Wed
May 11 2011 2:08pm

Unsung Influence: 4 Ways JMS Has Impacted SFF For the Better

J. Michael StraczynskiHere at Tor.com, we haven’t been shy about our praise for the Kenneth Branagh helmed and Ashley Miller penned summer blockbuster Thor. (In short we thought it was smarter than expected and presented a wonderfully layered addition to the ongoing cinematic Marvel mythos.) During the viewing, staff writer Ryan Britt was confident that he saw a cameo from none other than Thor comics writer J. Michael Straczynski, and when the credits revealed his on-screen presence and story concept credit, his suspicion was confirmed. (JMS turns out to be the first person to stumble across Thor’s hammer. An interesting honor!)

This got us chatting about JMS’s unsung influence in the worlds of science fiction, fantasy, and comics. Here are four ways his influence has shaped our genre for the better.

4. He-Man & the Masters of the Universe

This may seem ridiculous, but JMS got his start by writing scripts about the Prince of Eternia and his secret power of Grayskull. Granted, JMS didn’t create the concept of He-Man, but the simple fact that someone who would later go on to write screenplays for Clint Eastwood movies (Changeling) and work with Kenneth Branagh (Thor) was infusing many of our childhoods with his ideas is striking. Further, the mixed universe of science fiction with magic seems to lend itself well to Straczynski’s sensibilities. Though He-Man was ultimately a kid’s show, it did challenge the viewer a lot in terms of what kind of world in which it took place, and what the various magical/science-fictional rules of that world entailed. Not surprisingly, the first script JMS sold to He-Man was titled “Origin of the Sorceress“, a character who blended science-fiction and magical elements simultaneously.

 

3. The Real Ghostbusters

The Real Ghostbusters

Here’s another instance where JMS, a man who would win the Hugo a decade or so later found himself writing Saturday morning cartoons. Unlike He-Man however, JMS was the story editor for the first two seasons of the show, meaning he basically set the entire tone. In addition to creating the show’s production bible, JMS also penned 20 episodes himself. A stand-out of these is called “Citizen Ghost” (available on the special features of the Ghostbusters II DVD). This episode basically serves as a direct sequel to the original Ghostbusters film and attempts to reconcile the canon of said film with the TV show. In it we learn why the Ghostbusters stopped using the tan uniforms and switched to the colored ones for the TV show, and just how Slimer became friendly. Further, it features bizzaro versions of the Ghostbusters walking around in their old suits. Who think that sounds like a better idea for a second movie instead of the Vigo plot?

 

2. Amazing Spider-Man

In 2001, JMS took on Marvel Comics’ then-ailing Amazing Spider-Man title. It’s hard to imagine it now, but back then Spider-Man was a character that had suffered through nearly a decade of inconsistent characterization and convoluted storylines. He spent his days moping, for the most part, and when he wasn’t moping he was watching everyone die around him, sometimes repeatedly. The character was no fun.

JMS turned this around immediately, elevating the title and delivering genuinely funny, genuinely heartfelt storylines. Even if you thought he was making a misstep by retconning magic into what had been a purely scientific character, you still had to admit that it was fun to read the story as it played out.

But that’s not what impresses me about his run. No, that moment came at the end of issue #35, the close of JMS’s first arc on the book. Spider-Man stumbles home, costume torn to shreds, after finally defeating new nemesis Morlun. Without another thought, he throws himself into bed, still in costume and covered in bandages. He needs sleep now. Anything else can be taken care of in the morning.

Then Aunt May walks in.

With any other writer, this would be a fake-out, but the subsequent issue in this storyline (#37) makes it very clear that Aunt May knows he is Spider-Man now. Peter knows that she knows, and the conversation that follows is nothing short of amazing.

In a series of scenes echoing the structure of a short play, Aunt May expresses anger, fear, disappointment, and more. She makes it clear how foolish Peter has always been to keep this from her, as if she was physically incapable of processing this information. As JMS has Aunt May lay this out, the reader finds themselves directly in Peter’s shoes. The clarity of the realization was astounding to me the first time I read it. How had it not occurred to me before? Aunt May and Peter are both adults, they’ve both dealt with much worse, of course Aunt May could deal with this.

