Friday, February 23, 2007

Babylon 5: 5x03-5x06

So far, season five has consistently impressed me. While the show may lack the overarching focus that made the first four seasons so strong, that need to stick to the plan also meant the characters didn’t have much room to breathe. There was always a new threat to deal with, and after a while, that dehumanized everyone. But, now we’re getting insight into a different side of their lives and that’s fun to see.

On most great TV shows, the hook is the story, be it a family that runs a funeral home or a girl who slays vampires, but what really makes the show special is the characters. By the second season of Buffy, I didn’t particularly care about the everyday slaying of vampires, in fact I found the random action scenes distracted from the series’ real strength, which was its people. The reason shows like Lost and Heroes ultimately fail is that they are plot based, and eventually that gets tiresome. I have no desire to just hang out with Claire or Peter Petrelli in the same way that I would gladly watch Buffy and her crew sitting around doing nothing. One of the best episodes of the series, ‘Conversations with Dead People,’ was just talking and it was riveting.

The Babylon 5 people never hooked me in the same way that Buffy’s crew did. I’m a huge fan of Londo and G’Kar, and have had mixed reaction to the others along the way. But, I’m liking everybody more this season, the transition to the Alliance has created more distinct roles and viewpoints for the characters to take. I never found the Earth War as interesting as the Shadow War, so I’m happy to just have a season where there’s no massive events, it’s all about establishing a workable status quo to move the universe forward.

To that end, the threats are more of the powergrabbing variety, as in ‘The Paragon of Animals,’ and its focus on the Drazi alliance with the raiders. Here we see the way that greed will always remain and threaten the weak. The story itself is pretty solid, though it’s a bit obvious in the way that Sheridan and his circle teach a lesson to the other races.

Sheridan has a very different quality this season. No longer directly responsible for the welfare of the station, he feels more relaxed and human than he has been since season two. It’s refreshing to have scenes where he and Delenn are just being together, not directly involved in a major crisis.

‘Paragon’ also develops the telepath camp storyline, a storyline that’s rapidly becoming my favorite part of the show. Lyta is a character who’s always had a lot of potential, but she rarely got the narrative attention that she deserved. As Byron says, she’s been serving the mundanes, working for their agenda without any agency of her own. As many good shows will do, a deficiency with the writing is turned into a character trait, it’s not that Lyta didn’t get any good storylines, it’s that she has been unwilling to assert herself and find direction in her life.

A lot of this story reminds me of X-Men, right down to Byron talking about a world that hates and fears them. Byron takes the Magneto approach, saying that they shouldn’t dim their powers just to fit in with the mundanes, rather they should create a new society that will appreciate their talents. He’s a charismatic figure, and this message appeals to Lyta, particularly because Garibaldi is again seeking to use her for his own ends.

This story really takes off in ‘Strange Relations,’ where Lyta defies the Psi Corps, and shields the telepaths. The episode paves the way for the upcoming telepath war by showing us Byron as a divisive figure. The Psi Corps is all about making telepaths palatable to humans, keeping them under strict control and using their talents only in a regulated setting. It’s about turning them into weapons. Byron wants to move beyond that and create a world where their abilities can be fully integrated into ordinary life. In doing so, he would inevitably create a divide between telepaths and mundanes.

Lyta is caught between her loyalty to both Psi Corps and the people on Babylon 5 and her natural desire to belong. With Byron and his crew, she would find a togetherness and safety unlike anything she’s previously experienced. I love the scene at the end of the episode where they’re all singing and she lingers outside, then gets gradually drawn in, finally fully embracing the full potential of her identity as a telepath. This development works because it creates an interpersonal conflict that won’t be easy to resolve. We’ve already seen that the telepath colony was in retrospect considered the worst decision Sheridan ever made, and when it goes down, Lyta will be the one caught in the middle. I feel like this is the story they’ve been building to ever since we started to get details about what the Corps does back in season one.

