Thursday, July 9, 2009

Babylon 5 Companion Book: No Surrender, No Retreat

Book Four: No Surrender, No Retreat

Script To Screen: Straczynski talks extensively about his own personal writing process. I couldn’t help but think about the amazing final quarter of Season Four with this quote. Straczynski refers to Season Four when he says, “There were several episodes this past season where I wrote the script in three days without any notes or outlines because I’d been thinking about it for four years.” If the final five episodes are those of which he speaks they really flow and they just rocked. It is fascinating to hear that from someone, a visionary, who really had something fully formulated mentally and just needed to transfer it to a physical reality. Prosthetic make-up designer John Vulich makes some great points regarding their plan for G’Kar with this comment. “The show’s quite tricky…it’s easy to do a monster, but it’s harder to do something that could be perceived as a monster, but later on you realize he’s really your friend.” This really came across in the look of the character throughout the series. Babylon 5's Fourth Season: This section really delves into what many visitors here have mentioned was the cloud of potential cancellation that hung heavy around the heads of all involved in Season Four. As a result much was being produced and sometimes resolved with urgency as each episode moved the story swiftly forward towards a conclusion. Straczynski delves into the breakdown of how Season Four was to play out versus how it did play out. Intersections In Real Time was the intended cliffhanger, but many of these stories had to be moved up to make the necessary room to bring closure to Straczynski's many threads and ideas. There is a great discussion regarding the hastening of the story due to impending time constraints. It's interesting because as I watched Season Four many of these points are in evidence throughout the twenty-two episodes. Some moments are quite notable, while others were probably pulled off rather neatly. The evidence isn't glaringly bad in most cases, just noticeably quicker than Straczynski had operated in the three previous seasons. The wrap-up of the Shadow War in six quick episodes is a case in point that is analyzed here.

Straczynski spends some time covering what some perceive as the abrupt ending to the Shadow War. There is some interesting perspective here. He talks of the two key questions posed by the Vorlons ands Shadows, “Who Are You?” and “What Do You Want?” respectively. He indicates the the heart of the problem is that “they don’t know the answers anymore.” Bruce Boxleitner puts it best this way, “I think it’s time to get it on. It got more relentless as we went.” It’s true. It was like a freight train running at that point and coming to a head worked on the whole wrapping it up in the first third of Season Four.

I never thought much about it at the time, but I can certainly see where some might have felt odd about it at the time. I remember thinking it was a bad idea. “Perhaps it is a leap of logic to believe that G’Kar would have left Babylon 5 to search for Garibaldi.” I love the analysis of G’Kar and Londo’s relationship as G’Kar is beaten, tortured and chained to the wall. G’Kar “should be at his weakest. Instead he displays a resilience and pride that outshines Londo, who should be in a position of strength. When Londo walks into the cell, however, he seems almost afraid of the Narn in front of him, knowing he must ask his enemy for help and that if he refuses, it will mean death and destruction for the Centauri.” How’s that for irony?

Straczynski covers the strengths and weaknesses throughout Season Four. He notes Lines Of Communication was “simplistic and… less engaging.” He adds that the Drakh emissary “still looks like a monster of the week.” I think the criticism is a bit harsh, but it's his show. I actually enjoyed that entry and thought the emissary looked half-way decent with the vibration effect in play.

All in all much of the analysis is great here, but it’s all laid out in front of the viewer to find on their own. Sheridan’s change is a great example. It’s something that is gradual and begs the question why and you can certainly answer the question by thinking about the transpiring events. As Straczynski points out, coming back from the dead can certainly change your outlook on things. It’s definitely part of the fun of Babylon 5 to actually apply thought and analysis and dig a little deeper than most science fictions stories allow. It’s like that sauce commercial for Prego-It’s in there.”

Here are some of the episode highlights.

