Thursday, November 17, 2005

Babylon 5: Addenda

Some scattered thoughts, having finally managed to watch the end of the fourth season:

I suspect I'm alone in this, but I really do think that out of the show's three main 'battle arcs'--the original break from Earth ("Messages From Earth" through "Ceremonies of Light and Dark"), the final battle against the Shadows and the Vorlons ("The Summoning" through "Into the Fire"), and the fight to liberate Earth ("No Surrender, No Retreat" through "Endgame")--it's the last one that is the most successful and the best made. There's a darkness and a complexity to the storyline that simply wasn't there before. Sheridan is leading a partly alien fleet to attack his own home planet, in a decision that, while ultimately correct, is still questionable. The face of the enemy is not only familiar, it is our own (in sharp contrast to the Shadows and the Vorlons, who have no faces). The stakes are higher on a personal level, too--Sheridan is captured and tortured, Garibaldi betrays Sheridan and then discovers that he's been used by Bester, Ivanova is mortally wounded, Marcus dies[1]. And, of course, when the whole thing ends, the aftermath isn't fireworks, parades, and dancing in the streets, but recriminations, back-room deals, and unsavory political machinations. It's probably the most successful storyline in the show's run, the one that came closest to truly affecting me, and a good high point to end the story on.

Which is not to say that the arc didn't have its weaknesses. I realize that once you get into the battle episodes, character exploration gets left by the wayside, but for most of the latter half of the fourth season the show is shedding sympathetic characters, so that by the time the great victory comes around, there's no one left to root for. Sheridan becomes cold and thoroughly unlikable[2]. Delenn, apart from a rather boring interlude on Minbar in which Neroon steals all her scenes, is given nothing to do. Ivanova and Franklin are sidelined. Lyta gets shoved into a closet and only taken out when a really strong telepath is suddenly needed (which, in all fairness, was pretty much her character arc from day one, and Talia's before her). Londo and G'Kar, after going through an unearned, quickie reconciliation, are reduced to comic relief.

The only character who remains even vaguely compelling is Garibaldi, who practically from day one was the most interesting member of the cast for the simple reason that he constantly confounded the viewers' expectations[3]. Sure, he was the paranoid, hard-boiled detective who often had more in common with the criminals he chased than the masters he served, but he was also the guy who resigned his commission rather than stand by and watch as Sheridan violated Morden's rights; the only one of Franklin's friends who noticed that the good doctor was sinking into substance abuse, and the only one to make serious efforts to reach him and offer him help[4]; the man who, instead of an afternoon of casual sex with an attractive woman, would rather have a frank talk about his feelings. Throughout the fourth season, we see Garibaldi in a deep crisis--he loses a significant amount of time, alienates himself from his friends, becomes disillusioned with their cause, and is the only credible person who dares to suggest that there might something unwholesome about the cult of personality that rises around Sheridan.

But, of course, as we discover at the end of the fourth season (and as, in all fairness, we probably should have guessed beforehand), Garibaldi hasn't been in control of his actions. The crisis was not of his own making and the emotions he felt weren't his[5] and therefore we shouldn't give any credence to the legitimate points that he raised in his altered state. Even more disappointing is the fact that, once Garibaldi is cleared of responsibility for his actions (quick! Break Lyta out of that packing crate!), he interacts with his friends as if nothing's happened. The next time we see him, he's trading quips with Franklin, and although Sheridan throws him a nasty look when they next meet, the two of them have no meaningful interaction, no discussion of Garibaldi's actions and any residual guilt or resentment there might be on either side[6]. This lack of communication persists not only until the end of the fourth season but until the end of the show. In other words, Garibaldi's slide into darkness, the only meaningful character arc of the season, has neither significance nor consequence, and as a result the entire battle-for-Earth arc seems flatter and less engaging.

The argument could be made here that there's no time for heart-to-heart talks in the final episodes of the fourth season, crammed as they are with, you know, the battle for Earth. This argument crumbles when you notice that much like the rest of the show, these episodes are padded like an attack-dog trainer. I've often wondered why Babylon 5, with its emphasis on multi-episode and even multi-season storylines, never instituted a permanent 'previously on Babylon 5' segment before each episode. Then I realized that if they had done this, the writers would have found many of their most pivotal episodes clocking in at about 25 minutes. For example, the 'In the beginning, the ancient races bestrode the stars like giants' spiel is repeated about half a dozen times during the two years in which it is relevant. In "Endgame", the penultimate episode of the fourth season battle for Earth arc, the fourth act begins with a newscaster showing us several minutes of the gigantic space battle we just finished watching at the end of the third act. Even better is the revelation, in that same episode, of Marcus' decision to sacrifice his life for Ivanova's--first we see Marcus watching Franklin's MedLab reports and realizing that an alien device exists that will allow him to give Ivanova his life energy; then we see Franklin watching that very same recording[7]; then we get a flashback of the scene to which the recording refers--all told, maybe five or six minutes that could have been used to, say, show us how things are now between Sheridan and Garibaldi.

