BABYLON 5 ENDURES AT PHOENIX COMICON
It's no secret that in a little over a decade, Phoenix ComiCon has grown from a small gathering of a few hundred fans to not only the biggest event of its kind in Arizona, but to one of the biggest pop culture events in the southwest. Thanks to a combination of astute management, excellent organization, and strong, varied programming. PCC--which topped 55,000 this year--is on track to be second only to San Diego ComiCon within a few short years.
Following last year's reunion of most of the Star Trek: The Next Generation cast, PCC's organizers this year set their sights on reuniting the cast of another iconic show: Babylon 5, celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Amazingly, no other conventions, in this region or any other, were planning such an event--quite surprising, given the show's popularity and long-term influence.
The seed of the reunion was laid in summer 2012, when John Edwards, owner of the Arizona Pop Culture Experience museum & comic book store at Desert Ridge Mall, took a trip to San Diego ComiCon. Edwards, a major B5 fan, knew most of the cast and had worked with many of them in the late 90s, when his record label, Renaissance, released a CD entitled, "The Be Five", featuring songs written by Babylon 5 actor Bill Mumy (Lennier) and sung by Mumy and fellow stars Claudia Christian (Commander Susan Ivanova), Peter Jurasik (Centauri Ambassador Londo Mollari), Mira Furlan (Minbari Ambassador Delenn), Patricia Tallman (telepath, Lyta Alexander), and the late Andreas Katsulas (Narn Ambassador G'Kar).
"I was at San Diego," says Edwards, "and I ran into Claudia. She ran up, gave me a big hug, and we started talking. And that's what hatched the whole thing. Then I called Bill--who's a great musician and a real salt-of-the-earth kinda guy--and I said 'I think the time is right. People remember the show fondly. But if we're going to do this, we need to bring everyone".
"I told [convention founder] Matt Solberg, 'I think I can get JMS', (JMS being the series creator and all-around-multi-media mensch, J. Michael Straczynski.) Matt said, 'We've been trying to get JMS for years; he always politely says no.' Well, I made two phone calls, and we had JMS."
In addition to Straczynski, Mumy, Christian, Tallman, and Furlan, several others ultimately fell into the mix: Stephen Furst (Vir Cotto), Jerry Doyle (Security Chief Michael Garibaldi), Andrea Thompson (telepath, Talia Winters), Tracy Scoggins (Captain Elizabeth Lochley), Jason Carter (Ranger Marcus Cole), Robin Atkin-Downes (telepath, Byron Gordon), and Julie Caitlin-Brown (Na'Toth).
Walter Koenig, better known as the original Chekov on Star Trek, but who had a key role as telepath, Alfred Bester on B5, was already attending PCC and graciously agreed to join the B5 programming.
Series lead, Bruce Boxleitner, who had previously appeared at PCC in 2011, was booked, but had to cancel at the last minute due to landing a role in the show, Cedar Grove for the Hallmark Channel.
However, for Edwards, there was one actor whose presence would make or break the event: Peter Jurasik.
"I considered Peter the linchpin," he says. "If you didn't have Peter...it just wouldn't have been right. The Peter/Andreas dynamic was the soul of Babylon 5." With Andreas Katsulas gone, Jurasik's presence was therefore crucial; fortunately, Edwards and PCC were able to make it happen.
While all of the actors remain on friendly terms and some are in regular contact, this was the largest single gathering of the show's personnel since the end of the series' run in 1998--even if several of them had a hard time believing the reason for the occasion.
According to Mumy, "My first reaction was: 'Gadzooks! It's really been 20 years!?! Seems like yesterday!'" Mumy's mind was made up "when I discovered that everyone was going. I was happy to know we were all gonna hang together. It's a big group. A lot of different personality types. But we get along, and get along remarkably well, considering."
Tallman joked, "I haven't gotten any older, so how did the show get so old?"
Emotions were high for cast and fans alike, not least because of the conspicuous absences in the B5 family. In addition to Katsulas, actors Michael O'Hare (Commander Jeffrey Sinclair), Jeff Conaway (Security Chief Zack Allan), Richard Biggs (Dr. Stephen Franklin) and Tim Choate (Zathras) have all passed away since the show ended--or, in Babylon 5 parlance, "gone beyond the Rim".
