I’ve recently become a fan of the science fiction show, Babylon 5. As I head into the middle of the third season, I strongly recommend this show to anyone who loves complex, three-dimensional characters, deep storylines, with dashes of quirky humor thrown in.
This wonderful site: http://www.midwinter.com/lurk/lurker.html has interviews with the show’s creator and main writer, Michael Straczynski, after each episode.
Here are some quotes from Mr. Straczynski:
1 Would it be fair to compare Cagney and Lacey with NYPD Blue? After all, they’re both cop shows. But in fact, they’re not the same kind of cop show; they share the same genre, but there ends the overlap. The two shows are distinct, separate entities, just as Harlan Ellison’s work is distinct from Bill Gibson’s work, even though both incorporate elements of SF.
The ST pilot existed in its own universe, and was primarily an action show. The B5 pilot exists in its own universe, and primarily sets the stage for a political mystery/intrigue series. It wasn’t meant to serve the same functions as the ST pilot.
It seems to me that many SF fans continue to compare everything to ST because that’s their primary frame of reference, and they continue to apply it whether it’s relevant or not. My suggestion…get another frame of reference.
2. What the soul was, who’s right, and even whether this is SF or Science Fantasy, was it explained enough to merit one over the other … how can I put this…? I don’t want to spoon-feed stuff to people. What I want is not to hit someone with a MORAL, or a message, or “This is what a soul is,” or “This is what makes it an SF series,” I want to start discussions. Arguments. Preferably a bar fight or two.
We present an issue. Here are the sides. Now…what do YOU think about it? I want this show to ask, “Who are you? Where are you going?”
3. I confess I don’t see the problem. In real life, some women are scientists, and doctors, and atheletes…and some women dance in bars, some women hook part- or full-time. Some men are scholars and diplomats and teachers…and some men are gigolos and thieves and *also* dance in bars. Where exactly is the problem in portraying both sides of this? Have we become so concerned with being politically correct that we can not show a legitimate part of human existence?
4. Correct; the title of “The War Prayer” is a nod to Twain’s piece of the same name, which should be read by *everyone*. Given the growing problems with illiteracy, I try to refer not to pop society so much, as to literature…Tennyson, Twain, even writers whose last names don’t begin with T.
5. Re: B5’s roster of strong women characters…this is something of a bugaboo/obsession with me. I *love* writing strong women. (For that matter, I love strong-willed, independent, smart women in real life as well; I love being outsmarted, love it when someone can go toe-to- toe with me on something.) Generally, and this isn’t entirely intentional, women on shows I work on tend to get some of the best lines, as is often the case with Ivanova. It’s not a case of being “one of the boys,” but being one of the *people*. There’s a subtle difference.
6. You don’t think that “Believers” was SF. Tough.
No, it didn’t have warp gates, or tachyon emitters, or lots of technobabble…it was about people. And the dilemmas they face.
Part of what has screwed up so much of SF-TV is this sense that you must utterly divorce yourself from current issues, from current problems, from taking on issues of today and extrapolating them into the future, by way of aliens or SF constructs. And that is *precisely* why so much of contemporary SF-TV is barren and lifeless and irrelevant…and *precisely* why such series as the original Star Trek, and Outer Limits, and Twilight Zone are with us today.
Like Rod Serling and Gene Roddenberry and Joe Stefano and Reginald Rose and Arch Oboler and Norman Corwin and a bunch of other writers whose typewriters I’m not fit to touch, my goal in part is to simply tell good stories within an SF setting. And by SF I mean speculative fiction, which sometimes touches on hard-SF aspects, and sometimes doesn’t. Speculative fiction means you look at how society changes, how cultures interact with one another, how belief systems come into conflict. And as someone else here noted recently, anthropology and sociology are also sciences; soft sciences, to be sure, but sciences nonetheless.
7. A lot of our episodes are constructed to work as mirrors; you see what you put into it. “Believers” has been interpreted as pro- religion, anti-religion, and religion-neutral…”Quality” has been interpreted, as you note, as pro-capital punishment, and anti-capital punishment. We do, as you say, much prefer to leave the decision on what things mean to the viewer to hash out.
A good story should provoke discussion, debate, argument…and the occasional bar fight. The thing about “Believers” is that, really, nobody’s right, and in their own way, from their point of view, everybody’s right.
8. Sometimes, there are no-win scenarios. And what matters then is how your characters react, what they do and say, and how it affects them.
9. The choice *had* to be either/or. That was the point; to put the characters in a situation of conflict and see how they handle it. Sometimes in life there are ONLY two choices, neither of them good. Your message comes from a position of trying to avoid the hard choices. But the episode is ABOUT hard choices. It *has* to be either/or.
10. You have an introduction, a rising action, a climax, and then a denouement. Aside from experimental theater kinds of things, that is the basic underlying structure to all movies, plays and television series.
