As you will probably figure out over the course of this blog, Babylon 5 is one of my all time favorite shows, despite how much I resisted watching it for the longest time. After all, it wasn’t Star Trek. I’m glad I finally sat down and watched it. It is a different creature altogether than Star Trek, one with all the wonder and beauty of a creature worthy of legend.
We can learn a lot from J. Michael Straczynski’s Babylon 5, so I’ll move beyond simply saying that it’s an awesome show. WARNING, SPOILERS.
Resolving romance plots before the end of the series
Most of the time, when a romance is resolved, it kills a show or book series. Certainly, there is an effort after to drag the limping remains along dressed up in its former glory, but once the romantic tension fades, a part of the heart of the series dies with it. Ironic considering that, in theory, the romantic leads have gained their heart’s desire. But then, we don’t read or watch stories about content people and find them interesting.
The primary romance in Babylon 5 between John Sheridan (Bruce Boxleitner) and Delenn (Mira Furlan) was resolved at the end of the fourth of five seasons. Yet this resolution did not destroy the show. The reason for this was because, by that point, there were so many other strong characters that we were invested in with unresolved issues, many of which reared their ugly heads in season five, that our interest was still retained. Also, the romance between Sheridan and Delenn was not the primary plot or point of the show. Naturally, we had fun with it, but we had just as much, if not more, investment in the battle for Earth, The Shadow War, the relationship growth and constant banter between Londo Mollari (Peter Jurasik) and G’Kar (Andreas Katsulas), the various telepath conflicts, Michael Garibaldi’s (Jerry Doyle) fight with what Psi Corps did to him and his struggle with alcoholism, and so on. I will say, though, that after Sheridan and Delenn got together, my interest in them waned.
One of the wonderful things Straczynski did with the show was create vivid, dynamic supporting characters that swiftly gained our sympathy. From Lennier (Bill Mumy) and Vir Cotto (Stephen Furst), Zack Allan (Jeff Conaway) and Mr. Bester (Walter Koenig), Lando and G’Kar, the Babylon 5 universe is rich with a cast so well developed that many a very enjoyable episode concerns them rather than the main protagonist, Sheridan.
The trick with so many characters is not to force them all at your audience at once. In the first episode of Babylon 5 most appear only briefly. But as the show progresses, we get to know them more and more and become deeply invested in their lives. The great advantage of this expansive and well developed cast is the flexibility it gives the show. Babylon 5 would not have been as strong in any of its five seasons without many of these supporting characters.
Yes, it takes more effort and time, but as Babylon 5 reveals, creating all your characters as fully realized individuals adds tremendous depth, range, and value to a story. This is also true with world building.
One of the things I’ve noticed that fans love to do is quote their favorite shows and books. Kosh (voice: Ardwight Chamberlain, in suit: Jeffery Willerth), the Vorlon, an alien race far more advanced than humans and often frustratingly mysterious and vague, is famous for his one-liners like “Understanding is a three edged sword,” so famous, in fact, that I did not need to invent the word koshism.
And my favorite koshism, The Babylon 5 Mantra (clip): “I’d like you to take the time to learn the Babylon 5 mantra. Ivanova is always right. I will listen to Ivanova. I will not ignore Ivanova’s recommendations. Ivanova is god. And, if this ever happens again, Ivanova will personally rip your lungs out! Babylon Control out. Civilians. … I was just kidding about that God part, no offense.”
Replacing Primary characters
Over the five seasons of Babylon 5, the station goes through three commanders, the first two, in particular, the driving force of their seasons. Normally, replacing a major character is risky. You temp angering your fans, losing chemistry, and much more. However, Straczynski, intentionally or not, did something that aided this transition for all those who, like me, were rather upset that Jeffrey Sinclair (Michael O’Hare) left as commander of Babylon 5: he gave us a character that went through the same struggle we fans did.
Like me, Michael Garibaldi, security chief of Babylon 5, was not too happy about Sheridan showing up to replace Sinclair. He didn’t trust him. He didn’t like him, and he wasn’t going to change his mind until the new captain proved himself. As Garibaldi grew to admire and trust Sheridan, the transition was eased for the audience too. It was as if Straczynski said, “Yeah, I know this is a tough change. I understand your feelings, but just watch, it’ll be good in the end.”
