Sunday, December 24, 2006

Babylon 5: 1x10-1x12

These three episodes continue the trend of the last three, featuring main stories that are alright, but full of a lot of interesting background stuff that further develops the world and the characters. If I was watching the show through when it first aired, without assurances that it would improve, I would probably be frustrated by the way it was going, but knowing that things will pick up shortly, I'm pretty pleased with how it's developing.

Most shows that come on draw on archetypes we're already familiar with, for both characters and setting. Watching Rescue Me, we're already familiar with the context of these peoples' lives, there's no need to clarify exactly what a firehouse is or why they're doing the things they do. That makes it a lot easier to jump right into the action. There's no need to clarify what happened on 9/11, that's part of our cultural memory, but the Earth-Minbari War or the ongoing feud between the Centauri and the Narn isn't. So, it's going to take a while to get things started, and that's why I'm forgiving of the flaws of this season. Using fiction to create a plausibly other world is something that's not attempted too much, but when it succeeds, as in the case of Lord of the Rings or Star Wars, you create a new form of cultural mythology. To create another world and make it believable is the closest humans can get to being gods.

But, if he is a god, JMS still has to work on some of the basics. While the world may be other, a lot of the plots are fairly standard. For example, 'Believers' sets up a fairly standard medical drama plot, clearly drawing parallels to Earth's extreme religious groups and their conflict with science. There's a lot of potential story there, but the route they choose is fairly standard. I admire this episode for the ending, where the parents kill their son. That was an unexpectedly gutsy move and gives the episode pretty much all the power that it does have.

This recent run of episodes seems designed to focus on one of the supporting cast and give them some development. This was the episode for Dr. Franklin and it does a good job of setting up his values, and showing how his total devotion to the practice of medicine could end up causing major problems down the line. In this case, the parents just killed their own son, but if he does something like this again, they might end up going after Franklin himself. He seems perfectly ready to leave the station, almost like he wants to be martyred for his beliefs. In that respect, we see how he's not too different from the religious extremists he's railing against.

The other interesting sequence in this episode was when the family goes to the various alien ambassadors and tries to get them to take up their cause. It does a good job of showing the species' attitudes, with the Narn out for power, the Centauri out for money and the Vorlons remaining decidedly ambiguous. This is an episode that would look utterly ridiculous out of context, you've got to just accept the show's world if you're going to enjoy it.

'Survivors' is the best of the three episodes, though it still suffers from some clumsy execution. Once again, a person from one of the characters' pasts returns, thankfully Lianna is not an old lover. One thing the show really needs to work on is the fightscenes, they've all been pretty lame so far, perhaps closer to real fights than most TV stuff, but the big sound effects betray that reality. It's tough to do good fights on a weekly TV series, but this one looks like they just roll the camera and tell the actors to improv it.

The episode reveals some darker layers of Garibaldi than we'd previously seen. He's an alcoholic who has failed at countless security jobs before coming to Babylon 5. This tells us that either he really turned it around at some point, or Earth has such total disregard for Babylon 5, they'd send this frequent failure to head the station's security team. The best scene of the early going is the meeting between Londo and Garibaldi. Londo is always out for his own self interest, and he's one of the most interesting characters on the show so far, sometimes going a bit broad, but always entertaining.

The creature bar sequence was a bit predictable, the drunkenness coming off like TV drunk acting, not real drunkenness. But, I did like when Lianna finds Garibaldi and says "Drunk again, Uncle Mike?" It's a line that could be cheesy, but it worked really well in context and made clear that this guy has a lot of unresolved issues from his past. Babylon 5 is his last hope to save his name.

Rather predictably, he finds a way to save face and prevents the fighters from being blown up. What I did really like was the way this was tied to the previous attacks from Homeforce. There's been a lot more continuity lately, much like Buffy season one, even though it's generally standalone episodes, the characters clearly remember what happened from week to week. Earthforce is building as an enemy of the station and I assume they'll play a bigger role as the series goes forth.

Much like Rachel the replicant, Lianna lets her hair down and opens up to Garibaldi in the end. Things turn out well, but the episode is still tense, and does a good job of showing the conflict between the station and Earth Central.

'By Any Means Necessary' is a riff on the classic mining strike story, even referencing Matewan. I've seen the movie Matewan and this didn't do anything that I haven't seen before. A number of episodes have tried to make the point that the world of Babylon 5 isn't much different from ours, and that's good to do, but I think there's a potentially more interesting spin on the strike storyline than this one. Plus, the ending is sort of a copout, it would have been good to have someone from the military saying that losing the money they're now paying the dock workers will make the station less safe. We do get some ambiguity in the fact that Sinclair has now angered Earthcentral, but he still seems to have avoided real consequences of what he did.

The strength of this episode was the conflict between Londo and G'Kar. They're the two best characters on the show and seeing their pettiness matched up against each other was great. It also allowed us to see beyond their over the top comical sides. I love the scene with the hooded G'Kar doing the religious ceremony, there was a real power there. And, having Londo still angry about what happened in the first episode was a great callback. It gives the universe more reality if everything does have lingering consequences.

So, that subplot saved the episode from drifting into cliche. The next episode is called 'Signs and Portents,' also the title of the season, so I'm expecting it to be a pretty big one. We shall see.


Havremunken said...

Me again,

The cool thing is that the things you talk about actually HAS consequences - some you will see shortly, some will echo far into the future.

I enjoy reading your reviews - while I do not always agree with your opinions on things, as a B5 fan(atic) it's a lot of fun to get a "newbies" take on it so long after I saw it for the first time myself. :)

Patrick said...

I can already see that a lot of the seemingly standalone episodes pay off later in the season. It's definitely different going through the series the first time, without knowing the biases of existing viewers. A few years ago, I watched Buffy for the first time and it was a similar feeling, having this entire world all of a sudden open and develop before my eyes.