A BEHIND-THE-SCENES LOOK AT THE VENERABLE SCI-FI SHOW BABYLON 5 AS IT ENTERS ITS FINAL SEASON FRONTIER
By ABBIE BERNSTEIN
Deep in the heart of California's San Fernando Valley, in a former warehouse hidden away on a bland-looking side street, a million years' worth of interstellar history is being played out at least, on the set of Babylon 5 that is.
Babylon 5 has been compared to Lord of the Rings set in space. It does have complex plots that weave into and out of and around one another; every episode is an "arc" episode.
Summarizing everything that's happened up until now would take up a fair bit of space (and in any case is accomplished well in fine documentation elsewhere).
The title setting is a space station in the mid-23rd century; Babylon 5 was set up and originally maintained by Earth, but is home to an approximate quarter-million members of various races from all over the galaxy.
The principals among these are humans; the Minbari, who waged a destructive war with Earth more than a decade ago over a misunderstanding, only to halt the fighting when the Minbari religious caste came to believe that some humans have the souls of deceased Minbari; the Centauri, a race with Borgia-like politics and expansionist tendencies; the lizard-like Narn, whose homeworld has twice been invaded and conquered by the Centauri.
Babylon 5 and John Sheridan (Bruce Boxleitner), erstwhile captain of the facility (Seasons 2-4) and now President of the Earth Alliance, were crucial in ending a massive, universe-threatening war provoked by the malevolently Darwinian Shadows, which went to great lengths to cause conditions of absolute chaos, so that only the strongest would survive. Humans and their allies were on their own, since the Shadows' adversaries, the mysterious, riddle-speaking Vorlons, couldn't finally be said to be on any side. As the war heated up, the Vorlons started blowing up any world that had the slightest taint of Shadow influence, while the Shadows destroyed all planets in opposition.
The Shadow War brewed all through Seasons 1 and 2 and exploded into action in Season 3, carrying through to mid-Season 4. Plot developments include Sinclair (Michael O'Hare), the quite human captain of Babylon 5 in Season 1, going back in time a thousand years and changing species to become the Minbari prophet and military hero Valen; sympathetic telepath Talia Winters (Andrea Thompson, Seasons 1-2) turns out to have a friendly personality implant that even she was unaware of, camouflaging a vicious inner self; Sheridan literally dies and is resurrected with a foreshortened, 20-years-remaining lifespan. When the Shadows and Vorlons finally leave the known universe, a smaller but still galaxy-shaking war breaks out between the thoroughly corrupt government on Earth and forces led by Sheridan. When the smoke clears, Earth's president (who had gotten the job by arranging the assassination of his predecessor) is dead and Sheridan, still standing, becomes President of the newly-formed Interstellar Alliance, which is so new that most of the worlds represented doubt its effectiveness or whether it can last.
In the annals of television, there has never been anything quite like Babylon 5, either on screen or behind the scenes. Sure, there have been science-fiction dramas that unfolded like novels miniseries, movies of the week, even episode arcs within shows but B5 is now in its fifth 22-episode season. According to series creator J. (Joe) Michael Straczynski, this will be the show's final year, as his story arc was always designed to run exactly half a decade though several times it seemed as though the labyrinthine narrative would have to be brought to a premature conclusion.
The series itself has survived almost as many dire predicaments as its characters, bouncing from station to station and timeslot to timeslot (5 AM in some regions) in first-run syndication for its first four years before finding a primetime slot (Wed. at 10 EST, 7 PST) on the TNT network. In contrast to their often-indifferent syndicated station predecessors, TNT is vigorously promoting its new acquisition, to the delight of all parties concerned.
