Sunday, July 26, 2009

Babylon 5 and Battlestar Galactica

After discussing the disappointment of Battlestar Galactica's ending and general story progression, the argument came up that any TV show was bound to disappoint in such a fashion, as the medium makes that sort of storytelling inevitable.

But Battlestar Galactica was not created in a vacuum, and had several different models of serialized storytelling to draw from, particularly in the fertile grounds of speculative fiction TV shows from the mid-90's to the early 2000's. Babylon 5 in particular demonstrates an entirely different method of storytelling.*

*The most relevant comparison might be Star Trek: Deep Space 9, as BSG's creator worked on that before BSG. Unfortunately, I'm almost totally unfamiliar with DS9.

Babylon 5 is perhaps the most ambitious television show ever, in terms of overarching plot. It is famous for being designed to tell a story over five years, and largely succeeds at this. But saying that it tells one story is something of a mislabeling. It would be more accurate to say that it tells multiple interweaving stories, each with its own tension and release. Each individual story is built slowly, but becomes a major focus of the show for somewhere between half of a season to a little over a season. For example, the second half of Season 2 deals largely with a war between two of the galaxy's races. By the end of the season, the war has come to an emotional, cathartic ending, in arguably the series' best episode. In its aftermath, a new storyline about the occupation of the defeated people begins to take precedence until it, too, is resolved, a little over a season later.

Battlestar Galactica, on the other hand, is essentially a single story, focusing on several different characters. Its tension is rarely released, except in smaller, self-contained episodes such as the arrival of the Pegasus, the colonization of New Caprica, or the mutiny. Not surprisingly, these smaller, stand-alone sets of episodes are generally the series' best and most satisfying.

While this process may lead to Babylon 5 having more satisfying endings, it would be extremely difficult to actually say that B5 is better than BSG. Babylon 5 storyline development occurs much more slowly, leading to episodes that may be important later, but are often, well, boring, especially in its first season. Virtually every episode of the first season of B5 has something in it which becomes important later on, whether it's character-building, foreshadowing, storyline development, or details about the setting. But each episode also stands alone almost entirely, so the viewer may not know what's important, and may simply be, well, bored. On the other hand, Battlestar Galactica's first season and in media res storylines create an instant intensity. As I described last week, that intensity leads almost inevitably towards disappointing endings - but it may be worth it.

In an ideal world (which may also be achievable), some future TV show could take the best of both methods of storytelling - some combination of Battlestar Galactica's intensity with Babylon 5's forward planning. The key sticking point is that it would require a strong personality at the forefront. Babylon 5 is famously the brainchild of J. Michael Straczynski, who wrote 3/4's of the show's episodes, including the entirety of the third and fourth seasons, and all but one episode of the fifth season - an unprecedented run in television history, but also one which kept both the plot and characters developing under a single person's vision. The extraordinary confluence of events where a person was effective enough as a writer to accomplish this, effective enough as a producer to keep his show on the air in order to complete his five-year plan, and effective enough as a storytelling to develop an interesting long-form story, seems unlikely to occur again. Working show-by-show, and season-by-season, is much easier and more likely.

But who knows? With cable channels doing more formally interesting shows, those networks may be willing to deal with such an ambitious gamble. Or there's Joss Whedon, who claims to have a five-year plan for his Dollhouse, and its unaired (but now seen and viewable) episode indicates there's a lot more going on there than initially appeared in the first season. Good luck with that.

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