Sunday, January 21, 2007

Babylon 5: 3x18-3x22

Season three comes to a close with the show on the verge of a new era in the Shadow War. For the first time, the antagonists' purpose is truly defined, and our heroes are scattered across the galaxy. It's a very strong final run, and opens up a lot of interesting possibilities for season four.

But first, there's a few more standalone episodes to deal with. 'Walkabout' has some good stuff, but nothing too spectacular. The most interesting stuff is the followup on Kosh's death. I'm not thrilled with the decision to bring in another Vorlon, particularly one named Kosh, because I think this could easily take away some of the impact of the original Kosh's death. But, so far, there seems to be a clear divide between the original Kosh and Kosh II. Later in the season, we see more evidence of original Kosh's connection to Sheridan, and his warnings linger on.

Elsewhere, Lyta Alexander returns and we get a demo of the telepath techniques used to combat the Shadows. The sequence is pretty exciting, though the telepath attacks sometimes come off as a bit goofy. It's not really the fault of the actress, it's just very difficult to convey mental action in a physical plane. Maybe there could have been some effects used to represent her subjective experience of events, so we get a better idea of what she's feeling.

The other issue I have with this sequence is that it's making the Shadows too vulnerable. Much like the evil rival team in every sports movie, we're at first led to believe the Shadows are completely invulnerable, but after some training, our heroes are now taking them out fairly easily. This bothered me at the time, but in retrospect, it appears to be preparation for the 'pause' in the war that occcurs at the end of the season. The Shadows could not remain invulnerable forever, they will have to change their tactics if they hope to win.

But, even with that issue, the moment where G'Kar and the League ships roar out of the hyperspace gate was pretty fantastic. It was great to see the Narns get some revenge on the Shadows after all they've been through.

Elsewhere, we return to Stephen and his quest for identity. The storyline with Cailyn was pretty close to the episode with the woman who was cryo froze back in season two, and even though I enjoyed the singing sequences, it wasn't anything too special. I think they acheived what they set out to do with the story, but it just wasn't particularly compelling. The problem is we don't know who Stephen is outside the lab, and neither does he. This episode doesn't tell us much we don't already know.

'Grey 17 is Missing' has a few good scenes, but also a plot that's straight out of the dark times of season one. The Grey 17 story was just nonsensical and despite some vaguely interesting themes, doesn't really go anywhere. I would guess they wanted to give Garibaldi a storyline on his own turf, outside of the Shadow War and the Captain's influence, but at this point in the overall story development, it's hard to care about some random stuff happening on the station.

Delenn getting promoted to Ranger One was a more interesting story, and I enjoyed the conflict between Marcus and Neroon. I also liked the followup on Sinclair, as she picks up his things, we get to bid him farewell one last time. The knowledge that Sinclair is Valen puts everything Neroon says in a different light, and I like that added meaning. But, ultimately, the episode doesn't do much of interest.

Next up is 'And the Rock Cried Out, No Hiding Place.' We begin with the ominous tagline Z-Minus 14 Days. It raises the stakes, making it clear that something major will happen at the end of the season. Having seen the last episode, I'm not actually sure what the countdown is referring to, it could be the pause in the war, or maybe the attack on Z'Ha'Dum, but regardless, the countdown isn't so much about the end result as it is about creating tension in the moment, a foreboding atmosphere that lends added importance to everything that happens.

The major thread here is the continuing story of Londo's rise to power. The Centauri Court is perpetually locked in rivalry, and in this episode, we see Londo defeat his primary rival, with the assistance of G'Kar. In the flash forwards in 'World Without End,' we saw Londo refer to G'Kar as 'old friend,' and willingly submitted to G'Kar to kill him. Ultimately, what the two of them have in common is an interest in accumulating power for themselves and their people. In this case, those interests overlap, the enemy of my enemy is my friend, so they form an alliance and take out Lord Refa.

I like the way things played out here. I was expecting the obvious G'Kar gets played storyline, or perhaps Londo and Refa's troops clash, allowing G'Kar to escape. Usually the big twist that appears without the viewer's knowledge bothers me, but it came organically out of the story here, and worked well with where we've seen these two developing as the season progressed. Londo gets the revenge he sought in 'Interludes and Examinations,' and G'Kar also gets revenge. G'Kar is more aware of the role he needs to play in the system, that's why he works with Londo here, whereas a year ago he never would have been willing to collaborate in this way. Ever since seeing the vision in 'Dust to Dust,' he knows that compromise and sacrifice are essential to helping his people move forward.

