Monday, December 25, 2006

Babylon 5: 1x13-1x16

The first episode in this chunk is the title episode of the season, 'Signs and Portents.' It's the series' strongest episode so far, full of teases about the future, the introduction of what I'm assuming will be the series' main villain, and even a pretty solid effects sequence with the final battle.

I'm assuming that the "What do you want" guy is a Shadow operative, seeking out the ambassador most susceptible to corruption to use as an in for getting access to the station. One of the best things about the episode was the way it built up the raiders as a pretty impressive foe, and gives you a triumphant finale when they defeat that force. Then, everything shifts when the Shadow ship comes out of nowhere and destroys the raider ship. That's a pretty dramatic announcement of presence.

I was already aware that something called the Shadows would be part of the show's mythology, so I got what Ladira was talking about with the prophecy that Lord Kiro would be killed by Shadows. But, it was still a great entrance when they appeared. Kiro's weakness is his greed, and it looks like Londo will be similarly challenged, his desire for wealth placed against his obligation to do good. As he says, he is out to bring the Centauri, and himself, back to glory, and is willing to do whatever it takes to get there.

The "What do you want?" guy was a bit gimmicky, but I think he worked well to clarify the various ambassadors' goals. JMS likes posing the same question to the different alien species because it gives us a chance to understand their cultural values through their response. Here, we see that the desires of the various species may not peacefully coexist, they will either have to compromise or go to war.

I also liked the followup on Sinclair's missing day. This thread has been building, and here we learn that the only reason he's in charge is because the Minbari insisted on him. I'd guess that we'll see a conflict between the warrior caste and the religious caste, with Delenn caught in the middle. I'm not sure if we'll see Delenn actually betray Sinclair, rather I think she'll get caught in a moral quandry, trapped between her duty to the Minbari and her friendship with Sinclair. But, clearly we're heading for some trouble down the line.

The other notable element of the episode is the final vision. Here we see the station on fire, a shuttle flees, then it explodes. As Ladira says, the future is always in motion, but I'm guessing you don't set up the station blowing up, then not pay it off at the end, particularly considering the opening voiceover, which calls Babylon 5 "the last of the Babylon stations." I'd guess that somehow sacrificing the station will help defeat the Shadows, or some other foe, and in its death, the galaxy finds some kind of peace. But, we'll see. There's still a lot of episodes to go.

After the goodness of 'Signs and Portents,' we crash back down with one of the worst episodes yet, 'TKO.' I don't know why sci-fi producers continually think boxing episodes are a good idea. Battlestar's worked in spite of the boxing and Angel's 'The Ring' was one of the series' weakest episodes. This episode doesn't even have any of our major characters in danger, it's just a random guy. It's not that awful, but there's very little of use in the main storyline.

Ivanova's subplot does give us some good character background on her. The death of her father was shown, but barely touched upon, and it's good to see a followup. That said, the Rabbi character was a bit stereotypical and it was pretty obvious that Ivanova would eventually agree to sit shiva with him. But, this episode gives us a real glimpse behind her tough exterior, and that makes it worthwhile.

There's another rather weak episode after this, the nonsensical 'Grail.' I'm not sure whose idea it was to bring the quest for the Holy Grail into the Babylon 5 world, but it doesn't really work. I suppose the point is that the act of searching is more important than the result, but it comes off a bit ridiculous. One of the major weak links is the guy playing Jinxo, who's just ridiculously bad. The scene with him and Sinclair together was almost too much bad acting to take.

All through the episode, I was trying to figure out who the guy playing Aldous was. A trip to IMDB revealed that he was Thomas Eckhardt from Twin Peaks. He brought some real gravity to the role and even looked pretty good attacking people with his staff. He sold the material as best as he could, but it was just so ridiculous, it was hard to take.

The episode's best parts involved William Sanderson and his Kosh related scheme. Kosh remains mysterious, and his anonymous suit makes it easy for people to take advantage of his mysterious reputation.

Next up was 'Eyes,' a bounce back after a couple of down episodes. Here, we see the consequences of everything the core three have done over the course of the series start to catch up with them. Talking about 'By Any Means Necessary,' I said Sinclair seemed to avoid any real blame for what he did, but here that's addressed, and it's clear that he caused a lot of problems with Earth Central. This episode deals with one of the series' central conflicts, Sinclair's conflict between his loyalty to Earth and his loyalty to the station.

The episode draws on a lot of past events, particularly what happened in 'Mind War.' Ivanova's deep fear of psychic probes is interesting, that's the one thing that punctures her stoicism. I like that she doesn't whine about having to submit, she just submits her resignation. She's someone who just does sutff and doesn't think much about it. Her feelings seem to haunt her, like she's so desperate to hold onto that moment of psychic contact with her mother, she won't ever let anyone else in.

This episode also has the funny, but rather nonsensical subplot involving the motorcycle. Lennier's intrigued reaction to the motorcycle as a symbol of 'rebellion and sexual prowess' is great, though the CG on their final ride through the station doesn't quite make it.

So, there were a couple of duds here, but also the show's best episode yet. More than anything, it's becoming clear that the show has a deep memory, every action has consequences and something big is coming up shortly, with the threat of the shadows.


Keith G said...

Well, I'm glad you liked "Signs and Portents" - and you're definitely through all the weak episodes now. The next five, comprising the end of Season One, is the series strongest run to that point - and where my opinion of the show turned around. "TKO" is bad and "Grail", which I think JMS actually wrote himself, he thinks is basically unwatchable.

Mr Morden - the Shadow representative introduced here - moves beyond being a gimmick when he returns in later episodes.

Patrick said...

Do you know why something like Grail or TKO could get through the production process? Was it part of the five year plan, or was it a situation where the studio told him to put in some standalone episodes to hook viewers?

And yeah, Morden is great in the season finale. That also makes it even clearer what his purpose is with that question in 'Signs and Portents.'

Keith G said...

I'd point you to the Lurker's Guide that archives JMS' usenet posts from when the series originally aired - but I fear you'd stumble across spoilers.

The first season was always structured to not lean too heavily on the arc, though. JMS used the term "wham" episodes - there's a couple in season one, half a dozen in season two, about half of season three is "wham" episodes...

These were episodes that were arc heavy and needed to be watched. So that left season one with holes to fill - and unfortunately outside of the arc stuff, JMS had trouble filling. I speculate this mostly had to do with him not wanting to step on too many future ideas - and I'm sure the idea of standalones was appealing to the studio as well.

There was also the fact he had a staff of writers in the first two seasons - and the show works much better when he wrote it all, beginning with Season Three.

Grail is one of the episodes that is interesting on a thematic level - in hindsight. So JMS wrote that, forgetting to make the story good. But introducing the Grail and Arthurian legend into the series wasn't a misstep completely - just that episode in particular.

Patrick said...

So he wrote every episode from season three on? That's pretty insane, the only other American writer who's done that, AFAIK, is Sorkin, and he at least still had a writing staff. But, I guess if the story's already all there, it's doable.

Angie said...

Actually, he started writing all episodes about halfway through season 2, with only one more exception in season 5.

From what he said it wasn't so much his choice as necessity as he couldn't even tell anyone at what particular point in the arc one episode would end and another would start before actually having written the eps.

It's really fun to read all of this. Thank you. And for the record, some of your speculations are very accurate, some are dead wrong ;)

Patrick said...

I'm definitely happy he's writing them all, in season two particularly, the ones he didn't write definitely feel more throwaway than the ones he did.

And I'm glad you're enjoying reading it, the show is so good, it's great to be able to talk about it as I go without worrying about spoilers.