The Babylon 5 that (thankfully) never was: Babylon Prime and afterthoughts

Continuing my series attempting to reconstruct how Babylon 5 was originally (for certain values of “original”) “supposed to” go. More detailed explanation and Season 1 are here. However, since that original post I have acquired the actual treatment by JMS and am therefore working from that, rather than summaries. Thanks again to Glenn for giving it to me!

Babylon Prime

Although Babylon 5 was originally planned to end with defeat and destruction of the station, JMS’ plan was immediately to move into a sequel series, essentially additional seasons under a new title, Babylon Prime. 

Known: This series would open with Sinclair, Delenn, and their child in hiding, together with Garibaldi and a Narn (“a friend or relative of G’Kar”). They meet with the Grey Council-in-exile, who refuse to do anything to help Because Prophecy, and express the need for a base of operations. They go back in time and steal Babylon 4, but there are time distortions that cause problems. (Interestingly, even in this early stage B4 goes into the future relative to the date it’s being sent to, then settles down in the correct date.)

This time travel would cause Sinclair, Delenn, and the baby to age very quickly, so the baby would actually be an adult for most of the series. Meanwhile, Londo would become Emperor and be implanted with a creature that spies on him and reports his activities to the Shadows. Londo captures Sinclair and Delenn, but then rebels against his not-actually-called-a-Keeper at unspecified “terrible personal cost” and frees them. Meanwhile, their son becomes “something greater than human.”

Earth wins the second Earth-Minbari War and Sinclair’s name is cleared. Babylon 4 takes part in a great battle that ends with the final conquest of the Shadows, and the victors form an interstellar alliance led by Sinclair and Delenn’s son. Delenn leaves Sinclair to resume her position on the Grey Council and help her world heal. The series ends with Sinclair retiring to an uninhabited world and going fishing.

Speculation: The most likely place for Delenn and Sinclair to hide out is Epsilon III, where Draal can protect them. Likely additional candidates for their allies include Ivanova (if she survived the destruction of Babylon 5), Kosh (if he survived the end of the Shadow War), Draal, G’Kar and the Narn resistance, Talia/Lyta, and possibly Vir (though he is unmentioned in the treatment).

Some version of Talia/Lyta becoming a living telepathic doomsday weapon would likely have still occurred in this series, given that both Lyta’s closeness with the Vorlons and Talia’s telekinesis are set up in the pilot and Season 1, respectively.

In all likelihood, the “terrible personal cost” for Londo freeing Sinclair and Delenn is the same as in the broadcast series: his death at the hands of G’Kar.

Two things stand out as intriguing: Babylon 4 still swings into the future as a result of the time distortion, meaning that wasn’t actually an obvious patch between a “Babylon Squared” that assumed it was being stolen to fight a war in the future and a “War Without End” that had it stolen to fight a war in the past. Also, Sinclair and Delenn’s son being “greater than human” recalls Ironheart–it suggests perhaps that his role as spiritual leader who has odd powers and ultimately ends up leading a new alliance was ultimately divided between Sheridan and Lorien.

Afterthoughts

Frankly, while better than what we got of Crusade, this entire treatment is basically crap. With the sole exception of the Catherine Sakai as mole thing (which itself, recall, was speculation) none of this sounds likely to be as good as the series we got. It’s much more straightforwardly about good against evil and the Shadow War, G’Kar’s arc is jettisoned almost entirely, the Earth Civil War (which in my opinion was a better storyline than the Shadow War) is entirely gone, the ancient cycles of violence and “get the hell out of our galaxy” are gone, the massively powerful elder races whose technology is millions of years more advanced than the younger races are defeated in a war, Ewok-style, rather than persuaded to go away on moral grounds… this is simply not very good.

