Everyone knows that life on television isn’t like real life. Life is not backed up by theme music or dramatic lighting, and isn’t packaged in easy-to-digest hour-long episodes. Conversation on television isn’t like conversation in real life, either. It’s as packaged and carefully choreographed as the costuming, lighting or makeup. In fact, conversation on television has more in common with these and other extralinguistic factors than with natural language.
Babylon 5 is a science fiction show that ran for five years during the 1990s. It was produced for an American audience, something made clear by two things. First, the command staff all have accents that would indicate they are from the American Midwest, including the Russian woman. Other characters have various accents ranging from English to things that are supposed to sound alien. The use of American accents for the command staff is to establish an audience identification with them. Characters not part of the command staff frequently have other accents. Many of the human characters have accents I identified as New England or English. The aliens tend to have accents that are difficult to place but often sound like generic European accents such as Italian, French, and Spanish. Second, measurements are frequently given in miles, pounds, and feet, a system that is used only in the US and I predict will not be in use anywhere during the 23rd century. This is especially noticeable when it is done by characters that are not American themselves, such as Commander Ivanova, Marcus Cole, or any of the aliens. The use of these measuring systems demonstrates that easy comprehension for American viewers is a higher priority than historical accuracy. As an American viewer myself, I must admit that I watched the opening credits, where the length of the station is given in miles, more than 10 times before I picked up on the use of ‘miles’ rather than ‘kilometers’.
Babylon 5 has a social structure that is in many ways typical of science fiction television shows. Also like other shows, the social structure is clearly outlined by the opening credits. For the first four seasons, it opens with the three main characters who are all Earth military officers. These are the Captain, Commander Ivanova, and Michael Garibaldi, who starts out as the chief of security. Also with Earth are the doctor and the telepath, and there is always another lower-ranked character in the mix somewhere, a pilot, someone on the security staff, and later in the show, someone from Command and Control. This lower-ranked character is always a human male with short hair. Among the aliens we have the three main ambassadors, Delenn, G’Kar, and Londo Mollari, and their attaches when applicable. For the first two seasons, the credits went in the following order: The Captain, Ivanova, Garibaldi, Delenn, Dr. Franklin, Talia Winters (telepath), Vir (Londo’s attache), Lennier (Delenn’s attache), Lt. Keffer (the low-ranked human), Na’Toth (G’Kar’s attache), G’Kar, Londo Mollari, and J. Michael Straczyinski, the show’s creator and primary writer. The first four were listed as ‘starring’, the next six were listed as ‘also starring’ and the last two were listed as ‘with’. I thought this was an interesting way to order the credits, with two of the ambassadors listed after the attaches, until I realized that the ordering does not have to do so much with the importance of the character but with the character’s loyalty to the Earth Alliance and its goals. Delenn’s goals are very much in accord with Earth Alliance’s although she is an alien, where the Doctor and the telepath both have other loyalties; the Doctor to medicine and the telepath to the PsiCorps. The four attache characters are loyal first to the people they work for, and the two remaining ambassadors are loyal first to their own governments and are frequently used as destructive plot elements. The voiceover for the introductory sequence changes every season. In the first season it’s done by Captain Sinclair, in the second by Captain Sheridan. This is when the station is still under the governance of Earth. In the third season, when they break from Earth’s government, the voiceover is done by Ivanova. The voiceover in the first three seasons is done by the person who is second in authority over the station. In the first two seasons, the Captains answer to Earth. In the third season, Ivanova answers only to the Captain. In the fourth season, the voiceover is done by all the characters in the opening credits, each with a line saying “It was the year of....”. In the fifth season, the voiceover is not so much a voiceover as a collection of lines from important moments in the show from previous years. Fourth season showed civil war on a couple of important planets and in general a lot of chaos, fifth season showed the formation of a new government, allying Earth and many alien worlds.
The placement of the opening sequence and credits is no accident, like most of the rest of the cinematographic sequencing. Every episode follows a basic outline, as part of its narrative style. Each episode starts by introducing the main plot lines for that episode. There are almost always two of them. In a few episodes there is only one, but this is an exception. These introductory sequences are just that; they let the viewer know what will be dealt with in the episode, but there are no actions taken and no real information is revealed. After these two introductions comes the opening sequence, which serves to inform us that this is part of a larger story. This sequence is not run at the beginning because it is the same in a given season and does not draw viewers in the way introduction of new plot points does. After this sequence come the opening credits and then the first commercial break. Having oriented the audience, letting them know what they’re watching and what’s going to happen in the episode, this is an acceptable time to take a break. It’s early enough in the show that they can still attract channel-surfers, late enough that any regular viewers are already tuned in.
