Last week you had the chance to ask J. Michael Straczynski (jms) about Babylon 5, his new original series, Sense8 , and all things sci-fi. Below you'll find his answers to your questions.Academic Chops?
Do you frequently brush up on physics or cosmology or some scientific field to keep your forward looking ideas sharp and in-line with current academic trends or do you simply rely on your imagination? Any academic journals you subscribe to looking for something to stimulate you into envisioning a future with an interesting twist? Is this common in the writing community or do I have the wrong image in my head?
jms: With the proviso that no two writers work in the same way...I don’t tend to research academic works to find ideas. Some do, some can handle that sort of reading, but it sends me either to sleep or to the asylum. So I kind of work ass-backwards. I’m a bit of a generalist, I read all over the place, popular sources mainly, news stories, obscure little histories, and at some point something will catch my eye. It can be just a one-line reference, an aside, and I’ll think, well that deserves closer scrutiny. Then I’ll start to do my primary research. I have enough of an academic background to know where to go for what I need...I know just enough to get myself in trouble on a wide range of subjects... and gradually summon forth the facts I need to support (or challenge) the story I’m developing. I’ll rabbit-trail a lot, and dead end more times than not, but even a dead-end can lead you to an associated idea that can become the underpinnings of a story.
Writers accrete stories the way a sweater accretes lint: you go about your life, little things stick to you as you go, then one day you brush downward...and there’s a story.
Online presence: positive or negative?
You were one of the first Hollywood writers with an online presence, hanging out in newsgroups during production of Babylon 5. My memories of that were tidbits and insights from you, along with frequent "no story submissions" reminders and threats of your departure if the story ideas didn't stop. How do you remember that experience? Was it worth the hassle? And do you view the seeming explosion of writers, directors, producers and actors on social media as a positive or negative for the industry overall?
jms: Back then, in the internet’s Early Cretaceous Period, the writers and producers I knew were appalled that I was on the net. They didn’t see the point, and besides, people had a tendency to yell at you. Now, clearly, that has changed, but yeah, I was one of the first to have a consistent online presence. There was much good and some bad involved in that. The net has a way of equalizing dialogue in ways that run counter-intuitive to our powers of perception. They’re just words on a screen, one subset of words no more valid than the other...even though one may be written by an expert, and the other by a guy who wears an orange fright wig and lives in his mother’s basement where he tortures Barbie dolls for fun. Seeing one or the other, you would know to let one close and the other not so much (unless you had strong anti-Barbie tendencies). But absent being able to see them, you don’t know what you’re dealing with and tend to apply equal credibility until the day the monster bares its teeth. So I had to learn that lesson the hard way.
There were the usual stalkers, nutjobs, feebs, freaks, whackos, bozos, yoyos and yipyops that we still have to deal with today, but now we all kind of know the rules better than we did back then. Despite that, the online presence accomplished what I set out to achieve: to de-mystify television production in the hope of educating people about the process, on the theory that we can never get the television programming we want unless we understand how the system works.
And I still have to be fairly ruthless in enforcing the no-story-ideas thing, because it’s just too dangerous to do otherwise. Marion Zimmer Bradley had to abandon one of her books because a fanfic writer thought it was based on that work, I almost scuttled one of my own scripts after someone posted a similar idea online and I was afraid I might get sued, and others have had similar experiences. People think “well, it’s just me, why can’t you read my idea/story/script, why are you being such a dick about it?” Because it’s not “just you,” it’s the ten thousand other guys standing behind you asking the same thing, many of whom are prepared to launch lawyers if I ever do a story similar to that in future. Ain’t worth it.
Getting more sci-fi on TV
In your opinion is there anything we as viewers can do to get more quality sci-fi on TV and keep it there without being cancelled? It's always too expensive, takes a long time to gain a strong following and syndication, and then gets pushed out in favour of wrestling or some paranormal nonsense. We don't even have a proper sci-fi channel any more, despite there being literally hundreds of channels available.
I'd love to contribute to the funding of, say, more episodes of Stargate Universe, but at $2m/episode I just can't see how crowd funding would work.
