Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Tuesdays with Mollari

Everyone has strengths and weakness. One of my weakness is the seeming inability to maintain a regular posting schedule on my own blog. Dale, on the other hand, is the Queen of Blogging, so while "Tuesdays with Mollari" has been missing in hyperspace, "Third Age Thursday" has been going strong over at Unfettered Brilliance. Nonetheless, people can change, so I promise to try and get back into a regular groove over here of a post every other week - but we shall see. In any event, on to Babylon 5!

So right from the start let me just say "YAY! JOHN SHERIDAN IS HERE!!!!!!" While rewatching Season 1 with a close critical eye for our forthcoming book Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the Universe of Babylon 5 gave me a greater appreciation of Sinclair (and of Michael O'Hare's acting - particularly in the wake of JMS's revelations about his struggle with mental illness), Sheridan is still my main man. I just don't think I would have bought O'Hare as the lead in Seasons 2 through 5 the way I buy Bruce Boxleitner's Captain Sheridan.

Of course, I am also aware that, had O'Hare remained, the story arc of Babylon 5 would have been considerably different. After the often bumpy Season 1, JMS & Co. had begun to know their own strengths and weaknesses and Straczynski wrote to those of the actors and characters brilliantly. He also wisely resisted any temptation to make Sheridan a kind of Sinclair redux. The break is clean. Where Sinclair is primarily a soft-spoken diplomat, Sheridan makes no bones about being a soldier, through his service as a ship's captain on the Rim, far away from Earthdome's advice and interference, has given him wide experience with alien races and a shrewd diplomatic mind in his own right. Where Sinclair usually seemed to manage Babylon 5, Sheridan commands it.

Yet it is always a bit mind-blowing to return to Season 2 and see Sheridan as a newcomer to B5, with his almost boyish delight in fresh oranges, and an oddly innocent sense of wonder about the whole set-up. Which is what makes his arc work, and why JMS is the master of character development. Sheridan, Ivanova, Delenn, Londo, G'Kar, Vir, etc, etc. all change as the series continues they shrink and grow and fail and triumph. None of them are cardboard cutouts - ever.

For my money, Babylon 5 needed the change to Boxleitner and Sheridan. He brings an edge to things that was lacking in Sinclair, and a feeling that things are going to start really happening. He is a soldier coming into a time that needs soldiers, and the leader who can stand the coming fires. Plus, he was one of the toppers on my wedding cake. No, seriously:

When fandoms wed: Capt. John Sheridan and Buffy Summers gracing the top of our wedding cake back in 2010.
So yeah, I may be biased, but bring on the Starkiller!

So besides her blog (linked above), be sure to check out my co-author, K. Dale Koontz on Twitter and Facebook. Me you can find here, on Twitter, and Facebook, along with some other places linked via the buttons on the top right of this page. If you want more of us both, feel free to head on over to Amazon and buy our book, Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Bad, or you can find us every other week over at Biff Bam Pop! with our column "The Ten Percent," and I also publish a semi-regular column over there called "Ensley F. Guffey on War Comics," so check it all out.

Until next time,

Hold the Line!

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Tuesdays with Mollari

Hello, Readers Mine! Well, it looks like it's been just a hair over a month since I managed to get a new "Tuesdays with Mollari" up, but now that the holidays and the family medical issues they brought with them are over, I hope to get back to my regular bi-weekly posting schedule.

So with all of the madness the end of 2014 brought with it, things with Dreams Given Form are pretty much where I left them last time. Season 1 has been completely rewatched and annotated, and we're ready to begin the actual writing process. We're also trying to squeeze out a higher word count so we have more than 600 words to devote to each episode/comic/movie/book/story/etc! ECW is pretty good about such things, and if you guys will buy the book, I can pretty much guarantee they'll publish it.