The timeline surrounding the theft of Babylon 4 is clearer and more sensible in this version, true. In “Babylon Squared,” it’s pretty heavily implied that the station is being pulled into the future. The retcon in “War Without End” requires that Draal first pull the station into its future so that passengers can be offloaded, then throw it into the past, which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. On the other hand, the treatment suggests an accidental trip into the future, so maybe that’s what was going on in “Babylon Squared.” On the other hand, the price of that sense is losing Sinclair-as-Valen and the reveal that all that Minbari prophecy is just him remembering the future. Which makes Sinclair Merlin, bringing in all the references to the Arthurian legend, of which there is no trace in the treatment. Plus, I love a good ontological “paradox.” (As I have noted a few times on this site, it’s only a paradox if you believe that information cannot be created ex nihilo. As someone who creates information of one kind for a living and of a couple of other kinds as my primary hobbies, I take rather a large amount of exception to such claims.)

It’s notable, too, that this belies a number of claims by JMS regarding how closely he stuck to his original plans. For example, he has claimed that he knew what the last shot of the last episode of the series would be before Season 1 began. However, if he meant the end of the planned Babylon 5 series, then the shot of the station being destroyed while a single shuttle leaves occurs a few minutes before the end of the aired finale and in a very different context than originally planned (the actual final shot of the series, if credits are not included, is the sun rising over Minbar as Delenn reaches out for it; if the credits are included, it’s a split screen of a young Londo as he appeared in the first season and the aging Emperor Londo seen in the flashforward in “War Without End.”) If he meant the end of Babylon Prime, then there is no equivalent scene at all to Sinclair fishing.

There’s also his claims in response to fan comments on the apparent contradiction between JMS’ statement that after Babylon 5 finished he planned to stop writing for television and the announcement of the Crusade spinoff. JMS claimed that he had “always” said there was one possible spinoff idea he might explore given the chance, but that otherwise the end of Babylon 5 would be the end of the series, and indeed early on he did make claims that the series would consist of a planned five-year arc, possibly followed by a spinoff. Given this treatment, however, it seems clear that the spinoff he referred to in those early comments was Babylon Prime, and as such his citation of those comments in defense of Crusade is at the very least equivocation, if not outright prevarication.

None of this should be taken as a criticism of Babylon 5, nor is my point to suggest that JMS is a bad person or anything of the sort. Babylon 5 is truly great work, and JMS has done some other really great work in TV and comics (such as The Real Ghostbusters or the fantastic Rising Stars comic series). His scriptwriting textbook is excellent, as well. I am merely observing that some of JMS’ statements regarding the series seem very likely to be deceptive statements with the aim of making it look more planned than it really was; as such, it calls into question his reliability as a source on the genesis and development of Babylon 5.

What we have here, ultimately, is a classic example of why at least the soft form of Death of the Author is necessary.

The Babylon 5 that (thankfully) never was: Season 5

Continuing my series attempting to reconstruct how Babylon 5 was originally (for certain values of original) “supposed to” go. More detailed explanation and Season 1 are here, although note that since writing that original post I have gotten access to JMS’ “original” treatment and am no longer working from summaries.

Known: Season 5 opens with the return of G’Kar with evidence of Londo’s alliance with the Shadows and their meddling in the Centauri-Narn conflict. The Minbari military caste stage a coup and take over, resuming the war with Earth. The Centauri lay claim to the neutral sector that includes B5, which Earth contests, leading Londo to break off diplomatic relations. Shortly thereafter a massive Vorlon ship carrying most of their civilian population is destroyed by the Shadows, although Earth is framed. Londo helps in the attack, though without the knowledge that it will result in hundreds of thousands of innocent deaths.

The series ends (yes, ends) with the Minbari attacking and destroying Babylon 5. Sinclair, Delenn, and their baby escape on a shuttle and flee into hiding, with every remaining power in the galaxy considering them enemies: the Minbari because of Delenn’s ties to the deposed Grey Council and the Warrior Caste’s belief that the prophecy is one of destruction, Vorlons because they believe Sinclair helped Earth destroy their ship, Shadows and Londo because they believe Sinclair and Delenn suspect who really did it, and Earth because they’ve been fed false intel that Sinclair betrayed them.

Speculation: Given how much happens in this season, and how little happens in Season 4, it seems likely that some of this would have been moved earlier. Any of a Centauri attack on Babylon 5 as part of them seizing the sector, the fall of the Grey Council, or the destruction of the Vorlons would have made good season finale material (though the last might be too soon for the war to end in this version of the story).