"There's a sense of relief that we're getting to finish what we started," says Patricia Tallman, who first played telepath Lyta Alexander in the series' pilot, then returned in the role as a regular at the end of Season Two. "What happened in the middle of last years season was, we had to wrap up a major storyline, which was the war with the Shadows and the Vorlons, really quickly and get on with tying up as many loose ends as possible before the end of the fourth season, so that the fans had some kind of closure, because we didn't know if we had a fifth season. So Joe had to proceed as if that was the end. And it was really frustrating and very, very sad. This whole new energy that we've gotten with TNT has been such a shot in the arm. The publicity alone has been incredible! I think they spent more on the first two promos they did with G'Kar and Ivanova than Warner Bros. had in four years. Instead of feeling like the bastard stepchild, we're feeling like a valued player."
Robin Atkin Downes is a new regular this season, portraying the rebel telepath leader Byron. Last season, when the show was still in syndication, Downes played the Minbari official Morann in the episode "Atonement." He agrees that TNT's sponsorship has resulted in a happier company.
"It just seemed like there was a different attitude on set from the first time when I was doing ["Atonement"] to when it was on UPN [the former syndication outlet for B5 in Southern California]. I never saw anybody from UPN on set, but there are always people around from TNT and they're always excited about the show and willing to help out in any way."
In the famously sometimes rapaciously collaborative medium of television, B5 is unique in how closely it represents the work of a single author. Straczynski has written all but a handful of the scripts produced in the show's five seasons. He wrote the series pilot, "The Gathering," then penned twelve of the first season's episodes (other writers in that year included classic Star Trek veterans D.C. Fontana and David Gerrold).
In Season 2, Straczynski stepped up his output to 15 episodes; he wrote Seasons 3 and 4 solo. To understand what this means, it helps to understand how TV works. For instance, few would dispute that Chris Carter is the father of THE X-FILES and the ultimate arbiter of that series' mythos, but THE X-FILES still has a story department and a writing staff. Although B5's Season 5 has opened the door slightly to other scribes Sandman creator Neil Gaiman has penned an episode, "Day of the Dead," and series "conceptual consultant" Harlan Ellison shares story credit with the show's creator on a few episodes Straczynski has otherwise written this season alone also. This accounts for the fact that the series has arguably the fewest narrative contradictions in memory; there's no one around coming up with developments that someone else later on wants to pretend never happened (or simply forgets about them).
"I haven't been in an episode that he didn't write," Tallman relates. "He knows how the characters talk and he wouldn't let anything go on that doesn't sound [right]. In fact, there was supposed to be another script [this season] written by somebody else and [Straczynski] felt it was not up to par, and the rewrites weren't coming in the way he wanted, so it just didn't happen. I've never seen a man work so hard in my entire life. He works until 4 in the morning and he's back at the studio working by noon. I took him a bunch of vitamins and he swore I was trying to kill him." She imitates Straczynski, sounding suspicious: " 'What are these?' " Tallman as herself, patiently: " 'Vitamins.' " As Straczynski, still suspicious: " 'What's in 'em?' I said," her tone becomes ever so slightly cranky, " ' Vitamins.' " She laughs. "He wrote a scene later for me and Robin where I bring Byron vitamins and he says, 'What are these?' 'Vitamins ' "
Straczynski's persistence of vision has made for great television, if you're one of the show's admirers (or not-so-great television if you are among the unenthused).
However, it also makes for a predicament in doing an article on the series. Straczynski, for the time being, is not giving interviews to any online media; fellow producer Netter is likewise keeping mum. This effectively removes the possibility of discussing the show's genesis over the years with its singular creative staff, but actors Tallman and Downes and various technicians are happy to discuss their roles in the proceedings.Tallman learned in a novel manner that one of her portrayals had made a big impression on Straczynski.
"I was reading the script [for the B5 pilot] and thought, 'This is way too good a part, they want to get a star for this, but what fun to audition,' " she recalls. "I went in there was only one other actor in the room. We're both standing as far apart as possible, talking to ourselves as actors are wont to do before an audition, running your lines for this scene, and this huge man comes running into the room. I mean, he blocked the entire doorframe. And he stared right at me and said, 'Patricia Tallman.' I said, 'Yes?' And he said, 'My name's Joe Straczynski. I wrote the part for you. Good luck,' and ran out of the room again. This other actor looked at me with this bored look on his face and said, 'No pressure, huh?' Literally, I cannot remember the audition. I was so shaken and so freaked out that I don't remember any of it. I kind of walked out in a daze, called my agent and said, 'I have no idea what this meant.' I found out later that what Joe meant was, he had seen [Tallman's leading performance in] the 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead and patterned Lyta on that."
