Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Babylon 5: 4x05-4x08

Some major events happen in this run of episodes, most surprisingly the end of the Shadow War. I figured the war would run for the rest of the series, or at least until the end of this season, particularly with the added presence of the Vorlons. But, it's over and that makes me really curious about the future of the series. The opening run of the fourth season is one of the show's strongest, and 'Into the Fire' in particular is one of the series' best episodes.

But first is 'The Long Night.' On Babylon 5, things are basically moving forward to the big conflict next episode. But we get some major development down on Centauri. I've really enjoyed the palace intrigue plot, and think it's critical to giving a sense of forward momentum to the season. The stuff on Babylon 5 is good, but bleeds together. Partially because G'Kar and Londo are such interesting characters, the Centauri stuff feels even more important. I love the scene where G'Kar breaks free of the chains, all the rage he's accumulated over his life poured into this one moment.

The actual death of the Emperor was brilliantly executed. He's getting even more unstable, turns on Londo just in time for Vir to kill him. I read on the Lurker's Guide that this wasn't originally planned, but it's clearly a case where the story took control of things and moved them in a better direction. Vir's entire arc has been about moving from naivete and total pacifism towards a more machiavellian approach to political action. He is becoming like Londo, and now comes in to finish things where Londo could not. Considering we know he'll become Emperor, it also is foreshadowing of the kind of sacrifices he'll have to make as leader. It was a really dramatic, well executed scene.

Following this triumph for the Narn, the joy crashes down, with G'Kar watching his people begin to again perpetuate the cycle of violence. I like the fact that the show refuses to give us easy triumph, even for an episode. It's the same in 'Into the Fire,' JMS seems as much concerned with the aftermath of war as he is with the war itself. This is more realistic and makes it feel like a fully realized universe, not one just built for this story. Life continues, but G'Kar walks out, having already exhausted himself freeing his people.

Jumping ahead a bit, I was unnerved by the scene in 'Epiphanies' where G'Kar tells Londo he will have nothing to do with him from here on out. Even though Londo was acting in his own self interest, he did reach out to G'Kar and liberate Narn. I thought they'd have a mutual respect by this point. But, I suppose G'Kar still remembers the way he commanded the Shadow vessels to attack Narn, and those wounds do not heal so easily. It's frustrating for the audience because we've been trained to have a short memory, they're working together and things are cool now, right? Not so much, that was an alliance of convienence, it served its purpose and for G'Kar, it's now over. I'd assume G'Kar and Londo must have some kind of reconciliation before the seventeen years in the future stuff, once their interests are again in alignment.

Tracking back to 'Into the Fire,' we get some more great Centauri stuff. Morden, thankfully back in human form, returns. I'm not sure if JMS realized that it was a mistake to put Morden in that weird makeup, or if this was always the plan, but regardless it's a good choice. Londo finds out that Morden was the one responsible for killing Adira, a nice callback that prompts Londo to finally definitively break his alliance with the Shadows. I love the moment where he guns down Morden's Shadow bodyguards, that may be the most badass moment of the series to date.

But moments later he goes even badderass when he nukes an entire island just to destroy the Shadow vessels docked there. I know JMS is a big Alan Moore fan and that moment reminded me a lot of Adrian's "I did it thirty minutes ago" at the end of issue eleven. Rather than doing the typical struggle, we get a character who's one step ahead, and finally plays the ultimate player. Morden is dragged out, promising to exact revenge on the Centauri and when next we see him, it's Vir waving at his head on a pike. It's tough to lose Morden, but with the Shadows gone, it makes sense. There's further evidence of Vir's corruption here. I was expecting him to reconsider his happy wave when he actually saw Morden dead, but apparently not, he's thrilled to see the man dead. He's learned a lot from Londo.

I've been knocking intercutting a number of times in recent reviews, both for this show and for Battlestar Galactica, but the intercutting of the major space battle with the Centauri drama worked really well. The critical thing for intercutting is that the plot strands are equally interesting. I think the best intercutting is in Return of the Jedi, where all three phases of the battle are riveting, and each jump between scenarios amplifies the tension. Both segments here are playing out stuff that's been in the works since the beginning of the series, and I like the way they crossover, with the departure of the Vorlons from Centauri just in time. Because of the intercutting, that moment felt earned rather than a copout.