Given his human-Minbari hybrid wife and the renewal of Earth-Minbari hostilities, it seems likely that Earthgov’s false intel makes Sinclair out to have betrayed them to the Minbari. Likely sources for the intel are the Minbari, Centauri, and Shadows, all of which have good reason to want to isolate Sinclair and Delenn and thereby cut them off from Earth support.

It’s up for grabs whether the warrior caste are being manipulated by the Shadows in this version of the story. They almost certainly weren’t in the actual series, but by this point the treatment and the show have nothing in common except Delenn’s pregnancy.

And yes, this colossal downer really is how the series ends in the treatment. But it’s not how the treatment ends–that still has another page and a half, almost a quarter of its length, to go. We’ll cover that in the next and final installment of this series.

Concluded next week!

The Babylon 5 that (thankfully) never was: Season 4

Continuing my series attempting to reconstruct how Babylon 5 was originally (for certain values of original) “supposed to” go. More detailed explanation and Season 1 are here, although note that since writing that original post I have gotten access to JMS’ “original” treatment and am no longer working from summaries.

Known: Delenn gets pregnant with Sinclair’s child. Garibaldi quits his job as Chief of Security as a result of his drinking, and begins operating as a mercenary out of B5. There is no mention of a Psycorps connection, Lise, Edgars Industries, or Zack Allen.

The Shadows would first be shown onscreen at this point, and the description of them, while vague, is consistent with how they appear in the series. They would initially present themselves as fighting to free the other races from the Vorlons, but in truth they desire to rule.

Speculation: Between the lack of a rebellion against Earth and the general slower pace of the treatment as opposed to the series, very little seems to happen this season. Perhaps G’Kar and the Narn resistance would have gotten focus episodes, or some variant on the Centauri Cartagia/rise of Londo plot might have occurred. Another possibility, given events in the treatment’s version of Season 5, is that the Minbari Civil War might have started, but not been resolved, during this season.

At this point it should be clear that the series as aired had gone completely off the original rails in Seasons 3 and 4. The Shadow War was resolved in early Season 4 in the series, yet is still a proxy war at the END of Season 4 in the treatment. Babylon 5 is still part of the Earth Alliance, Garibaldi never leaves the station, the entire Mars plot and associated cast is nowhere to be found, and Clark is still in charge with no resistance from Sinclair and company, despite manipulating his way into power via assassination just as in the series.

The Shadows as rebels against Vorlon manipulation is an interesting concept. It leaves open the question of whether the Shadows are one of the younger races manipulated by the Vorlons who have advanced far enough to turn against them, another race of equivalent age and power who just never bothered to get involved before, or, perhaps most interestingly, renegade Vorlons. This would cast an interesting light on the “angelic” presentation of the Vorlons, making the Shadows “fallen angels.” It also seems likely that something similar to the “meeting” scene from “Z’ha’dum” would have happened in this version of the show, where someone would explain to Sinclair the Shadows’ rationale for their actions. Perhaps Catherine/Caroline would have had that duty. Regardless, it seems that both the treatment and show versions give the Shadows a reasonable-sounding rationale, but belie that rationale through the destructive and manipulative behavior the Shadows have exhibited to this point. In the original plan, it seems likely that there would be a good deal of dramatic irony regarding this point, as the implication in the treatment is that the audience knows how the Shadows are manipulating Londo more or less from the start, but the human characters don’t find out until the season 4/season 5 bridge.

Continued in two weeks…

The Babylon 5 that (thankfully) never was: Season 3

Continuing my series attempting to reconstruct how Babylon 5 was originally (for certain values of original) “supposed to” go. More detailed explanation and Season 1 are here, although note that since that post I have acquired a copy of the treatment itself from an exceedingly gracious reader.

Known: The existence of a mole on the station is revealed. This is a point of divergence between the treatment (which takes into account the cast changes between pilot and series, but not any changes in the series itself) and JMS’ comments on what would have happened if there were no cast changes.

