Birch Lane Press, 1992, 206 pages, C$23.95 hc, ISBN 1-55972-148-0
Something quite sad and remarkable happened in November 1998.
The television series “Babylon 5” ended, after a five-year run.
For those of you who have thus far managed to get away with a complete ignorance of “Babylon 5”, know these facts: Conceived in 1987-1988 by J. Michael Straczynski as a five-year “Science-Fiction Novel for Television” and shopped around multiple studios -who all balked at this grandiose premise-, “Babylon-5” made it on the air in 1993 (Pilot) and 1994 (series). Despite constant rumours of impending cancellation and some rather heavy sniping from the concurrent Star Trek fans and producers, “Babylon-5” finally managed to end after its planned run, producing something unique: a truly original multi-layered five-year story on television.
But the 1993-1998 era is also littered with one-year series, half-season wonders and six-episode failures. For each “Babylon-5”, how many “The Visitor”? And for each show yanked after six episodes, how many pilots?
Horizontal Hold tries to answer this question by showing the making of a (failed) television pilot, with all the high and low points of the process. Meanwhile, we learn how vile an institution is TV broadcasting. The story begins in 1989, when a writer at an independent production company gets the idea for a new sitcom: Why not follow, week after week, the misadventures in the life of presidential scriptwriters?
The concept is promising and the book shows how we go from idea to pilot. It’s not a pretty process, especially seen from a writer’s point of view. Characters are modified, tailored, changed, dumbed-down… and that’s when they’re not simply eliminated from the script, which gets re-written daily. Production factors often modify the story.
Obviously, good writing isn’t the main concern of television.
Horizontal Hold shows exceptionally well the committee-driven nature of TV, with its endless compromises and its dependence on stupid dumb luck. Unpredictable events prove to be the ultimate demise of the pilot described in Horizontal Hold: A surprise strike undoes a first try, and the changing whims of a TV executive nail down the second attempt.
But throughout all of this, a potentially depressing story remains quite lively, all thanks to Paisner’s writing skills. He brings a witty style that’s not only humorous in its own way (Discussing a character’s elimination right after an actor’s narrow brush with dismissal: “Bonnie Doone isn’t so lucky. Of course, she’s just a character and therefore unable to manage much of anything on her own behalf.” [P.78]) but also includes many delicious behind-the-scene anecdotes.
Paisner rarely preaches directly about the nature of television, letting the story speaks for itself. It’s an eloquent message. Certainly, I would have been intrigued by the presidential-screenwriter concept: that it wasn’t given a fair chance is as disheartening as it is frustrating. Given the process described in Horizontal Hold, it’s a minor miracle that anything of value ever appears on our television screens.
Horizontal Hold is a very worthwhile non-fiction account of the reality behind the cathode tube. It’s reasonably impartial, lucidly examining the possibility (among others) that the product just wasn’t good enough to make it to the small screen. But most of all, it’s a compulsively readable account of a fascinating event. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself shutting off the television to finish the book.
But really; now that “Babylon-5” is off the air, what else are you going to watch?