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.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

"Previously on Battlestar Galactica..." - SF TV endings

Brad Templeton, chairman of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and more importantly, science fiction-related blogger, has a long blog post which is going around the Internet about how the finale of Battlestar Galactica is "The worst ending in the history of on-screen science fiction." I cannot disagree with the premise, nor the massive amount of detail he includes in the post. However, I do think that the post's narrow focus on the massive mistakes of the final episode distracts from a larger, perhaps more interesting point: Battlestar Galactica's form of storytelling made it almost inevitable that the finale was going to be a disappointment.

The BSG episode form was built to increase dramatic intensity. Most television shows built their episodes as stand-alones, which include enough exposition at the start to explain their universes so that anyone can jump in and understand. This is often combined with references to the rest of the setting, so that they also can increase long-time viewers' knowledge of how the universe works. The storyline focuses on a handful of characters each episode, generally with two stories, a main A story and a secondary B story. The A story generally has the more important characters doing somewhat expected things, while the B story often has more intense, comic, or experimental things going on. The characters involved in the two (occasionally three) stories can intersect, but the themes almost always intertwine. The episode's storylines are resolved by the end of the episode. This familiar, procedural format tends to make surprises fairly unlikely.

Battlestar Galactica took a more fractured, ensemble-based form. Instead of each episode having a self-contained story, each episode tended to have one storyline specific to that episode, and a little bit of everything else shown in pieces. The most obvious example of this is the first season's story of Helo and Athena on occupied Caprica. Every episode in the first season had a few minutes worth of this storyline, which was totally unconnected to anything else going on in the series until the very end of the season. There was no particular reason why this couldn't have been done entirely in a single episode. Likewise, virtually every episode in the first season also had something about Tigh's alcoholism, the Chief's relationship with Boomer, Apollo's relationship with Starbuck, or Roslin's cancer.

By focusing on every character at once, the storyline became fragmented. These fragments do two things to a storyline: 1) they ratchet up the intensity, and 2) they make strong resolutions unlikely. The best parallel for this comes not from television, but instead from fiction, particularly the epic fantasy mega-series such as The Wheel of Time or A Song of Ice and Fire by Robert Jordan and George R.R. Martin, respectively. Both of these series are built around narrative shock after narrative shock, a massive, world-shaking climax at least once per book, characters consistently dying (and then being resurrected - sound familiar?).

The books are massive - usually between 700-1000 pages, largely because they often have ten or more point-of-view characters, who often take part in, or discuss, the same events. The POVs change with each chapter, often ending with semi-cliffhangers, leading to a narrative intensity based around one character being in mortal danger, another about to receive an incredibly important piece of information, a third falling in love, while the one you happen to be reading about is doing research in a dusty library. It's a great way to maintain reader interest; a fantastic method for having large books with lots of sequels; a brilliant plan for creating a detailed, well-populated setting; and most importantly, a guaranteed, sure-fire method for being totally unable to finish a story well.

The essential problem with the fractured-POV approach, which both Galactica and the fantasy mega-series have, is twofold: first, it forces the writer to come up with situations of increasing intensity to hold the viewer's attention (Tigh has sex with Caprica! Gaeta turns evil and sings! Boomer turns evil and doesn't sing! Adama becomes an alkie!); and second, the increasing complexity and intensity leads to one of the greatest banes of serialized storytelling, the "retcon."

Retcon, short for "retroactive continuity," is a device by which the writer of a story changes an explanation of what happened in the past in order to tell the story they want to tell in the present. It's most common in comic books, which have their decades of plots, deaths, and resurrections. Perhaps the most famous example is the X-Men's Dark Phoenix Saga, in which Jean Grey becomes so powerful that she goes insane and threatens the universe, and ends up committing suicide. A few years later, writers wanted to bring Jean Grey back, so the storyline was retconned so that it wasn't her who became Dark Phoenix, but rather...well, I'm not really sure, but it was some kind of clone/embodiment who was like, but not, Jean Grey.

Retconning can be used in ways that benefit the story. The Warcraft video games, for example, began as virtually plotless strategy games, but as they progressed, they've become incredibly detailed complete universes. In order to make the detail of later games make sense, the storylines of the original games have been retconned to be filled with relative details. Retcons can also be used to explain apparent mistakes by the writers.

However, in general, retconning simply makes it look like the writers are making it up as they go along. They're changing the rules, and if they change the rules, the storyline loses emotional impact.

