Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Babylon 5: 2x13-2x16

This run of episodes is one of the series' most consistently strong to date, paying off a lot of long developing plots in a way that opens up some really strong potential stories for the future. It's still not quite there every week, but the overarching narrative is progressing so well, I'm willing to forgive a couple of stumbles along the way.

'Hunter, Prey' is the weakest of these episodes, with an a A story that recahes season one levels of irrelevance. The point of this episode is to continue developing the corruption of the Earth government, but I think we've got that already, so this one ends up feeling like filler. It's fun to watch Sheridan and the B5 crew show up the general, but there's not much else of note.

What is interesting here is the further development of Sheridan's odd relationship with Kosh. Back in the dream, Sheridan got the idea that Kosh is grooming him for something and in this episode and the next, we see Kosh take him under his wing and teach him some odd lessons. I liked when Ivanova tells Sheridan that he's talking like a Vorlon now, because I too was unclear on what exactly was going on with him. I definitely got the emotion of the "pure beauty" sequence, the idea that even in the worst parts of this station, there are sights that will dazzle those who take the time out to look at them.

As we eventually find out, the Vorlons are the last of the ancient races, the others have "moved on." This idea seems heavily inspired by Tolkien. At the end of Return of the King, the ancient peoples go across the Grey Havens, leaving humans to rule over the age of men. It's the same kind of thing here, the Vorlons may be powerful, but they have few ties to this world, their time has passed. However, to ensure the future, Kosh must pass on his knowledge to Sheridan. He must show Sheridan how to view the world in the way he does, only then can they win the war against the Shadows. And, once that task is complete, Kosh and the Vorlons will be able to move on as well. I really like this idea of the ancients, it gives even greater scope to the story.

In 'There All the Honor Lies,' we get further insight into the world of the Minbari. Unfortunately, the Minbari are the least interesting of the alien races, probably because they're the least human. JMS implies that the humans and Minbari have the deepest connection, but the flawed, struggling Narn and Centauri seem to have more similarities to what we are. I suppose he's taking an optimistic view of humanity's future, presenting the Minbari as a potential future for us, a group to emulate. But, a group like that isn't going to be as interesting to watch, and though the Minbari murder storyline causes some good tension, it doesn't work as well as it might have if there was more ambiguity. We know that Sheridan was in the right and it's only a matter of proving that. If he was less certain about what he did then the story's moral questions would have been more compelling. As it is, we're just waiting for the Minbari guy to tell the truth and exonerate Sheridan.

The most interesting ongoing thread with the Minbari this year has been Delenn's struggle to deal with her new hybrid nature. The human side of her seems to be more emotional than she was used to, and that makes it difficult to deal with the pain she's feeling, facing rejection from all around. Her attempt to negotiate a medium between humans and Minbari seems to have thoroughly failed and she's now a flashpoint for their tension. As I've said before, the series' main thematic point is that Babylon 5 is good, a source of peace, while the homeworlds are myopic, seeking only to forward their own agendas. Delenn is now the physical embodiment of the compromises they seek on Babylon 5, and those who reject her are the people who will stand in the way of the peace process.

This episode also gives us the hilarious subplot involving the Babylon 5 store. This one walks the line of being too meta, but it ends up working because it's very funny. I was freeze framing the DVD to check out the Londo and G'Kar action figures, and any time Londo appeared in the same frame as the action figure version of himself, I was cracking up. The episode gives us a lighter side of Londo than we'd seen recently, but it works. He still clearly cares about Vir and the people around him, he's not yet aware of the extent of what he's done. When the consequences of his actions start to emerge, then we'll see a total change in him, but for now, he's tough in negotiations, but still kind to those he knows personally. His rapid rise to power has made him appreciate those who were loyal to him earlier even more.

The episode ends with the almost surreal comedy of the bear tossed out the airlock, floating in space. It's a good comedy bit and is weird enough that it avoids the sitcom flavor of some of the first season's endings. I don't now mind meta comedy, as long as it's funny.

