Sunday, December 31, 2006

Babylon 5: 2x06-2x09

This run of episodes features the series' best so far, along with some lesser, but still strong hours. I approached the first season as a prologue, something that wouldn't have that much merit on its own, rather it was a necessary step to reach the riches the rest of the series held. So, when I hit the end of the first season, and the crackling opening of season two, I figured the series was in the home stretch, ready to take this Shadows arc to greatness. But, that's not exactly what happened. The standalone episodes here are a marked improvement over season one, but the series still has some issues with consistency. Maybe it's just that an episode like "The Coming of Shadows" is so good, it makes everything around look a bit shabby.

I'm not sure if 2x06-2x08 were set up as a deliberate arc, regardless they form a nice thematic trilogy surrounding Talia and the Psi Corps. She's a character who wasn't developed much in the first season, and it's good to see her getting some time. The B5 universe is the best treatment of what would happen if people actually developed psychic powers that I've seen. In something like X-Men, there's just telepaths running around, and someone with Xavier's powers could easily wreak massive havoc on the world. In reality, those powers would be tightly controlled, and the inevitable conflict between the safety of the individual and the safety of society as a whole makes for great drama.

The immediately notable thing about 'Spider in the Web' is two of the guest stars: Adrienne Barbeau of Carnivale and Jessica Walter of Arrested Development. It's weird to see Walter in a serious role after the absurdity of AD. It's nice that the show consistently brings in guest stars from shows I like. The episode has some other notable stuff, specifically the further development of Psi Corps. I'm always a fan of government conspiracy and secret experimentation, so the stuff with Psi Cop Thirteen was very interesting. These three episodes indicate that Psi Corps will be the second major villain as the show goes forward, after the Shadows. The glimpse of their headquarters in the San Diego wasteland was very cool. It's interesting to see the state of the various homeworlds, and scenes like that make the show feel less claustrophobic. Rather than just being a ship, the show is an entire galaxy.

This is an episode that's notable more for the information it brings to the overall series development than for the actual story it tells. The ongoing conflict with Mars positions Earth in the role of England, to Mars' thirteen colonies. Normally, Earth is equated with the United States, I suppose the point of the Mars stuff is to show the cyclical nature of history, new stuff will always replace the old, and those who try to fight it, like HomeGuard, are resisting the natural force of evolution.

Next up is 'Soul Mates,' a good blend of comedy and darker overtones. This is likely the last time we can view Londo in such a comic light, he crosses a line in 'The Coming of the Shadows' that makes it much tougher to relate to him in the way that we do hear. This episode again demonstrates the way that power is corrupting him, as he uses his privelege over his wives to garner favors and good treatment. It was a bit predictable that he would choose Timov in the end, precisely because she was being so stubborn, and because she was the most developed of the three. But that didn't prevent it from being a fun storyline, and a good stop on his character arc.

This episode also gives us a guest appearance from the guy who played Holtz on Angel. He's a great actor, so it was good to see him here, and what a universe crossover it was when he sells something to the Giant from Twin Peaks. Anyway, this episode did a good job of continuing the development of the Talia/Garibaldi relationship. Garibaldi's a very sympathetic character and it's tough to watch him get shoved aside for Stoner, right when he was making a connection with Talia.

All the characters on the show seem to have some major trauma in their past, and quite frequently the person who caused that trauma will turn up on the station. In this case, Talia's forced marriage to Stoner fits right in with how they've been developing her, the memories he brings up bring up more doubts about the morality of the Psi Corps. He offers her a 'cure' for her psychic powers, and it's unclear whether that cure would work. Even if it did, I don't think she would take it. Though she may suffer sometimes, I think she recognizes that the psychic powers are critical to her self definition, and to take them away would mean taking away everything she's known her whole life.

Those doubts carry over into the next episode, 'A Race Through Dark Places,' which is a sequel to one of the first season's best episodes, 'Mind War.' I really like the way these three episodes were placed back to back, chronicling the development that makes Talia denounce the Psi Corps at the end of this.

Before delving into this, I'll just mention how good the dinner scene with Sheridan and Delenn was. I always love the struggle of non-humans to become human, as with Anya on Buffy. It's a great chance to point out the absurdity of our customs, and also ponder what it actually means to be human. There's opportunity for comedy, as done here, and poignancy, as in 'GROPOS.' Sheridan sure seemed interested in Delenn, are we headed for an interspecies relationship? I'm not sure if it will happen with these two, but I'd imagine there will be something down the line.

