Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Ten Percent: Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)


Poster for <i>Once Upon a Time in the West</i>.

“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon

Hello and welcome back to “The Ten Percent,” a regular column here on Biff Bam Pop! where every other week K. Dale Koontz and I take a look at the inverse of Sturgeon’s Law; in other words, the ten percent of everything which is not crud. Sometimes it can be hard to remember that for each film or television show that gets people talking years after its premiere, there are hundreds of others that barely cleared the horizon before being (thankfully) shot down. The works that soar above the rest – well, those are the works that stand the test of time.

The American West has been a place of myth, violence, and wonder ever since the first Europeans looked up from their toehold on the east coast and gazed towards the distant Appalachian Mountains. As the young United States once again expanded in the aftermath of the Civil War, coming into direct contact and conflict with the great horse peoples of the plains, and with the often brutal realities of life in often marginal environments between the Mississippi and the Rockies, the Western myth only grew. William “Buffalo Bill” Cody and his Wild West Show began framing the mythic space into the shape we know today, and The Great Train Robbery (1903), one of the first American movies ever made, opened the door to an era of cinematic American mythopoeia that continues to this day.

The myth is epic. Vast open spaces, scrub desert, and red dust against the primordial background of John Ford’s greatest discovery: Monument Valley. It is a space of violence and bravery, endurance and reduction, with heroes and villains who rival the legends of Arthur or the pen of Shakespeare. It is an immigrant story, and of the men who stood above them for good or ill by virtue of their guns and their deadly willingness to use them. It is a racist myth, where white skin is ascendant while red and brown are in degraded decline. It is difficult to overestimate how much of American mythic culture is bound up in the Western, yet it is somehow appropriate that the director to take the genre, and the myth of the West, to its highest cinematic summits, was an Italian: Sergio Leone.


Publicity photo. Left to right: Henry Fonda, Claudia Cardinale, Sergio Leone, Charles Bronson, and Jason Robards.

Perhaps best known for his “Dollars Trilogy” starring Clint Eastwood as the Man with No Name, Leone was the great director of the “spaghetti western.” These films were made relatively cheap and fast, using a mix of American and European actors, used Cinecitta sets, and Italian and Spanish exteriors to create a (for the time) hyper-violent, heavily symbolic version of an already legendary West. The films found international success, even in America, and helped to launch Eastwood’s career as a star and a director. With scores by the ever-brilliant Ennio Morricone, Leone’s westerns reinterpreted the genre for audiences of the mid- and late-1960s as Europe and the US convulsed in unprecedented peacetime social and political upheavals. Despite a desire to move away from Westerns, his Dollar Trilogy was so popular in the States that Leone found that before he would be able to direct something new, he would have to create one last western – only this time, he would be able to film in Monument Valley.

The result is Once Upon a Time in the West, one of the greatest westerns of all time, and truly the apotheosis of the mythic West in film. At the height of his powers, Leone’s mise-en-scene is almost obsessive. There are no accidents in composition here, and every scene, every sequence partakes of a detail and a slow devotion to telling the story that creates frame-by-frame works of art. Leone’s use of both ambient sound and Morricone’s score is brilliant, and his trademark close-ups show every dusty crease and pore, and allow every pair of eyes its own revelations, right from the opening sequence of the film.

Once Upon a Time in the West is operatic in scope and scale, and cries out to be seen on the largest possible screen. The tale centers on a former prostitute, Jill, played by the staggeringly gorgeous Claudia Cardinale. She has travelled into the West to join her husband, only to arrive hours after the massacre of him and his children by a group of ruthless, duster wearing outlaws led by Frank, played with true malevolence and dark joy by Henry Fonda.

This may be the most brilliant stroke of the film. At the time, and even today, Fonda is known for playing good guys, and his entrance, every bit as dramatic as Charles Bronson’s still chills. Indeed, this intertextual effect was exactly what Leone wanted to achieve. When Fonda arrived on set with brown contacts and a moustache he’d grown for the role, Leone ordered that both be removed – he wanted to shock of an immediately recognizable Fonda in the role, and he wanted those sharp blue eyes. Frank and his employer, railroad magnate Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti) want the widowed Jill’s land, but the Man with the Harmonica (Bronson want’s Frank, as does the  infamous outlaw Cheyenne, who’s given a perfect comic edge by a scruffy Jason Robards. The two combine forces to protect Jill and, through her to get to Frank and Morton. Interwoven with the drama are the themes of technological and social change, of the coming of civil order into formerly untamed spaces, and destruction of a world.

