In the first of our two part article exploring Babylon 5 films that never got made, we took a look at two different ideas that franchise creator J Michael Straczynski toyed with as possible big screen stories should the opportunity to bring the science-fiction series to cinemas ever arise. In this second part, we will take a look at an attempt that almost made it.
The first years of the twentieth-first century were not an optimistic time for Babylon 5 fans. Crusade, the planned spin-off series that was being produced for cable outlet TNT was canceled in 1999 even before its thirteen produced episodes aired. Euphemistically in Hollywood, the reason given was “creative differences” between Babylon 5 creator J Michael Straczynski and the network. Straczynski would later more bluntly describe it as TNT strangling the show in its crib.
A second attempt to launch a spin-off series, The Legend Of The Rangers for the Sci-Fi Channel, failed to launch after a two-hour pilot film scored low ratings opposite an NFL playoff game in January 2002. And with Legends Of The Rangers not going forward, it seemed as if the door was closing on the Babylon 5 universe, with fans not knowing that in just a short while, events would go into motion that would ultimately get Babylon 5 the closest to the big screen that it would get.
The Memory Of Shadows
In 2003, J Michael Straczynski was approached by an unnamed production company who had the desire for making a Babylon 5 feature film. While Warner Brothers produced the show and owned virtually all rights to it, Straczynski had held onto the franchise’s motion picture rights, something the studio thought would never be valuable. So needless to say that when he was approached about making a Babylon 5 film, he was interested. A deal was struck for him to write a screenplay, which he turned in at the end of the year on December 27.
As 2003 turned to 2004, the unnamed production company went to work on securing the financing for the film. Warner Brothers became involved and soon much of the work that a potential movie goes through before getting the full go ahead to go into production was underway. Actors were contacted and deals were discussed. Straczynski worked further on the script, turning in a full Second Draft on September 15. Stages had been reserved at London’s Elstree Studios, where indie director George Lucas had produced a trio of science-fiction movies in the late 1970s/early ’80s. Early December saw the announcement that Steven Beck (Thirteen Ghosts, Ghost Ship), a director with a background in special effects, would helm the picture and that an April 2005 production start date was being eyed. All the while, Straczynski kept fans updated with tantalizing hints of the project’s progress where he could.
Everything seemed to be going along smoothly, but behind the scenes, there was trouble brewing. Rumors were starting to spread in fandom that Warner Brothers was perhaps pressuring the production to get some bigger star names onto the cast to entice ticket buyers. Reportedly, Warners execs were interested in characters or by recasting the some of the original Babylon 5 characters with actors whom the studio thought could lure in audiences who weren’t necessarily fans of or even familiar with the original series. Reports surfaced that casting sheets for these recastings had been circulating. When asked online for a comment on this on December 18, Straczynski’s reply that he was “not able to do so,” was seen by some as confirmation.
A month later, on January 30, 2005, Straczynski was a bit more straightforward while still managing to be cryptic when in a general update to fans he stated that “the next two weeks are going to be critical for the future of TMoS.”
And it was two weeks after that deadline that Straczynski went online to announce that “the project has dead ended.” In a post dated February 26, 2005, Straczysnki explained how the option that unnamed production company took out had expired the previous December and even with him granting them some additional time, all sides weren’t able to put a deal together that would have allowed them to proceed into production.
But exactly what story would The Memory Of Shadows have told on the big screen? A look at screenplay’s Second Draft, dated September 15, 2004, reveals a story that is set very much in the Babylon 5 universe and lore, but which still strives to be welcoming to newcomers.
The Memory of Shadows introduces a new character to the Babylon 5 universe – Diane Baker, a decorated and highly capable Earthforce Intelligence agent. While on a vid-call with her brother, the captain of the Earthforce cruiser Hermes, she watches helplessly as the ship comes under attack, killing her brother and the rest of the crew. When Earthforce declares the ship lost due to an accident with its engines, she knows that there is a conspiracy to cover up the incident, one that she intends to expose. Going AWOL, she heads to the Mars Colony where she meets a contact who tells her that there is someone at Babylon 5 who has information that could lead her to the truth of what happened. She also has a brief encounter with a mysterious cloaked man.
Arriving at Babylon 5, Diane meets up with the station’s commander Captain Lochley, whom her brother had been intending to propose marriage to. Lochley promises to help Diane’s investigation, even though it would put her own career at risk. Meanwhile, President Sheridan, Delenn, Emperor Londo and G’Kar have arrived on the station to mediate a dispute between four warring races. Diane again encounters the cloaked man from Mars, who reveals his name is Galen, a techno-mage, one of the last of his kind left in this area of space and tasked with making sure that there is no leftover advanced alien technology from the intergalactic Shadow War from a few years earlier. (And as detailed in the Babylon 5 series proper.) The two realize that their two missions are the same and that an alien race known as the Desaud is covertly selling leftover Shadow technology to a number of different alien races. Diane’s brother’s ship had stumbled across one such transaction and was attacked and destroyed in order to protect the Desaud’s secret. The coverup from EarthForce is because they are one of the Desaud’s customers as well, although they believe they are the only ones. Diane and Galen head out to the source of the shadow tech to destroy it while the Desaud, and an unexpected ally of theirs, attack Babylon 5 with the intent of killing everyone on board.
