Sunday, February 11, 2007

Babylon 5: 'Moments of Transistion' and 'No Surrender, No Retreat' (4x14 & 4x15)

By the end of ‘No Surrender, No Retreat,’ the series’ new focus has become clear, the struggle to liberate Earth from Clarke. It’s something that’s been in the works for a long time and is now finally coming to the fore. As I’ve mentioned previously, I’m not as big a fan of this arc as I was of the Shadow War. I feel like the series was built with the Shadow War in mind, all the characters had a role to play, and it gave a focus and sweep to the series that eclipses nearly everything else ever put on TV. By limiting the focus to Earth, a lot of the characters become peripherally connected at best to the goings on, though there are attempts to counter that in this episode.

But first, there’s ‘Moments of Transition, the resolution of the Minbari civil war. The Minbari are the least interesting of the core alien races, primarily because Delenn is always presented as a noble character, while G’Kar and Londo have more ambiguous morality. I like Delenn when she’s with Sheridan, but on her own, there’s less tension, she’ll fight for the right thing, and presumably wind up winning. When we’re dealing with Londo or G’Kar, it’s a lot less certain that they’ll win, and the road to get there will be a lot more treacherous.

The moment I started to love the series was when Londo authorized Morden to go ahead and attack the Narn ships, knowing full well how many lives it would take. Here was a character we really liked, a seemingly goofy, nice guy, going in a horribly dark direction. It was unexpected and riveting to watch. Because he went to such a dark place, there’s always tension involved, you want him to do good, but are aware of his frequent moral failings.

That’s a dynamic that really appeals to me, be it with Spike or Magneto, the bad guy trying to find redemption is consistently compelling. It’s precisely because you’re not expecting them to do good that them doing good is so exciting. It’s the reason that people like Han Solo more than Luke Skywalker, there’s no tension in Luke doing good, but Han could go either way, and therefore, it’s much more satisfying when he does help. In most action pieces, the heroes going to win, so you have to build tension in different ways.

This is a long way of saying that the Delenn story isn’t that interesting because she’s a good person trying to do good against a foe we’re pretty sure she can beat. It’s not bad, it’s just not particularly noteworthy. The other major issue I had with this story was the ambiguous nature of the lightray thing. We’re told that it causes devastating pain, but we don’t see Delenn suffer, and that means we can’t appreciate the nature of her sacrifice. JMS can produce some moments that have startling emotional power on a grand scale, like Londo watching Narn being destroyed in ‘The Long Twilight Struggle,’ but when it’s individual pain, he seems to stumble. This scene is like the G’Kar whipping scene earlier this season, we’re told it’s an awful ordeal, but we don’t really see it, and that means we don’t feel it either.

The reformation of the Grey Council brings back the worker caste, who I had noticed were conspicuously missing, but I felt like it mlisstepped by having Delenn speak for them. That’s not the way to convey that they are now the ones with control. But, since she is the character we know, it makes sense. Having a random worker show up and talk wouldn’t have provided the needed resolution. Ultimately, this Minbari stuff just didn’t work that well for me, I admire JMS for mixing things up with this storyline, but not everything’s going to click.

However, this episode does feature the return of one of the more interesting, and recently neglected, characters, Lyta. Lyta and Garibaldi are the most interesting human characters because they’re the ones who don’t buy into the dream. Ivanova and Franklin have virtually vanished in season four, in weight, if not in screentime. Nothing they do has any individual power because they’re just working in service of Sheridan’s dream. He is the one with agency and they just act out his will.

Franklin already had his big arc, but I feel like Ivanova has never been fully explored. Perhaps if Talia hadn’t left the show, the relationship between them would have provided her with some interesting material, but as is, she basically just goes along, working and not changing in any major ways. There was the setup for a relationship between her and Marcus, but that’s apparently been shelved, or at least put on the very slow track to fruition.

