Sunday, January 01, 2006

Reading Babylon 5

I realise it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, and sometimes it even feels a little bit stewed to me, but, man, I used to love Babylon 5. Not in a Xander Harris, commemorative plates way, but I did buy the entire run on VHS, and then again on DVD. I’ve got novels, comics and episode guides lying about - it’s a show that really brings out my inner geek. Now I’ve taken what is possibly the final step over the precipice and started buying the scripts. All of Joe Straczynski’s scripts are being released in 14 volumes, with a special 15th volume available as a gift to those who buy the whole set.

Now, Straczynski may be a hero to some, but he’s a long way from being David Milch. What I always loved about Babylon 5 was its ambition, and sense of scale - every story detail, no matter how small or large, made important contributions to the bigger picture. What the characters wanted, and what they did to get it, were always compelling; how they spoke, well, it was like knitting needles puncturing my head. Here’s a particularly clunky exposition dump from The Parliament of Dreams as an example:


GARIBALDI

Don’t blame me, blame Earth Central. “Say, we’ve got an idea. How about an entire week where every alien species on Babylon 5 is encouraged to demonstrate their dominant religious belief? It’ll advance the cause of interplanetary peace and understanding.” As bright ideas go, this one’s right up there with having my gums extracted.


Straczynski’s words are neither realistic, or stylised; they are clunky and workman-like; but despite some of his scripts being unbelievably wordy, he doesn’t actually tell his stories with dialogue, he uses action, and spectacle. B5’s most memorable moments are all dialogue-free: people running in slow motion, eerie reflections, shit exploding - consequences, in other words. Inevitability, if you prefer, which is really the over-riding theme of the whole series.

It took a while for the show to click with me - not only was the dialogue painful, but the performances were strained. It wasn’t until episode ten - Mind War, the last script in volume one, that I started to cotton on to JMS’s vision. That episode, with its “OMG, what did I just see” Act Three out, blew me away. Ten years on, and I can still taste the Campbell’s soup and tagliatelli I was forgetting to chew on as I watched the passage of the First Ones across Sigma 957.

EXT. SPACE - SIGMA 957
Establishing the Skydancer.

INT. SKYDANCER COCKPIT
Catherine is working at the equipment before her...when suddenly there’s a FLASH of blinding, bone-white light that floods the cockpit and burns into our eyes. It washes over everything, terrible in its brilliance.

She raises an arm to cover her eyes.

EXT. SKYDANCER
Something massive -- and I mean massive, ten miles across, glowing and gossamer and fire and nightmare, an impossible alien construct of angles and colors -- moves past the Skydancer in B.G. The Skydancer is barely a speck against it.

We can see only a portion of it. We should get from this a sense of overwhelming power, and mystery.

(note: this is not a shadowman craft; that’s later.)

INT. SKYDANCER COCKPIT
Vibrating -- not shaking, vibrating -- caught in the wake of something unimaginable huge. This is the nearest spacebourne equivalent to a ‘57 Chevy caught in a UFO encounter. The light is terrible.

EXT. SKYDANCER
As the alien craft moves toward a hole opening up in space, a time/space distortion that is almost painful to look at.

It moves into the distortion, which closes after it. The Skydancer is abruptly alone...and drifting.

FADE OUT.


That’s your awe and wonder right there, and it was something I was not getting out of my TV at the time.

Some of these early scripts are actually much better read than they were watched. At five acts, they rattle along quite nicely, moving from plot point to point extremely economically. Viewing the episodes again, this pace is lost, due to rather leaden blocking. One thing that doesn’t help is Straczynski’s ambivalence regarding his characters’ voices. He seems particularly undecided on how to write for Ivanova, oscillating in a single scene between the relatively simple, and neutral:


IVANOVA

Thought I’d see if there was any word yet from Earth Central on the Centauri problem.


to the “characteristically Russian”:


IVANOVA

Actually...I think I’ll vote for Marie Crane. I do not like Santiago. I have always thought that a leader should have a strong chin. He has no chin, and his vice president has several. This to me is not a good combination.


Inconsistencies like this, married to the observation that it took certain members of the cast a while to...well...learn to act, make early episodes a strain.

Straczynski has had these volumes packed with supplementary material: lengthy introductions detailing the genesis of the show and his trials as showrunner, with episode commentaries reflecting on the perils of arc-based television and how to react to slings and arrows. I’m waiting to see, as the volumes march on, whether the intros will evolve into a priceless writers’ resource or devolve into a soup of crusty anecdotes. So far, they could go either way. JMS is a mine of information, but he is also a smug, self-congratulatory writer, with a leaden style; a chronic self-mythologist who takes inordinate and inappropriate pride in the fact (legend?) that many of the shooting scripts were, in fact, first drafts. As if we couldn’t tell. Even though he can at times be self-deprecating, as in the commentary to Infection:

Every science-fiction series must, from time to time, produce its share of Man In A Big, Scary Rubber Monster Suit episodes. It’s a requirement, like learning how to parallel park in order to get your driver’s license. I wrote “Infection” because I wanted to write a story about xenophobia, about the fear of that which is different...about paranoia and lockstep fascism and prejudice and how all too often when we become obsessed with the enemy, we become the enemy. And while many of those aspects are in fact there, to varying degrees, it ended up being mainly a Man In A Big, Scary Rubber Monster Suit episode.


I get the impression that, sure, he sees that now, but had anyone tried to tell him this at the time, they’d have been out on their arse before they could get the sentence out. The man needs an editor more than Londo needs a haircut, because all too often, especially on the “bookend” seasons of B5, the quality of his output was erratic. And now, in these editions, I’m afraid that his introductions are going to go on and on to the point where they become embarrassing, rather than useful. I dread to think what he’s going to say when he starts winning Hugos on a regular basis.

But the fact is, Babylon 5 did win Hugos on a regular basis because it was, occasionally, just that damn good. And these scripts are well worth combing through to see how it got there.

Category: Books and Comics

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