Fan chatter about TV shows like Doctor Who, Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, Downton Abbey, and Mad Men often revolves around the various spoiler-filled turns in long-game plot arcs. But the word “spoiler”—at least in the way we use it in relation to television—is relatively new. Though it’s possible fans of a bygone era of soap operas were afraid of other fans ruining the outcome of the previous day’s episode, the vehemence of these protests were probably not as serious as they are now. Notably, fans of 20th century soap operas didn’t have the internet.
But way back at the end of the last century, one of the first sci-fi fandoms did have the internet, complete with online spoilers! That fandom was centered around Babylon 5, and though we don’t talk much about Babylon 5 now, the narrative structure of the show, in tandem with internet discussion, essentially created the model for TV fandom today.
It would be flat-out wrong to claim Babylon 5 was the first TV sci-fi show to implement season-long story arcs, since Buffy: The Vampire Slayer was doing the same thing at the same time. Though, in terms of science fiction show having such detailed and consistent mythology, B5 was groundbreaking. Uncommonly, show creator and producer creator J. Michael Straczynski wrote 92 of the 110 teleplays for Babylon 5’s five year-run. To put this in perspective: Joss Whedon wrote 23 teleplays of 144 episodes of Buffy. Showrunner of Battlestar Galatica Ron Moore is only credited with 13 teleplays of 73 episodes. Now, this isn’t to say B5 is better than Buffy or BSG or that JMS inherently works harder than Whedon or Moore or anything like that. Obviously, Whedon and Moore were heavily involved in all aspects of their respective shows, just as JMS was with B5. The relevant thing here is that there was no “writer’s room” on B5, which we can’t imagine when we think of TV now. I mean, what if Steven Moffat wrote all 13 episodes of every season of Doctor Who? The chances of plot arcs making more sense and being more consistent would probably be much higher, right?
Babylon 5 was conceived as a “novel for television,” meaning the basic outline of the story—its beginning, middle, and end—were generally already figured out when the show began. Famously, JMS created “trapdoors” for all characters should the studio demand changes, or an actor was no longer available. And considering how many times this did happen to B5, the integrity of the overall larger story remains pretty impressive. You can sense there’s an importance to Londo’s omniscient dreams in the 1st season, and when it actually happens in the 3rd season, the pay-off is awesome. And these weren’t short 13-episode Doctor Who seasons! These suckers were 22 episodes long, each year. In terms of long-game plots and big changes for the characters and the universe, Babylon 5 wasn’t fucking around. Though this assertion is probably a little anecdotal and biased, but the promise of tantalizing story detail being actually resolved in a satisfying way during the course of B5 is higher than on a lot of contemporary shows in the same genre with a similar structure.
JMS worked with producer Douglas Netter and consultant Harlan Ellison, but other than the handful of other writers who wrote those 18 other scripts, that’s pretty much it. So when he started interacting with fans online, JMS was 100% sure what he was telling them (or not telling them) about the plot of the show. Babylon 5 was also one of the first TV shows to market itself through grassroots internet outreach, assuming (correctly) that science fiction fans were hanging out online. This was back in the days of Genie and Usenet, but a lot early internet jargon found its footing here. For example, those who didn’t post on the forums were called “lurkers” and at one point JMS left the forums for a time because of too much “flaming.” He triumphantly returned, of course, after a basic moderation system was sussed out. At the time, all of this stuff was brand new.
Beyond the internet medium being new, JMS had an advantage over the showrunners of today because he was totally confident in where his story was going. Babylon 5 didn’t have Doctor Who style-problems of making up stuff about River Song as they went along or Battlestar Galactica’s stumbles about “explaining” Starbuck’s death. By and large, the B5 stories were already written. When things don’t make sense on TV shows today, fans and critics get upset with the showrunner, even though on most of these shows there are several cooks in the kitchen. For better or worse, B5 didn’t have this problem with inconsistency since there was basically one cook and he was online talking directly to the fans.
Fans often demand a lot (maybe too much) from the creators of their favorite shows. Recently, Steven Moffat closed his Twitter account, seemingly for good, leading many to speculate that he was sick of fans bugging him. Whether this is true or not, the fact there is fan speculation is sort of proof that the internet puts fans in on the action of their favorite TV universe in a way that was only possible through zines and clubs in the previous century.
In the 1990’s, outer-space-based science fiction television was unquestionably dominated by Star Trek. And though Deep Space Nine began adopting long-term story arcs, they truly look thrown together in contrast with B5’s plotting. The production value of B5 might be lower than Star Trek, and time might not have been kind to the look of the show (Either you’re going to accept Londo’s outrageous hair, our you’re not.) but the entire phenomenon of Babylon 5 is something of a touchstone. Would our online fandoms and internet commentary be what they are today if JMS hadn’t so boldly promoted his novel for television through a previous interation of the internet?
Surely some kind of alternate universe of fan discussion would exist, but in this universe, Babylon 5 was the first.
Here’s hoping JMS returns to TV science fiction and shows the new kids how things are done. And then, hopefully, he’ll jump online and talk to us about it.
Ryan Britt is a staff writer for Tor.com.