Monday, January 31, 2011

In BABYLON's Shadow

For Commander Jeffrey Sinclair, it was a fighter pilot squadron that he was CO of, all of whose members perished in the final days of the Earth-Minbari War. For Captain John J. Sheridan, it was his (second) wife, who had died rather mysteriously on a rather mysterious trip out to the Rim. For Captain Elizabeth Lochley, it was her closest friend and fellow drug companion, whose death caused her to sober up and enlist in the military. For Captain Matthew Gideon, it was the ship whose destruction made him the sole surviving member of a crew of 348.

To say that there is a variation on a theme is not only an understatement, it’s also technically incorrect, for a theme requires one fundamental characteristic that is shared by all participants or explorations, as opposed to merely repeating the same item by rote; what series creator and showrunner Joe Michael Straczynski did here was create a pattern that he obsessively, almost slavishly followed time and again throughout the 123 episodes of Babylon 5 and Crusade. Beyond the commanding officers, there’s also Mr. Garibaldi, who left behind the love of his life to follow Sinclair to Babylon 5; or Marcus Cole, who only joined the Rangers so as to honor – and grieve for – his deceased brother; or Galen, whose lover was murdered by his former friend and fellow techno-mage; or, even, Mr. Morden, whose recently dead family members allowed him to be lured to the dark side that is the Shadows (a plot twist fashioned by Jeanne Cavelos as opposed to Straczynski himself but which fits perfectly within the latter’s mythos). And these are just the characters that have the death of a loved one located in their backstory, as opposed to seeing it unfold during the course of the series proper (such as Susan Ivanova or Londo Mollari or Lyta Alexander or many, many others).

But there is more than just recycled backstories; character names, personality archetypes, and even entire lines of dialogue (all of which are most egregiously on display in the Legend of the Rangers telefilm) are reused and otherwise revisited, making the more-common-than-is-statistically-possible gout of guilt and death among the casts’ ranks pale in comparison. And it’s not just within the realm of characterization that the same material is mined again and again – plot, too, falls victim to JMS’s backwards-glancing pen, as a summation of the two Babylonian series easily attests to. B5 follows a group of EarthForce officers attempting to maintain peace within the galaxy, although their efforts are ultimately undermined by a corrupt government back home and the eruption of an interstellar war all around them. Their mission changes to winning the war (which, in turn, ends up winning the peace) – even if the price is to break away from the Earth Alliance and set up shop as an independent port of call. Crusade follows a group of EarthForce officers on their quest to find a cure for a bio-genetic nano-virus, a journey which uncovers classified – and illegal – weapons programs and other sordid details whose secrecy EarthGov prizes even more than the survival of Earth herself. The Excalibur crew, as such, becomes renegades, turning their back against their home in order to clear their good names, which have been muddied in a cover-up campaign by the higher-ups. While the sweep of the Rangers story still remains unknown, one can rest assured that it would follow much the same arc.

(Joe Straczynski’s re-appropriating of various narrative components for later stories, it should be noted, is not limited to the Babylon 5 pantheon: the comic book miniseries Midnight Nation – not to be confused with The Book of Lost Souls, another JMS-scripted comic that features a nearly identical premise and collection of themes – follows a protagonist named David Grey who becomes a member of the “lost people” and ends up meeting a future version of himself in a time-loop paradox by story’s end; Jeremiah, the only non-Babylon television series to be helmed by the writer, not only operates on a five-year storyline and features characters named Ezekiel and, unsurprisingly, Jeremiah, but it is also set 15 years after a viral outbreak. The list goes on to encompass novels, audiodramas, and films, as well.)