So the new year seems like a good time to look back on season 1 and to look forward to season 2. In fact, since JMS structured Babylon 5 so that each season occurs over one year of narrative time, that works out brilliantly! Thanks, JMS! I mentioned a few posts back that season 1 has never been my favorite, and like many fans I fall into the camp that views seasons 1 and 5 as the weakest of the lot. While rewatching season 1 with a focused critical eye has given me a new appreciation for Michael O'Hare and the season as a whole, I have to say that my basic opinion remains unchanged. Not unexpected really. Babylon 5 was definitely finding its feet during this season, with the actors figuring out their characters, writers and directors finding the right tone, and JMS getting comfortable with his first time as a full-on showrunner.

I was talking about the show and the book with a friend via e-mail the other day, who noted that he thought B5 would either be harder or easier to write about than Breaking Bad, because it was an "uneven" show, whereas BrBa was so incredibly tight and well done from the very first episode. Easier or harder aren't the terms I'd use, however. There is an enormous amount to write about when it comes to Babylon 5 both on-screen and off, it's just different from Breaking Bad. To me, BrBa is the reigning paragon of the current evolution of television drama, but Babylon 5 is one of the places where that evolution actually began. The grand arc, cutting edge SFX, transmedia storytelling, all of this began with B5, yet the show is also a prime example of the way television used to be. Twenty-two episode seasons in a era where VHS and the internet were still emerging technologies and cable networks were a long, long way from original programming. Babylon 5 was pushing the boundaries of what you could do with television when those boundaries were still incredibly rigid, and when good ratings meant 25 million viewers, not 10 million, because the broadcast networks were still the gods of the airwaves,

The choices JMS made with Babylon 5 were categorically insane in the mid-1990s. A five-season story rather than an episodic weekly reboot? Who the hell does that?? Not Star Trek: The Next Generation, certainly. In fact, no one had except for Twin Peaks, and that was only a couple of seasons, and not pre-plotted. Connecting with fans via the internet? What was the point? Who had PCs and the internet, anyway? Relying entirely on CGI instead of models? Yeah, right, like that would work! Not to mention the absurdity of producing a grand space opera in an era dominated by Trek. Yet JMS and Co. did all of this, and more. They even managed to tell one hell of a tale, one that has personally captivated me ever since. Believe me, I was rewatching the series on VHS and DVD for a decade and a half before the opportunity to write a book about it came along. Are there some crap episodes? Yep. Some cheesy effects? Oh yeah. But then again, remember "Beer Bad" from season 4 of Joss Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Shows with rough first seasons and a share of episodes that are either "meh" or "ohmygodwhy" are the norm, but that doesn't necessarily stop them from becoming great television, and culturally significant productions.

Babylon 5  is both, so I can cut season 1 and episodes like "TKO" and "Infection" some slack. After all, season 1 also gives us "A Voice in the Wilderness" parts 1 and 2, "Babylon Squared," and "Chrysalis." It also gets all the exposition out of the way, and sets up the grand narrative arc that begins to pick up pace in season 2, when the orange-loving John Sheridan comes to town and things really start to get interesting. Personally, I think the problem and I and others have with season 1 and 5 are structural. Exposition and denouement are rarely the most gripping parts of a story, and that's exactly what season 1 and 5 are. But it is also astounding how important those parts are to the totality of the story, it doesn't quite work without them because they give the narrative its past and even a future beyond the lifetime of the series proper.

So that's it for this week, Readers Mine. I'll be back in two weeks to start talking about season 2, and to continue the journey to Dreams Given Form: the Unofficial Companion to the Universe of Babylon 5. Until then -

Hold the Line!

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Tuesdays with Mollari

Hello again, Readers Mine, and welcome to another "Tuesdays with Mollari," where I regale you with my adventures while writing Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the Universe of Babylon 5 (forthcoming in fall 2016 from ECW Press). My co-author, K. Dale Koontz, and I have both had some unexpected things on our plates this fall, so we're not as far along as we'd like to be, but I feel confident that our deadline will be met! Rather than regale you with yet another post gushing about Babylon 5, I thought I would dedicate this week's post to some of the nuts and bolts of writing the book.

