I’m a pretty obsessive compulsive guy, and Babylon 5 is my favorite show in the history of ever. I’m easily as obsessive over the show - though I like to think I’m a bit more enlightened about it - as diehard Trekies are about their shows. It’s sad, really.
Once B5 ended (By design), there were several attempts to spin it off. The most successful of these unsuccessful attempts was “Crusade,” a show set five years after B5, but filmed actually about three months later. The show was a departure from the B5 format, and more of a traditional planet-of-the-week space opera, though with a more pronounced arc than most. Unfortunately, owing to palace intrigue, the show was dead before it hit the air, though thirteen episodes and a TV movie were filmed. TNT burned these off in 1999, and that was that.
This has stuck in my craw for more than a decade. The show was just starting to shape up into something unique. Though it was a rougher transition than it felt like it should be, the show had just gotten to a point where it was pretty close to maybe finding its feet relatively soon. It never was terribly good, but it had potential. I wanted to know what happened next. I wanted to know the resolution of the Drakh plague. I wanted to get to know (most) of these characters better. I wanted to know what the show was really about, since the *real* story arc of Joe Straczynski’s shows is seldom the one they start the show with. Unfortunately, much like Firefly, the show was murdered before any of the cool things they intended to do had really gotten rolling. (Firefly was a much better show, though.)
Now, with Firefly, I was never too obsessed about what would have happened next. It was a character-driven show, a fun ride, and Joss Whedon is kind of a ‘make it up as you go along’ kind of guy. With Straczynski, however, the story is the thing. The story is far more important than any individual character, and you know full well that he - like Mister Garibaldi - never really begins that sort of thing without knowing how he’s going to end it. What was the story I didn’t get to see? I wanted to know. I’ve caught glimmers here and there, but for the most part, JMS and Co. have been pretty tightlipped about it, presumably since Joe might want to use some of those ideas elsewhere someday. (For instance, his pitch to Paramount for a Star Trek reboot involved a crisis with a five-year timeline)
Of course I was interested with the circumstances behind the scenes that led to the stillbirth of the series as well, but I think I committed the rookie mistake of confusing the one with the other, looking for spoilers in technical details and technical details in spoilers. I’m kind of a dope. I get confused.
In any event, when I first heard of this book, I was overjoyed. I really, really, really, really wanted to read it. At last, I’d get some answers! And what glorious answers they’d be! The website for the thing promised
- 30 never before seen photos and drawings.
- A complete story description of an unknown episode called "The Walls of Hell." The would-be writer of this episode, Larry DiTillio, details point-by-point would have happened.
- Why the White House had to intervene when Peter Woodward was cast as Galen.
- Specifics about how the Excalibur set was designed to facilitate filming and how that affected the look and feel of the show.
- Why Captain Gideon was gunned down in the unfilmed season finale.
- The reason Trace Miller (the shuttle pilot) appeared in only two episodes when it was expected that he would be a series regular.
- What back story JMS give his cast to help them develop their characters.
- How production designer John Iacovelli planned to realize alien worlds on indoor sets and how he would have differentiated the look of various planets from one another.
- How the directors and producers on the show describe the differences between Gary Cole and Bruce Boxleitner as a leading men.
- Richard Biggs's candid thoughts about playing Dr. Franklin on Crusade, without the familiar trappings of Babylon 5.
- Whose idea it was to put the camera dolly tracks in the ceiling.
And a bunch of other things as well. (You can check it out here: http://www.cafepress.com/b5books ) I mean, that’s a natural sell, right? Exciting stuff, there.
The book is, alas, rather thin on mysteries revealed, and it’s pretty boring besides.
Part of that is inherent in its format: It’s a compilation of forty-seven interviews done with the cast and crew and writers before, during, and immediately after the series. You can sort of trace the decline in their attitudes from initial excitement to uncertainty to “We’re all screwed, this is never even going to get on the air!” Even still, these are professional actors, directors, artists, writers, and technicians. No matter whatever their personal feelings may be, they’re never going to say “Yeah, that guy’s a complete jackass, and I hate him,” or “Pretty much everyone in the studio hopes I die.” If they did, it would affect their livelyhood. If the show continued, they’d have made enemies with the suits that sign their checks, and if the show tanked - which more and more of them seem to suspect as time passes - they’re still not going to badmouth anyone or anything, because Hollywood is a tooth-and-nail kind of place, hypercompetitive, and if you get a reputation as a person who backbites or simply tells tales out of school, you are screwed, screwed, screwed beyond the dreams of screwification.
So everyone is in a very guarded, enthusiastic, nicey-nicey mode, which is probably authentic in the early interviews, but becomes more noticeably strained as the book progresses. No one trash talks, excepting Janet Greek, who was having a bad day (More on that in a bit). And she takes most of it back later. And of course none of ‘em know anything, storywise, excepting Straczynski, and he ain’t talkin’.