For all their flaws, however, there was enough in the closing episodes of the fourth season to make me sorry that the story was ending, which means that it was very considerate of J. Michael Straczynski to end the season (and, as far as he knew at the time, the show) with the assiest hour of television he's ever put his name on, "The Deconstruction of Falling Stars"[8]. Seriously, what it is with the mockumentary style? Over the show's lifetime, Straczynski uses it three or four times, never to any great effect. I realize that he was working ten years ago, but surely, even then, people knew that mockumentaries always sound like a good idea and are only rarely successful[9]. As a final statement about the show, "Deconstruction" seems to determined to concentrate not on Sheridan and Co.'s accomplishments but on the fact that later generations doubted their motives, their morality, and their very existence. This emphasis can be taken as a reinforcement of one of the show's most powerful themes, introduced all the way back in the pilot and constantly reiterated--that no matter what you've been taught to believe, one person can fight the system, make a difference, make the world a better place--by showing us how even after Sheridan's victory, those who follow him can't quite wrap their minds around the magnitude of his ambitions and accomplishments. I see it as a rather mean-spirited, in-your-face attempt to garner just a bit more sympathy from the audience[10]--see how unloved, how unsung my characters are by their own contemporaries, and even by the generations that followed them! But in the end, they were right! They created something that will last a million years and bring humanity to its rightful place in the stars! How dare anyone doubt them!

To understand just why the tone of the episode makes me uncomfortable, here are some of Straczynski's comments about "Deconstruction" on The Lurker's Guide to Babylon 5:
That, and the truth that in 10 years the naysayers will be forgotten, and made irrelevant...but the show, the *show*...goes on. And will be around long after they and I have gone to dust. And all people will know when they see [a title card at the end of the episode, which reads "Dedicated to all the people who predicted that the Babylon project would fail in its mission. Faith manages"], 50 years from now, was that some jerks said it couldn't be done, and they were wrong, because they are *always* wrong.
Straczynski is comparing his own accomplishment--getting a television show made and appealing to millions of viewers worldwide, which is by no means an insignificant accomplishment--to that of his characters, and he bashes his own detractors by having cartoonish villains nip at the heels of his larger-than-life heroes. What he fails to acknowledge, here or at any other point during the show's run (except rather obliquely during "Comes the Inquisitor") is that faith, confidence and determination, while necessary for the success of any great undertaking, are not sufficient to ensure that success. Believing in yourself is a good thing, but only if you're right to do so--somehow it isn't surprising to discover that Straczynski has missed that half of the equation.



[1] A moment of silence, please, for Jason Carter and his beautiful hair. Between them they brought more energy and charisma to their performance than the rest of the cast put together.

[2] Not to mention his completely untenable and immoral use of unconscious people as living weapons.

[3] The only other character of which this can consistently be said is Lennier, and he didn't get anything near the amount of screen time and storylines that Garibaldi did.

[4] And boy, wasn't Franklin just there to pay the favor back when it was Garibaldi's turn to fall off the wagon in The Season That Must Not Be Named.

[5] This isn't made entirely clear. According to Bester, Garibaldi's programming simply accentuated already-present qualities--paranoia, distrust of authority figures, irritability. A few minutes later, however, he tells us that subconscious commands quickly overrode Garibaldi's own personality, leaving the original Garibaldi trapped in his own head and powerless to act on his own desires. There might have been an interesting discussion of the degree to which programmed Garibaldi's actions tracked with Garibaldi's own impulses--surely he wouldn't have betrayed Sheridan, but what does it say about him that a simple tweak can bring him to the point of becoming a traitor? Sadly, the show never dealt with these questions in any meaningful way.

[6] And I think there's a case to be made for Sheridan feeling guilty and Garibaldi feeling resentful.

[7] In a storytelling device only slightly less hackneyed than the detective who plays a certain segment of a recording over and over again because he's got an idea, dammit!

[8] It's possible that the fifth season episode "A View From the Gallery" might be able to wrest this crown away from "Deconstruction", but some other, braver soul than I is going to have to rewatch it and make the final determination.