Anyway, this particularly stands out next to the troubles that Garibaldi and Lyta are facing. In this episode, Lyta is confronted with the fact that she is running out of options, it’s impossible to function as a freelance telepath, and taking on work means sacrificing some of her freedom. She remains outside of the Babylon 5 upper echelon, and is the only one who seems to have a life outside of her work. She does stuff in her apartment other than sleep, has the time to cook meals and sometimes wants to just hang out with people. I’d imagine JMS was modeling the characters’ behavior on his own life, writing every single episode of the season would leave him little time for anything else, but sometimes you’ve got to give the characters downtime so we can learn more about them.

The scenes with Lyta and Zack in both this episode and in ‘Falling Towards Apotheosis,’ tell us more about her than ten action scenes will, and they also give Zack his greatest humanity. You can tell he wants to help her, to stay there with her, but his job pulls him away, it’s the curse of all the characters on the show.

The best evidence of how trapped they are in this mindset is the total surprise that everyone has when hearing that Garibaldi isn’t returning to his position. After devoting his whole life to the station, wouldn’t it make sense that he wants some time off, to make some money and perhaps rebuild a life for himself? Now, we’ve still got the issue of what exactly happened to Garibaldi when he was kidnapped. Was there some kind of brain alteration that makes him act this way, as Zack suspects, or is it just that going through that has given him some perspective and forced him to reassess his life. Bester seems very interested in what’s up with him, so I’d assume Psi Corps did something questionable to him. Either way, he’s got a lot of interesting stuff going on, and I’m curious to see where his arc goes.

The episode ends with a major “It’s on” moment, where Sheridan decides that Clarke has finally crossed the line, and must pay. This has been a long time coming, but I think it would have been more powerful if we’d been allowed to see the ship get destroyed in more detail, rather than just on video. Not to dwell on this again, but back with the Narn War, we saw the Shadows strike, and that gave us the understanding of just how important the war is. I still feel like Clarke has been more talked about as a threat than shown.

But, ‘No Surrender, No Retreat’ handles things much better, using a well executed action sequence to demonstrate the intellectual points JMS is trying to convey. He forces the characters to the point where they must choose between being loyal to Clarke or doing the right thing, the same conflict Sheridan faced back in ‘Point of No Return,’ and we get a realistic variety of answers to the issue. The effects here were fantastic and made for a really exciting battle sequence.

It did take me out of the story a bit to have Ken Jenkins aka Scrubs’ Dr. Kelso as commander of the ship. When a serious actor uses the same mannerisms in a comedic role, it can become tough to take him seriously again. Even though it’s probably got him more recognition than anything he’d done before, I think Scrubs ruined my ability to take Jenkins seriously as an actor.

But that doesn’t hurt the episode too much, and by the end we’re set up for the war against Earth. While this had previously been an isolated thing, here, Sheridan moves to bring the alien worlds in to aid him. This is a critical move, because it gives Babylon 5 a new purpose. The Shadows were an immediate threat that needed combating, the Earth government isn’t actively attacking others, but it endangers freedom throughout the galaxy. If Babylon 5 is to be a true force for change, it must stand against regimes like this and bring freedom back to Earth.

If we’re to use the parallel of Babylon 5 as the United Nations, this move would be indicative of the adoption of a new mission statement, rather than just being a reactive body that can moderate disputes, they’re moving to an active stance, trying to cut out potential troubles before they become major threats. Looking at the series in our post 9/11, George Bush led times, some things can feel a bit dated and naïve, but I think in general, the series is even richer and more relevant than it was in the 90s. Clarke is obviously quite similar to Bush, sacrificing liberty for security, and in the process losing both.

Yet, the mission that Sheridan is posing for Babylon 5 actually sounds a lot like Bush’s rhetoric, the idea of spreading freedom and democracy through preventative war. I think the United States/Babylon 5/The UN should try to be a force for good in the world/universe, and combating corrupt regimes is a part of that. The issue with Bush is that he uses this rhetoric to justify a war that merely enriches his corporate contributors and forwards a truly misguided neocon agenda. Sheridan is a more virtuous leader, and he wages a war that will help to liberate people. Sheridan is doing the kind of thing that Democrats in America should have been doing three or four years ago, but they were too cowardly to act. The idea that the government ceases to be legitimate when it violates its own law is critical, both Bush and Clarke have violated the law for too long, and at least in the B5verse, someone is doing something about it.