The convention provided Straczynski with an opportunity to finally, once and for all, set the record straight about O'Hare's abrupt departure at the end of the show's first season. It's a tale that had never been told in public, and, one can sense, even very few people behind the scenes ever knew the truth. Having promised O'Hare that he'd keep the secret to his grave, O'Hare had laughed and said, "Tell you what--keep it to MY grave."
With the actor's untimely passing in September 2012 at the age of 60, Straczynski felt the time had finally come. In a panel room packed with hundreds of B5 fans, Straczynski talked for a little while about the show, gave some advice to those wanting to break into the industry, and spoke movingly about the other actors who had passed on, before firmly settling the rest of the panel on the topic of O'Hare.
"During the latter part of that season," said Straczynski, "it became clear that Michael was having physical issues that led to psychological issues. Things that could be addressed through medication and treatment. I could write him out for a couple episodes, but I couldn't write him out for long enough to get the kind of help that he needed. I was prepared to shut down the show.
"Michael said, 'Don't do it. Don't let me be the reason these people lose their jobs and this show falls. Let me try and get by,'" Straczynski continued. "And he soldiered on under a burden that no one else knew about, and he got through that season like a man clinging by his fingernails. I could see him suffer, I could see him fighting every day to stay in control, to stay focused, and I could see the raw, naked courage of the man, to keep fighting. We finished the season, and no one knew."
In addition to keeping his promise to O'Hare, Straczynski expressed his hope that perhaps those whose lives may be touched by mental illness, as O'Hare's was, will not be afraid to confront it and seek help.
Above all, Straczynski stressed, O'Hare had a special place for B5 fans. "I wanted you to know what he always said to me, how much he loved you guys, how much you mattered to him, and how much you sustained him. I'm not sure he'd have made it as far as he did without you." He said that Biggs and Katsulas had held the fans in equally high regard.
Straczynski's panel was one of several devoted to Babylon 5. Christian and Koenig conducted solo panels talking about their life, work and current projects. For Christian, this includes her culinary adventures, her recent book, Babylon Confidential, in which she talks about her struggles with addiction; and her upcoming military sci-fi novel, Wolf's Empire.
Mumy was also happy to talk about not only his acting; he's been at it since childhood, and is perhaps best remembered as Will Robinson from Lost In Space, but the causes he supports. He avidly advocates environmental concerns. And his music, he records under his own name, and he was also one half of Barnes & Barnes, the group responsible for the classic novelty tune, "Fish Heads". "I'm happy the album that we made, 'The Be Five: Trying to Forget', was remastered and re-released with two brand new songs that I wrote in honor of our experiences on the show and in honor of our fallen brothers in arms," he says. "I'm proud of that music; music is a great healer."
There were multiple fan-driven panels (see other B5 articles), a "B5 Bingo" game sponsored by www.B5Books.com (who have recently published the beautiful coffee table book "B5 at 20"), and a "Captain's Cantina" event at the nearby Renaissance Hotel. Doyle and Star Trek actor, Garrett Wang, MC'd a costume contest at that event, with Doyle sharing a truly off-color story about the last time he and Wang had seen each other--something about a helicopter, a joint, Enya music, and someone being--er--underclothed in the snow.
But the central event for all concerned was the public, onstage reunion of Straczynski and the cast, before a near-capacity crowd in the 4000-seat main ballroom of the Phoenix Convention Center. Following an introductory video by filmmaker John Hudgens, who also put together a moving tribute to the actors who'd passed away, and a short message from Boxleitner explaining, and apologizing for, his absence ("I woulda went with another take," Doyle cracked), Straczynski, Doyle and the cast hijacked the carefully scripted program.
Said Doyle on his radio forum, the Nationally Syndicated, Jerry Doyle Show: "They started off with these deep questions about the series," but it quickly became clear to him and Straczynski that "this isn't working, these fans know more about the series than we do! I had a few choice comments for the moderators, used a little bit of blue language to whip the crowd into a frenzy, and at that point we tore up the script, went off book and we had an absolute riot."
Speaking strictly for myself, having had a hand in shaping that script, I can assure all concerned that what they gave us was far, far superior to what was planned. I was also assured by nearly all of them that no matter what had been in the script, what happened, would have happened, regardless.
