Friday, December 22, 2006

Babylon 5 (1x07-1x09)

The show's been picking up in these past few episodes. I'm not sure if it's actually a pronounced change in the quality of the show or just me adapting to what the show is and accepting it on its own terms, but I've been enjoying watching it a lot more. These three episodes continue to develop the show's world and plant some interesting hints for future plotlines. There's still some frustrating deficiencies, but in general, the show is doing much better.

'The War Prayer' again deals with the issue of Pro-Earth groups messing with the mission of Babylon 5. Here, it's given a more personal spin through Malcolm's relationship with Ivanova. I suppose the show's setting means that most new characters are going to be introduced by suddenly cropping up on the station, but Malcolm's appearance felt a bit too similar to Catherine's a couple of episodes before. The dynamic between Ivanova and Malcolm was virtually the same as well, a reluctance to restart an old relationship gradually gives way to a renewed connection. Here, we get the twist that he's the mastermind behind the attack on the poet, a not exactly shocking twist.

In general, I'm not a huge fan of the important character from someone's past suddenly returns plot, though it's easier to accept seven episodes into the show than it is three seasons in, as on Battlestar Galactica's Hero. That said, I hope it doesn't happen again, I'd rather see character relationships developed in the present. The episode also suffers from a bit of a copout ending, where the captain doesn't have to kill the alien woman and easily defeats Malcolm's crew. I've talked before about 24 as a massive turning point for TV shows because it was the first time characters were given these seemingly impossible choices and not given an easy way out. Jack Bauer would kill that alien woman if it meant saving many lives, and that would be painful to watch. On this show, there's always some easy out for the characters, allowing them to avoid dealing with the really hard decisions.

I did enjoy the storyline with Londo and the two Centauri people seeking shelter. Increasingly, it seems that a major thread of the show will be watching these alien races move beyond their restrictive traditions and embrace a new, more open way of life. Babylon 5 is, as the credits say, "the last, best hope for peace," but it's also the model for a society in which people can grow, independent of cultural traditions. Babylon 5 is moving things forward while the homeworlders remain conservative, reactionary even. That is true of both the aliens and the Earthers.

'And the Sky Full of Stars' has the best premise of any episode yet, but the execution isn't quite there to bring it to great. The episode feels a lot like The Prisoner, which featured these kinds of elaborate mental puzzles to test its hero and discover his secrets. What we do find out from this episode is that something very suspicious is going on with the captain, is he a Minbari sleeper agent? Delenn is also apparently less trustworthy than she appears. If I had to guess, I'd say that Delenn is being manipulated by the Grey Council and will wind up in conflict with them over what to do with Sinclair. Considering the theme of the show, the idea that Babylon 5 is the way to deal with societal problems, it wouldn't make sense to have one of the ambassadors betray the station. Rather, the society around her will try to destroy it, and he'll stand with Sinclair against them. But, who knows, maybe the show will get more edge as it goes on. I certainly wouldn't have expected what happened in season six when I was watching Buffy's first season.

There's some interesting filmmaking stuff to show Sinclair's mental reality, but I feel like more could have been done. The show in general feels a bit dated, hailing from a period when television cinematography just couldn't compete with film, unlike today, where your best TV shows are shot better than the vast majority of movies. I think that's important to keep in mind watching in this, I have to adjust my sensibilities and just accept the work of this period.

What's less acceptable is Michael O'Hare's acting. He's ok in the normal dialogue scenes, but when called upon to carry the episode with dramatic material here, he just doesn't make it. This was his 'Emmy episode,' and he didn't step up to the plate. The show really needs either a strong center of gravitas, like an Edward James Olmos, or a Han Solo rogue character, someone who's having a lot of fun on the station. Sinclair does neither.

But, the hints planted about what's going on with the Captain are very intriuging, and the effects on the battle sequences were better than anything on the show to date. What I like most about these episodes is the way they're illuminating the background of the world, and I get the sense that JMS could give you the entire history of this universe. That's a refreshing change from shows that are clearly making it up as they go along.

That brings us to 'Deathwalker,' another episode that lays hints about the show's future, hints that are more interesting than the fairly standard A story. The conflict surrounding Deathwalker herself is well done, and gives us further insight into the history of this world, and the various alien races' places in it. The resolution of the story was a bit of a copout though, with the Vorlons destroying the anti-aging solution. I thought that Earth Central would steal the solution for itself, it wouldn't make sense to have the anti-aging solution in play going ahead with the series, but the idea of having to kill to use it gives it some dramatic potential. Having the solution destroyed makes it feel like the story itself has no particular consequence.

While that may have no consequence, the surrounding stuff will clearly have an impact down the line. We get a better sense that the Minbari may be more treacherous than they appear on the surface. The Narn are the upstarts, likely the last of the great powers to emerge, other than Earth, and they believe that they could rule things.

We get further development of the Vorlons as well. Talia is the most interesting human character, working an Emma Frost thing. She is used by the Vorlon to allow him to experience a specific human emotion. I like having him in the background, observing the humans, they're clearly leaving him in play for a big storyline in the future. The shots of Talia with the killer were some of the most atmospheric, and visually interesting of the show to date. The only stumble was the final scene, which told us nothing we couldn't already figure out. And even though I mentioned before that the Vorlon fighter killing Deathwalker was a bit of a copout, it works really well to develop his character. He may abstain from voting in the council, but that's only because he'll cast the ultimate vote when the time comes.

So, I'm pretty happy with the show looking ahead. Even if the main stories aren't completely working, there's always a lot going on in the background, and the world is more and more interesting as details are filled in. In sci-fi, there's always a certain amount of ridiculousness to get past, and this show makes no concessions to the mainstream. Watching Battlestar, you get the sense they're saying "Yes, it's called Battlestar Galactica, but it's not like that, you can watch this too." Babylon 5 puts itself out there as a sci-fi piece, one that could easily be criticized for ridiculousness. You have to buy into the world, and the more the show goes on, the easier that is to do.

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