If there were no cast changes, Laurel Takashima would have been revealed as “Control,” the sleeper agent that Talia was revealed to be in Season 2. She would have departed much like Talia, and been replaced by Ivanova as second-in-command of the station. The treatment, however, is ambiguous about the identity of the mole, just that they are discovered. It also indicates that Catherine Sakai would have been “mind-raped” and lose all memory of Sinclair, devastating him and ending their relationship. This is stated to occur during the “third/fourth season bridge,” along with Delenn and Sinclair starting to date.

Psy-Corps emerges as an increasingly powerful and shadowy organization, but there is still no mention of Psy-Cops.

The Shadows would attack the Narn homeworld during this season, appearing out of nowhere en masse to wipe out its defenses and then vanish, opening up an opportunity for the Centauri to come in behind them and take over. After some time trying to rally support on the station, G’Kar would go home to join the Narn Resistance, and be demoted from main cast to recurring character for the remainder of the third season and part of the fourth.

Finally, it would be revealed that the Vorlons have been manipulating the younger races throughout their history, but the Shadows’ motivations are not yet addressed.

Speculation: Given the similarity of the “mind rape” to both the Talia and Anna Sheridan plotlines, it seems likely that Catherine Sakai would have turned out to be Control (like Talia) and the commander’s loved one stolen and twisted into someone else by the Shadows and their allies (like Anna). However, had there been no cast changes, Laurel would have been the mole, while perhaps Carolyn Sykes would have disappeared on an expedition like Anna, only to return as a minion of the Shadows. Catherine as the mole is actually one of the few places where the ideas in the treatment seem likely to be better than what we got in the show.

The loss of G’Kar, on the other hand, seems like a clear case where the treatment depicts a notably worse show. There is no trace of his religious epiphany or slow turning away from his initial presentation as a pure warrior, no sign of his character’s growth throughout the show, and that is a very sad loss.

Another loss: there is no sign of Earth’s growing corruption or fascist turn, no Nightwatch, and no declaration of Babylon 5’s independence; Psy-Corps is more of a shadowy puppeteer than a participant in what amounts to a fascist coup, and so there is no trace at this stage of the human characters have to weigh their loyalties against their principles. There is also no trace of “War Without End”–there was no past conflict with the Shadows and Sinclair is not the “reincarnation” of Valen, so no theft of B4 into the past. (“Babylon Squared” is not even mentioned until a lengthy parenthetical after the discussion of the end of season 3 and beginning of season 4–it’s described as a season 1 episode, but not mentioned in the treatment of season 1.)

The willingness of the Shadows to openly attack the Narn in force is interesting. Admittedly, by Season 3 the Shadows were capable of fielding such fleets and had emerged into the open, but that was well after the fall of Narn. Their willingness to do it sooner suggests that they have greater resources and are less afraid of being exposed, which makes sense if the cycle of past wars never happened and the Shadows are therefore a long-standing and active enemy of the Vorlons, rather than just coming out of a long hibernation.

Continued in two weeks…

The Babylon 5 that (thankfully) never was: Season 2

Although there was a new episode of Sailor Moon Crystal this past weekend, I was at a convention, so the liveblog is not until this coming weekend. Thus, have the second installment of my series attempting to reconstruct how Babylon 5 was originally (for certain values of original) “supposed to” go. More detailed explanation and Season 1 are here.

So, in response to the first part of this series, one of my readers, Glenn, sent me photos of his copy of the treatment I discussed. This means I have now read that treatment, not just summaries of it, and need to rewrite this whole series in that light. I am extremely grateful for this! I always prefer to use primary sources when I can.

