Sunday, January 9, 2011

Star Wars had nothing to do with it

I stumbled onto this article the other day. "Shoulda Been Bigger: How Star Wars Killed Babylon 5." It posits that science fiction fans were so wrapped up in the Star Wars prequels that they had no attention left to spend on science fiction television like Babylon 5. And that in a world with no Star Wars prequels, presumably, Babylon 5 would have launched into a hugely successful franchise.

I call bullshit.

This article is clearly written from the point of view of a Star Wars fan who hung in there until the bitter, bitter end. I desperately want to accuse this man of gross generalisations, of taking his own experience and declaring that to be the truth of the whole situation. However, as I’m about to do the same thing, I can’t quite stoop to that level of hypocrisy.

So what I offer is an alternate opinion. 

First of all, most of the Star Wars fans that I know collectively told George Lucas to take a long walk off a short pier sometime around the time the first of the prequels came out. All three prequels were terrible on a variety of levels, and most of us didn’t stick around to be disappointed by Clone Wars.

Most of us started getting angry, in fact, way back when George Lucas first started dicking around with the original three movies. They were great just the way they were, and the changes added nothing to the story. (And what's worse is, he wants to do it again. Could someone take those movies away from him, please? He needs to put them down and leave them alone, because Star Wars does not need to be 3D. It really doesn’t. George Lucas, don’t make me jab you with a fork.) (See? Angry.)

But, I digress.

My point is that most of us didn’t let a once-every-three-year movie phenomenon stop us from watching weekly television. I don’t even want to know what the writer of the article thinks The Lord of the Rings has done to us. Or, worse yet, Harry Potter. Eight movies? How can there be any science fiction television left at all?

(I would promise to stop mocking this guy, but that doesn’t seem likely.)

The article's primary example in making its case was Babylon 5. Now, Babylon 5 was huge, back in the day, and its fans were devoted. Up to a point.

The thing with Babylon 5 was that it had a 5-year arc that was entirely planned out in advance. And for the first three seasons, barring a little tap-dancing to cover changes in cast, it stuck to that plan.

The problems with that, though, were two-fold. First of all, the arc was so complex and so mythic that you couldn’t just tune in halfway through season 3 and pick up the threads. You had to really want it, because catching up meant watching full seasons from the beginning and not just a couple of two-hour movies. And, keep in mind, this was before the era of the DVD box set. So, even as the word-of-mouth grew, it had a hard time increasing audience numbers.

The other problem, as I understand it, started with the executives. At the end of season three, they went to J. Michael Straczynski (JMS), the creator, and told him he only had one more season to wrap everything up. It was only getting four seasons and not five.

JMS crammed all the remaining story into that season. At the expense, I would imagine, of a great many subtleties and smaller story points. The great war, for example, that had been building for three whole seasons was resolved inside of six episodes. None of the fans that I know were particularly satisfied with that.

But we all kept watching, because we were all desperate to know how it ended. 

And then, once season four was complete, the executives came back to JMS and told him he was going to get his fifth season after all.

Almost anyone who once loved Babylon 5 will tell you that season five was terrible. I can only imagine that, having wrapped up his preplanned arc for the end of season four, JMS had to scramble to find stories for season five.

All of this was further complicated by the departure of Claudia Christian, an actress who played Commander Susan Ivanova, one of the series’ most popular characters. Based on varying accounts, there was a dispute over her contract which resulted in her not being a part of season five.

The split was somewhat acrimonious, and the character that came in as a replacement was loathed by everyone who was sorely missing Ivanova. For me personally, this was one of the major issues that soured the final season.

Also, from somewhere in the second season all the way through to the end of the series, JMS insisted on writing every single episode himself. On the one hand, this allows for an amazing singularity of vision. And I believe he has said it was easier to write it himself than to have to explain the whole convoluted arc to someone else.

That, however, is a huge workload for one man. A man who was also hands-on executive producing the show. I’m sure that had an impact on the quality of the scripts by the end.

In short, the reason that Babylon 5 wasn’t bigger was because it started to suck, and its fans drifted away, bitterly disappointed.

The article doesn’t mention that part.

Nor does it mention the X-Files, which was a huge success in the ‘90s, running for nine seasons and spawning two movies. Or Buffy: the Vampire Slayer, which hit airwaves in 1997, ran for seven seasons and had its own spin-off series, Angel. Or Stargate SG-1, which also started in 1997, ran for 10 seasons and had two spin-off series and a couple of TV movies. Clearly science fiction fans had time to spare from their busy Star Wars schedules for a couple of shows.

The article also dismisses Star Trek as a product of the ‘70s and ‘80s. It’s certainly true that it was popular in that time period, but it seems like the heyday of the spin-off series was the ‘90s more than the ‘80s.

Star Trek: the Next Generation started in 1987, but ran until 1994. Plus the movies. Deep Space Nine began in 1993, Voyager in 1995, and Enterprise in 2001.

Farscape, which the article dismisses out of hand, started in 1999 and ran for four seasons before it was abruptly cancelled. That's not nothing for a science fiction show shot in Australia with muppets numbering among its primary cast. It also got a two-part miniseries to wrap up its loose ends.

And it's true Firefly only ran for a handful of episodes, but the force of its fans brought it back for an outing on the silver screen. And nearly eight years later, the fans will not let it go. (Witness: all the Firefly references on Castle.)

And this is not to mention Highlander (1992), Forever Knight (1992), Seaquest DSV (1993), Earth 2 (1994), Space: Above and Beyond (1995), Hercules: The Legendary Journeys (1995), Xena: Warrior Princess (1995), Earth: Final Conflict (1997), and on, and on.

The article was right about one thing. There was a lot of choice in terms of science fiction on television in the ‘90s. And that will automatically splinter the viewing public. No one show is going to pull in everyone.

And I can't say that I've done the research, but nor can I imagine that Star Wars had anything to do with the success or failure of any one of those shows. I would imagine that had more to do with quality, with scheduling, with expense, and with network executives who do not understand science fiction.

The problem with the article is in its very premise. It’s comparing apples and oranges. Viewership for movies and for television is not the same thing.

Opinions, anyone?



  1. Wow, yeah. You pretty much called it on that one. I hate to contribute to an echo chamber, but I pretty much can't say anything to this article but "You're totally right."

  2. The article just happened to hit on the period when I was most involved in fandom. And it mentioned the three shows that I adored. Stew said, yeah he's an idiot, let it go. But it seems I needed to tell him exactly why he was wrong. :) Thanks for reading!