After the first break, the plots begin to take on some detail. Actions are put into motion but not finalized, information is revealed, the conflicts of the episode are set up. Note that these conflicts can be something new or a continuation of something older, as the series is continuing, like a soap opera, rather than self-contained, like Star Trek. In this part of the narrative, an older plot line or two is reintroduced and continued. Usually there will be two of these older plot lines, and they will be secondary to the plot lines introduced before the first break. Both the new plot lines are given time to develop, but not so much that we have a clear idea of what is going on before the second commercial break. The second break is set so that we’re curious about what’s going on but probably can’t figure out how the show will end without staying tuned.
In the third section, the plots gear up. Actions are discussed but not carried out. This section combines both complicating actions and evaluations. One of the plots stops right before revealing something interesting, a time-honored strategy for keeping the viewer tuned in through the third commercial break.
In the fourth section, the plots go into full swing. There is danger. Actions are taken and explained. This section is usually devoted to the new plot lines, the old plot lines will have a maximum of two segments here, usually only one, as the old plot lines usually have to do with setting things up for the future or with character development. Again, there is a lead up to some kind of plot resolution that is delayed by the fourth commercial break. These third and fourth breaks are carefully placed in the plot so that there is as much buildup to them in a single section (that is, between commercial breaks) and so that a pause is made prior to any major revelation.
In the fifth section, any actions left unfinished in the preceding section are usually finalized. Explanations are given. At least one of the old plot lines will have a segment in this section. Babylon 5 is abnormal in comparison to other shows in that this section can be easily mistaken for the last section, rather than the second last. Plot points aren’t usually left dangling here to be finished up in the last 5 minutes before the closing credits but rather are usually well wrapped up before the fifth and final break.
In the sixth section, we see why things were wrapped up so well in the last section. Since Babylon 5 is a serial show, in this section we see the aftermath of the show’s events. Pertinent unsettled points calculated to convince us to keep tuning in can also be brought up here, and occasionally the final explanation of the plot isn’t given until this section, although that is rare. This section functions to reinforce that this show is a serial, a small story that is part of a greater story.
Interestingly, this structure is somewhat parallel to the structure of each of the seasons and of the series as a whole. The first season is an introduction to the characters, settings, and plot lines. In the second season actions are begun but do not really become finalized, at least not in the context of the series as a whole. The third season saw a lot of action, as did the fourth, which wrapped a lot of that action up. The fifth season is a combination of action and aftermath. The seasons, at 22 episodes apiece, are not so easily split into parts, but the structure of the introduction, gradual intensification of the plot, conclusion, and aftermath remains.
In contrast to the highly ordered style of the narrative, where the series, seasons, and episodes follow a strictly outlined formula common to many kinds of storytelling are the actual conversational exchanges on Babylon 5. Where real conversations have a beginning, middle and end, conversations on Babylon 5 frequently omit one or two of these parts as well as some of the smaller utterances we normally take for granted. In well-written dialogue, this is an easy thing to miss, but from a real-world perspective, if anyone habitually spoke to me the way that people speak on Babylon 5, I would think that they were rude and undersocialized in addition to making melodramatic choices of words.
Most of the ritual aspects of speech are dropped completely. There is almost never any verbal exchange of greetings. Some of the aliens use gestures, but this is to reinforce the idea of them as aliens. Most of the humans do not do anything to mark either end of a verbal interaction, they just jump right in, and then when they’re done, they go about their separate ways automatically, without any kind of goodbye ritual, which seems efficient but actually requires a peculiar premise, that there is nothing the other person wants to say and hasn’t had time to say yet. On the occasions when ritual greetings are used, their uses are encoded differently. Showing a hello ritual between two characters means there is something significant going on between them, whether they are meeting for the first time or going to fight each other later in the episode, it is never random politeness. Farewell rituals are similar. Rather than the lengthy goodbyes I expect to happen between friends and lovers ‘bye, take care, I’ll talk to you soon....’ farewell rituals are used as dismissals almost exclusively, so ‘I’ll see you later’ means ‘I have to talk to this person now’. There is never any response to this dismissal, the character being spoken to just leaves.
There are next to no discourse markers. I counted the markers for three episodes and came up with 4 instances of ‘well’, one of ‘you know’ one ‘oh’ one ‘I mean’ and no ‘like’, ‘yeah’ or ‘really’. There was little to no positive minimal response. I heard one ‘mm?’ as a question particle, and one ‘um’ as a hedge. Dialogue in Babylon 5 is more of an exchange of monologues than anything else, probably for clarity and ease of hearing the speaker. The instances of ‘well’ were utterance-initial and most were made by one character. I also observed that instead of markers like ‘y’know’ to get the attention of the addressee, the name of the character is frequently used instead.