The main alien cast of Babylon 5. From left to right: Vir Cotto (Stephen Furst), Londo Mollari (Peter Jurasik), Kosh (Ardwight Chamberlin [voice]), Delenn (Mira Furlan), Lennier (Bill Mumy), and G'Kar (Andreas Katsulas).
So tomorrow I will finish my "annotating rewatch" of season 1, which means that Thursday will begin the actual writing process for that season. Fortunately, this isn't our first time at the rodeo. We learned a lot about writing a companion guide with our first book: Wanna Cook? The Complete Unofficial Companion to Breaking Bad (which, by the way, makes the absolutely perfect gift for the Breaking Bad fan in your family or set of friends - and for under twenty bucks!).

Dreams Given Form will include episode guides for each season of Babylon 5 (and for Crusade, Legend of the Rangers, and the other B5 films) which will look at each and every episode individually. There are some tricks here, though. First, we need to stay spoiler-free for those who might be coming to the series for the first time, so while we can point out things that a new viewer might want to look for in the future, we have to do it in a very careful fashion. Second, we can't write an episode summary, because that's illegal when you are doing it for financial gain (which we hopefully are!) So the write up is more of a critical look at what's going on in a given episode, an analysis of the action rather than a retelling.

Then comes the nitty-gritty stuff: a humorous quote or two, a section pointing out some things that the casual viewer might not have immediately noticed, any continuity or plot errors, elements of the episode that fit in with the master story arc, interesting facts about the production of the episode, and an explication of the episode's title if necessary. Occasionally, we will also include a paragraph or two focusing on a certain element of the episode or series that might benefit from some further investigation, like the Earth Alliance rank structure. The goal is to create a write-up that offers something to the existing fan and the new viewer alike.

Here's the trick, though: we have a maximum word count. In other words, our publisher doesn't want us to exceed a certain number of words, total, so the book won't become huge and pricey. That means that we have to do all of the above in a manner that is informative, entertaining, thorough, and brief. Look, if you are reading this blog you are likely already a fan of B5, so you know how easy it is to go on and on about all of the amazing things in and around this show and JMS and the actors, the technology, etc, etc. The realities of the publishing business, however, force us to winnow things down to the essential information (and the stuff that is just entirely too cool to leave out). Remember that we're covering B5, Crusade, The Legend of the Rangers, all of the TV movies, The Lost Tales, the canonical comics, books and short stories - and we hope to include at least a few interviews with cast- and crew-members to boot! That's a lot of stuff, which means that there is simply no possible way that we can fit everything about everything in the book. And that's the hard part for fans like Dale and I, and it's also why we have a really good, really gentle, and completely ruthless editor to help us hack and slash all of the unnecessary stuff out, no matter how cool. So the writing process is always an adventure, always a fight keep things tight while also keeping the soul of the series intact.

It's a lot of work, and it's often frustrating as hell, and twice as annoying. I can't wait to get started! Because no matter what else it may be, this is the opportunity I've been waiting for since 1993 - I get to write about Babylon 5!!! Really, it just doesn't get any better than that! So, until next time -

Hold the Line!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Tuesdays with Mollari

Hello Readers Mine, and welcome to another installment of "Tuesdays with Mollari" here at Solomon Mao's. I suppose I should begin with an apology and an explanation for having been off the air for so long a stretch. I am truly sorry, but things have been a bit hairy at the Guffey household these past few weeks. There has been sickness of both the hacking-and-coughing variety and sickness of the much more terrifying cells-growing-out-of-control variety. Once we reach the end of things I think that all will be well (we caught those nasty cells very early) but getting there is more than a bit stressful. (Talk about really wishing we could call Dr. Franklin and some 23rd century medicine!) I'll also make a note that beginning with this post "Tuesdays with Mollari" will be going bi-weekly (the every other week biweekly, not the twice a week kind). There's just too much going on right now to try and keep to a weekly schedule. Nonetheless, after a hiatus of a few weeks, the rewatch of Babylon 5 for our forthcoming book Dreams Given Form: the Unofficial Companion to the Universe of Babylon 5, continues!

