Sunday, January 14, 2007

Babylon 5: 3x07-3x10

This run of episodes brings the Earth internal conflict to a head, ending with Sheridan declaring a new direction for Babylon 5. It's a riveting bunch of episodes, full of a lot of strong action stuff, though I don't think it ever reaches the emotional heights of the best of the Narn-Centauri stuff from season two. That said, these episodes are primarily about moving us into a new status quo, from which the rest of the season will operate.

But, before all that, there was one more standalone episode, 'Exogenesis.' This episode had a pretty weak main story, but some great stuff on the periphery. The main story was reminiscent of a couple of X-Files and also an Angel episode, in which a parasitic organism burrows into peoples' backs and takes control of their minds. So, I wasn't particularly excited for this, but the twist at the end at least kept it a bit fresh. These organisms are trying to accumulate a set of experiences and preserve them into the future. The speeches at the end were very reminiscent of Roy Batty's 'Tears in Rain' speech from the end of Blade Runner, though they didn't reach that level of profound emotion. Still, I was expecting worse when I saw the teaser.

On the outskirts of the story, we get the great awkward meeting between Corwin and Ivanova. I love him buying the roses, and then his awkward backtrack when she asks him about them. It's very funny stuff and has a nice more downbeat denouement when he reveals his loyalty to Earthforce.

I also liked the further development of Marcus. He's got an irreverence that's refreshingly different from our core four human characters. They each have their issues, but are so utterly commited to doing what's right, it can get a bit one note. Marcus is out to do good, but he's got less respect for rules and procedures than they do, happy to do whatever he feels is right in service of the cause, and also to attain his personal goals. I'd like to see further development of his relationship with Ivanova, the scenes between them, with the roses and, later, the chain of command diagram are a lot of fun.

'Messages From Earth' is a reprise of a lot of the themes of the premiere, with Sheridan and Delenn again taking the White Star into action to do battle with the Shadows. The episode features some strong sequences were a voiceover and visuals are used to convey information and move things forward, rather than the traditional dialogue. I'm not sure if that was a deliberate choice, or if it came about because they were low on time or had scenes that didn't work, but regardless, it worked very well and I'd like to see it again.

The most intriguing sequence here was Kirkish recounting what happened to her on Mars. The effects here were fantastic and we again saw the powerful menace of the Shadows. While I like this continued buildup, I think it's getting to the point where we need some kind of payoff on the Shadow threat, for them to make their presence known in the political sphere. I'm guessing that Earth will announce its alliance with the Shadows in the episodes shortly after 'Severed Dreams,' setting up a conflict between the Earth/Centauri/Shadow alliance and the forces of light, centered around the newly independent Babylon 5.

Anyway, this news prompts Sheridan off on a mission to take on the Earth government with the White Star. The best scene in the episode was Delenn and Sheridan's conversation in the bed room. It's one of the rare times we see Sheridan in a totally off duty moment, and the two of them can interact as people rather than political leaders. I'd like to see more of these moments on the show, if there's one thing it's missing, it's a sense of who these people are when they're not wearing the uniform. They're all defined almost exclusively by their jobs. On Buffy, they'd always take time to show that while all the characters may be involved in an age old struggle between light and dark, they also like to just hang out sometimes. The early episodes of B5 did that, but it felt too calculated, like they were trying to make the characters relatable on our own cultural terms. Now that we have a better understanding of who they are, it'd be more fun to just hang out with them.

This scene, in which Delenn and Sheridan sleep together, literally, intensifies their relationship again. Later, Sheridan talks about how he wishes Delenn were with him, and at the end of 'Severed Dreams,' it is he and Delenn who will serve as mother and father for this new Babylon 5. There's been a lot of hinting at it, but they haven't crossed that line to a romantic relationship yet. Will it happen? I feel like it's got to at least be voiced, you don't build something up like this if it's not going to pay off in some way. I still think that they will get together and moments after Sheridan will hear that his wife is alive.

The space battle surrounding the Shadow ship was well done, but it felt like too easy a victory. Triumphs work better if they come after really heavy loss, and so far, we haven't seen the Shadows actually cause any problems for Sheridan and the force of Light. When the Narn cruiser wounded a Shadow ship back in season two, it was a huge thing, because they had been so thoroughly defeated before. Here, they've already destroyed one Shadow ship through a gimmicky tactic, and we see the same thing here. Also, I feel like it's a bit of a copout to give them a third way out from the dilemma of surrendering or firing on an Earth ship. Later, we do see this conflict played out again, and actually dealt with, so it's not a huge deal.

In general, I think the conflict with Earth is effective, but could have been handled a bit better. The problem is the sides have been set up in such heavy opposition. There's no way to support the Earth government, with its propaganda and omnipresent Nightwatch. The fact that we know Clarke killed President Santiago means it's tougher to even consider his side of things. It would have been more effective if Clarke had started out as a moderate, but in light of the death of the president and attacks on Earth, got pushed down the path of fascism. Now, we know he was plotting this from the beginning, and there's no ambiguity. To quote the obvious real life parallel, if George Bush had caused 9/11 just as a way to insitute martial law, he's just an absurdly evil person. But, if he overreacts to 9/11 by restricting speech and freedom, in the name of doing something good, it's a more complex situation, and you can be more sympathetic to his viewpoint.

Of course, in real life, Bush is just as much a ridiculous cardboard villain as Clarke, so I suppose it's hard to complain about the story for its lack of realism. But, ambiguity is always better in storytelling. That's where Zack's story works well. This is a guy with good intentions who's not sure what the right thing is. He's trying to work within the system, but has been so manipulated, he's lost any sort of moral compass.

