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Jason Davis

Write Your Story

A successful writer once said something like, “Everyone has a book inside them.”

I’m not going to look up the name of the writer or the precise quote, because worrying about those details at the outset of the endeavor is what keeps books buried inside their writers’ minds. 

I’m here to help you pry your story out onto the page by sharing the techniques I’ve used to coax books out of several first-time writers as well as in editing titles by prolific professionals. The trick is to bypass the many pitfalls that trap even the most experienced writers—like stopping the flow to look up a quote, identify its source, and go down a dozen rabbit holes as a result—and to keep marching toward the goal:


Join me for a pay-what-you-can workshop at 6 PM Pacific Time on Thursday, 31 August 2023, and I’ll share the strategies that have worked for writers on page one as well as those on page 400 of their 100th book.

You have a story to tell. I have the tools to help you tell it. Let’s get together.

BABYLON 5 comes to Blu-ray

I’m sure most of you saw on Tuesday that Babylon 5 is coming to Blu-ray.

If you didn’t see the news: 

Babylon 5 is coming to Blu-ray on 5 December 2023! 

The set is now up for pre-order at:

Amazon US 

Amazon UK 

There’s not a lot of data available, but the 21-disc set appears to include the pilot and the 110 episodes of the series proper, as exhibited in high definition on HBO Max between 2020 and 2022.

I have many thoughts on the release, mostly informed by my talks with co-producer George Johnsen and editor David Foster, but they’ll keep until I’ve had time to write them up properly in a forthcoming briefing. 

But, briefly, I am delighted with this news. Not only does it allow future viewers to see a version of the show much closer to the intended vision of those I’ve been interviewing for the last few years, but it signals–along with Babylon 5: The Road Home and the potential television reboot–a renewed interest in the property.

Now I’m off to interview an Australian and make an appointment with someone else who’s never–to my knowledge–spoken about B5…see you Monday.

Faith manages,


STUNTLADY: Falling for the Stars by Sandra Gimpel (Felion Productions, 2023)

In late 2022, Patricia Tallman (Babylon 5) introduced me to Sandy Gimpel, who’d written a memoir of her Hollywood career and wanted a picture-filled print-on-demand publication she could add to the array of publicity photos she signs at conventions.

Over a couple months, Sandy and I worked together on the text, integrating her personal photos to achieve a book reminiscent of Pleasure Thresholds, the memoir I edited for Tallman in 2011 and helped her update in 2020. The resulting book, Stuntlady, was published on 17 April 2023. It was a hit at Trek Long Island (19–21 May 2023) and was featured on the 22 May 2023 episode of Inside Edition.

For editorial and/or publishing services, please contact me at

STUNTLADY by Sandra Gimpel

Sandra Gimpel began her Hollywood career dancing with Elvis Presley in fifteen films and doubling Bill Mumy on Lost in Space. She even played the M-113 salt vampire on Star Trek before discovering her true calling: Stuntlady.

She’s doubled Adrienne Barbeau, Olympia Dukakis, Barbara Eden, Sally Field, Estelle Getty, Melissa Gilbert, Holly Hunter, Cloris Leachman, Susan Lucci, Shirley MacLaine, Alyssa Milano, Kate Mulgrew, Sarah Jessica Parker, Debbie Reynolds, Betty White, and more.

After establishing herself as a stunt coordinator, Gimpel broke the glass ceiling at Universal and became the first stunt woman to join the DGA and direct second-unit at the height of the studio’s television output.

From dancing with Fred Astaire in The Pleasure of His Company to being shoved by Daniel Radcliffe in Weird: The Al Yankovic Story, Gimpel’s seven decades of falling for the stars are all here.

Stuntlady: Falling for the Stars by Sandra Gimpel (Felion Productions, 2023)
Edited by Jason Davis. Cover cartoon by Luis Silva.
ISBN: 9798390149782 • 7.5″ by 9.25″ Trade Paperback 350pp.

To order signed and/or inscribed copies directly from Sandra Gimpel, click here.

To order unsigned copies from, click here.

CRUSADE: What the Hell Happened? Vols. 2-3 by J. Michael Straczynski (Synthetic Worlds Publishing, 2023)

For eight years, I was senior editor at B5 Books, overseeing an array of volumes documenting the creation of Babylon 5 and its spinoffs for Synthetic Worlds Publishing and Publishing 180. When I resigned on 31 December 2016, I had one regret: that Volumes 2 and 3 of Crusade: What the Hell Happened? by J. Michael Straczynski remained unreleased, their publication postponed by the author’s busy schedule.

