Thursday, January 25, 2007

Babylon 5: 4x01-4x04

After the events of Z'Ha'Dum, it was clear that things would be shaken up a bit. Sheridan was presumed dead, Garibaldi was missing, and the League was breaking up. However, all those changes pale in comparison to the paradigm shift in the series' cosmology that came out of Sheridan's meeting with the Shadows. Last time, I talked about the similarities to The Invisibles, how at first you're led to believe in a strict idea of good and bad, but as the series goes on, that manichean worldview breaks down, and the need for both authority and chaos becomes apparent. It looks like we're headed down the same path here, an unexpected, and quite satisfying twist.

But that's not the only major change for the series. When the show first started, it was almost exclusively standalone episodes, some hints about the future were dropped, but there was little direct connection between stories. By season three, things were fairly continuous, but there was generally still a clear divide between each episode. Season four, so far at least, has moved to a serial format, with little resolution at the end of each episode, and almost always ending on a cliffhanger. This sort of storytelling has a lot of merits, most notably the lack of fat, each piece of the episode contributes to the larger picture and we're not wasting time with new one week only characters. The issue with it is plots can bleed together and you get less satisfaction from each piece. That said, I think it was a smart choice, at this point, the vast majority of standalone stories are going to pale in comparison next to what the arc has to offer.

That means there'll be a slight change in review style. I'm going to go more from the overall arcs than focusing on individual episodes. As the series begins, we're in a situation much like what the Buffy crew faced in 'Bargaining.' Their leader is gone, and they're struggling to fight on without him. The status quo is majorly disrupted and routine places feel alien without our hero there. I think this show is even more dependent on Sheridan than Buffy the show was on Buffy the character. The Buffy supporting cast was so well developed, I wouldn't have minded seeing half a season without the title character. That's not true here, most of them need Sheridan around to bounce things off of, without him, they're too isolated. Particularly with Londo and G'Kar off station, the people left on Babylon 5 couldn't exactly carry the show. So, I was right with the characters in hoping that Sheridan would find a way to return.

Even though I don't talk that much about his performance, his absence makes it clear just how important Boxleitner has become to the show. He is the center around which everything else revolves, and the closer the peripheral people are to him, the better they usually are. When you get an episode like 'Grey 17,' where Garibaldi is off on its own, it's not particularly interesting, but when he's working with Sheridan, he's a lot better. Sheridan has great chemistry with everyone, and that makes his absence all the more noticable.

With Sheridan, Garibaldi and Londo off station, the show's scope has expanded beyond what we're used to. In season one, I don't think we ever saw anything outside Babylon 5, now the characters are spread across multiple planets in a galaxy spanning war. I think the show is hurt in some respects by the fact that they shoot everything on sets. Battlestar Galactica may have reused that same patch of woods a few too many times, but their alien worlds feel more believable and real, likely because they are real places. Particularly on the planet where G'Kar visits when searching for Garibaldi, it's pretty obvious they just built a set that looks like a cave. I don't get the sense of being on an alien world. Centauri Prime at least has those CG establishing shots, but then they move right onto sets. A better way to do it might be to shoot somewhere real and then build the CG off of the existing location, but I suppose the budget isn't there for that. I'd have loved to see Centauri Prime rendered with the same magnificence as Rome on the HBO show, but I believe the budget for one twelve episode season of that show is more than was Babylon 5's 110 episodes cost. They're working with what they have, but it can make things feel theatrical rather than realistic.

In that respect, Babylon 5 is like the Hollywood studio system while Battlestar Galactica is like the French New Wave. Disregarding narrative, that comparison is really fitting for nearly all aspects of production. Babylon 5 is focused on having the actors deliver the dialogue clearly, rarely indulging in excess naturalism or method style emotional acting. BSG is all about the mumbling, verite delivery, and the actors feel much more immersed in their roles. Similarly, B5 uses very classical cinematography and staging, while BSG is full of stumbling handheld. BSG gives the impression of catching this action as it unfolds, while B5 feels staged for the camera. Both are valid approaches, I prefer the look and feel of BSG, but a lot of what they're doing is only possible because of technical advances in the ten year gap between shows.

