Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Babylon 5: 3x11-3x13

After the big tumult of the previous three episodes, things settle back and JMS takes some time to explore the new status quo. While these episodes certainly lack the epic scope of the previous arc, the first two at least have a lot of interesting stuff going on and do a good job pushing the characters forward.

When I was watching Buffy, I'd frequently wish that they'd do episodes without any major conflicts and just let the characters hang out and interact with each other. Part of what I love so much about season six is the way there is no external antagonist, instead the issues come internally, from the characters' struggle to deal with their relationships and personal development. Babylon 5's characters aren't as strongly developed as the ones on Buffy, but I increasingly find myself wishing we could have less plot and more down time, so we can spend more time with these people outside of their jobs.

'Ceremonies of Light and Dark' has a decent main plot. It's logical that Nightwatch would stay around the station and try to take back control. Their plan to target Delenn is a logical reaction to the Minbari ships who just showed up the Earthforce fleet. But ultimately, I just wasn't that engaged in the hostage situation on a narrative level, it's much more interesting as a way to explore the developing relationship between Delenn and Sheridan.

This is something that's been in the works for a long time, at first I was wondering if I was reading into something that wasn't there, but by now it's clearly in play, and JMS enjoys taunting us with the possibility of the two of them finally making it physical. They've both already admitted how deeply they feel for each other, that's Sheridan's secret here at the end of the episode, and it's just a matter of them figuring out where those feelings will go.

The ceremony itself provided the wonderful opportunity for everyone to reveal a secret. Lennier's was interesting, it would certainly make sense that he loves Delenn, but knowing that he can never act on that love gives a different spin to the scenes with him and Delenn. He says she is destined for another, at this point, we've got to assume that's Sheridan. Does Lennier know who this person is, or does he just know it's not him?

We also get some more information on Marcus. As I mentioned before, it's great to finally see one of the human characters have some of the irreverence and inner conflict of the aliens. If I've got one issue with the show, it's that the main four humans still aren't that interesting to watch. Sheridan has some great moments, but the other three only occasionally get really good material to work with. They're all workaholics, totally committed to Babylon 5. Marcus' different attitude makes him a welcome addition to the crew.

The end of the show gives us access to a secret from the whole crew. I was really hoping we'd see this happen, though the execution was a bit odd. You'd think someone right outside the door could just have listened in to the secret. But, I guess they didn't want to go through a big production for all four characters. Sheridan's secret wasn't much of a secret, the others' are a bit more interesting. Garibaldi's fear makes sense, he likely uses humor to cover for the deep concern he has about keeping the station safe. Franklin's isn't a shocker either, but now we know that he know he has a problem. It's just a matter of admitting it to the others and seeking help. However, as 'Avalon' shows us, he's only concerned with being right and trying to fix people, unable to see another path. So, even though he knows he's got a problem, he very likely is unwilling to scale back on his hours and delegate his work.

Ivanova's is the most interesting, though another we already kind of knew. It was never revealed exactly how far her relationship with Talia went, the impression I got was that they slept together in 'Divided Loyalties,' and who knows where it could have gone from there. I'd imagine Ivanova must have had some deep pain after Talia's transformation, and I think it would have been smart to engage with her pain there. She could repress it on the outside, but I think it would have good to develop some internal trauma there, give her a more painful emotional arc. I suppose I'm so used to the Joss/Alan Ball model of extreme character pain, I want a loss like that to linger, rather than get compartmentalized into the background.

In the show, all the characters seem resolutely alone, totally committed to work and interested in nothing else. This season has seen the development of some flirtation, if not full relationships. Katherine Sakai and Sinclair were the only couple on the show, and she only appeared a few times. I like the developing relationships here in the third season, but I feel like JMS should get these things moving. It raises the emotional stakes to have the characters deeply connected, and particularly on a show like this, relationships can mess with character loyalties and force people to make incredibly difficult decisions. Plus, it'd give us a better insight into the characters outside of their jobs. I can certainly see why Ivanova would have trouble adjusting to life outside of Earthforce, as far as the show is concerned, her work dominates her life from wake to sleep.