While thirteen may have proved an unlucky number for Crusade the series—cancelled after that many episodes were produced—it’s a luckier one for the story of that ill-fated series, with Volumes 2 and 3 published in hardcover, paperback, and e-books thirteen years after Volume 1, which has been reissued.

While Volume 1 was reprinted as it originally appeared in 2010, I approached the editorial work on Volumes 2 and 3 from scratch, selecting the script drafts after thirteen years of detailed study and annotated each teleplay with information gathered while preparing my own books for the Babylon 5 Preservation Project.

Highlights include Straczynski’s first draft of “The Needs of Earth”, which differs substantially from the filmed episode; early drafts of later scripts, before TNT’s problematic resulted in a production shutdown; a version of “The Path of Sorrows” featuring Lyta Alexander and Lennier; as well as the two unfilmed stories that would have seen the series arc bare its teeth.

These are not the books as originally conceived in 2010 (or even 2022), but I’m pleased to see them finally complete the saga of the Excalibur in print.

For editorial and/or publishing services, please contact me at

Crusade: What the Hell Happened? Volume 2 by J. Michael Straczynski (Synthetic Worlds, 2023)
Edited by Jason Davis. Cover art by Luc Mayrand.
Hardback ISBN: 9781630771331 • Paperback ISBN: 9781630771348
8.5″ by 11″ / 7.5″ by 9.25″ 354pp.

Crusade: What the Hell Happened? Volume 3 by J. Michael Straczynski (Synthetic Worlds, 2023)
Edited by Jason Davis. Cover art by Luc Mayrand.
Hardback ISBN: 9781630771324 • Paperback ISBN: 9781630771287
8.5″ by 11″ / 7.5″ by 9.25″ 354pp.

To purchase, please visit

An excerpt from ALL ALONE IN THE NIGHT: The Making of Babylon 5, 1987-1994 (forthcoming)

There are three phases in the production of a television episode: Pre-Production, Production (aka Principal Photography), and Post-Production.

At 6:47pm on Thursday, 2 December 1993, principal photography on “Chrysalis” (112) concluded in Morden’s Quarters. After seven days of work and 19,940 feet of exposed negative, Babylon 5’s first season finale was in the can—halfway through the season, to allow for extensive cgi. While the cast and crew would move on to “DeathWalker” on Friday the 3rd, the aforementioned can(s)—containing the day’s exposed Super 35 negative—would go to be processed at the lab and transferred to VHS cassettes for the producers to review.

Meanwhile, the film shot on the previous days of production had already been loaded into the Avid of Lisa M. Citron, one of three editors who worked on Babylon 5’s freshman season. (Suzanne Sternlicht cut 101, 104, 107, 110, 113, 116, 119, and 122, Skip Robinson cut 102, 105, 108, 111, 114, 117, and 120, and Citron cut 103, 106, 109, 112, 115, 118, and 121.) The editor begins their cut as soon as footage becomes available, assembling the show according to the shooting script, exercising their personal taste in choosing the shots and takes. As scenes are cut together, Citron would report back to the script supervisor, Haley McLane, noting the length of assembled scenes so that the production could keep an eye on the episode’s running time. If the scenes cut together shorter than expected, the episode will underrun and require costly additional photography that will eat into a later episode’s schedule, not to mention the expense of recalling guest actors, if required.

Meanwhile, in Valencia, 19 miles northwest of Babylon 5’s stages in Sun Valley, Foundation Imaging worked on the cgi, but with the footage rendered at roughly one frame per seventy minutes, a second of video material—24 frames—required more than a day of computer processing during the first season. Citron would estimate the length of the shot based on pre-production discussions, placing a note into the episode that might read “EXT. BABYLON 5 – ESTABLISHING” or “SHADOWMAN CRUISERS FIRE ON MOONBASE” as a placeholders. By the end of Friday, 3 December, Citron’s cut would be complete.

From the advent of motion pictures, film editing was both a manual and linear activity. The editor physically cut and spliced the film to create edits. Thousands of feet of footage would be organized in bins, with the constituent shots of the scene in progress within arm’s reach. Until the 1970s, most film was edited on a Moviola, an upright machine that allowed the editor to run the film forward and backward, making cuts and splices as required. Flatbed systems—like those produced by the German companies K-E-M and Steenbeck—became the norm from the 1970s, allowing the editor to sit comfortably during the days and weeks and months of cutting. The creation of this work-in-progress edit is called an offline edit, one in which the original materials are not affected; the editor uses a work print, a dupe of the negative created specifically to be personhandled in the editing suite.

