Monday, August 27, 2012

The Babylon 5 Dilemma

I think one of the major problems faced in entertainment is the simple presence of a filter.

What I mean is, creators have a filter, and their audience has a filter.  This filter affects both the product and the perception of the product.  Some creators know what their filter is and how to handle it.  Some creators don't.  The creators who don't accept compromise so often they eventually don't even realize it's there.  They may not be a very good writer, but they're really good at coming up with stories, for instance.  So they keep writing, and the filter produces a lot of mediocre results, despite the best intentions of the creator.

The audience is the same way.  Using the same premise, they like a good story, and don't pay attention to the actual mechanics.  I call it the Babylon 5 Dilemma.  Babylon 5 was a science fiction TV series in the '90s, created by J. Michael Straczynski, who has since gone on to become geek royalty, largely because of his creator-rights approach that kept much of the series firmly under his control, without a lot of outside interference, or collaboration.  He literally wrote most of the episodes.  Fans loved the intricate arcs he devised, and the way he stuck to them for five seasons, even when the fourth season almost became its last and he had to deliver one version of a conclusion before getting another chance the next season, which ended up like something of a bonus.

Yes, his budgets were minuscule compared to Star Trek, which ran three different series during the same decade (the only one that ran its complete run during those years was Deep Space Nine, which had many comparable elements to it), but on the whole whatever resulting quality derived from monetary concerns was nothing compared to Joe's inability to trust anyone else.  One might say his fears were justified in the short-lived Crusade spin-off.  I prefer not to dicker.  The fans who loved Babylon 5 gave themselves a lot of filters.  The ideas were great.  The execution was not.  They will never admit this.  It is a cult favorite to this day, but you don't see a lot of people, much less Joe himself, trying to reboot it.  Part of that is that the core audience still feels it was perfect the way it was.  Nothing is perfect the way it is, by the way.  But Babylon 5 was less perfect.  It took shortcuts all over the place.  Susan Ivanova, for one specific example, was probably the worst element of the series.  Even the BattleStar Galactica reboot, when it initially introduced the new female Starbuck in pretty much the same mold, realized its mistake eventually.  You can't get by on an archetype.  If you don't understand what I mean, think about Superman's reputation.  Superman's reputation is that he's impossible to take seriously in a story because there can't possibly be any truly compelling threats against a man with so many fantastic abilities.  That's filters of a different kind.  In the actual stories, Superman makes sense against a broad array of foes.

People who thought Babylon 5 worked as originally presented probably will never get that.  They might even end up writing a story where Superman takes a grandiose walk across the country (Joe did that), which is fine in concept, but in execution...even a second writer couldn't salvage that one.  Joe tried a grandiose story with Wonder Woman at the same time.  And even a second writer couldn't salvage that one.

My point is, the idea of a story is not always the same as the story itself.  A good writer will know that.  They will spend a great deal of time fretting over how to get a tricky concept to work correctly.  A bad writer won't.  They'll just skip to the writing.  Their audience counterpart will do the same.

In Hollywood, execution has become something that very few filmmakers can actually botch.  (Most critics don't seem to realize that.)  It's the concept that gets a lot of them in trouble.  If you don't actually know what to do with the Avengers once you've assembled them, some people will end up noticing.  Most people, as I said, walk around with filters.  They don't even realize they're there.  They've grown too accustomed to them.  Babylon 5 actually underwent something of a revision in its second season.  Maybe Joe will always insist that that's exactly what he had in his notes all along...but the lead character changed, and was never referenced previously, and the female lead changed physically, and quite drastically.  Clearly someone realized things needed to change.  And yet they didn't, not really.  And the fans were perfectly fine with that.  They maintain to this day that Babylon 5 was sheer brilliance.  In a way it was.  In other ways, it absolutely was not.

