Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Babylon 5: The Wheel Of Fire

"The meaning of a certain line of dialogue or a certain scene became more profound precisely because it was all planned ahead of time. It was an intricate story in which every detail could have significance, where watching and rewatching the episodes could provide new insight." -Jane Killick, author of the Babylon 5 companion books-

Book 5: The Wheel Of Fire.

I've been remiss in completing my look at the Babylon 5 companion books. After an extraordinary run through the five season series a little Babylon 5 fatigue had set in. Well, having enjoyed a bit of distance from the series and a bit of a break I found myself curious to discover the remaining contents of Author Jane Killick's Babylon 5: The Wheel Of Fire companion book to Season Five. This is essentially a summary of thoughts, reflections and points of interest that appealed to me while reading the guide. Since my coverage of Babylon 5 I have moved to incorporate aspects of these books directly into my coverage of science fiction films and television.

Looking Back Over Five Years: Series creator and writer J. Michael Straczynski discusses his plan for the series' phenomenal five-year arc, his planned mission of this epic story. As many comments here at Musings Of A Sci-Fi Fanatic had mentioned in the past, Straczynski planned for unexpected developments to occur inside the arc of his story. He built-in a series of "trap doors" for every one of his characters that were delivering his story, but it was the story that was central. No one person would have a deathgrip on telling that story. Andrea Thompson played Talia Winters. She exited and was replaced. Claudia Christian played Ivanova. She left and was replaced. Sinclair was replaced by Sheridan, but the Sinclair character, like the others, still remained vital to the story. Nothing would divert Straczynski from telling the tale of Babylon 5. Straczynski established many details to foreshadow the five year arc. The series is all the better for it and a pleasure to mine for those willing to invest their time.

Truth is it's something of a minor miracle the creator pulled off his dream. He planned five years and apart from a brief hiccup at the end of Season Four with cancellation lingering, Straczynski got his five. Clearly, the merits of Season Five are debatable and remain a part of the conversation. Was it successful? Is it the weakest season? It can certainly be argued that it was necessary, if not as engaging as those first four years. Some have indicated here part of what made the fifth season feel disjointed was owing to the fact missing scripts were lost or stolen by/from Straczynski and the fact that the fourth season felt rushed in the event Babylon 5 was cancelled. All of this may bear some responsibility or at least stand to reason.

Mostly though, along the way, we have pay off, after pay off, after pay off. Babylon 5 offered smart, literate science fiction and unlike so many television shows [never mind science fiction], there was a beginning, a middle and an end. It made sense and it never cheated its audience unlike plenty of series that shall go nameless. Straczynski respected viewers. How many science fiction shows can claim this? Killick points out the series had a "respect" for "the tradition of the written genre."

At the heart of Straczynski's story were massive moral implications for its characters. He invited us, forced us perhaps, to look at ourselves and ask what choices we would make if we were given a similar set of circumstances. This happened with all of the characters and certainly none more profoundly than Londo Mollari. "Choices have consequences that bring responsibility." As Killick writes, the arc of the story is the arc of the characters. The two go hand in hand. In that, Straczynski has written a carefully woven epic,a novel in motion for the ages to uncover.

Babylon 5's Fifth Season: Perhaps it was reading this book that made me realize certain truths about the unfortunate rhythms of Season Five. With the axe hanging over the head of J. Michael Straczynski he was forced to speed up his five-year arc to bring the series to certain satisfactory resolutions. As a result, Season Four suffered for it, and Season Five resulted in an entirely different vibe. There was a stride about Season Two and Three that felt so right and so perfect. Despite the climactic rush of Season Four it still easily ranks among the series best. "Season Five was going to be slower and more reflective." Season Five was definitely slower, arguably more reflective, but also less interesting on a number of fronts. The groove was indeed missing. Claudia Christian departed. The Season was less effective with her absence. The "mundanes" and "normals" story arc was, well, sadly mundane. It felt that way to me with a few exceptions. The Byron character was truly atrocious. It was like a Harlequin romance figure brought to life with a name directly referencing the Romantic movement. On the whole the material just wasn't as strong as the previous four seasons surrounding Valen, the Vorlons and the Shadows. Killick points out how Straczynski builds the questions surrounding some of his new stories in Season Four to pay off in Season Five, but the material simply wasn't strong enough.

