel about that?" Unfortunately, there is not a lot of current science fiction on the air that is doing that.

How do you think "Babylon 5" would do in today's TV landscape?
I think it would do well. The fans are still out there clamoring for it. ... If we were to launch that show today, obviously you update the CGI and some of the makeup and wardrobe and some of the stories, but I think it would do as well now as it did then, maybe even better.

What are some of your favorite sci-fi projects since "Babylon" went off the air?
I like "Lost." "Fringe" is really good. There has not been a lot of space stuff, which is disappointing. It's lost its appeal since then. I think probably one of the best shows in the genre in general is ["Buffy the Vampire Slayer"], which came after us to a certain degree. Any time I come across "Buffy" on TV, I'm screwed for the next hour."

Straczynski's next projects include a new comic series called "The Adventures of Apocalypse Al," which is reminiscent of "Buffy" in certain ways, and a Netflix original series titled "Sense8," which he's executive producing with Andy and Lana Wachowski. For more on that, come back to Zap2it Monday (Feb. 3) for part 2 of our interview.
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