Battlestar Galactica, from the middle of the third season until the end, had a storyline which was dominated by retconning: the "Final Five." The problem which created the Final Five was simple: by the end of the New Caprica storyline, we'd seen seven Cylons, with no particular reason why we hadn't seen the last five of the promised twelve models. So Moore created an explanation: the Final Five were special, and not spoken of. Which is fair enough. But then Moore had to ratchet up the intensity. So several major and minor character were retconned into being Cylons. The history of the Cylons themselves was retconned into existing before the war against the Twelve Colonies 40+ years before. And the entire storyline of the show changed from a complex examination of the ethics of leadership in desparate situations and whether humanity deserved to survive into a simple good vs evil struggle, where one evil Cylon with mommy issues tries to destroy all humans and most Cylons.

And now comes word of the ultimate in retcons, the TV movie "The Plan," which is supposed to totally explain everything that the Cylons did at the start of the series, according to the crap that the writers made up at the end.

By the end of BSG, the show was almost completely different from its stellar starting point. Consistency, both in storyline and in characterization, had been thrown out the window. Is there any wonder, then, that the ending was a crushing disappointment? The methods that Battlestar Galactica used to maintain interest and build intensity were, just like the fantasy mega-epics, initially thrilling, but eventually tiresome. This kind of storytelling is the rough equivalent of a microwave dinner. It's fast, it requires very little work, and it's edible. But it's not likely to be anywhere near as good as a meal made with care.

So how could Battlestar Galactica have done better at unfolding its story? There are several other TV shows that may provide some kind of answer - a subject for a near-future post.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Smile Time - Be Kind Rewind; After Life

I've been having several half-ideas which could be fleshed out on paper, but I haven't gotten them done just yet. I'm going to start trying to write something at least once per week, so look for something on Mondays. We'll see how it goes.

I have something of a reputation for preferring depressing movies. It's not necessarily because I actually prefer them, I think, but rather that I think that it often makes for more effective storytelling which breaks out of the tension-climax-resolution-happy! clich├ęs. I may roll my eyes at a tacked-on happy ending, but I'm perfectly content to watch a movie which makes me smile.

Be Kind, Rewind, which was released within the last couple of years to a resounding thud, was just such a movie. Mos Def and Jack Black play video store employees who manage to delete the contents of all their videos. Their solution, such as it is, to the requests for movies which come in, is to reshoot the movies DIY and rent them to the customers the next day. The concept is a dangerous one, particularly with Jack Black ready and waiting to mug the movie in mediocrity, but it was written and directed by Michel Gondry. Gondry takes a DIY approach to his films and music videos. He does special-effects heavy flights of fancy like The Science of Sleep or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, while refusing to use CGI, leading to White Stripes music videos done painstakingly with LEGOs:

A famously playful DIY director making a movie about playful DIY movies of famous movies is ripe for a Baudrillardian analysis, particularly when Black and Def remake a documentary, When We Were Kings (Black is Ali). Yet the movie neither falls prey to pretension nor slapstick. It's exuberant, joyful, funny, and endlessly charming. Just watch the first remade (or "Sweded") movie-within-a-movie, Ghostbusters:

Perhaps it's the DIY concept which makes Be Kind Rewind so charming, as it has that in common with the Japanese film After Life. But where Be Kind Rewind has the initial plotline of a generic slapstick underdog comedy, After Life has a sweet, comforting story built around death.

The film is set in an isolated high school, staffed by twenty or so men and women in a very corporate environment. They have constant meetings, worry about meeting their quotas, and so forth. Then their clients are introduced, and the setting is further revealed. All of the clients are recently deceased, and the school is the first stage of their journey, where they pick out a memory that they wish to relive for the rest of their existence. The staff then uses their meager resources to recreate the scene. One man, a would-be pilot, wants to experience his first flight. The clouds are recreated by cotton balls dangling from a wire on a pully, a decidedly Gondry-esque touch.

Some dramatic tension is generated for the movie when a few of the clientele either cannot or will not choose a memory from their lives. This leads to revelations about the staff of the facility, which leads to either fascinating plot twists or unbelievable coincidences, the latter of which drags down the ending of the film. But the charm of the sequences where the memories are chosen, scripted, and most of all, produced and filmed, are what make After Life so memorable. It, like Be Kind Rewind, is in many ways, about the application of imagination to memory.

There aren't many clips from it online, but one, and a trailer, can be found by looking for it under its original name, Wandafuru Raifu. In this one, an adorable older woman talks about her memories of dancing and her older brother.