Story Telling… I Admire: Babylon 5

I’ve already mentioned how much I admire Dune, and aspire to that level of writing, so since I’m crap at reviewing, we’ll talk about what I admire about my favourites. Another one my all time favourites series, this time  a TV one, is Babylon 5, created by J. Michael Straczynski back in the 90’s.

So let’s talk about that.

A Bit of History (for those don’t remember the 90’s… which is increasingly more and more adults – darn time!)

Back in the 90’s, and in decades before that, the majority of television shows (though not all by far), were episodic, with arcs focused on that episode, and you could probably air many episodes out of order with little to no effect on the stories being told. Most of Star Trek is like this, and it’s fine – it’s what we expected, nay what we thought we wanted.

However J. Michael Straczynski while in the shower, combined two story ideas he’d been playing with a big space opera and a story taking place aboard a dinky little space station. The big space opera would be too big, and too expensive to make in a TV show, while an episodic TV show set aboard a space station wouldn’t have much life, just a few seasons. His eureka moment in the shower was that in combining the two, you could have a five year story that saw a universe at war, and peace, have politics and a consequences play out, and punctuate some action and fallout on the station to contextualise the space opera, without having to invest too significant parts of the budget for space battles.

They were doing this in the early days of the CGI revolution, now everyone with a some 3d program, and a video editing suite can put together a fleet on fleet battle, in HD or even 4k, with some time and patience.

Side note: I actually wonder if they could make Babylon 5 these days, the restrictions of budget and technology helped to create something amazing, but there aren’t the same limiting factors, you can do whole series in front of blue screens without much need for a set, you don’t need expensive physical models, and people are already trying to make CGI people a thing, so you might not need pricey actors either.

So, what is Babylon 5?

So back to the idea – a small contained space, operating as a space UN of sorts. It ties together smaller character driven stories and a grand epic. The factions have unique motivations to them which drive them, hurt them, and so on, and actions for against a faction has consequences for those factions and the over arcing plot.

I’m trying not to get into spoilers, but you have plots involving a character or characters place and interaction with their own state, you have law and order plots, including local (on the station), internal (with the one of the nations of the galaxy), and international, (with multiple nations involved), you have siege and attack plots, Revolutions, enslavement, spies, survivor stories, medical dramas, but also a sense of magical plots, magical tests and quests, mystical items, after life stuff, and I’m not so be with this yet, then you have interpersonal plots with romance, buddy cops, noir detectives, comedies, arguments and misunderstandings. Basically it has everything.

“But!” I hear you shoot, Star Trek has all of that – and you’re right, but except on DS9, it didn’t add to anything it was just adventure of the week.

Now DS9 was doing something similar, but it didn’t feel as in depth, it was more focused, where as Babylon 5 went in a hundred, but coherent, didn’t directions but brought it back together. What DS9 did do though was better communicate the world was ending and the war stories were just more intense, that’s where the budget differences came in I think. Babylon 5 was more cohesive, and the building blocks all lead to how it ends (taking season 4, not 5 in fairness).

So What Is It I Admire, And Can Learn

So ultimately what I admire is the ability to balance personal and grander story telling. Now it is probably easier in hundreds of 45 minute episodes than writing a novel, but when you look at each series, (1 through 4 anyway), they are beautifully balanced.

Where I fail is I get lost in scenes, specifically dialogue ones, I get stuck in circles, the dialogue in Babylon 5 is what carries the story, and it’s not as punchy as a Sorkin series, but still all the important dialogue is focused, and delivers three things each time, the characters personal feelings and motivations, exposition to explain the current situation, and the plan – what actions do the characters intend to do.

I like that, and I think ultimately that’s what I want to learn, and it doesn’t matter if it’s on screen or on a page I think it’s a good way to do dialogue. It will definitely help to have three things before writing dialogue scenes:

  • History
  • Motivation
  • Plan

Doesn’t matter what the plan is, it’s not the plot of the story, it’s just what the characters intend – actually that’s not true, it does matter, because for the dialogue to be important, whatever the characters decide will drive the plot, it’s just a matter of whether they succeed in their intentions, or are denied by another factor.

Also just to mention, as with Dune, I could go through a lot more, but I wanted to pick an element that is of particular interest to me right now.

The Book Isn’t Always Mightier Than The Adaptation

Okay before I get lynched by fans Harry Potter/Twilight/LOTR/Hunger Games/Da Vinci Code/and just about any story with fans, moving from medium to medium requires change and its not a new phenomenon, nor is it new that people are upset by changes. I’m not here to argue that as films are better than their source material, or even good, my argument is that its only bad one for version to be incomplete without the other.

Ancient History

So, I’ve spent a long term over the years studying texts that were originally part of oral traditions, but over Millennia were converted from a spoken medium to a written medium. The transformation of the oldest stories is fascinating, and if our current culture existed then, a whole lot of people would have been stoned for some form of blasphemy in the conversion of stories as the historical game of Chinese whispers that is oral tradition.

Actually, as it happens, people have died for presenting unfaithful accounts of history and legends. So I guess modern sensibilities aren’t so modern, just less extreme and more easily reported and repeated.

The earliest known stories came from the Lascaux caves in Southern France, it is a series of images progressing through a time period, covering the rituals and the hunt of the people at the time, it’s a story. It’s worth noting that spoken language of some variety probably came about somewhere between 100,000 and 60,000 years ago,  so I’d like to think the story telling was around long before someone thought to record it on a wall.  Continue reading

Poetry Season on the BBC

It’s always great when poetry gets media focus, it is one of the great things about the BBC, and definitely something that proves the license fee is needed. I doubt advertisers would have any interest in poetry – look what happened to Richard and Judy, that was a ratings winner, it’s book club was a major influence on the book charts, and still it was booted to some random minor Sky channel, and then promptly retired.

The BBC is currently running a poetry season (no doubt the appointment of the new Poet Laureate, and the positive media coverage, with hits on the new story on the website, helping influence the idea). Last night Griff Rhys Jones was on a program on the Beeb called “Why Poetry Matters”, haven’t had chance to watch it yet, but will do this afternoon. Here’s the program description from iPlayer:

Griff Rhys Jones makes a passionate and personal plea for poetry, exploring how verse has the power to enlighten, entertain, stimulate and seduce.

Griff dissects Keats with Simon Armitage, views a line-up of poetic dandies with Andrew Motion and encounters an experimental poem made from a dozen beach balls. He celebrates W.H. Auden’s Night Mail with a team of railway drivers, takes a Shakespearean masterclass with Nick Hytner and is thrown into the bardic bear pit at a poetry slam.

If you’re in the UK you can watch it on iPlayer, the link is http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00kmtyn/Why_Poetry_Matters/

I’m watching it as I write this, some amazing poetry readings, and some wise words as to the importance, and impact of poetry among society. I may write  a proper review of it later.

There’s also a whole Poetry season website here:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/poetryseason/

I’ve been going through it today, and it’s well worth spending some time on. I did get caught up short though, they’re doing a vote for the Nation’s Favourite Poet, and I figured “Oh yeah, ace, I’ll have a bit of that!”, as you do, only to find myself torn over the choices. I’m intending on doing a post at some point in the future to explore my love of various poets, so I don’t want to spoil that in this post. However, let me just cover the poets on whom I am torn, and briefly why.

Continue reading