Sunday, December 17, 2006

Babylon 5 - 'The Parliament of Dreams' and 'Mind War' (1x05-1x06)

These two episodes were an improvement over the first four, further developing the show's world and alien cultures, and generally telling better stories, even though some of the major issues from the previous episodes persist. However, I am getting sense of the depth of the universe and that has me really intrigued to see how things develop in future episodes.

'Parliament of Dreams' is explicitly designed to deepen our understanding of the various alien cultures by giving us a glimpse of their religious ceremonies. It's troublesome territory to so explicitly separate everyone by certain 'racial' characteristics, but I think it works here if you view it more as cultural differences. The alien races are more like old world nations, while Earth is clearly equated with the United States, a blend of cultures and traditions, such that it's impossible to isolate one Earth religion, rather it is in the mixing that we are unique. Presumably a major thread of the series will be the way that the alien cultures are forced to move beyond their old prejudices and find peace.

While he worked well in 'Born to the Purple,' Londo was a bit broad here, literally falling over the table. However, at least he's putting some effort in, a lot of the human people are still completely emotionless in their performance. The Minbari religious ceremony was appropriately reverent and one of the best visual moments in the series so far. In general, the series seems uninterested in doing really interesting visual stuff. Shots are very basic and there's no attempt to do really strong visual storytelling. That's not about the effects limits, it's more about the choice to play stuff out with dialogue rather than visuals. Of course, in TV, it's only recently that we've seen shows with visual presentation to match the quality of the writing.

The Captain is still something of an absent center, though his encounter with Catherine was probably his best material yet. We get a better sense of him as a character, but I feel like the performance just isn't there to make me care about him. Though it's not just him, the scripts still use too many cliches, the people talk like people in a movie talk, not like people in real life talk.

G'Kar is the standout character so far, he's got some complexity and the acting stands out through the makeup. His pettiness is a nice contrast to the human cast, who are generally stoic and noble. Also, having multiple plot lines going during the episode helped the pacing.

'Mind War' is my favorite episode of the series so far, focusing on a telepath who has evolved too fast, causing problems when he tries to interact with normal humans. We also get further development of the Psi Corps, with the appearance of two Psi Cops. Talia is one of the more interesting characters on the show and it was nice to see more development of her. The old teacher comes back storyline is a staple, and it generally worked here. However, the guy playing Ironheart went way too over the top overacting it. It's like he was trying to make up for everyone else underplaying things, and that wound up throwing the show out of balance. His creep down the hall at the end of the show was just ridiculous in how much overacting he was doing.

However, the end of the episode is great. Ironheart seems to transcend the boundaries of physical humanity and become a kind of god. He then passes on some of his TK power to Talia. I'm intrigued by his comment that he'll see Sinclair in a million years, that one remains unexplained. Even the visual effects worked there, with his astral body against the stars. I'm imagining that was an X-Men reference, as the whole Psi Corps thing seems to draw a lot from there. It looks just like Xavier's astral body when he duels with the Shadow King. I'm assuming having Ivanova say "Who watches the watchmen?" was another comics reference.

There seems to be a recurring theme of corporations trying to use technological advances for profit and war. In 'Infection,' it was the organic weapons and here it's the TK potential. There is a fight between people who want to keep the tension between races and those who want to bring them together. That's looking more and more like it's the thematic core of the series.

I also really liked the story with Catherine and G'Kar. Her incessant talking to the computer was a bit much, but the end, with the discussion of ants was great. This episode is full of Morrisonesque ideas, and this is a critical one, the idea that we're only a small piece of a much larger universe. G'Kar is becoming more layered every week and here he's thankfully free of having to do goofy comedy bits.

I think what the show really needs now is a Whedon style sense of humor about itself. There's some jokes, but they don't really work. Whedon always knew exactly when to puncture the show's seriousness and absurdity, which made this odd world more accessible to the audience. We could accept whatever came up because at the core of the show were three very relatable characters. Here, we don't have that same entry point, so it's easier to criticize the show from the outside. I'm not saying they should break the fourth wall down and just mock things, rather, be more aware of how ridiculous some of what happens is and acknowledge that in the story world.

Even as Whedon would make a lot of jokes, he never let those jokes mess with the dignity of the characters, we were meant to laugh with them, rather than at them, and a lot of the time, I feel like we're meant to laugh at the ridiculousness of some of the Londo bits. Those bits go too far and just aren't funy. Go more for subtle wit than the really broad comedy things.

And in general, try to get the characters more emotionally involved in things. It can be contrived to have people going through huge emotion in these standalone episodes, but to really know the characters, they need to open up more. That said, the creation of more recurring elements and interepisode continuity is a great sign. These two episodes were a big jump over what came before, and hopefully the show will keep moving forward.


crossoverman said...

Wow, I forgot about Ironheart's line - but the million years thing makes complete sense... by the end of season four!

Glad you liked these two episodes, definitely the strength of the first half of Year One.

I'm really anxious to hear what you have to say about episodes later in the season, though. Watch more! :-)

Patrick said...

Season four, that is some long term storytelling. I've already seen the episode after these two, another pretty good one, the show's definitely picking up. I'll probably watch the next episode today and then review them both. But, already, even in the weak episodes, there's plenty of interesting thematic stuff going on.

Havremunken said...

I can't tell you how jealous I am that you get to see this show for the first time...! I would give anything for the ability to remove all memory of Babylon 5 from my brain, and just leave myself a note saying "Watch B5. You won't regret it". There is no doubt that the first season struggles with a lot of issues. However, when you look back on some of those episodes later, sometimes it is with moist eyes and a feeling of nostalgia, thinking "You poor guy..".

You have some more relatively weak stuff ahead of you, but there are also some gems. Some episodes that - when you see the big picture - will give you the chills.

Again, I envy you.

Patrick said...

Nice, that's high praise for the show. I feel like I'm more aware of what the show is now, so I can accept the bad episodes easier.

And, with regards to the brain removal, I feel the exact same way about Buffy. There's nothing like going through a great series for the first time.