All of this, however, skirts the biggest issue of them all. The storyteller’s conceit of lifting from – or is that paying homage to? – other tales is most prominently on display not in the transference from one JMS property to another, but in the very construction of his most famous creation itself: in ways both big and small, blatant and subtle, B5 is merely a reimagining of J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic series of books, The Lord of the Rings. “Merely” is an exaggeration, as it takes a great deal of skill and craftsmanship – both of which Stracyznski (obviously) possesses in droves – to translate medieval fantasy to futuristic sci-fi. But from a cyclical darkness that can never be defeated, only temporarily held back; a group of Rangers designed to prowl the wilderness and to know all that is to be known; an army of light racing against time to prepare for the looming battle; a First One who has communion with all subsequent lifeforms; shadowy creatures that emit a piercing, blood-curdling scream as they flit by; ancient races, eager to avoid the coming darkness, passing on to lands unknown; and characters and/or locations that possess the names Galen and Lorien, among others, the TV show owes more than just a debt to Middle-earth and its inhabitants – it owes its very shape, scale, and structure. This is the repurposing to rule them all.

It is also the revelation to humble them all. For, at the end of the day, despite his many achievements and inventiveness, his quantitative output and qualitative meditations, Joe Michael Straczynski is simply a human being.

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

History and metatheater in the world of Babylon
December 2010

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Farewell to the Comics Code

(Edited from a diary on Street Prophets)

Last week DC comics announced its decision to drop out of the Comics Code Authority. The following day, Archie Comics, the organization's sole remaining member, announced that it too would no longer be submitting its comics to the board for review.

The CCA was established back in the 1950s as a way to head off government censorship during the anti-comics hysteria generated by Frederick Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent. The idea was that the Big Comic Book Publishers promised to police themselves to ban unwholsome material from their books. That way newstands and drugstores and mom & pop grocery stores could carry them without fear that the local Guardians of Morality would come after them with torches and pitchforks. (The only major publisher who didn't sign on to the Code was Dell, who figured their reputation was already so squeaky-clean that they didn't need it).

The rules laid down by Comics Code were pretty much tailored to ban everything published by EC Comics, whose incredibly gorey crime, war and horror comics were Wertham's chief target. (According to legend, the Code shut down everything EC published except for MAD, which it re-vamped into a magazine format to bypass the Code. The truth is a little more complicated; publisher Bill Gaines had already decided on the format change for other reasons; but the Code-compliant comics he tried to publish after its institution suffered from the stigma of his earlie crime and horror books and couldn't find distributors.)

The first blow against the Comics Code came in the early '70s. Stan Lee wanted to write a Spider-Man story about drug abuse; but under the Code, no depiction of drugs were permitted -- not even to preach against them. Stan felt the issue was important enough to go with the story anyway. That issue of Amazing Spider-Man ran without the CCA seal, and the Heavens did not fall. The CCA acknowledged that Stan was right and modified the code.

With the rise of the Direct Market, comics publishers were no longer limited to newstand sales but could sell their books in specialty stores. The CCA label became less important. Both Marvel and DC began publishing seperate imprints of comics for "Mature Readers" which ran without the CCA's approval.

In 2001, Marvel went cold turkey and pulled the CCA seal off all it's books. In recent years, DC has been keeping the seal on SUPERMAN and it's line of books specifically for kids, but now they're just letting their dues in the organization expire and dropping the whole CCA approval thing, relying on an internal ratings system instead. And Archie Comics admits that they haven't even bothered submitting their books for approval for a while now, because the Board always rubber-stamped them anyway.

So it not only looks like the dreaded Comics Code, Defender of Decency and Nemesis of Artistic Freedom is at last truly dead, but that it has been dead for a while now and we're only now noticing that it has stopped twitching.

Zombie censors. I wonder what kind of a comic Bill Gaines could have made of that...

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

By Your Command -- Part 15

“The Heavens Will Rise” (116)

A good alternate title for “The Heavens Will Rise” would involve replacing the word “heaven” with the term “exposition,” for, indeed, the third-to-last episode of Caprica’s truncated run is dedicated exclusively to setting up what is to unfold across the final two installments. Joseph Adama’s formerly-incarcerated mistress returns to keep a very, very close eye on his handling of the Graystone Industries account; Sam Adama is propositioned to parlay with both Zoe Graystone and his niece on behalf of Daniel and Amanda Graystone, who are banished from the “Avenging Angels’” newly claimed (and [re]created) realm; Sister Clarice Willow, along with her two surviving spouses, discover that their rather brutal assassination of Mar-Beth was, in fact, a mistake; and a hit on Lacy Rand’s life is sanctioned by the holy Mother herself.