Story after story poured from the cast, some on-set anecdotes, but mostly about their friends who were gone--and most especially about Katsulas, who, it seemed, had no enemies (though Doyle shared a story about their time as roommates that no one who heard it will soon forget--the words "free ham" are all I can say; find it on YouTube), and who touched the lives of everyone he ever encountered. Possessed of a rich, gentle-yet-commanding voice, and a presence that even through the TV screen implies a kind of transcendent authority, it's been said of Katsulas, that he could have charged people to hear him recite the telephone book, and he would have sold the room out. Clearly, his absence casts the largest shadow, though Biggs, Conaway, O'Hare and Choate were movingly remembered as well.
"I watched them choke up one by one," says Edwards, speaking for all who were there, "and it was genuine emotion; it wasn't Hollywood."
Particularly moving, and moved, was Mira Furlan. The actress was still fresh from the horrors of the war-torn former Yugoslavia when she landed stateside and got the Babylon 5 job. Of being part of the show, Furlan said from the stage, "It lifted me to another life, and I don't have words to express my appreciation for that." Of her fallen colleagues, she all but merged with her character Delenn: "The loss is unbelievable, but as pathetic and stupid as it sounds to say this, they're here with us, and we carry them with us."
"Those folks were our mates," says Mumy. "It hurts to recall the times we worked together and the fact that many of our pals are missing because they died, and then be expected to return to 'snappy patter' mode." On the other hand, he says, "It was nice to be onstage in the grand ballroom and see a packed audience stand and applaud what we were all a part of creating... Showbiz!"
The panel concluded with Edwards presenting Straczynski with a lifetime achievement award for his vast contributions to popular culture. "If you look at his body of work--he's earned it," says Edwards, and the thunderous applause from both stage and crowd did nothing to disabuse anyone of that notion.
The love and joy onstage carried throughout the ballroom, and into the actors' appearances at signing tables. Not a single fan reported anything but a positive experience of meeting their idols.
Indeed, hundreds of the Babylon 5 fans present had traveled, not only from across the country, but from the other side of the world, to be at this one-of-a-kind event, clearly putting PCC not only on the national, but on the international map; and none of them were disappointed.
Maggie MacAlpine of Atlanta, Georgia called the reunion, "a once-in-a-lifetime experience and a dream come true. It was a true community-building experience and an absolute joy to participate in."
Sandra Bruckner of Maryland, who'd worked with the show's production office on its official magazine and was an extra on the set a few times, said, "I loved meeting old friends--and making new ones. You just can't go wrong meeting people who love Babylon 5 as much as we all do. It was a fairly emotional time as well. Some of the cast members I've stayed in touch with; others I haven't seen in years, so that was absolutely wonderful. I enjoyed very much seeing the new generations of fans coming into the panel discussions and participating. Proves that Babylon 5 does stand the test of time." Of the overall experience, she calls it "wonderful, memorable, priceless."
Jan Schroeder of Clermont, Florida, who's also been involved with the publishing aspects of Babylon 5, said, "When I heard about the reunion I knew that I had to be there even though it meant coming all the way from Florida. It was a magical weekend that I'll always remember."
But the fan hit of the con was Benjamin Borkenhagen of Goslar, Germany, who spent the weekend dressed in a B5 military costume that came straight off the set and won himself just about every contest he entered. "I mulled over going to the con for quite some time," he says. "Finally, I decided to go, because it was probably one of the last chances to see so many of the B5 cast at one place. I was delighted how easily you could talk to the stars on a personal level. "
"Although I was much too shy," he continues, "I had some really nice conversations. And the reunion panel was the icing on the cake. It was amazing to see all the attending cast members together on stage and telling stories."
A longtime internet "lurker" in the world of B5 fandom, he says that now, "I'm right in the middle of it! Due to my fantastic luck and my great fortune, I formed many new friendships almost immediately. So I am most grateful for the familial atmosphere in the fan community--which I am now an active part of!"
Cast and fans alike give unreserved praise to the convention itself and its organizers.
Jan Schroeder: "The con itself was well-run by folks who obviously cared about making it the best possible experience for both guests and attendees."
"This is the most human convention experience I've ever had," said Furlan from the stage, with several other castmembers echoing her sentiments.