Things resolve with Londo and Vir hugging as equals. I really disliked Vir in his early appearances, but he's worked well here. He's grown up as the series has progressed and is now wearing hair as big as Londo's. Londo becomes Prime Minister and is presumably on the road to Emperor. Londo has acheived his goal, but finds that doing so just creates a whole new set of problems. Post 'Into the Fire,' that seems to be one of the major themes of the series.

The last I've seen of the Centauri is the Minister with a keeper on his neck. Following the departure of the Shadows, I was wondering who would be there to torment Centauri Prime. That's becoming clear, they're already exerting their influence. I love that JMS chose to show us that glimpse of the future, it's a different kind of tension as we watch things unfold, pieces fall into place to create the future we saw. We don't get the initial shock, rather it's a different kind of surprise, at how things happen rather than happens.

Back with the main crew, 'Into the Fire' marks the end of the series' primary structural thread, the war against the Shadows. I was really shocked to see just how much happened in this episode, particularly the ending. It's a bold, risky choice, but regardless of what happens after, it makes for one amazing episode. Things open with the crew gearing up for battle. I particularly like the scene with Ivanova and Lorien. Lorien says that humanity's greatest gift is the belief that there is such a thing as eternal love. JMS may sometimes go overboard on the philosophical monologues, but they are always interesting. I went back to rewatch this one after the episode finished, it's a really interesting point, and a great example of using genre conventions to discuss universal human truths from a different angle. You just don't see issues like this discussed on TV a lot, and it's refreshing to get that. I thought that the monologue would provide the impetus for Ivanova to finally make things happen with Marcus, but that will apparently have to wait for a little bit.

From there, we move to a dazzling space battle. I had watched a Battlestar earlier in the day, and these effects stood up pretty well next to it. There's a massive number of ships, and a really interesting environmental texture around them. To do this on a TV schedule in 1997 is phenomenal, this was a really epic space battle, with the music and visuals making for a great sequence.

Throughout the sequence, there's a continual focus on parent-child conflict. The battle is about the child races asserting their independence, showing that they can make it on their own, that the Vorlons and Shadows have become unnecessary. But, this is not something that's easy for the Vorlons and Shadows to accept, they have defined themselves in relation to their children, and cannot allow them to break free of their influence. They make it necessary to choose, when the only viable way to go is a third path, somewhere between control and chaos.

Fittingly, it's Sheridan and Delenn together who must strike the final blow. They are taken into a psychic dimension and given a final pitch from each race. Visually, I love the ice lady representing the Vorlons. It's something really unique and striking, moreso than the somewhat cliche, though still effective morphing Vorlon figure. I'm not sure exactly what happened to bring this scenario about, but it's a cool way to resolve things, very Morrison.

I've already mentioned the conflict's similarities to The Invisibles. That series was also about its characters moving beyond dualism and finding a third way, somewhere between total anarchy and total control. The people left behind in The Invisibles were the ones who clung to one side, like Sir Miles and Jolly Roger. There, the conflict was centered on evolution, moving beyond the restrictions of individuality and embracing the oneness of all humanity. In Babylon 5, we've already seen the individual races overcoming their differences and uniting to form the massive fleet. This fleet is a literal representative of oneness, a moving incarnation of the dream of Babylon 5. The other ships taking missile hits for the White Star is evidence of just how powerful this connection is.

The Vorlons and Shadows don't want humanity to evolve because that means they become superfluous. What good is manichean conflict in a world of infinite possibilities? Strict doctrine becomes restrictive and that's what the rejection is about. I love the way this ties into the series' central theme, the station's goal of uniting alien races across old boundaries. As episodes like 'Illusion of Truth' make clear, JMS is very concerned with our current political situation on Earth present day. The series is advocating a move beyond war mongering, embracing a more global planet, where conflict is resolved through discussion rather than violence. I'm not sure what his personal views are, but you could easily connect the victory they have here with the move towards the Supercontext in Morrison's work, the embrace of a collective rather than individual identity.