Season Four was looking for a sense of "closure" and a "satisfactory ending." Exactly, after three strong seasons with one building upon another Season Four felt slightly compromised. It would have been better if it played out as intended. Fans can certainly understand Straczynski's circumstances, but had to note the compromises. There were external forces working against him and fans could certainly understand and respect his position. Unlike Firefly, at least Babylon 5 had a coherent, complete story by the end of it all. Killick pointed to the "mystery" and "discovery" of the build in those first two seasons. It was that mystery that drove us and enthralled us pulling us in like the mysteries of Alien [1979] and the space jockey.

I've probably beat up on Season Five enough, but I'm not done. Byron the telepath and the United Nations-styled politics just come off verbose like the politics in the Star Wars prequels. Babylon 5 has always been political by its very nature but it was just too much in Season Five. Killick calls Season Five a season working at a "gentler pace." Killick refers to Season One as "episodic," Two as arc-prominent, Three with Babylon 5 "fighting back," Four as "fast," perhaps rushed, and Five working at a "tamer pace." Overall Season Five was hamstrung with problems.

Killick points to Season Five as character-centric stories. She suggests the G'Kar and Londo elements are some of the strongest. I too would argue they are indeed the best aspects of Season Five worth watching.

Killick discusses in detail the complex relationship between G'Kar and Londo and where their relationship lands them in the fifth season. The two characters are Season Five's greatest strength.

Killick discusses the Lochley character. As much as I really wanted to like Tracy Scoggins in the role of Ivanova's replacement, she ultimately failed in selling the character. Killick refers to Day Of The Dead as a fan "favorite" episode. Written by Neil Gaiman, Day Of The Dead was one of my least favorites and I thought the storyline felt forced. Killick points to the Lochley portion as an emotional highlight and this is an example of my detached participation in Season Five. I felt very little emotional connection to the Lochley character and to many of the events in Season Five. She concludes by mentioning Sleeping In Light, which easily could have concluded Season Four on a strong note. Killick calls Season Five "difficult" and a "challenge," but never resoundingly calls it a successful one, but rather points to the series on the whole as successful. I think that is partially by design, because I don't believe most could give a rousing endorsement of Babylon 5's final season.

The Deconstruction Of Falling Stars: Although this closed Season Four, it was ultimately a fast decision and never made the cut of the Season Four companion book. Directed by Stephen Furst, the "monk scene" is my favorite portion of the episode. Straczynski considered removing the scene because it bore a resemblance to Author Walter M. Miller Jr.'s A Canticle For Liebowitz which is apparently about an order of monks preserving records for posterity following a nuclear holocaust. Fortunately he retained the scenes which could easily exist as an homage to that book. Straczynski enjoys writing "lengthy dialogue" and Season Five had no shortage. Babylon 5 moved from a seven day shooting schedule to a six day schedule which may lend further evidence as to why the fifth season suffered. The episode reflects on the idea that war shall always persist and to achieve peace within your own sphere of influence is the best one can hope. The final scene in the episode echoes this thought when Sheridan wonders about the legacy of what they have achieved. Delenn reflects one cannot worry about tomorrow, "history will tend to itself."

No Compromises: It's an ironic title as opener to Season Five. No matter how much Killick attempts to persuade us that "any doubts... are swept away" concerning Scoggins as a replacement for Christian I'm not exactly sure she delivered or that I was ever convinced. Scoggins does a serviceable job in her one and only season aboard Babylon 5 but she was presented with a fairly unenviable task. Still, I prefer ScogginS over Robin Atkin Downes playing Byron any day. Still, even Christian felt a bit wooden in her first season to be fair. With only one season to blossom the cards were definitely stacked against Scoggins and she performs admirably. Furthermore, I've heard much hullabaloo about Christian's departure yet here Killick downplays her departure as nothing more than an opportunity to work in film. Was it that simple? I'm not so sure. As for Downes, no matter how hard they tried to sell that character, I simply couldn't get past the whole Fabian vibe. No Compromises was clearly all about compromise.

The Very Long Night Of Londo Mollari: This is hands down one of the highlights of Season Five. Having said that, it still does not rank among my favorites. The role reversal of G'Kar and Londo is an ingenious move. The story redresses Londo's unconscionable choices that led to the destruction of G'Kar's homeworld. I love the focus of the episode and the redemptive nature of Londo's position in G'Kar eyes and the forgiveness afforded by G'Kar. How easy is it to say those words, "I'm sorry." Well, given the strong writing here it's always alot harder than it might seem. Director David Eagle calls the episode "a very very dark" one both figuratively and literally. Londo navigates his way from death with G'Kar acting as his "conscience" as actor Andreas Katsulas put it. Despite the dark tenor of the episode it ends on a fairly positive, powerful close once again delivering one of those classic J. Michael Straczynski arc moments. The bridge of forgiveness and understanding between Londo and G'Kar would propel their story in a new direction. Their relationship is the strength of the season. The five year arc of their connection is really something to experience.