Some overall thoughts on the document:
  • I did not know it included an introduction that explained its genesis. According to JMS, the document came about because  he had an outline of the series in “milestone” form–a series of notecards that laid out plot beats–but not narrative form. He says the only person he remembers showing it to is Michael O’Hare, Sinclair’s actor, who was having trouble with the character’s motivations.
  • JMS claims there were 110 notecards. The obvious implication is that there was one per episode, which is another case of him blatantly BSing–he knows full well that that’s the implication, but nobody can read this treatment without realizing that very few of those episodes could have actually happened as he planned, especially in the latter half of the series. 
  • The document is FAR less organized than online summaries would suggest. It meanders, blends together seasons, jumps forward and back in the timeline–the most egregious example is the two-paragraph paranthetical in the middle of season three/four (they’re rather blended together) that lays out the plot of season one’s “Babylon Squared.” 
  • My speculation about Psy-Corps appears both partially confirmed and partially denied. The document mentions Psy-Corps as slowly emerging as sinister and manipulative, and alludes to Clark gaining power in the wake of Santiago’s assassination, but does not connect the two. There appears to be no hint of a relationship between Psy-Corps and the Shadows. 
Anyway, onward to Season 2!

Known: The biggest difference, of course, is that Sinclair was never supposed to leave. The treatment indicates, however, that the reason for the surrender at the Battle of the Line revealed this season would have been notably different. It would have been revealed partway through the season that Minbari fertility rates were declining and their species headed for extinction; a Minbari prophecy predicts a savior who would somehow solve this problem. At the Battle of the Line, the Minbari discovered that Sinclair is the (equally prophesied) father of that savior; Delenn’s transformation is so that she can mate with him and produce a son. (Note that there is nothing here about reincarnation or souls passing from Minbari to humans, nor is there any prophecy of the Shadows returning.) This, of course, is impossible because of his existing relationship. In addition, the Warrior Caste interpret the prophecy differently, and believe that Sinclair and his son will instead bring about their final extinction. This is very different from their motivation in the show, which is mistrust of humans due to the war and of the Religious Caste due to their role in ending the war.

A number of things which occurred this season either do not happen or happen later in the treatment, most notably the Narn/Centauri war. In the treatment, the Shadows and Londo continue to attack the Narn throughout the season, but there is no indication of a full Narn/Centauri war breaking out and, by the end of the season, Narn has suffered heavy losses but still remains an independent nation. In addition, by the end of the season the identity of the mole has not yet been revealed. On the other hand, Kosh would still have revealed himself to save Sinclair’s life at the end of the season. G’kar still leaves the station to investigate who is destroying the Narn, but spends MUCH longer than in the aired series–he seems to spend the bulk of seasons two and three investigating, and it’s not at all clear whether the show follows him on this journey.

Speculation: Season 2 of the show notably accelerates as it goes on, and thereafter the show’s main arc is much faster-paced than the relatively sedate unspooling of Season 1. It seems likely that this was a deliberate choice to deviate from the treatment’s plan, in which major aspects of (show) Season 2 do not happen until (treatment) Season 3. G’kar’s time off the station was likewise notably shortened, possibly to allow more interaction between him and Londo, which by the end of Season 1 was clearly emerging as a highlight of the show.

Most notably, there is no reference to First Ones or a cycle of past Vorlon/Shadow conflicts. It would appear that, while the Shadows and Vorlons are significantly more advanced (and presumably therefore older) than the other races, the building conflict between them and their allies among the younger races is the first time they have fought.

Lennier’s speech explaining what happened to Sinclair at the Line and why, in the Season 2 premiere, appears to be the sole relic of a transitional stage between the Sinclair-as-Joseph and Sinclair-as-Valen stages of the plan; note that in his speech there is still the concept of the Minbari being in decline, but we have the added element of a human with a Minbari soul, foreshadowing “War Without End.” By Delenn’s speech in “In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum” the concept of the cyclical war seems to be pretty well cemented. JMS’ claim that he got the idea of the conflict being cyclical from the same Babylonian mythological sources as the general “order vs. chaos” theme seems quite reasonable–Marduk’s defeat of Tiamat was ritualistically reenacted annually–but it’s notable that he never said he took those two ideas at the same time. The conflict of chaos and order seems to be the main Babylonian element built into the series from the start (that and the “Babel” pun of a giant tower in space with many squabbling cultures living in it), but the cyclical nature of that conflict seems to have emerged in the course of writing Season 2, as opposed to being present from the start.