In the end, the Shadows and Vorlons have no choice but to leave. They are outdated and go with the first ones and Lorien out beyond the rim. There's a lot of Lord of the Rings similarities here, the idea of the ancient races moving on to inaugarate the third age of man. It's a powerful theme, and works well here. Plus, it pays off some concepts dropped in the first season's voiceover, that it was the dawn of the third age of man. We finally know what that means. What I'm still curious to find out about is why this was the last of the Babylon stations.

After the end of this episode, I was really curious about the new direction the series would take. It was a moment of happiness for everyone involved, a victory over the foe who's threatened them for the entire run of the show. So, I watched the next one, which gives us an idea of where things will go. As I was saying before, JMS's primary concern now seems to be showing us the part of the story we don't usually see. The movie ends here, with the Shadows defeated, our heroes celebrating and Delenn and Sheridan off to a happy, married future. But life doesn't end there, there's still a lot of mess, and issues to deal with. I'll have to see how things go because I'm still not sure it was smart to end the war with over a season and a half to go, but we'll see.

'Epiphanies,' also the title of an Angel, Battlestar Galactica and Spaced, brings us a new foe, Earth. They may have lost their Shadow allies, but that doesn't mean they're not ready to try and reclaim Babylon 5. I'd imagine they're threatened by this alliance and want to undermine its center. Bester gets some good stuff here, including some followup on the seemingly random appearance of his love last season. Judging from this and the next episode, that plot point is by no means done with. The actual events of the episode are mostly just wheel spinning, setting up the new status quo, but it's still fun to watch.

For the first time, we get to see Lyta Alexander outside of her professional role. She seems to be the only person on the station who actually has downtime, it's good to know someone does. I like her awkward meeting with Zack, and the way Sheridan's menacing confrontation with her at the end segues into his pizza offer. Clearly she's got some major power that we haven't seen yet, and I'd imagine it'll become an issue as things progress.

Another major development is Garibaldi's resignation. I'm now not sure whether he's been brainwashed as a sleeper agent, or is just unsatisfied with his role on the station. The dissatisfaction may have been exposed by whatever happened to him on the Psi Corps ship. I like that we get a dissenting voice, it's giving him the most interesting material he's ever had. I particularly like his interview in 'The Illusion of Truth,' where he makes some harsh, but true points about Sheridan's behavior. I'm not sure about the animosity between him and Sheridan, I thought they had got pretty close, but I guess there haven't really been that many scenes with the two of them together outside of work.

'The Illusion of Truth' is a bit heavyhanded, but very effective at showing the way the news can distort facts. It's surprising how prescient JMS is, all the things he's addressing here are things that the Bush administration has done. I'd imagine the episode actually works better today than when it aired. Back then, it was probably viewed as excessive and unrealistic, but not so much today. ISN is basically Fox News, a propaganda arm of the government, helping to enact their agenda.

I'm glad that the entire episode wasn't a news show, it was much more effective to see the actual events first, then watch how they're distorted by the news broadcast. EarthGov is waging a war on all fronts against Babylon 5, and with no opportunity to counter, this broadcast will likely shape public opinion of Babylon 5 on Earth.

Xenophobia is the critical structuring element for this broadcast. Dan Randall plays on the public's fear of alien races, presenting this false alien/human hybrid program on the station. It's hard to watch as he distorts the reality of Sheridan and Delenn's relationship, and insinuates that she is the first of a race of hybrids. That's the nastiest thing on there, and the first sign that there will be resistance to their relationship. I'm assuming that will become an even bigger issue as the season progresses. Their relationship, like the station itself, is a living embodiment of the characters' goals, to unite alien races in a peaceful, understanding way.

The one moment that strayed a bit too far into political commentary outside the series was the HUAC throwback. While I appreciate the point he was trying to make, it had little connection with the series as a whole, and that made it feel self indulgent. It wasn't a huge mistake, but I think the rest of the episode made the point well enough, we didn't need that scene.