Once the final cut was approved by the required parties, the negative would be conformed to the editor’s notes, a terrifying process where a single mistake would destroy a frame of film forever; this is the online edit, from which there is no return. If one were philosophically inclined, the conformed negative is The Film, the Platonic ideal, the actual artifact from which all copies derive. When you see on the package that a Blu-ray was created “from a 4K scan of the original camera negative,” that means that you’re viewing a clone of the original, albeit one restricted in resolution to the Blu-ray standard and compressed accordingly.

It’s worth noting that most prints you saw in the movie theater prior to the advent of digital projection in 1999 were three generations removed from the negative, usually struck from an internegative made from an interpositive that was duped from the negative. That’s why you sometimes see the strings in special effects shots on Blu-ray when you’re certain they weren’t visible in the theater; until the age of high-quality home cinema, no one ever expected to view the negative (or a compressed clone thereof), just copies three generations down the line.

(As an aside, when cinema enthusiasts lament the lack of a high-definition release of the 1977 release of Star Wars, they are effectively mourning the death of that version, which was disassembled splice-by-splice to create the 1997 special edition. Yes, there are extant release prints—three generations down from the negative—but there is no longer a conformed negative of that movie as it appeared in 1977. The Special Edition is The Film now.)

By the 1980s, filmed television shows were often being edited on videotape. The film would be transferred to videotape and edited linearly, one scene after another, on an apparatus that was effectively two VCRs controlled by a simple computer, accumulating start and end times for each shot, then exporting them to a master broadcast-quality videotape from which further copies could be dubbed, losing picture quality with each subsequent generation (or cloned without such loss in the digital era). This approach would cause problems after the introduction of high definition television. As noted above, a conformed negative can be scanned to obtain an image of higher resolution than a 4K television can present, but the best DigiBeta videocassette of a show finished electronically without a conformed film negative is locked in standard definition forever…unless, as happened with Star Trek: The Next Generation, a studio pays to have the negatives of every shot of the series exhumed and painstakingly assembled into a conformed negative, giving the show a new lease on life for modern broadcast, home video, and streaming applications. (It should be noted that some studios continued to create conformed negatives for their series, avoiding the issues faced by those that took the less-expensive post-production route.)

Avid Technology changed everything. In 1988, the company introduced The Avid/I, a non-linear editing system based on the Apple Macintosh II. Editors could digitize the dailies—at much lower than full broadcast quality, due to the data storage limitations of the era—and create an editorial timeline, dropping shots onto it with a mouse. It was no longer necessary to build the scene in order, splicing one shot after another with actual film, and if the director wanted a reaction shot dropped in the middle of the scene, no de-splicing, cutting, and re-splicing would be necessary. With the Avid, everything was drag-and-drop, and simple alterations were effectively instantaneous.

Additionally, the system allowed filmmakers to experiment with transitions in real time. The creation of a dissolve—where one image fades in while another fades out, typically to indicate a passage of time—or fades—where one image emerges from or submerges into blackness, as usually happens at the beginning or ending of a show, or at commercial breaks—used to require an optical printer. The optical printer was a contraption consisting of one or more film projectors affixed to a film camera, allowing the latter device to photograph the output of the projectors, creating effects in the process; in short, every time you see a picture fade to black prior to 1980, that entire shot was rephotographed via optic printer to achieve that effect. Then it had to be processed and edited into the conformed negative; and because it was effectively a generation removed from the shot preceding it, the drop in quality before a fade or dissolve is often evident before it begins; the image gets suddenly softer and grainier. The Avid could execute dissolves and fades on-screen in real time, at the push of a button.

(Optical printers were also used to superimpose credits over live-action footage. For reasons I haven’t been able to ascertain, it seems that optical printers are infrequently cleaned, and you can see specks of detritus in exactly the same positions during the credits and subtitled sections of Four Weddings and a Funeral [1994] and Backbeat [1994], which apparently went through the same apparatus relatively close together.)

When the cut was finally locked, the Avid would export an Edit Decision List (EDL), a digital account of every cut in the episode, logged by frame numbers on the negative. That EDL, housed on a 3.5″ floppy disk would be taken to the editorial facility where the negative would be conformed to the instructions exported from the Avid.