But, the viewer is never forced to explore that same grey territory, and that means it's a more straightforward scenario than the Narn/Centauri War. There, we sympathize with both Londo and G'Kar, and that makes it even more painful when the tragic events unfold. I love that really ambiguous territory, good people getting taken down a bad path, and people who've done bad things trying to reform themselves. That's what makes their arcs so much more compelling than the humans for me, Sheridan may have trouble attacking an Earthforce ship, but we know he's doing the right thing. Londo thinks he's doing the right thing, but is horribly misguided and doesn't realize it until it's too late. Now, I suppose JMS wants to keep some traditional heroes on the show, but it's more interesting to watch heroes struggle with internal questions that they can't answer than to battle an external foe we know they can defeat. The conflict here comes from the fact that we have an innate sympathy towards the Earth government, because it's us, not because of anything the show actually gives us.

Being a title episode for the season, we get a glimpse of the future, by way of Londo's encounter with the seer. Unlike 'Signs and Portents' or 'The Coming of Shadows,' we don't actually see the future, rather we're told some things. There's the decidedly ambiguous words from Morella, and also some the unambiguous declaration that both Londo and Vir will become Emperor. Now, the route that seems most likely at this point is Londo becomes Emperor, the Shadows eventually turn on the Centauri and they're so defeated that the Narn, possibly as part of the Alliance of Light, invade and G'Kar kills Londo. Then, due to his connections to the Minbari, Vir is installed as Emperor and oversees a period of peace for the Centauri, picking up the legacy of Emperor Turhan. I'm assuming it won't proceed exactly like that.

For one, Londo seems to be Emperor about twenty years in the future, and I'm not sure how that chronology will match with the fact that the new DVD movies are presumably set the real time ten years after the series' end. I'm assuming we get a jump into the future at the end of the series, to pay off the dream, but if we jump in to the future, wouldn't that spoil whatever happens to Sheridan in the new DVD movie? Now, perhaps that movie is just a standalone tale, taking place between some of the series' ending chronological jumping. Or, it's possible that the events seen in the dream actually happen earlier than we're led to believe there. I suppose I'll learn the answers to these questions once I finish watching the series.

I was glad to see G'Kar finally getting bumped up to member of the Ranger Crew. The entire season so far has been about assembling the alliance to do battle against the Shadows. Assembling this alliance allows for Babylon 5 to secede from Earth and still be a viable military force. G'Kar seems totally changed by his prison experience, and apparently sees working with the humans as the key to moving the Narn forward. Being part of this alliance would put him in a good position to reclaim his homeworld once they finish doing battle with the Centauri. But, as we see, that battle will not be without its costs.

After a lot of dancing around it, 'Severed Dreams' pays off the conflict with Earth. It's a huge episode, with really exciting battles happening on two fronts. The effects here were the best the series has done so far, with seemingly hundreds of ships swirling around the station during the battle sequence. It was well staged, tense and the moment where the Minbari show up, and we see Delenn in command of the White Star was an incredible payoff, that push in to her face a moment that gave me chills. I don't know if I'd agree with Sheridan that it was the finest moment of his life, but it was pretty damn good.

I also loved the ground battle stuff. We'd seen aerial fighting before, and I don't think this sequence had the intensity of the Narn/Centauri or Narn/Shadow conflicts, but we'd never seen a ground battle like this. They pulled no punches in showing death, that final pan over the Narn and human corpses was particularly powerful. While I wasn't glad to see all those Narn killed, I was happy that they stood by the alliance and fought for the station. As Delenn, G'Kar really has changed, and become a better leader for his people.

The victory at the end of this episode was earned, and with it, a new status quo for the station is announced. The crane shot at the end was obvious, but worked, the multi-species crowd a testament to the success of Babylon 5's mission, in uniting the various peoples in a world that wants to destroy them. It has become the center of hope in a universe seemingly intent on destroying itself.

From here, as I mentioned before, I'm ready to see the full breakout of the Shadow War. It's been building for a couple of seasons and I'm hoping to get full on escalation shortly. I'd imagine there'll be a few standalones exploring the new status quo before a return to heavy arc stuff. Right now, I'm curious as to how much the B5 crew knows about the Earth alliance with the Shadows. Franklin mentioned something specific about an Earth/Shadow alliance, but was that just a reference to the ships, or does he know that they've met with Morden. I could see Earth announcing a pact with the Shadows in light of the secession of their various territories. And, before the season ends, I'm expecting Morden to come to Sheridan with news of his wife, making Sheridan choose between his wife and his allegiance to Babylon 5. That will be a more wrenching choice than the one he makes here.


crossoverman said...

It's not really a spoiler to tell you that the final episode is set twenty years in the future. The details of what happen to Londo and G'Kar are made pretty clear before that jump in time.

These new films are set halfway between the main series chronology and the final episode.

Episodes 16 and 17, the two-part "War Without End", are the next wham episodes... although things of major significance happen before and after that.

A couple of things you want and expect do come to pass, soon enough...

Angie said...

And here I was thinking "wow, he doesn't even know about the timeframe of that last episode"...

I also disagree about what the next wham episode is, but I think that's actually a good thing.

Anyway, Delenn's ultimatum to the Earthforce ships gives me goosebumps every time I hear it. For some reason I also love that kiss on the hand very much. Ah well, I love the whole episode.

Patrick said...

I figured the ending must jump to the future at some point, to fulfill Londo's vision. I don't know if they could top the future sequences of Six Feet Under's last episode, but I'm eager to see what crops up in this last one.