Guides to Great Genre Series
It's time for our semi-annual roundup of TV between the covers. No - sorry, I don't mean coverage of the sex lives of our favorite television characters, especially considering that many of our favorite television characters are on Star Trek and therefore only get to have sex when the Captain gives them permission, which is about once in a blue moon. But this is as good a time as any to take a look at guides to our favorite shows, and decide which books are worth our hard-earned money.
There are two excellent guides to Babylon 5 in print - Warner Bros' official A-Z Guide to Babylon 5 and Virgin's detailed Babylon File. There's only one problem: these "complete" guides are only complete through the third season, when the fourth season was arguably the series' best year. Moreover, they don't contain much about each individual episode other than plot summaries. Unlike the Trek episode guides which get outdated and reprinted every couple of years, thus requiring that you dish out $20 or so to get the newest versions, Babylon 5's creators have licensed a series of season-by-season episode guides. The newest release, No Surrender, No Retreat, comprehensively covers the fourth season. The previous Signs and Portents (first season), The Coming of Shadows (second season), Point of No Return (third season) and the upcoming Wheel of Fire (fifth season) will round out the series.
Like Mania's own episode guides, each installment these books features a detailed plot summary and lengthy episode breakdown, but author Jane Killick had access to the cast and crew, so each of her analyses contains contains feedback from the people most involved in the making of the episodes - the lead performers and directors as well as the writers. In fact that's the reason to get the book, because "The Lurker's Guide to Babylon 5" on the web has more comprehensive plot summaries. The books have eight pages apiece of color photos, a complete list of guest stars, background on the scripts, and the story of the near-cancellation of the series before its rescue by TNT, including the reconstructionist history "The Deconstruction of Falling Stars" - filmed as a replacement for "Sleeping in Light," the episode which was always intended to be the series finale.
Of the half-dozen or so available guides to The X-Files, the quickest-use indexes are Cinefantastique's annual round-up issues, with very short plot summaries and substantive interviews. If you want more detail, however, the official seasonal guides The Truth Is Out There, Trust No One, I Want To Believe, Resist or Serve, while somewhat more expensive than the B5 guides, are my favorites. They contain hundreds of black and white photos and superb backstories. These books actually contain an index with the total ratings (something few other science fiction shows like to discuss in the company of non-genre drama) and an index of awards and honors.
The best part of the episode guides, however, are the separate "Making of..." sections, which break down the construction of episodes, and is not afraid to report conflicts among the writers and producers - unlike Trek books like A Vision of the Future: Star Trek Voyager, which proudly announces that it will not discuss controversies on the series, though it contains more detail about the creation of the pilot than any other book I've read about a television show. The unofficial guides sometimes contain more in-depth analysis, but that's just one writer's opinion, and they generally contain almost no photos - for copyright reasons, the only permissible artwork is photos of the actors and locations outside the context of the series. (Mark Altman and Edward Gross' dreadful guides to Deep Space Nine and Voyager are prime examples of overpriced books with very little content other than the writer's highly biased opinions.)
Speaking of Trek, if you want current episode guides, you'll do best at fan sites on the web - for Voyager you can't beat Jim Wright's Delta Blues, while for Deep Space Nine, I'm pretty fond of Jamahl Epsicokhan's Hypertext. Pocket Books puts out dozens of non-fiction Trek books a year covering everything from blueprints to Klingon language to oral histories of Trek to All the Other Things I Really Need To Know, I Learned From Watching "Star Trek: The Next Generation". There are complete episode guides for the original series and The Next Generation, plus the comprehensive Star Trek Encyclopedia (available in CD-ROM as the Omnipedia) to tell you almost everything you need to know about the subsequent series.
If you want an innovative guide to Trek, however, the newly published Star Trek Cookbook by Ethan Phillips (Voyager's Neelix) and William J. Birnes covers all four series and many of their stars as well. Want to know what to serve at a Klingon feast attended by Vulcans (who are vegetarian) and Bolians (whose digestive systems differ radically from our own)? Would you know what beverages to serve Picard (tea, Earl Grey, hot) and Janeway (coffee, black, VERY hot)? There are delectable photos of the characters in the kitchen, as well as some terrifying photos of the food (even fake gagh can make one gag). If you're interested in whipping up Quark's drinks or Kate Mulgrew's pork tenderloins, you must have this guide to cooking among the stars...and the stars.
While there are a few good unofficial guides to Hercules and Xena, I prefer Robert Weisbrot's official companions, partly because of the lengthy sections of color illustrations and partly because of the tone of his writing; like the shows themselves, the books are affectionate yet irreverent, conveying the sense of fun of both series. There's not quite as much dirt on the actors as in the unofficial books, but Sorbo and Lawless aren't exactly Bruce Willis and Demi Moore, and Weisbrot asks everyone good questions. I also appreciated the complete cast lists and episode reflections by the stars, though as with Trek, the best Herc and Xena guides are on the web at Whoosh!, the International Association of Xena Studies.
If you want a Xena guide that's less episode-oriented than thematic, Xena: All I Need To Know I Learned From the Warrior Princess by Gabrielle (as translated by Josepha Sherman) contains the contents of most of the series, but told as a story, without reference to the cast, crew, or chronological airdates. The author has done a remarkable job of capturing Gabrielle's voice, and much of the humor of the series, although subtext fans may be disappointed at how little is here. One does find such words of wisdom as, "Fight now, talk later," and "If you have a lion's heart, you'd better be a lioness," however. I do have one criticism of all the Herc/Xena books: there are not nearly enough photos of Kevin Smith as Ares. Someone needs to make more of those available immediately before we female fans grab our chakrams and take Doubleday et al by storm.
It seems like virtually every show spawns an episode guide sooner or later, not just cult hits like The Prisoner and Lost in Space but even mediocre recent series like Sliders. The new Buffy Guide is the clear front-runner among guide books. There's a lot more attention paid to design and layout than in any of the books mentioned above. The map of Sunnydale has quotations about its locales interspersed, hilarous pop-culture IQ in the episode guides (which are comparatively short, but wittier than many other guides), and superlative indexes - an illustrated guide to vampires undead and staked, a compendium of spells and chants, sixteen pages of color photos including costume designs, and interviews with most of the regulars (one complaint: there is not enough Oz in this book).
This book should become the blueprint for all future episode guides...in fact, the only thing it's missing is an actual guide for vampire slayers (though we all know that if they printed one, someone would actually go out and try to live by it, staking innocent people and burning down buildings). There's even a guide to the music, and photos of some of the more gruesome makeup effects, plus storyboards, set photos, and hundreds of quotations. Not even the superbly researched Highlander Watcher's Guide can compete with The Watcher's Guide To Buffy, though the former covers its guest cast more comprehensively. Most importantly for 'shippers like me, the Buffy book features an entire chapter on the romantic goings-on in Sunnydale! This is the closest you are going to get to a real roundup of TV goings-on between the covers.