As with any new technology, the entertainment industry was slow as a whole to embrace the new technology, but television was faster than film, and Babylon 5 was among the first generation of series cut digitally on a non-linear platform. (In 1997, Walter Murch won the Academy Award for editing The English Patient [1996] on the Avid. For more on Mr. Murch and editorial philosophy, I recommend IN THE BLINK OF AN EYE: A Perspective of Film Editing by Murch [Silman-James Press, 2001] and THE CONVERSATION: Walter Murch and the Art of Film Editing by Michael Ondaatje [Random House, 2004].)

On Monday, 6 December, director Janet Greek began working with Citron to create her director’s cut. The Directors Guild of America mandates that directors get two days to create their cut of a television episode. Greek might prefer a closeup to a midshot, favor one take over another, trim the air out of a conversation by tightening the cuts between speakers, delete a line of dialogue she found unnecessary to telling the story, or eliminate an entire scene if it proved redundant in the context of the assembled episode. The director’s cut also offers an opportunity for experimentation, perhaps intercutting two adjacent scenes to ratchet up the tension between them, cutting back and forth, back and forth, and building to a double climax. Depending on the director, their cut may be close to the target running time, or they may leave the episode a little long, deferring to the producers.

With the director’s cut completed, John Copeland and J. Michael Straczynski would review the it multiple times and make notes. They’d then join Citron in the edit suite and begin the producers’ cut. Like the director, the producers adjust shots, vary takes, or perhaps resequence an entire act; the producers’ cut is effectively the final re-write. Unlike the freelance director, who comes and goes, handling maybe three or four episodes of Babylon 5 per season, the producers have the big picture in mind. Their adjustments are made in the context of all the episodes to date and those planned down the road; they see the series rather than the show.

Originally published as the 15 October 2021 installment of the Babylon 5 Preservation Project weekly briefing.

Story #6 – 6 January 2018

Suppressing his excitement, Toby thanked Alicia for participating in his telepathy experiment, and ushered her out of the psychology lab. As she crossed the walkway that bridged the third floors of the more conventional, 1950s-built psychology building and the modernist 1970s-nightmare where the physical sciences resided, Toby lost sight of her in a sudden surge of transiting students. He returned to the lab.

Fifty out of fifty, he thought, picking the uppermost Zener card from the stack, that’s statistically impossible. Then he noticed the card: three wavy lines. He consulted the notepad where he’d tracked the actual cards against Alicia’s verbal guesses; a circle was the fiftieth card drawn according to his notes. He checked the forty-ninth—the card was a square, but his notes recorded a star.

Panicking, Toby wound back the audiotape he’d made of the session.

His voice, irritatingly high, confirmed “Star. And number fifty…”

Then another male voice, a much deeper one, said, “Circle.”

“…is a circle,” Toby’s voice concurred. “That’s fifty out of fifty, Alicia. I think you must be reading my mind or something.”

The deep, male voice replied, “Or something.” The deep voice laughed. “I should go; I’ve got a class to get to.”

© 2018 by Jason Davis. All rights reserved.

In 2018, I tried to write a short-short story every day. I was eventually derailed by a weekend away from my desk and mounting guilt that the Harlan Ellison Books Preservation Project was taking longer than expected, and every waking moment should be dedicated to its completion.

With five years distance, I like some of the stories, each one having been placed before me by Facebook for the last week, and I think the exercise is serving a purpose now that it failed to accomplish at the time. We shall see.


“It’s all storytelling, one’s just longer than the other, and with a larger budget,” says J. Michael Straczynski regarding his feature script, Changeling. “You still have to keep up the pacing, deliver strong characters, and tell a coherent, internally consistent story.” Despite a varied career of writing for magazines, newspapers, comicbooks, novels, and television, Straczynski’s aversion to film has been based on the industry’s uncertainties. “In tv, when they say, ‘Here’s a series order; go make x-number episodes,’ that’s what you do. When you get into film, suddenly there’re all kinds of things that can go wrong…you have to get foreign investors, there’re various distribution deals; it’s go, then no-go, then go again…it can make you crazy. It’s too much like going to Vegas and betting your house on one roll of the dice.