The great John Vickery as Neroon in "Legacies" (1.17)
So today I watched "Legacies" which features the first appearance of Neroon, played by John Vickery (whom you might also recognize as Mr. Wells from the clip I posted a few weeks ago). Neroon is one of my favorite recurring characters in all of Babylon 5, and Vickery pulls of an incredible performance every time he's on screen, embodying the Minbari loyal opposition to perfection. Neroon is also a wonderful example of Straczynski's attention to detail when it comes to character. From his first appearance here in the last few episodes of season 1 to his powerful final appearance in season 4, Neroon has one hell of an arc. He appears a grand total of five times during the series, and each time he has obviously changed and grown off-screen. The combination of Straczynski's meticulous concern with character and Vickery's acting chops give the viewer a three dimensional character every time, and one that never feels like he has just been placed in suspended animation while he's been absent.

This is great storytelling. Sure, it can seem a bit obvious, but it is astonishing how often writers and showrunners don't bother to create a narrative universe that demonstrates the effects of everything happening off-screen, that convinces the audience that we're only seeing a small part of the universe, and that in huge swaths of the parts we're not seeing, people are living, loving, fighting, dying, growing, and shrinking all of the time. That's what happens in the real world, after all. We have all had the experience of meeting someone again after a long absence: old friends, friends of friends, former co-workers, former lovers, etc. and being surprised and taken aback at how they have changed in the interval, how the image of them we have fixed in our memory has become outdated thanks to the simple fact that their lives have continued even when we weren't around. We generally get over our surprise pretty quickly, because of course their lives have gone on! So have ours. That's just the way things work. To see this done so well in a work of fiction is something else again, and brings an entirely new  level of verisimilitude to Babylon 5. In part, it is all of the little licks like Neroon's character that drew Dale and I to write about the series, and the comics, and the books, and movies. The Babylon 5 universe is so intricate, and so beautifully, wonderfully realized across the media. Things happen there, even when we're not looking!

Well, that's it for this week, Readers Mine. Tune in two weeks from today for the next installment of "Tuesdays with Mollari," and tune in every week over on Unfettered Brilliance for my co-author's "Third Age Thursday" posts, because she is a blogging machine! Between posts here, you can find me throughout the interwebs by clicking on the various social media buttons in the upper right of this page and following/friending/stalking me as appropriate. That way you'll get all of the cool B5 and StudioJMS news that comes across my screen, and you'll likely see some other good stuff as well. You can also find Dale and I over on Biff Bam Pop! every other week for our regular "The Ten Percent" column, so check us out here, there, and everywhere. Until next time, then -

Hold the Line!

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Tuesdays with Mollari

Hello, Readers Mine, and welcome to another installment of "Tuesdays with Mollari." I've taken a couple of weeks off from working on Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the Universe of Babylon 5 in order to keep some other plates spinning properly, but now I'm back. Work on Dreams Given Form continues to be more fun than anything else, and season 1 of Babylon 5 continues to reward a close and critical rewatch. Today I took notes on "Grail" (1.15), which features David Warner as Aldous Gajic, a human who has dedicated his life to the search for the Holy Grail.

David Warner as Aldous Gajic, complete with Big Stick.
Gajic (named by writer Christy Marx for Mira "Delenn" Furlan's husband Goran Gajic) is regarded by the Minbari as a True Seeker, leading to one of my favorite Delenn lines:
"It does not matter that his Grail may or may not exist. What matters is that he strives for the perfection of his soul and the salvation of his race, and that he has never wavered, or lost faith."
Later in the episode, Aldous himself will note that "Sometimes it's the search that counts, not the finding." This is one of several themes that JMS returns to again and again throughout Babylon 5, as pretty much every character on the show continues to search for - to paraphrase Delenn - "a reason for everything."