One of the major threads of the first couple of episodes is Sheridan's talks with Lorien on Z'Ha'Dum. The explanation, or lack thereof, for his ressurection at first felt pretty contrived. Obviously he was going to survive the fall, and no explanation is going to be really satisfying, but at least put in a bit of effort. However, in 'Apotheosis,' we do find out what happened, and it makes a lot of sense.

But, that doesn't excuse the excess of rambling monologues from Lorien. JMS loves the big monologue, but I think he went to the well once too often with Lorien. The big issues are great, but I felt like the theme was conveyed and the guy just kept on talking. Part of that might be my anticipation to see Sheridan get back to the station, but if you're going to do a story like this, you have to know your audience is just waiting for it to be over, and make it so good, they enjoy it in spite of that. There were some cool, strange things in there, a bit reminiscent of Mulder's cosmic resurection journey in 'The Blessing Way,' but things never went into really strange, trippy territory. Instead, Lorien talked.

That said, the buildup made Sheridan's return all the more awesome when it finally happened. When I saw that all the aliens were gathered together badmouthing the alliance, I knew he was going to show up for a dramatic entrance, but that only enhanced his walk up the stairs and re-emergence on Babylon 5. The music here was great, swirling, looping lines leading to a majestic crescendo when he and Delenn finally embrace. That was a great moment, and an echo of what we saw in 'Severed Dreams.' Delenn and Sheridan are the parents of this alliance, and only together can they keep it united.

In the next episode, we find out that Sheridan did die, but was gifted life by Lorien. However, he will die in twenty years. This leads me to assume the final episode will feature Sheridan's death. Considering we've already seen Londo and G'Kar's passing, perhaps they'll go Six Feet Under and show everyone's death. I still think it's a bit of a copout on the "If you go to Z'Ha'Dum, you will die," warning. That's like saying "Eat that apple and you will die...fifty years from now." Technically, I guess he did die in the present, and obviously Sheridan wasn't going to stay dead, but I figured JMS would be a bit less cheap than that. Originally I was expecting him to survive this trip to Z'Ha'Dum, but go there again in the future, and die then. Perhaps that will still happen.

The resolution of the Z'Ha'Dum business raises the question of why Delenn told him not to go to Z'Ha'Dum in the future. There's the obvious answer of he went through all that trauma and now only has twenty years, perhaps it wouldn't be like that if he didn't go. But, if he didn't go, wouldn't all time have been changed? Perhaps, he told her she said that, and as a result she repeated his message, completing the time loop and ensuring that the past remains the same. That would make sense, though he still hasn't told her the full extent of his vision of the future. I'd assume we'll see that scene eventually.

'Apotheosis' also brings us the engagement of Delenn and Sheridan. I think the two of them are great together and this is a good development for the characters. It was the absence that made it clear how much they love each other, and even though I was cracking on JMS's speeches earlier, Sheridan's words to Delenn there were quite nice. I'm still not clear on how common interspecies relations are in the B5verse. We saw G'Kar having sex with some human women earlier, but no mention other than that. Is it socially acceptable, and will someone at least mention their obvious differences upon hearing of Sheridan's engagement? Will there be a standalone episode in which a veteran of the Earth-Minbari War comes back to kill Sheridan upon fiinding out that he's marrying Delenn? If it was season one, I'm sure there would be, now I don't know.

While the Captain comes back in good spirits and full of life, Garibaldi is not looking so good. This plot is still unfolding, but apparently he's been programmed by the Psi Corps to serve as some kind of a sleeper agent. It's interesting that the Shadows picked him up and dropped off at whatever facility he was stationed at. We still don't know the full extent of Shadow involvement in the Earth government. However, now that we know the Shadows' agenda, their alliance makes more sense. They want to help the strongest survive and let the weak die off, exactly the same message the Ministry of Peace was pushing when they were on the station.