Continued in three weeks…

ETA: Updated link to the first post, which was broken. Thanks for pointing that out, RexMax!

The Babylon 5 that (thankfully) never was: Intro and Season 1

In 2008, Cafepress released a 14-volume limited run of books collecting the J. Michael Straczynski-penned scripts for Babylon 5, a show with which I have always been mildly obsessed. (It is probably my favorite live-action show, though there were six or seven years ending a couple of years ago where that was Doctor Who.) As a bonus for collectors who bought all 14 books, they produced a 15th volume as a “free” gift. Included in this volume was a seven-page treatment outlining the full run of the series, written sometime between the production of the series pilot, “The Gathering,” and its first regular episodes roughly a year later. (This should not be confused with the 22-page treatment written in 1988 and sold by the Babylon 5 Fan Club as a collectible.) It is, in other words, a snapshot of what the series would have been if not for cast changes and the natural alterations that any long-form work goes through in the process of writing.

This outline is now basically impossible to find. The book containing it is long out of print. Synopses and summaries of it are ubiquitous, and the book containing it can be purchased, used, for about $150, but literally no one has transcribed or scanned the outline and put it out on torrents or download sites. Cafepress produced a “highlight” book of the script collections a couple of years ago, but vetted its contents with a “fan board” of jealous collectors, and those assholes stipulated that the new book could not include any content from volume 15 and only very limited content from the other 14 volumes, presumably so that they can continue lording their possession of the book over “lesser” collectors and charging hundreds of dollars for them online.

Nonetheless, what synopses are available make something very clear: the common claim (including frequent statements from JMS himself) that JMS had a five-year plan for the series which he, at least in broad strokes, succeeded in getting on screen? Absolute bullshit. The series that aired starts similarly to the treatment, but rapidly diverges, and not simply for reasons of cast changes. The final couple of seasons are almost unrecognizably different from the series that aired, and in particular JMS’ claim that he knew the final shot of the series from day one is very clearly completely false.

So, then, because I cannot help thinking obsessively about this, I present to you the beginning of a six-part series: The Babylon 5 That Thankfully Never Was. Why thankfully? Because, frankly, as near as I can tell the series that JMS envisioned when he started writing Season 1 was a vastly more conventional and vastly less interesting narrative than what eventually made its way to the screen.

I will break up these posts by season, and then within each season I will first present what is known from synopses of the treatment and comments made by JMS, then add my own speculations on what this means. For synopses of the treatment, I will use two sources:  The Hidden Evolution of Babylon 5, and Synopsis of JMS’s synopsis of the “original arc for B5”. The comments by JMS I cite can all be found on The Lurker’s Guide to Babylon 5.

Season 1

Known differences: Comments by JMS state that, had there been no cast changes, Lyta would have remained as the station’s telepath, and grown slowly closer to Kosh and away from Psy-Corps by “a different route” than Talia. In addition, Laurel Takashima would have been the mole who helped Knights One and Two kidnap Sheridan and shot Garibaldi in the back, rather than Garibaldi’s second. Finally, Ivanova would have existed as a background/minor character, a junior officer who worked in C’n’C and reported to Takashima. The season as described in the treatment is largely the same as what aired, with one major difference: the treatment has no mention of Psicops or Bester.

Speculation: Presumably, Carolyn Sykes would have continued dating Sinclair and taken Catherine Sakai’s role, including the Sigma 957 incident or something very similar. The “different route” by which Lyta draws away from Psy-Corps and toward Kosh is probably to do with her scanning him; the lack of Bester and the Psicops suggests that they were created specifically for “Mind War,” so that Talia could encounter Ironheart as her equivalent to Lyta’s scan of Kosh. This would explain why Psy-Corps seems rather less of a police organization in the treatment than the series; likely they were originally intended (as seems appropriate for telepaths) to be sinister in a “shadowy manipulators with lots of intel” way, rather than a “jackboots and black gloves” way.

Continued next week…

Five Episodes I Like

Reminder: MLP Liveblog tomorrow. Details go up at noon EST, actual liveblog chat thingy is at 2 p.m.