So, the secret thing, while a bit gimmicky, was very interesting. Much like in the Buffy episode 'Fear Itself,' getting a glimpse into the characters' internal lives gives us a better idea of what's motivating their external actions. And the A plot, while not great, was a good, logical followup to the big events that preceded it.

'Sic Transit Vir' is another good marker of how far the show has come in terms of character and world development. The humor here isn't necessarily different from the stuff I criticized as too sitcomy back in the first season, but because we know the characters so well, it's much funnier. The scene with Londo and the bug has virtually no narrative point, but it's hilarious, his hair rising up behind the counter is the standout image, and the frantic swording of the bug is great too. We know the guy so well, it's fun to just watch him in his apartment, killing a bug. I was really happy when that bug infestation didn't somehow collide with the main narrative and become a crucial plot point in the end. It was just a funny thing on its own.

Vir has consistently been caught up in moral conundrums, torn between his moral sense of right and wrong and his obligation to Londo and the Centauri. He has been Londo's conscience, and his rebukes were a big part of what made Londo break off his arrangement with Morden. The reason he looks at the invasion of the Narn homeworld with such pain is because Vir gave him the idea that maybe it's wrong to just kill Narn. Sending Vir to Minbar was probably the worst thing Londo could have done, because it made him even more aware of different cultures, morality outside the Centauri.

One of the most effective things about this episode is the way it veers from goofy comedy to heavy drama at the end. When we first see Vir with Lyndisty, his fiancee, I was expecting the sort of goofy comedy that did ensue. Watching the scene in the garden, I realized that Stephen Furst is basically doing a Woody Allen impression when he plays Vir. I really didn't like his acting in the first couple of episodes, I've gotten used to it since, but he's still a bit mannered. I suppose that's who the character has become, but he occasionally overplays things. It probably doesn't help that he's working with Peter Jurasik, who also sometimes pushes the limits of overplaying, but is so consistently entertaining, you forgive him. Plus, Jurasik can do heavy darkness just as well as the goofy comedy, making it easier to accept the light moments. This episode features some of Furst's best work, but also spotlights the tics he uses constantly.

Moving forward, the scene with Vir and Ivanova is great, bringing out an almost Office level of awkward comedy. It's a bit odd that Vir would talk with Ivanova about this, apparently he's not too aware of the fact that humans don't have the six system. But, I guess he's looking for general information, and the scene was funny enough logic doesn't necessarily matter.

Over with Sheridan and Delenn, we get further progression of the relationship, starting with the sweet dinner scene. Sheridan is doing whatever he can to win her over, and it seems to be working, right until they're untimely interrupted by Ivanova. It's difficult to figure out their relationship trajectory because they both seem to have basically said they love each other, but they've never quite made it to a physical place. They also haven't addressed the issue of Delenn's Minbari physiology, which will presumably come up at some point. But, they're pretty much assured to be getting together at some point, it's just a matter of when and how.

So, the episode was going along in a generally comedy place, then in the back half it got much darker. The scene where Vir is accused of murder and Londo congratulates him was pretty heavy, but it's the final scene with Lyndisty that's the capper. The thing I love about this scene is the mix of her total sweetness and the utter hatefulness of what she's saying. The Narn have always been equated with historically oppressed people, victims of colonization and exploitation. However, on occasion, they're equated with African slaves in Ammerica, notably with the story of G'Kar's father. That connection is re-established when Vir calls himself Abrahamo Lincolni, and furthered in Lyndisty's speech.

That speech was really disturbing to me, it's rare you see that level of hate speech presented on TV without any clear indication that this is wrong. She is trying to convince Vir that she's right, and there's no malice at all behind what she's saying. She thinks Vir is the one who's deluded and in need of correction. The decision to not put any obvious menacing music, or have Vir outright say she's wrong was pretty bold. I think it makes what she's saying more jarring, because you're forced to draw the connections and recognize how wrong it is. The best villains are the ones who think they're doing the right thing, and that's what makes her so powerful here.

I loved the buildup there, and the scene ended on a great cliffhanger. But, things cut at the moment of greatest drama and we never get a real resolution to what Vir did there. Presumably he didn't kill the Narn, but I think it would have been more effective to see him assert his authority and tell her that he won't murder the Narn. Even if he didn't do that, I'm curious to see how he got himself out of the situation.