Thanks for taking the time to answer our questions.
jms: The problem is that the networks still don’t take SF seriously, or even feel threatened by it. I’ve had executives say that a space-show doesn’t work because people don’t care about what happens to characters in space, it has to be on earth or nobody’ll be interested. I’ve had them say “you can do whatever you want, it’s scifi, it doesn’t have to make sense.” Because it’s SF they always think that somehow or other The Fate Of The World has to be at stake. If you’re doing a drama, no one suggests that solving the relationship problems of the murder has to save the world, but they feel that it has to be that way if you’re writing SF, which is why it’s also so often the rule in SF movies. It’s absolutely crazy-making. 2001, one of the most classic SF motion pictures of all time, could never get made today. Not a chance. Too cerebral, they’d say. Not enough action. All the crowdsourcing in the world won’t rewire the neurons engaged in that kind of thinking.
I keep waiting for a paradigm shift to happen that will let network and studio execs see that SF is the same as any other genre in terms of how you approach it – logically, character based, with challenging ideas and forward thinking – but I worry that it might never happen in my lifetime.
Do you see yourself as a desktop video pioneer?
As a former Amiga owner, I remember how excited the community was to learn that this new TV series called Babylon 5 was going to have it's visual effects developed on the NewTek Video Toaster. Many considered it a vindication of the Amiga platform as well as a milestone in the evolution of digital video. My understanding is that you moved away from this platform in later seasons because it wasn't scaling up to meet your needs.
Today desktop video is commonplace, and there are a million billion Youtube videos whose quality is only limited by the talent and time invested by the creators rather than any technological barriers. How do you feel about the progression from then till now and the role you played as an early adopter?
jms: Firstly, credit must go where it belongs. It was Ron Thornton and his merry band of madmen who first suggested we use CGI. Me, I barely understood the math involved. They felt that it could be done, and did a couple of tests to try and prove the point. The most we ever got were some initial designs and one tracking shot to the station that lasted about twenty seconds...which isn’t much proof-of-concept on which to base a rational decision. So I didn’t make one. I went with my gut. If Ron et al thought it could be done, that was almost good enough, and the fact that nobody else in town was doing it because they thought it couldn’t be done sealed the deal. Whenever someone tells me something can’t be done, my immediate impulse is to go out there and prove otherwise, just to spite them. So our decision to go with the Toaster was part confidence, part bull-headed stubbornness.
The shift away from Amiga and Foundation Imaging later had little to do with the platform involved and much to do with the fact that my associate, Doug Netter, wanted to start up his own CGI company with B5 as a launch platform. He pitched it to me as the right thing to do, and in time I signed on. In retrospect, I see that I was maneuvered into this more than a little, but I was new to showrunning and naïve in many ways. I’m far more cynical and less easily foxed now than I was.
Fully Developed Storylines
There's a trend lately with TV shows writers to build mystery and suspense episode after episode without any consideration to the resolution of those arcs. The most famous instance of this is with JJ Abrams' Lost, but we saw the same thing happen to Battlestar Galactica. That's when we're even lucky enough to get a finale, often shows in danger of being cancelled will elect to end the season in a cliffhanger in an attempt to get an increased audience and help their chances of getting renewed. In contrast, with Babylon 5 you've shown great respect for the fans by coming up with a full storyline, complete with several outs in case of unexpected problems, such as actors being unable to return for one reason or another. In addition, when you thought Babylon 5 was going to get cancelled on its fourth season, you filmed the series finale to ensure we would get the full story, as much as it was possible. I truly thank you for that.
My question to you is whether you believe the type of long-term thinking into developing a good and complete story directly harms your overall numbers. After all, if Lost angered most of its viewers with the season finale, by then it doesn't matter anymore: the important thing to the bottom-line is that they were watching while the series is on. Have DVD sales helped somewhat in that people are more likely to buy the series if it's fully developed, and do studios take that into consideration in addition to Nielsen ratings? Do you have a complete story planned out for Sense8 similar to how you developed Babylon 5 and if so does working with Netflix make this process easier or harder than working with a traditional studio?
jms: What many people don’t remember, but I do ‘cause I was on the receiving end, was that a lot of folks online and in the press gave me a lot of shit over the fact that I was going to be doing this new science fiction show and my last credits were for Murder, She Wrote and Jake and the Fatman. What the hell does this guy know about writing SF? they snarked at me. A lot. Well, one thing we have to be thankful for is that M,SW in particular taught me the importance of playing fair with the audience, and that takes two forms: first, you have to make sure that all of your clues or the information an audience needs is right there in front of them, so that when they back up the episode (or the season in our case) everything is visible, they just didn’t know how to interpret it. Second, you have to provide proper closure to a story, so the audience feels satisfied at the end of an episode (or a season) that they’ve gotten a full story worth their time and emotional investment.