It’s a pretty standard plot, but the meat lies in the telling of the tale, and Leone and his cast elevate the story into something so tightly choreographed that the grime, murder, greed, heat, lust, and hatred come together to transcend the usual limits of the genre, and catapult the story into the realm of pure myth, where something like demi-gods, or Jungian archetypes stride across the screen, their every twitch a symbol – of power, of inevitable change, of resistance and revenge.

There really is nothing quite like Once Upon a Time in the West. The film mesmerizes, and takes over the space in which it is viewed. Taken out of Leone’s hands for editing for US release, the movie failed at the box office, but the uncut, international release gained widespread acclaim and is now the standard version for DVD and Blu-Ray. Leone’s film is superb, but there is more to it than mere mastery of craft, artistic talent, and decades of experience. One Upon a Time in the West is myth making, a tale passed down around fires lit against the darkness in which failed and fallible gods walk and limp and dance and kill. It is, without a shadow of a doubt, part of the Ten Percent.


Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz are co-authors of Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Badand of the forthcoming Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the Babylon 5 Universe (fall 2016)You can find Dale online at her blog and on Twitter as @KDaleKoontz. Ensley hangs out at and on Twitter as @EnsleyFGuffey.


Filed under: General Tagged: ensley f. guffey, k. dale koontz, Once Upon A Time In The West, sergio leone, The Ten Percent

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Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Ten Percent: Farscape (1999-2003)


“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon

Hello, and welcome to another installment of “The Ten Percent,” a regular column where every other week we’ll take a look at the inverse of Sturgeon’s Law; in other words, the small portion of everything which is not crud. Remember, for each film or television show that gets people talking years or even decades after its premiere, there are hundreds of others that peeked out just once and then (thankfully) disappeared. Those are the 90%, but the remaining Ten Percent are the works that stand the test of time.

What do you get when you produce a television show across three continents, combining financing and “notes” from three very different networks in three very different time zones? What if this show was also an intricately plotted space opera — with puppets? Well, if you’re Rockne S. O’Bannon and Brian Henson, you get Farscape. In the US the series ran from 1999 – 2003 on the Sci-Fi channel, with a follow-up mini-series, Farscape: The Peacekeeper Wars airing in 2004. Starring Ben Browder (John Crichton) and Claudia Black (Aeryn Sun), Farscape traces the (mis)adventures of American astronaut Crichton, who is inadvertently catapulted into the distant reaches of the galaxy while test-piloting his experimental space engine. Crichton finds himself a true stranger in a strange land, surrounded by species that are technologically far in advance of Earth, and generally much, much older than humanity.


Ben Browder & Claudia Black as John Crichton and Aeryn Sun

So far, so not-so-unusual. Yet Farscape quickly becomes something more than a standard, episodic, good-guys v. bad-guys space show. It turns out that real life, even in the vastness of space, isn’t nearly that clear cut, and shades of grey predominate. Despite undeniable technological advances, and supposed socio-cultural ones, the strange alien polities Crichton finds himself in the middle of have the same old problems: arms races, cold wars, greed, corruption, and special interests abound, and in-between are billions of people on thousands of small worlds who become conquests or colonies of hungry empires, or proxies in their conflict, or are simply ground underfoot, unnoticed as titans clash.

Crichton and his new pals are definitely in this latter category. A group of escaped supposed criminals aboard a living ship which was itself enslaved as a prison barge, they are the definition of flotsam and jetsam in this wider universe, people with little or no value to the galactic superpowers, but priceless to themselves and each other. Much like Firefly (about which much more later!), Farscape is about chosen family, and about the capacity for change inherent in even the most twisted of souls. The main cast (for seasons 1 – 3) is rounded out by Anthony Simcoe as Ka D’Ago, a Luxan warrior prone to hyper-rage; Gigi Edgley as the sensuous and dangerous grey-skinned Chiana; and Virginia Hey as Pa’u Zotoh Zhaan, a blue-fleshed priestess, but not always a gentle one.