Then, to have him apparently still willing to go along with the marriage to Lyndisty is off. It doesn't fit with what he's done previously in the episode. Now, this might be an attempt to show that Vir is more conflicted than he appears, and still willing to go along with some of Centauri tradition. I suppose that's realistic, but I would have liked to see that actively explored rather than just implied. Perhaps it will come up in future episodes, but judging from the fate of Londo's wife, I wouldn't expect to see Lyndisty return.

Next up is the weakest of this run, 'A Late Delivery from Avalon.' Bringing back themes from the first season's 'Grail' probably wasn't a good idea, though this one is certainly better than that episode. The teaser has a very early X-Files feel, I like the look of the black and white footage, even though this sort of ambiguous stuff with random person lost its appeal as a tease a while ago. In a TV show, you're there to see the ongoing stories and series characters, for a random person teaser to work, it's got to be a pretty extraordinary event, and most of the ones on here aren't quite there. But, I'm obviously going to watch the whole episode, so it doesn't matter too much. I suppose JMS is always thinking of new viewers and trying to give something that would intrigue them. I pretty much only watch shows from the beginning all the way through, so it's difficult for me to say what sort of teaser would attract new viewers to an existing series.

The main plot here is a bit goofy. Marucs already provides a Camelot feel, but at least fits into the series' universe. Having 'Arthur' wear chainmail and classic apparel makes it feel hokey. I'd rather have seen some kind of future reinvention of the classic look. Though, I suppose the fact that he thinks he's transported from the past to the future means he wouldn't update the clothes, he'd stick with the classic. That said, I did thoroughly enjoy the scenes with G'Kar and Arthur. G'Kar has grown into a warrior king, guiding his people well, so it's logical to equate him with the Round Table.

Confronting David with his real past connects the episode to the series' history, and provides a nice, sad denouement to the Arthur story. When he was lying in the coma, I felt like the episode provided a really interesting moral conundrum for Franklin. Franklin always advocates trying to find a cure, trying to save people, but he doesn't realize that not everyone wants to be cured. In this case, the cure went up making David catatonic, losing the unique drive he had before. Ending with that would have forced Franklin to really think about what he'd done.

But, having David rehabilitate himself and continue the fight absolves Franklin of any guilt and gives everyone the best outcome possible. The sequence where he's resurrected is striking, though I'm a bit mad they passed up an opportunity to have Mira Furlan play the Lady in Lake, without her Delenn makeup. It would have been cool to see her like that, though I suppose it wouldn't have made much sense in the storyverse. But, I feel like the more powerful ending would have been to either have him return to his psychosis and continue to believe he's Arthur, or just have him go catatonic and insane.

This episode brings us another old British actor. Michael York was great in Cabaret, and it was good to see him here, but it got me thinking about how much older this cast is than most shows. The guest stars are almost always above middle age, likely the result of JMS flipping through his movie collection and picking out actors he wants to work with. But, in a TV culture that values youth and attractiveness above everything else, it's odd to see a show that never seems to have anyone below thirty appear.

In general, the cast of the show is much more ordinary looking than your average series. Looking at Buffy, it's saying something when Sarah Michelle Gellar is the least attractive female in the cast. Most shows have great looking, young people on them, not so much here. It's not that they're ugly, they're just regular, some of them are attractive, some not, but nobody's a knockout, and that's rare in TV. Compare this group to Battlestar Galactica's crew, major difference in the level of sex appeal, and also in the focus on characters as objects of desire. There, the alien others are basically a crew of models, here they're made up to look truly other.

I think part of this comes from the wardrobe and makeup style. Everyone's always wearing military uniforms, which aren't very flattering. And, particularly in the early seasons, everyone's got that sort of early 90s look about them, a kind of makeup and cinematography style that isn't used so much today. I suppose this is a reflection of JMS's personal vision, he cast who he wanted for their acting talent, not for their looks, and that's a very admirable position. I'd be curious to see how fandoms for the show took to the characters, because so much of the Buffy fandom, particularly with a lot of women, is about attraction to the characters and shipping, etc. I'm sure there was shipping with B5, but I don't think anyone in the cast is going to create the same desire as a Scully or Spike.