The intercutting of Refa's death and the Gospel song was a new stylistic choice for their series. It was jarring, and in that sense effective, though I'm not totally sold on it. It seems to minimize the potential emotional impact of the scene, turning it into something darkly comic. It certainlly works on some level, but I'm not sure if it was the best choice. It might have been more interesting to play some of G'Kar's potential guilt about killing this guy in cold blood. It might have been a justified reaction to what Refa did to the planet, but will it actually make things better? I guess he justifies it because of Londo's promise to release 2,000 Narns from imprisonment. In that regard, Refa's life is a very payable price.

Elsewhere, this episode shows Sheridan suffering under the stress of his role as commanding officer. The primary goal is to show that Sheridan needs to share his burden with someone, and that someone is Delenn. I think the show has done a good job of moving them slowly together, and this episode is critical in reinforcing the important role they play in each others' lives. The speech from the Minister might have been a little head on, but we are so immersed in Sheridan's subjectivity that we hear what he's saying apply it to Sheridan's own life. In the end, they kiss in front of a fleet of White Stars, a strong moment to close on.

Next up is 'Shadow Dancing,' an episode with one of the most impressive space battles the series has done to date. Before the battle proper, there's some fun bits with Ivanova and Marcus. Ivanova hasn't gotten much to do this season, and I'll still contend that one of the series' major flaws is the fact that the human characters just aren't that interesting. Ivanova has gone through some changes, but she gets nowhere near the quality of material that Londo or G'Kar do. Now, it's tough to compete with them regardless, because the actors are just so good, but I feel like one of the best things about Whedon's shows would be when he'd give the actors material to stretch with and they'd rise to the challenge. Who'd have thought Amy Acker could play a character like Illyria? Not I, but she could and I'm glad that Joss gave her the chance to do it.

Ivanova and Garibaldi get basically the same stuff to do every week, and any emotional troubles they do have are kept below the surface. That's one of the consequences of doing a story as big as the Shadow arc, personal drama needs to be on that same scale to compete. With this episode, we get the intercutting of Franklin's near death experience and the space battle. This is perhaps the biggest moment in Franklin's entire life to date, but it just can't compete with what was going on outside, and whenever they were on him, I wanted to go back to the space battle. I think it would have been smarter to put those scenes with Stephen in a less crowded episode so they could get the focus they deserve. They were good scenes, it's just they weren't in the league of the space battle.

I did enjoy the downtime scene with Marcus and Ivanova in the canted bed room. It seemed designed to deliberately echo the Sheridan/Delenn scene there earlier in the season, and I'm imagining these two will be getting the proverbial it on at some point next season. The Minbari translation stuff was the high point there, though I also liked the comedy schtick later in the scene. What made this scene work while the Franklin stuff felt extraneous was largely its position in the story. Here, their humor is in light of the overall forboding atmosphere, it contributes to the overall narrative rather than distracts from it, like the Franklin stuff did.

The battle itself is quite spectacular. There's some great camera move, particularly one huge pan shot. I loved seeing all the ships working together, that is the thematic essence of the series in action, disparate groups coming together to combat the darkness. Sheridan and Delenn have united them and that unity is enough to defeat the Shadows. This fight was a bit more even than the lopsided battle in 'Walkabout,' and that made it feel more like the victory was earned. I want to see the Alliance win, but that victory is meaningless if it doesn't feel earned.

Some of the shots in this sequence were Return of the Jedi level in their hundreds of ships buzzing through spaceness. I don't think any other work has ever topped that space battle, but this one does an admirable job of standing next to it.

The episode ends with a return to the scene from 'War Without End,' and the return of Sheridan's wife. Back in my review for Comes the Inquisitor, I said, "If this was a Joss Whedon show, they would be about to get together when Sheridan receives a call letting him know that his wife is still alive." And it happens pretty much like that. It may have been a predictable route, but in the world of B5, sometimes it's less about shocking the audience with the reveal than it is about shocking them with the context. This was such a good story, such a good moment, they couldn't pass it up. That must have been a long week between episodes back when the show first aired.

And so we move on to the end of 'Point of No Return,' 'Z'Ha'Dum.' After the massive battle in the last episode, we scale things back for a focus on personal conflict, with Sherian uneasy about Anna's return. My major issue with this episode is the disparity between what the characters, specifically Sinclair, know and what we the audience know. I think it's usually a cheap ploy to keep a character's intentions from the audience, ambiguity is great if it comes organically out of the story, but when they're clearly not showing us some critical scenes, like Garibaldi's checklist, it becomes an easy way to retroactively get out of a seemingly impossible situation. Now, part of it may just be the device working, it's supposed to make me want to know more, to know what Sheridan's doing on Z'Ha'Dum, but I think they went too far towards having Sheridan behave slightly cruelly towards Delenn when clearly he actually trusted and believed in her. That's the manipulation I take issue with, the deliberate distorting of a character's behavior to make us believe one thing before twisting another way.