This episode brings back Bester, one of the series' best villains to date. He's there to hunt down this underground railroad of telepaths, which is being run by Dr. Franklin. Franklin is consistently shown with something of a death wish. He's doing unorthodox and illegal things to help people, unconcerned with the consequences these actions could have for him. In light of 'GROPOS,' it's possible this is all an attempt to prove that he's tougher than his father, and just as willing to take risks. Regardless, I'm assuming it will lead to some bad conseqeunces for him in the future.

Talia is kidnapped by the group, and they use information and positivity to change her, rather than threats. This works because we're on the side of the refugees, so we're rooting for the character to help them. I do like the followup on the stuff with Ironheart, the deep connection that telepaths feel. This was also touched on with Ivanova and her mother, and connecting with these people means that Talia has to help them.

The misdirect with the psychic vision directed at Bester definitely worked on me. I was really shocked when Talia killed them all, surprised that the show would make such a bold choice. It was a bit disappointing from a boldness perspective to see them quickly renege on that and reveal it was a hallucination. However, from a character point of view, it makes much more sense for Talia to develop this way. That said, it would have been interesting to have one of our main characters in such tricky moral territory.

The final scene of the episode was well done, building on the connection already established between Ivanova and Talia. I'm not sure why she didn't go to Garibaldi instead, considering the fledgling relationship between the two of them. Is there something more than friendship going on with Ivanova and Talia? If the show was airing today, I'd say yes, but that sort of thing wasn't as common on TV back in the mid 90s. It would be fitting for Ivanova to fall in love with a telepath, someone who could give her that same deep feeling she got from her mother, but the fact that she had that boyfriend, Malcolm, indicates she's not a lesbian. That dynamic probably wasn't intentional, but I'm just saying, that's what I got out of it.

That brings us to the series' best episode so far, 'The Coming of Shadows.' Going into this one, I was expecting a lot. Not only is it the season's titular episode, it also promises major development in the ongoing mystery of the Shadows. The episode did not disappoint. The major difference between Babylon 5's 'wham episodes,' and similar episodes on something like Buffy or The X-Files is that the B5 ones not only give major development for present events, they provide a glimpse of the overall arc, perfectly doled out teases of what will eventually happen to the characters. After watching this, I was like "Wow, it's on between the Narn and Centauri," but I was also like "Wow, things are not looking good for Londo in the future." That's something unique in television, most writers have no idea where their characters will be three years out. Having the whole story means we can see these pieces of the future and only later realize how it all connects.

Speaking of connecting the future, this episode brings back the much maligned Captain Sinclair. Even though I was cracking on him frequently, it was great to have him back. O'Hare has a great voice, and when called upon to be stoic and authoritarian, as here, he's great. It's only in more emotional situations that he ran into problems. Sinclair is in charge of the Rangers, a group of human and Minbari who apparently have a lot of knowledge about the Shadows and the overall threat facing the galaxy. I'm assuming that O'Hare himself didn't want to return that much, so having these Rangers is a good chance to keep his spirit in the show. I'm aware of the TV movie 'Legend of the Rangers,' so apparently they'll have a large role to play in the show's universe.

In addition to contacting Garibaldi, Sinclair has a message for Delenn. In 'Babylon Squared,' we saw future versions of Delenn and Sinclair on some kind of mission in the past. He contacts her here, presumably initiating the contact that will eventually lead to their journeys through time and space. It's a great followup to that previous mystery, the brief scene letting us know that they still know what's going on.

But, the main concern here was Londo's corruption and the outbreak of the Narn-Centauri War. Starting on the Centauri homeworld, this episode gives us a wider scope than the show has previously undertaken. In Centauri society, there is a generational divide between the older, who are content with their reduced position of power within the galaxy, and the younger, like Lord Refa, who seek to return the Centauri to a position of preeminence. Londo ostensibly believes as Refa does, it's what he tells Morden back in 'Signs and Portents,' however, through his position on Babylon 5, he's also more aware of the other cultures. To him, the Narn are not a faceless mass, though he may dislike G'Kar, there is a bond between the two of them.

It's painful to watch what happens to G'Kar in this episode, he is the one who steps up and goes to the Centauri Emperor's gathering. He is humbled by the Emperor's message of peace and for a brief moment, he really believes that things can change. The scene with him and Londo at the bar is brilliant because of our conflicted feelings. We're watching G'Kar, filled with hope, and we know that all his hopes will soon be dashed.

Londo's path to corruption has been one of the most compelling arcs of the series so far. I love it because there was no one moment where he 'turned evil,' nothing has changed in him as a person, he's just made a series of choices that have compounded to the point where he is now irrevocably trapped in this bond with the Shadows and the quest for power with Refa. So far, his work with the Shadows has been one sided, they've done his bidding and he hasn't paid for it. Only when the Narn ship was destroyed on the rim did he get a sense of what his actions are resulting in. Here, he begins to understand the consequences of what he's doing. His choice to attack the colony started the war, and soon I'm sure we'll see that the Shadows don't just give for no reason. They will call on him for favors, and when the people on Babylon 5 find out about the Shadows, they'll be none too happy to find out that Londo has betrayed them.

