Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Babylon 5: 1x17-1x22

I'm now through the first season and it's pretty clear that this show is something special. On an episode to episode basis, there's still issues, but the bigger picture is emerging and the season finale in particular was a significant leap over everything we'd seen before. There's some tough cliffhangers and I'm excited to see where the show goes in the second season.

'Legacies' develops the distinction between the warrior Minbari and the religious Minbari. Minbari culture seems to draw a lot from Ancient Greece, with the religious analagous to Athens and the warriors like Sparta. This episode sets up Delenn's conflict with Minbari culture as a whole, a conflict that will come to its head down the line in 'Babylon Squared.' It didn't quite make sense to me why the Minbari warrior guy blamed the Babylon security team for losing the body when he made such a big deal about having his own people watch it.

The more interesting part of this episode was the b plot with Ivanova and Talia fighting over the future of young telepath Alisa. Once again we see Ivanova's deep aversion to the Psi Corps, as well as more contrasting of the alien cultures. The actress playing Alisa is pretty bad, but the people around her get some good material, so the storyline was worthwhile. Whoever's the casting director on the show really needs to be fired, what kind of show loses three of its actors after the pilot because they were too bad? And, other than the old school sci-fi people, nearly all the one time guest stars are bad.

'A Voice in the Wilderness' has some good stuff, but doesn't really pick up until the second part. The planet storyline seems motivated more by a desire to show off effects than a story that needed to be told. I did like Londo and Delenn going into action, particularly Londo getting in touch with something more noble present in him. But, ultimately this wasn't that compelling.

As a two parter, I've got to question the bizarre placement of the cliffhanger. There were numerous obvious stopping points, like the Captain trapped in the cave, but instead they stop on a seemingly arbitrary point when something comes through the gate.

The best part of this episode is Garibaldi's attempts to get in touch with Lise. We see him more serious than usual, and the ending, where he finds out she's married, is devestating. I was not expecting that, and you can tell it totally destroys him. It's the toughest emotional moment of the series so far.

'Babylon Squared' is a strong episode on its own terms, following the mysterious reappearance of Babylon 4 and the evacuation of everyone on it. However, what's really interesting here is the hints about the future of the series. I'm not sure if the screwy time displacement is related to the Shadows or not, but clearly it will play an important purpose down the line. Zathras was a bit of a goofy character, but he says some stuff that could be of major interest down the line, specifically this idea of the one. Why does he say Sinclair isn't the one when he apparently is?

The glimpses of the future we see during the battle are very interesting. There's massive chaos on Babylon 5, presumably as a result of the Shadow invasion. But, the most interesting scene in the episode is the revelation of the one. Sinclair apparently went back in time to try and change things, but he received the time stabilizer too late, so he was unable to convey whatever message he's trying to convey. This is clearly a Sinclair from the future, and considering he apparently leaves the series after the first season, having him go on some kind of mission outside of time would be a good reason for his exit from the station. It seems that Sinclair is going around with Delenn, the reason she's not shown probably has something to do with the transformation she's undergoing at the end of the season. She's had a plan for Sinclair for a long time, and going outside of time is apparently a part of it.

The whole idea of having a Sinclair from the future come back is probably a bit less shocking than it would have been back in 1994. Something similar was done on this season of Heroes. However, the knowledge that JMS actually has the series mapped out means that this is more than a gimmicky ending, it will actually tie into something that happens down the line. As the season has gone on, it's become clear that most of the episodes do have a purpose beyond just the single story, this season is all about setting up the world of the show so that we can move into the conflict with the Shadows next year. The knowledge that we're actually going somewhere makes it a lot easier to accept the show's flaws. I'm assuming that Babylon 4 still has a major part left to play in the overall story of the show.

'A Quality of Mercy' features three different storylines. The one involving Laura Rosen and her medical machine has some interesting thematic stuff, but is generally underwhelming. The most important part is what it says about Dr. Franklin, he's someone who's locked into his specific idea of what medicine should be, and has trouble believing that something outside the norm could actually be useful for combatting illness. This is the most development we've got with him since 'Believers.' While the issues are interesting, the stories centered around him usually aren't the show's best.

Elsewhere, we get more development of Talia's fear of being in serial killer minds. I'm assuming that she'll come in conflict with the Psi Corps down the line as a result of what her duty does to her. So far, she's been a great proponent of the Psi Corps, and it would make sense for her faith in the organization to be challenged.

The funniest storyline here is Londo taking Lennier under his wing. Considering what happens in the next episode, this one does a good job of again setting up Londo as a selfish, manipulative guy. This is a good example of using comedy to set up character traits that will then pay off in a dramatic fashion down the line. It makes him uneasy when Lennier takes the blame for what happened, he is out for himself so much that it shocks him when someone acts so selflessly.

It all builds up to 'Chrysalis,' a really strong first season finale. Much like Buffy's 'Prophecy Girl,' this episode is a jump over everything that's come before, paying off a lot of development while setting up a lot more questions that will presumably be dealt with in the second season. There's development on a lot of fronts, so I'll tackle it character by character.

