Despite it’s slow start, low budget, faltering ending, and low ratings, Babylon 5 was unquestionably the best Science Fiction series of the 1990s. While many other shows may have had individually better episodes, B5’s average was consistently higher than any other show it competed with. Whereas shows like The X-Files were content to just string people along for years with the illusion of an ongoing plot that the producers clearly couldn’t be bothered to think up a resolution for, B5 was a self-described “Novel for Television;” a self-contained five-year arc in three acts, with a distinct beginning, middle, and end for the story, and a definite conclusion that they’d been working towards from the beginning.
If Trek was the big watershed in SF of the 1960s, transforming the genre (On TV anyway) from kid stuff to a thought-provoking social phenomenon, then B5 was the much delayed second great watershed, changing TV SF from the Trek model to a more modern, adult, coherent style of storytelling. It wasn’t quite in the style of NYPD Blue or the new Galactica or Firefly, but it was well on it’s way, providing the transition between minimalist Maoist standalone adventures in space, and believable worlds with well-developed characters. Every show in the genre that came after it has owed it a very visible debt - sometimes openly - in terms of style and the kinds of stories you can tell.
And as we’ve all heard a zillion times, it all wound up exactly like Joe Straczynski intended it to when the idea first struck him in the shower in 1988.
Or did it?
No. No, it didn’t.
To anyone with a minor degree of OCD and a good eye for storytelling, it was obvious that the show went through a number of unintended hairpin turns during the course of its run that necessitated changes to the plot. Commander Sinclair leaving at the end of the first season was one of these, Ivonova leaving at the end of the fourth season was another, but there were many others, some minor, some not. JMS himself has admitted he made some changes on the fly, but he maintains that it didn’t matter. ‘It’s like a story about soldiers in World War II. You may change out some of the individual characters, but it’s not going to change the outcome of the war,’ he said. Even so, there’s a number of dangling threads and odd retcons that make this somewhat questionable, and a fairly huge pastime amongst fans of the show was to try and figure out “What was the original story, before ugly stupid reality changed it?”
A few years ago, Joe started selling compiled volumes of his scripts for the series to fans, and for people who bought the entire set he gave a final volume that had a lot of rarities and ‘added value’ in the form of behind-the-scenes information and whatnot. Part of this was a very lengthy memo he wrote to the Warner Brothers executives early on in the first season, when they asked him to please explain where the show was going. It’s a detailed, but not exhaustive, sketch of his plans for the next five years. While this isn’t the *earliest* draft of the B5 story, it is the earliest and most complete one available to us.
Here then, is a very rough outline of The Babylon 5 you didn’t get to see:
* Pretty much exactly the same as the version of Season 1 we saw, though there’s no mention of Bester or Psicops.
* Commander Sinclair is still in charge of the station
* His Fiance, Catherine Sakai, continues to be a major recurring character on the show
* There’s no Captain Sheridan
* It is revealed (Presumably about 6 or 7 episodes in to the season) that the Minbari are gradually going infertile and dying out, and have been for about 2000 years. It has been prophesied that there is one who will come who will allow them to regain their vitality and renew their species. A Minbari must mate with this person, and their child will be the savior.
* Sinclair was identified as the savior at the battle of the line.
* Delenn specifically became human(ish) to mate with him, but he’s still hot and heavy with Sakai, so how can this happen?
* The Warrior Caste of the Minbari interpret this prophecy differently, and believe a Sinclair/Delenn pairing will lead to the end of their species.
* There’s no Narn/Centauri war, at least not in season 2.
* Londo and his Shadow allies orchestrate an ongoing series of disasters and reversals for the Narn Regime, operating behind the scenes, and hence above suspicion. The Narn quickly begin seriously hurting from this.
* It’s been revealed that there’s a mole operating on the station for the bad guys, probably Psicorps. Perhaps six or seven episodes in to the season, Catherine Sakai is mind-raped, and is effectively off the show from this point, as there’s no further mention of her. This is a bit of a surmise on my part, since JMS deliberately keeps exactly what’s going on here quiet, but it makes perfect sense that she would be the mole: She’s intimately connected with Sinclair, friendly with the command staff, has access via them to all kinds of sensitive information, and is frequently gone from the station for weeks or months at a time, during which she can easily be debriefed by her handlers.
* The Centarui re-capture the Narn Regime, and take command of the Narn homeworld. This might be a “Benevolent Centauri stepping in as a humanitarian gesture to restore order” (but actually annexing it to their empire) or it might be the end of a small war, the memo is very fuzzy on details.
* After 6 or 7 episodes fuming on the station about this, G’kar goes home to head the resistance himself and he’s effectively off the show from that point on (Though he might’ve turned up as a recurring character thereafter)
* We discover that the Vorlons have been manipulating the younger races as long as there have been younger races. They feel themselves to be benevolent, but I, myself, felt some slight (And possibly nonexistent) parallelism between their actions and the Centauri conquest of Narn, after softening it up by manipulation.
* The Sinclair/Delenn romance starts.
* Garibaldi falls off the wagon.
* The Shadows and the Vorlons fight a proxy war by manipulating the younger races to do their bidding. Obviously the Narn/Centauri conflict was an early salvo in this war. They do not apparently fight each other directly, however.
* As the galaxy falls in to chaos, Garibaldi cashes in his marine skills and becomes a mercenary, using B5 as his home base.