The impulse to have the new character of Diane Baker be front and center to this story is a good and understandable one. Babylon 5 may have had a successful run on television, but a feature film would need to bring in more than just fans of the show to do well at the box office. Rather than toss potential moviegoers into the deep-end of the Babylon 5 mythos, the Diane character acts as an efficient audience surrogate, allowing the audience to enter into the world of the show’s 23rd century as she herself makes her way across space to the station.
But there is an unfortunate drawback to this strategy. Although the script pairs Diane with a fan favorite character like Galen, it does make the other Babylon 5 characters that do appear here more supporting characters to the story. Many of them don’t directly interact with Diane at all, and are just reacting to the repercussions of her investigation. As a fan, it is great to see character interactions such as Londo and G’Kar verbally sparring with each other one more time. But ultimately, when we see them alongside Sheridan, Delenn and Lochley fighting an overwhelming battle against killer drones that have been let loose on the station while Diane and Galen race to destroy the drones’ power source, it feels as if the characters have only been there to raise the stakes of the finale. Our favorites are there only to give us a reason to root for Diane to accomplish her goal. It feels somewhat of a mechanical function of the needs of the script rather than a bit of organic storytelling.
It should be noted that this issue could conceivably have been addressed in the next subsequent rewrite. In an August 23, 2004 newsgroup post Straczynski stated “in the next week or so I should be turning in the next-to-final draft of the TMoS screenplay,” so presumably he was referring to the draft under consideration here. It is not known if he proceeded with that subsequent third or final draft. Conversely, it had been reported that Straczynski had done revisions on the script after the first draft had been turned in to increase an unnamed part or parts in order to help attract a name or marquee actor to the role(s). It is possible that in that process, the space for the regular Babylon 5 characters may have been diminished to what we see here. But until a different draft surfaces with which to compare, we can’t say for certain.
Interestingly, though, The Memory Of Shadows shows Straczynski still interested in exploring the legacy of the Shadow War and the idea of younger races perhaps being too immature for such advanced technology. It was a story thread he first started to pursue in the telemovie A Call To Arms and the Crusade spin-off and which he worked into the outlines he wrote for the two spin-off novel trilogies “Legions Of Fire” written by Peter David and “The Passing Of The Techno-Mages” written by Jeanne Cavelos. (And it should be noted that the character of Galen has featured prominently in all of those stories.) And as he is someone who grew up in the shadow of the Cold War, it is an understandable theme for him to be concerned with.
(Another trope that Straczynski returns to is having Captain Lochley have a personal connection to someone on a missing/destroyed ship. Here it is Diane’s brother, who was preparing to ask Lochley to marry him. In the Babylon 5: The Motion Picture treatment, it was a close friend who served as science officer on the missing ship.)
Of course fans will be wondering where in the Babylon 5 time-line this story would conceivable fall. Straczynski does not outright give a date, but there are a few clues as to where the film could fit in. Given that it deals with leftover Shadow technology and its misuse by humans and other races of the galaxy, it feels roughly concurrent with the time frame that the spinoff Crusade was set in. However, there are a few scenes at the beginning and end of the screenplay that take place on Earth, and since characters are free to come and go from the planet, it can not be set during the time of the planetary quarantine due to the Drakh Plague, another major story driver for the Crusade series. That would potentially place The Memory Of Shadows either right before Crusade or after that story element would have been resolved in Crusade.
But, at the end of the script, Sheridan, in his current role as President of the Interstellar Alliance, offers Diane a job tracking down further caches of Shadow technology, and offers her a ship to use, the Excalibur, which fans will recognize as the ship from the Crusade series. Given that the ship had just been launched when Crusade started its story and that Lochley sounds like she has some familiarity with the Excalibur as she and Diane discuss Sheridan’s job offer, this suggests that The Memory Of Shadows is set after the 13 produced episodes of Crusade, somehow dovetailing into elements that Straczynski may have had planned for the later seasons of the spin-off series. With the Drakh plague that kicks starts the series starting in December 2266, and Straczynski stating that that particular storyline would be wrapped up somewhere in the middle of the second season in his planned five year run of the show, it feels safe to say that The Memory Of Shadows most likely is set somewhere between the years 2268 and 2270.
It should be noted that Straczynski has previously stated that had Crusade continued forward, the Drahk plague storyline would have been resolved by the middle of the show’s second season. However, the crew of the Excalibur would have discovered something else that would have caused them to go rogue from the Earth government. While he never stated it outright, there are indications that that discovery would likely have involved the idea that EarthGov and other races were experimenting with dangerous Shadow technology.
So it looks as if Straczynski’s planned story arc for the unproduced Crusade episodes would put it in conflict with the idea that the Excalibur would be available for Sheridan to offer her command to Diane as shown in the screenplay. But it should be remembered that during the production of Babylon 5, Straczynski had contingency plans in his back pocket in case something were to happen to an actor whose departure from the show could impact his planned storylines. It is possible that Straczynski was using The Memory Of Shadows, and potential film sequels, as a new way of addressing the Shadow tech storylines, in essence rendering his intended, but unproduced, Crusade storyline moot.
