Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Babylon 5: 'Points of Departure' and 'Revelations' (2x01 & 2x02)

By the end of the first season, things were picking up, but they really come together with the beginning of the second season. There's more subplots and they're all interesting, rather than struggling to fill the hour with a standalone plot, we're overflowing with story and I'm really eager to see more.

The season opener introduces our new captain, John Sheridan. The transition between him and Sinclair is pretty smooth, tying into the larger storyline with the Minbari well. I'd complain that we never got a better farewell to Sinclair, but I wouldn't want to see O'Hare trying to act an emotional farewell scene. I didn't hate the guy, he just didn't have much range. When he needed to be in charge of station business, he was fine, but when he was put in peril or had to dig deep emotionally, he didn't seem to have what it takes.

Bruce Boxleitner seems to have better acting chops, even though we're still getting introduced to him in these first two episodes. His acting in the scenes with his sister was stronger than what we'd seen from Sinclair. He feels more human, and that's critical to making the show emotionally relatable. We've already got Ivanova to cover the stoic side of things, it'll be nice to have someone who's a bit more open. I wouldn't say he instantly erases any memory of the previous commander, but the transistion was as smooth as any replacement of a show's main character can be.

I was a bit surprised with the lack of Londo and G'Kar in the season premiere. I suppose the need to introduce Sheridan meant there wasn't time for them, but still, it meant the premiere was missing something. Despite the development with Delenn, the Minbari remain the least interesting of the alien races. The Earth-Minbari war is clearly critical to the show's mythology, but this re-enactment of it didn't have much dramatic potency.

What was interesting about this episode was the revelation of why the Minbari surrendered. This provides the perfect reason for Sinclair to leave, and also explains why he was charged with command of the station in the first place. I guessed that Delenn was becoming some kind of Minbari-human hybrid, which was confirmed in the next episode. I'm not sure how this will play into the show's overall mythology, but so much of the series is concerned with the different groups trying to find common ground, genetic crossing between species would be a great representation of this. G'Kar is apparently working on his own version of this, though he apparently hasn't slipped one past the goalie and produced a Narn-human hybrid yet.

We also get the introduction of a new character, Warren the fighter pilot. While watching the first season, I said the show needed a Han Solo type, and he's apparently filling that role. We don't get much development, but a more roguish character could be a good contrast to the devotion of the rest of the crew. This episode also has an appearance by Robert Foxworth, of Six Feet Under. And, the show seems to have transistioned into a more serial mode, giving us the annoying cliffhanger of Delenn's emergence from the chrysalis. It's a good sign for the show when I'm really annoyed that the episode has ended.

The second episode followed up on most of the plot threads I was interested in from the first season finale. The opening spotlights the show's improved effects. They're still not great, but I can see why this CG was such a breakthrough. The ships move in dynamic ways, a major constrast from the models on Star Trek: Next Gen. There's something very powerful about the Shadows' attacks, they seem to be working on an entirely different level from the other ships, just cutting right through them.

G'Kar was one of the best characters in the first season, and he's evolved into an even better one here. The petulance is still there, but he's now scared, the unknown threat of the Shadows forcing him into action, even reaching out to Londo. For some reason, we've got a new person playing Na'Toth, the makeup means she looks the same, but the different voice is a bit jarring. Still, the scene with the two of them is fantastic, and also shows that the episode where he wanted that flower for the religious ceremony wasn't just a throwaway. It's a critical setup for what happens here.

Londo, the other standout character, gets drawn deeper into the world of the Shadows. The seemingly innocuous favor Morden asks him for winds up leading to the destruction of a Narn ship, and potentially major trouble for Londo himself. The great tragedy is that Londo is so completely oblivious to the big picture, and what he's done. He's still thinking in individual terms, unaware that everything is threatened. The best moment of the episode, perhaps of the series to date, is when G'Kar realizes that Londo is the one who tipped off the Shadows. This is one of those "It's on" moments, where you just know that something huge is going to happen down the line.

In that moment, it becomes clear how well developed these characters have been. Watching this episode, I was wondering why the show couldn't have just been this good from the start. A large part of it is that the characters and world took time to develop, bringing in the Shadows at the beginning wouldn't have had the same meaning it does now. I'm sure a show today would start right with the Shadow threat, because the patience just isn't there. But, part of it is just sloppy writing in the first half. I think it would have been possible to do the development while still doing some kind of overall arc to ease the show past bad episdoes like 'Infection' and 'TKO.'

