chromatic writes "It's hard to overestimate the influence that Babylon 5 had on American
television, especially science fiction and dramas. When it debuted, it was a
smaller, scrappier competitor to Paramount's revitalized Star Trek franchise.
When it ended, it had proven that not only could you tell a complex, layered
story over multiple years (and through the demise of syndication, yearly
struggles with funding, and often frustrating and unexpected troubles with
schedules and actors), but that a lean, creator-driven show could succeed
artistically." Read on for chromatic's review.
Through the course of the show, its creator J. Michael Straczynski (JMS) wrote 92 of the 110 episodes filmed, including every episode of seasons three and four and all but one episode of season five-- a record-breaking achievement. Now he's publishing all of his scripts, as written, in multiple volumes from Babylon5Scripts.com.
There are plenty of books about screenwriting and many include a few examples of actual scripts (another book from JMS himself reprints the script to the Hugo-award winning second season episode "The Coming of Shadows"). Yet what other book or series of books even promises to show the development of a series from inspiration to the final frame of the final episode? What's in the book (and the forthcoming volumes) for a Babylon 5 or sci-fan, let alone someone interested in the mechanics of television?
The Scripts of J. Michael Straczynski, volume 1 includes the first five JMS-penned episodes from season one, as well as the unfilmed draft of the pilot movie "The Gathering". Each episode includes a short essay with notable information about the writing, planning, or filming of the episode. There's also a short section of photos at the end, along with seven memos from the start of the project through the filming of the pilot.
Subsequent volumes reportedly will include similar information. The second, including the remaining seven episode JMS wrote for season one, is out and shipping now. The rest will follow every few weeks. Positives
The big draw, of course, is the scripts themselves. In particular, the draft of the pilot episode, "The Gathering", has a few major changes from the filmed version. Delenn, the Minbari ambassador, is still a masculine character in this draft. Kosh, the Vorlon ambassador and victim of an assassination plot, has a lifemate travelling with him on the station. For the most part, the changes made before filming are obviously for the better. (Though cutting Kosh's lifemate was the right choice, losing a line of dialogue about one reason for the Vorlons's obvious paranoia about their biology was a pity.)
The scripts appear as written, including typos and, occasionally, vague hints to what will occur later in the series. For example, the first appearance of a First Ones ship (the Walkers at Sigma 957 in the episode "Mind War") has an explicit note that the as-yet unmentioned "Shadowmen" ship will look very different. Another suggestion during the scene of the battle with raiders recommends using real-world physics for the Starfury crafts to differentiate from other dogfights-in-space shows.
If you're interested in scriptwriting, directing, acting, or editing, comparing the script to the finished product may be very educational. Straczynski writes sparse action, leaving most of the interpretation out of the script. Of course, the episodes so far are mostly character and background pieces with comparatively few action or effects scenes needing guidance. It may be that larger battles and flashbacks have more description; it's too early to tell.
The new material is interesting, and in a few places tells stories that never actually left the set. One explains why the change of station telepath from Lyta Alexander to Talia Winters took place between the pilot and the first episode. Another expands on the trials of pitching a show to television executives, especially during the first few attempts of the late '80s. None of this is essential to enjoying the show, but it does provide background for why things in the series happened the way they did. Drawbacks
Other scripts contain scenes that never actually aired. It's not always obvious whether this was due to time constraints, edits, or other decisions. Aside from a few mentions in the episode introductions, there are no notes in the scripts themselves related to what did and didn't make it to the screen. This may not be a drawback; they're much more readable this way and serious students may want to watch and read the episodes simultaneously anyway.
Though the scripts represent the bulk of the show and the introductions and memos provide some detail, there are plenty of decisions made during filming that don't actually have explanations in the book where you might expect them. Walter Koenig's character of Bester, the Psi-Cop, has a crippled hand, yet the book doesn't mention this at all. It's difficult to know how much detail to include -- and the permissions and availability of the material may make it difficult to include (production notes? director notes?) -- but this is by no means the whole story. Keep the Lurker's Guide handy for more details.
The book itself is solid but not remarkable. The script formatting reproduces faithfully an actual shooting script in length and layout. The print quality is good.
Very picky readers may quibble about the length and weight of the book -- most of the non-script material uses whitespace a little too generously, with large top and bottom margins and more than double-spaced type allowing only around twenty lines of text on a letter-sized page. Hopefully subsequent volumes will tighten the layout somewhat. Conclusion
While it's always possible to find bootleg or transcribed scripts online or at conventions, often at vastly inflated prices, the chance to read the official versions as filmed is worth considering for serious students of film or television as well as Babylon 5 fans. The bonus materials are nice, but they're probably more interesting to fans than students; more information about the process of how a script went from the paper to film might satisfy both groups.
The quibbles are minor; if you're already a Babylon 5 fan, you know what to expect here. If you're not a fan or a screenplay geek, this isn't the place to start -- but if you find the creative processes behind television or movies fascinating, this is an easy way to soak up wisdom and hard-earned experience. It's well worth your time to compare a few episodes in script and filmed form.
chromatic's life goals include writing a novel (done), a comic book, and an episode of a television series. Then he can sleep. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.