In fact, a lot of what we humans do comes down to the act of creating meaning - for ourselves, for our communities, for our posterity. We are creatures who crave significance and the security of there being a reason for everything. This sometimes doesn't work out for us, of course. The universe, as Babylon 5 never fails to remind us, is both more wonderful and more chaotic than most of us are really comfortable with. Yet, as "Grail" suggests, and as JMS will reiterate again and again, the true significance of our lives is the act of seeking, the attempt to create meaning in things great or small. We make houses into homes, lovers into family, strangers into communities, duty into honor. The end result isn't the point. It's all about making a house a home, all the lived experiences that go into that process. It's the journey, not the destination. In the end, we all go "beyond the rim," so all we have is the seeking.

It is also worth remembering that twenty-some years ago, it's likely that JMS was telling himself something along these lines regularly. Babylon 5 can seem kind of inevitable, a brilliant story well and completely told, but in 1994, no one knew if the show would get a second season, much less a fifth. Everyone had hopes, but that's all they were. In television production as in life, an appreciation for the value in the process itself can be the one thing that keep you sane!

In the end "Grail" is a self-contained, "monster-of-the-week" episode, with nothing much to do with the great arc of the series. Yet it fits, because the macro is in the micro. Sinclair's journey, and Sheridan's, and Delenn's. and Londo's, and G'kar's are all just beginning, and even with the final episode of the final season, they have not ended. We know all along how Londo and G'Kar will go out, but what's relevant is everything that happens before that final, deadly embrace. Ends are just punctuation. The meaning is in the sentence before.

That's it for this week. I'll see you next time around, and in the meanwhile, be sure to check out my co-author's brilliant "Third Age Thursdays" over on her blog, Unfettered Brilliance, and be sure and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, or even Google+, for all of the latest B5 news that comes across our screens. Until next time -

Hold the Line!

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Tuesdays with Mollari

Hello, Readers Mine, and welcome to another "Tuesdays with Mollari!" Unfortunately, I have come down with a head cold so viscous that either Warmaster Jha'Dur cooked it up in one of her laboratories, or some kind of Pak'ma'ra virus has jumped the species barrier, so this will likely be a short check in as I have largely forgotten how to brain.

One of the things that science fiction does best is to ask the hard and the really big questions. Babylon 5 is a prime example of this. Besides "Who are you?" and "What do you want?" one of the most interesting and longest running questions asked by the series might be phrased as "Who is the Other?" A narrative universe that contains sentient non-terrestrial life can automatically open up some really interesting avenues for discussions about race, creed, gender, or any combination of "otherness." After all, when dealing with the Cantauri or the Narn or the Dilgar or whoever, humanity is dealing, for the first time in our history, with different races, different species, than our own.

Like human societies throughout history, the humans of the late 2250s and early 2260s, have a real tendency to put aside their differences when something comes along that we can all hate together. From the earliest episodes of Babylon 5, we hear reports of so-called "Earth First" organizations, which want to limit or end human contact and trade with aliens of all types. As the series progresses, we see both Sinclair and Sheridan derided in the Terran press as "alien lovers" a phrase that should immediately resonate in a nation which not too long ago hurled "Indian-lover" and "Nigger-lover" at citizens who began to look beyond what a person looked like in order to find out who they actually were.

In Babylon 5 this racism is brilliantly, and unfortunately, quite realistically mixed in with the goals of a security state under President Clark. Fear of the other is developed by official organizations like the Night Watch into fear of dissent and fear of disloyalty to the human race, and EarthGov. Disloyalty is framed as coming from people who have been confused or unknowingly subverted by vague and unspecified "alien influences." Such people are misguided, and need "reeducation." It kind of makes me sad that this theme is one of the things that gives Babylon 5 longevity beyond its original broadcast in the late 1990s. Oh, there are the good things about us homo saps in there too, but how prescient does JMS seem when rewatching the series after 9/11/01? The tensions between security and freedom, between our willingness to exercise our rights and our equal willingness to curtail them when the world makes us afraid, or when we are made to be afraid of the world and each other by people who have a vested interest in making us afraid are all there in Clark's government, the Night Watch, and the hatchet jobs performed on the crew of Babylon 5 by ISN.

