The Babylon 5 that (thankfully) never was: Intro and Season 1

In 2008, Cafepress released a 14-volume limited run of books collecting the J. Michael Straczynski-penned scripts for Babylon 5, a show with which I have always been mildly obsessed. (It is probably my favorite live-action show, though there were six or seven years ending a couple of years ago where that was Doctor Who.) As a bonus for collectors who bought all 14 books, they produced a 15th volume as a “free” gift. Included in this volume was a seven-page treatment outlining the full run of the series, written sometime between the production of the series pilot, “The Gathering,” and its first regular episodes roughly a year later. (This should not be confused with the 22-page treatment written in 1988 and sold by the Babylon 5 Fan Club as a collectible.) It is, in other words, a snapshot of what the series would have been if not for cast changes and the natural alterations that any long-form work goes through in the process of writing.

This outline is now basically impossible to find. The book containing it is long out of print. Synopses and summaries of it are ubiquitous, and the book containing it can be purchased, used, for about $150, but literally no one has transcribed or scanned the outline and put it out on torrents or download sites. Cafepress produced a “highlight” book of the script collections a couple of years ago, but vetted its contents with a “fan board” of jealous collectors, and those assholes stipulated that the new book could not include any content from volume 15 and only very limited content from the other 14 volumes, presumably so that they can continue lording their possession of the book over “lesser” collectors and charging hundreds of dollars for them online.

Nonetheless, what synopses are available make something very clear: the common claim (including frequent statements from JMS himself) that JMS had a five-year plan for the series which he, at least in broad strokes, succeeded in getting on screen? Absolute bullshit. The series that aired starts similarly to the treatment, but rapidly diverges, and not simply for reasons of cast changes. The final couple of seasons are almost unrecognizably different from the series that aired, and in particular JMS’ claim that he knew the final shot of the series from day one is very clearly completely false.

So, then, because I cannot help thinking obsessively about this, I present to you the beginning of a six-part series: The Babylon 5 That Thankfully Never Was. Why thankfully? Because, frankly, as near as I can tell the series that JMS envisioned when he started writing Season 1 was a vastly more conventional and vastly less interesting narrative than what eventually made its way to the screen.

I will break up these posts by season, and then within each season I will first present what is known from synopses of the treatment and comments made by JMS, then add my own speculations on what this means. For synopses of the treatment, I will use two sources:  The Hidden Evolution of Babylon 5, and Synopsis of JMS’s synopsis of the “original arc for B5”. The comments by JMS I cite can all be found on The Lurker’s Guide to Babylon 5.

Season 1

Known differences: Comments by JMS state that, had there been no cast changes, Lyta would have remained as the station’s telepath, and grown slowly closer to Kosh and away from Psy-Corps by “a different route” than Talia. In addition, Laurel Takashima would have been the mole who helped Knights One and Two kidnap Sheridan and shot Garibaldi in the back, rather than Garibaldi’s second. Finally, Ivanova would have existed as a background/minor character, a junior officer who worked in C’n’C and reported to Takashima. The season as described in the treatment is largely the same as what aired, with one major difference: the treatment has no mention of Psicops or Bester.

Speculation: Presumably, Carolyn Sykes would have continued dating Sinclair and taken Catherine Sakai’s role, including the Sigma 957 incident or something very similar. The “different route” by which Lyta draws away from Psy-Corps and toward Kosh is probably to do with her scanning him; the lack of Bester and the Psicops suggests that they were created specifically for “Mind War,” so that Talia could encounter Ironheart as her equivalent to Lyta’s scan of Kosh. This would explain why Psy-Corps seems rather less of a police organization in the treatment than the series; likely they were originally intended (as seems appropriate for telepaths) to be sinister in a “shadowy manipulators with lots of intel” way, rather than a “jackboots and black gloves” way.

Continued next week…

6 thoughts on “The Babylon 5 that (thankfully) never was: Intro and Season 1

  1. Well, this is terribly interesting.

    I only have a passing familiarity with Babylon 5: Apart from knowing what you'd expect I know of the series, I did watch a bit of it back in the day, but never got into it with the same fanatical zeal a lot of my peers seem to have.

    I was of the, I guess mistaken, understanding Stracynzki's plan for the series was very meticulously planned out. Finding out that it wasn't, and what plan did exist probably wasn't a very good idea, clarifies a lot of things for me. I was always curious why there seemed to be such a gulf between his careful attention to detail here and the, well, sloppiness I felt characterized so much of his later work. Maybe there wasn't one after all.

    I may have to have you on Vaka Rangi once I get around to writing the Sensor Scan on Babylon 5 sometime around 1994.

  2. Yeah. Don't get me wrong, I love B5, but it's very clear that JMS diverged massively and for the better from his original plan. Which there's nothing wrong with! That's how some people write–they work better with a starting framework, but don't particularly feel compelled to stick to it. My issue is with his insistence that he stuck “essentially” to the plan, when it's very obvious that even some very basic things changed (for example, Sinclair is clearly the protagonist in the outline, while Londo ends up the protagonist of the series).

    I'd be happy to guest-post on B5!

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