'And Now for a Word' was a very good episode, but I feel like it would have had more impact at the time. These sorts of gimmicky episodes have been used on a lot of shows in the past ten years, and as a result, it doesn't feel as bold as it must have back when the show first aired. It's still cool to see things from a different perspective, but I just sort of accepted it, I wasn't wowed by it.

Stylistically, I would have liked a bit more grit. Today, you could have shot this on high end DV, as a nice contrast to film, but here, it's on the same stock, so only the somewhat shakier camera work differentiates it from the show's usual cinematography. Now that we're so used to handheld, verite style camera work in fictional shows, this doesn't particularly stand out. Friday Night Lights or Battlestar look more 'realistic' than this episode did. That said, the on screen graphics gave us some interesting information, and the interviews with Earth personnel gives the best insight yet into how the Earth government views Babylon 5.

This episode is quite prescient in its depiction of a conflict over purported weapons of mass destruction and a US government that is none too eager to heed to UN regulations. Babylon 5 has always been positioned as essentially the UN, but never more so here. They talk about using the station as a means to prevent another major war following the Earth-Minbari conflict, but with time passed, it's lost its purpose. I'd imagine Bush would say the same exact thing about the UN, he certainly didn't listen to it when it came time to invade Iraq.

Battlestar Galactica is consistently hailed for its topicality, it's from a decidedly post 9/11 mindset. Babylon 5's first season came from a totally different, more hopeful political time. This season seems more relevant to today, the fundamental series conflict between globalism and selfish nationalism is always going to be relevant.

The news format allows for the most fun piece of the episode, the Psi Corps commercial. It's a bit obvious in its parody, but it works both as comedy and as a look into the way that the Psi Corps wants to present itself. This episode is most interesting in showing how perspective and intent affect presentation, the way events are skewed to support the Earth government's agenda.

Beyond the format, there's a lot of really strong story stuff here. The conflict with the Centauri transport is similar to what we already saw in 'Acts of Sacrifice,' and I'm guessing that's the reason they chose to go with the news presentation, to keep things fresh. In the documentary interviews, we mostly see what we already know, but there's some interesting character insights. Delenn's near breadown is tough to watch, and G'Kar's description of the Centauri invasion of the Narn homeworld connects it closely to our own planet's colonial history. I like the juxtaposition of G'Kar and Londo's wildly different accounts of the Centauri occupation. When Londo's in the public eye, he remains a skilled diplomat, always skewing events to serve his own agenda, and his recent success has given him the confidence to be even bolder with his interpretation of the truth.

The past few episodes sway the viewer decidedly to the Narn side of things, so I like that they have the Narn ship come in and attack the Centauris. It complicates things and is indicative of how war really works. If one side isn't playing by the rules, the other isn't going to either, even if that attack may be 'wrong.' I love the scene at the end where she asks G'Kar is he thinks Babylon 5 still works and he responds in the negative. His loss of faith in the diplomatic process is one of the show's most compelling arcs.

Based on its title, I was expecting some big developments from 'In the Shadow of Z'Ha'Dum,' and it delivers. The episode's best twist occurred in the teaser, when we find out that Morden was on the ship with Sheridan's wife. It's a brilliant twist because in the answer it gives us about Morden, it opens up so many new story possibilities. As 24 shows us, it's always good to have our hero have some personal involvement in the conflict.

This episode reveals a ton of background on the Shadows, a lot of it could be deduced from what we'd already seen, but it's nice to pull all the pieces together. It turns out that it's human explorers who woke the Shadows from their rest. Considering the show so wholeheartedly endorses space exploration, it seems odd that human exploration would be the cause of this massive threat. I suppose the point is that we must be responsible in our exploring, or it could lead to awful consequences. The Shadows are now assembling their forces, and I'd imagine they'll make themselves known just in time for a season ending cliffhanger.

The Shadows either hired or killed all the people on the Icarus, and considering the fact that the story is available, I'm assuming Anna is still alive, perhaps coerced into aiding the Shadows. That could lead us to a fantastic conflict where Sheridan has to choose between attacking the Shadows and killing his wife, or putting the galaxy in danger by letting them go. When you set up the pieces like this, the story practically writes itself. I'm assuming there'll be some twists in there, but it was a brilliant choice to connect Morden with that piece of backstory.