Plan in advance
Straczynski did not come at Babylon 5 as an episodic show like many of its contemporaries. Rather, he already knew what was going to happen in the series and even had contingencies to deal with every character needing to leave the show. Threads from the first season carry all the way through to the fifth in surprising and wonderfully entertaining ways. The amount of planning Straczynski put into this show really paid off and made it something special.
There is always a place for tragedy
Here is one of the ways we grew to care for the characters of Babylon 5. From Ivanova losing her father in the first few episodes to what Mr. Bester does to Garibaldi’s mind to make him a tool of Psi Corps, we feel for these characters. Sure, we can share the exhilaration of victory with our heroes, but that exhilaration is shallow without us also enduring the pain and trials the characters encountered on the way to victory. Tragedy is an extremely effective tool when wielded deftly.
Make your devils sympathetic and your angels imperfect
Two alien races are set in opposition to each other in the third season of Babylon 5: the Vorlons and The Shadows. At first, The Shadows appear pure evil and chaos, twisting, manipulating, destroying, corrupting. The Vorlons spend a great deal of effort making themselves the benevolent big brothers of the younger races, pure, powerful, and infused with a mysterious superiority born from being an elder race in the galaxy. Yet by the end, we learn that the Vorlons are as selfish as The Shadows and that The Shadows are as concerned with our betterment, in their own violent fashion, as the Vorlons. But by then, we’re right there with Sheridan when he tells them, “Get the hell out of our galaxy.”
Along the lines of villains and antagonists, it’s always good to have a few that you can bring in frequently. These should be dynamic characters that we love to hate, characters that walk into the story and we shudder and rub our hands in gleeful anticipation of the mayhem and twisted evil the character is about to unleash on our heroes. Mr. Bester, brilliantly played by Walter Koenig, is among the finest of these types of characters. If you want to know how to pull this type of antagonist off, study him.
Have multiple threats at once
Straczynski is very good at never letting the ball of suspense and imminent danger ever fall. While wars are brewing or turning to even more brutal tides, dangerous politicking takes place, and subtler, even more frightening forces like telepaths stroll among us with the power to terrify, blackmail, and control our minds. In Babylon 5, there is never only one threat to deal with, and for that reason, especially when you have the show on DVD, it’s very difficult not to watch it until the wee hours of the morning multiple nights in a row.
Do not be afraid to make major changes to a character and/or do horrible things to them
Delenn grows hair. Garibaldi gets mind controlled and turned against his friends and colleagues. G’Kar loses an eye and endure horrendous torture. Londo loses the love of his life largely because he tries to do the right thing for once. Never be afraid to hurt your characters. In doing so, you will force them to become the dynamic, fascinating, and sympathetic individuals that we love to watch.
Awesome heroes can be virgins
This could also be said as, “You don’t have to follow the trends.” These days, a virginal hero is rare. Even if our heroes don’t jump into bed with the nearest available partner, most of the time, they hold a less than traditional approach toward relationships. Yet here we have Marcus, arguably one of the most awesome characters ever to walk the Babylon 5 stage. He’s funny, clever, a master combatant as a Ranger, and he’s saving himself for one perfect person even if she won’t admit it until it’s too late. Don’t feel like you need to fit into the usual molds.
Kill off your Galahads
The one problem with Marcus is that he’s perfect. In fact, in “A Late Delivery from Avalon,” Marcus compares himself to Galahad, “him being sinless and all.” Cool as Marcus is, Galahads can never last or they begin to become a drain on the imperfect worlds around them. Either that or they must become tainted by the realms they once held themselves above. Sir Galahad gets the grail and goes to heaven, thus leaving King Arthur’s court, a place he never could have fit in well anyway. Marcus literally gives up his life to restore the life of the woman he loves but who refuses to return his affections. If your perfect character starts to become a strain on the rest of the story, kill him off in some heroic fashion and move on with only fond memories of him.
The greatest strengths of the show came in its characters and the epic plotlines that emerged over time, each reaching to something very human in us. But then, being human and the strengths of humanity were a major part of the show. Through Straczynski’s beautiful handling of these elements, we can learn a great deal of what to do as writers.