Saturday, January 13, 2007

Babylon 5: 3x04-3x06

This is a strong run of episodes. In most cases, the A story is okay, but the stuff going on in the background is fantastic. At the start of each season, JMS has done a bunch of standalone episodes, presumably to attract new viewers. It's somewhat frustrating, but he always manages to put something important in. 'Dust to Dust' is the best of these, starting out solid then metamorphosing into something fantastic. But, let's track back and start at the beginning.

'Passing Through Gethsemane' is notable for two guest stars, one being Patricia Tallman back as Lyta Alexander, the other is character actor legend Brad Dourif. Dourif's always fun to watch, and this is one of the rare cases where a guest character pretty much carries the episode. He's so good that you don't mind putting our main characters in the background for a bit. I like the fact that Brother Theo's group was set up back in the first episode, and lingered in the background for a while before getting their own storyline. It's not that tough to do this kind of advance planning, and it makes the episode feel like part of a whole, rather than just an isolated happening. Even though it is a standalone story, that sort of continuity places it clearly within the world of the show.

I really like the scene where Edward talks with Delenn about the Minbari religion. The show frequently indulges in these philosophical digressions with Delenn and generally they work. I could see these speeches bothering some viewers, but I find them consistently interesting, it's always good to see a show that's concerned with exploring the larger issues of the universe, not just whatever's happening to its characters this week. I also like the idea of connecting the story of Jesus with the story of Valen, implying that all gods hail from the same universal idea, they're just viewed through different lenses. It's a cool idea in general, and also ties in nicely with the theme of universal connectedness that's central to the series.

The way the Edward story unfolded reminded me of a good X-Files standalone. The idea behind it is strong, and it plays out well. The crucifixion imagery was a bit heavy handed, but it worked well enough, and the ending finds a nice mix of touching and creepy.

Elsewhere, we get Lyta's return to the station. Lyta's look is just fascinating to me. She's good looking, but not extremely attractive, rather there's something about her eyes that looks kind of alien. That quality fits perfectly with what she's doing now, working as a telepath for the Vorlons. As we see at the end of the episode, she seems to have taken on some non-human qualities. I'm uncertain what was going on there, was Kosh absorbing her memories, or was that actually his spirit transferring from her body to his suit? I'm not sure yet, but both possibilities hold a lot of potential interest and I assume it'll be followed up on soon. Also of note is the scene with Londo, she is beyond the human desire for material wealth, and there she takes the chance to flaunt her power over him. Good stuff.

'Voices of Authority' has a lot of good stuff, but also some plot developments that come dangerously close to Deus Ex Machina. Draal returns here and offers our heroes a chance to contact the first ones. Ivanova's vision sequence was pretty cool, though I feel like a bit more could have been done filmmaking wise to make us feel like this was a truly otherworldly experience. Apparently using her psychic abilities, she tracks through time and finds a message from the Vice President discussing the assassination attempt.

My big issue with this plot development is the fact that it makes no logical sense in the universe. They just all of a sudden get the evidence from some psychic plane, are able to capture it on to a data crystal and then put it out to the world. It would have been better to have them fight to find this evidence, handing it to them sucks the story of drama. The physics of the Epsilon 3 thing are unclear, so maybe it worked in JMS's conception of the machine, but for me, it felt unearned. I did love the look of the first ones' ship, though I'd have thought these guys would be beyond petty jealousy now, and not be so easily swayed by Ivanova's reverse psychology.

Elsewhere, we get a visit from Julie Musante, Ministry of Peace liason. A lot of the show's guest stars are not good, but she was great, throwing herself full on into the role, selling both the dramatic and comedic parts. The great drama here comes from the conflict between freedom and security. Earth was apparently changed a lot, with the eradication of poverty and all problems! Or not so much, they just pretend the problems don't exist anymore, and blame anyone who doesn't have a job for not wanting to work. Similarly, they have equated criticism of the government with treason, and are curbing free speech, just until this current conflict is over. This episode is nothing if not relevant to today. It's a bit heavy handed, but generally works. I particularly like Zack's conflict. He's kept outside of the station's inner circle, but is openly welcomed into Nightwatch. Is it any surprise he'd be inclined to support them? In the long run, the Ranger crew's secrecy could wind up backfiring and alienating potential allies.