Then there are the puppets, brought to brilliant life by the puppeteers at the Jim Henson Company. Several generations removed from Jim Henson’s original felt-covered creations, the Farscape puppets are incredibly intricate, often enormous constructs requiring multiple puppeteers to operate. The most central of such are Pilot, the, well, pilot of the living ship Moya, multi-limbed, with a massive head and carapace, Pilot is literally gown into the ship. Voiced by Lani John Tupu, Pilot is the crew’s direct line of communication to Moya, and the heart of the fragile family. At times teacher, confidant, confessor, or scold, Pilot is the moral center of the series, dedicated to the protection of Moya, and therefore the only character whose core motivation is the preservation of another’s life. Perhaps Pilot’s polar opposite is Dominar Rygel XVI a stubby, rotund ex-monarch and kleptomaniac. Given a royally entitled voice and personality by Jonathan Hardy, Rygel looks out for himself before all others, and often to the exclusion of everyone else.


Pilot and Rygel XVI

Some of the crew will leave, and other will arrive, but all share the same fate of being lost, of looking for home, or for something like it. Each eventually will find that place aboard Moya, at least for a time, and discover that chosen family can be much stronger than one cast together by the randomness of DNA. The crew moves through dangerous spaces in dangerous times, and slowly becomes the obsessive interest of great powers for knowledge they are believed to possess, knowledge that can supposedly bring final victory and dominance for whichever power controls it.  Such knowledge is worth having at any cost, particularly when it comes to the lives of Crichton and the crew, and their desires are inconsequential, particularly when it comes to a preference not to be dominated by anyone.

Farscape is the Cold War writ large, where something called “Mutually Assured Destruction” seems to be a viable and desirable policy, even if it means the destruction of entire planets. It is also a look at how the machinations of the powerful can all too often become divorced from the goals of civilization, and how the really important things: love, family, a productive life lived in peace can wind up being considered not just tertiary concerns, but irrelevant in the face of “larger issues.” Ultimately, however, Farscape is also about the power that the really important things actually have, and how dangerous the ignored can be when they are forced to fight for them. Farscape tells these tales with true style, incredible performances, effects, and writing, and uses the genre of science fiction to ask some really big questions and postulate some answers along the way. It is intricate, beautiful, gripping, sexy, and intensely moving, and that is why it is part of The Ten Percent.


Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz are co-authors of Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Badand of the forthcoming Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the Babylon 5 Universe (fall 2016)You can find Dale online at her blog and on Twitter as @KDaleKoontz. Ensley hangs out at and on Twitter as @EnsleyFGuffey.


Filed under: Ensley F. Guffey, science fiction, television, The Ten Percent Tagged: anthony simcoe, ben browder, brian henson, claudia black, cold war, Farscape, Firefly, gigi edgley, Jim Henson, jonathan hardy, lani john tupu, puppets, Rockne S. O'Bannon, sci-fi, The Ten Percent, virginia hey

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Friday, October 9, 2015

The Martian (2015): Now With 75% Less Science!

Matt Damon in The Martian.

Or something like that. I expect a film based upon a book that relies heavily on things like math, biology, and orbital mechanics for its plot to get dumbed down for the big screen, but with The Martian, screenwriter Drew Goddard, and director Ridley "Go Home, You've Been Drunk for Thirty Years" Scott managed to gut the driving force of the plot, and turn a gripping story of human ingenuity, perseverance, and bravery into just another basic survival movie where even the science they leave in is at best half-assed, and at worst just plain wrong. Matt Damon does a solid job, but lacks the power to captivate for long periods alone on screen (see Tom hanks in Castaway for an actor who actually can), but the cut-aways to an Earth full of big movie stars in supporting roles manage to support Damon's performance handsomely. All in all, the movie is fine, but if you really want a gripping, edge-of-your seat space thriller, read the book.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Housebound (2014): A Dark and Funny Kiwi Fruit

Left to right: Rima Te Wiata, Ross Harper, Morgana O'Reilly, and Ryan Lampp in  Housebound..

