On Babylon 5

Another Sci-Fi show which I watched was Babylon 5, a space opera crated by writer and producer  J. Michael Straczynski (who has also written for Murder, She Wrote‘s Season 8 episodes “Night Fears,”  “Lines of Excellence,” “The Committee,” “Incident in Lot 7,” “To the Last Will I Grapple with Thee,” and Season 9 episodes “The Wind Around the Tower,” and “Final Curtain,” as well as the story for Thor). The plot, as according to Geek.com‘s article, “Babylon 5 condensed: How to watch sci-fi’s most intimidating masterpiece“:

Babylon 5 is the Gravity’s Rainbow of sci-fi television: it’s really long, some of it is widely acknowledged to suck, and way more people claim to have finished it than actually have. Why would anyone claim to have invested 110 hours (minus commercials!) in a show about the United Nations in space, if they didn’t actually do it? Because Babylon 5 is amazing, and has rightly earned a reputation for excellence. It was wildly ahead of its time and, depending on who you believe, was actually quite influential in kickstarting serialized television.

So, why then would anyone pretend to have seen this amazing show, rather than simply watching it? Because Babylon 5 is long, dense, and honestly a bit painful at times. We’re going to try to fix that though.

The thing is, Babylon 5 is an oddity in television history in that it was written almost exclusively by a single person — JMS, or J. Michael Straczynski to the uninitiated. What this means is that its vision is unadulterated; its goals are pursued and achieved without compromise, but its faults are equally exaggerated with limited outside perspective. Its ultra-serialized story spans almost the entire series run, and with the power of the auteur JMS was able to keep plots and mysteries simmering in the background for three seasons or more. It can have some seriously cheesy dialogue, acting, and set design, but also some of the genre’s most triumphant moments of plotting, intrigue, and introspection.

Babylon 5 is about the fifth of the Babylon stations, the historically ill-fated diplomatic space-cities meant to unite the species of the galaxy. Earth has taken the initiative in building this last best hope for peace, along with a recent enemy species called the Minbari. The UN metaphor is not subtle — a small council of the most powerful species preside semi-democratically over a more “general assembly” of smaller worlds. It challenges our ideas about democracy and tolerance in the face of existential threats, and asks its characters to choose between multiple, flawed moral paths. It has the confidence and skill to simultaneously depict wars, civil wars, coups, genocidal conflicts, legal battles, romances, political campaigns, and ethical debates, and to keep it all coherent and interesting.

I could go on. Due to its incredible focus over multiple seasons, the show tends to get better as it goes along. Season 1, while plot critical in many ways, is replete with questionably athletic 42-year-olds doing somersaults and foiling silly one-off villains. As the stories progress and the characters accrue more complex motivations, the pablum starts to fall away. More to the point, moments that would previously have been way too corny to be taken seriously become genuinely dramatic under the weight of several years’ buildup; this is one of the reasons Babylon 5 is so hard to jump into, since not only will you not know what’s going on, you also really, really won’t care.

Boiling this series down was hard. Even seemingly self-contained episodes often have single moments that, if missed, will make understanding difficult; this is where recaps come in handy. I can’t offer you the genuine chill you’ll get after watching a seemingly isolated episode that suddenly ends with just theslightest implication that it was connected to Larger Ongoing Events. You won’t get 100% of the enjoyment out of the show by watching it this way, but I’d wager you’ll get a whole lot, and for about half the investment of time. And if you want to, there’s nothing stopping you from going back to watch the rest later.

According to the A.V. Club review of Midnight On The Firing Line:

Why should you watch Babylon 5?

There’s a partial answer in the first season première, “Midnight On The Firing Line.” The Centauri ambassador to the station, Londo Mollari, relates a prophetic dream where he dies alongside Ambassador G’Kar of the Narn, their hands around each others’ throats. These are two major characters. They’re both in the main credits. And they’re treated as deathly enemies, not just now, in this introductory episode, but in the future. That’s impressive for any TV show, let alone a pre-2000 series.

The prophetic nature of the dream also serves as a promise. It says “This will pay off. Keep watching.” Even though “Midnight On The Firing Line” isn’t the greatest episode—it’s fine, with some good and a few bad moments—that promise, that conflict, suggests that Babylon 5 is far more ambitious than it seems.