His tragic trajectory is reinforced by the dream. Back in one of the first episodes, he mentioned dreaming that he was killed, with G'Kar at his neck. Here, we get a glimpse of that, but it's unclear whether what we're seeing is a set future, or just one possibility. I love the shot of Londo watching the Shadow fighters over the Centauri homeworld, and also the quick change from his coronation as emperor to rotting flesh on the chair. The makeup on old G'Kar and Londo was great, though the choking played a bit goofy. Some more chaos in the camera movement might have made the scene work better.

Throughout the show, I sometimes wish that JMS has a directing partner, like Aaron Sorkin has Tommy Schlamme. JMS is clearly a gifted storyteller, but unlike Joss Whedon, he doesn't seem as interested in film as a form. The show is very strong visually, but generally in what's being shown rather than how it's being shown. Now, this was a time when TV was decidedly less cinematic than it is today, but still, a moment like the Emperor's hallway walk shows how cool things can be, and a lot of the time, the show just doesn't work as well as it could in terms of cinematography and visual construction. This episode is actually pretty strong visually, that's more of a general criticism.

The effects in this episode were uniformly strong. The Londo outside shot was notable, as was the start of the Narn-Centauri war, with a whole bunch of ships moving through space. The effects here give me hope that we'll see some great stuff as the 'Great War' approaches.

The rawest emotional moment of the show so far is G'Kar's breakdown after finding out the Centauri destroyed the colony. In that moment, I wanted him to go and just assault Londo, he'd been so thoroughly betrayed. Sheridan's approach was obviously more logical, but in that moment, you feel what G'Kar is feeling and don't want him to stop.

It's interesting watching this episode because I'm a huge fan of both Londo and G'Kar, and I'm rooting for them both, even though their intentions are opposed. Still, Londo seems to have crossed a moral line here. He has killed nearly 250,000 Narn, on top of everyone he's killed before. He's gaining power, but I see a major fall in his future. I love the fact that they're doing this arc and taking him down this dark path. It's unlike anything I've seen on TV before.

The episode begins with the Narn-Centauri War breaking out, and I'm assuming a new status quo for the show. This will likely lead into war with the Shadows, but I'm really curious to see how it develops. I have seen GROPOS, but that doesn't touch on it too much. And that one will be reviewed in the next post, I think this one's long enough.


Keith G said...

"The Coming of Shadows" won B5 its first Hugo award. (It won two and very narrowly missed on a third for its final episode.) It's an incredible hour of television. And as you say, any other episode is going to suffer in comparison.

I agree about the visual style being lacking. This continues to improve over the course of the series, but it won't be remembered for being visually dynamic. Season Four is easily the best looking year for the show - with some great visual style finding its way onto the show.

Londo's dream basically lays out his entire arc on the show - and there's certainly a lot of moments in it that you will appreciate later when you understand the context better. I'm not sure I should say any more about that.

The Londo-G'Kar story is easily one of the highlights of the entire series' run. The fact their lives mirror each others so closely (a comment on their homeworlds and cultures) is fascinating. The best is still yet to come for them, though. (Well for everybody really!)

There's a couple of weaker non-JMS episodes in the next lot, but once you hit episode 18 you're in for a hell of a ride!

Keith G said...

Oh, and another thing... good call on the Ivanova/Talia relationship! You're right, back when the show was made, there wasn't many gay characters on television. But because you are watching it now, you more easily pick up on the subtext - which has always been there, but was argued about a lot at the time because A) SF fans weren't used to gay subtext and B) both characters have canon heterosexual relationships in their past.

At the time I wished JMS hadn't been so damn subtle, but at the time the only other option would have been not to include the references at all. So I'm glad it's there to be discovered.

There's more to be said about it, but I'll leave that for later.

Patrick said...

Yeah, Londo and G'Kar are definitely my favorites so far. Right from the pilot, they seemed most into their roles, and even up to now, the humans never quite click in the same way that they did. I think it's because both of them are given a lot of moral complexity, while most of the humans are fairly straightforward in their support of what is good. When the humans do something bad, it's inevitably to serve a greater good, while Londo or G'Kar will do bad things in service of their own agenda.

And, I'm glad I wasn't the only one seeing something with Talia and Ivanova. Right from the first episode, there seemed to be something going on between them, but it's more of an old Hollywood style coded hints kind of thing.