It’s easy to forget just how truly groundbreaking and ahead of its time Babylon 5 was as a TV series. The idea of telling a coherent story over five (or however many) series now is taken for granted, but back when B5 started it wasn’t just novel but almost unheard of on American television - British classics such as Blake's 7 were an acknowledged inspiration - but generally American television tells a series of stories with perhaps a minor through-line. Episodic television was often limited to mini-series, typically based on a novel, really just allowing a story to be told in the time it needs (for the record the BBC version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is still the best piece of television ever).
Babylon 5, from its inception had a rich story to tell with a defined beginning, middle and end. At the time of its first airing on British TV I was a huge Star Trek The Next Generation fan, and watching B5’s first series I never quite got it. In part because it was more episodic in nature then, and compared to the next Trek franchise Deep Space 9, it seemed a bit cheaper and not as slick. Then one weekend, Channel 4 did one of their "Sci-Fi weekends", those wonderful occurrences where you got everything from Nic Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth, to John Sayle’s Brother From Another Planet, to the Moroder cut of Lang’s Metropolis (introducing me to silent cinema) to Hyam’s Outland and also: the feature length pilot of B5. After all these years (and until I get my preorder of the blu-ray copy of the series) I don’t think I’ve seen the pilot since, so what struck me I cannot remember. Regardless it got under my skin and it just happened that Channel 4 were showing series two and I never looked back.
Since the series ended, there have been four uneven films and The Lost Tales, the latter of which I’ve still not seen. Sinfully there's been nothing since, explained by the series creator J Michael Straczynski (henceforth JMS) as the result of a senior executive at Warner Brothers, the producer of the show, hating B5. Subsequently anything B5 was vetoed, done, dusted, and only now are we getting (in my case) a Blu-Ray and this animated film because the executive in question retired.
But now it is here, and... to say there was excitement and trepidation would not be unfair. Yet animation is in many ways the perfect way forward for more B5, JMS himself cut his teeth on series like He-Man (and yes, I am young enough to remember that and even see the terrible film at the cinema), but sadly B5 has lost many of its cast, most far, far too young, and JMS himself when the possible reality of more of his universe became close to happening told those still alive if they disagreed with anyone else playing the role of their dead friends, that he would put B5 to bed. None disagreed and so the film was made.
And so, with mild spoilers ahead (it’s impossible not to, watch the film and you will know why) though the story itself relies more on execution than plot points. Why? Because we know the story, we instinctively know how the strands will likely weave together and we know where this is going because so much of the original tale is already told. It can only go one way.
It goes the right way.
But what of the story I hear you cry?
President of the new Interstellar Alliance John Sheridan is leaving Babylon 5, off to the new home of the alliance on Minbar. A soldier who is now a reluctant politician and, complaining to his wife and ex-Minbari Ambassador to Babylon 5, Delenn, he is not cut out to be opening shopping centres, finds himself on Minbar doing almost exactly that. An unhappy accident causes Sheridan to become unstuck in time and space, much as he did in season 4 of the television show. Here we go again.
If you are new to B5, this may seem kind of: so-what? But to anyone who knows the series, several key episodes will flood your memory, and narratively you'll build the background to the story, even just that first moment of Sheridan looking at his socks and everything seeming to jar, it means everything. You know where it is going. It’s not lazy writing at all, it’s because this is a series that always knew where it was going, past, present, future. It fits together like a puzzle and knowing that it is a puzzle, we as a viewer place the pieces together into a whole that we know and understand.
And that is the beauty of The Road Home, because as the newly animated film opens, the first concern is whether or not an animated outing will work. Does the change in medium affect the tone, the story or the essence of Babylon 5? And the answer is no. The reason is arguably very clever, or rather, that JMS is a writer who knows how to write. Yes, immediately as the film starts it is introduced as any B5 entity should be: a voiceover explaining the meaning of Babylon 5. Not a voiceover telling us the story but each character (because this is a story of characters) speaking in turn to elaborate on the Babylon 5 universe - a unit of people not always united, but part of an interweaving narrative. This sets a tone and consistency with the original series as the iconic theme tune rumbles in the background.
The ominous opening over, we delve into a scene that is not dramatic. Not in the least. We find Sheridan and Delenn sharing a magnificently domestic moment. It is meaningful, yet also everyday and immediately radiates the simple humanity that always grounded B5. It’s supremely good writing, putting to bed concerns about finding the world as we left it. Those who understood the tone of B5 can react to it with a cheer, those who don't can instantly understand what B5 is about. Humour, character, life, people.