“Twin Peaks,” which you cite, really isn’t a very good example because, in my view, TP *never* resolved ANYthing. Thus it became an exercise in viewer frustration that eventually was a major reason why the show was canceled.
11. I like humor. I like that characters can show another side of themselves. If there is any real test of sentience, one of them must surely be the possession of a sense of humor, since it requires self reflection. And there is always unintentional (on the part of the character, at least) humor.
SF-TV has generally taken itself either too seriously, with rods up butts, the humor forced…or it’s not taken itself seriously at ALL, and gone campy. This show takes itself seriously, but not in quite a way that lets it fit in either category.
For me, as a viewer, I enjoy the shows that are roller-coasters, that take you from something very funny…and slam you headfirst into a very dramatic scene. Hill Street was like that, Picket Fences is like that now…why not SF? I’ve also found that humor can help you reveal things about the characters. The Londo/G’Kar scene at the elevator in “Signs and Portents,” for instance. It says something about both of them without coming out and *saying* it.
12. Ivanova is jewish. Ivanova is russian. Of the two, she tends to see herself as a russian first. There’s no value statement there, that’s just the way she is. Her parents were both russian, going back many generations on both sides. Some in her family tree were jewish, and some were not; there was some intermarrying. That may be part of why she sees herself as more russian than jewish, but it may be just a quirk.
(And to the protest of, “Well, you created her,” yes, I did. But there comes a time, if you’ve done your job right as a writer, when the character more or less takes over, and starts telling YOU who and what he or she is. There are times I mentally turn to Ivanova and say, “Okay, what do *you* think?” And she talks to me in my head, as do all of my characters. It’s part of making your characters real.)
….The problem with this discussion is that it has very little to do with who Susan Ivanova *is*, and more to do with the politics of what a russian or a jew or a russian jew *should be*. She is what she is, like it or not.
13. Someone complains about the characters not staying the same
Losing the characters she’s come to enjoy? No. But the characters are changing. That’s the point, and that’s been the intent from day one. But what’s the alternative? I’ve heard ST fans complain loudly and bitterly that after 7 years of TNG being on the air, nobody’s really changed, nobody’s been promoted into different ships or major changes in responsibilities…they’ve had Riker as XO for seven years, which in the real military would mean his career is *over*.
Change is the only other option.
The goal, from the start, was to create an overall story, but which would also require arcs for every single major character. They’re all going somewhere. In many cases, that “somewhere” plays into the larger arc; in some cases, not. If a woman is single, then gets married, then gives birth, and she’s your friend, have you “lost her” just because she’s gone through these changes? Of course not. She has changed, in good or bad ways, but she’s still the same person.
14. Re: being fooled into thinking the crystal construct in Delenn’s quarters was nothing more than a meditation thing…in general, it helps to remember that I subscribe to Anton Chekov’s First Rule of Playwriting: “If there’s a gun on the wall in act one, scene one, you must fire the gun by act three, scene two. If you fire a gun in act three, scene two, you must see the gun on the wall in act one, scene one.”Waste nothing.
15. Obviously, clearly, and irrefutably, an actor brings a *lot* to any role. No question. But it tends to begin with what is created. I’ve seen it said here, repeatedly, that none of the characters are uninteresting; they all have lives, and agendas, that make them fascinating to watch: Londo, Morden, G’Kar, Delenn, Garibaldi, Ivanova…what those characters are came out of my head, in terms of who tey are, what they say, what they believe, where they came from and where they’re going. Why would I invent a new character that was any less involving, or interesting, or multifaceted? Particularly knowing that he’s going to be a central character?
16. Tom: the quibble you raise is one of the points I’m trying to make. You say someone from 1890 would go crazy. I vehemently don’t agree. Go back and read letters from the 1890s. Heck, go read letters from 1776; the language, the emotions, they’re all very much the same. The chrome of technology has changed, some social styles and attitudes have changed, but people still go through school (usually), get married, raise kids, hold jobs, and look to a better future one day.
17. The only way to make a viewer feel a character’s pain is if you feel it in the writing, and a lot of that came through. I live with these characters running around in my head 24 hours a day…and when I’d finally finished “Shadows,” it was as if they all sorta stopped and looked at each other, and at me, and said, “Gee, thank you EVER so fucking much, jeezus, why don’t you just go pluck somebody’s eye out while you’re at it?”To which the only reply is, “Now that you mention it….”
18. Things you don’t expect to happen…that’s kind of one aspect I was after here. By way of comparison….
There’s one great thing about The Shining, despite some other flaws in the film: they set up Scatman Cruthers (sp?) as the one guy who understands what’s going on…he gets the Shining, he’s a potentially heroic character, and when all hell breaks loose, he’s the one to get into the snow plow, cross terrible weather, we’re all sure he’s going to get there and fight the menace… he overcomes weather and nonsense to get there… he blows through the front door, ready for action… and gets an axe in the middle of his chest and dies.I *loved* that, and always kinda wanted to something of that nature, where you set someone up to be that kind of character, the future, whatever, then you yank it back and let the audience say, Oh, hell, NOW what?