It's jarring to see Garibaldi's cynicism take on such a dark edge. I'm assuming this is a followup on the work they did with Talia, trying to get more information on the inner workings of the League. The question it raises is when will they figure out what's going on with him and how will they deprogram him without destroying his mind? The original Talia was completely lost, will Garibaldi have the same fate? I'd assume not, but it's possible. Perhaps Garibaldi will be the one to voice opposition to the Captain and Delenn.

Elsewhere, we get further development of Marcus and Ivanova. Like Sheridan and Delenn, they're spending a long time in the flirting stage, not quite making the jump to relationship. The scene between them on the White Star in 'The Summoning' was great. Other than Sheridan, Marcus is my favorite of the human characters, and I'm hoping he'll get more screentime as the scene goes on, and perhaps finally receive the deflowering he deserves. I'd imagine the slow development of these relationships must have been quite frustrating to viewers when the show was on, I feel like they're been dancing around this forever and I only saw his first appearance on the show a couple of weeks ago.

Another major thread is the series' first ongoing independent subplot, the drama in the court on Centauri Prime. It's a bold move to sever Londo from his ties on Babylon 5, but ever since the Shadows stuff began, he's been isolated from everyone anyway. Perhaps it's the Chris Claremont love coming out, but I always enjoy having these long running side subplots in addition to the main narrative. The Helo stuff in BSG season one was great, and this stuff is great too. They're clearly drawing from Roman history, from the architecture to the insane Emperor, and it works well. I particularly like seeing another piece of Londo's dream realized.

The Emperor stuff doesn't really take off until G'Kar gets there. I'm not quite sure G'Kar's relationship to Garibaldi was sufficiently close that he should go off looking for him, but that's basically the justification to get him out there and captured. Once on Centauri, we witness him go through a series of awful humiliations, all the while plotting with Londo take out the Emperor. I like the way these two have evolved into allies, not through a change in values, but rather through the realization that their ends have much in common. Londo has been mellowed by having all his dreams realized. The Narns have been conquered and it hasn't brought the Centauri back to glory, it's put a crazy man on the throne and placed the planet into even more danger, through the presence of Shadow ships.

I should backtrack to comment on Morden's change. While I don't have a big problem with him surviving the thermonuclear blast, he's such a great character, it's good to have him around, I'm not a fan of his new appearance. The whole point of the character was he was this regular guy who worked for a totally alien force. Now, he loses that ordinariness and becomes just another strange looking bad guy.

So, Londo, G'Kar and Vir plot to kill the Emperor. I think the scene with the jester hat was great, perfectly conveying both G'Kar's suffering and the Emperor's insanity. However, the electrowhip scene didn't work as well as was intended. Again, they draw on slavery imagery, and things were set for a great scene. But, the electrowhip effect was a bit cheesy and the sound effect didn't convey that much pain. I didn't really believe that fortieth lash would have killed him. However, the plot's thematic tie in to the idea of destroying Narn pride as the final barrier to total conquest works well. We've seen this before in the episode where the Vichy Narn official came to Babylon 5 and Londo said he still needed to be broken more. Here that pride becomes a liability and G'Kar must sacrifice it in order to save his people. He now runs into the question of whether he's losing something essentially Narn to save all of Narn. That ties in to his dream, something must be sacrificed to save the whole. And in addition to his pride, he's also losing his eye, another piece of the future vision falls into place.

The other major change is the paradigm shift for the Vorlons. Up to this season, we'd been led to believe the Vorlons were like benevolent parent figures for the younger races, helping out when needed, giving us that push we need to go our own way. Now, it turns out that they are just as unwavering as the Shadows, totally committed to their own way of doing things and out to destroy that which stands against them. At this point, the show has moved into the area of allegory, the story makes some sense literally, but a lot more sense if you view the Vorlons and Shadows as incarnation of two different worldviews. They are the extremes and humanity must find a way to work in the middle.

It's odd to see the characters fighting against the Vorlons. Kosh I had become a part of the team by the end, and 'Apotheosis' makes clear the difference between the new Kosh and the original. That blinded them to the overall Vorlon agenda, which is to wipe out the Shadows and anything contaminated by them. On the individual level, that leads to a nicely executed fight scene in which Kosh II is drawn out and killed by Kosh I and Lorien. On a larger scale, it forces the characters to interrogate their own relation to the overall war. Because both sides have become so extreme, the League has no choice but to wage a dual war. If they don't succeed in deterring the larger forces, they will become collateral damage.