Fear of the other rode to the stars with us in Babylon 5, and continued to manifest in some very, very ugly ways. Here as elsewhere in this tremendous series, JMS' fiction - isn't. It is said that great fiction is universal, by which people mean that it deals with eternal human truths - William Faulkner's "human heart in conflict with itself." Babylon 5, is just such a great fiction, and Straczynski, bless his writerly heart, always managed to remember that while we may carry the better angles of our nature into the future, we can be counted on to bring along our demons. We always struggle with Shadows.

John Vickery as Mr. Welles (hummm.... sounds familiar!) in 2.22: "The Fall of Night."

Until next time - Hold the Line!

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Tuesdays with Mollari

Hello again Readers Mine, and welcome to "Tuesdays with Mollari," where I'll be yammering on about writing Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the Universe of Babylon 5. My co-author, K. Dale Koontz, and I have signed a contract with ECW Press (who also published our first book Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Bad), and Dreams Given Form should be hitting bookstores in the fall of 2016. That may seem to be a ways off, but when you're planning to cover 110 episodes of Babylon 5, plus 5 B5 TV movies, the 13 aired and 6 scripted episodes of Crusade, the 9 canonical novels based on J. Michael Straczynski's  (JMS) outlines, 12 canonical comics, 1 mini-comic, 6 short stories, Babylon 5: The Legend of the Rangers, and Babylon 5: The Lost Tales... well, you begin to see the work-load we have before us. Dreams Given Form is an ambitious project, and getting all of the above into a single volume is not only going to be tricky, but also will require us to be ruthless when it comes to the length of each piece within the book. Still, B5 itself remains one of the most ambitious shows ever to air on broadcast television, so how better to honor it?

Michael O'Hare as Commander Jeffery Sinclair

So we have begun at the beginning, with a rewatch of Babylon 5, season 1. This isn't a matter of just sitting down and watching the show (again), but of pulling out the trusty lap-desk, legal-pad, and pen and watching it actively, critically, taking notes all the while. At this point I have to confess that I have never been a fan of the season 1 commander of B5, Jeffery Sinclair (played by Michael O'Hare). I have always much preferred Bruce Boxleitner's John Sheridan, who comes on in season 2 and remains the lead for the rest of the series. Yet in carefully rewatching season 1 this time, I have become more and more impressed with Michael O'Hare's chops as an actor, and find myself liking Sinclair far more than I ever have. He exercises a quiet power, with a soft voice that can suddenly take on a frozen razor's edge when it needs too. O'Hare does a tremendous job of creating a man who is easily underestimated, but is utterly in command of himself and of any situation he finds himself in. I think Sinclair is in many ways a more subtle character than Sheridan, and O'Hare realizes that brilliantly.

Yet even I have to admit that, like many many shows, B5 definitely had a case of the First Season Blues, where everything isn't quite running smoothly, and people aren't quite fully settled into their characters. Again this isn't uncommon, particularly in television SF (remember Star Trek: The Next Generation, season 1? "Encounter at Farpoint"? Yeah, First Season Blues.) Despite the often story-halting awkwardness of the Sinclair-Sakai relationship however, Babylon 5 comes through better than most, and JMS is already planting the seeds for the grand arc of the series. Things begin to sprout in the last episode I watched, "Signs and Portents" (1.13), where Ed Wasser (last seen as random C-in-C technician in the pilot movie Babylon 5: The Gathering) returns to the series as the darkly charming,and oh so very dangerous Mr. Morden, asking one of what I term the Two Great Questions of Babylon 5: "What do you want?"

Seems like a simple enough query, albeit it a bit vague, but only one person is able to answer it to Mr. Morden's satisfaction: Ambassador Londo Mollari (Peter Jurasik), The resulting scene is a classic, and Jurasik's phenomenal embodiment of  Londo's frustration, disappointment, and passion makes things suddenly very real, and very interesting:

This, however, is just the beginning. As the Lady Ladira remarks in this episode: "The Shadows have come for us all." Until next time -

Hold the Line!