Friday, January 19, 2007

Babylon 5: 'War Without End' (3x16 & 3x17)

Wow, this episode is labelled as a two parter, but in reality it's a three parter, only the first part aired back in season one. When I first saw Babylon Squared, I liked it, but not as much as some of the fans I've talked to did. On the first view, the episode is pretty confusing, filled with ambiguous dialogue and cryptic hints about the future. It's a tough viewing experience because you get no resolution at all, just more questions. But, having seen the resolution, I'm sure I'd appreciate the episode a lot more. It was amazing watching the pieces of this episode connect with that one, and by the end of this episode we've got a much fuller picture of the B5 universe, its past, its present and its future.

'War Without End: Part I' begins with the return of Sinclair, now hanging out on Minbar. I wasn't a huge fan of him during his time on the series, but seeing as how all the pieces fit together now, it seems like his less than stellar acting led to a fine conclusion. O'Hare's big issue was with doing more emotional work, here he's allowed to be a stoic, deified figure, and he does that well. He's better at cryptic mysticism than human emotion, and I was really pleased with the characters' development here. I wouldn't have minded seeing Sinclair show up more and help them out, but he's decisively gone by the end of the episode.

This pair of episodes was like nothing I've ever seen before on TV. The only comparable thing I can think of is a couple of issues of The Invisibles, one in which Robin spins through various time periods and also the last issue, where we flash back to a whole bunch of points in time, paying off various threads of the story. Babylon 5 and The Invisibles are the only two works that seem perfectly planned out, like the creator saw the entire story from the beginning and just had to take the time to play things out. There are references in the very beginning of each series that aren't understood until much later, and plot points span across time and space, gradually locking into place as things move forward.

I love experiencing a series where the creator knows everything about the universe because it gives meaning to every element. In a show like Lost or The X-Files, you're not sure what was a carefully considered choice and what was just tossed in to fill time. An episode like this makes it clear that JMS has a vast knowledge of his world, and that virtually everything in the series has had some larger purpose. Now, seeing the Soulhunter's words pay off here might not redeem the lameness of that episode on the whole, but at least it'll give me something to look for on the rewatch. And, I'd imagine it must be much cooler to watch Babylon Squared knowing what will follow in this episode.

That said,I'm left with some questions about the episode's place in the overall arc, in light of O'Hare's departure, and I'd love to hear if anyone's heard a JMS explanation, assuming it doesn't spoil future events. Was Sinclair always meant to go to the past and become Valen? It fits with these season one clips, but I'd have assumed that he would have been the one eventually getting into a relationship with Delenn had Sheridan not come along. The two of them were pretty close, right from the pilot, and it would have been a logical character path. And, if Sinclair was to remain in the present, what would they have done about his aged appearance when he takes off the suit? I'm always curious to hear about the road not taken, and I've heard one of the JMS script books includes a complete outline for the series if Sinclair had been the captain. I'll definitely want a look at that when I finish watching the show.

But, back to what actually happened. Part one raises the question of what's the actual future and what's just a possibility. The impression I got was that the message from Ivanova came from a possible future which will now not happen. But, if we're to assume that all time already exists, something that the rest of the episode supports, how could this alternate future exist? I suppose the temporal rift opens into a multiverse of possibilities, and this transmission came out because it was what they needed to hear to bring about the events that would occur later in the episode. Everything that happens in this episode was pre-ordained, because the moments already happened. It's not like they go back in time and alter the past, they were already there, they have already acted, and now they are just shifting their temporal perception from their bodies in the present to their bodies in the past.

That raises the question of whether the universe where Sheridan dies, Sinclair and Garibaldi fight together and Babylon 5 is destroyed exists. It clearly can't, but did it ever exist? Was that the future that was going to happen, or was it just a vision that they needed to receive in order to bring about the ends that needed to occur. That would make the most sense in the light of the rest of the episode, they were just shown what they needed to be shown. But, JMS does seem to open the possibility of a multitude of alternate universes existing. In that case, the vision of Sinclair and Garibaldi is a possible future, but won't happen in that exact way. I'll have to look back when I finish the series and ponder because right now I'm not sure how to reconcile the two glimpses of a possible universe with the rest of the show where we're shown a world where all time already exists.