Tallmans extensive background in stuntwork, which has factored into getting previous roles, has not been relevant to her work on B5 until now.
"Lyta's not an action character," she says. "Though there was a day when they needed me to be able to do something I don't want to spoil it, it hasn't aired yet but I don't know how many actresses they could've asked to do what they asked me to do. And I was able to do it without even thinking about it."
At the beginning of Season 5, Elizabeth Lochley (Tracy Scoggins) comes on board Babylon 5 as its captain, though President Sheridan makes his headquarters on the station. Influential Minbari Delenn (Mira Furlan), who transformed into a semi-human in Season 2 and is now Sheridan's wife, also is in residence. Centauri Ambassador (and soon to be Emperor) Londo Mollari (Peter Jurasik) and his assistant Vir (Stephen Furst), Narn leader G'Kar (Andreas Katsulas), former B5 security chief-turned-covert operations chief Michael Garibaldi (Jerry Doyle), current security officer Zack Allen (Jeff Conaway) are other important figures still present. The jovially Machiavellian Psi Corps chief Mr. Bester (Walter Koenig) will return.
One character who won't be back is the heroic, self-sacrificing Marcus Cole (Jason Carter) who literally traded his life for that of Commander Susan Ivanova (Claudia Christian) at the end of Season 4, triggering Ivanova's self- exile. Marcus was tall, emotional, quoted Shakespeare and had an English accent kind of like Downes as the as-yet-mysterious Byron.
"Those are better examples of why I might be compared to him," Downes sighs, "but I was speaking to a fan online and I said, 'Why do you think I'm Marcus's replacement?' She said, 'Well, you've got long hair, just like him.' I thought, 'Oh, great,' " he laughs. I remember at the audition there were a lot of long-haired, Euro-looking guys. Everybody there was more how I would see a Byronesque figure - darker hair, darker eyes, so I don't know why they chose me for it."
Downes carries the notion of the character's poet namesake only so far. "I tried not to bring too much of his history to the character he was messing around with sheep," he chuckles. "But he was [like the B5 character] a very
emotional, passion-driven person, too."
Both in his role as Byron and by birth, Downes is English, but his family moved to California when he was 12 and off-camera, little of the accent is detectable. Why, then, make Byron British?
"Most of the aliens that you see on TV are English I don't know why," Downes notes as he segues from his soft L.A. speech to a pitch-perfect English accent. "It just seemed like, his name was Byron, and in the first scene I was auditioning with, he was quoting Shakespeare and I thought, this guy is flamboyant, he's definitely British. I was amazed at the size of my storyline for somebody just coming on. When I started performing in the show [as Morann], I did a lot of research for it I became a kind of a Babylon 5 junkie after watching about six tapes. G'Kar will have eight weeks of a great storyline, and then Sheridan's dying and everybody's killing him and everything's going crazy. Everybody has their piece on the show. I felt like I was being given a huge storyline and felt very lucky to be this character."
However, the B5 cast seldom know more than two scripts in advance what's coming Downes explains.
"You just have to commit to whatever you're saying," says Downes. "Sometimes you get the script for the next episode and you go, 'Oh, my God I was doing this in the last one!' " He does, however, feel that there's a safety cushion against misinterpreting a character's true motives. "I think usually if it's something that dramatic that's going to come up later, Joe would tell you about it. What you do is try and create a history for the character, you try and find out what the background is, and who the character was you wonder if you were involved with Bester at some point."
Downes did some research for his character, though less along psychic than psychological lines. "I believe there are people with telepathic abilities. There is the capability there probably," he laughs, "in those big brains that we only use a small portion of."
