Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Babylon 5: 5x09-5x11

After thoroughly enjoying the buildup of the telepath arc, I ran into some issues with the way these three episodes wrapped it up, particularly the finale of ‘Phoenix Rising.’ But, there’s still interesting stuff going on, and on the fringes, the plot elements that will presumably dominate the rest of the season begin to develop.

The thing that appealed to me about the telepath arc was the way that Byron had built this entirely different community within the station, a world that was warm and connected, no matter what was going on outside around them. The others might have been suspicious about them, but that suspicion primarily came out of the fact that Byron was breaking out of the traditional paradigm for handling telepaths that was established by the Psi Corps, he wanted to create a world in which telepaths were normal, not an other.

Having seen the way that Talia and Lyta suffered over the course of the series, the appeal of this is clear. Why should they be forced to limit their potential achievement and keep humans from being uncomfortable. With Lyta in particular, this was the logical direction of her arc. She’d been doing basically the same thing for a season now, and this evolution was great.

However, things went awry when they became aggressive, and went after the Alliance. My issue with the way this plays out is that it doesn’t seem true to the character we’ve already seen. I suppose the revelation that the Vorlons were responsible for the creation of telepaths was supposed to provide the motivation for Byron demanding a homeworld, but it just doesn’t make that much sense. Telepaths may have been created to fight in the Shadow War, but only a few of them were actually involved. The vast majority of human telepaths wouldn’t have even learned about the war until it was over, and we have no indication that Byron himself was involved in the fighting.

I could understand why Byron would want a homeworld, but his actions just don’t match with what we’d seen of the character before. The shift from peaceful guy, just looking to protect his people, to manipulator of the Alliance is too abrupt. Again, you could argue that the capacity for manipulation was always present, but the whole arc hinges on us believing that he’d take any measures to get a homeworld, and that just doesn’t feel motivated.

My other major issue with the way the arc plays out is that the plot completely deprives our characters of agency. We know Byron and Lyta, and all they do is lock themselves in a room. Some random other telepaths go out and attack people, but there is no coordinated effort. I think it would have worked better if we had Byron create total chaos on the station by having the telepaths read everyone they encounter and put that information out across the station. They threaten to do it with the secrets of the Alliance members, but that threat is never paid off, rendering it essentially meaningless. The telepaths would have the capacity to bring the station to a halt, I don’t think locking themselves in a room is the best way to make a point.

Now, you could argue that Byron didn’t want to abuse his power and resort to thought violence, but that refusal winds up dragging the story to a halt. I would have had Byron declare Babylon 5 a telepath homeworld, and go full on with the telepathic powers. I don’t remember the exact rules of telepaths in this world, but I’m sure they have better attacks than hitting people with bars. Couldn’t they wipe minds and erase memories, or even give people different identities? That would really mess things up.

So, as things play out, Byron basically watches things fall around him, while the rest of the crew tries to clamp down on the chaos. However, lost in all this is Lyta, who is totally stripped of agency. I loved the beginning of the arc because it gave Lyta a power she never had, the power to choose the life that she wanted. But, once she’s made that choice, she winds up just standing near Byron, not doing anything. On one level, I have an issue with the woman character being made subservient to the man’s agenda, particularly considering she has more power than him. It could have been interesting to reverse traditional roles and have her physically protecting Byron, but we get none of that. She does nothing and at the end of the arc, she just walks away from him.

Again, you could make the argument that this was intentional, evidence that Lyta was being manipulated by Byron and lost her agency in the process. I suppose all my problems with the story could be equated to Byron’s personal flaws, that he doesn’t have the vision to really change things, instead choosing to retreat and just hope that someone acts for him.

Throughout, he has a desperate desire to martyr himself, and the logical ending to that is him committing suicide and going out in a mess of flames. However, the way that scene plays out, it seems completely arbitrary that he chooses to kill himself. You can’t do a dramatic suicide when there’s five minutes of buildup with him just standing there. Plus, there didn’t seem to be any particular reason for him to kill himself. He didn’t want to go back to the Psi Corps, but I didn’t understand what in particular drove him to kill himself. If the whole scene had played out faster, with more intensity, it might have given the sense that he had no choice. Alternatively, they could have had him kill himself to take out Bester and the Bloodhounds, thus creating a new paradigm for telepaths, free of their two greatest influences. But, it didn’t happen that way and I was left thinking that this finale must have looked better on paper than it did on screen.

On the periphery of these goings on, we got some interesting stuff. I liked seeing the scene from ‘Deconstruction of Falling Stars’ in context, though I’ve got to wonder if JMS was constrained in some way by having to match this episode to what we’d already seen. One thing that bothered me was the expositional recap at the start of each of these episodes, I guess the show didn’t do a ‘Previously on Babylon 5,’ but these just felt goofy.

The best moments of ‘Phoenix Rising’ focused on Garibaldi, and the lingering consequences of his ‘abduction’ experience. When talking about season four, I said I was annoyed by the reset button being hit on his character. I still think that’s true to some extent, all the character work done in the first chunk of the season was pretty much invalidated when the old him is brought back. It would have been a bolder call to have him actually betray Sheridan, just because he disagreed with the direction of his policy. However, if the reset button does have to be hit, I’m glad that there are consequences to that hitting.

The rage he feels towards Bester is great, and I love the fact that Bester placed an inhibitor on him, to avoid being the victim of revenge. However, such psychic deviousness from Bester only underscores how limited Byron and his crew were in their approach to getting a homeworld. The final scene shows Garibaldi falling off the wagon, a moment that sets up a bunch of potentially interesting stuff for him.

