Thursday, December 30, 2010

Of Retrospectives and Flashforwards

Babylon 5 is renowned, of course, for a completely mapped-out five-year storyline, a character quirk which made it both anomalous and ahead of its time in one fell swoop. But there is another, much more intrinsic flourish of its narrative architecture that makes it so compelling 12 years after its denouement: its timeline.

It goes without saying – but only because creator/showrunner Joe Michael Straczynski has said it so often over the past decade-and-a-half – that B5 had a backstory that was fully developed 1,000 years, generally, and 100 years, specifically, before the start of the show, helping to ensure that, say, the politics of EarthGov or the societal structure of the Minbari Federation remained exactingly consistent from the very first episode to the 110th (a feat which its forerunner and one of its chief sources of inspiration, Star Trek: The Next Generation, sadly could not boast, as a look at the wildly varying Ferengi can easily attest to). Even more, the timeline after the series’s five-year span was similarly mapped out at both the century and millennium marks, resulting in a story that, much more than any other television production, feels like a natural piece of a much larger, organic puzzle, as opposed to a cardboard cut-out narrative shoehorned into a wider, but still largely paper-thin, context. Immediately in the first season, as such, the audience is thrust right into the middle of a slew of historical processes: some, such as the First Narn-Centuari War, find extension to the new round of historical developments that sweep the characters up within B5’s run; others, like the Earth-Minbari War, merely reverberate along the show’s narrative spine, adding extra depth to the plot’s melody.

And then there are others still – the Telepath Crisis being a prime example – that are diligently, even obsessively, tracked and followed and built upon… only to have their pay-offs being placed just beyond the temporal scope of the series. These are, by far, the most intriguing of all of Straczynski’s storytelling tricks, for these represent the single most brilliant method of constructing a truly living and breathing world. The most appropriate analogy would be to a show centered upon the beginning of the Cold War: in telling a tale that spans from 1947 to 1953, there is room enough for a quick look back to World War II before moving on to the beginning of the nuclear arms race, the proclamation of the Truman Doctrine, and the quick but painful duration of the Korean War, with just enough left over for the intimations – but not the telling – of such future calamities as the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War. Why not include it all, along with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan or the negotiations over the (first) START treaty? Because it took an additional 35 years for all that to happen!

By almost abruptly cutting off the audience’s window into his fictional universe, JMS pulled a Sopranos years before The Sopranos either aired or ended – but he didn’t leave audiences completely in the dark as to the ultimate fate of his timeline. In addition to employing that most wonderful and standard of tropes, the flashback, he also utilized flashforwards (well before the dynamic duo of Braga and Goyer forever tainted the term), moving months or even years into the future, thereby rendering the typically rigid and fixed focus of a story into a dynamic and free-floating one. Indeed, these scenes certainly end up becoming some of the show’s most important elements on both a narrative level – by giving away the ending almost right away, in the beginning, audience expectation and contemplation shifts away from what is going to happen to the infinitely more important question of why – as well as on a character plane, helping to resolve arcs and polish off leitmotifs (as best seen in “Sleeping in Light,” the series finale, which is set 19 years after the series proper and shows how both of Babylon’s main stars, John Sheridan and the B5 station itself, go quietly into that gentle night). And it is a device that, in JMS’s capable hands, is used to maximum effect: while the immediate and intimate effects of his characters’ actions are exhaustively parsed within the five-year domain of the show, he drags its temporal slider to ever-more-distant points further along the timeline, revealing what consequences and reverberations are to be had 100, 500, 1,000, and even 1,000,000 years down the road. It is hard to be more comprehensive than this.

There is a twist in the aforementioned finale that reveals the entire show was, indeed, a show, a production for future television watchers that sought to reconstruct the heady events of the Babylon 5 station’s 25-year lifespan. It recasts the entire experience, fundamentally altering the audience’s perception of and reaction to its narrative, unifying form and function into a seamless whole. It is a turn, of course, that is quintessentially metatheatrical, and it is only made possible by B5’s altogether singular (and singularly unique) creation, maintenance, and exploration of a true-blue history.

Here’s to looking at television’s future by studying its past.

This piece is part of Marc N. Kleinhenz's The Babylon Project series of articles, which comprises essays, reviews, and interviews. The other items can be found here:

The Passing of the Techno-mages and the expansion of previous narratives
November 2009
Blue Buddha

The Lost Tales and the undermining of worldbuilding
December 2009
Blue Buddha

The Shadow Within, The Passing of the Techno-mages, and the role of technology in love
January 2010

The history of Babylon, from Babylon 5 and Babylon Prime to Crusade
February 2010

Sandy Bruckner and the dream of fandom
May 2010

Patricia Tallman, Lyta Alexander, and the path to extremism
June 2010

Matthew Gideon and the apocalypse
July 2010

Maggie Egan, ISN Jane, and the craftsmanship of delivery
August 2010

Jeanne Cavelos and the perfection of storytelling
November 2010

Joe Michael Straczynski and the dark side of Babylon 5
January 2010

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