The Unmade BABYLON 5 Films – Part 1

Babylon 5

Writer J Michael Straczynski’s television series Babylon 5 was one of the most ground-breaking television series of the 1990s. Set aboard the titular space station, the show told a story of the rise and fall of empires, intergalactic war and a period of change throughout the galaxy of the twenty-third century, while never losing site on the people and aliens at the heart of these tumultuous interstellar events. The show’s long-term, five year pre-planned story arc was a stark departure from the standard, self-contained episodic nature of other dramatic genre television. And as part of that planning, Straczynski sketched out the details of his story’s world charting a future history is a rich tapestry of events mentioned and hinted at that captured viewers’ imaginations.

And while he told the tale he set out to tell , fans still hoped that they would see more of Straczynski’s detailed galactic history, perhaps even on the big screen. After all, other classic genre shows such as Star Trek and The X-Files had made the jump to the big screen, why couldn’t Babylon 5? Well, while it hasn’t happened yet, that doesn’t mean that Straczynski hasn’t taken a few runs at trying to get the franchise into movie theaters.

The Telepath War/Wars Of The Mind

J Michael Straczynski Babylon 5
BABYLON 5 creator, J Michael Straczynski

Straczynski’s first notions for a Babylon 5 film seem to have coalesced around the fall of 1996 while he was in production on the show’s fourth season, and those thoughts were turning to explore an event hinted at but never shown over the course of the series – The Telepath War.

Through the course of Babylon 5′s five-year run, one continuing subplot was the growing tension between humans with telepathic powers and those without. Although these tensions continually threatened to boil over, it was mentioned on the short-lived spin-off series Crusade (set a few years after Babylon 5‘s final season) that the conflict finally erupted in the time frame between the shows’ two settings. Given the build up that the Telepath War received in the series, it was definitely an event that fans were hoping wouldn’t remain an off screen event, and Straczynski was thinking the same thing.

As Straczynski first sketched his ideas for a Telepath War theatrical film, they were part of a group of notes he was compiling for possible Babylon 5 spin-off stories including two comic book stories and a story idea for the second in a group of made-for-TV movies for the cable outlet TNT who would go on to air the show’s fifth and final season. This document was reprinted in the 2010 Artifacts From Beyond The Rim volume of the Babylon 5 Script Book Series published through Cafe Press by Publishing 180 in conjunction with Straczynski’s Synthetic Worlds Publishing, no longer in print.)

Of the two comic book ideas, one became the three-issue DC Comics miniseries In Valen’s Name while the other, titled “The Death of John Sheridan” would seemingly have its story elements incorporated into Babylon 5‘s series finale. It is interesting to note that one idea mentioned in the “Death of John Sheridan” notes is “Long Cancer of Shadow Legacy.” The long term ramifications of the Shadow War, and the dangerous advanced technology left over from that conflict, will be a story idea that Straczynski will return to in the spin-off series Crusade as well some of the canonical tie-in novels and even one of the attempted movie projects, as we will see.

The ideas in the one paragraph of notes titled simply “Theatrical Film” are fragmentary and broad at best but show us Straczynski trying to define exactly how the war could play out. In his notes, he suggests that the conflict could possibly be between telepaths and normal humans. But he also can be seen playing with the idea that it could be a civil war within the telepath community, with those who do not want to belong to Psi Corps squaring off against the organization into which many telepaths are impressed. By the time season five of the series would roll around the following year, Straczynski had come to the conclusion that the Telepath War would indeed be a struggle with that community and began peppering that season with indications that that internal conflict was inevitable.

Babylon 5 Claudia Christian
Claudia Christian as Commander Susan Ivanova

Straczynski also thought the Telepath War would probably prominently involve the Babylon 5 character of Susan Ivanova, who had been previously established as having a small amount of latent telepathic ability which she has kept hidden. In the series, Ivanova has expressed sympathy for the plight of telepaths who wish to escape out from under Psi Corps’s thumb. Loosely, the story would place her temporarily at odds with her friend and former commander John Sheridan when the anti-Psi Corp faction determines that to win their freedom they must bring down the entire Earth government. Straczynski ends the paragraph noting that there would be a “big fight” and asking “how do teeps fight, can they affect pilots? Combine force of mind.”

The final note in the paragraph is just the fragmentary line “Hive mind/ 10 Million Years to Earth.” Tackling these last points in reverse, the “10 Million Years to Earth” reference is Straczynski most likely misremembering the title to the film 5 Million Years To Earth, the American re-titling of the 1967 British science-fiction horror film Quatermass And The Pit. In that film, it is discovered that Martians had been slowly influencing the evolution of intelligent life here on Earth for millions of years. In the world of Babylon 5, the ancient race of aliens known as the Vorlons are revealed to have been experimenting on the “younger races” and slowly evolving telepathic abilities in some of them in order to ultimately use them as weapons against the organic technology of the Shadows, their perpetual enemies. Additionally, in 5 Million Years to Earth, an unearthed, ancient Martian spaceship also exhibits a sort of intelligence and the ability to telepathically influence humans around it. Given that Vorlon ships were thought to be at least semi-sentient themselves, it is possible that Straczynski was contemplating using a variation of this in his own piece.

