Shoulda Been Bigger: How Star Wars Killed Babylon 5

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The 90s were a boon for science fiction. Star Trek was still in its heyday and more Star Wars was on the way. On television, you could turn the dial anywhere at almost any time of the day and run into someone racing through outer space or warping back in time. Syndication brought science fiction into homes and onto millions of screens, some shows like Quantum Leap critically acclaimed, others like Time Traxx were simply guilty pleasures. The 70s and 80s made Star Trek and Star Wars into mega-franchises, the next big thing in sci-fi was there somewhere ready and waiting in the 90s.

By any measure, the top contender to be the next geek attention getter should have been Babylon 5. On television, it was one of the most groundbreaking, critically acclaimed science fiction series of all time. All that linear storytelling you love on shows like Lost and Battlestar Galactica? B5 was doing it back in 1993. Computerized special effects? Babylon 5 took them off the big screen and brought them to television on a scale never before seen. Compelling characters, gripping, continuous storylines with complex plots; Babylon 5 was ahead of its time and perhaps, poised for a leap into history and the big screen.

In January of 1999, Babylon 5 left the airwaves. Not cancelled, simply completed. The show had done what its creator J. Michael Straczynski set out to do. The future seemed bright for further endeavors, but Babylon 5 inexplicably went nowhere. The spin-off show Crusade was quickly cancelled before it had a chance to catch on. Talk of a movie lingered for years, but never seemed to go anywhere. Eventually, people somehow seemed to forget. Since then the best its brilliant creator, JMS, has been able to manage are a few bonus direct to DVD episodes, done more out of love than profit making potential. Babylon 5 shoulda been bigger. Maybe it would have been bigger, if not for a little something called Star Wars.

In 1999 George Lucas brought Star Wars back into the lives of science fiction geeks everywhere. As Babylon 5 was completing what should have been its triumphant run on television, its primary audience was focused almost entirely on lightsabers. In 1999 geeks stopped looking towards the future, stopped hoping for the next big thing, and started looking back as George Lucas viciously mined his own franchise’s past for fat nerd cash. Let’s face it, even the most hardcore sci-fi lover only has so much attention to spare. In 1999 the outer space nerd’s attention became firmly fixed on a galaxy far far away… and stayed there.

Over the next few years, more brilliant ideas would arrive… and fail in the Star Wars’ shadow. Farscape blew the minds of the few who bothered to see it, before being quietly cancelled and forgotten by all but the most hardcore fans. Firefly and then its subsequent movie Serenity arrived, wowed critics, and then ultimately failed to become the epic franchise it probably should have been. But Star Wars, despite all the disappointment, despite all the irritation George Lucas caused his fans, continued on. Your attention, my attention, our collective sci-fi attention was fixed there.

This morning, on the eve of Star Wars: The Clone Wars’s epic critical and financial flop, I think a lot of Star Wars geeks are waking up and wondering what the hell they’ve been doing for the past 9 or 10 years. Some are responding to Clone Wars with anger, some are taking it as a sort of personal affront. Others are simply giving up. Instead, maybe we should all look around and consider the things we’ve missed out on, by giving so much of our time to a franchise, an idea, that was going absolutely nowhere. Being a science fiction fan is supposed to be about looking towards the future. For the past decade or so, science fiction has been mired in an unrewarding past.

We’ve been living on Star Wars nostalgia, a contact high leftover from great movies we saw as kids, movies which no matter how much CGI George Lucas uses, will never be as good again. I’m speaking as a fellow geek here, I’m just as guilty as everyone else. Did I really need two Yoda action figures? Sitting here now in a post-Clone Wars world I have to admit, probably not. The prequels had their moments, but take a second to consider that maybe, just maybe we gave them too much of our attention. Think of all the things we’ve missed, by dressing up as Jedi and swinging around our plastic lightsabers. Maybe we should have dressed up as G’Kar or Londo instead. Babylon 5 shoulda been bigger, but we went with Jar Jar.

Josh Tyler