Babylon 5’s J. Michael Straczynski On Why TV Sci-Fi Is A Tricky Beast

By David Wharton | Published

This article is more than 2 years old

J. Michael StraczynskiJ. Michael Straczynski knows a thing or two about making quality, televised science fiction. When Babylon 5 aired its pilot in February 1993, JMS was working uphill against a TV landscape that assumed space-based science fiction shows would only work if they were Star Trek spinoffs. Against the odds, B5 managed to survive for its full five-year arc, although it switched to an entirely different network (TNT) for its fifth season. Twenty years later, Babylon 5 is rightly considered a genre classic, but it’s still hard to get the networks to take a chance on a science fiction series. During a recent Q&A session for Slashdot, Straczynski sounded off on the trouble with TV sci-fi.

One reader asked JMS to comment on the dearth of quality TV sci-fi, and whether fans could use things like crowdfunding to help generate/support more of it. Here’s Joe:

The problem is that the networks still don’t take SF seriously, or even feel threatened by it. I’ve had executives say that a space-show doesn’t work because people don’t care about what happens to characters in space, it has to be on earth or nobody’ll be interested. I’ve had them say “you can do whatever you want, it’s scifi, it doesn’t have to make sense.” Because it’s SF they always think that somehow or other The Fate Of The World has to be at stake. If you’re doing a drama, no one suggests that solving the relationship problems of the murder has to save the world, but they feel that it has to be that way if you’re writing SF, which is why it’s also so often the rule in SF movies. It’s absolutely crazy-making. 2001, one of the most classic SF motion pictures of all time, could never get made today. Not a chance. Too cerebral, they’d say. Not enough action. All the crowdsourcing in the world won’t rewire the neurons engaged in that kind of thinking.

I keep waiting for a paradigm shift to happen that will let network and studio execs see that SF is the same as any other genre in terms of how you approach it – logically, character based, with challenging ideas and forward thinking – but I worry that it might never happen in my lifetime.

Well, that’s thoroughly depressing, but it’s self-evident if you look at sci-fi’s track record in recent years. How many genuinely noteworthy, unabashedly sci-fi shows can you think of? Battlestar Galactica and its spinoff, Caprica, surely fit that description, and Lost acted like a science fiction series maybe half the time before abandoning that level of specificity in its final season. By and large, the networks simply don’t want to risk greenlighting a science fiction series at all unless it’s riding the coattails of some other, already successful show. And when it comes to actual space-based science fiction? Fuhgeddaboudit.

Still, all hope is not lost. While the broadcast networks are still trying to find the sort of across-the-board, all-ages hit that’s the exception more than the rule these days, the cable networks are often more willing to take risks as they continue to build a name and brand identity. There are a pair of shows in the works at two of the hottest up-and-coming cable nets that have the potential to be the next great sci-fi show we’ll all be talking about in the years to come.

Spartacus: Blood & Sand creator Steven S. DeKnight is sticking with the Starz network and developing a sci-fi military drama called Incursion. Featuring a female lead and described as being in the vein of Black Hawk Down and James Cameron’s Aliens, Incursion is set during a war between humanity and an alien species. Assuming the show survives more than one season — frantic knocking of wood on my part — each new season would relocate the action to a different alien world, a different “front” in the ongoing conflict. I’m hoping that DeKnight really makes use of that idea, serving up the sort of crazy alien landscapes and environments that are part of the appeal of science fiction in the first place. DeKnight is a longtime genre veteran, coming up through the Whedon-verse shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dollhouse. I can’t wait to see what he does with a sci-fi setting.

Next up is Ballistic City, a futuristic noir science fiction cop series Oblivion director Joseph Kosinski and Pacific Rim screenwriter Travis Beacham are working on for AMC. The show will be set in a “city” aboard a starship traveling to a (so-far) unknown destination. Ballistic City looks to borrow elements from Blade Runner and Battlestar Galactica, among others. AMC has been all about taking chances when it comes to genre: this is the network that has launched mega-hits Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Walking Dead (I’m trying my best to forget about The Killing). Can it conquer science fiction as well? My fingers are crossed.

As for Straczynski, he’s been working in films these past few years, but he’s returning to both TV and TV science fiction with Sense8, a show he’s developing for Netflix along with the Wachowskis. We still know almost nothing about Sense8, but you can bet he’ll be applying the lessons he learned from his time in the TV trenches on shows such as Babylon 5, Crusade, and Jeremiah. Here’s one last Joe excerpt, discussing the subject long-term story arcs, and you can read the rest of his comments over at Slashfilm.

What many people don’t remember, but I do ‘cause I was on the receiving end, was that a lot of folks online and in the press gave me a lot of shit over the fact that I was going to be doing this new science fiction show and my last credits were for Murder, She Wrote and Jake and the Fatman. What the hell does this guy know about writing SF? they snarked at me. A lot. Well, one thing we have to be thankful for is that M,SW in particular taught me the importance of playing fair with the audience, and that takes two forms: first, you have to make sure that all of your clues or the information an audience needs is right there in front of them, so that when they back up the episode (or the season in our case) everything is visible, they just didn’t know how to interpret it. Second, you have to provide proper closure to a story, so the audience feels satisfied at the end of an episode (or a season) that they’ve gotten a full story worth their time and emotional investment.

So when I came to B5, despite the snark, I brought those rules with me. It was important that we were telling a years-long story, but by the same token, it was just as important that each episode and each season come to a satisfying, whole conclusion. That way, if we got canceled at any point along the way, there would be a sense of having seen as much of a complete story as we could provide. Granted, that process became a bit stickier in years three and four, but that was the intent going in, and in general it served us well.

We are employing a similar arc structure for Sense8, and the thing is, you can’t worry about what happens with the numbers. You can hope all you want, but the moment you begin actually writing to that, you’re dead in the water. You have to do what’s right for the story, first, foremost and forever, and let the ratings chips fall where they may.