It’s also easy to note, in retrospect, how relevant the Londo/G’Kar prophecy is. I’ll try not to go into even thematic spoilers too much over the course of my reviews, but in this case, trying to demonstrate the appeal of the show, it’s important to let first-timers know that yes, this ends up working. The prophecy pays off, but not always how you might envision it. It’s roughly equivalent to the Opera House vision from Battlestar Galactica, but where that prophecy petered out, Londo’s vision of death just gets better and more integrated into Babylon 5’s whole. The Londo/G’Kar relationship has complexity and dynamism, and is the best part of the show for most of its run. The rough parts of “Midnight” will be smoothed away, while the good parts will be accented. Eventually.

According to the A.V. Club review of War Without End:

“He is the closed circle.”

This is how Jeffrey Sinclair, the returning hero of Babylon 5, is described by the only character to know what his destiny is at the start of “War Without End.” It’s a reference to his place in time, as the character from the present who goes back to change time, which always happens, no deviations.

The “closed circle” also applies to the episode as a whole, however. Back in the first season, Babylon 5 suddenly and amazingly increased its stakes with “Babylon Squared,” an episode that screamed “THIS SHOW IS GOING PLACES! PAY ATTENTION!” At some point, the huge amounts of time-travel-based foreshadowing used in the season-one episode had to have a payoff. That’s what “War Without End” is for—resolving what came before.

Part of that payoff is the mystery of Commander Sinclair, which was most expressly detailed in “Babylon Squared,” when he was told “you have… a destiny!”—a destiny in which he is referred to as “The One.” But, as a closing montage makes clear, there were several other moments where this was foreshadowed in the first season. We needed a resolution for Sinclair at a grand plot level, but also in terms of smaller plot bits. Of course, it was good for him at a character level as well—perhaps my favorite moment in the two-parter is when Sheridan is zapped away from the crew, and Sinclair immediately moves into the leadership role in the most literal possible fashion, by sitting in the captain’s chair of the White Star.

There’s just one slight problem: All of these resolutions aren’t terribly interesting. “Babylon Squared” was the middle part of an epic story we had no idea was headed in that direction. “War Without End” fills that part of the story in, with a lot of explanation at the start, the flip side of the middle, which shows how Babylon 4 got to be in its crisis mode, and then more explanation at the end. In other words, “War Without End” falls victim to what The A.V. Club’s Todd Vanderwerff recently described as “the clockwork universe” problem. Almost everything in “War Without End” exists to resolve what came before in “Babylon Squared,” which itself exists, at a literal level, to create the mysteries that needed resolution.

To be fair, part of the issue is the way we watch television now. When “War Without End” first aired, it was a ridiculously exciting and momentous moment for the show. Finally Sinclair was back! Finally we’d find out what happened to Babylon 4! Two of the show’s greatest mysteries, the sources of years of anticipatory speculation, a rare two-part episode—it had to be good and important (and it was).

But time has been unkind to that kind of anticipation. If this is your first time, you’re probably watching at a quicker pace than a season per year, so the amount of anticipation is much lower. Or if you, like me, are re-watching, you know what’s going to happen, and the big surprise, that Sinclair travels back in time to become the Minbari prophet Valen, is a huge part of the point of the episode.

This is a large part of the reason why I have an aversion to time travel and certain kinds of alternate-dimension plotlines. The focus on causality, on why different events lead to certain outcomes, means that the events themselves—the plot—is heightened to the point of taking over the narrative as a whole. And if that time-travel story is serialized over multiple installments of a story, then it demands constant consideration for the plot. That time-travel plot itself then becomes its own motive—the characters steal Babylon 4 because they know they have to do that, because they’d already done it. Thus only the action matters, not who’s doing it or why they’re doing it. So if, instead of watching the episode, you were to tell someone “Sinclair guest stars, and joins the B5 crew as they steal Babylon 4 and send it back in time to win the last Shadow War, with Sinclair becoming Valen” you’d have almost the entire episode covered.

But then there’s Londo.

