Interacting with Babylon 5 Review
perform vb 1 : to post messages to a Usenet newsgroup 2 : to play a game 3 : to mount a misleading advertising campaign for a substandard product 4 : to run a fan web site 5 : to write fan fiction
Do these definitions sound odd to you? They may not be the concepts that first come to mind when you think of a performance, but you may expand your dictionary after reading Interacting with Babylon 5, Fan Performances in a Media Universe. In this academic dissertation, author Kurt Lancaster proposes that any attempt to create an immersive experience is a performance.
Obviously, the natures of the script, performer, audience, and even the theater must change if these expanded definitions are taken into account. Lancaster addresses these changes in an introduction and six chapters that examine specific examples of the redefined performances.
Introduction: Performing in Babylon - Performing in Everyday Life
The introduction is the most interesting part of the book for non-academic readers. This section deconstructs J. Michael Straczynski's interactions with fans via Usenet and other online forums. Lancaster treads a fine line by referring to Straczynski's messages as a performance. He stops short of calling Straczynski insincere, but he does force the reader to admit that Straczynski does in fact have an agenda that his messages are designed to support.
Chapter 1: Welcome Aboard, Ambassador
The first chapter focuses on The Babylon Project, a role-playing game set in the Babylon 5 universe. Lancaster provides a history of role-playing games and then some specifics about The Babylon Project. Lancaster proposes that one of the primary appeals of science fiction role-playing games is to fantasize about a possible life in space that was curtailed when the U.S. manned space program was scaled back in the 1970's. During the Apollo program, we lived with promises of space stations, Moon colonies, missions to Mars, and visits to space for average citizens. When the Apollo program ended without a clear successor, people turned to fantasy to fulfill the hopes that were lost.
Chapter 2: "Captain on the Bridge"
The second chapter takes a look at Babylon 5 Wars, the miniatures wargame. This highly successful game allows players to simulate spaceship combat in the Babylon 5 universe. Lancaster provides some background on wargames and the part they play in allowing people to experience combat in some way. This is the same reason that people visit battlefields.
Lancaster proposes that the player actually takes on a cyborg-like role, alternately playing the roles of the captain and the ship itself. He analyzes a scenario based on the opening scene of "Severed Dreams" in which the Alexander flees from the Clarkstown. Lancaster breaks the play of the game down into six frames of performance for which he assigns different aspects of the game to different performance components such as the script and theater.
Chapter 3: Performing the Haptic-Panoptic
It's back to the dictionary for this chapter on the Babylon 5 collectible card game. Haptic refers to something based on the sense of touch. Panoptic refers to a sweeping view of the universe.
After a brief history of collectible card games, Lancaster describes the Babylon 5 game. Since I am most familiar with this game, I noticed several inaccuracies in the play descriptions that were distracting but did not affect Lancaster's academic analysis. I do not know if the other chapters suffered from similar inaccuracies.
Lancaster combines the terms "haptic" and "panoptic" to define his theory on the appeal of the Babylon 5 collectible card game. Players can reach out and physically touch the cards to control the elements of the Babylon 5 fantasy universe represented by the cards.
Chapter 4: Performing at the Interface of the High-Tech and the Bureaucratic
The fourth chapter addresses The Official Guide to J. Michael Straczynski's Babylon 5, the CD-ROM reference guide. Unfortunately, as anyone who purchased this reference knows, it falls far short of the performance that it promises. While advertised as an interactive tour of Babylon 5, the CD-ROM delivers at best an incomplete guidebook.
So where is the performance? Lancaster maintains that it is in the misleading advertising campaign that was mounted to sell this substandard product. He refers to the various claims in the advertising, system requirements, and reviews. The Babylon 5 CD-ROM is compared to the Star Trek: Klingon CD-ROM, which is given as an example of a successful immersive experience. This chapter also mentions Babylon 5: Into the Fire, the cancelled space combat simulator that would likely have been a successful immersive product.
Chapter 5: Webs of Babylon
This chapter touches on several aspects of online performance including official web sites, fan web sites, fan fiction, and online role-playing games. Lancaster discusses the goals of each of these performances. My one issue with this chapter is the freeness with which Lancaster tosses around words like poaching and plagiarism. There are many Babylon 5 web sites that contain little or no material that Warner Bros. could take legal issue with. Web sites that went too far have already been shut down, and those that remain provide a service to Warner Bros. by keeping fan interest in the show alive.
Chapter 6: The End of Babylon
The final chapter of the book summarizes Lancaster's theories about media-related fan performances. They are all attempts to restore the original cathartic moment experienced when the television program was first viewed.
Interacting with Babylon 5 includes two appendices. The first in a piece of Marcus and Ivanova fan fiction called "The First Time" written by Unicorn 2. The other is a transcript from an online Babylon 5 role-playing game.
Interacting with Babylon 5 is intended for cultural scholars, so casual Babylon 5 fans may be a bit overwhelmed by the subject matter. However, anyone who has played a game or participated with others online can learn something about their own behavior from this book. Finally, as I stated before, the Introduction is enlightening reading for any follower of J. Michael Straczynski.