Zocalo” Spoiler-Free Discussion of “Objects in Motion”

It’s been a very long journey. Five years, to be exact. But now more of our beloved characters are departing to new stages in their lives. Talk about how they all got here in this thread.

9 thoughts on “Zocalo” Spoiler-Free Discussion of “Objects in Motion””

  1. According to the script books it was actually the assassination plot that came from Harlan Ellison. It’s based on an actual event that happened in the 1930s with the Mayor of Chicago. JMS tried to get Harlan to write the script as well, as it was basically the last possible time to get Harlan’s script to the show.

    I’ve also always loved how B5 takes its time with proper ending, not just in the five-year story, but in the episodes as well. I’ve been watching some TNG episodes lately, and the endings often feel very abrupt. The main plot is usually resolved about two minutes before the end of the episode, and there’s not any kind of denouement.

    JMS always said that he doesn’t want to end the story with just another grand adventure, like many other shows do. Some people feel that season five is mostly just filler, but considering that the Earth civil war was originally supposed to end in the first third of season five I don’t think the pacing of the last half would have been much different even if season five would have been confirmed earlier.

    1. Yes, this one really is all for the long-time viewers. Objectively, I think Objects in Motion is probably something that I shouldn’t like as much as I do. There’s a lot of shameless schmaltz, yet another [expetive deleted] assassin-of-the-week, and when you get down to it, by all orthodox storytelling standards this episode should probably have been ruthlessly cut. To pick an obvious point of contrast, for all that I don’t like TNG very much, it does everything that this episode does far more elegantly with a single poker game scene at the end.

      But, come on, you have to have a heart of stone to begrudge JMS this victory lap, after pulling off something like this against the odds.

  2. Our hosts raised an interesting question when they talked about B5 being a model for current prestige TV.

    I wonder how true that is. Is there any evidence for it in the form of people working in current TV actually citing B5 as an inspiration? It might be one of those cases where one has to distinguish between a predecessor and an influence. The TV market changed (largely due to technology), and as a result certain things are now common that B5 did when they were uncommon, but B5 itself didn’t cause anything significant to happen.

    In fact, thinking about it, one might argue that B5 isn’t really all that much of a predecessor. I don’t mean this to criticize B5, but to suggest that it may be *more* ambitious.

    Because how close are those lionized TV series to B5? I think one has to go beyond long-running plotlines and heavily-serialized (vs. episodic) storytelling, because those weren’t new or unusual before B5 did them. Soaps had done them forever (also, think of things like Upstairs, Downstairs – which, I believe, is, despite being British, more likely to be influential even in American TV than Babylon 5, thanks to its level of very snobbish success on Masterpiece Theater). B5 was just new in doing them in its particular genre.

    And B5 did these things less than a soap did at the time, and less than is now normal. On an episode-by-episode basis, a lot of B5 is pretty episodic, and generally very good at allowing new viewers to pick it up. The exception is S4, but that’s an accident – it wasn’t supposed to be like that. And arguably some of the problems with S5 are precisely because JMS was committed to getting back to his usual partially-episodic model designed to bring new viewers up to speed in the early part of the season, as soon as he could.

    B5 also is very fond of the absolutely standard ‘90s A-plot/B-plot, which was originally devised (and is well-suited) to deal with some of the problems of episodic television, and has faded as longer-running, more serialized structures have come into vogue as viewing habits have changed.

    But what does make B5 different is the closely-plotted 5-year arc, the whole “novel for television” thing. And I think that’s still not normal. TV shows nowadays assume long-time viewing, but they’re plotted for the most part on a season-by-season basis. There are plans for events in future seasons, seeds are sown for stuff years down the line, etc. – but there’s a looseness to the plotting that B5 doesn’t have. You don’t get episodes like Babylon Squared.

    To take an obvious instance from The Wire, they’ll sideline McNulty for season 4, knowing that they’ll bring him back in season 5 as the main character. But they don’t write season 1 with an exact plan laid out for season 5. In this sense, if we’re going to pick out a ‘90s science-fiction fantasy TV series as influential, it’s more likely to be Buffy the Vampire Slayer, with its relatively tightly-plotted season arcs culminating in the defeat of the “Big Bad,” but much looser plotting from season to season.

    (And the case for BTVS being an influence on later TV is stronger for other reasons. BTVS was a more highly-praised show than B5, and with a much more visible media profile – it is, in hindsight, very significant how much positive media attention BTVS received despite never being a particular success in terms of ratings. That was something very new for the genre.)