And this never once makes us forget that. There are a few concessions I admit, where JMS has to input an element of exposition, though some of these are legitimate because they are entirely part of the narrative, whereas there are a few fragments which are there to ground the newcomer (or those that perhaps have a hazy remembrance of the series). In this, it's really no different to the original series which also had to throw in a few flashbacks or moments of exposition to remind the viewer of critical elements to the twisting narrative. Within The Road Home they are slight in number and runtime that in the end it doesn’t matter much at all.
The most important thing is that The Road Home tells a compelling story which is in tune with the original series. It also makes you remember how important JMS is as a storyteller; let’s not forget he wrote about half of the first two series and if that wasn’t hard enough he wrote every episode of the final three with two exceptions: one co-written with Harlan Ellison and the other written by Neil Gaiman. If nothing else, pause to think about that; Ellison, one of the most appreciated and iconolcastic writers of the last 50-years and Gaiman, a fantasy writer even beloved by those that don’t like fantasy. That’s not nothing, as Raymond Chandler might have said. (Also JMS is Ellison’s literary executor, it’s worth soaking that up.)
So tone is set correctly, the writing as ever masterful and witty. Yet I have to consider the elephants in the space station: the facial animations are not the most expressive and by some standards may seem a bit average. It’s not bad, and this is not where the animation money is really being spent (and the emotions are conveyed by the actors), with more care lavished on impressive VFX which look lovely. B5’s original (and at the time pioneering) use of CGI really works in its favour because the ships and the station itself feel real. The level of detail is almost too clear, especially on the Shadow vessels, which lose their menace when rendered so clearly.
The most important elephant is of course all those sadly missed actors, almost all which have vital parts to play, and these, especially Delenn and Zathras (I mean, Zathras, no, Zathras, not Zathras), are mostly superb. The only one that didn’t immediately feel quite right was that of G’Kar, but then trying to fill Andreas Katsulas’ shoes is a massive task. In the end Andrew Morgado puts his own slant on the character of G'kar as opposed to aping the the voice work of the much-loved actor.
I appreciate this is not anime per se, but knowing there are a few sneaky B5 fans at UKA (notably the Editor in Chief Ross, whose first fanzine that pre-dated even this site included a B5 vs DS9 article co-written with a fellow Sci-Fi fan) we're writing about it anyway. Knowing that UKA's forebear contained such an article almost makes it part of UKA's DNA! But aside from that, B5 really deserves its time to properly shine, despite being an imperfect series. There was no end of adversity when it was being created, with actors suffering health issues and story changes having to be made on the fly, it always felt like the scrappy underdog. Somehow the show was always ahead of its time without ever getting the recognition it deserved. If you watch the first series without knowing what's coming, it can seem somewhat stilted, but when you know what's coming, with the sheer amount of lifting and worldbuilding that initial series put in place, every minute is glorious.
I'm reminded of an incident over twenty years ago, where I was watching an episode in the middle of the night. My mum (who couldn't sleep) walked in on a speech given by Security Chief Garabaldi and remarked "Oh, that’s so Amercian". We share many tastes but she missed here what was really happening; yes she was right, it was American in the sense of someone giving a big speech, but she missed that it fell flat on the ears of protofascists. Without context much is lost.
The easiest thing in the word is cheap nostalgia, bundle up the familiar cosily so that you lap it up. But this never happens in The Road Home, and though it may have made a certain middle-aged man cry, this is because though it’s not the very best of B5 - it's close, I admit - it's indicative of the series as a whole: it balances emotion and humour with story with aspects that may turn some people off because they may not seem iconoclastic enough; but then B5 was always imperfect and it’s worth remembering how the fourth series was rushed as no fifth series had been greenlit, but then it had to change gears once more when someone changed there mind and so JMS had to find a way to keep telling the story beyond the supposed finale.
What's clear here is that for JMS, B5 has always been a labour of love, as watching it has been for it's fans.
But what matters in the end is this is more B5, capturing the spirit and heart of the original series. Babylon 5 is a rare thing, imperfectly perfect yet always ever more than the sum of its parts. If we get more animated B5 after this - and we may - we will be very lucky indeed.