“Consequently, I only go to the feature world when I think the story really, really merits it…and even then it’s with great caution,” says Straczynski alluding to Changeling, a spec script he sold in June to Ron Howard’s Imagine Entertainment. “For many years, I’d been a freelance reporter/stringer with such publications as the LA Times, the LA Herald Examiner, TIME Inc. and others, and as such you develop a lot of contacts around town,” said Straczynski, recounting the screenplay’s origins. “I’d gotten a call from one source at City Hall who was getting rid of some records from the ’20s and came across a transcript of a hearing he thought I should see. So I zoomed down there and was allowed to read some of it before it was destroyed. As I read the transcript, I initially couldn’t figure out what had been going on, and when I did finally figure it out, thought, this can’t possible be real, this can’t possibly have actually happened. I was able to copy a few pages before they took it away, just some critical pages, enough to get dates and places to launch into several years of research into the events of that story.”

“The main thing with this story—which involves a woman whose young son goes missing, and is later supposedly returned, but there’s something very much wrong here—was just getting it as accurate as possible,” Straczynski continues. “I didn’t want to fictionalize it much, because the story is so extraordinary, so hard to believe, that if you start faking things suddenly you call the whole story into question.” Rigorously adhering to the facts, the writer found his greatest challenge was determining which material would be left out of the screenplay. “I went through several iterations of the script, tried various different approaches over a very long period, then put it away to stew. Finally, one day, it dinged like a toaster in my head, and I sat down and I knew suddenly how it had to be written. I blasted through the script in eleven days.”

Upon finishing the draft, Straczynski ran it past his feature agent, Martin Spencer of CAA. “He was stunned by it,” says Straczynski who notes that Spencer read the script in one sitting. “He was also kind of taken aback by it because, as he put it, it’s ‘outside the box’ of what I’m known for, which is for being a sci-fi kinda guy,” says the writer best known for creating the science fiction television series Babylon 5. Refuting the industry pigeonhole in which he’s often filed, Straczynski notes “I’ve written, and sold, comedy, mainstream drama, murder mysteries, cop shows, sf, fantasy, horror…but in this town you are what you’re most recently known for, and that’s B5.”

On the script’s reception, Straczynski couldn’t be more pleased. “As was expressed to me by a number of folks after the fact, when a spec comes in the door, there’s usually some measure of backing-and-forthing, where one person likes the A-story, another the B-story, this or that needs work. But this one came in over the transom fairly bulletproof, which I attribute more to the original events than my skill as a storyteller.” With one suggestion from Spencer, Straczynski revised the script and the agent sent it out. “I have to say that my agent approached this in a very strategically smart way. He kept a tight rein on the script, and let it only to a couple of people in a very measured fashion.”

“We could have taken it to auction and probably made twice or three times what we ultimately got for it—which is already rather substantial—but my agent believed in the story as much as I did, and wanted not just to sell it, but to do everything to get it to the right people who could get it made—someone who was temperamentally suited to the material.” This led to Spencer sending the script to Imagine Entertainment, the company founded in 1986 by director Ron Howard and producer Brian Grazer. Straczynski continues, “They got the script on one afternoon, the president of Imagine read it that night, called Ron the next day, got it to him, Ron read it that night, and they opened negotiations the next day.”

For Straczynski, “The hardest part of the last stages of negotiation was doing nothing. When you get down to the wire, it’s easy to micro-manage your agent, to take what’s on the table and run, but I know and trust Martin as one of the best.” Thus, the writer did not hover over his agent while the deals were being made. “He’d call when there was something to say, and if I heard from him just once during a day, or not at all, I knew he was in there doing what he had to and I kept out of it.” As Straczynski puts it, “I do what I do, and leave him to do what he does. It wasn’t easy, but I did it.” When the deal was done, Spencer thanked Straczynski for giving him free reign. “I think you hire good people and leave them to do their job, otherwise what’s the point?”

When asked how he feels about having conquered another storytelling medium, Straczynski says, “I don’t think I’ve conquered anything. I’ve written over 200 produced tv scripts, created the Babylon 5 franchise for Warner Brothers, written some of Marvel’s top-selling books with their main core characters, now sold this…but I’m still learning and I’ve never considered myself having ‘made it’ at any point. I think the moment you get complacent, the moment you think you’ve conquered something, that’s the moment you get creatively dead.”

Originally published in Creative Screenwriting, Vol. 13, No. 6 (Nov/Dec 2006).

TV WASTELAND: Lost in the Village

Do you ever look at something and think, “Has no one else noticed this?” That’s exactly what I did when I sat down to watch The Prisoner in a marathon session earlier this week. Think about it. You have an isolated location honeycombed with strange bunkers where bizarre experiments are being carried out on unsuspecting subjects and no one’s quite sure who are the prisoners and who are the wardens. There’s an unconventional sentry in the form of Rover. Even those who seem to have power might be pawns in a larger, unseen game. Does this sound increasingly familiar? It probably does if you watch Lost.

