Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Babylon 5: 4x10-4x13

This run of episodes suffers a bit from a lack of direction. The episodes immediately following the end of the Shadow War had momentum and novelty, as a new status quo was set up. However, as we move further away from the end of the war, the novelty wears off and the show floats a number of different directions in which things could go. There's a lot of narrative experimentation in these episodes, and I admire that, but rarely do all the elements come together for really strong episodes.

As in the earlier episodes of this season, there are a bunch of subplots snaking through each episode. I like that we're getting to see more of the universe, outside of the station, but I think splitting the characters all around makes the show lose focus a bit. In the aftermath of 'Z'Ha'Dum,' there was a lot of narrative energy and mystery uniting the events on Centauri with G'Kar's quest and the stuff on Babylon 5. AT this point, that urgency is lost, so each the subplots must carry their own weight, and make up for the fact that we're not getting as much character interaction.

While I do love the show, I think there's only a few characters who can carry their own subplots. Marcus's charisma is responsible for most of the appeal of the Mars stuff, but he's not on the same level as Londo or G'Kar, who are always able to command the screen. Delenn, while great with Sheridan and Babylon 5, can't make the Minbari intrigue work in the same way that the Centauri stuff did. It reminds me of the period in Claremont's X-Men run where everyone was splintered across the globe and we wound up with issues that just focused on Banshee and Forge. Those didn't quite work, and these episodes run into similar issues.

A large part of the problem is the lack of focus following the Shadow War. There's still a lot of interesting things going on, it's not so much a plot problem as it is a character problem. I feel like the characters were continually pushed and stretched by fighting the Shadows. In the latter half of this season, they seem to have neglected serious character development, only Garibaldi is getting really good material, the rest are just sort of there, doing their thing and not changing much.

I guess a major issue is that we've been conditioned to center around the station and its goals. We know the people there and support the mission. It's a lot tougher getting involved with the intrigue on Earth, where we don't know the players and have a more marginal understanding of what's happening. This is what stops the Marcus/Franklin mission from being totally interesting. I didn't really care that they succeeded because the place of this mission in the overall arc isn't quite clear. Babylon 5 is making allies to try and reclaim Earth, but this isn't a situation like 'Severed Dreams,' where the station's survival is at stake, it's less urgent.

There is an attempt to create urgency by discussing the goods shortages on the station, but we're just told about it, we don't see it. If we saw people starving and revolting against the shortages, it would hit home harder. As it is, we don't get any sense of whether ordinary people are suffering or it's just a theoretical problem.

I did like the interaction between Marcus, Franklin and Number One. Franklin once again woos an attractive woman, while Marcus remains awkwardly on the sidelines. He said that after the war was over he'd go after the woman he loves, Ivanova, but we haven't seen any progress there. That's the kind of character development that would fit nicely during this lull in events, but they've barely had a scene together in a long time.

The other really interesting thing on the Mars trip is the second appearance of a Keeper in the present. Presumably this is connected to the Drakh, and will play a larger role in future events. If Franklin has the Keeper, couldn't he have worked on developing a cure and got one to Londo before he died? Perhaps that's what Sheridan was down there seventeen years in the future. Not likely considering the way he was greeted, but it's possible. In general, I'd like to see further followup on Sheridan's trip to the future, has he even told Delenn about their son? Does he remember all of what happened? This remains unclear.

The Mars stuff had some good moments, but was ultimately hampered by the fact that they spent all their time in a warehouse. You don't get the sense of this as a radically different place and it wound up looking like a cheesy sci-fi show, not a real environment. But, that's a budget constraint, I'm not sure what would have been a better way to do the story.

Elsewhere, we get the appearance of the Drakh, who will presumably be the new enemy facing our heroes. They don't have the power of the Shadows, but will continue to be a menace for at least seventeen years. The voice of the Drakh we saw was a bit cheesy, but their ships were good and they have long term potential. The skull like mask face can't compete with the primal, terrifying image of the Shadows. While I may criticize some of the visual choices the show makes, the Shadows tapped into some kind of subconscious horror, and particularly in their early appearances were completely otherworldly and frightening.