Whatever Happened To Mr. Garibaldi?: Jason Carter discusses his utter awe of the abilities of Andreas Katsulas, his acting prowess and ability to transcend the mask and make-up. “I think it’s an incredible thing that he does, considering he is completely concealed by the make-up…. His powerful humanity crosses through that, and he is so expressive behind that mask. He is absolutely alive and G’Kar exists.” I know I made mention of that while watching Babylon 5 and it's a no-brainer, but I thought Carter articulated that well. Later, referring to the scenes in the Centauri prison between Peter Jurasik and Andreas Katsulas, we are given some terrific analysis on the character’s respective positions. Jurasik notes those scenes to be some of his favorite and they were easily mine as well for the first half of Season Four. This is a great bit analyzing the sequence when Londo goes to G’Kar for aid. “Even though G’Kar is locked in a prison cell and chained to the wall, it is Londo who appears to be in the weaker position. He seems almost frightened of asking G’Kar for this favor, although the Narn cannot possibly pose a physical threat to him.” They make mention of the light flooding the room and G’Kar’s face when the door to the cell is opened and I recall G’Kar basking in that glow and the spiritual strength and impact of that moment myself.

The Summoning: Katsulas recalls the electro-whip sequence and the effort it took to be in that place over and over for that scream. “I was really drained, and I was so happy that I was off a few episodes after that, just psychologically. I needed to get out of that, that place you go to in that dark prison.” I also enjoyed Boxleitner’s reflections on his character which really say a lot about the vibe of the character throughout Season Four. “There’s a dark side to this Mr. Good Guy.” There’s a great analogy by Straczynski as well equating the journey of his hero to that of Mad Max in the first two films by George Miller. I love those films! He indicates Miller went wrong with the third installment by straying from the nebulous, ambiguous path established for his hero in the first two films by falling on formula. Very interesting segment. A very valid criticism of that third film though there were aspects of it that I enjoyed.

Finally, I had considered the Judas analogy of Garibaldi’s betrayal of Sheridan, which is articulated quite nicely here. Joe Straczynski discusses the parallels to Western Christianity and other belief systems with Garibaldi [Judas] or Sheridan [Jesus] and Lorien [God]. That does make sense and is clever in its setup to be sure.

Falling Toward Apotheosis: It was fascinating to hear Patricia Tallman talk of the plan to kill the evil Kosh in this entry. I hadn’t looked at it this way. “The Shadows go out and kill the first Kosh, and then here we are coming along to kill the second one, which doesn’t make us any better than the Shadows. I really had some problems with that ethically.” Straczynski goes on to discuss the sticky moral implications. We also get that age old question regarding World War II and Hiroshima that so many love to debate. It looks as though Straczynski regards history with the kind of logic he projects on his own show. “We bombed Hiroshima, which is a terrible thing, but did we lose fewer people than if we attempted an invasion of the Japanese mainland? It’s a very difficult choice and it is both defensible and vulnerable, which are the kind of arguments that I like with this show. You can make the case that it was wrong, but if they hadn’t done it, what would have been the consequences?” In the sentence of that quote he could have been talking of World War II, but he is referring to the aggression against the Vorlon. If action wasn’t taken, the war would never have come to an end. He speaks of the Shadow War not Hiroshima, but he could have been. It's unfortunate that reinventing history has become a popular past time for many. It reminds me of The Deconstruction Of Falling Stars exactly.

The Long Night: A great crossroads for G’Kar and Londo takes place here in Season Four. “If someone had told Londo in the first season that G’Kar would be the one to save his people, he probably would not have believed it. If that same someone had said that it would be Londo who asked G’Kar to save his people, he would have almost certainly considered that person to be mad.” Now that’s genuine hope and change for you. G’Kar is spiritually enlightened, but Londo too would eventually come around. Actor Peter Jurasik defends the same indicating underneath it all Londo truly does have heart [or two]. Londo repents and looks for vindication throughout Season Four. It’s one of my favorite things about Season Four. The chapter talks extensively of the theatrical scene between Vir and Londo following the assassination of Cartagia by Vir and all of the emotional and moral implications for Vir that followed that along with Londo’s reaction. I agree that it is one of the most moving sequences in the season and I believe I clipped that when I covered this episode. I loved it. It is powerful stuff. Straczynski apparently comes from a theatrical background and there is no question that shines through for the entire series and how sequences are staged and filmed. One final area touched upon is the heroic nature of G’Kar. He was always my favorite character throughout the show and I sensed something special about him along the way, but he shines in Season Four for many reasons. “G’Kar is certainly as much of a hero as anyone else in the show. In some ways, this story is as much G’Kar’s story as anyone else’s, and he goes through as many changes as anyone else goes through,” Straczynski confides. “He endures almost as much- if not more in some ways- as Sheridan does. And also, like Sheridan, for the good of his people and not for any personal glory.”