So when I came to B5, despite the snark, I brought those rules with me. It was important that we were telling a years-long story, but by the same token, it was just as important that each episode and each season come to a satisfying, whole conclusion. That way, if we got canceled at any point along the way, there would be a sense of having seen as much of a complete story as we could provide. Granted, that process became a bit stickier in years three and four, but that was the intent going in, and in general it served us well.
We are employing a similar arc structure for Sense8, and the thing is, you can’t worry about what happens with the numbers. You can hope all you want, but the moment you begin actually writing to that, you’re dead in the water. You have to do what’s right for the story, first, foremost and forever, and let the ratings chips fall where they may.
Purple or green?
What do you want?
Hey, someone else was going to do it if I didn't!
jms: Your head on a pike. Or a pickerel. Or the freshwater fish of your choice.
B5 universe unresolved plots...
Is there any chance that B5 fans will ever get insight into what you actually had planned with Crusade after the Drakh plague was cured? I know it was something to do with Earth wanting left over Shadow technology, but did you have anything specific in mind? Did you have an outline for each year?
And similarly, will we ever find out who or what The Hand were about (in Legend of the Rangers)?
And, not a question, but a big "thank you" for B5. I'm taking a friend through it for the first time and we're currently mid-way through season four. She's now totally hooked and has borrowed my season one DVD box set to see it again now she understands some of where it's going.
jms: Yes, I had something very specific in mind, yes, I had a rough outline for each year, no I doubt that will ever be revealed, and my condolences to your friend.
Babylon 5 in HD?
Will we ever see Babylon 5 remastered in high definition (or even 4K) similar to Star Trek: The Next Generation? How much would you need to raise on KickStarter to make this possible?
jms: Just not a viable option. Every CGI/comp shot would have be totally redone, not just remastered but redone, and WB will never spend that kind of money on it. Nor do I have the right to do it with outside money.
Changes in SciFi since the 90s
Can you list any examples of shows that have changed your approach to Science Fiction since Babylon 5 was written? For example, the latent success of Firefly showed how smaller-scale science fiction can be effective. How have you been influenced by Firefly or any other show post-B5?
jms: No, I haven’t, and really can’t allow myself to be. Writing is all about creating your own unique voice and point of view. If I were to watch a show and say hey, that’s cool, I can do that too...then it ain’t either of those two things any more. That’s not arrogance, that’s simple common sense. The only thing any writer has to offer that is of value is their own unique perspective, so you spend most of your life trying not to be influenced by someone else’s work. That’s not to say my point of view as a writer is better than Joss’s or his better than me or ours better than somebody else’s...we’re just different sorts of birds, we sing different songs, and that’s exactly as it should be.
Adaptations of science fiction stories
And related to that: Assuming no constraints regarding rights, what classic (or not so classic) science fiction stories would you like to adapt as movies or TV series?
jms: A Canticle for Liebowitz, Stranger In a Strange Land, Martian Chronicles.
Both Firefly and Jericho put out comics after the shows were prematurely canceled to help tie up some of the dangling plot elements. Are there any chances of Jeremiah ever being continued in some other form, such as novels or comics?
What's It Like Being Funded By Netflix?
You've worked in television, what are the pros and cons in the deltas between Netflix and one of the big networks/cable goliaths? Do they still goad you into putting a cliff hanger at the end of the episode so the couch potato continues to veg-out and just hit 'play' on the next installment? Are you glad you don't need to plan for commercial bumps? Any dark sides to being paid by Netflix?
jms: We’re still very new to our dance, but so far all they want is for us to do what we think is best for the story. I think they enjoy a serialized structure because it feeds into binge viewing, but honestly, they haven’t said anything to us one way or another other than “here’s a buttload of money, go have fun.” And I like that a lot.