On the comic side of things, there's the great scene in Sheridan's apartment. I particularly like the line "You're about to go where everyone's gone before." Even though I take issue with criticizing women for being sexually aggressive, the line's funny enough it works. Ivanova's shock when she appears there is fantastic. So, this episode worked well, it retreaded the thematic material of the previous Nightwatch episodes, but there was enough forward progress it was worthwhile.

Next up is 'Dust to Dust,' an episode that starts out alright, then become phenomenal at the end. Bester returns to the station and there's the predictable unease among the crew. Ivanova threatens to blow up his ship, but is stopped and we move into what seems to be a fairly standard buddy cops who hate each other, but work together to solve the case thing. The Garibaldi/Bester dynamic is fun, and I have to say, I agree with Bester when he says he hopes they could work together again sometime. The final revelation that Bester and Psi Corps are behind Dust is a great twist which makes perfect sense. Their xenophobic fear that it will be used by non-humans is thematically appropriate as well.

But, that's not what lingers from the episode. By the end of the episode, when we returned to the Bester storyline, I wasn't even sure that stuff was from the same episode I was watching, this thing was completely hijacked by the G'Kar/Londo development. Londo is excited to have Vir back on the station, but not particularly impressed by his report back. Vir has none of Londo's cynicism, he accepts everything the Minbari have to say at face value and that naivete draws Londo's criticism. During their conversation, they could just as easily be talking about the Centauri homeworld as they are about Minbar, there's an emphasis on fading glory. Londo fears that the Minbari will try to reclaim their power, his only frame for behavior is his own, and if he was in charge of Minbar, he would likely lead them on a campaign to gain more power in the universe.

G'Kar's dust trip sends him into Londo's mind, on a tour of various significant moments from the past. The black void interrogation is reminiscent of both 'And the Sky Full of Stars' and The Prisoner. I love the scene where Londo is sent off on his ambassadorial mission, they have no confidence in him, and no sense of how important Babylon 5 will turn out to be. Londo has built up power and confidence, but G'Kar saw his greatest weakness there. He also sees Londo's meetings with Morden, and confirms that Londo was the one who gave the order to destroy the Narn colony. He apparently still hasn't made the connection between Londo's allies and the Shadows, but that will presumably come shortly. When Garibaldi finally looks at the book, he'll see the Shadow ship and find out that G'Kar was right all along.

Just a side note, how many shows does this mark that have used those black contacts? It's been featured on The X-Files, Carnivale and Buffy. Interestingly, the X-Files' Piper Maru, which debuted the black contacts, aired a mere four days after this episode.

After the adventures in Londo's mind, we go into G'Kar's mind, where he encounters his father, who tells him a new path. G'Kar was ready to embrace peace back in 'The Coming of Shadows,' there he was thrilled to give up the fight, but Londo's actions meant that wouldn't happen. Betrayed, he returned to his old warrior ways. But, this encounter with his father changes his mind and sets him on a different path. The speech that his father gives is beautiful, everything about the sequence is great. As he ascended, taking on the glow of Kosh, I wasn't sure what was going on. Was G'Kar visited by his God, was his father an angel, did they just reuse the Kosh effect to make it look cool?

Moving out, we see Kosh standing over him, satisfied. The fact that Kosh gave him this vision is brilliant, it gives an explanation for what exactly happened, and also raises questions about Kosh's role in this war. He's become more involved as the series has gone on, and this direct intercession in someone's mind is perhaps his boldest gesture yet. I've been waiting for G'Kar to become a part of the Ranger crew, but they remain frustrating oblique towards him. I feel like the purpose of his imprisonment is to atone for his sins, both the obvious attack on Londo, but more generally his pride and aggression in the past. He has been profoundly changed and when he does his penance, he will come out into the world with a new, different message.