Much like with Lyndisty back in 'Sic Transit Vir,' I like that the face of evil is a pleasant, seemingly harmless woman. Anna may have lost her personality, but she retains all the social niceties needed to ingratiate herself into Sheridan's company. The fact that her ruse fails indicates that the Shadows are missing knowledge of something fundamentally human, something that once taken away means that a person is irrevocably changed. On the station, she asks John to go with her to Z'Ha'Dum, and she makes it sound like a smart choice, something that's worth doing.

Sheridan ultimately decides to go, and here's where I run into some trouble. Sheridan says he is going because he thinks Delenn from the future tells him not to go, and he thinks by going, he can change everything and end the war now. But, if Delenn is telling him not to go, wouldn't that imply he did go and his going had some awful consequences? I think we're moving towards that future that he saw regardless of what he does now, because he has always done it. If all time exists, then the actions they take are the ones that will bring them to that point, seventeen years hence.

I love the scene where Delenn hears his message, he finally tells her he loves her, but he must put his duty above his personal attachments. Thus is the fate of many TV heroes, at least until their last episode. I like that Sheridan finally told Delenn at least some of what he saw in the future, I'd imagine there'll be a more in depth discussion down the line. I would guess he didn't tell her because he doesn't want to put pressure on her to fall in love with him like she was there,but I think that is something that will happen regardless. He must tell her eventually because in the future, she knows.

At the end of 'Shadow Dancing,' Sheridan analyzes the dream vision he received from Kosh. In it, he hears himself reference a man in the middle, when he finally goes to Z'Ha'Dum, he hears from a self described middle man, who at least reveals the Shadows' overall agenda. I love the scene where they're walking into the compound. There's certain things that just have an almost subconscious appeal for me, that resonate on some really deep level. This episode touched those places on multiple occasions. One of these is the journey deep into the enemy's compound. If I had to psychoanalyze myself, I'd say it comes from Star Wars, the idea of our hero going into the heart of the enemy's territory, just a lone figure to fight vast hordes. The corridor moment also recalls stuff from The X-Files and particularly The Invisibles, works that had a major impact. Does this sort of work tap into some essential mythic resonance that exists within all humans? I can't say for sure, but it certainly does for me.

The scene with the Shadows is a bit talky, but full of really interesting thematic stuff, information that totally changes our perception of the war and the reasons for it. The Vorlons and Shadows are locked in an age old battle for the lives of all peoples. The Vorlons are the agents of order, seeking peace and stability. The Shadows are agents of chaos, seeing to disrupt the system and bring about evolution through conflict. They are literally the force of natural selection, weeding out the weak races and enhancing the strength of those who are more powerful. When they aid the Centauri, they disrupt the balance of power, and create one ultra-powerful race out of the ashes of another.

Thematically, this ties in with the probe that visited the station some episodes ago. That probe sought to destroy any race evolved enough to answer its queries, and protect its place in the universe. The Shadows are 'above the game,' not concerned with any personal rivalries. Rather, they seek to elevate the strong and destroy the weak. To do so, means using weaker individuals as fuel for their organic technology.

I think the scene does a wonderful job of making you understand, and even sympathize with the Shadow viewpoint. Their points make some sense, and in their own way, they are trying to move the galaxy forward as much as the Vorlons are. Because the Vorlons no longer play by the rules of their arrangement, they feel justified in attacking and killing Kosh. In this universe, the Vorlons and Shadows are like Greek gods, locked in a perpetual conflict that echoes down onto the lives of all mortals.

The whole sequence reminded me a lot of The Invisibles, particularly my favorite arc in the whole series, Black Science II. There, Jack goes into the stronghold of the Archons, and is shown the nature of their worldview. In that series, The Invisibles are the force of chaos, disrupting existing social structures and forcing the population to evolve and change. There, the agents of stagnation are archons, who actually look a lot like the Shadows. They are the ones who seek to restrict humanity's access to higher levels of consciousness, to not let them see beyond their petty conflicts and view the whole picture of existence. So, the Shadows actually have a lot in common with the Archons, both seek to encourage in fighting to prevent the whole from uniting.

