Debuting thirty years ago, Babylon 5 remains a wholly unique entry in the sci-fi genre. Focusing on the titular space station as its crew attempts to bring peace across the universe, the show kept a very character-driven touch even as it introduced telepathic spies, ancient beings, and cosmic wars. Throughout it all, the show stood out for a landmark approach to long-form storytelling that's influenced television ever since. The sci-fi drama is now coming back to life in the form of Babylon 5: The Road Home, with the original animated film reuniting much of the remaining cast for a new adventure.
Ahead of Babylon 5: The Road Home's debut on Blu-ray, 4K, and video on demand on Aug. 15, CBR sat down with Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski to discuss the film. While reflecting on the history of the series, Straczynski discussed the importance of honoring the cast members who have passed away, the difference between working on his own characters versus Marvel superheroes, the influence Babylon 5 had on modern television, and teased the potential future of the franchise.
CBR: Congrats on getting to come back to Babylon 5! It's a very fun return to the universe.
J. Michael Straczynski: I thought coming back, instead of doing a big, serious, dark story... Let's just have some fun. It's been 30 years. Let's celebrate the anniversary! Let's have some fun with the fans, mess with the timeline a little bit, and show them different versions of things that they saw before. What if we lost the Shadow War? What happens next? Then to also have a love story built into this whole thing, and make it funny. Bruce Boxleitner is actually very good at comedy. He rarely has a chance to play that. Let's give him something to play with! It was just fun.
Considering that the film really does bring back so many familiar faces and settings, what was it like to come back to the toy box and get to play with all these characters again?
For me, these characters never went away. They are still in my head on a daily basis. That being said, the first thing I did... I sent an email to all the cast members saying, "Warner Bros. has come to us about doing this. But if we proceed with the story that I have in mind, it would mean potentially acting with someone playing one of our fallen friends. If you're not okay with that, if anyone has even a moment's hesitation about doing that, let me know and we won't do it. We'll just walk past it and not even worry about it."
But they all said they wanted to do it for the fans, for ourselves, and as a memorial for our fallen friends. These actors created the definitive versions of the characters. Once I had that in hand, and everyone was on the same page, then I sat down and -- just as if I were just a fan of the show, what would I want to see. That's where all this came from. It was so much fun.
How did you approach returning to those characters whose performers have passed since the end of the show? What did it mean to you to be able to honor those lost friends in this way?
Having these characters and their interpretation of these characters move on into the future -- it didn't provide closure, but a sense of having done right by the actors. I've never seen the kind of attrition on any show that we've had with Babylon 5. The main cast of Star Trek were with us for twenty-five years before we lost a single person. We started losing ours within a year or two of the show going down.
Every couple of years after that, it's the damnedest thing I've ever seen. We miss them, we love them, and this is their interpretation of the character. [The new performances] are not imitations of the characters. Rebecca Riedy, who's playing Delenn, she's not imitating Mira Furlan. She's capturing the grace of Delenn that Mira created. That's kind of the idea of doing the characters again, rather than trying to do an imitation of them.
Road Home is ultimately a love story at its core. Why was that the ideal direction for the film?
I've always leaned toward love stories. When Marvel asked me to do a story for the Thanos anniversary issue, most people were doing big fights. Mine ended up being a love story. It's that love story that really grounds us in the larger story. We may not be able to buy into galactic empires or aliens as much as that love story.
As much as I'm a big action guy, I love the special effects and all the rest of it -- ultimately, it is the relationships and the characters that draw me in. When I worked on Thor for Marvel, the movie had lots of big effects, but at the end of the day it's two brothers competing for their father's affection. It's always the relationships that pull you in.
Speaking of Marvel, you're currently set to come back to the publisher later this year to write Captain America. Having spent so much time in that universe, what would you say is the biggest difference between writing characters like Spider-Man and Thor versus getting to play with characters of your own creation, like Babylon 5?
When it's your own story and your own characters, you can do whatever you want. You can break whatever you want. With established characters like Spider-Man or Captain America or Thor, you have to not break them. You have to treat them with some measure of respect. You have to elevate them. Coming from television, my experience has always been... Number one rule is to serve as your main character. With Thor, with Spidey, with Cap, I'm sort of paring away the supporting cast to make room for them to develop. My job is to ask unlikely questions.
