The Wrap Party
21-24 August 1998, Radisson Edwardian Hotel, Heathrow
GoHs: J. Michael Straczynski,
James White, Bryan Talbot,
Jack Cohen, Peter David, John Matthews, Inge
Heyer, Dave Lally, ...
I don't go to media cons -- I prefer cons run by fans for fans, not by
pros for money. But this was a fan con, to celebrate the five year arc of
Babylon 5, the best SF TV show ever,
with the GoHs including Joe Straczynski -- B5 Executive Producer, writer,
and Keeper of the Arc -- and Harlan Ellison -- B5 Conceptual Consultant,
SF writer, and controversial speaker. So I went. And I had a great time.
(Joe Straczynski was recovering from pneumonia, so was a little less
ebullient than he might have been -- but he still had some fascinating
insights.) But it was very much Morgan's convention.
There were non-B5 programme items, too. The first day was dominated by
lots of interesting NASA, Mars, and Hubble Space Telescope stuff, then the
focus moved to B5 itself.
Of gravitational lensing: Objects behind
massive galaxies may appear brighter than they are.
The Radisson Edwardian Hotel is all very long, absolutely identical
corridors --- "you are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike".
Even though I had been there less than three years earlier, at
Evolution, it didn't help; I still got disoriented.
Inge Heyer: An Overview of the Mars Mission
- The volcano Olympus Mons is the highest mountain on Mars, much higher
than anything on Earth. It is so big and broad that if you stood on the
top and looked down, all you would see is slope, no horizon.
- Continual sandstorms can also blow small rocks around.
- The two landing sites, previous Viking and recent Sojourner, have the
same composition of sand -- the sandstorms have spread the sand
- All the rocks are volcanic.
- Relative costs of space missions: the recent Mars mission cost $154M;
the movie Waterworld cost $174M.
Panel: 4000 Years of Women in Science
- Introductory overview based on material from the 4000
Years of Women in Science website.
- Some wrangling over the definition of 'science', and that it hasn't
been around for 4000 years. But most of the early examples were
mathematicians and astronomers. And when the Hypatia's philosophy was
repeated, there was much agreement that that sounded like a
- When someone mentioned they had read Men are from Mars, Women are
from Venus, another audience member riposted with a recent cartoon
punchline: "and Pop-psychology from Uranus". [Which joke I
like for the additional reason that for the joke to work, you have to
pronounce 'Uranus' correctly, not in the newfangled way.]
Panel: The Women of Babylon 5
- JMS: Someone pointed out to me that Sheridan's three wives: Anna,
Lochley, Delenn, are Worker, Warrior, Religious. That was not
- JMS: writes roles to be gender-neutral if possible, then tells
casting to hire the best person who walks through the door.
Harlan Ellison: GoH talk
- Anything not nailed down is mine. Anything I can pry up is not nailed
- Story: holding off 4 hoods with a gun, whilst dressed in a towel.
- Story: mailing the dead gopher to the publisher. [I first heard this
story 13 years ago at Albacon '85, and as far as
I could tell, it was identical. Harlan claims that "I never lie,
but I exaggerate like mad". Well, impressively, the exaggeration
doesn't seem to increase with time!]
- It is not my intention to fight City Hall. It is my intention to
level City Hall!
- If you can't hurt them in a game that they set up with their
rules -- change the rules.
- Phil Dick was to paranoia what Disney is to diabetes.
- Blooper tapes from all 5 seasons of B5 (including Londo singing Me
and My Shadow with a life-size cardboard cutout).
- CGI views of the Crusade ship design.
- Description of Crusade's premis (a 5 year mission to find a
cure for Earth's plague) plus some clips from the first episode. Looks
good! (Described as an "action adventure with some drama, where B5
was drama with some action adventure".)
[2 Jan 2001: The
series did not deliver,
- Preview viewing of the B5 TV movie The River of Souls, with
Martin Sheen and Ian McShane. It takes place on Babylon 5 several months
after the end of the Arc. It was great -- but more than that, I will not
say yet, for we were sworn to secrecy :-)
[27 Feb 99: it is now officially out on
video, so I can review it at last.]
- Intro: "Jack has very many talks -- but only one set of slides!"
