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Straczynski, Jablokov Discuss Television, The Future

By Brett Altschul

A crowd of several hundred people came to Kresge Auditorium Monday evening to hear noted science fiction authors Alexander Jablokov and J. Michael Straczynski.

Jablokov read one of his short stories, and Straczynski, the creator of the television show Babylon 5, spoke on his experiences with science fiction and the media. Straczynski also provided several videotapes of special effects shots that were shown during the presentation.

This was the final event in a series of readings in science fiction sponsored by the Lecture Series Committee, the Film and Media Studies department, the Communications Forum, and the Writing and Humanistic Studies Department.

Jablokov reads from new story

Professor of writing and humanistic studies Henry Jenkins first introduced Jablokov, calling him one of the most gifted young science fiction writers. Jenkins applauded Jablokov for his stories dealing with issues of nationality, orthodoxy, and the search for a homeland.

Jablokov's new story, detailed a young professional's visit to the isolated country housing development where his eccentric parents had recently moved. The development had been conceived as a place for friends who met on the Internet to come together and live.

The son discovers that his father and the rest of the community have been cloning extinct animals for many years, and that his mother and her friends have begun hunting wild gave with bow and spear. Using his skill at identifying tiny markets, their son devises a plan to hide this bizarre community from people like himself.

The tale presented a humorous yet contemplative look at the current direction of our culture, while also examining age-old questions about marriage, family, and honesty.

Straczynski talks on TV business

After Jablokov's reading, Jenkins introduced Straczynski. Jenkins identified him as one of the three most important pioneers in science fiction television, along with Rod Serling, creator of The Twilight Zone, and Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek.

Straczynski began by comparing two very different television genres - cop shows and science fiction - and how they are treated by Hollywood.

Before Dragnet, police shows were considered low-quality drama, he said. Dragnet changed that by portraying the police as real people, and basing the show around their characters. Since then, all cop shows have followed the same lead, and the genre has become an accepted form of quality television drama, he said.

For science fiction, Star Trek could have played a similar role, but it did not, Straczynski said. For cop shows, or lawyer shows, or anything else, you hire somebody with experience, to make it good, he said. In science fiction, that isn't done.

Old television industry attacked

Straczynski harshly criticized the Hollywood establishment's treatment of science fiction. The attitude about science fiction shows was, "Either you buy into it or you don't. It doesn't have to make sense," he said.

"They didn't understand science fiction," he said. "It frightened them. There was a mindset that there are only Trek fans, that science fiction as a genre doesn't work."

Executives did not realize that science fiction does not have to be for kids, he said. Most science fiction shows have extraneous cute characters "We have no cute kids and robots as regulars on the show," he said. "We have them as guest stars, and we kill them."

Changing TV shows promise

People who grew up with the classic epics of fantasy literature, and quality British science fiction shows, like The Prisoner and Doctor Who, are now making shows on their own, Straczynski said. He included himself among the new generation who understand science fiction.

"I realized that television has a unique potential for telling long stories," he said. "You often don't get a pay-off at the end of the show, or sometimes even for several years."

"The questions TV asks tend to be trivial and ephemeral," Straczynski said. Instead, Babylon 5 tries to present real issues like those we actually face.

"These are questions that have no answers," he said. "I put them in there for you to argue about them. If I can start a bar fight, I'm happy."

Moreover, the scripts are all written by authors who know the over-arching storyline, he said. "The only place that's been done before is in soap operas, and they don't have an end in sight; they want to keep going forever."

Combining this idea of a long-term story with ideas about spending money responsibly led to the creation of Babylon 5, he said.

To save time and money, there are very strict rules of production, he said. The script is written six episodes ahead of shooting, and nobody makes changes on stage, he said. Knowing everything well in advance allows the show to consistency come in under budget, he said.

Nearing the end of his presentation, Straczynski played several promotional sequences from his television shows. The tapes, showing montages of special effects shots, with alien creatures, gripping space battles, and vast computer-generated panoramas, elicited hearty cheers and applause from the audience.

Independent television predicted

Straczynski also predicted that it would soon be possible for anybody to produce independent television shows.

"I have a digital camera that cost me two grand, and it produces higher-resolution output than most televisions can handle," he said. "That's professional quality."

"The prices can only go down,"he said. "Soon, people like you will be able to make 14 episodes for very little money and just present it to a network as a one-season show."

It's just like the development of independent film that has occurred in recent decades, as the technology for that became more inexpensive, Straczynski said.

Speakers asked about the future

After both of the presentations, the hosts and the audience asked the two men questions about their work and about the evolution of science fiction and media.

A number of people asked questions about the issues raised by Straczynski's shows and Jablokov's writing. Jenkins asked them about the issue of memory control in the future, a topic both of them had examined.

Straczynski said that as our technology develops, "somebody, probably from MIT," will figure out how to remove and replace memories. Jablokov took a different angle. As we introduce more powerful technology, we are already exerting a tremendous and poorly understood power over memory, and this will only become increase in the future.

In answering several questions, both of the authors emphasized the role of science fiction in helping to define our future and our identity. "Science fiction lets us raise our eyes to the horizon again, to see where we're going," Straczynski said.

"All science fiction is hopeful," since it predicts that there is a future for humanity, "and that we're not going to blow ourselves up in 50 years," he said.

The new, darker tone of current print science fiction may be largely responsible for the recent decrease in the genre's popularity, Straczynski said. "Everything is so dark and gloomy or Neuromancer, cyberpunk crap; you just know the author ended a really bad relationship and wants to make everybody else feel rotten too."

Many people say that science does for people today what religion did in the past, Jablokov said. Science fiction represents a new way of looking at old myths, in today's language.

Incorporating traditional narrative elements into Babylon 5, introduces "many things that you may not put in the consciously," but with which people still identify, Jablokov told Straczynski.

Both men also pointed out that the increased power of technology may offer may new useful opportunities, but finding the things you want is difficult. "I just don't have the time," Jablokov said. "This kind of thing seems to be for people who have no life."

The Internet and television will become more and more connected, Straczynski said. On the World Wide Web, people will be able to immerse themselves in the electronic trappings of their favorite show.

There will be many options, but lots of work trying to find what you actually want, he said. "I don't advocate this kind of thing. It is for people who have no life."