This was of less concern than Byron's philosophical bent as a leader with a social agenda. "As the character progresses, you can see that he's really into the nonviolent thing, so I did some research on Gandhi and Martin Luther King and all these people that created a great change and the problems that went along with that political, personal, all the things that they dealt with."
He was particularly impressed with Gandhi's concept of swadeshi. "In the Psi Corps, they say, 'The Corps is mother, the Corps is father.' Swadeshi would be, 'We are family.' Byron talks about, 'The mundanes [non-telepaths] cannot hear the song that we hear, this beautiful music that we have as telepathic people to communicate with each other. We shouldn't have to walk around and hide that we have this ability,' and I think that's what I try to convey to Lyta. I'm mostly working with Patricia Tallman we work together in a lot of very unusual positions and places."
Neither actor wants to give away too much of the final season's plotline, but Tallman will reveal this: "Lyta's changing more and more; I'm right in the middle of a transition for her that's been pretty powerful. Joe has this amazing knack for being able to write that sort of thing, the evolution of life on a character, so that you see how their experiences change them. In most TV shows, you don't see that the characters stay consistent, because that's what the audience has wanted you want to know who the good guy is, you want to know who the bad guy is, you want to rely on that good guy to always come through. What Joe has written are people who have good choices and bad choices inside them, and you see how those choices affect them afterward. Lyta has been a follower, she has devoted herself completely to the Vorlons and what they stood for in her mind, and then they alter her, change her completely she's not even human any more. They leave without so much as a 'Thanks a lot,' and she is stuck on a station full of people full of people who want nothing to do with her. And she has no way to make a living, no friends, and how does that affect somebody?"
Tallman's description of her character sounds something like the real-life residents of the North Hills, CA-based Penny Lane, a home for physically and sexually abused children. Over the past five years, Tallman has used monies made from convention speaker fees and selling photos of Lyta to B5 fans to fund a computer lab for the organization, training the youngsters to have job skills. She sounds briefly surprised when asked whether she sees Lyta in the same light as Penny Lane's bright but emotionally damaged charges. "No one's ever asked me that." She thinks. "Yeah, probably. Yeah, sure." While Tallman does not want to compare a fictional character to the misery suffered by real children, " [Lyta has been] beat up and mistrusted and misused and ignored. I have a scene with Robin where we're both actually laughing and I realized, in years of doing the show, [Lyta] has not laughed once. She's just so isolated."
The technique Tallman has used in conveying telepathic abilities began when she returned to the show in the episode "Divided Loyalties."
"I think that telepathy and ESP are sort of a natural side to us that some people have developed more than others," she relates. "Now obviously, in Babylon 5, things have been helped along, but I don't think that reading somebody's mind or receiving images takes a lot of facial expression," she laughs. "Actually, I'm very near- sighted, so really, that's how it started, when I was scanning a whole bunch of people. I was standing across the room from them. Jesus Trevino [the episode's director], said, 'I want to see you scanning them.' I wasn't even thinking, I was standing across the room I just kind of focused on them, which meant I squinted. Jesus goes, 'That's it!' And I'm like, 'Oh, shit, what did I do?' I realized, 'Oh, I'm trying to see them.' So that's all I do. One of the things Joe said about me at a convention later, which I thought was really complimentary is, 'I love when Pat is doing that, because you can see her doing it; you believe she's reading someone's mind.' " Popular character Ivanova, Sheridan's second-in-command and a regular in Seasons 1-4, has left to try to pull herself together after one too many losses and is absent in Season 5, although she will appear in the upcoming B5 telefilm Thirdspace. Delenn's longtime aide Lennier (Bill Mumy) has likewise left the station in this season due to emotional pain in his case, unrequited love for the now-married Delenn but it's a certainty that the character will reappear, since he's in one of the scenes I watch being filmed during my visit to the B5 set.
PART 2: "THE SET VISIT" WILL BE POSTED FRIDAY, MARCH 13TH