- There are 32 good ways to make life, that we know of.
- Chemistry isn't simple; school chemistry isn't true, and
isn't typical. There are about 16 intermediate steps in turning
hydrogen and oxygen into water, and it's autocatalytic.
- The oldest proteins we know are 'boiling water' proteins: there was
life almost as soon as possible.
- The animal liberation lie: 14 starlings die (are eaten) for
each 2 that breed; 9998 tadpoles/frogs die for each 2 that breed;
3999998 cod eggs are eaten and cod die for each 2 that breed. Most lab,
domestic and agricultural animals have better lives, and much
better deaths, than in the wild.
- Nearly all species go extinct without evolving into new species.
- During evolution, some things have happened independently many times,
and are Universals:
- Photosynthesis: there are still 4 different kinds, and many more
have gone extinct
- Fur: mice, bumble bees, plants
- Flight: insects, fish, birds, bats
- Horns: beetles, rhino
- Trunks: elephant, giraffe. (The giraffe has long front legs for
running, and a long neck as 'a tube to drink through without
kneeling'. The giraffe has its face at the front of the tube; the
elephant has its face at the back of the tube.)
- Running evolution again would give universals, but not Parochials:
- chordates/vertebrates from a particular ancestor
- The particular fish that came out of the ocean had its airway
crossing its foodway. If a different fish species had come out, we
- Also, it had its reproductive and excretory systems mixed up. If
it hadn't, we wouldn't have 'dirty' books -- we'd have different
kinds of hang-ups.
- Pentadactyl limbs are particularly parochial.
- Is intelligence universal or parochial?
- Octopus and mantis shrimps seem very intelligent
- Dolphins seem to have people inside
- Is 'extelligence' (keeping some of what would otherwise have to be
intelligence outside ourselves: culture, libraries, etc)
universal or parochial? That's a different matter.
- Captive meerkats have invented new 'posts' (such as getting the
food from the keeper) that are appropriate for a zoo environment.
- The Flintstones have got into our heads and given us lots of
hidden assumptions about prehistoric people.
- For credible aliens, we want to know what could plausibly
happen if we ran evolution again. We want to explore the universe of
possibilities around the actual. We need to know the rules, so that we
can generate other instances.
- Most animals bring themselves up. We are 'complicit'. Babies train
their mothers to pick things up by rewarding them with a smile.
- The progression "1, 2, 3" is inbuilt in our culture:
- Straw, wood, bricks.
- 1st king's son fails; 2nd nearly succeeds; 3rd succeeds.
- Throwing items on "1, 2, 3"
- We learn 'cunning' and 'sly' from what the fox does in our stories.
There are different icons in different cultures. It's 'sly and cunning
is the fox', not 'the fox is sly and cunning'. But animals form
a very specific part of all our cultures.
- We find some animals cute. We have a pathological love for
children that extends to these animals. No other animal does this.
- We domesticate animals, including ourselves. Various social rituals,
especially puberty rituals, exclude some people from breeding.
- What kinds of creatures do we use for aliens in our stories? In SF,
we invent particular kinds of aliens because of who we are. We
use things ready in our imagination, but that wouldn't occur on
another planet, or here if we ran evolution again.
- Big cats are enormously potent symbols to us, and so crop up
everywhere as SF aliens.
- Greys cannot possibly be aliens -- they are far too
anthropomorphic -- and so must be from our minds.
Mary Talbot: Aliens and 'Otherness'
- This is "English Alien Centennial Year" -- War of the
Worlds is 100 years old. This features the first aliens in English
literature, probably written due to Well's fear of German invasion.
Ironically, the previous year, an alien invasion story was published in
Germany, and that story has a peaceful resolution.
- Aliens classified as
- Evil Adversary: plastic, or shiny, or creepy crawly monsters, or
- Benevolent: divine helper; kindly big brother
- Hero (usually male)
- 'Racial Other': such as the Star
Wars bar aliens; there just to be 'different'
- The B5 aliens poke holes in the god/demon stereotypes
- In SF TV and films, sexual attraction crosses species boundaries. Our
male/female categories are so firmly set that the improbability is not
that apparent to us. Also, the aliens don't actually represent other
species, but rather other cultures and ethnicities. These are
social constructions, not biological constructions.