“Almost” is the key word in my criticisms of how “War Without End” fits together too nicely, how it lacks characterization, how it’s too much of a closed circle. That “almost” exists entirely because of the episode’s flash-forward scenes, where an aged Londo, as the Centauri Emperor, has captured Sheridan and lambasts him for not winning the peace after the Shadow War (“But you did not think to clean up your mess!”). That failure has led to some kind of fiery tragedy on Centauri Prime. But then there’s a twist: Londo is under the control of a creature he calls a “Keeper,” and, after he drinks enough to put it to sleep, he frees Delenn and Sheridan, then calls a one-eyed G’Kar (“old friend”) for some unfinished business, as the two fulfill the prophecy from the show’s first episode and strangle each other to death.

On the surface, this seems like a fantastic move for the series. First, it resolves another great mystery of Babylon 5, that of how and why G’Kar and Londo killed one another. We never had any context beyond that the two were representatives of races that hated one another, and built a personal animosity as well. So the reveal that it was actually a mercy killing serves as a perfect twist—it shows that there’s still more information to come, and it doesn’t contradict anything we’ve been told before. Second, by adding new mysteries about what happens after the war, it makes it clear that Babylon 5 isn’t just the story of an epic war between good and evil, but a constant process of trying to make the universe a better place (an interview with A Song Of Ice And Fire author George R.R. Martin indicates his interest in “what happens after the war” as well.) Thus the flash-forward also introduces a level of dynamism to the episode that was otherwise lacking; it’s an interesting open circle instead of a dull closed circle Third, it’s also really fun to see an exotic alternate timeline.

But beyond the fun foray into “What if?”—with the characters getting aging makeup and different costumes—there’s a definite element of attachment to the real characters. John and Delenn, in a long relationship with a son; Londo and G’Kar, meeting their sympathetic ends; Vir, taking the crown because he’s the last man standing. And the last thing that makes this part of the episode great? It’s about Londo. Of course it’s more interesting than what the Humans and Minbari are doing.

I don’t want to say that “War Without End” is a bad episode. It’s not, at all. It is, for the most part, a fine and necessary episode. It’s only when it aims for more that “War Without End” gets great.

According to the A.V. Club review of Z’ha’dum:

I never loved Captain Sheridan before this.

Being the hero of a pre-Sopranos show is a thankless job. You have to be perfect. Anything less than perfection is failure. But not being allowed to fail makes you inhuman. I’m not sure how many fans of Babylon 5 identify with Sheridan, or fans of other shows with their traditional heroes. They were rocks to be relied on, every other character was fire, or water, or air—something mutable. And who believes they’re the rock? Who doesn’t believe that they’re in a constant state of anxiety or crisis, or at least ready for a change? I don’t know about you all, but I would have serious misgivings about anyone who didn’t consider their life at some kind of crossroads, even if it was a rather long and apparently uneventful crossroads. We’re the heroes of our own stories, yes, but we’re also protagonists, and protagonists without internal dilemmas are boring.

Sheridan has an internal struggle. Even since his arrival on the show and the station, he has sought meaning. This hasn’t always been apparent—he has to be the apparent rock, after all—but it has been there. This may have been part of the show, but often, neither that search nor that meaning has been apparent. In the first few episodes when he joined, the search was a superficial matter of location. He believed he was a starship captain, but he was close-to-grounded on a space station. He also had to come to terms with his wife’s death, that his idea of a personal life was gone. He was forced to be his job again, and his job as leader of the station was, well, unexpected.

So Sheridan searched for meaning. In “A Spider In The Web” he tells Garibaldi that he “collects secrets.” But Sheridan rarely seems like a man who collects secrets for their own sake. He may not have wanted something out of those secrets at the time. But they always had the potential to be used, for good, as Sheridan was of course a hero. And that time came quickly, as he was recruited into a conspiracy against his own government, which occasionally called upon him to take certain actions. It wasn’t quite a life filled with meaning—too much reaction, very little action—but it was something.

The turning point for John Sheridan was the episode “In The Shadow Of Z’Ha’Dum.” Here, Sheridan’s lack of meaning turns poisonous. His need to know what happened to his wife, to his personal life, to his existence apart from his uniform, became toxic and destructive. His meaning became Mr. Morden, in ways that threatened to twist into something nasty. Delenn and Kosh, recognizing this, did not merely give him information that would lead to Morden’s release. They gave him, the Starkiller, the war hero, a genius in times of crisis, a new meaning. His life was no longer reaction after “In The Shadow Of Z’Ha’Dum.” It was action, which escalated with his connection to the Rangers a few episodes later, and the acquisition of the White Star in the third season premiere.