The question I have now is how this changed G'Kar will eventually become the killer we see in Londo's vision of the future? Will he again be betrayed? If the series so far tells us anything, it's that things will go bad for G'Kar, so even though things are looking good now, it will all eventually come crashing down. I'm curious to see both how long this new outlook on life will last, and how it will eventually be destroyed.

Well, coming up after one episode is the big three episode run of 3x08-3x10. The picture on the DVD certainly makes it look like things are really on. After the stuff with the Narn and Centauri in the second season, I feel like there's really no boundaries on what could happen, anyone or anything could go, and I'm guessing things are still going to get a lot worse before they turn around.


Angie said...

Again you've given me a very interesting read. Thank you.

Regarding what you said about Lytas eyes: JMS actually knew the actress from some other project and it were her eyes that made him want to write a part for her. That's how Lyta came to be.

As for G'Kar's vision, kudos, you've been very observant there. That dream... well, you'll see *g*

Antimatter said...

The question I have now is how this changed G'Kar will eventually become the killer we see in Londo's vision of the future?

That is an interesting question... you shall find out in due course... :D

Btw, I think there are two people in G'Kar's vision - one is his father, and the other is someone else. At least, that's the way I remember it.

Havremunken said...

The path of G'Kar might hold some surprises yet... ;)

There are actually three narns in the vision produced by Kosh. The first is G'Kar's father - the image fits with what he told us about him being suspended from a tree in an earlier episode. The second one is unknown, but believed to be either G'Quon or another religious icon. Then the third is G'Lan, the "narn angel", as G'Kar saw it in the final episode of season 2.

Kosh sure seems to be doing thorough work. :)

Jacob said...

The funny thing about the show's political relevance is that, at the time, it wasn't really seen that way: the 90s were peaceful and prosperous (although just how much so only became clear in retrospect) and the way it looked to those of us watching at the time was that JMS was telling these sort of harmless generic political parables, influenced by stuff like "1984" and "The Prisoner" and the lives of his writer acquaintances like Rod Serling and others who suffered seriously during the HUAC era. No-one had any idea he was apparently channelling the spirit of the upcoming decade!

The only people who saw immediate political relevance in B5 were the hard-core right-wingers and creepy Ayn Rand types, whose response to episodes like these was usually along the lines of "Damn right, JMS! Clinton's a-gonna come for our guns and our freedoms!" (As a sidenote, I'll never understand why nerds always seem to be so right-wing when the objects of their nerdlust (be it Star Trek, Buffy, X-Men, what have you) present such an explicitly liberal outlook.)

Anyway, JMS' accidental prognostication is, to me, one of the most interesting things about the show - B5 seems to have penetrated the culture to a degree it never did when it was actually on, and while DVD is obviously a big factor in that, I think the post-2001 climate must play a role as well.

Patrick said...

I caught that the guy hanging was his father, but I didn't realize the second Narn speaking was someone else. G'Quon would make sense, since he does turn into the Narn God shortly after.

And Jacob, I've been really surprised by how perfectly this recent arc fits with what's actually happened since the show aired. Clarke basically is Bush, though the real Bush was a lot more subtle in cutting back on peoples' rights and manipulating them. If I have one complaint about the political stuff, it's that he makes the Nightwatch crew so obviously bad, there's no room for a real debate. Though, from what you're saying, maybe things weren't so clear cut for every viewer.

As for the increased fanbase, I would imagine this'd be a pretty tough show to get new viewers on as it aired. Did ratings stay consistent over the course of the run? In my case, I'd heard the show was great, but shaky in the first season and it took me a while to actually sit down and start watching it. But, it was a lot easier to make it through the first season with people assuring me that it does get better, I most likely would have dropped the show if I was watching it as it aired and didn't know about the five year plan.

But, the beauty of DVD is you can zip right through those weaker episodes and get onto the good stuff.

Angie said...

I don't have any exact figures, but from what I know, the ratings were rather good. Not spectacular, but very much OK and very consistent, which is not surprising given the nature of the show.