- The cultures of earth map on to the cultures of B5. We need to draw
on our human culture to make 'credible' alien cultures. In B5, all the
humans are 'native English speakers', whereas many aliens have 'foreign
accents' -- a way of emphasising their alienness.
- What is 'ethnic'? Although they are, we wouldn't describe the Womens
Institute as an ethnic group, or fish and chips as ethnic food, or
bowler hats as ethnic headgear. A Home Counties civil disturbance would
not be described as an ethnic riot.
- 'Human' is used as a gradable adjective: "he smiled, and was
suddenly more human".
- The humanisation of Delenn (who is then subject to racial intolerance
from fellow Minbari). When Minbari, she is full of dignity and
authority. As a human, she smiles more, has hair problems, and becomes
'bendier'. Is she just being groomed as Sheridan's mate? [I'm not
convinced by this: she might look more 'feminine' on the
outside, but she's pure unyielding steel on the inside. Just think of
the "Be somewhere else" scene from Severed Dreams.] If
a male Minbari became human, what changes would he undergo to become
'more human', that would reflect male stereotyping?
Morgan interviews Harlan Ellison
- He has 250,000 books at his home.
- Conceptual Consultant role: he was bothered by one episode, it took
him ages to figure out the problem, then he realised the bamboo wasn't
moving in the biosphere scenes. He'd read somewhere that the bamboo dies
in Biosphere 2 because it needs movement. But B5's biosphere had no
breeze, no insects, it was just a set. Joe agreed to have a wind machine
for the next scene: it made so much noise it was a disaster and they had
- TV: it is arduous, demeaning, backbreaking work. They have no
loyalty, and they don't care what they fill the hours with.
- "Trifles make perfection, but perfection is no trifle"
- When something good happens in TV/films, it happens by chance. It is
an art form run by businessmen.
- Money is what they give you if you do your job right.
- The person who designs the house is the architect; the person who
builds it is the carpenter. (It should be the same relationship between
scriptwriter and director.)
- Two pieces of good advice he was given about Hollywood:
- "Achieving success in Hollywood is like climbing a pile of
cow shit to pluck a perfect rose -- and when you get to the top you
discover that you have lost the sense of smell."
- "Keep writing the books, else you won't be taken seriously
- I told a director he had "the intellect of an artichoke" --
and he repeated that to Variety! Only someone with the intellect
of an artichoke would do that.
- TV/ film can be Great Art: the test is if you can't not
- TV art: An Englishman's Castle (BBC drama of alternate
history Britain after Germany wins WWII [find a copy, send it to Harlan,
and earn his undying gratitude!]), the occasional episode of LA Law
and Hill Street Blues, [others]... But the medium has less
potential for greatness, because of all the random factors.
- I was a clue on Jeopardy. I got more calls about that than
- World Fantasy Lifetime Achievement Award: I had won the award because
my work was so good they couldn't not give it to me, even though
they wanted to.
- Story: (not) dropping the Chandelier
- I will tell you all. That way I can never be blackmailed, not
by you, and not by me.
Jack Cohen: ...and What They Do to Each Other
- Many things needed for reproduction are the opposite of what is
needed for everyday survival. Survival means defensive mechanisms
[famous photo of porcupines being very careful here] and camouflage.
Putting food energy into a yolk is poor survival behaviour.
- Classification of Tactics of Sexual Congress (as opposed to
- Tactics of Assimilation: Assimilate the business of sex into
everyday life: herring lay sperm/egg cells every night, whether or
not the other sex is present.
- Tactics of Separation: separate reproduction and survival
- Royals: separate the feeding/breeding into different animals:
queen bee + workers; wolves (one female does all the breeding)
- Alternation: breeding seasons
- Terminal: breed at the end of life: mayflies; salmon
- Amplexus: occurs over an extended time period, a very
dangerous time: dogs
- Rapid transfer of sperm into female, who is then independent.
- We cannot say what aliens will be like, only what they will not be
like: they will not have Parochials. (Cartoonist Gary Larson puts
parochials into the mouths of creatures for whom it is inappropriate.)
Sex is a Universal: it has been invented at least 20 times on Earth.