But, on the whole it was pretty crushing to watch that news broadcast, and I like the odd fisheye final image. To go cliche, the silence was deafening. How will Sheridan and Delenn deal with this? How will the cryogenicallly frozen Shadow technology play into future plots, and will the Earth conflict continue for the rest of the series? I shall watch on and find out.

11 comments:

crossoverman said...

The end of the Shadow War is surprising, particularly the nature of the resolution. But the genius of that move can't be fully appreciated until later. Obviously there will be fall-out from the Shadow War. And we get to see how life goes on after the war - and how the more things change, the more they stay the same. The Keeper is only one obvious thing left over from the Second Age...

The parent/child theme is an interesting point of comparison between B5 and Galactica. On B5 we are supposed to relate to the younger races, whereas on Galactica, the younger race is actually the Cylons.

One thing to note about Season 4 - it was produced under the belief they weren't going to get a fifth year so some things are wrapped up a little more quickly than JMS would have otherwise. "Into the Fire" would have been two-parts, he's said - but that wouldn't have necessarily made it better.

But in the end, it isn't too rushed. Episode 4x18 would have originally been the fourth season finale. In a way, season four is strengthened by the fact that JMS cuts away all the fat - whereas the fifth season suffers a little from having less to do in its early episodes.

The series final episode was produced at the end of season four but held back once season five was announced and a new fourth season finale was produced to fill its place. But that's a little way off for you yet!

Patrick said...

On the parent/child thing, Galactica also uses historical ancestors as models for the contemporary characters. The idea of the thirteenth triibe fits in with a lot of JMS themes, and would probably work better in the B5 world than it does in the more realistic BSG world.

And then there is the interesting dilemma of the cylons being the younger race, trying to overthrow us. Is that the necessary path of evolution? I suppose you could also equate the Cylons with the Shadows, an unrelenting force out to disrupt the lives of our heroes.

When did they find out the show was picked up for another season, after the last episode was filmed? I'd imagine it would be tough for the actors to just jump into the last one then move back for present day stuff, but they already did it to some extent in War Without End.

Without going into spoilers, if 4x18 would have been the fourth season finale, and he wrote 4x19-4x22 assuming the show was over, where did the fifth season stuff come from? Was it additional material from the original plan, or all new stuff?

Jacob said...

Very thought-provoking stuff, Patrick, especially the definite commonalities between B5 and the Invisibles.

However, I do see some crucial differences. What I took away from the Invisibles was that, ultimately, all was one

under the Supercontext: both the College and the Outer Church were ultimately cooperating as midwives to the

evolution of consciousness.

Whereas I don't think JMS is having any of that. B5 shows the benefit of overcoming differences, but I don't think

it posits that the differences are a cosmic illusion - and sometimes they're in fact irreconcilable. What Sheridan

shows the Shadows and Vorlons isn't that their opposed philosophies are actually the same, but that, however noble

their purposes, their relentless pursuit of those goals has left both sides morally tainted and unfit to wield

authority.

B5 goes to pains to show us that no character is black or white, but I do think that we are meant to see certain

actions as definitely good or bad. JMS said that as an atheist he takes ethics and morality, if anything, more

seriously than the religious, because with no guarantee of an afterlife or Supercontext or whatever, all life is

infinitely precious and all evil and injustice is utterly abhorrent. And so in that context I don't think we're

meant to see anything at all sinister or compromised in Vir's reaction to the deserved fate of one of the few almost

unambiguously "bad" guys on the show.

(This speaks to me because, as a liberal, I've always felt that liberals need to reclaim their former position as the

champions of absolute morality: some things, like the exploitation of the weak by the strong, are just wrong.

Whereas conservatives are the slippery relativists who will tolerate any injustice if it either carries the weight of

tradition or is endorsed by those in authority.)