The “hive mind” idea suggests that Straczynski was thinking about the possibilities of telepaths linking their minds together to become more powerful. It is something he had already shown in the second season episode “A Race Through Dark Places” and he may have been intending on expanding or exploring the idea further for the Telepath War storyline.

Straczynski would return to the Telepath War idea again in the early 2000s in an undated and incomplete document entitled “Wars Of The Mind : Feature Film Premise.” (Reprinted in the TV Movies volume of the Babylon 5 Script Book Series, 2009, out of print.)

Babylon 5 Bester
Walter Koenig as Psi Cop Bester

The same basic story premise from his notes of a few years earlier remains. Absent from the fragment, however, is the character of Ivanova, probably due to actress Claudia Christian having left the show back in the summer of 1996 under less than ideal circumstances between its fourth and fifth seasons. Sheridan is once again front and center in the story, only this time he is between the warring factions trying to mediate a peace rather than finding himself on one side of the conflict. Mentioned for the first time in this potential film’s development is the character Bester, a Psi Cop who had been a recurring thorn in the side of the Babylon 5 command staff across the show’s run.

As for the conflict itself, Straczysnki ‘s outline states that it had started with the bombing of the Psi Corp headquarters on Earth by anti-Psi Corp telepaths. (Babylon 5 canon puts that event in the year 2264, two years after the end of Babylon 5‘s fifth and final season.) With kidnappings escalating to back and forth attacks between the two sides, Straczynski compares the current situation to the “The Troubles” between the British and the Irish through the 1980s. As the conflict threatens to spill out further, Sheridan, now President of the Interstellar Alliance and someone those on both sides respect, has been brought in to mediate a resolution. Due to the document’s incomplete nature, we can’t say if Straczynski has still held on to or abandoned at this point the “Hive Mind/Ten [sic] Million Years To Earth” angle from his 1996 set of notes. But before the document ends, it does note that telepaths have infiltrated the military and have taken command of some ships. But as to where it all leads is left unsaid.

In the introduction of the treatment, Straczynski noted that the film would feature prominent roles for all of the main Babylon 5 cast of characters as well as the “explosive (and very promotable) demise of two of the series second-level characters, telepath Lyta Alexander, and Minbari diplomatic assistant-turned-Ranger Lennier.” (Straczynski had noted previously that both characters perished in the conflict, conforming things that were hinted at or said in the series finale episode “Sleeping In Light,” the Legends Of The Rangers pilot movie and the tie-in novel Final Reckoning – The Fate of Bester by J Gregory Keyes.)

It should be noted that at the separate times that Straczynski wrote both documents, there was no active development or interest in a possible Babylon 5 film. And when interest would manifest it shortly, in the form of the project that would become The Memory Of Shadows, it would result in a screenplay far removed from the Telepath War storyline. This was Straczynski simply jotting down some ideas as they occurred to him for possible future use. And the case of the first set of notes from 1996, it seems likely that they helped him to solidify some ideas for the show’s fourth and fifth seasons, as well as seed into the series a few things that could be called on if some sort of Telepath War movie were to become an eventuality.

But let’s take a moment to backtrack a few years to the second of Straczynski’s ideas for a Babylon 5 film, which he first wrote down in the early part of 1998.

Babylon 5: The Motion Picture

Babylon 5
Babylon 5 Season 4 cast

The Spring of 1998 was a busy time at Straczynski’s Babylonian Productions. Babylon 5‘s fifth and final season was in the process of wrapping up as pre-production on a spin-off series, Crusade, was just getting underway. Elsewhere, the popular Fox series The X-Files was heading towards the big screen with a film that would bridge the gap between its fifth and sixth seasons, and Straczynski determined that a new stab at a possible Babylon 5 feature might be in order. So while his producing partner on the show Doug Netter started to reach out to Warner Brothers to see if there was some interest, Straczynski turned his attention to developing a story for the big screen, the result being a ten page outline titled simply “Babylon 5: The Motion Picture Feature Premise.” (Reprinted in the Artifacts From Beyond The Rim volume.)

Straczynski set the film close to the end of the television series’ five-year story arc, when John Sheridan had assumed the presidency of the Interstellar Alliance he had fought two wars to establish. (Specifically between episodes 519, “The Fall Of Centauri Prime”” and 521, “Objects In Motion.”) The treatment opens with the discovery of a derelict Ranger vessel, its crew dead. One of the two Rangers assigned to the ship is missing, the other has been driven completely insane by… something. The only clue as to what has happened is a torn uniform patch from an Earthforce ship, the Vesper. President Sheridan orders an investigation, but Earth’s government blocks any inquiries about the Vesper, stating that the ship’s whereabouts is a matter of internal security and therefore not under the IA’s jurisdiction. Resorting to some gray-ish, back-channels, Sheridan’s friend and former Babylon 5 security chief Michael Garibaldi learns that the Vesper disappeared on a classified mission in a little explored sector of space.