Filters will help some audiences look past problems because they're able to focus on other areas that they really like.  The King's Speech won Best Picture at the Oscars on the merit of being a serious-minded drama that had room for some goofiness.  It seemed relevant, topical, resonant, whatever.  It is not actually a very good movie.  It's always funny when something wins an award, and people who don't really want to go out of their way to be contrary disagree with the selection, in a way where they don't think it should have been nominated, or it if was, that it should not have had a serious chance to win.  Yet The King's Speech did win.  And it's not a bad movie, it's just not a great one.  It's not even particularly notable.  I mean, who really cares about a king's fears of public speaking when the same war exposed the brilliance of a prime minister who until that point got no respect at all, and made his name largely through speeches?  Conceptually, for any discerning audience, the movie just doesn't make sense.  Critics with their particular filters of wanting serious-minded drama with maybe room for goofiness don't understand that, in much the way viewers of Babylon 5 who really loved a dedicated, ongoing arc in a TV series didn't mind that it was executed poorly.

(Which, of course, makes it all the more ironic when something like Lost comes along, does its bit brilliantly, and is criticized by some filter or another for not being obvious enough.)

Joe Straczynski desperately needed someone to step in and help him guide that ship.  There's a reason why there was a small group of writers who steered Lost, Deep Space Nine, and even to a lesser extent BattleStar Galactica (sorry, Ron Moore).  Great visions sometimes need a little help.  Know when you need it.  Remove thy filter.  The King's Speech desperately needed a little perspective.  None was taken, and none was given.

This most certainly goes for short stories, too.  That's something I'm taking away from the Shootout, and in a weird kind of way WRiTE CLUB, too.  In a weird sort of way, the horribly unfulfilling and slightly mismanaged (and not completely Martin Ingham's fault, since he was following an established tradition in how he ran it) Shootout helped me figure out a few things about how writers see themselves, and how to figure out how to approach them even when they don't have the first clue about the actual quality of their writing.  Some people you absolutely cannot tell them that they have filters.  They will only assume you have filters of your own, and not the ones that are able to identify theirs.  They only want to succeed, the same as you.  They really don't want to be told that they can't, or shouldn't, because as I'm starting to realize, a large percentage of any audience has their own filters.  They will ignore what's wrong in favor of what's right, and most of the time, "what's right" has nothing to do with the actual experience, but whatever they were expecting to enjoy in the first place.  That's fine.  I don't begrudge popularity.  It's how anything survives.  We wouldn't have toast today if it weren't popular.  It's not particularly complicated.  It's not the best thing since sliced bread.  But it has its value, and a lot of people still enjoy it today.

And yes, we still use sliced bread as the best ever invention because it rocks.  Popularity is not always wrong.  Sometimes it is very, very right.

But it's important to distinguish that vocal reactions are not always accurate reactions.  If nine out of ten people really like something, that does not mean that the tenth person is wrong, and vice versa.  You need to be able to figure out the filters.  In the Shootout, it seemed to be a game run by filters, which everyone implicitely trusted.  WRiTE CLUB is different.  I've begun to appreciate that.  Warts and all, it's a better execution of what I'd hoped to get from the Shootout.  Maybe there're tons of filters out there, but at least the exercise is still helping me process the experience more productively, one round at a time, figuring out why I should continue to read an endless file of writing samples that invariably has more duds in it than jewels.  Most of the comments and results will not affect anyone's filters, but there's a greater chance of learning something than in a contest where filters defined everything.

The funny thing is, my odd relationship with Babylon 5 has never particularly prevented me from watching it. I may not think it's the greatest thing since sliced bread, but the charms its fans admire do exist.  Joe had a vision.  I like space opera.  And Babylon 5 is still one of the better examples to come around.  I'm writing about it now because I cannot for the life of me dismiss it.  You dismiss things that have no value, where filters have basically completely obscured them.  Sometimes filters are good like that.  Doesn't mean you should always trust them, though.


  1. Tony, this is an interesting point. I love Babylon 5, but it did seem to get bogged down in it's own brilliance. Shows like Star Trek that use different writers help to keep it fresh and use different styles of writing to appeal to different audiences. This is also a problem George Lucas has.

    1. People have routinely said such things about the Star Wars prequels, perhaps because Lucas did not actually direct two of the three original films. As I like the prequels, and appreciate the differences they have with, say, Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings, I don't tend to agree with the constant stream of criticism.

      I was almost going to use Jackson's films, actually, in this post. They're littered with filter abuse, especially the second two.

  2. You're probably right about that. I mean as good and prolific as Rod Serling was, he still needed great writers like Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, and Earl Hamner to write some of the most well-known Twilight Zone episodes.

    1. Another reason why the man was a genius.


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