Some fungi and plants have more than two sexes. But what parts of sex
are universal, and what parts are parochial?
Warning: universals that have happened lots of times on this planet
might be parochial to this planet. But they probably aren't.
- Parochial: humans look after their children and anything else
'baby', like cute animals. Chimpanzees eat the babies during
wars -- there is nothing 'sacred' about young to them. Also -- lots
of animals eat the male!
- Universal: embarrassment about genitalia, because it is
'unphysiological'. Many animals want to "do it somewhere where
I can't be seen".
- Parochial: self-mutilation, like body-piercing
- Universal: pornography. We have images of all sorts of things we
are 'turned-on' by, such as food, cars.
- Parochial: incest. It is probably taboo in our culture, because
of the dangers of inbreeding. But gerbils, lemmings and teepee mice
(and the Egyptian Pharaohs) mostly breed brother-sister. After a few
generations the bad genes have gone, and it's a good way to stay
mostly the same.
- Universal: overproduction of young, with lots being eaten before
- "Put the genes for the pouch of a kangaroo into a stork -- and
get air mail!". But the genes of a kangaroo won't work in a
stork -- they might give the same proteins, but those proteins won't do
the same thing in the different environment. The same sodium pump gene
makes 'vestigial wing' in one fly, and 'fat feet' in another.
- 7 blind men and elephant story:
- Original: One insists its a rope, one a snake, one a leaf, one a
wall, ... Each sees only a part, and none can see the 'truth' that
it's an elephant.
- Twist: Picture of a brick wall with a snake, rope etc dangling
from it, and the blind men insisting "Yep, it's an elephant all
- A lot of things that we don't know, we don't know that we don't know.
These are all 'lies', or simplifications; things that don't work.
In particular, they often don't work when you try to put them together
into a bigger theory.
- Bernoulli effect makes aeroplanes fly: so how do they fly upside
- Rainbows because water drops are like prisms: no they're not!
- Stick insects lay eggs that look like seeds. Victorian explanation: "if
you look like a plant, your eggs will look like seeds". But things
eat seeds! After recent Australian forest fires, they found
stick insects all over the new shoots -- but the eggs take 6 months to
hatch. They were coming out of ants nests! The ants store them because
they look like seeds.
- Universal: swarming: locusts. Locust strategy is amplexus, taking
about 2.5 hours. But they are fairly safe in a swarm. Frogs hide
underwater. Stick insects use camouflage (two sticks still look like
- Attenborough's Trials of Life: They got 13 different shots of
a tarantula wasp breeding (it lays its eggs in a spider, which acts as a
food source for the young). Not one of these shots was of a successful
breeding: one, the wasp stunned a spider but forgot to lay an egg,
another, it got eaten by a bird before it could lay its eggs, ... The
system works rarely.
- Puberty rituals, tattooing, scarring, etc, act as a form of selection
for obedience to authority: domestication of people by people.
- Handicap theory: peacock: I've managed to develop despite
carrying this ridiculous tail. Martial artist drinking paraffin scene in
Chimpanzee. "I can still arm wrestle you after 12 pints."
Maybe self-mutilation, body-piercing, is an example: "I've managed
to develop despite exposing myself to infection." (But, it's mainly
women doing it.)
- We don't understand nearly all the reproductive biology of nearly all
the species on this planet.
Morgan: An Overview of B5
This was the 2nd part of Morgan's B5 thesis, the first having been "The
Emergence of Arc", which only about half the audience, myself
excluded, had attended. This led to some repetition/arguing/confusion.
- Although other programmes now have arcs (Xena, The
X Files, Millennium, ...), B5 is still significantly
- B5 has taught us to have higher standards. Your 'best' episode is
only so because of all the others stuff. It is sui generis ['of
its own kind, peculiar, unique']. It should be judged as a whole.
- It's not a 'big battle, happy ending, all live happily ever after'
kind of story.
- 5th season: some people feel that the characters, especially the
telepaths, are not as good. Also, there are fewer arc elements early in
the season. This may be due to the rearrangement to bring the Earth War
forward into season 4 (when it was not certain that season 5 would
occur). So instead of one 20'x20' five year tapestry, we got a 14'x14'
tapestry, and another smaller one. The telepath story was forced into
this separate picture, and may have been the main casualty of the split.