Even as I loved the fact that Lyta was becoming a part of their group, there’s nothing like a bunch of people singing to make you think cult. Byron has created this cult around him, and I’m guessing that he’ll end up either getting killed or captured, prompting the riot we saw in ‘Falling Stars.’ This may also be the moment that unleashes all of Lyta’s power, sending her down the Dark Phoenix road. Byron kept referring to willows when speaking to her, reinforcing one character connection, and apparently there’s an upcoming episode called ‘Phoenix Rising.’

Side note, I know the Phoenix itself is a mythological entity, but did the story draw from any kind of myth, or was it a Claremont creation? The reason I ask is that I feel like it’s become a touchstone for a lot of works that followed, a new archetype to draw from. I suppose there’s always been stories about people being corrupted by power, but the specific way that Phoenix’s power is at first good, then becomes corrupt is a bit different, plus having a female protagonist separates it from something like Lord of the Rings. It may not be all new, but I would argue that the Phoenix saga synthesized a bunch of traditional elements into a new mythology that has gone on to influence many creators.

Tracking back, there was the fun standalone episode, ‘A View From the Galley.’ A bunch of this year’s episodes have been experimental in some way, and this one generally works, using the same basic idea as Buffy’s ‘The Zeppo,’ showing a typical huge conflict from the perspective of an ordinary guy. I suppose both episodes owe a debt to Rosencratnz and Guildenstern are Dead, something that’s reinforced when they meet up with Byron as he’s quoting Hamlet. I also got a C-3PO and R2-D2 vibe from the characters, particularly because of the tall/short combo.

The two of them may have been a bit excessive in their working classness, but I enjoyed spending the hour with them. It certainly worked better at making us care about the maintenance workings of the station than the similar ‘By Any Means Necessary’ in season one. There, I felt like they were doing a generic union story that just happened to take place on Babylon 5, here it was a story about Babylon 5 that just happened to star a couple of maintenance workers.

Seeing things through their eyes gave us a good sense of the way that the characters we know have been built into legends in the eyes of the ordinary folk. This is the beginning of the mythology that will persist 1,000 years into the future. My issue with this is that having these two guys profess their admiration for all the characters feels a bit self congratulatory at times. When the two of them talk about the power of Sheridan and Delenn’s love, it feels like JMS is talking about how great his writing was, to create that relationship. But, I suppose a scene like the one where Delenn smiles at them works better if we imagine her as a huge celebrity in this world, someone ordinary people would be in awe of meeting.

The best scenes of this episode were the scene where Bo and Mack get caught in the middle of a firefight, and then go to see Byron, who shows them what it would be like to be in the middle of the battle. This is an action that is analogous to what the show is doing for the audience, putting us in a different world, with higher stakes, making us wonder what we would do if we were in this position.

The other moment that bothered me was when he had the two of them accept Lochley. I found it odd that he would throw in a jab about Ivanova leaving for more money, from reading the online reaction at the time, I don’t think you’d want to bring that back up, particularly if your goal is to get the audience behind Lochley.

I’m actually going to come out in favor of Lochley. My major issue with Ivanova was that in the later years, she just became Sheridan’s echo. In the same way that Garibaldi’s dissent kept things interesting last year, Lochley’s outsider status raises tension within the station. You wouldn’t have a situation like the conflict with Psi Corps in ‘Relations’ if Ivanova was commander of the station.

I feel like having Lochley be Sheridan’s former wife is an unnecessary twist, the sort of cheap revelation that raises the stakes in their relationship without really earning it. It’s a suprising revelation, but it doesn’t really affect me because their relationship doesn’t seem particularly influenced by what they had. I don’t think I’d have any problem if they had just been in a relationship before, but having them married is the ultimate TV cliché to raise the stakes in a relationship. I also fear that it will pave the way for Lochley to become too friendly to Sheridan, removing tension from the station. I think JMS so firmly believes in Sheridan’s ideals, he’d be reluctant to have a character we’re meant to like who didn’t agree with him.

I’m still a bit frustrated by Garibaldi’s total return to Sheridan’s side. I think there should have been a deeper discussion of what went on between them. That said, I love his new incarnation as a Batman like detective. He has no scruples, doing whatever needs to be done to get the job done. The best moment for him is when he sees Bester and everything that happened comes rushing back.