To make up for the trauma of Fantastic Four (2015), tonight we watched Housebound, a quirky, laugh-out-loud-funny, and really creepy horror film from New Zealand, directed by Gerard Johnstone. This was a delightful film with wonderfully developed characters and very human relationships that were well and quickly drawn. Great camerawork, tremendous use of lighting (or the lack of it) with more than a few twists in the very original story. It's streaming on Netflix right now. You should go watch it.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Fantastic Four (2015): Just Don't

These people had careers once.
Just back from Fantastic Four, which is (unbelievably) even worse than Fox's 2005 attempt. Not only it it an insult to the source material, it is an insult to the medium of film itself. Bad CG, bad acting, bad editing, appalling storytelling, nonexistent direction, baffling musical score, and writing that was turgid enough to clog an industrial toilet, which is where this film belongs. Do not go see this movie. Do not rent or stream this movie in the future. Instead, slam your foot in your car's door over and over again for 100 minutes while shouting "flame on!" and you will enjoy the same experience for much less money.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Tuesdays with Mollari

Hello again Readers Mine, and welcome to another installment of "Tuesdays with Mollari!" This is the place where I natter on about the greatness that is Babylon 5, and the various adventures associated with writing a book about the show. We're calling the project Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the Universe of Babylon 5, and we're looking at a publication date in the fall of 2017, but we may manage to be ready to go earlier. Our publisher is ECW Press out of Toronto, and this will be our second book with them, following Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Bad (available wherever fine books are sold, and probably in some other places too!)

First off, I want to give a big Centauri shout out ("VALTOOOOOOO!!!!") to the UK's own John Joshua. You'll remember in my last post about the B5 comics, I mentioned that I have been unable to obtain a copy of the tribute mini-comic Beyond the Rim. Well, the day that post went live, John e-mailed me and offered to send me hi-res scans of his copy, which were in my inbox the next day. That was really, really awesome, and you can bet we'll be thanking him in the book and sending a signed copy across the pond come the day! Thanks very much, John!

Marshall Teague as Nelson Drake in "Infection" (1.04).
Babylon 5 is rightly hailed for bringing the long, or grand arc to television, but not every episode was so directly dedicated to advancing the overarching stories of the series. Straczynski balanced his grand arc with episodes that were far more traditional and episodic, where a problem arises, is dealt with by the protagonists, and at the end of the episode things pretty much reset to the status quo. Babylon 5 even did this differently, however, as the series had a memory, and viewers were often asked to remember events in previous episodes in order to fully understand what was happening at a given point in the show. Even seemingly non-arc episodes.

The formula of grand arc/season arc/and episodic storytelling would be refined a few years later in Joss Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997 - 2003), and fans of that show would coin the term "monster-of-the-week episode" to denote an episode that really did nothing to advance the larger season or series arcs, and were almost entirely focused on Buffy and the Scoobies taking down a random threat o' the week. So when I began to sit down and write the episode guides for Dreams Given Form I expected to use the "monster-of-the-week" phrase relatively frequently when dealing with episodes like "TKO" (1.14), "GROPOS" (2.10) "Grey 17 Is Missing" (3.19), etc. I figured these would be relatively short write ups along the lines of "well, a few titbits for the larger story were scattered here and there, but basically this one is a monster-of-the-week" and then move on.

The thing is, it is turning out that I'm wrong. Thus far, in any given episode written by J. Michael Straczynski (an important caveat), information that is either deeply relevant or even fundamental to the larger arcs is included. Take "Infection" (1.04) for example. At first it seems like a placeholder episode, but when you look at it critically with an eye to the entire series, several really important things become clear. Interplanetary Expeditions (IPX) is introduced in this episode. Non-human biomechanical technology is first mentioned (Shadows, anyone?). The fact that Earth is looking for alien tech to turn into weapons is dropped into a conversation, and this is the episode where JMS introduces his recurring themes of ideology, militarism, and fanaticism v. science, faith, and lawful armsbearing. All in this easily overlooked episode about a guy who gets gobbled up by bad CGI and tries to kill everybody for the thinnest of reasons.

Again and again, the intricacy of JMS's plotting and storytelling, the sheer painstaking details of his arc continue to astound me, and I am reminded of why I study television. That's it for this go-round, folks. For all of the latest B5 and pop-culture news that comes across my screen, be sure and follow me on Twitter or Facebook, and check out our bi-weekly column, "The Ten Percent" over at Biff Bam Pop! Until next time...