- B5 doesn't give the audience the same thing all the time. There are
changes in the arc, so different people will like different parts. But
JMS didn't feed this audience reaction to/dislike of the changes back
into his creation -- he kept his vision.
- B5 has many of the defining features of (British) soap opera:
- episodic: a storyline arc across more than one episode, with
recapitulation to help new viewers
- domestic: about the home lives of the characters
- matriarchal: strong female characters who drive the plot
- spirituality and religion
- Had two different stories: one of a spacestation, one of a Galactic
Empire. One day, in the shower, realised these were actually one
story: the galaxy-spanning story as played out in the microcosm of the
- "You are asking a question that philosophers have debated since
the dawn of recorded television."
- I write 10 pages a day, every day, regardless. If I won the lottery
tomorrow, I'd still write -- it's how I define myself.
- I hate being a producer. But I do it to get my vision, my
words on the page, made. I was a writer on Jake and the Fatman ("He
can't run. He can't act. Together, they solve crimes.") I had a
villain who says to a cop who has been chasing him for 10 years: "I
should be flattered; I've got my own personal Ahab." I had to
remove it, because a studio executive, despite an MBA, didn't get
the reference. (So I mailed him a comic book version of Moby
- The main creative force, the auteur, has become synonymous
with 'director'. But it can be the producer, the writer, the
cinematographer,... With B5, it's the Executive Producer.
- The quality of the answers you get depends on the quality of the
questions you ask. Too much TV asks trivial questions.
- Own Russian background: dour and pessimistic, but not
depressed: self-deprecating humour.
- As a kid, moved house every six months. The people kept changing, but
the town Library was always the same -- it gave continuity.
- You get to know your characters so well that you know how they will
respond when you drop them in a particular situation.
- The ancient Babylonian creation myth has forces of order (Vorlon) and
- Kosh knew the original Valen. The other Vorlon were a bit uncertain
of him, he was too sympathetic to humans.
- Both the Shadows and the Vorlon believe equally that they are right,
and both believe they are working in the best interests of everyone. The
younger races have to 'kill their parents' before they can develop on
- Took advantage of the preconceptions of the audience, and used those
against them. Here's the good guy, the bad guy, the comic relief,...
It's like karate: using the audience's strength against them. So, no big
battle to end the Shadow War.
- The Shadow/Vorlon conflict was ideological, and needed an ideological
solution. For the Earth War, who had the biggest guns was important.
Different ways of solving conflicts.
- This show is too hard to do, that I would change it to something I
didn't want just because the ratings dip a bit. This is the story I want
to tell. I do it by saying 'yes' one more time than they say 'no'. Also,
we had backing from some in the studio who believed in the show.
- You can never be afraid, else they've got you: if they smell fear,
they've got you. Rod Serling wrote Velvet Alley, on how
Hollywood can get to own you, by giving you money and fame until you are
used to them, then threatening to take them all away. I've kept a
relatively frugal lifestyle, and put the money in the bank, so I could
any time just walk away.
- I like playing with form, trying new things. The reporters on B5 in
The Illusion of Truth: seeing the 'same' events from two
perspectives. The 'dreams' in The Long Night of Londo Mollari.
And Intersections in Real Time, that has no B story. Some of the
scenes in elevators are the best, and I wanted to do 2 people just
talking for a whole episode. But I chickened out, and put a B story in
Intersections. However, the episode as originally shot was 11
minutes too long, the next episode was 11 minutes too short, and the B
story was 11 minutes! The universe was telling me something!
- A propensity for putting people into a small room and trying to
destroy them, like the Delenn/Sebastian episode Comes the Inquisitor.
Until you have suffered, you do not know your real strengths and
- The extras playing Narn sit together; the extras playing Centauri sit
together. As an experiment, we changed one actor from a Centauri to a
Narn. He moved to sit with the Narn after a while!
- No long project survives contact with reality. So there have been
some changes to the original idea; but nothing major got missed. A few B
stories, such as between Lennier and Vir, were dropped because there
- As an atheist, I don't believe in an afterlife. My works are my
children. B5 is my mark. I believe that B5, through reruns, will still
be around in 40, 50 years time.