(An Archon)

What the Shadows feel, and what Jack ultimately realizes, is that this fighting is in some ways necessary. We cannot just be gifted a higher consciousness and expect to appreciate it. By giving telepaths to Earth, Vorlons accelerated evolution, humans did not earn those gifts. Shadows would claim that the telepathic gifts should only be held by those who are strongest, and in that society, the best would be unencumbered by poverty and weakness, able to ascend untethered by the weak. Their worldview echoes what Clarke and the Ministry of Peace were saying, that opportunity is available to everyone and those who don't take it deserve to be left behind and made obsolete.

In The Invisibles, we saw our heroes sacrificing some, claiming it was needed to help wake humanity up, but in the end, they realized that the two sides are the same, and it is the conflict between the impulses that helps move humanity forward. To surrender completely to chaos would mean total anarchy and free loss of life, but we cannot just be given aid, we have to earn it. The Vorlons could just go in and defeat the Shadows, but then their goals would not be acheived. If the goal is to move the worlds into a fully functional whole rather than a bunch of disparate parts, the struggle is an essential part of it. The Vorlons provide an aspirational model, and The Shadows a threat large enough to unite them. The fight exists to cement the alliances, and to ensure those alliances persist and the conflict does not come again. When the worlds again become splintered, the Shadows will return, they are a regulatory mechanism, a necessary counter against the complacency of the Vorlons. The two both must exist, the reason that bad things happen to us is to make us stronger. The Shadows are a virus on the worlds, and through battling that infection, the body ensures that it will not become diseased again.

Sheridan is not swayed by the Shadows' argument, and attacks them to escape. I love the moment when the Shadow comes into the room, but the high point of the episode, and perhaps the best scene in the whole series, is the sequence on the balcony. Here, Sheridan is given a hollow shell of the woman he once loved. However, he has come to terms with her loss, and has no desire to be with this false version of her. This sequence is another one that touches on something either mythical or just like Star Wars. The sequence is much like the confrontation between Luke and Darth Vader on Cloud City. Sheridan is battered, bloodied, pushed to the edge of a giant hole. He could make everything better if he'd just give in and join the dark side.

He refuses and Anna comes at him with the Shadows behind her. Then, we see the White Star cutting through the sky, burning with light. It's like a bird crashing down towards them, destruction imminent. Sheridan jumps, and then Anna stares up at it, illuminated with wind. I love that image, the whole moment is just incredible, the explosion, the fall. I can't really address any deeper meaning, I'll just say that it touched something deep. The show has such a massive scale, unlike pretty much any other work out there. A nuclear bomb tears a planet apart, the station is engulfed by Shadows, all is chaos across the universe.

As the season ends, G'Kar reflects on a pause in the war. The Shadows must take time to recharge their forces, and the Alliance grieves for its two losses. The season ending voiceover is a great note to go out on, and I'm curious to see what the next phase of the war looks like.

Season three was a fantastic piece of television. It took a while to meet the heights of the end of season two, but starting with 'Interludes and Examinations,' there was a killer run of episodes, and the season went out with a truly epic finale. While I still have some issues with stuff on an episodic basis, the overall narrative is fantastic, and truly developing in a way that no other series has before. That is the advantage of the five year plan.

And just to cap things, here's my five favorite episodes of the season.

1. War Without End II
2. Z'Ha'Dum
3. Interludes and Examinations
4. Shadow Dancing
5. War Without End I


Havremunken said...

Your top 5 list is good - personally, I would probably have pushed Severed Dreams up towards the top there, but this season has so much strong stuff in it that it's hard for all to agree.

The first time I saw Z'ha'dum, I was just floored. I didn't realize what he had asked Garibaldi for before Ivanova was informed that two of the devices were missing - and then from there on out, realizing he was going to sacrifice himself for the greater good, seeing Delenn break down, the White Star bringing death from above, Kosh's final message.. It is an extremely powerful ending to one of the two best seasons of TV ever (in my book, the other one being Babylon 5 season 4).

Also, I believe Sheridan *really* was mad at Delenn here. He didn't yell at her just to trick us viewers. He thought they had reached a point where they would be honest with each other, but you can see it, right there, in the open, in Interludes and Examinations, before Delenn suggests "giving them a victory"; At around the fifteen minute mark, Sheridan is stressing out about what the Shadows *want* - you can SEE that Delenn knows something she doesn't want to say. Sheridan sees it too, but he moves on.

And when he finds out she has been keeping stuff from him, he gets mad. Unlike G'Kar, who had to sit and listen to her talking about how they sacrificed his world for a secret, he couldn't keep his calm. He really was mad. But he still loved her. And you can see her pain over it all when she turns from his message to the camera and weeps at the end.

An amazing episode.

crossoverman said...

Now that you've seen Z'Ha'Dum...