This is a pretty packed episode, we also get the emergence of the new Delenn. I covered that above, but I'll just add that it made no sense to have her emergence be so built up as a suspenseful moment when they already showed her new form in the credits. I suspect part of it was they didn't want to have to do the makeup on her, but it also works with the thematic development at this point.

The Garibaldi stuff was also solid, setting up a conspiracy on Earth. As I've said before, the primary moral thesis of the show seems to be Babylon 5 good, everything else bad. So, it would make sense that the Earth government would be just as corrupt as the other races' homeworld. The involvement of the Psi Corps in this is very interesting though, and I'm guessing we'll see Talia stuck in the middle. She's clearly very uncomfortable with a lot of her duties, and may not want to act when the Corps calls upon her.

I thought this episode was fantastic, the show has really picked up and I'm guessing the next episode, 'The Geometry of Shadows' will develop things even more. The show still has a somewhat standalone structure, but there's a lot of ongoing subplots, and that makes it much more interesting to watch.

One thing I haven't mentioned that I think is critical to viewing the show is the fact that it's in the past tense. The opening voiceover comes from some time after the events of the show take place, and seems to indicate that the station no longer takes place. We're watching a story that has seemingly become cultural mythology, and it's logical that we would be given these bits of foreshadowing. That tense ties in with the fact that the whole show is so planned out. Most shows are constructed as they go along, not here, and I think that's why JMS can be confident to do the voiceover like he does. It's unique, and makes for a different kind of viewing experience. It's like the whole story exists, and we're having pieces filled in as we go. The hints give us enough to imagine what we're missing, but only he can fill in the pieces exactly.

9 comments:

Keith G said...

Very perceptive about the past tense and the cultural mythology the station and its history has taken on. This is one of the stronger themes of the second half of the series, though seeded by the opening narration - which changes with each season. And, of course, the events of the story inform how history will see these characters - which will become important to the characters later on, when they realise they are making history.

Jacob said...

One caveat: don't expect all the episodes to build and ratchet up in intensity the way the last few S1 eps and early S2 eps did - each year, after a breakneck start, JMS seems to like to dial down the pace and play with the new status quo for a stretch of standalone eps.

That shouldn't be taken to mean that the standalones are necessarily bad, though; except for one notable exception in year 3 (you'll know it when you see it), nothing will ever approach the depths plumbed by Infection or Grail.

Patrick said...

That's really interesting that the characters became aware of their historical importance. I suppose you get a sense of that in Battlestar, but, as Roslin said at one point this year, they're just hoping to survive, they can't worry about how history will treat them. One of the things that's so interesting about the show for me is the scope of it, as it develops, we seem to be heading for a war that will engulf the entire galaxy, and I've never seen a show tackle something that big before.

And Jacob, I'm expecting some off episodes in there. Even in the best years of Buffy, there were some clunkers. Those are a lot easier to take when the show is generally moving forward, rather than in season one, where it's unclear whether we'll actually ever make it anywhere.

Craig said...

Patrick,

One of things you mentioned about Delenn being in Credits in her new form reminded me that during the initial run iit wasn't like that. The original credits had Delenn in full Minbari look until AFTER the transformation was shown. After that the credits had the new look. When the DVDs came out and the 2nd Season Credits had Delenn's new look from the beginning a lot of us were upset.

I'm glad to see you are enjoying the show and it is always fun to see the show from a new person's perspective. I can see your reactions to future episodes very clearly since I went through them myself a decade ago.

Patrick said...

It definitely seemed odd that they would put transformed Delenn in the credits. I wonder what happened with the DVD, was it just a production error?

Angie said...

I don't know, but they did it right on the German DVDs, or at least on the ones I have.

Jacob said...

The opening credits (and the rest of the series, in fact) weren't originally widescreen - the image was, but the text was underneath, in the bottom letterbox. When they made the show fully widescreen for the DVD, they re-edited the titles to move the words up into the image (and changed the font a bit too). Anyway, I imagine they just didn't want to drop the money to cut a version of the sequence that would only be used in two episodes.

BTW, if you have any questions, a good resource is always The Lurker's Guide to Babylon 5. They've got (spoiler-free) guides for each episode along with collections of jms' Usenet comments on each episode, which are interesting and generally quite candid.

Kay Shapero said...

Just fyi, the actress who played Na'Toth at first had a very bad reaction to the makeup, and had to quit playing the character.

Patrick said...

Ah, that makes sense. I was wondering what it was, I figured she wasn't fired since she appeared on the show again. I guess they're just lucky the guy playing G'Kar didn't have a similar reaction, he'd be a lot tougher to recast.