By episode’s end, both a lot and nothing at all has transpired. Indeed, it feels a lot closer to a season 1.0 entry, albeit with the more emotionally charged arc constructions and more potent subtext that have become the hallmarks of the season’s latter half (and which would only have continued to expand, one must assume, in the second year).

“The future is all around us,” Ambassador G’Kar famously said in Babylon 5, “waiting in moments of transition to be born in moments of revelation.” “The Heavens Will Rise” is certainly the former; here’s to hoping that next week’s episode is decidedly the latter.

* * * * *

Although the Caprica writers have made their fair share of missteps thus far, they have also shown a rather impressive amount of self-control in at least one arena: resisting the urge for constant callbacks – or, in the case of prequels, “foreshadowing” – to the progenitor series. (Yes, there is the occasional nod to the game of pyramid or a virtual reality approximation of an early Viper, but these are just that – nods.)

Which is precisely what makes the rather casual name-dropping of “Dr. Cottle” so intriguing, on the one hand, and so amusing, on the other. Is this the same curmudgeonly Sherman that served aboard the good ship Galactica – which would easily put him in his late 70s or early 80s in BSG – or is it a family member, such as his father? Either way, it’s interesting to note that there is some type of connection between the Cottle and Graystone families, and one which is not as heavy-handed as Anakin Skywalker making C3PO or Captain Sheridan secretly meeting nearly the entirety of the B5 cast well before arriving midway through the show.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Holy Cheesy Villains, Batman!

Even though this is old news (three months, for the internet, is an eternity), it still is worth repeating: the Riddler will not be in the third and final film of the current Bat-series, The Dark Knight Rises (2012), and it’s a real shame. Although primarily identified by the general public – and most of comic fandom, sadly – as a cartoony, downright silly character, a perception fueled by Jim Carrey’s baboonish, over-the-top performance in Joel Schumacher’s travesty of a (Bat) movie, Batman Forever (1995), the Riddler could have well proven to be a compelling, menacing presence on the big screen, a worthy successor to Heath Ledger’s Joker and Aaron Eckhart’s Two-Face, particularly if given the same realistic treatment; picture an amalgam of Kevin Spacey’s John Doe from Seven and Ian McDiarmid’s Darth Sidious from the Star Wars series – a dark, sinister, intimidating force that would engage Batman in a series of Saw-esque puzzles and traps. It would have been a sight to behold.

Instead, movie audiences are getting the relatively new villain Bane, a character who, on the face of it, is even more cartoonish than Edward Nigma. Introduced in 1993 for the sole purpose of being the man to literally “break the Bat” – Bane ended up snapping Bruce Wayne's back over his knee, rendering him a paraplegic (temporarily, of course, as these things tend to be in the world of comics) and forcing the cape and cowl to be passed on to others, including none other than Dick Grayson himself, the original Robin (who currently is assuming the mantle of Batman once again in the latest batch of books, incidentally) – Bane is a muscle-bound hulk (no pun intended) of a man who uses a super-steroid called Venom to literally pump himself up to Arnold Schwarzenegger-circa-1975 proportions, giving new meaning to “’roid rage.” In terms of believability or grittiness, director/co-writer Christopher Nolan may as well have picked Mr. Freeze.

Although a disappointing choice, there just may be more to the decision than meets the eye. Bane is a self-made man in every sense of the word, having come of age serving a life-long prison sentence in what can euphemistically be described as a second-world country
the exact same way audiences were introduced to Wayne himself in Batman Begins. In addition to learning how to survive, fight, and dominate in that order within the walls of Peña Duro prison, he also managed to obtain something of a classical education, studying under a Jesuit priest among several others, complementing a naturally endowed fierce intellect and photographic memory with fluency in several languages. A manifestation of such raw and formidable intelligence is his membership in a highly exclusive club: those characters that have managed to figure out Batman’s secret identity (another card-carrying member, ironically enough, is the Riddler). To say there is a significant amount of parallelism with Bruce Wayne is an understatement.