This change in function and use carries over to some features of conversation that are commonly viewed as awkward or undesirable. There is a lot of what appears to be interruption on the show, but in listening carefully I observed that there was no overlapping speech involved. Instead, the actors time the dialogue so that one starts just when the other stops abruptly, thus creating the appearance of an interruption. Errors in speech production are limited to starting and stopping speech, and it’s generally used to indicate that a character is nervous or flustered, never that they’re just having a problem with that mind-to-mouth connection that I have every day. Along the same lines, there is no misselection of words and very little mispronunciation, and when it does occur it is used to signify hostile unfamiliarity or intoxication. Actual surprise is rarely registered during a conversation. People absorb information instantly and respond as though they’ve had an appropriate amount of time to process it. They do not get confused, they do not say things in the heat of the moment. This last I found quite interesting because characters on the show are frequently quick to anger and get into fights, but there is little to no aftermath suggesting that they didn’t mean it or that it was a bad idea. The fights, rather than representing an idea that fighting is something that adults do, are like the fights in comic books; they are used to express clashes in differing ideology. Along the same lines, the characters will periodically explain elements of the plot to each other for the benefit of the audience. These are generally things that the characters themselves already know or have inferred. This informs the audience what the characters know as well as what’s going on in the plot if they’re a little slow catching on.
Another interesting feature of the dialogue is how curiosity and personal revelations are dealt with. While brutal in any kind of interrogation scene, the characters seem to lack curiosity about each other’s perceptions. In a show where there is no extra dialogue, no insignificant words, I would have thought that they would realize that the other characters don’t bring things up just for the hell of it, but apparently that’s all part of the plan. The structure looks like this:
Sinclair: Last night I saw-
Ivanova: Saw what?
Sinclair: Maybe I’m just tired.
And the question is dismissed, Ivanova does not push it. This conversation is, however, significant in itself because it lets the audience know what the first speaker is turning over in their mind, that it’s significant, and that the character hasn’t realized what’s going on yet.
Television as a visual medium allows for visual as well as verbal communication. On television, gesture is frequently substituted for some parts of speech. Emotions are often easily carried by gesture, and with the ability to carry something off visually at the same time as speech is going on lessens the need for dialogue while allowing a visual minimal response. Most striking among these gestures are the indicators that one character does not want to speak to another. This is carried through fairly extreme gestures of aggravation, such as folding the arms and turning away from the speaker.
On a less human and more cinematic scale are the use of certain editing sequences. Occasionally there will be two sequences from the same plot line with at least one character in common, set in different places. If in the first of these sequences the character is not shown heading towards the second location, there is always a shot from space in between them. I believe this intervening shot is to show the passage of time.
The other cinematographic device I noticed was the use of color. The command uniforms worn during the first two seasons are blue and a warm red, which I interpreted to mean pacifism, along with a warm color to break up the monotone. During the third season, when they break away from Earth, they change to black and silver uniforms, for rebellion and fortitude. More interesting than this, though, are the colors of the inside of the station. As a claustrophobe myself, I assumed that the internal architecture and decoration of a space station would attempt to reduce things like claustrophobia and space madness. This would mean designing common areas to have high ceilings and making walls and fixtures light colors. Above all else it would mean making everything well-lit with light that mimics natural light. I would also assume that murals or other pictures, or possibly advertising since there is a lot of commerce on Babylon 5, would take up a significant amount of wall space in the public areas. However, none of this is present. Instead, the walls are often dark, the lighting is often bad, and the public area walls are bare unless some point is being made. Instead of setting the stage as a ‘real’ space station, that is, knowing that people are living in an unnatural environment and trying to keep them from going crazy, the design is used to emphasize to the audience that this is set on a space station.
Conversation in Babylon 5 is not meant to represent actual conversation, just as the color psychology used in the design is not meant to address what real color psychologists would be trying to do in the same situation. These things are, instead, meant to be taken as part of the narrative structure as a whole and in fact they lose meaning when they are taken out of that context. Babylon 5 is not a documentary and it is not meant to mimic one. It is not a series of stories that are told by observing the characters, but one continuous story - whether you look at the episode, season or series - told through the characters. Television is the storyteller of our age, and the medium is part of the message. The same plot done as a book would be done differently, the same plot done as a puppet show would also be done differently, and the same plot as a radio show would probably be even more different than the other two.