---

As for the season four/season five stuff, I really wouldn't pay it much heed. A lot of fans use it to try and justify why the fifth season was generally seen as a step down in quality from the fourth, the idea being that what we ended up seeing was not originally part of the plan. But as I'm sure you've seen, the plan was always a pretty fluid thing (as it would have to be, in this medium), and JMS had had to make fairly serious alterations before now. I attribute the problems with year five to more straightforward, prosaic reasons: the show moved from syndication to the TNT cable network and its already-miniscule budget and shooting schedule were trimmed, there was (keeping it vague) more backstage drama-ish stuff going on, and JMS was, I think, simply burned out...in fact, I don't think he's ever really recovered. Certainly his comics work, while varying in quality from pretty good to excruciating, has never really come close to B5 in terms of ambition or quality, and you'll catch him re-using a lot of themes, quotes, and even whole monologues (that thing about the word "selah" turns up in at least two more places).

Jacob said...

Wow, Blogger just raped my formatting. Sorry about that!

crossoverman said...

The major theme of Season 5 is Empire Building. I don't want to really say too much, but in a way it's an epilogue to everything that has gone before. It's not as strictly necessary as the stuff that has gone before - but I'm so glad we have it. I don't really want to say too much, though. I think JMS was smart enough to plan for the show's demise after season four.

I'm rewatching Season 5 again now and there is one plot arc that is stretched to its absolute limits - and I blame that on the fact that things that should have happened in early Season 5 happened in late Season 4.

The second half of Season 5 is as strong as anything that has come before. And there are elements that I appreciate more on the rewatch than I did first time out in the early episodes too.

Talk of backstage drama is over-emphasising things. But, again, don't want to say too much.

Anonymous said...

On "Empire Building" - that's certainly what JMS said, but I don't think it's the best summary of the Fifth Season's themes. It's about the aftermath of war, with one allegory directed at the difficult birth of the United Nations from the ruin of World War II, and another directed at the disposition of WMDs and former client states following the collapse of the USSR.

That isn't to forgive the first half of season five for being a tedious and overlong denoument. You'd think JMS could have come up with some new material to replace what he shunted into season four.

Anonymous said...

Now that you've come far enough and can get the B5 references to long monologues, if you haven't been to www.starwreck.com yet, you might enjoy the film. Get the full highres download. Funny stuff.

Patrick said...

Jacob - I'd agree that the major difference between B5 and The Invisibles is precisely what you said, that in B5 there is definitive good and definitive bad. The Shadow/Vorlon stuff messes with our conception of what was good and bad, but our heroes' morals aren't really challenged, at least not in the same way that King Mob has to confront the effects of what he was doing.

I wouldn't have guessed JMS was an atheist, there's a lot of focus on religion in the show, but I suppose he's interested in wanting to explore something he doesn't believe in, see what the appeal of it is for people.

And I'd agree with you that JMS provides a model for liberals in our world to reclaim their moral authority. Has he done any interviews talking about the show post Bush administration, I've mentioned it a bunch of times before, but it's scary how prescient it is.

Colin said...

JMS wasn't always an athiest, before he was an athiest he was a member of a weirdo christian cult. This of course was in the 60's. Details are in the B5 script books.

BTW: I would suggest you make arrangements to get Peter David's Legions of Fire trilogy. Those books are considered canon and are the detailed history of what happened to the Centauri after the events of the original series. The Psi-Corps and Technomages have their own canon trilogies by other authors. I really disllike the Technomage trilogy but the Psi-Corps books are interesting.

Patrick said...

A Christian cult? Weird, I just read the script book previews and it sounds like he had some crazy times.

And were those books supervised by JMS, or did he just approve them as canon for the universe? Weird that the Technomages would get their own trilogy, they've only appeared in one episode so far. But, it is a pretty cool idea, there's plenty of potential there.

crossoverman said...

The three trilogies - Centauri, Psi-Corps and Technomage - are strictly canon, based on detailed outlines by JMS. I haven't read any of them. The only B5 novel I've read is "To Dream in the City of Sorrows" - which covers Sinclair's time on Minbar between leaving B5 and travelling back there for "War Without End". Again, fully canon - based on an outline by JMS and written by his wife.

There's also three canon comics called "In Valen's Name".

As for the technomages, there is a technomage character in "Crusade" who is also returning in the short films JMS is making.