The most interesting revelation out of part one is the fact that Babylon 4 went back in time to help defeat the Shadows in the original Shadow War. This fits well with what we've heard before, and brings the two eras even closer together. The knowledge of what defeated the Shadows the first time has already been critical in helping the fight against them this time, and I'm sure more revelations are yet to come. The Narn and Minbari were involved in this war, but we haven't heard anything about the Centauri. What were they up to at the time? I assume we'll find out eventually. One of the small touches I liked was the shot of Sinclair looking at Delenn and Sheridan holding hands, it was a really nice, well played visual moment.

While it is a strong episode, Part I is really just about teasing what will happen in Part II. When Zathras, nice to see him back, talked about the time stabilizers, I knew someone was going to get unstuck in time, and Sheridan's a good choice. Everything is swirling up to a head at the end of the first episode. The main crew boards Babylon 4, and Sheridan's off to the court of Centauri Prime, seventeen years in the future.

The looking out the window reminded me of a similar moment in a similarly insane trip through time episode, The X-Files' 'Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati.' There, the Smoking Man opened a window onto a world savaged by UFO attacks. Here, the imagery wasn't quite so powerful, I thought the place would be doing a bit worse, but it was still a strong moment. Even though I loved the two parter, I've got to say JMS again botched the cliffhanger moment. In both this episode and 'A Voice in the Wilderness' the final five minutes had a bunch of killer break points, but the episode actually ended at a seemingly random moment. I'd been obviously hooked by what had happened already, but it's always nice to show To Be Continued at the moment when you absolutely positively have to see more.

Luckily I'm watching the show on DVD, so the break is of little consequence. We move on to what I'd say is the show's best episode so far, one of the most complex things I've ever seen on television. It's a joy to watch the action on Babylon 4, seeing all the pieces fit together with what we'd already seen. It was pretty impressive that the scenes matched so seamlessly, there was occasionally a slight change in film grade, but considering this was two years later, it's a great match. Because we went on the first mission, we can play like the characters, and gradually become aware of the events that must be fulfilled to match what happened. This time, we see the meeting between Zathras and Sinclair from Zathras's perspective, finally understanding what he was talking about.

We also get a nice payoff on the spacesuited person mystery. I was very curious about what Sheridan and Delenn were doing on their journey through time. I thought that they had become extratemporal agents, moving all around, doing good on Babylon 4. Not so, they just happened to be there, helping the station fulfill its destiny. Sheridan may be on a mission outside time, but Delenn was not.

While the present stuff was fun, the greatest treat in this episode was the glimpse into the future on Centauri Prime. It's a bold choice to reveal so much of what will happen here, though it's more confirmation than actual revelation, since you could probably piece together most of this from what we've already seen. But, it's totally different to actually experience it. Because Delenn tells John he once told her that this happened, but she didn't believe him, that would imply that this is a future that actually happens.

That's one of the things that makes this two parter so special. Most shows would do an episode like this and have the character go off into a possible future, but in the end, it would be eradicated, think of something like X-Men's 'Days of Future Past.' Reading that, you never think that the characters will actually get to that world. Here, this is seventeen years in the future, it's what will happen, and for us, it's just a matter of finding out what events occur to bring the characters to this point. Most shows couldn't tell you where their characters would be one year from now, let alone seventeen, JMS's plan allows for some fantastic, unique storytelling here.

What we do find out is that the Alliance defeated the Shadows, but not entirely, and now the Shadows have turned on their former allies, the Centauri. Coming just one episode after Londo restarts his alliance with the Shadows, it's clear that Londo's actions will have horrible consequences. He will become Emperor, but literally lose himself in the process. I'm really curious to see how the 'Keeper' comes about. Are the Shadows completely in control of the Centauri court? That's the impression I got, which means that Londo is a prisoner in his place of power.

Now, the Keeper does absolve Londo some of the guilt for what happened. I think it works well as a reflection of his mutlifaceted personality. He can be kind and funny at times, but is also so cruel and vengeful. Now, the good Londo is split off from the bad, and it's the good who ultimately helps Sheridan and Delenn escape to a ship in the back.