The Shadow position now puts the Vorlons in a new light. They are diametrically opposing viewpoints, so they are both strong arguments, they are both flawed. And it makes clear the theme of order versus chaos - which has been there all along, but now it's made explicit.

G'Kar quoting G'Quon in the final voiceover is a beautiful, beautiful televisual moment. The image of Garibaldi's starfury inside the Shadow vessel, the image of the ships over the giant hole in Z'Ha'Dum... it's an incredible moment. As to is the moment where the White Star plunges into the city and Sheridan jumps - as you mentioned.

I've started watching Season Four again in preparation of your reviews, because it's been a while since I've seen it. The Season Four premier is easily the best of the series - and talk about dark! I think you'll also be impressed with the camera work and the effects more in Season Four - the whole show, as amazing as Season Three is, is kicked up a notch in Season Four.

As always, enjoy!

Angie said...

I also saw Sheridan as being really hurt in the scene with Delenn. Again, when you know where everything's going, you realize all those little things. Delenn could have brought the message home as early as In the Shadow of Z'ha'dum back in season 2, meaning she chose not to tell him for more than a year. I think he's got every reason to be mad there. (Btw. in the German dubbing Sheridan and Delenn still address each other formally during that scene, which makes it seem silly beyond anything you would want to imagine. But I digress...)

I also very much love Refa's ending. Londo thoroughly outsmarts him, I think the gospel's perfect and to top it all off G'Kar just walks away. He truly has changed a lot since the beginning of the show.

I also agree with havremunken - B5's season 3 and 4 are the best TV I've ever seen.

Patrick said...

Havremunken - Servered Dreams was probably 6 on my list. Just reading over some online reaction, I liked that run of episodes a bit less than the general online consesus on them. They were still very good, but, as I've mentioned in a bunch of reviews, I respond more to the stuff with the alien races than most of the human storylines.

And, thinking it over, I would agree that Sheridan really is mad at Delenn. I didn't take into account the time he took to think things over between their meeting and recording the message. By then, he recognized that she did what she thought was best and also realized how much he loved her.

And I didn't even realize the Garibaldi thing referred to the weapons. I still wouldn't be surprised to see some aspect of that plan involved in their rescue in season four, but I should have connected the secret mission with the nukes.

Keith - I have seen the season four premiere and I'd agree it's the best so far. It reminds me a bit of Bargaining from Buffy, with all the characters struggling to go on without the Captain, not ready to face that he's reallly gone. I'll write that one up once I see another episode or two. The credits alone made it clear that season four would be a big one.

crossoverman said...

Ah, yes, the credits for Season 4 are excellent. But the Season 5 credits are the best of the lot.

Yes, it's easily comparable to Bargaining - I suppose that's what happen when your main character jumps off a really high thing and falls to their death. (Speaking of which, notice the similarity in the names Z'Ha'Dum and the Bridge of Khazad-dum where Gandalf fell... Just sayin')

There's absolutely no pandering to a new audience in Season 4. If someone tried to jump on board here, they'd be totally lost!

Havremunken said...

I agree as well - the credits for season 4 are awesome. I also like the ones for S3, because I enjoy the music, but I would have to agree with crossoverman - season 5 blows it all out of the sea. It just puts everything into such a beautiful perspective. Powerful music, and image after image that just blasts you from the past.

I would say season 2 is the weakest intro, simply because season 1 is so "simple" - everything was simpler back then. Our heroes still did not know what was in store for them..

Oh well, there is no shortage of opinions on this subject either. :)

Patrick said...

I really liked the intensity of the season three credits, but the rush of different stuff, the different voices, disparate images, makes year four's my favorite so far.

I was actually really surprised when the credits changed so dramatically in season two. It's a great device to make the credits different for each season, setting the tone and also giving some foreshadowing. Hearing that this is the "last of the Babylon stations" has informed my viewing of the whole series, and makes the vision of the station exploding in 'Signs and Portents' seem like more than just a tease.

Havremunken said...

Funny you should mention that - it caused some debate a while back, actually, with the station exploding in Signs and Portents. We saw this moment again in World Without End part I when Sinclair thinks of his previous flash forward in time - he connects this with the Shadows invading Babylon 5 that he goes back in time to avoid (among a whole load of other things, of course). However - the visions he got while on Babylon 4 could be completely separate from the vision of B5 exploding that the centauri bug eye lady showed him. So was that part of the future he avoided, or something completely different?

What we do now know for sure is that B5 blowing up didn't occur in Sinclair's timeline - but then again, the centauri probably didn't care much about that, she just got overwhelmed by what she saw.

A minor thing, but, well, something to consider. :)