[9] The only decent one that comes to mind is the X-Files episode in which Mulder and Scully stumble upon a taping of Cops.

[10] Also, it could be Straczynski trying to get just one more dig at the journalism profession, which he seems to hold in slightly more contempt than he does politicians. Journalists on the show ran the gamut from shallow and insensitive (we know the journalist in "And Now For a Word" is evil because she makes Delenn cry) to cynical propaganda-mongers.

18 comments:

Helen Louise said...

I missed most of season five (thankfully) but is it true that Ivanova had Marcus cryogenically frozen and later they were both somehow resurrected on a random planet? Help me, please, I think I'm going to throw up.

Garibaldi was awesome. He had lots of the best lines too.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

is it true that Ivanova had Marcus cryogenically frozen and later they were both somehow resurrected on a random planet?

Ew. I'm happy to say that this didn't happen on screen (maybe in the tie-in novels, but even then there's a continuity problem - the series finale shows Ivanova on her own at the time of Sheridan's death).

Where did you hear about this?

Rich said...

As with many works of fiction, the best lines went to the bad guys: Morden, Refa, Cartagia. Though with the revolt against Earth storyline, not so much (though Bester did have his moments). Second tier would go to the buffoon, which was mainly Vir among the regular characters. Pity the writing for the poor regulars who had to do the best they can with their comparatively less juicy inner conflicts.

I think that the Shadow/Vorlon war of Season 3 had the best visuals with all those crazy space battles. The thing I most disliked about that was the anticlimactic way it ended, with the good guys just telling them to go away. Excuse me? some random bits of protoplasm are going to tell the lordly First Ones to take a hike? The big scene at the end of the Season 4 war gave better closure, I thought.

The odd thing about the way I think of Babylon 5 is how much the music by Chris Franke skewed my perception of the stories. It was refreshing to have something not so string orchestra-heavy in an SF show, much as I like orchestras and all. The spinoff showing the Rangers which didn't have Franke's score was especially disastrous imo because of the poor fit.

Maybe Straczynski seemed like a better writer than he actually was when one considered the really abysmal writing of those tie-in novels. Those were physically painful to read.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Rich:

I think that the Shadow/Vorlon war of Season 3 had the best visuals with all those crazy space battles. The thing I most disliked about that was the anticlimactic way it ended, with the good guys just telling them to go away.

I think in theory the idea that the huge war would end with the departure of the 'teacher' races and all the other first ones, leaving the galaxy to the younger races, was a good one, and certainly better than yet another space battle (especially when you consider that there was no way the alliance could have defeated the Shadows on their own, much less the Shadows and the Vorlons). The execution, however, was seriously lacking. You're right that a simple 'go away' shouldn't have worked, although I'm not sure how it could have been improved on.

In the comments to the other B5 post, you mentioned that you stopped watching DS9 after the third season. I think the show improved once it started telling longer stories (and for the record, there's no doubt in my mind that the writers were inspired to do this by B5). You might want to give the later seasons a look.

Dotan said...

Andrew Rilstone wrote somewhere (perhaps on the topic of the film version of Lord Of The Rings, or Speilberg's Hook) that there's a message or theme that Hollywood creatives are particularly fond of, and that is "believe in yourself, follow your dream".
Now, this message is particularly seductive to Hollywoodies, because the people that actually get to make films in Hollywood are those who did get rich and successful pursuing their passion.
JMS is a particularly vocal, even shrill, proponent of this idea. The first time I ever came across his name was in an article he wrote in some writer-porn magazine, about how he just got his own show (Babylon 5) by sticking to his dream, and being willing to starve, to die, for the sake of writing. The article was illustrated by a photo of a scarily thin young JMS, and a more current, comfortingly chubby image.
So when JMS compares making his show to the heroism of saving the galaxy, he may be talking out of his ass, but he really means what he's saying.

Shahar said...

Responding to Dotan's comment. The "stick to your dreams" theme is dominant not only in Hollywood, it is, in a way, the theme of practically every fairy-tale, or happy ending story ever told. What I find annoying is a genre of "abandon you dreams" movies or books, in which people who, as you've mentioned, did achieve their dreames, tell the audience that sticking to the dream or aspiring for something better is the cause for their unhappiness and that they should embrace their mundane and boring life, and find happiness there. There is much to be gained from such in approach to life, for sure, but somehow, I do not buy it when coming from, let's say, Woody Allen.
This being my first comment here, I'll take it as an opportunity to say that I've been rading AtWQ for about two months now (but I did go over the archives and read most the posts) and find it one of the most interesting, well-written blogs.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

when JMS compares making his show to the heroism of saving the galaxy, he may be talking out of his ass, but he really means what he's saying.