Something I’m toying with doing on occasion: Here’s a list of five really good episodes of television. It’s not a top five list or anything, although the intention is for the episode mentioned to be at least a contender for best episode of its show; they’re just five episodes I really, really like, with a brief explanation of what’s so good about them. No pattern, just the first five I think of.

  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer: “Once More with Feeling.” Buffy has enough truly great episodes to easily fill one of these lists on its own–“The Body,” “The Gift,” “Surprise”/”Innocence,” “Graduation Day,” “Hush” all come to mind swiftly and easily–but my postmodern heart swells with joy at “Once More with Feeling,” a musical wherein the protagonists’ main goal is figuring out why they keep singing their feelings and making it stop, while the villain uses the inability to feel without singing about it to torment them and disrupt their relationships. On top of this, unlike most musical episodes (a trend it more or less invented) it is not a one-off; it continues plot and character threads established in prior episodes and is a vital turning point for several of the season’s major plots. Plus it’s a genuinely good musical in its own right!
  • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: “In the Pale Moonlight.” It’s the best episode of the best Star Trek, and the one that goes farthest in exploring the moral ambiguity that characterized (most of) DS9. Trekkies who hate DS9 frequently cite it as their go-to example of how the series betrayed the founding values of Star Trek, to which my response is that yes, it absolutely does, and it’s amazing.
  • Veronica Mars: “Pilot.” This is, quite simply, the best first episode I’ve ever seen. It is confident, well-acted, engaging, and not bogged down in exposition; it’s the kind of episode a series has at the start of its second or third season, not its first. Plus, how often do you get to see a rape victim tell her own story for herself and define it for herself? I flung myself headlong into Veronica Mars late last year, and this episode is the main reason why.
  • Puella Magi Madoka Magica: “I Won’t Rely on Anyone Anymore.” Ten episodes into a twelve-episode series is not, usually, when you completely recontextualize every event of the series so far, up to and including the meaning of the opening credits. But Madoka doesn’t do things the usual way. This episode is, by turns, unsettling, heartbreaking, and fantastic, and it blows open the path to the end of the series in an utterly spectacular way.
  • Babylon 5: “Sleeping in Light.” One of the most satisfying, heartbreaking, bittersweet series finales ever shown. I cannot make it through this dry-eyed; there is one musical track in particular that I cannot hear without tearing up. My father died in 1992; that was the last time I cried until I saw this episode for the first time in 1998.

What are some of your favorites?

ETA: Fixed a couple of typos in the last two bullets: Madoka is a twelve-episode series, not thirteen, and “Sleeping in Light” was the series finale of B5, not just a season finale.

The Art of the Opening

It’s still Wednesday, barely, so let’s talk about openings, shall we? Specifically, opening credit sequences to TV shows. What makes a good opening?

The answer is that it could be a lot of things, depending on the show. The ideal for an opening is to prime the audience to enjoy the show, but what exactly that means is highly variable.

The most basic approach, but frequently the most effective, is to introduce the audience to the characters and premise of the series. The Simpsons opening, for example, does a marvelous job of introducing the viewer (assuming they are one of the three people left on Earth who don’t know the characters) to the essential natures of the characters and that this is a cartoonish family comedy.

Here’s another classic example of this “introduce the premise” approach, which more explicitly lays out the premise while leaving out the characters (unless, as I do, you think the main character of Star Trek has always been the Enterprise).

Probably because of Star Trek, this style of opening has become de rigeur for American science fiction series, and reaches its apotheosis at the same point as the Star Trek-style imperialist-liberal space opera, Babylon 5. (Note, all openings after the first in this video contain spoilers–the third in particular contains the only case I know of where the first line of the opening sequence completely recontextualizes the series to that point.)

Note that, for the first two seasons, the opening relies heavily on detailed description in the form of a very dry monologue, but in the second season shifts to show more of the characters, emphasizing them as much or more than the titular Big Artificial Thing in Space. The third season starts to move away from that approach, using a combination of music, images, and a much shorter monologue to provide the revised series premise, and places the characters over the Big Artificial Thing in Space, implying (correctly) that it is important as the place where these characters interact, not as a consequence of its Bigness, Artificiality, or location In Space. The fourth opening abandons any straightforward explanation of the premise, and relies instead on a sort of thematic expression, with different characters pronouncing different views on the events of the series, and finally the fifth opening expresses the premise by showing it rather than telling it, presenting the series as the future history it is.