But the collapse of the business side of the project closed off The Memory Of Shadows as an avenue for Straczynski to explore that issue. And it looks as if the next and most recent attempt to translate the series to the silver screen was going to follow a very different storytelling path.
Babylon 5: The Reboot
After the collapse of The Memory Of Shadows, there was no new news about any type of revival of the Babylon 5 franchise for nearly a decade. And then, during a spotlight panel at the 2014 San Diego Comic Con, Straczynski made the surprising announcement that he would be starting work on the screenplay for a new Babylon 5 feature film, one that would be essentially a reboot of the franchise.
As to why it would need to be a reboot instead of a direct continuation of the franchise, Straczynski explained –
It would have to be a reboot because it’s been twenty-plus years since we started that show and some of the age ranges wouldn’t work with some of these characters so we’d need to move a few people around. But what I want to do is use the original cast one way or another but we’d have to move some things around. I’d love to see [series star] Bruce [Boxleitner] as the President of the Earth Alliance; it would be the perfect role for him.
Straczynski was leaving unsaid was that the series cast had already lost actors Richard Biggs (Dr. Stephen Franklin), Andreas Katsulas (G’Kar) and Jeff Conway (Zack Allen) . He had stated at other times that he would never consider recasting any of the original actors, so it seems as if rather than try to tell a story with only the remaining original cast , the better way would be to go back to the beginning and retell the story in a new way.
Given that the original Babylon 5 series told one sprawling story over its five year run, it seems likely that what Straczysnki had in mind was for this film to be the start of a series of films that would retell his self-described “novel for television.” It is also unknown if he was intending on going back and incorporating story elements that he had originally planned for the series but had to alter due to the various circumstances of the show’s production.
Straczynski stated that the plan was to write the screenplay in 2015, get it into production in 2016 and release to theaters in 2017. He stated that the project would be offered to Warner Brothers first, but if they pass, he would instead raise the financing and produce the film on his own through his Studio JMS production shingle. Studio JMS was at the time already in production with the Wachowskis for the Netflix series Sense8, and for Straczynski to state that Studio JMS could raise the potential $100 million price tag for the film he mentioned carried the suggestion that he wouldn’t be burdened with the issues that brought The Memory Of Shadows to a halt.
Unfortunately, it turned out that his appraisal of the situation may have been a bit too optimistic. Two years would pass before there was any new word on the project.
Again speaking at the San Diego Comic Coon, the 2016 edition, Straczynski stated that the Babylon 5 film would be delayed for a bit and that its ultimate fate may depend on how quickly he can bring some of his other projects to fruition. As he explained it, Straczynski estimated that as of that moment, he could conceivably raise somewhere in the vicinity of the $60 million of $100 million needed to make the film. In order to be able to raise the full amount, Studio JMS would need a little more “street cred” in Hollywood, earned by getting at least one or possibly two more television shows or another film into production first.
Now when Straczynski first made the Babylon 5 film announcement in 2014, Studio JMS was set to go into production of the World War Two drama The Flickering Light the following summer and perhaps to his mind that would have given him the “street cred” he would have needed to fully finance the Babylon 5 reboot film. However, that project fell apart, leaving Straczysnki needing to earn that “cred” elsewhere.
As 2016 rolled along, Straczynski still had reason to be optimistic. On the movie front, MGM had just given him the go ahead to start scripting a feature adaptation of his graphic novel Rising Stars. On the television front, Sense8 over on Netflix was preparing a Christmas special with the show’s full second season to come at some point in the new year. Additionally, he had a television series based on his comic book series Midnight Nation being developed at Universal with Gale Ann Hurd and an unannounced anthology series based on Ray Bradbury’s seminal classic The Illustrated Man that he was developing with writer Neil Gaiman.
But none of these projects came to pass and Netflix canceled Sense8 after its second season. With nothing else to help solidify Studio JMS’s track record, the possibility of a Babylon 5 reboot film just faded away.
So what does the future hold for Babylon 5? At this point it is hard to say. It would seem that another attempt at a reboot would be the only way to go. The actors are still not getting any younger, and tragically three more main cast members – Jerry Doyle, Stephen Furst and most recently Mira Furlan – have all passed away since the reboot film was first mooted.
For now, it seems as if Straczynski has shifted his career focus away from film and television to prose fiction. But, if what he said in February 2005 when announcing the dissolution of the The Memory Of Shadows attempt still holds true, he may someday find himself returning to Babylon 5.
Eventually it will happen, because such things are simply inevitable. If they can do a Brady Bunch movie, you can be sure that sooner or later, somebody’s going to do a B5 movie. The only thing I can say without equivocation is that when that day comes, as the rights-holder, I will make darned sure that it’s done right, because I’d rather have no B5 movie than one that doesn’t live up to what fans and I myself would want to see.
To that end… I can wait.