Those who have known me for any length of time know that my all-time favorite science fiction television series is Babylon 5. Indeed, it is not only my favorite series but defensibly one of the most important television shows made to this date. Babylon 5 (Bab 5 or B5, to fans) set a long string of firsts for TV Sci-Fi as well as television in general. One of these is that after almost 20 years it is still the most successfully executed serial story to make it to the small screen. The question becomes “Why?” There have been a lot of great Sci-Fi serials since. What has Babylon 5 had that these others have missed?
I think it comes down to two things; planning and the balance between plot and character. Joe Straczynski made no compromises on either of these two issues. He also took a uniquely realistic approach to both. Let’s look at these in order.
Regarding planning, Bab 5 is likely the most thoroughly planned show in television history. Each season was carefully planned for the segment of the story he wanted to tell. Of course this is not particularly unusual. The difference is that he invested just as much careful planning of the entire story from season to season. And he did this before the first episode had even aired. At the outset, he had planned five, and only five, seasons for Babylon 5. All were outlined before the show went live in Season 1. Yes, he did have contingency plan in case he only got 4 seasons. He also had trap doors to continue the intended story if there were unexpected cast changes. Also, even though he had the story planned in advance, he did leave room for the story to evolve as the show progressed.
As a result, story elements could be introduced in one season but not resolved until years later. Then when we get the resolution, we find that this was a critical element of the story. This happens more than once, and it is amazing to watch how all the pieces fit seamlessly together in a massive tapestry.
In contrast, almost all the shows since have taken shortcuts on the “Big Story.” They may have a set up and an ending in mind, but they wind up making up the middle as they go. The results are typically unsatisfying. We may end up with seasonal stories that are generally complete, but nothing strong pulling them together between seasons so they just fizzle out. Eureka is a good example of this. Sometimes you end up with a weak middle story that weakens the whole continuity, such as what happened in Lost. Other times you may end up with so many retcons as the writers try to maneuver out of the corner they’ve written themselves into that the results are unsatisfying. The Battlestar Galactica reboot is a good example.
This segues nicely into the second element of great serial Sci-Fi; the balance between plot and character. There has been a lot made in recent years about “character driven” stories. This may ruffle some feathers, but I find that to be an excuse for laziness and/or bad planning. Both are equally important. What good is having deep, interesting, well written characters if there is not a rock solid story in which they can interact and grow? Likewise, even the best story without truly great characters will leave the audience uninvested. It’s not an “either-or” proposition.
Babylon 5 set the standard for this, as well. The plot does not exist simply to serve outstanding characters. The characters do not exist simply to act out a stellar plot. Both are deeply integral to each other. Take away from either and the whole will fall apart. In Bab 5, characters are only used where they will best serve the story and their own development. Even main characters may be absent for multiple episodes. There are no obligatory walk-ons. The characters and their growth mean something. Characters – even beloved characters – can be killed, or worse, to serve the story and that investment in those characters makes you feel the loss even more. It is a risky approach to storytelling and it is certainly much more work, but it pays off for the audience and, I believe, the writers.
Since Babylon 5, the series that has come closest to matching on these two elements has been Fringe. Elements introduced early may take seasons before we see their significance. The show runners have been clear from the outset they know the story they want to tell. The characters are compelling and encased in a story that has so far been of the highest quality. Even the “controversial” Season 4, I believe, will be put in a master context that makes sense at the end. In fact, I think that season will prove important to the overall story. It’s not perfect. I think everything would have been improved if they had planned the seasons (i.e. chapters) more tightly. Of course, we are still in the final chapter, so any judgment for good or ill is premature.
The one other show that that has shown the potential to be amongst these great shows is Once Upon A Time. In this case, an ensemble of amazing characters are there. True greatness is going to depend on the story. Progressing now through the second season, what I wish the show runners would do would be to let us know how many seasons they show will run and that they know what the Big Story will be. If they did that now while the excitement for the show is still increasing, I think they will find viewers make an even greater investment into the series. We will have confidence that they know where they are going and be willing to commit the time to the show. They creative team will have the comfort of a known end point in which they can focus their efforts and can concentrate on making every episode matter. It is a win-win for everyone.
Still, the intent of Once could be based on the idea that the serialization is restricted to each individual season. It’s a hybridization of sorts that could work. If they do take that route I hope the show runners have the discipline to know when to end it. I would much rather see the series end on its own term than die a slow, lingering milked-to-the-max death.
With only a couple weeks left for Fringe and only about half-way through Once it won’t be long until the questions can be answered on the respective shows. Expect to see at least two updates to this commentary. Let’s see if I will be eating some crow.