Monday, July 4, 2011

Sleeping in Light

Jeff Conaway died a while back.

It got me thinking about the role I remember him most for. Many remember him from Grease, but for me, he'll always be Zack Allen on Babylon 5. And that brings me to one of the finest final episodes ever made: Babylon 5's Sleeping in Light.

While other epic science fiction shows have tried, and failed, to deliver the goods in their final episodes, Babylon 5 figured it out back in 1998. This was thanks in part to J. Michael Straczynski, the writer behind it all. JMS (as he often goes by) didn't simply make it up as he went along, he already had the endgame in mind, which is one of the reasons why the Babylon 5 series finale still holds up.

The basic rundown of the finale is this: (SPOILER ALERT)
Twenty years after the events of the series, Sheridan (Tron's Bruce Boxleitner) is dying. He sends notes across the galaxy to all his friends so they can have one final moment together before he dies. Sheridan then hops a ship to the aging Babylon 5 station, scheduled to be demolished due to budget cuts. Finally, Sheridan dies, and the station is demolished, leaving his friends and family to continue living.

As plot goes, it's pretty light, but that wasn't the point, which we'll get to below. As a writer, I'm concerned with how my series ends, and you better believe I'm taking notes. Here are five reasons why I consider 'Sleeping in Light' one of the best series finales ever.

1. It was planned from the start. I mentioned this already, but this definitely bears repeating. A good final episode has been in the works for a while, possibly since the beginning. This is especially important if your show is one long, narrative arc. Your audience is investing a lot of time and/or money into your series, and they expect a return on that investment. In other words, they want the payoff that is the ending. Viewers of 'Sleeping in Light' got that payoff.

We saw where our characters were 20 years after the events of the series. I loved that, because often when an epic series ends, we never see what happened next. This episode showed the characters with their families, new careers, and new struggles. In the end, we saw that their struggles were worth it, and that's a great payoff.

Of course, if you know the history of the series, you are aware that the show didn't progress as originally intended. While lesser shows were hobbled by the need to make changes through the runs, JMS always had contingency plans and was able to adapt to the changing reality of television production. This is why advance planning is essential. It allows you to adapt and still keep the integrity of your vision alive.

2. Babylon 5's demolition. The fact that the station survived two wars and countless attempts at invasion only to be scuttled for budgetary reasons was, and still is, a brilliant twist. It's something we can relate to today. After a great victory, life still goes on and we have to worry about all the day-to-day details. And people will remember the victory, cheer for it, and then go back to their lives and a year from now or twenty, they won't care anymore whether the very place that brought them life and liberty still exists.

The best part of the destruction sequence was who pulled the switch. JMS made a great cameo as a maintenance worker who pulls the switch that turned off all the lights.

3. We were going to see it no matter what. Babylon 5 lasted five seasons, but for a while it looked like it would only reach four. This is the genius of JMS. He wrote and filmed the final episode for the end of the fourth season, just in case. He wanted to make sure that we saw it. Then, when TNT picked up the show for a fifth and final season, he simply held onto the episode until the end of that season. I don't think I've ever heard of another show that took that great care with the final episode, and when I heard about that, I knew this episode would be special, and it was.

4. It breaks your heart. Sheridan knew he was dying. He'd been near death and healed by an alien who could only extend his life 20 years. Imagine his final goodbye to his wife, Delenn (Mira Furlan). Actually, you don't have to imagine, we get to see that beautiful moment, and if it doesn't move you even a little, you need to make sure that your heart is still intact.

And then there's the station. This station was the show (hence the name.) To see Babylon 5 destroyed by a controlled detonation was both beautiful and devastating. On the DVD commentary, JMS actually tears up as he's watching it, but then again, I can imagine how hard it is to see your baby destroyed, even if that's how you wrote it.

Finally, the score is haunting. When you watch the episode, you'll hear one of the most beautiful soundtracks, unique to the episode, that just embodies the hope, pain, sadness, and joy in this episode.

5. The end credits. After the episode ended, we were treated to a quick montage of pictures of everyone involved in the show. It was something you had to record and watch in slow motion, assuming your VCR was up to snuff. I thought it was a classy way to end such an epic series, giving everyone their tenth-of-a-second of glory.

I aspire for any ending I write to even come close to what JMS accomplished.

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