I like the idea that there are echoes of Shadows in the world, that their disciples continue the battle even after the war is lost. Particularly when dealing with an area as vast as space, there's always going to be holdouts. But, the fact that this force is out there will inadvertantly lead to the strengthening of the Alliance, and perhaps ensure a stable, peaceful galaxy in the future. As 'Rumors, Bargains and Lies' makes clear, a common foe makes it a lot easier to negotiate internal matters, by keeping the Drakh around, Sheridan and Delenn may be able to control and maintain the alliance.

'Conflicts of Interest' intensifies Garibaldi's arc, as he does his first job for his new associates. I like the fact that they mixed up the status quo and made him independent. For one, it gives Zack some more to do, and some nice mentor/protege conflict. For Garibaldi, it returns to the troubles that were hinted at in the first season, forcing him to define himself outside of his job, to see if he can resist slipping back into old, destructive patterns.

This episode brings back a first season character I had forgotten about, Garibaldi's former fiancee, Lise Hampton. It's a nice callback, forcing him to reassess where his life has gone. The action stuff is fun, though I have to question JMS's obsession with bar fights. Has there been one bar scene in this show in which a fight did not break out? At the episode's finale, Garibaldi slips right back into Head of Security mode, but his relationship with the station establishment remains uneasy at best. It's tough to watch him delete the message from Lise, he seems to have given up hope of having a personal connection like that again. The episode's closing, where he gets a job offer from Elise's husband raises some interesting potential stories, and could put him in an intriugingly compromised position should Sheridan attempt to liberate Mars from Earth control.

This episode features a brief scene with Londo and G'Kar, who are sorely missed at this point in the series. I guess their stories are in a kind of lull, but with both essentially purposeless, the series is missing a major part of its appeal. I want to see Londo and Vir back together, scheming on Centauri, or Londo dealing with the new freedom of Narn. They haven't gotten anything major since 'Into the Fire,' and I think that's one of the major things pulling these episodes down. We also don't have any Lyta Alexander, who's got a bunch of interesting stuff going on with her.

The episode also introduces the new 'Voice of the Resistance' on Babylon 5. This is a smart move by Sheridan, countering ISN's propaganda with his own news. However, while interesting on an intellectual level, it's just not that riveting to watch. I did really enjoy Ivanova's trip to Epsilon to see Zathras, the other Zathras, but there just wasn't that much inherent conflict in the story.

I think the major issue is we've heard a lot about how bad Earth is, but we haven't seen as much of it. What made the Shadow threat so powerful and immediate was watching those ships decimate Narn vessels. Other than in 'Severed Dreams,' we never get that same immediacy with Earth. Plus, there's less complexity. With the Shadows, there was the whole Londo's betrayal thing wrapped up in the larger arc. Here, it's an easier good/bad dichotomy. The characters have an issue because they had prior loyalty to Earth, but I don't feel the same as a viewer. I have a lot of animosity towards ISN, but it's a different sort of feeling that I had towards the Shadows, an intellectual dislike rather than a gut level hate and fear.

The other major happening is the conflict on the Minbari homeworld. I never had the same interest in Minbari goings on that I did in the Centauri or Narn, so this conflict isn't of particular interest to me. The character who stands out here is Lennier, who is always sacrificing himself to help protect Delenn. She is the one with the vision, but he has the practical awareness to ensure she can bring her vision to fruition. Knowing that he loves her makes it even tougher when he sacrifices so much, but can never have her. That one line affects the perception of everything that he does.

So, this run of episodes has a bunch of issues, but it's still good viewing. I'm hoping that this lull will lead to a renewed conflict and some more character development and issues. The season's titular episode is coming up and those never disappoint.


manynote said...

Plenty of scenes in the Zocalo where no fights break out.

crossoverman said...

I think this lull in the arc just looks worse because it comes on the heels of the Shadow War. But exploring this new status quo is important for what comes later - particularly from "No Retreat, No Surrender" onward.

The return of Lise was a nice surprise and that's not the last we see of her, either.

Don't worry, Londo and G'Kar have strong stories coming up. Lyta as well. But most of the focus for the rest of Season Four is on Mars and Earth.

The season's titular episode is good, but it's easily eclipsed by a couple of episodes later in the season.

Patrick said...

Yeah, the lull reminds me of how the start of a Buffy season always felt a bit lackluster, coming after the heights of the previous season finale. And this was not only a season finale, it was the culmination of nearly three seasons of stuff. I'm going to watch a couple more tonight, see how things pick up.