Well, that was a bit of a digression, but it's something to consider. I will say that styles of attractiveness change every once in a while, and the 80/early 90s look has not held up nearly as well as the 60s or 70s style. So, the actors have that working against them to begin with.

I have now passed the halfway point in the series. I'm still at the point where there's a vast array of uncharted story territory to explore, but I'd imagine about a season from now, the end will start to loom closer and closer, the gaps will fill in and by the end of season five, I'll be wishing it was a longer plan. But, between the TV movies, Crusade and the new DVD movie, there should still be plenty of B5 material to occupy me going forward.


Keith G said...

Try not to put too much hope in the TV movies or Crusade delivering the same kind of pleasure as the series.

Certainly "In the Beginning" is satisfying, because it explores the backstory of the series and you get the pleasure of seeing everything that's been alluded to falling into place.

And there are other interesting aspects to the TV movies, but "Crusade" is - IMHO - very disappointing. Its execution was tampered with by the network it was airing on and I think JMS had lost all his spark after five years of Babylon 5.

But it's still an interesting experiment and by the end there's certain mysteries I would have kept watching the show for had it continued.

The next four episodes of B5 are phenomenal. I can't wait for you reaction on these!

jPekka said...

A couple of things.

JMS has said that at the end of "Sic Transit Vir", there was supposed to be a comment about the Narn recovering in Medlab. Apparently, that ended up accidentally in the cutting room floor.

To me, it makes sense that the main characters are not in their twenties. They are, after all, pretty high ranking military officers. You don't get promotions that fast in the real life, either.

And yes, about the captain taking part in missions. Apparently, at least in USAF and US Navy, even high rank officers with pilot training are supposed to take part to a certain amount of flight hours and action to keep "their wings" and the extra pay. JMS has mentioned getting congratulations from career militarymen and women for "getting it right for once".

Angie said...

Regarding Talia and Ivanova's loss, she might not be showing it, but it's there and it's influencing her actions.

I also noticed the "old" cast and really appreciated it. As for nobody "creating desire"... ah well, maybe I'm just the big exception here.

Btw. Michael York was JMS' first choice for Sheridan.

Havremunken said...

I believe you're now approaching the point where you will realize that some time in the future, watching the whole thing over again will really be rewarding. Of course, you don't have to watch it 18 times like I have (or so it feels), but still.. ;)

Also, I think you've gotten to the point where you start to recognize what I mentally refer to as "Babylon 5 moments" - those moments that give you the chills in a way that few other shows can. While "Avalon" is not the strongest arc episode, the utter horror in "Arthur"'s eyes as he remembers how "Their horses... Their horses were on fire!" matches up with Chris Franke's beautiful score to create one of these moments. Another was when Corwin gives Sheridan a status report towards the end of the battle in Severed Dreams, and says "It's a good thing this stopped when it did, we couldn't have taken... Oh no...!" as the new earth cruisers jump in. Then of course followed up immediately by Delenn's "loud and clear" moment of chewing some earth b*lls. Londo watching his people rambokill the narns with asteroids from orbit, G'Kar speaking at the council..

And the best part, you've got so many of them coming up. I believe all the characters have one or more of these in the remainder of the series. With a noteable "Zarg" exception, you're now in Arc country, buckle up for the ride!

Patrick said...

Keith - Yeah, the impression I got of the movies is that they're mostly just standalone tales. I was surprised to see that Crusade started right after the regular show ended, I'd have figured JMS would want a break after completing the main show. I'll probably watch it, but I'm going in with low expectations. What are you expecting for the new movie, is this the first return to the core B5 characters, or is it going to be just more wheel spinning in the universe?

I'd imagine if it was a five year arc, he'd have wrapped up everything essential, so there's no real need to tell more stories in the universe. But, how the show ends will make a big impact on what sort of stories are telling outside the main arc. I'll find soon enough.

JPekka - I figured there must have been some reference to what happened to the Narn, they probably didn't even realize something crucial was missing until the show had aired. But, I still feel like showing the end of that scene with Vir and Lydnisty would have been a better dramatic choice.

And I'd agree it makes sense for these people to be older. I wasn't criticizing it, it's just odd. On most shows, such as BSG or Buffy, you get the older mentor figure and then the majority of the characters are younger. Here, they're all in the middle.