And while this may very well be what drew Nolan to select the character for his final Bat-entry, there is still a great potentiality for the whole picture to run aground on the treacherous shouls of cheesiness. Beyond the tubing that runs into the back of his head for a quick hit of Venom, Bane is a man haunted since childhood by nightmares of a demonic bat, a convenient explanation for his eventual arrival in Gotham City and desire to literally break Batman both, as well as the kind of insipid “plot twist” that Goyer relishes employing in his screenplays. Rather than being a mirror for Batman, he can very easily become a soap-opera trope or, even worse, pulp from the Star Wars expanded universe (Han Solo’s evil twin cousin, anyone?).

The silver lining in all this, and the one element that suddenly-wary audience members can cling their hopes to, is the handling of another on-the-surface fantastical villain who was given the “Nolanization” treatment into a grounded and believable character. In the comics, Ra’s al Ghul is literally an immortal, a brilliant taciticain (who also, it just so happens, discovers Bruce Wayne’s nighttime proclivities) who descends into madness thanks to his repeated use of so-called Lazarus Pits, which are a network of mysterious
or is that magical? chambers that bring the dead back to life. Although still a cliche-filled persona in Batman Begins, Liam Neeson’s Ra’s is an entirely different class of character, one that has only the slightest of difficulties co-existing with the likes of Lucius Fox or Jonathan Crane. There is little doubt that Nolan and team will similarly separate the wheat from the chaff with Bane (and, in so doing, will hopefully side-step completely the plot point of Bane becoming Ra’s al Ghul’s second-in-command and chosen successor).

But, still, why any chaff at all? It’s extremely unlikely that the “Knightfall” storyline of Bane busting all of Batman’s assorted rogues gallery out of Arkham Asylum, wearing the Caped Crusader down to the point where Bane can more than easily cripple him, will be lifted for Dark Knight Rises, although don’t be surprised to see a plot involving his discovery of the Bat's secret identity. And there is also the possibility of the two much-too-similar men putting aside their rivalry to work together to defeat some greater evil, as has happened more than once in the years since their initial, infamous showdown, casting their on-again, off-again relationship from the same mold as that of Batman and Catwoman's. It all depends on how seriously Nolan is taking his helming of his final Bat-picture
and, much more importantly, how much material from Goyer's first draft is allowed to remain and contaminate the finished screenplay.

Friday, January 21, 2011

when angry speech is entertainment

Not for any good reason, Keith Olbermann, a political voice, on MSNBC was fired from his highly rated show COUNTDOWN by NBC's new owner COMCAST. He will make 7 million dollars a year to not work for the next two years left upon his contract.

Keith Olbermann was not my favorite newsman, not my favorite deliverer of critique of government, and not in any way, shape, or form someone I'd like to meet. I find him to be wrong many different times factually but where my dislike for him occurs is for his anger, and his choice to attack the enemy versus debate the enemy. The left complains about the attack media on the right, with Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, Glenn Beck and others, but really, the left and right, for whatever purpose, both sound a lot a like, when you turn the volume down. They are simply noise. I have long thought that Bill O'Reilly, and Keith Olbermann should be trapped nude in a small cage with hundreds of hungry and aggressive weasels and allowed to wrestle for the chance to escape. The loser being fed to the weasels, the winner being shot and pissed on.

They both represent thinly sliced baloney, they both are politically motivated, not truth motivated, and they both have an agenda that isn't good. They seek, like whores, affection and money, and attention and fame. With Olbermann gone, all I can say is, O'Reilly I hope you are next. For the record, both sides are full of it, and we need to escape this before we can solve the most difficult issues in America.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

By Your Command -- Part 14

“Dirteaters” (115)

The Adama family, in addition to being military officers and (mob) lawyers, is also freedom fighters – “terrorists” who just so happened to play at least a small role in the creation of the Ha’la’tha.