I love the fact that the very nature of the war is radically changed at this point in the story. We'd been led to fear the Shadows for so long, having this new foe changes everything. It's still early in the development, but so far the fourth season has not gone at all the way I was expecting, and that's a good thing. I thought the Shadow speech in Z'Ha'Dum was about bringing layers to the villain, not completely changing the game. But, JMS kicked things up a notch and I admire that. The other seasons started slow, then got going around episode eight or nine. This one was going by episode three, that bodes well for the future.


Anonymous said...

I love Lorien. One of my favorite episodes of the whole series is 4x02...with the long metaphysical discussions.

Wait til you get to the mind-bending and (to me) thoroughly unexpected, intelligent, and lovely 4x06.


Keith G said...

I'm going to agree with KeithP's description of 4x06 and leave it at that.

I believe JMS said that he made 110 episodes of B5 for $90 million. I expect a season of Rome is probably $25-30 million - but still, that's a hell of a lot of money for 13 hours of television.

I love the Centauri subplot and how separate it is from the main story... but it's thematically important and will become part of the main narrative later.

Because the plot is so serial at the moment, it's hard for me to say much else. For now.

Keith G said...

One other thing - the inter-species relationship between Sheridan/Delenn is addressed and feeds one of the major themes of the second half of the season.

Angie said...

"In the next episode, we find out that Sheridan did die, but was gifted life by Lorien. However, he will die in twenty years. This leads me to assume the final episode will feature Sheridan's death."

Which is exactly why telling someone the last episode will be set 20 years in the future is indeed a spoiler. You're paying far too much attention for it not to be one.

And yes, season 4 does get up to speed right a way and is one hell of a ride as a whole.

Patrick said...

I'd imagine the Lorien metaphysical stuff plays better on the second viewing. I really liked the ideas, but was impatient to see the plot move forward. But, that's definitely an episode I'm going to revisit.

And, the figure I've heard for Rome is $100 million for the season, not sure if that's accurate or just PR hype, but I could believe it. Does anyone know how much a season of Battlestar costs, that'd probably be a closer approximation of what Babylon 5 could be if it was on today.

Keith G said...

You're right, it is $100 million.

I don't know why I said $25million - I think most hour shows these days cost $1million/episode.

Still $100m for 13 episodes is pretty damn high!

As for the final episode being set in the future... I think even during the first run, nobody was surprised that the final episode was set 20 years in the future. In fact, JMS was pretty open about that - at least during Season 4, when it looked like there wouldn't be a Season 5, so they shot the final episode early.

Starstuff said...

A great review and I enjoyed your perspective on these episodes.
I had to laugh when I saw you were reviewing 4x01 through 4x04 in a batch because I watched those four episodes in one run, I just couldn't stop.

There's just one thing I disagree on: In the beginning of your article you mention that before season four there were mainly stand-alone episodes, that were only loosely connected.
I have to disagree. There are so MANY subtle hints dropped and storylines are initiated that are picked up later on that a lot that happens from mid-season 2 on would not be fully understandable without watching the prior episodes.

That is actually what makes B5 so special to me: The arc that really begins with the first episode and ends with the last.
Watching the show for the first time I didn't really get it, it's just too much to take into at once. But I am on my third or fourth re-run and it becomes more and more obvious (reading JMS' script books as I watch is helping as well ;) ).

So, maybe when you watch the show once more, you will notice how many parts of the storyline are introduced gradually and subtly ... it's fun to see how it develops.

Cheers and thanks again for the great review.

Patrick said...

My reference to the serial nature of the plot isn't so much about continuity as it is about narrative structure. In season one, a lot of stuff did come back and factor in later episodes, but each episode had its own story. At this point in the show, that kind of disappeared and we got a longer, more sprawling story without clear episodic beginnings and ends.