    But really, this is basically about how television is made and viewed. The kind of TV that people made changed because DVDs made it possible to store an entire season in a short space, and then streaming turned that up a notch.

    (Although, judging by Netflix “release it all at once” shows, the main effect of streaming is to slow the pace way down. I am tempted to become a cranky old man who complains about kids today having too long attention spans, and too much goddamn patience. In my day, things happened every few minutes, dammit, and that was the way we liked it.)

    But things didn’t change completely, because TV is still an expensive collaborative thing to produce in which making precise plans for several years in the future gives hostages to fortune.

    So I think B5 may deserve the credit of having attempted and basically, if not entirely, succeeded in doing something that the conditions of television production make extremely challenging and which is still not at all common.

    To some degree, this may be a success in creating the illusion, of course. It’s now clear that more changed in the B5 story than JMS made public at the time. (Although it is worth remembering that the Babylon Prime stuff represents what the plan was at the time of The Gathering – or at least that’s what I think is the case – , and most of the significant changes may have been decided before Midnight on the Firing Line.) Babylon Squared is even the best example, because we know absolutely for a fact that the eventual resolution in War Without End must be substantially a new story.

    But War Without End does a fabulous job of making it all seem like a plan. And in TV, successful illusion counts. Arguably, that could only be done then, not now. Spoiler and set report culture means that viewers nowadays are far too informed not to know how the sausage is made.

    1. Of course to some degree it’s an illusion. I’ve never heard of the author of a science fiction (or any other genre) series of novels who didn’t make revisions as they went along, introducing new characters, reducing the importance of others, and generally making substantial changes. That doesn’t mean the initial plan was flawed, or not achieved.

      The difference is that with novels we only see the finished product. in TV, even back in the 1990s, we see the process unfold, and there’s no going back and rewriting the earlier chapters.

      And I remember JMS as being quite open about it back in the day. Somewhere or other I still have his Usenet reply to someone who charged him with, in stronger language than you’ve used, with faking it and not having a long term plan because this, that, and the other had changed. His reply boiled down to “what the hell else can you do when actors leave/break their arms/etc?”

      1. Moderately open about it. JMS definitely didn’t give the impression that as much changed as his later release of the Babylon Prime storyline revealed that it had. I think it’s fair to say that he was open about it, mostly (there are exceptions*) when it would have been silly to pretend otherwise, but contrived to minimize it.

        This is not a criticism! Part of the success of Babylon 5 was how JMS used an online presence in pioneering ways to communicate that there was a plan – it was something that made B5 different from other science-fiction series, above all Star Trek. Bluntly, given how close-run a thing it was keeping it on the air at all, I doubt that it would have survived without that added element keeping a loyal (if comparatively small) fanbase making sure to watch every single episode for fear of missing a clue to where things were going.

        It’s like I always say about Stan Lee: he really doesn’t seem to have done all that much of the writing, and wasn’t all that important as a writer. But Lee was an absolutely brilliant editor and art director, and an even more brilliant publicist, and those things were essential to the success of Marvel in the ‘60s.

        (Plus Lee *was* responsible for creating one classic, compelling character, which is of course “Stan Lee.”)

        Now JMS isn’t Stan Lee – he is a genuinely brilliant writer. But he was also extremely good at being the public face of the show and managing the way in which the show was perceived by its fans. That’s also a significant thing that shouldn’t be ignored when we talk about Babylon 5.

        1. Loving this thread, being that I’m from the long form arc comic books used since way back. In the UK we got segments as small as three pages a week, and with much more certainty of publication, the ground could be fertile for long form. In critical and popular readings of TV, B5 is still widely overlooked as impacting with the honours going to Twin Peaks. Maybe it is the soap factor. But B5 got there first in terms of a clear structure. I do wonder if Vince Gilligan was a fan.

  3. In the technical history Babylon 5 is also the show that demonstrated what was possible with computer graphics: all your spaceships, set extensions, entire virtual sets. Sure, the increase in computing power and hence CGI no doubt meant the change was inevitable, but the creators of Babylon 5 deserve full credit for taking the risk and being the first to do so.

  4. I really like the Edgars boardroom scene inn this episode. It’s quite similar to the Mooby board scene in Dogma, which I think came out only a few months later.

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