After this, G'Kar emerges and we again see the scene glimpsed in Londo's dream, G'Kar strangling Londo and Londo fighting back. After watching 'Dust to Dust,' I pondered what could make G'Kar back into a vengeful person who would murder Londo. Well, it turns out that this was a mercy killing. With the good Londo slipping away, he sacrifices himself to his greatest enemy, and G'Kar's final act is to remove the evil Centauri Emperor and pave the way for Vir to take over. Vir doesn't seem too confident as he picks up the crown, and his country isn't in good condition, but perhaps he can do something with it.

Elsewhere, we get a whole bunch of revelations about Sheridan and Delenn. They apparently have a kid, David, and are still caught up battling the Shadows, despite winning a major victory against them years earlier. Their war left behind loose ends, and now they are again caught up in that fight. If I had to guess, I'd say we'll return to their journey on the ship before the series ends, and presumably some time after this, they defeat the Shadows for good, or at least send them back to the rim, to rebuild for another thousand years. And perhaps in our year 2993, we can pick up the story.

Delenn tells Sheridan not to go to Z'Ha'Dum, Kosh has previously told him that if he goes to Z'Ha'Dum he will die. But clearly he goes to Z'Ha'Dum and survives, because Delenn tells him to tell his past self not to go here. Knowing JMS, there must be some payoff on the death, my guess is the Shadow War ends when Sheridan goes to Z'Ha'Dum and destroys them once and for all, sacrificing himself in the process. Alternatively, he could go through a kind of symbolic death, but that doesn't seem like JMS's style.

The other intriguing scene is Delenn's brief flash forward. Her and Sheridan have apparently just slept together when she hears a woman's voice at the door. I'm guessing this is Sheridan's wife, it's not any of the women already on the show and she's the one who would be most likely to make Delenn drop the snowglobe. Plus, I've been predicting that his wife returns right after they sleep together for a while now, so I'm going to stick with that.

That covers the glimpses into the future, back in the present, we get Zathras telling Sinclair, Delenn and Sheridan their role as the three. What he's saying implies that there is an evolution of the soul from pure Minbari to Minbari/Human hybrid to just human. What I take this to mean is that the Minbari fought the first war, the second is being fought by Minbari and Humans together, and eventually the Minbari will follow the first ones into the beyond and humans will be left to rule things. The Minbari remind me of the elves from Lord of the Rings, and those books end with the elves sailing away, I feel like JMS is building up the same kind of thing. The age of man is in ascendence.

So, the main crew leaves, and Sinclair stays behind. Any show that gives you a 1,000 years in the past title is obviously working on a whole different level. The scene with Zathras and the Minbari is great, building up to the fantastic reveal of Sinclair flanked by two Vorlons. It's a powerful image, and also a great wrapup of the character's story. I had some issues with him, but it all worked out for the best. I love the fact that he is the one who builds up Minbari culture, and that their prophesy and lure actually derives from his knowledge of the future. This sort of cross time exchange is fascinating and few works have pulled it off. This episode certainly does, with the events of the past, present and future all clicking into focus here, forever changing the way we view the series, both what came before and what's still ahead.

It's a bold choice to give us this much information about the future. Some of the mystery is removed, but I think the tension is still there. We only know the fates of a few of the characters, and there's still a lot of mystery about what gets them there. I think we had to assume that Sheridan wouldn't die, and that Londo and G'Kar would, so that's not a huge shocker. But, this does radically alter our perception of Londo's vision. Will it change again before we reach that point in the story? I wouldn't be surprised if it does.

This episode is the best thing the show's ever done, and one of the most ambitious, complex, but well executed things I've ever seen on TV. Very few people are working on this level, as I said before, the only comprable thing is The Invisibles, and for me to compare a work to The Invisibles is the highest praise. I loved the glimpses of the future, I loved the connections with the past, and the present was exciting too. This is fantastic work.

7 comments:

manynote said...

Great episodes, huh? Your comments are, as always, very insightful. However, you did hit on one of my pet peeves: the Shadow wars have been going on for millions of years. The one that happened a thousand years ago is so far from being the "first" it's not even funny. Ask the folks on rec.arts.sf.tv.babylon5.moderated; I'm gigging people for this all the time. 8-)>

Keith G said...