With regard to the idea of "creating desire," I meant more that characters on most shows are frequently put in situations designed to show off their phyiscal assets, how many times has Apollo been shirtless on BSG, or Six for that matter. We don't see that kind of thing on here, and I think it's a strong indicator of JMS's different approach to TV. Battlestar tries to sell itself to the mainstream audience by promoting the hot cast and the character relationships, here, it's targetted at a more genre audience, who would appreciate the story and concepts. I don't think there's actually that huge a difference between BSG and Babylon 5 in terms of thematic content, but the presentation is radically different.

Havremunken - I've definitely had those Babylon 5 moments. For me, a lot of the Narn/Centauri War stuff was really affecting, 'Long Twilight Struggle' in particular had moments that were unlike anything I'd ever seen before.

And I'm really excited to see this next run of episodes, the picture of old Londo on the DVD menu for 'War Without End' has me very intrigued.

Anonymous said...

War Without End is possibly one of the most re-watchable moments in B5 history. Just astounding in scope. From this moment until the end of Season 4 is exhausting in terms of plot advancement. Enjoy!
Keith P

Angie said...

The show wraps up a lot of threads towards the end, but also creates new loose ones. While some criticize this as being unfair to the fans, I actually have come to like it as it makes the universe a lot more real for me. Something will always be forming up, that's just what life's like.

If our own history were a TV drama you could make a somewhat clean cut after the fall of the Soviet Union. But then someone would ask, now what? What's going to happen with the countries that were part of said Union? How will the US change as a result? ... You get my point. In a way, that's what B5's ending feels like for me.

Angie said...

(Continuing the post above. No, I don't know why I thought I was finished.)

Because of that "developing history", I think there will always be options for new stories in the B5-universe. Nevertheless, I'll probably continue to see the 5 seasons as the most important part, the "core" so to speak.

Patrick said...

Yeah, I feel like one of the main appeals of a TV show over a movie is the fact that the universe evolves and changes in the same way that things do in real life. A movie is one set story, we see it happen, a change may be made, but we only get a glimpse into the major events that can fit in two hours. TV can give you so much more of a characters' life, and it's fitting that the ending would only up more avenues.

B5 may be a bit more closed than some other shows, because it is planned as one story. But, then again, it may actually reduce the impulse for false closure, JMS clearly realized all aspects of this world, even ones we don't see delved into on the show. So, he'll always have more stuff to explore.

Reading the Lurker's Guide for 'Ship of Tears,' I saw that he has the whole story of G'Quon's first fight against the Shadows. So, even if the 'present' era of the show exhausts itself, he could delve back into the past and have many more potential stories.

Keith G said...

Because the universe is so well planned, I think there are infinite possibilities with regard to stories - just that JMS hasn't quite executed them so perfectly so far. I guess when they came out we were in the midst of the arc and it was hard to appreciate them.

There's a major event in the B5 universe that happens off screen between the 5-year-arc and the last episode, which would be great to see - and we would have seen in "Crusade" if that had kept going. We might see that happen in one of these anthology movies that he's making, which will focus on the major characters in the series - just at different points in their lives.

I do suggest you watch everything that's out there before the new movies air - because one of the characters in the new movie is from Crusade.

Patrick said...

I'll definitely see everything that's been made, though I'll go in with appropriately low expectations for most of the ancillary stuff. Just getting a glimpse of seventeen years hence in War Without End makes it clear that there's no easy wrapup after the five years of the series, and also that most of the characters are around to do stuff between the series and the seventeen year point.

Has he ever talked about doing something set in the time of the first Shadow War? With Sinclair now back there, there'd at least be one character to identify with. We know the basics of what happened, but there's plenty of background stories to be told.

manynote said...

One story outside the main arc that jms is clearly saving for a theatrical movie is known to fans as "The Telepath War". It's alluded to in Crusade, but he's clearly dancing around it until he can show it to us on the big screen.

Angie said...

From "jms speaks" in the Lurker to WWE II:

"I'd love to someday tell the story of Valen and Zathras in the most recent shadow war. It's quite a tale, actually...."

So, he has alluded to it, but my guess is, the quote is about as old as the episode itself.