The Paragon Of Animals: This was a Byron-centric piece and the character, despite Straczynski's fondness for Shakespeare in his writing is quite simply a bore.

A View From The Gallery: This is a solid, left-of-center attempt by Straczynski to shake things up. He made every effort to do things differently and this installment was one of the best. Best quote from the chapter: “One of the things I always do is look for ways to turn the series format on its head and show us our characters from other perspectives, since perspective is so much at the heart of the show.”

Learning Curve: Straczynski discusses his efforts to change things up, but ultimately Season Five did not work on the whole for me. “One of the things I wanted to do was try new things. It’s the fifth year, I can experiment. They can’t do anything to me if I do experiment, they can’t throw me into jail, they can’t cancel my show.” Straczynski adds, “What’s the worst thing that will happen? That an episode won’t work- that’s about it.” [extracted from Dreamwatch #45]. Well, that’s true. You said it, not me. All in all, you can respect his efforts. His reasons are sound.

Strange Relations: “The main plot of the episode… deals with the telepaths. By allowing them to live on Babylon 5, Sheridan created a dilemma for the station, which is under Earth jurisdiction. By Earth law, all rogue telepaths have to be handed over to Psi Corps.” Law, jurisdiction… therein lies the big yawn. These are the dramatic problems with which Season Five is saddled. With G’Kar now Londo’s assigned bodyguard, given their long, combative history we’re suppose to fully appreciate the irony of their new relationship. I guess. We understand, but it’s simply not as compelling.

Secrets Of The Soul: Majorities, Minorities, biases and prejudices are a significant part of the fabric of the season’s telepath thread. I think ultimately it comes off a little too preachy for my taste. It’s not as subtle as earlier writing. We also have the character of Byron embodying a kind of Christ-like figure who practices Satyagraha a la Ghandi. The episode was more than verbal intercourse between Byron and Lyta. Jane Killick's final thoughts gave me pause. Perhaps "by alienating rather than embracing telepaths, the Human race is setting itself up for problems further down the road." I couldn't help but consider American relations with Muslim Americans or the Japanese following World War II. It's certainly a generation issue.

In The Kingdom Of The Blind: "Raider activity" sent me into a tailspin. That's it I thought. We went from hardcore Shadows forces to raiders. The raiders simply didn't have the same punch. Okay, the Drakh were much better, but even that outfit never quite took off. The Drakh was a terrifically nasty new enemy, but never quite filled the shoes of those nasty Shadows. Byron's desire for a telepath homeworld brought to mind politics in the Mid-East. Once again, more telepathic-heavy storylines balanced with the more interesting Londo/ G'Kar thread. There is no question Straczynski was able to explore aspects of these characters he wouldn't have previously, but the whole vibe was a like a different animal and thus the flow of the series changed in a direction not entirely welcomed for me. Viewers certainly reacted negatively, and some moreso than me, which prompted a response from Straczynski. It's interesting but I don't agree with his remarks. "The problem is on the one hand you have a lot of adrenaline junkies who think that unless there's a whole lot of stuff blowing up, nothing's happening, and those who think that unless they know in advance that this is an arc episode, it's not an arc episode, unless you telegraph it literally and they dismiss it." Those remarks were clearly unfair to a lot of fans. There is indeed a percentage out there who enjoy the action of any series, but let's be honest, if you were watching Babylon 5 for things blowing up, I think there were better outlets. Most enjoyed Babylon 5 for its characterization, writing, exchanges, plot twists and honesty, not for the action, at least not this fan. So I think his remarks, out of frustration perhaps, were a bit unfair. It final season offered a different tone so the set-up/build and pay off formula was unique here from the previous four seasons. I wish I could be a Drakh's advocate.

A Tragedy of Telepaths: It was a tragedy alright. The episode was directed by actor/ director Tony [Leave It To Beaver] Dow. Nevertheless, Killick interviewed him for the chapter and he indicated he was concerned about the level of violence. Gee Wally, I don't know. The G'Kar/ Londo thread saving Na'Toth was good. I also recall being disappointed by Na'Toth's return. It was a bit of a letdown to see the character so underutilized.

Phoenix Rising: It's the last we see of Robin Atkin Downes and his Byron character.