When Marvel asked me to do Thor, they asked what I was going to do with Asgard. Was I going to put it in space or up in the mountains and some big glory situation? I said "I'll put it in Oklahoma, in the middle of nowhere." They looked at me like I had three heads and feathers. But they said, "Well, go with God. If you fall on your face, it's on you." But I believe that you get nowhere if you're not willing to risk failure once in a while. Building up the character, it brought readers in. That book went from the top 200 to the top 10, and stayed there every single issue because it was more character-based. It respected the character.
I did want to talk a bit more about getting to see these alternate timelines and pieces of the past in Babylon 5 because in a sense, you didn't just get to play with the toys again -- you got to break some of them too. What excited you about getting to jump around as you did with this one?
The way I work on a story -- as I come up with the different events that have to take place in the story, I ask the question -- when this happens here, what happens there? I follow that logic tree and see where it goes. Here I was able to say, "We did this. What happens if they lost the war?" We could trail off and see what happens. For me as a writer, and given how much I love details, that was a great experience. There are some people who, if you ask them what time it is, they'll give you a history of the watch. Sadly, I'm several of them [laugher]. A chance to sort of pry the pieces apart and put it back together again in different ways, it was just very appealing to me.
Looking back to Babylon 5, it was a consistent storyline at a time when that was a rarity for television. You watch modern television, it feels very similar to what Babylon 5 was doing thirty years ago. How does it feel to see shows follow in the footsteps of Babylon 5?
It's very gratifying to see. We were the first show to do it like that. Because it had never been done like that before, I had to figure out what's the right balance. How do you put the pieces together? After episode four of Season 2, Warner -- who never believed this was going to work -- said, "We don't understand what you're doing. We aren't going to give you notes anymore. Just go ahead, and we'll see you at the end of the process." I had to figure out the balance of it.
After I finished Season 5, Damon Lindelof looked at what we did on Babylon 5 and figured out how they could take that structure and apply it to Lost. Over at Battlestar Galactica, they looked at what we were doing and said, "Okay, how can we structure this similarly?" All of a sudden at that point, it became critical mass, and suddenly everybody began doing it. As far as I know, that was a new thing for that time. On the B5 reimagining -- should that go ahead after the strike -- I've come up with a new structure. It's a new paradigm for television storytelling. Hopefully, it'll transform television again. I can't tell you how it works yet. If I can make it work, it'll also be transformational.
Is there anything else you can tease about that potential new series?
There's nothing I can really talk about, in terms of the other series. It's just a matter of sitting down with Babylon 5, knowing what I know now, having learned more as a writer over the last twenty years. What would it look like now? I don't like doing the same thing twice. There's no point to that. There's no logic to that. What can I say now, that I couldn't say before? That's what I'm addressing. I'm bringing to bear all the tools I've learned in the last twenty years. Thinking about Babylon 5, and what could it be now.
Stepping back into this world after so many years, getting to play with these characters again, approaching them from a new perspective -- what would you say has surprised you the most about Babylon 5 and getting to come back to it like this?
What struck me the most is that it feels like not a minute has passed since the original show. [The Road Home] feels like an episode they lost in a drawer somewhere. We just found it and pulled it out. And just it's the most Babylon 5 feeling we've had since the original Babylon 5. When Bruce and I sat down to do the commentary for the Blu-Ray, he had not yet seen the movie. He had seen bits and pieces as he was doing his ADR.
As we sat down, he leans over to me on the couch and says, "How is it?" And I said, "Bruce, it's the best thing we've done since the original show." As we were watching, we were making a commentary about this movie. I'm doing all the talking. I look over at him. He's just got this big grin on his face. It's like, "Bruce you're on radio! Talk! Say something!" [Laughing]. After it was done, he said, "You're right. It is the best thing we've done." It is the original show, and it feels like not a minute has passed.
Babylon 5: The Road Home comes to Blu-Ray, 4K, and video on demand on Aug. 15.