Damn you, Declan Finn. Your incessant tweets and Facebook posts on your re-watch of Babylon 5 have left me with the urge to re-watch the show. It may, in fact, have to go in my queue as the next binge watch.
The problem is that this is a show I’ve already seen all the way through 2.8 times. Yes, 2.8 times. I watched the first four seasons live as they aired. Then they switched networks – from the doomed-from-the-start PTEN network (aired on Fox in my local viewing area) to TBS. As a poor college student who couldn’t afford cable, I spent years desperately longing to see how my favorite television show of all time (a title it still holds to this day) ended.
When I finally graduated, my aunt gave me the best gift ever: a giant box of VHS tapes, containing the complete run of the entire series. DVDs existed, of course, but television on DVD was not yet a thing. I had a job on offer, but it hadn’t started yet… and I didn’t actually have an official start date yet. I had moved back in with my parents for my last year of college. So what was I to do? I binge watched the entire series, of course.
[Aside: This is one more area where modern television lovers can thank Babylon 5. Its fans (“we”) petitioned Warner Brothers to release the entire series on DVD. We spent years pushing for it. Then, slowly, they trickled it out. One disc (2-4 episodes) at a time. Myself and many other fans painfully shelled out for each of those discs. Finally somebody hit on the plan of releasing the entire season in a set. It sold like wildfire, and eventually every other show followed suit.
B-5 may not have been the absolute first show to be released in season packs. Even so, I remain convinced that we never would have seen the phenomenon develop if the fans of B-5 hadn’t pushed – and paid – for it.]
A few years later I rewatched the series with my wife Morgon, who had not yet seen it. There’s your 2.8.
A week or so ago I watched as Declan let out tweet after tweet, quoting a line here, referencing a scene there. Every single time I knew exactly what scene he was referring to. I’d read the tweets and think, “Dang, that show was so awesome!” Then I’d see a few more tweets and think it again – shortly thereafter followed by, “And he’s only on season one!“
However, this particular tweet came through my feed over the weekend and I had to take a slight issue with it.
One of the greatest things about the show is that its creator, J. Michael Straczynski (known to fans as JMS because his name has, in his own words, “ten thousand consonants and no vowels”) was one of the first show creators to heavily interact with the fans via this newfangled thing called “the internet.” There are huge archives out there of all of his postings on Usenet and other forums related to the show. Like many, I read them in real-time.
And if you read them in real time, one thing that’s painfully obvious (though he never quite said it), is that the concept of the one radically changed during the course of the show. Given everything else he said, it had to have.
In the original 5 year Babylon 5 arc, Sinclair was clearly planned as the commander for all five seasons. It shocked everyone when they replaced him in season two. Then the official explanation came down: the studio wanted someone with “more charisma” in the lead. We all bought it. It sure sounded like something the studio would do. Lord knows they’ve done it before. It wasn’t until many years later that we found out the real truth: Michal O’Hare had a horrible degenerative brain disease that would eventually kill him. He couldn’t continue with the show.
JMS talked all the time in the forums about his “escape hatches.” Episodic television is a massive logistics nightmare, you see. Actors may not return. People can die… or get horrible degenerative brain diseases. So he’d written in a “way out” for each character. If something happened to the actor, they could switch the plot into a different direction. One of the best known is the example of the telepaths. Lyta Alexander was replaced by the telepath Talia Winters because the actress became unavailable in the dead space between the pilot episode and the filming of season one. But the actress who played Talia, it turns out, couldn’t get along with anybody on set. She was eventually fired… and the actress who played Lyta was available again, and magically worked back into the story. Genius, right?
I’m willing to bet that he used a lot more of these than we, the audience, ever knew. Babylon 5 was a massive project, on a scale never undertaken by anyone else – before or since. But the concept, storyline, and execution of “The One” was, by far, the clunkiest use of these trap doors.
Read between the lines and it’s pretty clear what the original intention was. Sinclair would command the station all the way through all five seasons. Almost all of Sheridan’s arc (perhaps slightly tweaked in some cases) would have happened to him, instead. Then, at the end, he would have vanished into space – just as Sinclair did. But instead of merely being taken away, he would’ve been taken back in time to become Valen.
Oh, wait, you say. Isn’t that last bit what actually happened? Yup. But it happened nearly three years early due to O’Hare’s declining health. And they had to split the character – he could no longer be the same character who had fulfilled every aspect of the original intent. At the same time, Sinclair had to be the character who went back to become Valen. Sheridan’s temperament simply didn’t fit the role. But more importantly, Sinclair had already been the one shown in possession of a Minbari soul.
And yet dialogue already recorded and aired – in one of Babylon 5’s best known episodes, no less – had well defined that there was a character of, “The One.” What to do?
JMS turned to religion, in a quite clever move, and created the “Trinity” of Sinclair/Delenn/Sheridan. It works. But honestly, it only ever barely worked. It sounded cheesy and clunky the moment it aired, and it still sounds cheesy and clunky twenty years later. I give him mad props for making this work. It had to have kept him up at night until he worked out the solution. If you want to talk about JMS and religion, stick to episodes like “Passing Through Gethsemane,” which is so deep and profound that it actually played a role in my conversion to Catholocism. For an atheist, he certainly gets and understands the best that religion has to offer.
But let’s not give him props here for more than he actually deserves. Babylon 5‘s “trinity” was a cheesy hack. A really good cheesy hack, but still a cheesy hack.