These are broad points of comparison, but one could get even more specific—the raft Number Six builds in “Many Happy Returns” is reminiscent of Michael’s similar endeavor while the crew of the boat that picks up the Prisoner in “Checkmate” has much in common with the motives of the Other called Tom in “Exodus Part 2.” The Prisoner’s excursions outside the Village in “Many Happy Returns” and “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling” serve the same purpose of exposing his backstory that the character-oriented flashbacks do in a given episode of Lost. The overriding notion that the government has the right to keep a former employee with specialized knowledge under lock and key in the Village seems to be the same attitude underlying the DHARMA Initiative Island, simply substituting the corporate power of the Hanso Foundation for the British (or enemy) government behind the Village. Both shows, at their ethical roots, are about the individual enslaved at the convenience of an all-powerful organization with no recourse to appeal.

I could go on and on, detailing correlations perceived in reviewing Patrick McGoohan’s televisual masterpiece, but all these cosmetic and philosophical similarities seem to point to one key notion imbedded in the creation of both shows. In each case, the series seem to serve as a weekly Rorschach test for the audience. You come to the episode with all your personal baggage and you perceive the hour’s presentation through the lens of your own experience and opinions. Take, for example, my first experience with The Prisoner. I was around 13 years old and had been a fan of Doctor Who for at least a couple years. I had seen a mail order catalog of sf merchandise and noted The Prisoner’s proximity to Doctor Who in the British ghetto at the back of the publication. When I noted a listing for the first episode on my local PBS station, I stayed up to midnight to watch it—there weren’t many opportunities to catch obscure UK shows in those pre-DVD days. I can honestly say that I didn’t get it, but that didn’t stop me from trying to grasp what it was doing.

I watched the first 16 installments religiously and suffered something of a crisis when a power outage caused me to miss the 17th and final outing. Luckily, the advent of Suncoast Video in my local shopping mall solved the problem for the hefty fee of $29.95 (six weeks’ allowance, plus sales tax), and “Fall Out” rolled over me like an 18-wheeler with a radar dish on top. I still didn’t get it, but I was certain it must be brilliant. It did, however, give me what I needed—a nice dose of something foreign and thoughtful. A few years later, I saw the series again and my teenaged mind locked onto the notion of rebellion and the need to challenge the status quo. Of course, I wasn’t sure why I needed to rebel or how to go about it; looking back, I see shades of the finale’s Brando-esque Number 48 in my thinking. “Whadda you got?”

Later viewings found me refining my appreciation of the ambiguities proffered by The Prisoner, although my estimation of the four episodes filmed during the second production block (“Do Not Forsake Me…,” “Living in Harmony,” “The Girl Who Was Death,” and “Fall Out”) has not fared as well as my sentiments toward the whole, but that’s a talk for a different time.

I hope, in future viewings, that my feelings toward Lost will continue to evolve and change, depending on my situation in life. The series has captured the public imagination and is committed to asking more questions than it answers in true Prisoner-style. The larger cast offers a broader array of perspectives from which to perceive the action of the story and, like the surreal campus of the Village, the island is an iconic setting for the philosophical struggles at hand. For the moment, I find my allegiances rest most often with John Locke, Eko, and sometimes Sawyer. I suspect that as I grow older, I may find other characters closer to my sympathies. Regular readers of my opinions here on Cinescape know that I can’t abide Charlie or Michael and there’s probably a marvelously Freudian reason that I’ve yet to ascertain. I find Kate an enigma at best and a two-dimensional cutout at worst. Maybe I lack something in my own make-up that prevents me from relating to her.

In developing the cast, the creators of Lost have represented every man rather than The Prisoner’s Everyman—a statement on the divergence of our society or an embracing of diversity in our cultures…I’m not sure. Whatever the case, I’m held captive by both shows and escape seems unlikely.

This essay originally appeared as the 31 July 2006 installment of my TV Wasteland column at Cinescape.

©2006 by Jason Davis. All rights reserved.


DVD REVIEW: Star Wars – Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

The culmination (or rather, the missing link) in a 28-year cinematic saga, Revenge of the Sith aspires to tell a tragic tale, but instead succeeds in dismantling the classic mythology it seeks to complete. As writer-director George Lucas continually reiterates in his DVD commentary, the six films are of a piece, and this component undermines the whole.