With one issue I related to the characters and their struggles more fiercely than I ever had. And all it took was one conversation. All it took was JMS taking the relationship between Peter and Aunt May seriously, instead of in a supportive, saccharine manner. Something the Spider-Man comics, in their 40+ years, had never before achieved.

(As an aside, this was what really made me angry about the ”Brand New Day" reboot. Spider-marriage? Harry Osborn? Spider-magic? Whatever. Retcon it, I didn’t care. But don’t try and tell me issue #37 never happened. Because that is some serious bullshit.)

 

1. Babylon 5

Babylon 5

Of the 110 episodes of Babylon 5, JMS wrote the teleplays for 92 of them, a record seemingly unbroken at this point. Notably, when Straczynski was shopping around his initial idea for Babylon 5 to TV networks he was pitching it as “five year novel for television.” Why would any person in their right mind take such a highbrow approach? Clearly JMS was pretty brave when it came to B5.

Even if Babylon 5 didn’t get the ratings it deserved it did establish one important trend: viewers like story arcs. Though arguably Deep Space Nine was exploring expanded story arcs around the same time; the totality of JMS having a vision for the overall story of Babylon 5 was groundbreaking. These days, when we think about television, arcs have become the standard, not just in SF, but also in all genres. (Especially in comics from the last ten years.) Viewers expect an ongoing story now. In terms of recent history of TV, JMS did it first with Babylon 5.


Ryan Britt is a staff writer for Tor.com and remembers very well how upset he was when Captain Sheridan died. This problem was compounded by the fact that one else he knew had any idea what Babylon 5 was.

Chris Lough is the production manager of Tor.com and was called in for Spider-Man but is going back to bed now.

27 comments
A.J. Bobo
1. Daedylus
To me, the truly amazing thing that JMS did with Babylonn 5 was create arcs that had pre-planned starts, middles and endings. It seems too often now that writers have beginnings and (if we're lucky) endings in mind, but they don't know how to get from point A to point C. JMS apparenty had all the points in the middle planned so it's much more coherent.

After watching Babylon 5 (I just got into it a few years ago) other shows just seem slapped together. Thanks JMS for giving us that wonderful show.
DiGrifter
3. DiGrifter
Babylon 5 was the first show I ever cared to figure out how to program a VCR to record. It was hands down my favourite TV show ever.

JMS is the boss, and Thor was a really good movie.
Marcus W
4. toryx
Man, I had absolutely no idea that JMS had anything to do with He-Man. Far freakin' out.
rob mcCathy
5. roblewmac
I like everything on this list except spider-man. I disliked the magic angle but more than magic itself for me the idea that Spider-man had some 50 year old mystery guru was an i'm out and I will not be back moment. Spider-man does not need a Yoda any more than he needs to be on a team with Wolverine
Hypatia James
6. hypatiajames
I remember being in a comic shop with my hubby one day in 2006, and noticing JMS as the author of some book he picked up. The first words out of my mouth were, "That's the Babylon 5 writer." I had no idea about the rest of his work.

Ryan, I cried when Sheridan died. B5 is the basis upon which I judge all SF tv, and I have B5 branded magnets on my fridge. /overshare
Chris Palmer
7. cmpalmer
He also introduced us to "spoo", first in the He-Man spin-off She-Ra and then in Babylon 5.

I was going to post JMS' entire description of spoo farming, but it's a little long. You can read it here or on the Lurker's Guide.

"Whacking and sighing, whacking and sighing..."
DiGrifter
8. dmg
"In terms of recent history of TV, JMS did it first with Babylon 5."

Really, are you certain of that (re TV shows using story arcs over the show's run)...?

Your argument carries many modifiers, but even for them, "recent history" included, you are incorrect.

Wiseguy (1987-1990) used the story arc format especially well, as that show told arcs within arcs within arcs, and all within an overarching arc. And even then Wiseguy was not there first. More to the point, Wiseguy paved the way for many other TV shows that used the same story telling effect... all prior to Babylon 5. Certainly, though, this all occurred during Straczynski's formative (TV) years.

