Babylon-5: The Road Home review: fun, nostalgic science-fiction

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Babylon-5: The Road Home proves a welcome gift to fans of the original TV series: here’s our review of the new film.

It was the dawn of the 1990s. Television was changing. A decade away from cable TV and HBO bridging network transmission and the streaming era, as film stars made the jump between mediums, but a period of evolution from 1980s melodrama and schlock.

Babylon-5, developed by J. Michael Straczynski, colloquially known to all as ‘JMS’, never quite became a breakout, zeitgeist-baiting series a la The X-Files, E.R., or even Star Trek: The Next Generation, but there is little doubt it contributed to the elevation of network television during a ‘golden age’ of small screen storytelling.

With a limited budget and no major stars, JMS nonetheless developed a science-fiction ‘novel for television’ across five seasons. Of 110 produced episodes, JMS wrote 92, an astonishing number. He penned the entirety of the third and fourth seasons alone. It is a feat nobody in network television achieved before or since and established JMS, in terms of Babylon-5, as a rare beast in American television – not just a showrunner but a true screenwriting auteur. For all its directors, producers, editors and more, Babylon-5 is soup to nuts a JMS product.

Mapping out the beats of five seasons worth of storytelling ahead of time, with vast backstories and a worked out mythology behind him, JMS had the freedom to foreshadow, place what he called ‘trap doors’ in his storytelling (enabling him to seamlessly replace actors who leave or respond to changing story headwinds), and structure a story with a true beginning, middle and end that made sense. Though it had spin-offs, sequel TV movies and more, Babylon-5 told across those five seasons a complete, satisfying story.

That is perhaps why the show never quite went away. Despite ending in 1998, the fandom endured across the next 25 years, hungry for more from the B5 universe. Various projects came and went, most of them foundering. A proposed ‘reboot’ has been delayed by the SAG-AFTRA strike and companies being bought & sold, but remains in the offing with JMS central to it. The future looks bright for the Star Trek-esque 23rd century of Babylon-5, a deep space station home to all kinds of alien species, telling allegorical human stories in a framework filled with grand wars, prophecies and mysteries.

Yet Babylon-5 is a world tinged by real-life tragedy. Part of the lore behind the space station is that Babylon’s 1–4 were sabotaged, blew up or vanished, with characters wondering if a ‘curse’ surrounds the entire project. The same could be said for the fact over half the main cast from the 1990s have since passed away, many of them prematurely, many of them key and beloved fixtures in the show – actors such as Andreas Katsulas, Jerry Doyle, Stephen Furst or Mira Furlan. The idea of continuing Babylon-5 without them seemed unconscionable. Most series would not even try.

JMS, with The Road Home, had other ideas:

Warner Bros. came to me and said ‘We’re very interested in bringing back Babylon 5,’ which was really great for me to hear because I’ve been waiting a long time for that to happen. It was so important also, because we lost so many of our performers, that it was like ‘How much longer should we wait around?’ That call finally came, and because of that factor of it, my very first email was to the cast members saying ‘Are you okay if we do this, given that you may have to be acting with actors playing the parts of our fallen friends?’ They all came back and said ‘Yes, let’s make it so it’s a testament and a memorial to those actors.’

The Road Home can in that sense be read in two ways. Ostensibly, it concerns the journey undertaken by John Sheridan (voiced by Bruce Boxleitner), former commander of Babylon-5 and incoming President of the new Interstellar Alliance formed in the wake of the devastating, galactic Shadow War, who thanks to an accident involving ‘tachyons’ grows unstuck in time, bouncing around – Doctor Who-style – key moments in Babylon-5 history & alternate realities. Beyond that, the title refers to Babylon-5 itself as a concept. The road home has been long and winding, often blocked, but following this Matt Peters-directed film, the way is much clearer.

As someone who loved Babylon-5 as a teenager, and has fondly kept track of it with a little more distance as an adult, The Road Home was straightforward to follow but, make no mistake, this is first and foremost a love letter to the fandom, as well as the actors who have been lost. You will find a metric ton of Easter eggs if you loved B5, and miss a lot of them if you’re new, though as with other continuations of nostalgic IP (such as Star Trek: Picard), I can’t really imagine a raft of people unfamiliar with this series will be racing to buy The Road Home – only available to purchase digitally or via disc, having skipped a cinematic release.

That said, JMS works at the beginning to ground you back in the future world of Babylon-5, through news reels catching us up on a potted history of the main B5 throughline story (but I mean potted – there is an absolute brace of stuff B5 did that doesn’t even get a hint of a mention in this film). By keeping the focus on Sheridan, a corny though engaging, diplomatic hero, he also prevents us getting too unstuck ourselves as we dance across time and space. Even when we’re bumping into a flotilla of characters (including favourites such as Londo Mollari or Lyta Alexander, still voiced by the original actors), the central premise remains in reach.

What I enjoyed the most, more indeed than the references or character appearances and so on, was how JMS works to underlay The Road Home with some scientific mysticism regarding time travel and multiverse travel. He tackles the ‘observer effect’ of quantum mechanics, the idea of a phenomenon being changed when an observer experiences the observed. Sheridan here becomes the observer, effecting the multiverse as he goes, and theoretically threatening a multiversal catastrophe unless he returns to his own time/space. That all felt an extension of work JMS has done in comic form, heavily on Spider-Man, as a writer who understands how to pack huge scientific concepts into a grounded, human story. Babylon-5 was full of those.

And in true Babylon-5 fashion, The Road Home is just as hokey throughout, with JMS landing as many one-liners or jokes as those that just collapse at our feet. It feels in step with the show that came before, a natural progression, even if the mechanism has changed. Turns out Babylon-5 works really well with such quality 2D animation, allowing for genuinely gigantic set-pieces the TV series could never have achieved, and production designs that transform well-worn visuals – the look of the station, ship designs etc… (Shadow ships now have a neat touch of the Lovecraftian) – into amended, freshened entities. Arguably, Babylon-5 has never looked better. The animation impressing is a major reason why The Road Home works.

A lot also lies on the performances. It’s one thing asking old hands to reprise roles they haven’t played in a quarter of a century, but porting in audible facsimiles for beloved, no longer with us actors is even trickier. The Road Home pulls both off well. Boxleitner particularly doesn’t sound his 70+ years of age (compare this to when Sean Connery voiced 007 in the From Russia With Love game in his mid-70s, and sounded decidedly rickety). And the new voice talents bringing to life classic B5 characters such as G’Kar, Delenn & Garibaldi do a sterling job of replicating those immortal voices. You really can’t see the join.

All in all, The Road Home is a brisk, breezy Babylon-5 adventure, steeped in fan nods and nostalgia, but also keyed in to modern storytelling’s fascination with both the multiverse and also the intersection between science, faith and love. JMS packages all of these elements into a film that both honours the past and, without spoiling anything, very much establishes a potential, rather unexpected new lease of life for the world being revisited.

It might be worth a punt even if you haven’t watched Babylon-5, if you’re a fan of comic-book-esque, time-travel science-fiction. Check out the show too. Help prevent it remaining in the 90s, all alone in the night.

Babylon-5: The Road Home is now available digitally, on Blu-Ray and 4K disc. You can find more on it here.

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