On the one hand, it makes a certain sort of sense, given Joseph and Sam Adama’s allegiance to and absorption within the present-day organization, no matter how different it may be from its original conceptualization. (Although it should be pointed out that the plot development has the unfortunate side-effect of making the Adamas the driving force behind the Battlestar Galactica mythos, from the creation of the Cylons [doubly, on both the Tauron and Caprican ends of the equation], to the waging of the First Cylon War, and, finally, to the successful resolution of the Second Cylon War – which is to say, from the genesis of artificial life to the humans’ rapprochement with it. It’s hard to imagine a single family with as much historical significance in our own timeline; the closest candidates would probably be the Kennedys, and even they pale in comparison, assassinations and all.) But, on the other hand, such a twist still smartly smacks of a certain convenience or contrivance, the twin mortal enemies of writers everywhere and the most common symptoms of the dreaded plague prequelitis, to boot. At least it bookends “Dirteater’s” ending nicely: the sudden, nearly inexplicable decision of Joseph to imperiously join his brother in an attempt to take down the guatrau is just as forced and improbable as the content of its flashbacks.

Yet despite all the narrative claptrap, Joseph Adama emerges, perhaps for the first time in the show’s short lifespan, as a fully formed individual. Committing quadruple homicide – including that of his father, William – particularly at such an early and impressionable age, is a revelation that does much to explain his character: his incessant and overwhelming desire to recast himself as a Caprican, as well as his all-consuming quest to locate his daughter in V-World, constitute an effort both grand and minute, constructive and destructive, to escape his past, remake his present, and realign his future. It also plunges his relationship with Sam in an entirely different light (particularly the scene from “Gravedancing,” wherein a distraught Joseph asks his brother what it’s like to murder someone); the man who kills professionally (and savagely) is a far cry from the boy who was fearless enough to pickpocket a dead man’s firearm but lacked the courage to use it in self-defense. Both of their lives since then have been an act of overcompensation, although in different directions – and, just perhaps, unto different ends, as well.

Finally, there is, as is (fairly) typical with everything Battlestar, a goodly amount of irony worked into the Adama brothers’ storyline: they are striving to oust the guatrau for precisely the same reason that Joseph himself has been persecuted by family and friends alike for most of the series – for being too Caprican in a Tauron world (on a Caprican planet).

* * * * *

When confronted with an unpleasant and, for some unknown reason, unwanted reality – namely, the death of Daniel Graystone – Joseph Adama takes a very direct, very physical approach to rectifying the problem: he knocks the living daylights out of Daniel in an effort at both refining the businessman’s ability to defend himself and also as a more-or-less covert means of alerting him to the situation at hand. Daniel, however, being a man of intellect as well as of strategy, employs a very different type of solution, one much more oblique than his Ha’la’tha counterparts’ and one which is much more in keeping with his personality. Rather than fighting, either literally or figuratively, he barters and, essentially, bribes the appointed hitman – and, in so doing, helps to turn him against his master, although whether this was fully planned by Mr. Graystone or was a mere struck of good luck is very much left open to debate.

It is a story beat very telling of Daniel’s character, of course, serving as the latest in a long line of examples of his temperament and morality, but it also does much to seal the Cylons’ fate as a race of machines bent on the mechanical and systematic elimination of humanity. Much more than being the fully-thinking-but-completely-soulless defenders of the Caprican government, the Cylons have consistently and unfailingly been used as agents of personal vendettas (Sam conscripting a Centurion to wipe out a rival gang in “False Labor” [113]), of political maneuverings (Daniel’s callous insistence that they would make the perfect slave race for a number of commercial and otherwise civilian uses in There Is Another Sky” [105]), and, even, of terrorism (the STO’s utilization of Cylons as executioners in “Blowback” [113]). To deploy them on the Tauron battlefield is one thing, not that far removed from their original intent; to use them as bargaining chips, as blood money, is quite another.