See, Dotan, I've written about 4,000 words about Babylon 5 over the last two weeks, and you've just gone and summed up everything I wanted to say in a single sentence. I feel as if I ought to dislike you, but I can't quite do it.

Shahar, first of all, thanks for your kind words. Secondly, I think that far more interesting than either 'believe in yourself and you'll succeed' fiction or 'even if you believe in yourself, you'll fail' fiction is the kind that tries to make you aware of your odds. M. John Harrison often writes those kinds of stories, about people who know that success is possible but who also know how unlikely it is.

I think it takes a tremendous amount of courage to try to achieve a long-held ambition when you know that the odds are against you. It's something that the JMS's of the world don't seem to consider, and that the Allens of the world don't appreciate. That courage - the one that comes when you know that you're very likely to fail, not when you unquestionably believe in your own infallibility - is worth celebrating no matter how the effort turned out.

Esrom said...

Your comments on the characters' weaknesses dramatically made me think of what I remember of the show. When I think of Babylon 5 I don't remember the growth of the characters, but the story itself is firmly entrenched in my mind. For all its poor execution, the series conveyed what it wanted to be, a myth. The show is like a shadow of a really compelling idea of an epic future.

Anonymous said...

I wanted to respond to your original post on Babylon 5, and somehow never got around to do it. I guess it's better late than never, and the points you bring up in your current post are also relevant to my reply.
I actually think all the points you brought up in both posts about the dramatic shortcomings of B5 are valid. In fact, I'm kind of proud to say I noticed them all when I originally watched the show. B5 is certainly about the whole – once you start taking it apart, as you did here, its problems become very obvious. Though I suspect that could be said about pretty much every work of fiction, to a certain extent.
My defense of Straczynski, however, comes from a different perspective. Straczynski attempted to make the show happen for many years - it was an "in development" project since '87, according to some sources - and he just couldn't sell it to people. The reason? Nobody thought there was a market for another space-drama on TV. They were positive that this market is held firmly by Star Trek, and that it's going to stay that way forever.
Let us consider, for a minute, what would have happened if Straczynski had decided to simply raise his hands in defeat in light of this argument (and, should his own statements be believed, this was a struggle he fought since the initial pitching process throughout most of the show's broadcast). That would have served as a bitter lesson to anyone else trying to challenge the Star Trek hegemony in the genre. We would have no Stargate SG-1, no Farscape, no Battlestar Galactica (the new version), no Firefly, nothing. And coming to think of it – no Star Trek either. Ironically, it was B5 that encouraged the people behind the Star Trek franchise to try pushing the envelope (see "Deep Space 9"). The glorious death of the Star Trek franchise we all witnessed last year would have come much sooner (and faster) if it wasn't for B5.
I am not saying all the shows I mentioned were good, that's another discussion for another day. I am saying that the genre TV we have today (coming from the United States, at least) pretty much owes its existence to B5. And to "The X-Files" as well, but this one went for a different, softer approach – repackaging the genre elements within a familiar format (cop show). Straczynski's greatest legacy is his belief that there is room for variety within the hard-core genre shows as well. And he made this belief a reality. This, perhaps, gives something of validity to the comparison he makes between his personal struggle and the one fought by Captain Sheridan.
Regarding a point touched in your previous B5 post - the show borrowed ideas from different sources, and Straczynski never made an attempt to deny or conceal this (in fact, he was unusually open and frank about this). I would agree that the implementation of these ideas wasn't always successful, but again, we have to look at the broader, real-life context. When Straczynski turned complete paragraphs from "1984" into dialogue, as you stated in your previous post, it sounded fresh at the time because - let's face it - no other American genre show ever used something like "1984" as inspirational source [1]. Or, for that matter, tried doing something in the scope of "Lord of the Rings" or "Dune". Or even "Doc" Smith's galactic patrol stories - no, they didn't even go this far.
So, in the end, Straczynski is a pioneer, and pioneers' greatest achievement tends to be the door they open for those who follow. And I'll argue that in the years since B5, his writing actually improved significantly, as evident by his subsequent work on comics (I regularly read his Spider-Man books - and I haven't been regularly following a superhero title in YEARS) and television (I thought the short-lived "Jeremiah" had a lot of potential it actually started realizing in its second season. Too bad it was also the last one).