Elsewhere, we get the introduction of a new threat to shipping lines, which I’m assuming is the Drakh acting through the Centauri. So far, the Drakh are the only servants of the Shadows that we know are still around, so it would be logical to connect them to the keeper and the eventual captivity of Centauri Prime. It’s looking like these first few episodes are the highpoint for Londo and the Centauri, at least until the Vir regime begins. One issue I have with the Alliance scenes is that they always play like Sheridan and Delenn are parents, presiding over a bunch of squabbling children. It’s a bit condescending, particularly the way that they continually manipulate them. It’s usually towards good ends, but if you’re serious about this Alliance, maybe it’s best to be honest with the members. Of course, upfront honesty pretty much kills a surprise ending, so I don’t think that’s going to happen.

Over on Centauri, we get some good stuff with G’Kar in the palace. While I enjoyed the early comic stuff, I was left wondering why G’Kar wasn’t off helping to rebuild his homeworld. They tried to justify his bodyguard position by claiming that it would solidify the Alliance, but it winds up diminishing him a bit. I would have made a more explicit mention of the idea that G’Kar was there to try and ensure that old grudges don’t start again, working in a diplomatic role, not just muscle.

I was glad to see some of this addressed with the return of Na’Toth. Seeing her forces G’Kar to question his new role, and also puts Londo in an uncomfortable position, the sins of his past made manifest before him. This episode again revisits the imagery of one of the series’ best episodes, ‘The Long Twilight Struggle,’ in both the literal flashback and the scene at the end, with G’Kar and Londo looking out at space through a ship’s window. It’s such loaded imagery, the return still packs an emotional charge.

During the attempt on Londo’s life, he sees an alien create, who stops the knife in front of him. Things go weird, and I’m guessing this is the moment where the Keeper is implanted. It’s been such a journey for him, and it’s sad to see it end with him on a gradual descent into madness. Presumably, the Alliance will find out the Centauri are behind the shipping line attacks, and the Drakh will be pushed back onto their world. This will lead to a bunch of warfare, culminating in the world we saw during the future scenes in ‘War Without End.’

Seeing how the rest of the series has gone, I think those flash forward scenes were a brilliant choice. At this point, we’ve got a pretty peaceful status quo, and Londo seems to have been forgiven for all his crimes. However, I remember watching ‘The Long Twilight Struggle’ and thinking that he has to die, no character could be allowed to live after doing this. Even though he’s changed and grown, his old actions will catch up with him, and lead to his descent into madness and eventual death.

I’m curious to see where the series leaves off on his arc. I’m guessing we’ll see the start of his decline, and then be able to fill in the gaps ourselves. But, I would love to see a return to the time period of ‘War Without End,’ and perhaps find out what Sheridan and Delenn were doing there.

So, this run of episodes had some great moments, but I was ultimately let down by the end of the telepath arc. After setting up a morally ambiguous, complex situation, everything gets forced back into a good/evil paradigm, and the element that is other ultimately must be destroyed. But, we’ve got a bunch of interesting threads out there, and it should make for a strong closing run for the series. Only eleven episodes to go.


crossoverman said...

On my rewatch, I pretty much enjoyed the telepath stuff until these episodes - which felt really drawn out, because as you say, the characters lack agency. Lock themselves in a room and do nothing. I do like the little bit of power that Lyta gets by the end - and there's some lasting consequences to this, but it doesn't quite justify the arc as it played out.

The character of Byron annoyed me - though a cult figure and a cult ending in violence isn't exactly a new idea. Or done very well.

That said, the season basically picks up strength with the very next episode and the whole rest of the season is strong to very strong.

Colin Blair said...

Now that you have gotten through the telepath war, that is the part that was really missing Ivonova. To my analysis, all of the build up of Ivonova's background was all about this story. The story looses a lot because the only real link between the Byron/Lyta storyline and the rest of the station was the fact that Sheriden allowed them on board. It would have been a lot more interesting in the station commander (Ivonova) has a personal connection with the telepaths. The suicide of Byron also then works much better since JMS could have connected it to the sacrifice of Marcus.

Colin Blair said...

You won't have to guess when Londo's keeper is implanted.

Patrick said...

What would have Ivanova's role in the story be? Would she have been in Lyta's place? That would have been a logical place for her arc to go, connecting her relationship with Talia and her relationship with Marcus towards one logical end. But I'm not sure if even the connection with Marcus would have saved Byron's suicide as executed, it just had no urgent motivation behind it.

But, I'm glad to hear the season picks up from here, I'd imagine this last run will be watched pretty quickly.

Angie said...

Lyta's stroyline would have been split between her and Ivanova with Ivanova getting the romance part. Since I can't explain it any better than JMS anyway, I'll just quote him:

"It's no secret that I would've had Ivanova becoming somewhat linked to Byron romantically (she would see him as a character like Marcus, which is why there are certain similarities, and she would take a chance only to find it wrong this time, underlining that she'd missed her one major opportunity thus far for a good relationship). This was expressed to Claudia toward the last part of S4, so she knew at that time that her latent ability would be coming out, and that she'd have a big part in S5.

In this scenario, Lyta would have become a devoted follower of Byron's, much as she has, but it would have been more love from afar: protective, somewhat unrequited but hoping for that when he met his fate, Lyta would end up right where she is now, just by a different road."

I would so have love to see that.