As the clone soldiers of the Galactic Republic fight a devastating battle with the droid armies of the rebelling Separatist faction, Jedi Knights Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) race to rescue the Republic’s Supreme Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) from the Separatist leader, Count Dooku (Christopher Lee), and his cybernetic henchman, General Greivous (voiced by Matthew Wood). Anakin falls increasingly under the charismatic politician’s influence despite the warnings of his pregnant wife, Senator Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman), and soon Palpatine—secretly the puppetmaster behind the Separatists—initiates his endgame against the Republic.

The key events of Revenge of the Sith are known before the 20th Century Fox logo opens the film: the Jedi will fall, the Empire will rise; Anakin Skywalker will become Darth Vader, Luke and Leia will be born. The broad strokes are expertly realized with the unfettered visual style that George Lucas has developed across the prequel trilogy, but the details reveal philosophical gaps that paint a troubling picture of the saga’s central conceits. From the casual (and casually easy) extermination of the order Kenobi (Alec Guiness) called “the guardians of peace and justice in the Old Republic” in Star Wars (1977), to the questionable metaphysics of the Force and Anakin’s redemption in Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983), Sith dismantles the magic of the Star Wars universe.

The Jedi, described with reverence by the elder Ben Kenobi in the quote above, are somewhat less impressive than audiences were led to believe in 1977. In a matter of minutes, they are systematically exterminated by their clone soldiers, offering virtually no resistance as they are gunned down from close range seemingly oblivious to their betrayal. Few of them even seem to see the attacks coming, and those that do barely react. Only Kenobi, by chance, and Yoda, by evincing minimal awareness of his surroundings, manage to escape. Were these two warriors the only lions in an order of lambs? If the Jedi instincts for survival are questionable, their capacity for mercy is of even greater concern. Kenobi’s abandonment of his apprentice at a moment of incomparable suffering is unforgiveable. Surely, a noble Jedi Knight would ease that pain with a merciful slash of his saber, but the great Kenobi manages only a sneer of disgust as he leaves his best friend to burn alive. Given the temper he exhibited in other installments of the franchise, Vader showed remarkable restraint when he dueled Kenobi 20 years later.

Sith’s greatest betrayal rests with the undermining of Anakin Skywalker’s “redemption” in Jedi, rendering the sextet’s climax laughable 23 years after the fact. As Yoda explains, in a speech that seems like an afterthought, he and Kenobi will learn the secrets of becoming one with the Force from the departed Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson). Apparently, no less a acquired skill than summoning one’s lightsaber from a distance, this ability to return from the dead has long been the spiritual coda of Anakin Skywalker’s story—he appears alongside Kenobi and Yoda in Jedi’s final scene—which Lucas revised for the 2004 DVD release, replacing the elder Anakin Skywalker (Sebastian Shaw) with Christensen’s youthful incarnation…forgiven with a complimentary facelift, no less.

In Jedi, we see Vader kill the emperor and reconcile with Luke before expiring aboard the Death Star. Lucas has made it clear that the Sith is a religion of two—a master and an apprentice—and that ascendancy is based on betrayal, as Vader suggests in Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980) when he implores Luke to join him in overthrowing Palpatine. Why then does the killing of Palpatine in Jedi indicate a change of heart? Vader is well within the parameters of Lucas’s Sith philosophy, and only his own death preempts him repeating his solicitation for Luke to become his apprentice. Vader is a man whose violent temper belied every assertion that he voiced about his motives for delving into darkness; a man who, having grievously wounded a fellow Jedi in a misguided rage, decided to finish him off simply because he may as well finish what he started; a man who slaughtered an entire community Tusken Raiders on Tatooine in Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002), murdering children in cold blood. Are we to accept that a final act—completely consistent with Vader’s adherence to Sith philosophy—undoes decades of sin that he doesn’t bother to apologize for upon his death? Apparently so, the Force having restored his youth in death, a boon not granted to either Kenobi or Yoda who stand beside him, all quarrels forgotten.

In completing his story, Lucas has pulled a bait and switch. The audience, via the original trilogy, is offered a tragic tale ending in redemption. The prequels offer something far more cynical, the idea that one debatably noble act can redeem a lifetime of atrocities. This isn’t how things used to be done in a galaxy far, far away.