Tallman confides, "I was worried about the event. Would it be well done? Would they have the respect for the show and all of us involved, or would it just be some kind of circus? Fortunately, the Phoenix ComiCon folks really know what they are doing, and made it fantastic for all of us. I felt very respected, and they went out of their way to make it a great tribute to the show, JMS and the fans."
Says Mumy, "It went great. The convention was run beautifully. Everyone was organized and nice. They treated us swell. I think the fans were very pleased."
"PCC brought a lot of people of like mind and appreciation together," said Doyle on his radio show. "And the organizers did an absolutely fantastic job"--especially at "keeping the convention center the temperature of a meat locker." (A boon to someone who has to sit and sign for hours.)
Beyond the losses that bind them together, the overriding sense of the Babylon 5 family is just that--it IS a family. Like war buddies, they've been through hell together--they have followed each other into fire, darkness, and death--and for all their differences as people and performers, their love for one another is evident. Like all families, there've been squabbles, fallings out, and internecine rivalries; but, according to Mumy, "We're all beyond any past negativity that would keep us from being together."
"It was lovely to see all my castmates," says Tallman. "I've also gotten to know many of the fans over the years, and I love that we were all together. I was so happy to celebrate our time together on the station, swap stories and laugh together. That's just the best. I lost my voice for the next three days! But it was fun. I had a blast."
Christian agrees. "I thought PCC was a magical experience and the convention provided the perfect venue for the B5 reunion to flourish."
For Doyle, who's been off the convention circuit for a number of years, the experience was, to say the least, a reminder of times past--as well as an eye-popping, senses-overloading illustration of how much has changed in the interim, given the explosions of steampunk, cosplay, anime, and zombie culture.
"The best way I can describe it is, let's say you were a drug abuser and you cleaned up your act and you were clean and sober for five years," Doyle said on his radio show. "And you thought, you know what? Maybe I'll dip my toe back in there and just kinda see how the water is--and you just skip everything and go right to heroin."
As to whether the reunion fostered any sense of "closure" with the show, Tallman says, "I don't have anything to close! I'm still friends with most of the B5 cast, and see them regularly or speak to them online. I work with JMS, so B5 is still part of the repertory." She and Straczynski launched the multimedia platform, STUDIO JMS in 2012, with several high-profile film and print projects in active development.
"For me," says Claudia Christian, "it was the perfect way to say goodbye to conventions, and goodbye to Babylon 5," though she stresses that she will continue to make appearances when she has something to promote, such as her novels. "And I want to make it clear that my devotion to and appreciation for the fans of Babylon 5 will never wane."
And how does Christian think those fans regarded the event? "For them, I think it felt like the beginning of a reunion tour or something to that effect!"
The ever-optimistic Mumy reinforces that thought, clearly voicing the hopes of nearly every Babylon 5 fan in the world. "There's always that tiny voice in the back of your mind saying, 'Who knows? Maybe we'll make a B5 movie one day.' Stranger things have happened."
For me, Jerry Doyle's last words from the reunion panel are still ringing in my ears. After sharing a story of his near-death-experience a few years back, he concluded, "We don't know when it's over. But as long as you've got today, and you have a choice, why would you choose to make it a bad day?"
In this, he was, perhaps unknowingly, echoing and underscoring what Straczynski himself had said at the close of his own panel the previous day: "Appreciate the people around you. Be generous with your kindness, with your words, with your affection. Remember the moments. When you go home, take that with you. Look at your friends, your family. Hold those moments. Flesh is fickle. Flesh goes in a second. But love persists."
Whatever the future may hold for Babylon 5, its makers and fans, I can think of no more fitting epitaph.
This article would not have been possible without the patience of my editor, Patti Hultstrand. Thanks to John Edwards of the Phoenix Pop Culture Experience for his time and for helping make the event happen in the first place, to Lee Whiteside for his major role as well, and to Matt Solberg and Joe Boudrie of PCC for allowing it to happen. I would also like to thank Claudia Christian, Bill Mumy and Patricia Tallman for taking the time to share their thoughts on the event, and Jerry Doyle and his producer Brad Silvers, for permission to quote from the Nationally Syndicated Jerry Doyle Show. Major thanks to fans Maggie, Jan, Sandra and Benjamin, and above-and-beyond thanks to Captain Jaclyn of B5Books. And of course, to the Great Maker, J. Michael Straczynski.