* Sinclair impregnates Delenn.
* Someone leaks information to earth that makes Sinclair look like a traitor.
* The Centauri attempt to take over B5 and it’s territory
* The Vorlons loose the Shadow/Vorlon war when their massively hugely big mothership (Described as being hundreds of miles long) is destroyed by the Shadows. Again, it’s unclear if the shadows do this directly or by proxy, but again we get some of the parallelism between this and the Narn/Centauri takeover.
* The Vorlons are effectively extinct, though there may be a few survivors here and there.
* The Shadows set themselves up as the behind-the-scenes rulers of the galaxy.
* The Warrior Caste leads a coup on Minbar, and renew hostilities against earth.
* Londo’s association with the Shadows goes public, everyone knows he’s their minion.
* The Minbari attack B5 and destroy it.
* Sinclair, Delenn, and their unnamed baby escape the station just as it goes boom.
Well that wasn’t very good, was it? It’s also not very much like what we saw in the show that was actually produced. By the end of season three, it’s almost wholly unrecognizable, and it ends on one hell of a downer.
It should be mentioned, however, that all of this tracks really well with the flashbacks and flash-forwards we saw in season 1 of the show, particularly Lanier’s mention (In season 1) about how for the last 2000 years, “There have been fewer Minbari born in each generation, and those who are born are somehow less than those who came before.” Also, in “Babylon Squared” we see a flash forward of Garibaldi’s death amidst a massive battle/attempt to evacuate the station, where he says “It’s ok, Jeff, I realize now this is what I was born for” and he goes down fighting. It also tracks nicely with the setup for Sakai to be a more important character down the road. The overall feeling I get from this is that the rather sedentary pace of the first season would have continued through the entire run of the series, there wouldn’t have been a ramping up of action in the end of Season 2 that continued through the massive increase in action that was season four.
There’s a lot of elements missing, of course: No Anna Sheridan, No particular intrigue involving Telepaths, a Psicorps, but no mention of Psicops, no bester, no Valen, no “First ones” conflict as such, no endless cycle of Shadow Wars, no Earth Civil War, no Rangers, no Talia-The-Mole, no Garibaldi-The-Mole, none of that. Some of these elements would have probably shown up, but aren’t overtly mentioned by JMS in his outline, others I suspect he hadn’t really worked out yet. For instance, there’s no General Hague, but it was rumored online that one of the contenders early on for the part of “Sheridan” would have been James Earl Jones. Obviously, Jones isn’t suited for the lead in a weekly TV show for health and age reasons, so this must have been before they decided to let Sinclair go. Odds are this Sheridan was an early iteration of General Hague, and the character sketch was split between the two characters when Boxleitner came on the show. If that’s true.
Also, there’s no mention of Technomages in the memo, but using other sources it appears pretty clearly that he intended to use them in some capacity. The Babylon 5 Season 1 Writers Guide goes on at some length about a mysterious character on the Zocalo calling himself “Mister Jones,” a recurring character with his own agenda, sometimes allied to, sometimes opposing Team Sinclair. It’s pretty obvious that this guy was a Technomage. Adding what we know from the unproduced “Crusade” scripts that the Ikaran Warrior from the first season of B5 was intended to be a long-dead Technomage that got revived and ran amok, and I’d bet that “Mister Abbot” the “Vicar” who dealt with Talia in season 1 was a watered down version of what had originally been intended as a Technomage. Around this same time, JMS said online that he’d “Struggled with whether or not he wanted that kind of technology in his universe,” but it’s obvious that he had something in mind for the ‘Mages, but couldn’t fit it in when the original plan started to go off the rails, so he make a point of introducing them only to immediately remove them, just so we’d know they existed. Thus allowing him to use them again later, in the spinoff. This is a total surmise on my part, but my hunch is that the Technomages probably were originally intended to fill the role the Rangers ended up having in the finished show.
There are some elements I do like from it - I like the Catharine Sakai-as-a-Mole aspect a whole lot, it fits, it makes sense, it’s perfect, and had the potential to be better than either the Garibaldi and/or Anna Mole arcs. I like the idea of only one commander for the run of the show, rather than three. I really like that the Vorlons are ultimately deposed, and the Shadows take over the galaxy. The idea that the angels are deposed by the devils has a lot of dramatic resonance, and “The devil you don’t know being worse than the devil you do” is a pretty good theme to play with.
On the down side, I don’t like that G’kar leaves the show, and evidently stays on his “Warrior” track, rather than becoming the brilliant character we grew to know. I also don’t like that there isn’t any resolution to the G’kar/Londo storyline.
Some of the elements from this draft were re-used elsewhere in the series, I suspect. For instance, the “Minbari sterility/extinction” problem might have become the rather useless “Hyach-Do” sterility/extinction problem from season 5; Garibaldi the Mercenary from this draft pretty clearly became Garibaldi the “Finder” from season four, and so on. There are doubtless other examples. Probably a lot of these would have played out better if the show had retained it’s original focus, but just as likely not.
While it’s definitely impressive and gutsy that the entire show be a five-year exercise in things falling apart, and ends in ultimate failure, I honestly don’t think there’s any way this could have managed to stay on the air and finish it’s run. But, hey, that’s just me: What do you think? Post your comments, and sound off!
Tomorrow we’ll discuss the intended spinoff from this show, “Babylon Prime.”