‘Learning Curve’ was pretty much a dud. The story about the ranger was an example of a standalone that doesn’t work. I didn’t care much about the characters and the episode was too dependent on them. The storylines centered on the Minbari don’t usually work for me, and this was no exception. I think the makeup makes it tough to understand the characters. We can understand Lennier because he’s been around so long, but it’s tougher to understand these random new characters.

The stuff with Londo and G’Kar in these episodes was fun, particularly the revelation that G’Kar will be serving as Londo’s bodyguard. I’d imagine we’ll get some painful stuff later in the season, as Londo is gradually taken over by the keeper, and drifts away from his new friend. The downside of that plot is that it’s going to take the two best characters away from the station. Londo’s speech about leaving Babylon 5 is the start of what will presumably be a lot of introspection about the end of the station.

I’m really liking where the show is right now. The telepath colony plot is fantastic, and I’m eager to see Lyta go deeper into their world. Not every episode is working, but there’s enough good stuff here that I’m getting a strong feeling of forward momentum, only this time it’s more about character growth than narrative progression.


crossoverman said...

To the Minbari, three is sacred. Now we have met Sheridan's three wives: Anna (worker), Lochley (warrior) and Delenn (religious). JMS misses nothing!

I'm glad you are enjoying the telepath arc so far - it is this story and the character of Byron that most fans have difficulty with. In my recent rewatch, I actually enjoyed the story to about this point - but I think the next steps in the story and the resolution take too long to happen. I also don't like the character of Byron - though his being a cult leader, he's not meant to be likeable from an outsiders' perspective anyway. I can understand why Lyta would be drawn to him and the group, though.

I had a feeling you would enjoy the fact we are getting to know the characters and their day-to-day lives without an ongoing war arc being imposed on them.

The Phoenix Myth - although clearly the Dark Phoenix story is what is being referenced in Buffy, I tend to think in B5's case, JMS is looking at the Greek myth.

Anonymous said...

You certainly are more understanding of the telepath thread than most. It's taken me 3 series viewings to warm to the arc. Small nit: I wish that precedence reflected the shows original order. Buffy should remind you of similarities you saw in B5, not vice versa. I know you saw Buffy or the Xmen first, but still...

On that, obviously JMS borrows heavily, and 'gallery' does have reference in R2D2 and C3P0, but they were copies of Kurasawa characters.

You have at least one opportunity to work this. I'm not saying anything, but it's funny you should mention 'conversations with dead people', it reminds me of....

Patrick said...

I'm not sure what goes on with Lyta in the future, but considering the rest of the story, I'm guessing that JMS has read his X-Men, but the mythology's definitely in there too.

Byron's the kind of character I'm sure would be very annoying in real life, but is interesting to watch because of the way he takes the other characters out of their comfort zone. I think it's been helpful to watch the show without knowing the general opinion on various story elements. I would have never thought the telepath stuff would be hated on, though maybe the next few episodes will change my mind.

And Anonymous, I'd agree that I'm slighting this show by talking about it as if it was inspired by Buffy. Clearly that wasn't the case, but it's tough for me to adjust since, for me, Buffy came first. Does anyone know if Joss has seen Babylon 5? He usually talks about the stuff he likes and I don't remember him mentioning it.

And, X-Men did come first, they did the Dark Phoenix back in the 80s, so at least I'm chronologically correct there.

Angie said...

"Lochley’s outsider status raises tension within the station. You wouldn’t have a situation like the conflict with Psi Corps in ‘Relations’ if Ivanova was commander of the station."

You wouldn't? Just imagine how tense things would be if Ivanova was indeed forced to call in the Corps.

Patrick said...

I was referring more to the tension between Sheridan and Lochley over how to deal with the Corps presence, but Ivanova would have added a whole different layer. I'm not sure how she'd have reacted to Byron's presence, he's trying to liberate telepaths from the Psi Corps, but she'd also have huge issues with his liberal use of his power. And, after watching 5x07, I'm still baffled why people didn't like the telepath arc, I'm really enjoying it.