Into The Fire: For those of us who were not particularly thrilled with the way Straczynski closed out the Shadow War much is covered regarding 'why?' in this segment. I thought it played out long enough as a whole personally and the time seemed right. In fact, if I didn’t express that opinion originally, and I can't recall [I sound like I'm on a witness stand], I do think in retrospect it was a good point to end the proceedings here. I really liked the remainder of Season Four as it played out. I like how Straczynski refers to those fans who strictly enjoy the pyrotechnics as “propellerheads.” That’s funny. I’m a bigger fan of the more intimate drama between characters for sure. I have always said I would have enjoyed a battle or two on foot and hand-to-hand. I would have liked that, but you know the scenes I loved along the way. I don't think I ever clipped a propellerhead sequence. They just aren't necessary or half as juicy as the character drama. This is a great point by Straczynski. “I was growing concerned that more and more people were thinking that the whole shows was about the Shadow War, which is not the case. That was not even there in the first season, didn’t even get cooking until midway through the second season, and they thought this is the entirety of the show, and it never was.” I can certainly see where people might have been despondent over the end of the war. It had been such a powerful force in the show from Season Two to Season Four there was certainly a sense it had engulfed the series so to speak. It was like this great all-consuming shadow. We have terrible memories and Season One seemed like a distant one at that. Straczynski points to the various stages of the war in Babylon 5 and the inevitable peace process. It was evident it had run its course and had to come to a head otherwise it was going to grow stale. I like the reference to Epsilon 3 as a “decoy.” It certainly felt like that though it did play a part in the Babylon 4 thread, which this book points out. Despite my desire for a shoot ‘em up episode Straczynski is quick to point out it was about “philosophies” or competing belief systems. He was never much impressed with giving the audience what it “expects.” I think that was clear.

Epiphanies: Much is discussed here about the Garibaldi character. The whole idea of whether he was acting by choice or being pushed in a given direction by the programming applied by Bester is in question. It’s purposefully ambiguous. I always thought that worked really well because I was left really uncomfortable regarding what was going on with Garibaldi. It wasn’t neat in any way. Straczynski was very successful in what he was going for with this character. I wanted to puke. Patricia Tallman makes some great observations about her character here as well. Much of her feeling on the direction of her character is how I was feeling as it unraveled. “She puts herself on the line for them, and nobody ever gives anything back. It’s so sad. She has a scene with Zack where she says, ‘Why doesn’t anyone just ask me out for dinner, go have a beer in the Zocalo? You want me to fry my mentor, but you don’t want to have a pizza with me. Nobody brings me flowers.’ It continues and continues this way. I never thought it was going to go like that.” Neither did I and it is once again a testament to Straczynski’s gameplan and one that is fairly true to a reality based on logic about people. Are people really that predictable?

The Illusion Of Truth: Mira Furlan gives a fairly extensive opinion on how this episode was handled as someone who came from war torn Yugolsavia and dealt with media propaganda. It’s funny, but I’ve never seen a more propaganda-driven media or agenda-driven media. I believe US outlets are headed in a similiar direction. News is no longer reported, but rather agenda and political bias. It's an interesting evolution and quite disturbing. Journalistically neutral reporting in the classic sense is less and less evident. It's quite sad. Furlan knows first hand and felt “the media and journalists were heavily responsible for the war” in her former country. It’s a terrific case in point on how things change. The media is a powerful instrument and voice when they get behind something they want to support, but can be destructive to the people they serve the information. This episode is a terrific illustration of that power and negligent misuse. Whether the news is reported with a left-wing or right-wing slant it is manipulative and it is not true journalism. The character of Dr. Indiri is a great example. He comments on the status of Babylon 5 without all of the variables, without all of the facts and without any real empirical evidence. Our own reporters often give their opinions without a foundation for them, but they do have their agenda driving their reporting and they get their marching orders from above more than ever or they are hired to fill their agendas accordingly more than ever. Even Garibaldi hurts the station and his old friends with his words, but there is no desire to understand what influences or factors are in play that have affected this interviewee. Yet, given who Garibaldi is his words carry great weight.