Do not misunderstand me: I too enjoyed B5 during its run. But facts are facts.
Michael Grosberg
9. Michael_GR
JMS was also involved in creating The Spiral Zone. For those who are unfamiliar with it, it was a rather cheesy 80's cartoon, but it stood out because of its very odd SF premise, which I suspect JMS had more than a little to do with.

The premise was that an evil scientist created a generator that projected a mind-control field that turns people into mindless slaves, and dropped a large number of these all over the earth (in a spiral pattern, therefore the name Spiral Zone), taking control over half the planet in a matter of hours. The generators also make the zone mostly inaccessible to radio waves and light, so it's impossible to send remotely-piloted vehicles or even see what's going on inside. A small handfull of suits that can protect the wearers from the generator have been created and the heros must enter the zone to free the affected area. Inside the zone, it's a bit like Night of the Living Dead, with the mind-controlled playing the part of zombies. But since they *can* be returned to living state, the team can't even kill them...

The show was about as you'd expect from an 80's cartoon, but man, that premise was creepy as hell.
DiGrifter
10. Billb
His bold decision to go with a virtually all-white core cast on Babylon 5 helped reassure this often-forgotten minority that they too had a place in the future.
DiGrifter
12. Grenadier
The Spider-Man issues mentioned above (35 and 37) were broken up because 36 was the "black cover" issue showing the 9/11 attacks in the Marvel Universe, and Spidey arriving at Ground Zero after the towers have fallen. Several comics and TV shows tried to deal with the attacks, but the Spidey issue was among the better offerings.
DiGrifter
13. DanB
To Billb -- you're being a bit harsh, considering. An Exec that is Russian, female and ends up being bisexual? Not one but two black doctors that are Chief of Medlab? Many non-whites getting large guest-appearance spots? I believe your sarcastic assertion to be utterly incorrect.

In general: add Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future to the list of JMS inspirations.
DiGrifter
14. billb
Yes, a hot bisexual white woman as second in command to the square-jawed, white male hero. Fight the power! And the black doctor was the proverbial raisin in a snowbank, not to mention that it was the black guy who had the drug problem, which is when I gave up on the show.
DiGrifter
15. Mndrew
As usual for me, I did my best to avoid all spoilers before going to see Thor this weekend. When I saw JMS' name on the screen with a story credit, I sat back and relaxed. All fears that this might not be great gone. I was not disappointed, again.
DiGrifter
16. Ttam
Erm, there was also a white guy who had an alcohol problem.
DiGrifter
17. DanB
Bilb -- And the white chief of security had one as well. All flawed characters in one way or another. It seems you let your own biases get in the way of you enjoying a very worthwhile show.

Oh, and another general credit: Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors was another JMS show.
DiGrifter
18. John W Kennedy
And Dr. Franklin didn’t have a drug problem; as a doctor, he had a problem accepting that he couldn't fix everything, so he took stims so he could keep going and going and going.... It's a very real dirty little secret in the medical profession.

If you see a black man with a problem like that, and all you can think is, "It must be the drugs,", you might want to look at your own stereotyping.
Ethan Glasser-Camp
19. glasserc
I would love to start a Kickstarter project along the lines of "Let's give JMS enough money to make something awesome", so that we never have to watch a story half-told get cancelled by a TV network again.

Ethan
DiGrifter
20. billb
Ok, why do you B5 fans think B5's cast was so monotone?
Sky Thibedeau
21. SkylarkThibedeau
billb I seem to recall all of the Shadows were black.

B-5 was a great show. I watched 'Babylon Squared' and "War Without End' on netflix recently back to back. Was a great arc there. Amazing how out of date the special effects seem these days. they were cutting edge in 1994.

JMS does hold a grudge though. I saw Claudia Christian at a Con last year and she was saying how she tried to write an Ivanova novel recently and it was shot down by JMS for IP violation.
Michael Burke
22. Ludon
dmg@8 beat me to the comment. JMS may have been the first to use story arcs in science fiction TV but I can cite earlier exambles from general prime time TV.

One could cite The Prisoner (1967) - not for story arcs but for the limited run sereis concept - though there remains much confusion and debate about that series.