Because stuff happens. Because rocketry was the hope of the German Luftwaffe to win the war. Didn’t work out that way. Just because a character says it, doesn’t mean that it’s guaranteed to happen at all times. A parent can look at a child and say, “He’s our hope for the future,” and the next day the kid gets turfed by a semi-truck. Stuff happens. Nothing is guaranteed in the B5 universe; any character — ANY character — is vulnerable. That, for me, is part of what’s exciting.
There’s no rule that every person who is hoped to help solve the problem in real life is gonna make it to the end or BE that solution. So if you delete that person, now it’s “Oh, hell, NOW what’re they gonna do?” which is more intrinsically interesting to me than the other option.Generally speaking, about once a year, toward the end of the year, I kinda look around at the characters with a loaded gun in my hand, and say, “Hmmm…if I take out *that* person, what happens? Is there anyone here I can afford to lose? Would it be more dramatically interesting to have this person alive, or dead? What is the absolute bare minimum of characters I need to get to the end of the story and achieve what I have to achieve?”
19. RE: alternate lifestyles…I said when stuff happened, we wouldn’t make a big deal out of it, it’d just be there…and I said we’d address it in our own way, in our own time. We’ve done a bit here, we’ll do a bit more down the road. I won’t give you or anyone a timetable; I’ll do stuff as the integrity of the story permits, not sooner, not later. I will not allow this to become a political football. If you do nothing, folks yell at you for ignoring it; if you do a little, they yell for not doing more; if you do more, they yell for not doing it sooner. Screw it. I do what the story calls for, as the story calls for it.
Susan and Talia had been dancing around one another for months; that night, though, would’ve been the first time they got physically intimate.
See, here’s where I start to have a problem. For starters, I don’t do any thing to be politically correct, or politically incorrect, I do what I do in any story because that’s what the story points me toward. Anybody who says “It’s not necessary” isn’t entitled to that judgement, frankly; you don’t know what’s necessary to the story. And by framing it in the “is this NECESSARY?” way is designed to make you defend your position when such defense isn’t the point; is it NECESSARY to have humor? to have a romance? to have correct science? No, *nothing* is NECESSARY. It’s what the writer feels is right for that scene, that story, that character.
20. one of the most consistent comments I get, in email and regular mail, is the spirituality conveyed in the show, that we have shown, and will continue to show, tolerance toward religion, even created sympathetic religious characters. “Thank you for your tolerance,” they say…until we show somebody or some action THEY don’t like…and at that point suddenly it’s a lot of tsk-tsking and chest thumping and disapproval; so okay, how about I just stop all positive religious aspects of the show?
It seems to me, that if I do *all that* with religion, and with thje (the) simple act of showing maybe ONE PERSON in all the long history of TV science fiction across 40 years has a different view of life, that the show is somehow degraded, or downgraded, or dropped in opinion…this simply reinforces the notion, held by many, that a lot of folks in the religious right wish to make sure no other perspective or lifestyle is ever shown on television, at any time, unless in a negative fashion.
The thing of it is, while on the one hand I’m getting praise from religious folks for addressing spirituality in my series (speaking here as an atheist), I’ve gotten flack from others who think it has no place in a SCIENCE fiction series, and why the hell am I putting something in that goes right against my own beliefs? *“Because,” I tell them, “this show is not about reflecting my beliefs, or yours, or somebody else’s, it’s about telling this story, about these people, with as much honesty and integrity as I can summon up. That means conceding the fact that religious people are going to be around 260 years from now.” Well, fact is, all kinds of people are going to be around 260 years from now. And what did the anti-religion folks say specifically about including spirituality in my series? “It’s not *necessary*,” they said.
Translation: they didn’t like it. Well, tough. It was right for this story, and this show. And it seems to me rather hypocritical for some folks, who applaud the show for tolerance, for my standing up to those who want to exclude religion from TV, to then turn around and say the show is diminished because it showed that same tolerance…to another group or perspective. I guess tolerance is only okay as long as it’s pointed one way.
My job is not to reinforce your personal political, social or religious beliefs. My job is not to reinforce MY personal political, social or religious beliefs. Then it isn’t art or storytelling anymore, it’s simply propaganda. My job is to tell this story, about these people, AS people, as mixed and varied as they are today. And there is no outside objective criteria as to what is, or isn’t *necessary* in a story; that is the sole province of the author. You may or may not like it. You may or may not choose to watch it.
* bolding mine. Since it goes along with my number one rule: be true to the characters and their story