Atonement: Straczynski makes a great point about the impurity of races via the Minbari. As pure as they’d like to be, Delenn represents impurity as a descendant of Valen, which of course introduced human DNA. He makes the point without being preachy. It’s an interesting portion of the chapter.

Lines Of Communication: I remember this episode being a real turning point for me regarding my perception of Delenn. I remember writing about how much I enjoyed her character here. It was a notable turning point for the character. It seemed a conscious decision to make her leaner and tougher based upon what I read here. Mira Furlan’s comments really cement that vibe I was experiencing at the time as well and I don’t think it was a desire solely by a female audience either. “I think the female audience craves to see a strong woman who is presented in a good way, a positive way…. To see Delenn being this little lamb, this tiny little lost girl, got on their nerves, and I can completely understand that.” It got on my testosterone-driven nerves as well. So Straczynski clearly made a conscious decision to make her tougher and less sweet. I know Comes The Inquisitor might speak volumes about her character, but there was a big stride forward for her here.

It was funny to learn here of Straczynski’s decision to blur the Drakh emissary as well. He indicates he was “burned” by the Infection monster and the creature from Grey 17 Is Missing referring to those debacles as the “obvious guy in the rubber suit.” Well, it definitely worked here on the Drakh emissary. I remember thinking the emissary was a Drakh until you all pointed out the error of my ways. As far as emissaries go, this is one of the scariest I must say. It was all very much by design and it really works here.

It was interesting to learn here how annoyed Billy Mumy was by the actor who played Forell. It's not often you get to here actors talk smack about other actors. He doesn’t mention the character by name, but he is definitely referring to the guest actor who played Forell opposite the actor who played the Drakh emissary whom Mumy spoke glowingly. Mumy rips the guest actor [Forell] a new one and I imagine he would have a good handle and a right to comment as a veteran actor in the biz. It’s not personal. It’s all business as Mumy points out. Perhaps Lennier was staring Forell down out of anger with genuine sincerity in that entry. He may not have been acting afterall. Like the episode, this was an interesting installment.

Conflicts Of Interest: The installment here deals with the inner Garibaldi conflict and I think what Straczynski was driving for was spot on target. “Well, where is he in all this? He’s not a bad guy, but he’s not acting like one of our good guys, so what the hell is going on here?” I remember feeling precisely that way. I was screwed up!

Rumors, Bargains And Lies: I hadn’t really put this in perspective. Here we have a bit of art imitating life. Mira Furlan was an actress in the former Yugoslavia when war began to break between Croats, Serbs and Muslims. Here, in the series, Delenn tries to quell civil war and civil unrest by returning to Minbar. That was lost on me at the time actually, but it makes complete sense and I did know Furlan was from Yugoslavia. Anyway, an interesting parallel for Furlan to perform as someone so openly exposed to that kind of hatred.

Straczynski makes a comment about Sheridan that really speaks to his behavior throughout Season Four. It was never completely obvious, more subtle, but certainly establishes the underlying truth of the situation for this man. “The whole Z’Ha’Dum thing was a transformational experience for him and there’s many ways of showing that.” I thought it presented itself rather nicely throughout the season without yelling or screaming to us “Look at me, look at how I’ve changed.” Sheridan underwent change of his own, much like Garibaldi, and both of these men that were close friends were transforming before our very eyes. It was all rather uncomfortable along the way, but logically so.

Moments Of Transition: I hadn’t really noted the parallel at the time, but this commentary shed a little more light on it for me. I like the idea that change was required at the end of the Shadow War. The Grey Council, too, could no longer remain static. Things had changed and so with that change the Grey Council needed to adapt by making the Worker Caste the dominant party within the council. “The Grey Council was formed as a barrier, or a form of defense, against the Shadows, and when that threat was gone, they needed to redefine themselves. They had defined themselves in that context for so long that they had lost the point of it. In a way, it’s a parallel to the Shadow War itself, where you have these two sides who are carrying on their own agenda through a third party, which would be us. With Minbar, in trying to be prepared for combat, it had become its own worst enemy. The Warrior and Religious Castes are like the Shadows and the Vorlons, with the Worker Caste caught in the middle. As we told those other two sides to go away because we’re going to make our own way, the Grey Council had to take a similar direction.”