Day Of The Dead: I was not a fan of Gaiman's chapter in the Babylon 5 saga, but it had moments and I wouldn't necessarily fault Gaiman for it. The Londo segment with Adira proves how far he had come. Morden returns to portend that Lennier will betray the Anla'shok. This does happen and it's a great bit of continuity. I do recall thinking the Morden/Lennier connection was an odd choice. Marcus and Lennier would have been a nice choice. I didn't feel enough of a connection to the Scoggins character to fully appreciate her segment. Regarding the appearance of Penn and Teller, Bruce Boxleitner reaffirms my own distaste for the two comedians. "They aren't my favorite comedians." He adds that Penn was "arrogant beyond belief." I couldn't agree more with Boxleitner as Penn and Teller continue to remain an overrated pop culture presence but to each his own.

The Ragged Edge: Producer John Copeland shed some light on the efforts everyone made to make Babylon 5 stand apart from other space classics. Computer technology had a lot to do with Babylon 5's ability to create new worlds. "What we felt we wanted to try was to not do what everybody else has done. This is not just Star Trek or Space:1999 or Space: Above And Beyond. Whenever they do a location on another planet, they go out to Vasquez Rocks (in Southern California). I mean it's been in a million westerns over the years, it's been in many episodes of Star Trek, it's featured in Starship Troopers."

The Corps Is Mother, The Corps Is Father: Directed by actor Stephen Furst, it was his third outing on the series behind Season Four's The Illusion Of Truth and The Deconstruction Of Falling Stars. The entry focuses on Bester as portrayed by Walter Koenig, a character I never warmed to or fully appreciated, but as Straczynski points out in Killick's book, "Bester is not a nice guy." In fact, he's a Psi-Corps snob who looks down his nose at mundanes clearly superior to all around him. The episode looks at the "unpalatable" character through the eyes of fellow Corps members who idolize him and presents an unsavory view of the man many of us quickly grew to hate. Koenig said, "God knows I hate to draw this as a comparison because if there was anybody in history in my lifetime that was a total abomination it was Adolf Hitler, but, you know, Adolf Hitler loved dogs." That's an unsettling but accurate comparison to the evil character.

Meditations On The Abyss: Bill Mumy reflected on just how terribly ill he was during the filming of this episode and several of his supporting roles in his eight episode season. He likened his fighting style in the entry to that of Green Hornet and Kato. Mira Furlan noted a strong relationship with Mumy while working on the series and found it fascinating that both could come from such strikingly different worlds and upbringings as people and yet find so much in common. "It's so strange and actually so moving, so great, to find somebody like that who grew up in totally different circumstances, but who shares so much with you."

Darkness Ascending: Killick makes a terrific point regarding the juxtaposition of Lennier's focus here and where Garibaldi is heading in stark contrast. It's also worth noting Lennier's own unique character arc over the course of five seasons. His "wide-eyed innocence" when reflecting back to Season One has been replaced by an almost severe and extreme personality shift given his mission and his relative status with Delenn. This hardening of the Lennier character is also in direct contrast to G'Kar's great story arc. Lennier went from a religious figure to a warrior, while G'Kar from warrior to religious icon.

And All My Dreams, Torn Asunder: The episode is probably best known as Mira Furlan's husband's directorial debut stateside. The Serbian born director, Goran Gajic, couldn't have asked for a more appropriate title considering he and Furlan's flight from historic war torn Serbia/Yugoslavia. Efforts by Joe Straczynski and others won him a spot under the TNT banner after being rejected the first four years due to his excessively artistic approach to film.

Killick notes Furlan's approach as she channels her personal experience from her war experience into the character and the arc of war presented in Babylon 5. As Furlan noted, Straczynski "writes these beautiful things."

Movements Of Fire And Shadow: Peter Jurasik called the entry the closest Babylon 5 got to an X-Files episode. With regard to Londo and G'Kar's relationship and the classic imprisonment scene, Killick explained these were two people who "on the surface" hate each other, "but underneath share a friendship." Jurasik added correctly, "They're well beyond friendship, they're starting to mirror each other and see themselves in each other."

The Fall Of Centauri Prime: J. Michael Straczynski calls the final episodes of the season "some of the very best work we've ever done, maybe even the best work we've done." He stated the first portion of this season allowed for these final episodes to have a much greater impact. This episode was among the very best of Season Five.