This episode also gives the Captain a bit more edge. One of my main problems with the human characters so far is that they're too good, there's little moral ambiguity in their behavior. Here, we see Sheridan breaking the law and even putting Talia in deliberate psychic danger, all in the hopes of getting the information he needs. It's the most interesting the character has been and I hope we continue to see him pushed into this morally ambiguous territory. He knows that his wife could potentially be alive, and that's going to change the way he approaches war with the Shadows.

Morden has become this show's equivalent of The Smoking Man, only appearing occasionally, but providing our human link to a vast conspiracy. His total calm in the interrogation room is great, and leaves me wondering whether he actually doesn't remember what happened, or was just saying that. Considering he probably wasn't an evil guy when he went out on the Icarus, it's quite possible he was reprogrammed by the Shadows to serve them. He certainly looks evil when he's talking with those two Shadows in his cell. However, he, like Londo, may have been lured to their side by some kind of material reward and is now thoroughly ensconced in their world. Reprogramming would make it easier for Sheridan to get his wife back, with him eventually breaking through to the real her, however it's also possible that she's just being held prisoner because the Shadows know she could be valuable down the line. Putting the personal and professional responsibilities of the hero in conflict is the key to great drama and that's what this episode has done for Sheridan.

This was a fantastic episode that filled in a lot of backstory and opened up some rich potential directions for the series. Already, Sheridan is aware of some connection between the Centauri and Morden, and pursuing that connection could lead back to Londo. If the Minbari become aware that the Shadows are working for the Centauri, that could lead them to ally with the Narn. I'm guessing that the Narn-Centauri war will eventually segue into the war with the Shadows, with Earth/Minbari/Narn going up against the Shadows/Centauri, but only watching more episodes will tell for sure.


Kay Shapero said...

Please do continue this, it's most entertaining. I suspect you may also wish to reread it later after you've seen the whole show, and notice what details take on a new significance when you've seen the whole thing.

Speaking of which, when you've finished the whole thing (whatever you do do NOT go look there now or you'll be drowned in spoilers), you may want to look at my site for the notes I'm posting, as I re-watch the show. These are not reviews, merely notes of the "oh, so THAT'S why he did that" variety.

JimK said...

What Kay said. Also rewatch a second time. The phrase JMS uses is 'holographic storytelling'. I think this is the first time you mentioned Tolkien, but yeah. Khazadum-Za'ha'dum, third age of mankind/ME.

Once you've seen the whole thing, catch up on all the references to the influences, the DVD commentaries, etc, your head will be flat 'cause you smacked it so much. (oh, that's why...)

Watched again, the series is much richer, and then who cares about the 1st gen TVCGI.

Not a spoiler: Sheriden's lawyer sound familiar?

I envy you in your discovery. See you on the other side of season 5.

Patrick said...

Kay - I've bookmarked your site, and I'll definitely take a look when I finish the series, it looks like there's a lot of good stuff on there. I'm always interested in behind the scenes stories, and it's annoying to be so into the show, but unable to read the vast majority of online stuff for fear of spoilers. But, I'll have plenty of time for that after the series, and I'd imagine the release of the new DVD movie will reignite some dialogue.

JimK - I saw the name for Sheridan's lawyer in the credits and knew it looked familiar, then when she talked I recognized it was the woman who played Na'Toth. It's cool that she got a second role on the series after being recast out.

I saw some similarities with Tolkien before, but this discussion of the ancient ones moving on to some other place was the most direct tie in. The Minbari remind me a lot of the elves in Tolkien's world too.

And, I'm definitely looking forward to the rewatch. Already, I can see how a lot of the first season stuff was critical to what happens in the future, I'd imagine it's a whole different experience on the review.

Havremunken said...

I am so jealous of you right now - you're on your way into fun territory, with only a few "off" episodes here and there, spread out among an amazing number of mind-numbingly good episodes.

Actually.. I think I'll go watch some B5 right now. Reading your reviews has made me miss it a lot. :)