I rewatched both episodes this afternoon in anticipation of your review. Every time I think that maybe "War Without End" isn't as good as I remember it, I watch it and am reminded how amazing it really is.

Now that you know about Sinclair/Valen, check out the moment that Kosh meets "Sinclair" in the pilot. (Who actually isn't Sinclair, but he thinks he is...) Listen to what he says.

Also, the revelation explains why Sinclair was so stoic and "talked like a Minbari" - because he is the Minbari, a great leader of Minbari.

The question of how the story would have played out is yet to be revealed, however. And - unfortunately - it will be revealed in the 15th book of the scripts series, which is only available if you purchase the other 14. Grrr.

It's hard to talk about what might have been without discussing what the series is now, though. And you need to finish the series before we can get into that. But it works so well now, I almost don't want to know - and think that it can't be as amazing as it is in the completed version. I tend to think that the explantion of the three "The Ones" was invented by JMS because of the cast change - under the supposition that Sinclair wouldn't have gone back in time until the final episode in the original plan. But as yet there's nothing to support that.

Knowing so much about the future now is actually a strength - because obviously there is still things to learn exactly (about the Keepers and Sheridan/Delenn and their son), but also the story of Londo is now basically one of a tragic fate that he cannot save himself from.

And that's all I'll say, because there's a couple more clues the show has already given you that don't quite make sense yet. The show is so hard to discuss while someone is watching it, but impossible to discuss once they've finished because there is so much to say.

So this is a good compromise.

The next couple of episodes are a mixed bag, then the following two work their way up to the best season finale the show has done so far.

Angie said...

I vividly remember watching WWE for the first time. After finishing the second part, I was just stunned. I think you won't find it hard to believe that season 1 is a totally different experience when you know where Sinclair's heading.

This also happens to be the last piece to the reasons of the Minbari surrender at the end of the E/M-war. In season 2 Lennier tells us Minbari souls were being reborn in humans, now it turns out it's just Sinclair's human DNA that makes them think so.

The scene where G'Kar kills Londo is one of the most effective examples of "context is everything" I've ever experienced. When I learned about Londo's dream back in season 1 I was actually a little disappointed because I was expecting character development and just couldn't fathom the idea that years later they'd still be on each other's throats. Well, context is everything.

Keith G said...

Angie, I believe there is one more piece of the puzzle to how and why the Minbari surrendered at the end of the Earth/Minbari war - specifically Delenn's role in it. But that appears in Season 4's "Atonement".

The G'Kar and Londo relationship still suffers a few ups and downs between now and when they kill each other as well. Which is great.

Colin Blair said...

Now you know why Ivonova was able to get the recording of the President's assasination through the Machine. It doesn't make much sense until you find out that the Machine's main job is to poke holes in time.

Angie said...

Ah, yes, you're right Keith. But it's really more about the how than the why then.

Patrick said...

So, Sinclair was always meant to become Valen then? That would make sense with season one, but would have changed a lot of things. Hopefully the stuff from that script book will make it online somewhere.

Though, you're probably right that it works better as it turned out to be than the original plan. Even though I've got a better idea of why Sinclair was the way he was, I still think Sheridan is a much more effective central figure.

And, the recording does make more sense now, though I still think it's a bit of a deus ex machina, almost literally. But, it didn't negatively affect the story in a major way, so I'll give it the pass.

Angie - I'd definitely agree about context on the Londo/G'Kar stuff. I was really surprised by how things went in WWE, and it's great that JMS can still do that after already showing us what would presumably be the biggest reveal, the fact that they do kill each other. I'm guessing some of the other stuff we see in the future will go through a similar reevaluation process down the line.

Keith - For me, Londo pretty much sealed his tragic fate in 'The Coming of Shadows.' After what he did there, and seeing the dream vision, I figured he had to die before the series was over. But, WWE would indicate he gets a slight redemption by allowing himself to be killed.

Considering this was seventeen years in the future, that would presumably mean that Londo could appear in the new DVD movie series. I'm not sure how the series proper ends for him, but I'd imagine there's still some interesting stories to tell with him.