The episode is best recalled for the fate of Londo and the fateful words of Lennier to Delenn, "I love you." The relationship between Lennier and Delenn is at its most complex emotionally. Additionally, it is best remembered as the final goodbye between G'Kar and Londo. Jurasik recalled "It was a very powerful scene to do." Both actors were "keenly and acutely aware" it was the final goodbye. It was the end of an incredible partnership in science fiction. "We were saying good-bye to each other as characters, and also as actors, as friends." Katsulas admitted it was "good-bye old friend. It was very emotional." It underlines the tragic end for our beloved Londo. In film, this would be anything but a Hollywood ending and the same holds true here on the small screen. It's positively brutal.

The Wheel Of Fire: Jerry Doyle recalled the scenes with Boxleitner were emotional. Boxleitner discussed the changes in his character and how he had become more "compassionate" and less "judgmental." That's true. There was indeed a softening in Sheridan's character, a wisdom that came along with that beard and with experience. Speaking specifically to the beauty in those dramatic exchanges Boxleitner gets it right. "I didn't have any techno-babble, I didn't have any strategic, galactic stuff to say, it was just two people talking and that's where I think the really good drama happens."

It was also director Janet Greek's farewell before returning for The River Of Souls starring Ian McShane. Greek points out a number of key shots within the episode that pay homage to earlier episodes and shots within earlier seasons. Fans will get a kick out of seeking these comparisons out.

Actress Patricia Tallman offered some final thoughts on the fate of her character, Lyta Alexander. She correctly asserted, "Lyta is a walking time bomb, a nuclear bomb ready to go off. She's got so much power in her, she can destroy everything. ... with that kind of power what else can you do with the character except kill them or have them go away?" And go away she does.

Objects In Motion: Andreas Katsulas pondered the send off of Lyta and G'Kar, a conclusion to their characters and threads that worked brilliantly for me. Katsulas, too, felt it was a wonderful way to close the book on these two remarkable characters. "There's so much left to the imagination, it was a good way to wrap it up." Straczynski likened the break up of this band of warriors, so to speak, to Lord Of The Rings essentially seeing his players "scattered to the four winds."

Objects At Rest: This was the final episode of the series since Sleeping In Light was in the can during Season Four. Yet, Straczynski and the cast found it to be the saddest goodbye and the hardest and most genuine to perform.

All of the farewells, endings and new beginninngs aside, Straczynski definitely wrote in bittersweet moments for Lennier and Londo. Peter Jurasik liked that the creator did not bend the characters "too much to sentiment." As he notes about Londo, "The leopard kept his spots to the end." Straczynski intended for viewers to see that all new beginnings wouldn't necessarily start with rose-colored glasses. Finally, the Sheridan character establishes the set up for Sleeping In Light.

Sleeping In Light: Killick eloquently captured her impressions. "It is a deeply moving tribute to the show's five-year history, with a sense of reflection and overwhelming sadness as the destruction of the Babylon 5 space station and the death of Sheridan bring the phenomenal series to a close." Amen. And of course, this was the result of Straczynski's directorial hand, so there is a great deal of insight into that particular event from the perspective of writer, producer AND first time director.

Boxleitner waxed poetic on the subject saying they were shooting for "romantic." Boxleitner gets the approach right too. "Very sad.... That was a tough one. Overdramatic as hell, but fun. I'm never afraid to be sentimental. I think people want sentimentality, I really do. I think in those kind of scenes, if you're going to play them, play them, don't be afraid." It essentially ended sad twice in the end.

So there you have it, some unfinished business and closing thoughts on Babylon 5 Season Five. This one goes out to the fans of that series. I continue to hold out hope that one day Straczynski will revisit his masterwork and remaster it for Blu-Ray so that we can all revisit the series once again with a new wisdom, new eyes and a new appreciation. Until then, stay tuned for a look at the fifth Babylon 5 film, A Call To Arms.


Maurice Mitchell said...

Great post. Still waiting for Straczynski to release a blu-ray with commentary.

SFF said...

Well thanks Maurice. Glad you enjoyed it. But I must say I agree with you... HOW GREAT would it be to see this series in Blu-Ray with commentary no less.

I would even be satisfied with Blu-Ray!

We can dream pal.

Havremunken said...

Good stuff, my man, as always!

I don't want to pee on your dreams, because I share them, but there are reasons why this is going to be an uphill battle..

SFF said...

AH! Love me my man Harvemunken!
ALways on the cutting edge brother. THanks for that link. I hope you and the family are well and I bet that little one isn't quite as little. Thanks for paying a visit. It's nice to know you are alive and hopefully well. SFF