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End of the Line (Reading), A Babylon 5 Moment

Illustration for article titled End of the Line (Reading), A Babylon 5 Moment

Earlier, Meredith Woerner detailed why a specific thread in the rebooted Battlestar Galactica's much loved episode "33" helped secure its viewers. The moment, she contends, where Battlestar Galactica won our hearts. It reminded me of another television sci-fi odyssey, with a BSG connection: Babylon 5.

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(Above, Tricia O'Neil as the Earth Alliance President in Babylon 5)

Sometimes, it is the little things, the littlest moments, performed with aplomb which draw us into a story. A solid but simple idea which the show's creative team takes to heart and makes it work. It got me thinking about other beloved series and a woman who, as leader, is faced with sometimes impossible decisions, or decisions nearly impossible to live with. This one, from Babylon 5. BSG and B5 are two of my favourite SF series and (with the significant overlap in personnel and themes) they share a lot in common.

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In this interstitial TV movie, In The Beginning (don't ask), the magnitude of the war between the Minbari and the Humans is narrated by the ever-sublime Peter Jurasik as Londo Mollari, but it's the directing/writing choice to show the pilot's ready room when a character, who was certainly major within the show's internal history but minor in terms of actual involvement with the story's narrative (the Earth President played by TV guest star veteran, Tricia O'Neil) , delivers a fantastic speech. It's simple and tropey and says very little we haven't heard before in other pre-battle speeches.

However, the delivery is impeccable.

Just watch the tiniest detail of how her hands want to wring themselves but are being forced to remain as still as she can manage. Yet, a twitch escapes now and again. She is a leader, no doubt, but she is still a person here, not a depthless cardboard cutout of a plot-point character. I always wanted to know more about her and her time in office. I would watch a West Wing style show of it without any question. This is partially why I thought of her when recalling the wonderful Laura Roslin's turn in BSG.

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This isn't to hijack Meredith's BSG love or to compare the two series beyond saying that these choices, these moments are what make the fantastical feel plausible. They are the pillars of the suspension of disbelief which draw us into the operatic grandiosity of a story and make us wonder "How would I feel if it were me? If I were there?"

If Tricia O'Neil had not executed her impassioned speech, this moment would be forgettable. The SFX are dated, now, and the staging of the scenes is certainly very ... television. Yet, as it stands, it remains a fondly remembered scene in the entire Babylon 5 franchise. Not because of any epic science fiction trappings but because the creators knew when to look away from the din and fury of SFX battles. Because it feels like you could be in that pilot ready room listening to that speech. Because it feels like you could be one of the pilots making that choice.

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Mostly, because it feels human.

Here is the speech by itself, without Londo's lead-in. Just the president and her speech, with the pilots listening to the broadcast. Without the 'epic' SFX lead-in, it still works.

I think it is the goal of show creators and showrunners to create these moments but sometimes it feels forced or too intentional. They've focused too much on how they want us to feel ('Yay, we love this show!') and lose sight of the story itself. 'Write what moves you and don't try to manipulate the audience,' a teacher often repeated. His advice exists in various forms elsewhere. It's an axiom which I think is paramount.

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If there is a moment of a show which you remember fondly, which maybe even won you over, it is my suspicion that its writer(s) didn't construct it to move you. They wrote it that way because it moved them. All writers 'construct' story, of course, so it's a subtle distinction but one worth mentioning.

"Serve the story," that same teacher would say. "Don't use it to serve you."

Of course, now I'm rambling into other territory of which entire courses are taught on How To Be A Writer (with more academic-sounding titles). And, really, as I'm not qualified to teach such course but I do know what I like. So, I'll end here with this.

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Sometimes, a single moment can make you a fan for life. There were many moments which laid the groundwork for my lifelong love for Babylon 5, for me. But this one? This is the one which tipped the scales. All the backstory and world-building and flashbacks and character history, all of it congealed with this speech.

Whatever show you love, I'm sure had The Moment for you.

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