Which is, I guess, where my being a dope comes in: I’d assumed these folks would know more about where the show was going than they did. Realistically, that was pretty dumb on my part. Why would the costume designer know anything about the long-term plan? Why would an actor be let in on something they were going to be called upon to do a season and a half in advance? An actor might know more about their character’s backstory than we do - but then again, maybe not - and there might be vague notions about where their character is going based on their hiring (“Wanted: Attractive actress who is not adverse to making out with chicks. Must be able to wear contact lenses and have no latex allergies”), but really, for the most part, actors are just as clueless about this as we all are.
So: No huge answers. Ok, that’s fair enough, they never actually promised that. Just the same, there’s very little here which is really *worth* telling. I’d say it’s only suited for absolute obsessive bleeding-from-the-ears completists, but I *am* one of those, and even *I* couldn’t help wondering why I was reading a seven-page interview with a guest star who was only in one episode. (And really badmouths Christianity, by the way). For every really cool 10-page interview with someone like Peter Woodward, there’s a half-dozen why-bothers, like the three-pagers with a guy who got like five lines in one episode, or with Gary Cole who’s politely faking his way through something he doesn’t really care about.
It’s not a complete wash, mind you: I did learn a few things. I learned, for instance, that the Trace Miller character was intended to be used in 10 episodes, but was fired after the first two because TNT didn’t like him, though we never get a reason. Conspicuously, there’s no interview with the actor who played Trace. I learned that Peter Woodward is a pretty fascinating guy who more-or-less *is* Galen, minus the mastery of the dark arts (I assume). I learned that David Allen Brooks isn’t gay. In fact, he used to date Gates McFadden, but never bothered to watch Star Trek:TNG. And he used to ride bulls in the rodeo. Turns out Max Eilerson’s rather fey gesticulation and odd delivery were the result of an off-the-cuff decision by the actor to pattern Max (Who also wasn’t gay) on Yves Saint Laurent (who was.)
I learned that JMS has a penchant towards hiring stuntwomen as actresses - Patricia Tallman, Marjorie Monahan, Carrie Dobro and Marjean Holden - and that he has bad luck with his first choices for leading men (More on that in a bit). I learned a lot about Evan Chang, who did the music, most of which I’d been wondering about for years - I loved his score, it was so original and odd - and the mention of his mom being a secret Christian in mainland China during the Cultural Revolution put a tiny lump in my throat. I learned that Daniel Dae Kim is pretty much exactly what I suspected him to be: A really talented, really likeable, hardworking guy with cheekbones that make the girlies go weak in the knees.
There’s neat stuff in here, but it’s not a very effective delivery system for these things since nearly all of the interviewees are saying the same things over and over and over again. How many ways can you say “I don’t really know any more than you do” before it starts to get tedious? Two times? Maybe three? Definitely a number far short of the thirty-or-so times we get that here.
I’ll stop short of saying that the claims made on the website for this book are misleading - there’s absolutely nothing on there that’s untrue - but they are hyped more than you’d expect. The dolly system in the ceilings, for instance, was very clever, but never really used. The “Complete Story Description” by Larry DeTillo is really more of a general synopsis/outline than it is a detailed analysis. There’s no lies here, my feelings of disappointment are more tied up in what I’d hoped I’d get, rather than what they actually gave me. That’s my baggage, but if you, like me, tend to confuse production and story, then you’ll want to be wary of that kind of thing.
Really, the only terribly exciting new bits I learned were after the show was pretty definitely dead, and a few people accidentally let their masks slip in ways they obviously instantly regretted. Chief among these is Janet Greek, who speaks ill of Gary Cole. During the period they were trying to get the show resurrected on The Sci-Fi Channel (Now “Syfy”), she says Cole let them know he wouldn’t be back, regardless of what happened. She goes on to say the show would be better without him, and mentions that she thought they should fire him after the first three episodes she saw. She says one of the problems TNT had with the show was him, and this culminates in the revelation that the sniper scene at the end of the (unfilmed) season finale *wasn’t* a cliffhanger, they were actually going to kill him off!
Of course she takes most of this back in a subsequent interview, so she might have just been having a bad day, but I think her assessment is probably the case. There’s also a brief interview with the late Richard Biggs, which is interesting in that he talks about how things kind of fell apart during the last season of B5, and how he and Bruce Boxleitner had thought they were going to be part of the cast of Crusade. Bruce was evidently rather hurt about that ship sailing without him. Biggs says the “A Call To Arms” was simply throwing Boxleitner a bone. We also get some vague insights as to how tight the budget was on Crusade, since, evidently, they really couldn’t afford to pay their guest stars much of anything.
In conclusion, this isn’t a *bad* book per se, it’s really not conceived of as a book at all, but rather a compendium of previously-published interviews, so it doesn’t hang together very well. I can only assume it’s aimed at people exactly like me - fanatics - but if that’s the case, it misses the target pretty broadly. It requires more time and energy to flense the good stuff out of the thing than the nature of those good things can really justify.
With a price tag of forty bucks, I can’t really recommend it.