Sheridan having meaning is one of the dominant, under-spoken aspects of season three. He’s willing to duck his own government to take on the Shadows on theWhite Star, even when that becomes everything short of treachery. Then he takes that step in “Severed Dreams.” At that point, Sheridan has so fully embraced his new meaning that it literally changes how he looks. Yes, he gets a new uniform, but everyone else does as well. Sheridan changes his hair. That long, getting-close-to-a-mullet ’do? That’s a sign of freedom. That’s a sign that Sheridan’s meaning has started to dominate his own life, but also that Sheridan has started to dominate the meaning. He doesn’t need to have a military haircut to be a military leader.

Then his ex-wife shows up, and shatters that meaning.

Here’s why I have come to love Sheridan: Because he is me. Well, our personalities are different, and of course our circumstances are very different. But who hasn’t sought out meaning? After I graduated from college, like many people, I floated around from job to job. Some were good, some weren’t, but none were permanent careers to gain stability from, let alone meaning. In my least meaningful period—Chicago, in the winter, with seasonal affective disorder and an inane job I can barely even describe—I did anything I could to find meaning. Initially this was throwing myself into World Of Warcraft, where effort led invariably to success, and teamwork, no matter how difficult, was rewarded.

Still, as meaning goes, being a raider in WOW is difficult to maintain if you’re presented with anything else. I was, and shifted my priorities. In the summer of 2007, as I was interning for The A.V. Club, I received news that my alma mater, Antioch College, was being closed by its corporate owners. Initially I did little more than react—reminisce, feel bad, try to move on. But then a friend of mine gave me a gentle shove to go the annual reunion, wisely timed for the week after the closure announcement. I went. I got information as to why the closure happened, and managed to put it together with everything else that had gone on and create an analysis of what had gone wrong and why. Then I started acting on that knowledge. I even became a bit of a leader. And suddenly my life had meaning.

It remains difficult to describe just how activated I was during that year of meaning. I was always thinking about Antioch, planning about Antioch, leading, following, brainstorming, arguing, writing. Like Sheridan, I found love along the way. But also like Sheridan, I found exhaustion, crankiness, grouchiness. There comes a point, after months of being so suffused with meaning, being so much the embodiment of ideals, that something breaks. Something has to break. How it breaks may be unpredictable, it may be nasty, or it may even be relatively imperceptible. Had something gone differently, maybe I would have stayed, become increasingly exhausted, and simply become a bitter shell. But I left, theoretically at the height of my influence, yet believing that I couldn’t have done anything more to prepare for the future. All I had was a single gesture of ending, and the hope that an ending for me wasn’t an ending of what I’d worked for.

This may sounds self-aggrandizing. It possibly is, but that may not make it false. That’s what makes it appealing. That sort of personal appeal is also part of Sheridan’s story in “Z’ha’dum.” The Shadow agent called Justin tells Sheridan “You’re what they call a nexus.” He appeals to Sheridan’s sense of heroism, telling him that whichever way he goes he will be followed. Justin appeals to my sense of heroism, that I’ve been the hero of the story, and he can recognize it. He’s attempting to convert Sheridan’s sense of meaning, change it from Team Vorlon to Team Shadow, while leaving it intact.

Where’s he’s mistaken is in believing that meaning is still there. Sheridan is no longer defined by the meaning that drove him. He’s burned out. John’s disdain for the proceedings during Justin’s pitch is apparent. Yes, he knows that it’s a trap, but he feels he has to go anyway, to create an ending with a gesture. A few button-presses on his link is the physical gesture, followed by a massive nuclear strike in the apparent heart of evil. Sheridan leaves a goodbye message demonstrating that he has every expectation of death. He avoids the burnout of excessive meaning by literally burning everything out, including perhaps himself. Captain Sheridan embodies the dream of meaning through the third season, and in finishing it, he maintains the perception of himself as a hero both to the universe and perhaps to himself. That’s the dream. It’s not always easy to achieve.