-Raz Greenberg


[1] There were exceptions, of course - notably Kenneth Johnson's "V" - but I have re-watched "V" a couple of years ago, and I'm sad to report that it didn't age gracefully. Believe me, Johnson's dialogue makes Straczynski's lines sound like something written by Shakespeare.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Hi Raz, and thanks for your thoughtful post.

I definitely agree that Babylon 5's chief importance was that it blazed the trail for other writers. I wrote a long post a while back about novelistic television, and mentioned B5 and The X-Files as two shows that were vitally important in the creation of the relatively vibrant market that we're seeing in genre television.

As for borrowing from other sources, my problem was with the blatant way in which Straczynski did his borrowing. The same argument I made about 1984 could be made about The Lord of the Rings, by the way. It's possible to draw one-to-one comparisons from many of the events on the show to LOTR, which is fine, but why does Straczynski make the parallels as obvious as they are by cribbing Tolkien's dialogue? "The Enemy has returned to his stronghold", the rangers, the last alliance, the great hand reaching out across the sky, Sheridan falling at Z'ha'dum, and so on and so forth. You can borrow from an older work while still maintaining your own voice, and I don't get the sense that Straczynski did this.

That's disappointing about V, by the way. I remember watching it as a child with great fear and fascination. I guess I'll cross it off my list of shows to rewatch.

John Hudgens said...

Your comment about "The Deconstruction of Falling Stars" being filmed as either the fourth season or series finale is a misunderstanding of the show's production run... The actual series finale, "Sleeping in Light", was filmed at the end of the fourth season, since at the time they were operating under the impression that the series was not going to be renewed, due to the implosion of PTEN.

However, after that episode was shot, but before it was set to air, TNT made an offer to pick up the series for its final year, as well as two TV movies... Rather than run "Sleeping in Light" out of order, it was decided to hold it back to run at the end of Season 5, and the first episode shot under the TNT deal was slipped into the Season 4 end slot... check the production number on the end slates - "Deconstruction" is #501, while "Sleeping in Light" is #422.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

You know, I think I must have known that about "Deconstruction" at some point, John, but got confused. Thanks for the correction.

Mr. Nice said...

Can I just correct one misconception you made. "The Deconstruction of Falling Stars" was actually made after they had the 5th season renewal, thus JMS never had any intention that it might be the last ever episode. The last episode of Season 5 was in fact made during the production of Season 4 when it seriously looked like it would be the last season (that's why Claudia gets to be appear in it). Once the renewal went through, it got bumped to the end of S5 and Deconstruction of Falling Stars made in its place.

Hobsonphile said...

Thanks for responding to my response. I still strongly disagree about Londo, but today is not the best day for me to build the full Londo argument. Can you wait for a bit? :-)

However, I can pop by and say briefly that I do in fact have a pretty critical outlook on B5 myself and agree 100% that The Deconstruction of Falling Stars is one of the assiest hours of television ever, as is A View from the Gallery (haven't written my rant about that one, but it's there, percolating in my brain lobes :-)). Just in case you were wondering...

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I still strongly disagree about Londo, but today is not the best day for me to build the full Londo argument. Can you wait for a bit? :-)

Certainly. A good discussion is worth waiting for.

I liked your takedown of "The Deconstruction of Falling Stars", although it may be a while before I can forgive you for causing me to wonder about the mechanics of Centauri homosexuality :-)

Hobsonphile said...

although it may be a while before I can forgive you for causing me to wonder about the mechanics of Centauri homosexuality

Well, wonder no longer.

Like I said, I'm willing to consider the possibility that B5 fandom is smarter than the show itself. As evidenced by my friend's contribution above, it is certainly dirtier. *eg*

Liz said...

(I figure comments are better late than never.)

Helen Louise's comment about Ivanova and Marcus dredged up some old memories from the B5 newsgroups I used to read, and I've finally found some links. There is indeed a story by jms, apparently fully canonical, called "Time, Space and the Incurable Romantic", in which a frozen Marcus reawakens several hundred years in the future. He then proceeds to clone her from a strand of hair on his jacket, have the clone implanted with Ivanova's memories and wait for it to grow up, and then strands the two of them on a deserted planet he's found, telling Ivanova she's lost her memories, they won the war and they are stuck on this paradise planet together.

I have not read it, but I hear it is an awful awful story.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I hear it is an awful awful story.

Well, gosh, if I hadn't guessed that just from your description of the plot...

I mean, dear God.

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