* * * * *

Lest it be said that Caprica is a story exclusively predicated upon the fraying of societal fabric and individual psyches alike, “Dirteaters” ends with a rare but always earth-shattering development in the BSG universe: the formation of alliances. Joining the dynamic duo of Joseph and Sam Adama, newly united in their effort to bring down the head of the Ha’la’tha, is Daniel and Amanda Graystone, who decide to undertake a crusade of their own in flushing out the living Zoe avatar from her hiding place in New Cap City. Interestingly enough, in the middle of the strictly Adama and exclusively Graystone team-ups is a hybrid partnership – Zoe Graystone and Tamara Adama, the so-called “Avenging Angels,” who have the rather passive or reflexive design of merely staying hidden and (quite literally) playing God. It may very well be that these two individuals will serve as a bridge not only between the virtual and really real worlds, as well as the worlds of the living and the dead, but also between these two polarized families that are at the heart of the rise of the Cylon nation and the downfall of the human race.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

By Your Command -- Part 13

“Blowback” (114)

(Note: although Syfy has aired the final five episodes of Caprica in one giant block, By Your Command will continue in its traditional weekly format over the course of the next four weeks. Each installment will be taken on its own, without future events clouding or otherwise coloring its analysis.)

Caprica has been many things across its first season: deliberate, calculating, even intricate. One thing it has failed to be, however, is visceral – that all-important quality that Battlestar Galactica managed to summon in spades – although this has more to do with a conscious design choice than with simple lack of ability, as “Blowback” clearly illustrates. The fifth-to-last episode crackles with a raw and powerful energy the likes of which has never been felt in Caprica’s highly orchestrated, plodding storytelling rhythms, and which may never be experienced again, given the show’s premature cancellation. Indeed, its gripping and unrelenting brutality easily makes “Blowback” the strongest installment yet and a wonderful prelude to what the remaining four chapters just may have in store.

The main vehicle for such urgent and insurgent immediacy is, surprisingly enough, Lacy Rand, a character who, despite her inexorable drift towards extremism since the mid-season finale, has yet to have all of her innocence stripped from her. Although having the commandeering terrorists be a routine, if not necessarily mundane, training exercise is on the cliché end of the spectrum, it is the writers’ and actors’ execution of such a prosaic plot device that makes it wholly absorbing and utterly horrifying: the ginger recruit’s full-throated hysteria to being selected for execution (twice); Devanna’s sublimely spiritual response; Kevin Reikle’s coolly sinister performance as a polytheistic lunatic, replete with pistol whipping his would-be students; the bodies plummeting quietly down into the cloudy depths of the Gemenon sky. Yet it is Lacy’s reaction, on both the page and on-screen, that truly makes the episode quite literally painful to watch; every gunshot, every hushed exchange with Odin is embodied by her character arc and reflected on her face, distilling a somewhat abstract conceit of a training scenario into a very personal – and very traumatic – experience.

* * * * *

Less overtly brutal but no less traumatic is Sister Clarice Willow’s rather efficient dispatching of the Global Defense Department “spy” in her home. Just as the acting carried the brunt of the Lacy throughline, it is in the editing that what would ordinarily have been a trite, dime-a-dozen scene – the stalking and killing of an individual thought to be Amanda Graystone, a normally sacrosanct series regular – is rendered a riveting and thoroughly engaging sequence. Indeed, it is a surprise when Mar-Beth Willow is deftly revealed to be the target of Clarice’s ambush – and it is even more surprising when the good sister’s two husbands assist in the disposal of their former spouse’s body.

Belying the shock of the moment and awe of the filmmaking construction, however, is the sheer viciousness of Clarice’s attack, including a switchblade in Mar-Beth’s back and copious amounts of blood drooling from her mouth, and the tender callousness of its aftermath, which centers around the delicate cleaning of her hands as she pushes the carriage of her wife’s newborn baby away from the scene of the crime. Such a collection of details is not only the very bedrock of visual storytelling, but also of characterization, as well: as seen countlessly throughout the preceding 13 episodes, there is no boundary between Clarice’s actions and beliefs, each underscoring and informing the other’s potency.

There is a rare and unbridled purity, as such, in her character – the purity of ruthlessness.