No Surrender, No Retreat: There is some discussion here concerning the difficulty making the White Star interior set interesting. I would agree. I didn’t think they were always successful in making it so.

Director Mike Vejar discusses a critical scene in the entry between Andreas Katsulas and Peter Jurasik as G’Kar and Londo respectively. It’s a powerful sequence and they cover it extensively right down to camera angles to help convey the mood of the characters and where they were in their journey. They really break down the scene and how they wanted it to work. That was a brilliant scene and it was handled skillfully. G’Kar reluctantly agrees to work with Londo if you recall and it was gradual for him to get there, but at the same time G’Kar is internally a believer in the mission for peace, which helps propel him past bitterness, hatred or revenge. He had so moved beyond that as a character and he was placing that on display in the raw.

The Face Of The Enemy: The sequence concerning Sheridan’s takedown is covered extensively here. It’s an interesting read to a really spectacular visual sequence in the series. “That to me, is what hell is like,” comments Jerry Doyle. “If there is a heaven and a hell, hell is the place you go to after you watch the video of your life in front of all of your friends and family and they show you every missed step, everything you did wrong in life, on this giant video in front of everyone.” Great comments. Jerry Doyle closes with how he responded after learning Bester had controlled his motives. “The only thing I could do was slam my head against the wall and let it go. That, to me, was the trumpet call to action. Okay, now that I’ve found out what happened, you fucked with me, now I’ve got some stuff to do.” Perfect.

Intersections In Real Time: There is a great deal of interview time here with actor Raye Birk who played interrogator William. It’s interesting. Birk was extremely proud of the finished product and he should be. It is one of Babylon 5’s finest moments. Bruce Boxleitner speaks of the humor found in the classic corned beef sandwich scene. He actually had to eat four sandwiches and has not had one since as of the book’s writing. Straczynski indicates he put a lot of time, energy and research into the torture sequences of the episode. Much of the input was based upon stories from World War II, his degrees from school and so on. Straczynski points to the various instances of physical duress or torture applied throughout Babylon 5 for character purposes. Straczynski played Sheridan’s part as someone who does NOT break. All of the elements from this entry add up to a classic. I thought this was an interesting point by Straczynski. “I’d always wanted to do a two-character one-room episode, and every time I came up to doing it, I kind of chickened out at the last minute and put in some B-story stuff.” “The Inquisitor was that way…and I chickened out at the last minute.” You know, I remember thinking how Comes The Inquisitor could have been as good as this, but that the other threads were distracting. I recall feeling that way and it was intriguing to see Straczynski reaffirm those thoughts here.

Between The Darkness And The Light: Joe Straczynski had actually considered killing Ivanova, but decided against it. It left me thinking. I imagine Marcus would have been unsuccesful in taking his life instead. Perhaps someone’s intervention in those final moments might have saved him. Of course, he would still be with us as a result. It’s an interesting ‘What if?’ scenario.

Rising Star: Straczynski discusses his indecision right up until the point of no return regarding the death of Marcus. There were essentially two takes, one with Marcus dying and one of him being placed into cryonic suspension. “I wasn’t sure myself what I wanted to do.” He adds, “I just didn’t want to kill off the character. I was very fond of Marcus, and I was giving myself room to cut in either direction.” Straczynski was concerned he might cheat his audience by saving Ivanova and then turning around and saving Marcus undercutting the power of the moment or the scene. In the end he feels he made the right choice and I agree. He most definitely would have extracted the power of Marcus’ sacrifice from the series.

The Deconstruction Of Falling Stars: It is made clear here that this entry was originally intended to be the first episode of Season Five, but was utilized as the season ender. Sleeping In Light was delayed and set to be the proper closing to the series for Season Five once TNT picked the series up for a full fifth season.

My affair with Babylon 5 is nearly complete. I have one more Del Rey companion book to read following my completion of Season Five. The books are aclearly a labor of love penned with thorough detail by writer Jane Killick. They are a terrific read for any self-respecting Babylon 5 aficionado. A must for any sci-fi library.

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