M*A*S*H (1972) - which to me seemed to have developed part of its character structure out of Star Trek - was probably one of the first prime time series to use story arcs. Granted, those arcs were background most of the time developing quietly behind the problem of the week, but they were there.

Hillstreet Blues (1981) probably did the most to establish the use of the story arc in prime time TV. This show influenced the development of L.A. Law, St. Elsewhere, Chacago Hope and many more that followed over the years. Even the reimagined BSG's structure can be traced to Hillstreet Blues.

So yes, JMS's credit for bringing the story arc format to Science Fiction TV is fitting but we should take a look at the bigger picture.

I cannot close this comment without asking where Dr. Who fits into this. Was the series using story arcs? I'm probably going to become the target of half to three-quarters of the readers here when I admit that I've never watch an episode of that series.
DiGrifter
23. naza
Hi guys,

I have question. Am I totally wrong in remembering JMS as being involved in the Beast Wars saga of Transformers? It got to be pretty epic at a certain point, and I was sure he appeared on the credits, but I just checked and found no reference in wikipedia. Di I imagine it?
Dave Bell
24. DaveBell
The Trial of a Time Lord, the 1986 Doctor Who season.

Four stories with an overall setting. There was also the Black Guardian trilogy as part of the 1983 season. There were also one or two pretty long individual stories in the Sixties.
DiGrifter
25. shelleybear
And, when you bitch about multi hiatus seasons, remember, it was J.M.S. who brought us that little "innovation"
Chris Palmer
26. cmpalmer
I think there were several important things about the "story arc" in B5, at least in regards to SF series. Although, arguably, some had been done previously.

It was sold as a 5 year story with each year being a "volume" and most of the audience knew this up front. Therefore, they weren't as worried about how many seasons could be squeezed out of it, just that it last the entire five years (although, I believe, JMS had a contingency plan to end it after 4).

It was also so serialized that true fans would freak out if they missed an episode, not because of missing a good episode, but because they were afraid to lose the plot. In the days before DVRs and Hulu, and with a syndicated show always on the verge of cancellation, this meant a lot of VCR programming to catch 4AM showings and reruns. Serialized stories (whether in consciously planned story arcs or soap opera'ish "make it up as you go" are the norm now - back then (aside from soap operas themselves), they were the exception.

Star Trek series, with the exception of DS9 (which was accused of copying B5 and vice-versa), pretty much "reset" after every episode. No matter how dire the situation, you knew they'd manage some Treknobabble solution at the last minute and everything would be back to normal by the start of the next episode. Miss an episode? No problem, wait for the rerun. Sure, they killed off characters and changed cast, but that was almost always due to the actors, not the writers. Watching B5, you knew that the horrible situation the characters were in might not kill them (if you'd been keeping up with casting news), but you feared that it would screw up their lives for the rest of the series (Londo and G'Kar, in particular).

Which leads to the most important thing. The characters changed and evolved. It wasn't a matter of who lives and who dies, but the character arcs themselves. Star Trek characters (to keep picking on them) never really changed. Their backstory might develop or they might acquire quirks, but they had no long-term motivations or complex and dynamic relationships with each other.

The fact that JMS did have the story plotted out in fair detail (right down to writing most of the last episode first), made dropped hints and foreshadowing particularly effective. Unlike, say, Lost and BSG which buried themselves in cryptic hints and red herrings leading up to anti-climactic (if not outright horrible) endings.
DiGrifter
28. billydaking
@dmg--while Wiseguy did have story arcs, they lasted only a half season. The best known--the Sonny Steelgrave arc, starring Ray Sharkey--was only the first 10 episodes of the first season. After the first season, the arcs were smaller, usually about 6 episodes.

What Babylon 5 did that had never been attempted before was it told a single story over the course of its *entire* run. The entire concept of the show was meant to be a novel. Wiseguy was not conceived that way--the story arcs were self-contained, sometimes related but usually not with only some character stuff carried over for continuity (which is something most shows did--heck, even Barney Miller had call-backs to characters and incidents in previous episodes). What Babylon 5 did was extremely risky, and it was one of the reasons JMS had trouble selling it.

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