Feeling personally responsible for the missing Ranger, Sheridan himself leads a small group consisting of himself, Delenn, Garibaldi, Lennier, Captain Lochley and Vir to the last known coordinates of the Vesper. There they find a planet with the million years old ruins of a Vorlon colony, a science outpost where that ancient race created the technology that made them one of the powerful First Ones races. But the world is not entirely deserted. It is inhabited by a lone Vorlon, a subject of one of their experiments designed to improve their race which instead drove it mad. Over the intervening eons, the Vorlon has wandered the streets of the abandoned colony, waiting for the chance to escape. But Sheridan recognizes the danger that the Vorlon could present to the galaxy and he attempts to reach out to it, to reason with it. And when it looks as if he might just get through, forces from both Earth and the alien Centauri Empire show up, intent on plundering the planet for its advanced technology.

Straczynski does a good job at incorporating almost all of the television series characters into the action of the treatment, especially considering how scattered they were from one another by the time in the series that the film is set. The treatment does incorporate many elements of the television series as well, including interstellar politics and conspiracies and the dangers of technology becoming more advanced than the people who developed it.

Curiously, the only character not mentioned in the outline is that of telepath Lyta Alexander. For such a character to have an obvious connection to the events of the treatment yet not be included seems curious. (The missing Ranger is a telepath which allows the Vorlon to spy on the heroes after they find him still alive in the ruins.) It may be, though, that Straczynski felt that her backstory may have been too complicated to incorporate into a standalone film like this without the use of some overly clunky exposition.

Babylon 5 Andreas Katsulas
Andreas Katsulas as the Narn ambassador G’Kar

Throughout the Babylon 5 series, Straczynski frequently balances out the action and drama of his main storyline with a humorous subplot. Here, he has devised a humorous subplot involving the alien ambassador G’Kar, who has decided that future historians may interpret the events surrounding Sheridan’s struggle to establish the Interstellar Alliance in a negative way and so has taken to following him around to write the definitive, eye-witness biography. Of course, G’Kar manages to make his own embellishments to everything Sheridan says or does, much to Sheridan’s embarrassment. (This future historical revisionism he was concerned about was already shown in the flashforward episode “Deconstruction Of Falling Stars” which closed out season four.)

And while this story that Straczynski outlines here does feel like a Babylon 5 story, I’m not sure that it feels like a made-for-the-big-screen, Babylon 5 feature film. While the plot outline certainly matches the epic scope of the series, it doesn’t really push those boundaries further, not really delivering on the promise of what a big budget, feature length film could give to audiences. After the two epic wars detailed across the show’s five year run, this feels like something of a step back in certain ways. Granted, the television series had 110 hour-long episodes to tell its story while a film is pretty much limited to two hours, so such a restriction is understandable. But it still runs the potential of disappointing some fans on a certain level.

Even not knowing Straczynski’s fondness for the 1956 science-fiction classic Forbidden Planet, it would be hard not to spot parallels between that movie and the treatment here. In both stories you have a group of people arriving on an out-of-the-way planet to investigate the disappearance of a previous ship’s crew only to discover the advanced technology of a long-gone alien race. His treatment evens ends on the same hopeful cautionary note – that when humanity reaches a similar point to the aliens in our own development, we will have learned from and do not repeat the mistakes that they made. This isn’t the first time that Straczynski would reference Forbidden Planet in Babylon 5, but it is the most extensive. Straczynski would later go on to write a prequel to Forbidden Planet for producer Joel Silver that would wind up stuck in development hell.

The plot point of a powerful alien who had gone mad in isolation after being left behind when the rest of their kind departed their homeworld is a story idea that Straczynski first included in an early pitch document for Crusade, written in the fall of 1996, as he was just starting to flesh out the series. In the Crusade document, the alien is just an unidentified First One, one of the elder alien races who have long ago left the galaxy, and not a Vorlon as described here. As the first scripts for Crusade were just being written around the same time that Babylon 5: The Motion Picture treatment was penned, Straczynski may have just decided that the idea was more to his liking for a feature film treatment.

It should again be noted that the notes for a Telepath War movie and the Babylon 5: The Motion Picture treatment were both written when there was no active interest from Warner Brothers on making such a film. Indeed, they never even advanced to the script stage. But in the second part of our look at the unmade films of Babylon 5, we will examine the one project that did come close to actually getting made, why it didn’t and what story it would have told.

Click here for part 2 in which we look at the script for the Babylon 5 feature film that got closest to getting in front of cameras, The Memory Of Shadows.

Avatar für Rich Drees
About Rich Drees 7192 Articles
A film fan since he first saw that Rebel Blockade Runner fleeing the massive Imperial Star Destroyer at the tender age of 8 and a veteran freelance journalist with twenty-five years experience writing about film and pop culture. He is a member of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle.
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