Sinclair gets engaged to Sakai, the most significant development in any character's personal life in the whole series. O'Hare has gotten better, but I still feel like he doesn't have the capacity for emotion that's needed to make truly powerful moments. He feels very theatrical, while TV rewards the smallest emotional reactions. The best TV acting is when the person seems to be the character, as in the case of Peter Krause on Six Feet Under or James Gandolfini on The Sopranos. It's tough to watch them in something else because they seem to belong so thoroughly to the world of their specific show. But, judging from what I've read about the show, JMS isn't going for that sort of method style realism. He restricts improv and that means there's more of a distance between the actor and their role. The actors are there in service of his overall story, rather than in a collaborative role. The show's strength is its massive, detailed arc, not its characters, at least so far. If this is Sinclair's last episode, he doesn't get much of a sendoff.

Londo gets some very interesting development. Throughout the series, he's been a morally ambiguous character, but at his core, good. Now, Morden and the Shadows give the Centauri a great advantage over the Narn and Londo stands to benefit, but he's uncomfortable with the sacrifice that power required. He does have a conscience, but it is so frequently sublimated behind his desire for power and wealth that even he forgets about it. Londo is the show's most interesting character and this deal with the Shadows opens up a lot of possibilities. He is now endebted to the shadows, and he'll likely be given another situation where he will have to sacrifice life for power. A while back, I said he was primarily funny hair and an accent. No longer.

The scene where the Narn base was destroyed was very effective. Despite the CGness of the effects, we still got the power of the Shadows and the extent of their destruction. The scene with Sinclair and G'Kar was very strong, bouncing from the comedy of his trio of women to the heavier stuff, in which Sinclair articulates the history of the Narn. They are trying to avoid ever being taken over again, as they were by the Centauri, and have completely overcompensated, becoming the destroyers of other planets. It seems that G'Kar and the Narn will be the first to fight the Shadows, he's already aware that some new power has announced itself in the galaxy.

Over with the humans, we get another very effective space destruction scene, in which the President's ship is destroyed. This episode piles on a lot of bad developments, and by the time the ship is destroyed, you're already pretty raw. Seeing Ivanova crying was one of the most powerful images of the series yet. Garibaldi's injury was a bit of a stock cliffhanger, but it worked well to set up the extent of the conspiracy on the fleet. Presumably, the Shadows had paid Deveraux to send the jamming equipment to the president's ship, and now their agent on the ship is clearing up the loose ends. I love this sort of vast conspiracy stuff, the whole episode had a very X-Files feel, with a whole bunch of epic events occurring across the galaxy.

The final, most mysterious thread is Delenn's transformation. She offers to tell Sinclair what happened to him on the line, betraying the orders of the Grey Council. Unfortunately, he doesn't get to her in time and when we last see her, she's in some kind of weird cocoon, undergoing a transformation. I'm not sure what this transformation entails, or why she's doing it, but I would guess it will move her away from Minbari tradition and could cause a rift with the Grey Council. And, will we ever learn the mystery of the Line?

So, this was a great season finale. It reminds me of, as I said before, Buffy's 'Prophecy Girl,' and The X-Files' 'The Erlenmyer Flask,' all the series' best episodes to date, raising the bar for emotional intensity and mythological scope. I wasn't fully sold on the show until around 'Signs and Portents,' and ever since then, it's been layering in more and more elements of the overall story. An episode like 'Babylon Squared' makes you appreciate the five year plan because it's clear these aren't just random ideas thrown out there to see what will stick, it's a carefully layered and plotted thing, with occasional bits of foreshadowing thrown in to tease future events. I'm sure that episode means a lot more after watching the whole series, but for now, I'm satisfied by knowing there's a mystery out there, one that will eventually be solved.

The first season definitely has a lot of issues, but I think its badness is a bit exaggerated. It takes a while to get used to the storytelling style, particularly if you're used to something like Battlestar, but once you understand the way the world works, there's a lot to appreciate in each episode. I was meaning to check the show out for a long time, but the bad buzz on the first season kept me from doing so. 'The Gathering' sucked, and the first few episodes are shaky, but I can already see the makings of something very, very special here and I can't wait to see it develop.

Luckily, I had a lot of time over the Holidays to burn through the first season quickly. It's on to the second tomorrow. I could see this show reaching Buffy levels of addiction, because it's not just using the same old TV drama tricks. It's a different style of storytelling, a vast mythology waiting to be uncovered. So, it draws on The X-Files tradition, but here, there actually is logical development, not just make it up as you go along storytelling.

1 comment:

Keith G said...

So glad you're through Season One - and that you enjoyed Babylon Squared and Chrysalis. As you should expect, all the answers you seek will be presented. Just not how or when you might expect.

I know Chrysalis was shot half-way through the first season to allow for all the extensive CG work to be completed. So it wasn't made as Sinclair's final episode. It's not much of a spoiler to say the character does return, though - and that's the time for his spectacular send-off!

Bruce Boxleitner is the Captain from Season Two onward - and he takes some getting used to, but eventually he'll eclipse the work of his predecessor.

I still maintain that Sinclair was perfectly cast - but still can't tell you why I think that.