Hold the Line!

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Tuesdays with Mollari

Hello Readers Mine! After yet another hiatus, I have returned! (Seriously, you should follow me on the various medias of sociability if you want daily doses of me. Linkage to the top right of this page.) This week, I thought I'd take a closer look at a sometimes disparaged part of Babylon 5's groundbreaking transmedia storytelling: the Babylon 5 comics!

Babylon 5 numbers 1 - 11, DC Comics, 1994-1995.
As season 2 of Babylon 5 kicked off, so too did the briefly-lived regular Babylon 5 comic book series from DC. Issue 1, "In Darkness Find Me" was written by Straczynski, while issues 2 - 8 and 11 were plotted by JMS with Mark Moretti and Tim DeHaas fleshing things out. Issues 9 and 10 were scripted by David Gerrold, and are considered only semi-canonical, but feature Garibaldi and G'Kar in a race against mechanical death which requires them to sacrifice their clothing a piece at a time, so you don't want to miss 'em.

The comics fill in some important gaps in the larger B5 plot, and also connect with some of the canonical novels. Issues 1 -4 detail Sinclair's adventures on Earth after his recall, and during his first few months as Earth's ambassador to Minbar, with issue 1 taking place between "Crysalis" (1.22) and "Points of Departure" (2.01) and 3-4 between "Revelations" (2.02) and "The Geometry of Shadows" (2.3). The events in this first comic arc also ties into the canonical novel To Dream in the City of Sorrows, by Kathryn M. Drennan, who also wrote the episode "By Any means Necessary" (1.12), and was married to Straczynski from 1983 - 2002.

Issues 5-8 take place before "The Coming of Shadows" (2.09), and provide details about Garibaldi's first meeting with Sinclair and more details about his encounter with the Shadow vessels on Mars as seen in "Messages from Earth" (3.08). Issue 11 "Silent Enemies" even drops a bit of foreshadowing about the horrific past of Talia Winters, the culmination of which is revealed in "Divided Loyalties" (2.19). The details surrounding Garibaldi's first encounter with Shadow vessels is especially interesting as the issues were published between 5 and 8 months before "Messages from Earth" first aired, though the episode may well have been plotted/written/in production at the time JMS plotted the comics. Straczynski's famous long-rage plotting of B5 again allowed him to take advantage of transmedia storytelling in ways that broadened the canon and deepened the story, making the comics canon, rather than the usual licensed-but-unofficial storytelling common in the comic adaptations of SF shows like Battlestar Galactica (the original series) and Star Wars.

Babylon 5: The Lost Tales mini-comic.
Besides DC's monthly series, in 1998 JMS also wrote the first issue and plotted the rest (with Peter David completing the scripts) of the three-issue miniseries In Valen's Name, which takes place after "Into the Fire" (4.06) and recounts the final fate of Babylon 4 and fills in some of the history of Valen and the previous Shadow War. Finally, in 2007, a special mini-comic, "Beyond the Rim," was released with the Babylon 5: The Lost Tales DVD when purchased from Best Buy. "Beyond the Rim" is a kind of tribute to Richard Biggs (Dr. Franklin) and Andreas Katsulas (G'kar), and recounts the galaxy-spanning adventures of the two men after the time of Babylon 5 and between G'Kar's return from deep space with Lyta Alexander, but before his final meeting with Londo on Centauri Prime.

On a side note, I was able to get a really great deal on the floppies of both the monthly DC series and In Valen's Name (thanks Atomik Comiks!), but I have as yet been unable to acquire a copy of the Lost Tales mini-comic. So if you have one you might be willing to part with for a reasonable price, let me know!)

The Babylon 5 comics are thus not a side-note, but an integral part of the Babylon 5 universe that allowed JMS to greatly expand his overall narrative, and bring new stories to fans who remain hungry for more tales to this day. Who knows, with talk of a big-screen B5 reboot, and JMS's own award-winning comic writing experience, we may yet be treated to a further expansion of the four-color canon. I certainly hope so. Until then, and until next time -

Hold the Line!

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!