Though philosophically flawed, Revenge of the Sith ends on just the right note—one of optimism and hope. Recalling Luke’s longing glance into the setting suns of Tatooine, the final shot reminds us what we love about Star Wars, and though the later installments of the saga no longer speak with the strength of the original trilogy, they still stir an element of wonder in the imagination. That can’t be all bad—after all, Anakin wasn’t, was he?

Originally published in the 4 November 2005 issue of CS Weekly. Copyright ©2005 by Jason Davis. All rights reserved.

Something Wicked This Way Comes

DVD REVIEW: Carnivàle: The Complete First Season

HBO’s admonishment that “it’s not TV, it’s HBO” couldn’t be more accurate in assessing a series that takes place in a unique setting, at an eccentric pace, with a remarkable sense of foreboding, and a penchant for unanswered question. Take a ride on the merry-go-round and hang on for your life as this biblical battle between good and evil starts to turn, like clouds becoming a twister.

Ben Hawkins (Nick Stahl), escapes from the chain gang in time to watch his mother die cursing him. As the bank prepares to demolish his house while he buries his ma, a travelling carnival comes out of the dustbowl to offer him a strange new life on the road. Meanwhile, in California, Brother Justin Crowe (Clancy Brown), a Methodist minister, begins to experience supernatural power over members of his congregation—a thief vomits money while a pederast sees visions of his evil acts. Vanishing into the wilderness in an effort to hear God’s voice, Brother Justin is unaware that his unsettling dreams are shared by Hawkins, half a continent away, as he learns, under the tutelage of the sinister seer Professor Lodz (Patrick Bauchau), that he has the power to resurrect and to kill.

In a television universe where doctors, lawyers, and cops are de riguer, anything that steps outside these well-walked genres is something to get excited about. A series that takes the added step of venturing out of contemporary settings and exploring an interesting, and little explored—unless Steinbeck is involved—era of American history through the eyes of itinerant performers and a Methodist minister is to be applauded for covering new ground. That these characters are archetypal cannot be denied, but when Daniel Knauf’s writing staff plays against the archetypes, the audience gets a real surprise or two.

In considering characters, it should be noted that, thus far, the series has offered two casts: the carnies and Brother Justin’s flock. Neither side has crossed paths with the other, save the shared dreams of Hawkins and Crowe (birds of a feather?), themselves avatars of the forces of good and evil (respectively?). The writers tell the audience that both men are of a kind, but their nature is only obtusely examined through scenes where others discuss them. This third-hand exposition makes the show’s characters a veil through which the audience experiences the events and thus clouds the reality of the series with half-truths and lies.

While the depiction of character is a foremost accomplishment, the show’s slow, deliberate, and moody pace is another departure from the norm. Unlike network television, which must get the action going and build to forced climaxes for every ad break, the pay-cable medium affords much more latitude in structure. There’s no particular need to play up the tension to retain the audience through the commercials, and the viewer knows that HBO won’t pull the plug mid-season. As chapters in a book, the breaks between episodes seems almost arbitrary in some cases and one feels that the whole twelve-hour run could be seamlessly edited together. This disregard for traditional televisual values even extends to a flat refusal to tidy up the unanswered questions posed by the end of the year. There is a confidence in the writing that assures the viewer that all matters will be attended to, but it will happen in the show’s time, not the viewers’.

Creator Daniel Knauf and his collaborators offer informative looks at the evolution of the Carnivàle concept from a spec feature by Knauf to an HBO series following in the wake of the network’s success with innovative dramas like The Sopranos and Six Feet Under. Much is discussed of the show’s carnival advisers and their input and influence in the creation of stories for the show. Aside from the obvious chat over the pilot, two other episodes—“After the Ball is Over” and “Hot and Bothered”—seem peculiar choices for commentary since the mid-season stunner, “Babylon,” and the climactic “The Day That Was the Day” both feature more meaty material. Still, the nearly one-hour Museum of Television seminar featuring almost the entire cast, Knauf, executive producer Howard Klein, and the HBO programming executive responsible for commissioning the series, is worth the investment in time as the creators of the series discuss in detail the style and content of the show and how it differs from everything else in the market.

With its utter apathy toward the standard “rules” of the television, some might suggest that Carnivàle is an exercise in rebellion, but the bottom line is that this irreverent take on the medium is wrapped around a cracking story of good versus evil in a time when the world was more innocent and even more strange.

This review originally appeared in CS Weekly, circa December 2004, just before the second season debuted on HBO and the show’s cancellation was announced.

Text ©2004 by Jason Davis. All rights reserved.
Images courtesy of HBO Home Entertainment.