There isn’t much to “Z’ha’dum” outside of Sheridan’s characterization and his decisions, but that’s not a bad thing. After the grand scale of “Shadow Dancing,” keeping the finale intensely personal makes sense, both in terms of general episodic pacing as well as ensuring the finale has a scope that makes it feel worthy of ending such a momentous season.

Two scenes in particular stand out. The first is the big confrontation, where Sheridan meets the representatives of the Shadows and hears their case. Structurally, Justin’s a little odd—out of nowhere, suddenly there’s an apparently major character delivering the response to arguably the show’s biggest remaining mystery, what the Shadows want: “It’s really simple. You bring two sides together, they fight. A lot of them die. But those who survive are stronger. Smarter. And better.” (turns out it’s shitty Social Darwinism, like many cartoon villains and also Republicans).

While Justin’s pitch may not be terribly strong on the merits, the way he makes the pitch is. His slightly off, wild gesticulation gives him a vague inhumanity. But that’s nothing compared to Anna Sheridan’s lines, in which she shows straight-up cruelty. It’s not so much that she’s inhuman at that point (though that certainly comes later), but that she doesn’t seem like the kind of person that John Sheridan could ever fall in love with. Just look at the sneer on her face.

And then there’s Morden, who, in explaining the Shadows’ philosophy, finally becomes animated. He breaks his facade for once, revealing that he, perhaps, is the only of the three who is still human—he’s just horrible. In a sense, this is the only scene in “Z’ha’dum” that matters. As long as everything leading up to it is competent, then the episode will succeed or fail based on the Shadow pitch, and Sheridan’s reaction. It doesn’t fail.

According to Den of Geek‘s article, “Babylon 5‘s greatest episodes” on Into the Fire:

This is it: The final moment of the Shadow War. Sheridan’s alliance faces both the Vorlon and the Shadows in the showdown of all showdowns. This episode delivers on everything that the series promised. Sheridan’s understanding of both the Shadows and the Vorlon comes full circle: whether they stand for good versus evil, or more accurately order versus chaos, the races no longer need either the Vorlon or the Shadows. The battle takes place both on the physical and mental levels. The outcome ends up being somewhat anticlimactic, but it is much more satisfying than a simple nuke fight in space. This is, after all, more than just space opera. The two elder races, along with Lorien (the first sentient being to have been born to the universe) and the remaining First Ones leave for ‘beyond the rim’ in order to allow the younger races to grow into their own destiny.

“Did we just win?” Marcus asks. “Don’t jinx it,” Ivanova answers. Fair enough.

Removed from the main conflict, Mollari and the entire Centauri race face their own war at home, removing all Shadow influence from their world. Mollari’s cycle also comes full circle, but there will be a terrible price to pay in the future. The story isn’t over yet.

According to Den of Geek‘s article, “Babylon 5‘s greatest episodes” on Between The Darkness And The Light and Endgame: 

You would think that defeating both the Vorlon and the Shadows would be enough, but the series still had a lot of loose ends to tie up, including the conflict with Earthgov. The Shadows were gone, but President Clark still held the Earth Alliance under Orwellian rule. The rest of the season would be devoted to Sheridan’s fight to reclaim Earth. The series had not run out of steam, and it served up quite a number of other outstanding episodes.

Between The Darkness And The Light made the list because it leads up to the final confrontation with Earthforce, but mostly because it features Ivanova’s shining moment. While Sheridan is still being held by Earthgov, Ivanova takes command of the fleet for the Alliance’s next engagement. When the fleet faces overwhelming odds from Earthforce warships equipped with Shadow technology, Ivanova’s answer to the order to stand down or be destroyed is worthy of Inigo Montoya’s famous challenge to Count Rugen in Princess Bride:

“I am Susan Ivanova. Commander. Daughter of Andrei and Sophie Ivanov. I am the right hand of vengeance and the boot that is gonna kick your sorry ass all the way back to Earth, sweetheart. I am death incarnate. And the last living thing that you are ever going to see. God sent me.”

She had me at “sweetheart.”

Endgame brings the series full circle. The final battle is epic with the fate of the entire Earth population in the balance. In many ways, this lesser conflict brings even more closure and emotional satisfaction than the conclusion of the Shadow War did, maybe because it hit closer to home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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3 thoughts on “On Babylon 5

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