That thematic, rather than literal, expression of the series that Babylon 5 Season 4 attempted is often done extremely well by anime. I like to point to the fifth opening of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood as an example of this being done extremely well.

Here we have a song that is melancholic without being sad, juxtaposed with images of heroes and villains coming together in flames that dissolve them together (suggesting both the concept of the crucible and the alchemical stage of citrinitas), followed by a steady rain (the title of the song, incidentally) through which people nonetheless continue to strive, struggle and fight, though not without loss. In the end, the clouds part, and we see images of hope and love. Anyone who’s seen the final arc of the show to which this opening corresponds can see how relevant this is to the episodes in question, even though in terms of actual “spoiler” imagery it has a fairly light touch for an anime opener. (Which is to say, unacceptably heavy for a Western show.)

Another good anime example is the first-season opening to Higurashi no Naku Koro ni.

This is all about the song. I freaking love this song; it’s creepy, unsettling, and has a great beat. They even managed to use autotune well, which I didn’t think was possible! Image-wise, it’s pretty good, especially the beginning with the kaleidoscope and the flowers and, most importantly, the lamp with the butterfly. That image–a fragile, beautiful creature, drawn towards the light that will destroy it, but locked out by a cage–goes beyond intriguing and manages to be downright haunting.

Unfortunately, instead of sticking to its guns and depicting similarly haunting images, the opening instead shows all the main characters (with the notable exception of Keiichi, the only male character in the group) sad or in pain. It gives up on being the opening to a smart, highly original, and deeply creepy horror story and is instead the opening to a show about voyeuristically watching cute adolescent (and younger) girls suffer. Unfortunately, both of those are accurate descriptions of the brilliant but deeply problematic Higurashi no Naku Koro ni.

An opening doesn’t have to be particularly deep to be great. Some shows, you just need something to get you in the mood–say, some energetic 90s J-pop along with images of action-adventure shounen fantasy.

Returning to the West, there’s been a notable trend in American shows toward ever-shorter opening credits, so the question must be asked: Can a theme under 30 seconds accomplish anything more than announcing the name of the show and maybe one or two big names attached to it?

Yes, yes it can, as witness the theme that inspired this article.

Start with the visuals: a smoky green haze, the chemical formula for methamphetamine,* the periodic table, and then the title of the show, Breaking Bad. The periodic table is doubled over on itself, the right and left sides superimposed so that they can more easily dissolve into the title, evoking the overlapping dual nature of the protagonist, which must ultimately give way to reveal that, like everyone else, he’s a complex but singular entity. All of this imagery suggests a tale of science run amuck,which to an extent is true, but it is ultimately wiped away in smoke, leaving only the name of the show’s creator: this is also a complex and extended morality play, and the divine authorial hand will punish and wipe away the iniquity of those who “break bad.” Even the music adds extra layers, since it belongs quite firmly in the traditional scoring of Westerns, both recalling the New Mexico setting of the show and helping make the case that it belongs in the Western genre with which it shares so many thematic similarities and character archetypes (in particular, the series is highly reminiscent of the John Wayne vehicle The Searchers).

Finally, no discussion of openings could be complete without reference to my uncritical, irrational adoration of this final clip, the best version of the best opening theme in all of television. What can I say? I’m a child of the 80s, I have a nigh-Pavlovian response to cheesy synthesizers swelling hopefully.

*Which does NOT include lithium, whatever fans desperate to find alternate meanings for the title of the series finale might tell you: FeLiNa could be iron, lithium, salt, but that’s neither a stable compound nor some kind of code for “blood, meth, and tears”–there’s no lithium in meth.

Note: Because this article went up so late and is fairly lengthy, Thursday’s thought of the day will go up in the evening instead of noon.