It’s actually hard for me to imagine watching the show in the pre-Bush times. The things that Clarke does must have seemed rather improbable, a clear exaggeration, and that probably made it less effective. There’s still an optimism in the show that you don’t see as much in post 9/11 works, like Battlestar Galactica, but maybe that optimism and agency is a good thing to try to recover.

Anyway, that stuff was good, but the real joy of the episode is the return of Londo and G’Kar to the fore. We even get to see Vir, who has been missing for a long time. He seems to have been worn down by both guilt about killing the emperor, and presumably his new role on Babylon 5. He can barely even get his hair styled when people show up to see him. It’s good to have him back, hopefully he’ll get some more to do in the future.

But the critical scene is Londo and G’Kar in G’Kar’s quarters. Londo has lost all his power in the relationship since freeing Narn, and he comes to G’Kar, pleading to be acknowledged. I think Londo has a much greater respect for G’Kar than he would publicly acknowledge, and it’s tough for him to be on the outs with him. Part of this is guilt from his deal with the Shadows, I think he feels that patching things up with G’Kar would go some way towards making up for all the lives his actions took. That is likely why he freed Narn in the first place, it was a step towards redemption.

In each of the titular episodes, Londo is presented with a critical moral choice, turning points in his arc. This is the first time that he actually makes the right choice, and tries to help someone other than himself. G’Kar won’t budge though, he was willing to work with Londo when it was necessary to help his people, but he is too proud to do so now. I think he feels a lot of shame that the only reason Narn is free is because Londo basically gave it to him.

The two of them are great here, as always. No one else in the cast can even come close to commanding the screen like either actor, and together they take things to a completely different level. I’ve gotten used to the acting on the show, but I generally still don’t love it. I feel like there’s a theatricality and distance from the reality of the story for most of the people here. However, Jurasik and Katsulas are completely in the moment, totally inhabiting these characters and that makes them utterly compelling to watch.

G’Kar eventually concedes and agrees to co-sign the treaty, but not on the same page. I like the callback to ‘The Coming of Shadows,’ the drink they had then a moment of supreme irony, knowing G’Kar’s naïve hope will soon be dashed. Now they’ve been through too much to have that same feeling, but there’s a sense of change, of old grudges being repaired, and a cautious thought that maybe things can get better.

So, with the Narn and Centauri behind him, Sheridan plans to go to war with Earth. The rebuilding of the multi-species fleet, to combat the xenophobic Earthers, fits perfectly with the show’s themes, the idea of expansive togetherness trumping old prejudices. We have seen Babylon 5 come together to defend the galaxy, now it will turn outwards and seek to make it better.


WARendfeld said...

I'm willing to argue with you on this one; Clark should not be taken as a symbol for Bush.

For all of his faults, Bush has not turned the US into a police state (as Clark did the EA). He didn't order massacres of his own people, he didn't limit freedom of the press, and he sure as hell hasn't made it look as if he's the best thing since buttered toast. Had he done so, I'd think there'd be open revolt.

Clark, meanwhile, got himself elected with the help of the Psi-Corps, engineered the assassination of his own President with the help of the Shadows, and has turned Earth into something that'd make Orwell rise from the grave and declare, "I was right, but you didn't listen!" He's every bit of every little penny-ante dictator and strong-man from Stalin and Hitler to McCarthy rolled into one, and it's incredibly satisfying to have a villain to have a villain like that every once in a while.

And as you'll see in coming episodes, Clark's not through yet.

Colin Blair said...

One of the planned center pieces of season 5 was Ivonova and there is a lot of build up and groundwork being done for that in these episodes but no real substance yet.

One of the reasons that season 5 wasn't as good as it could have been.

Colin Blair said...

When you watch the last few episodes of the season, you may have a question about Ivonova. Here is a recap of what the fanbase was going through at the time.:

Patrick said...

Clark obviously wasn't meant to be a comment on Bush, but I think there's a lot of similarity there, more than you're saying. Did Bush order massacres of his own people? No, but he did start a war that's led to over 3,000 American casualties and many thousands more Iraqi deaths. Plus, who knows how many innocent people he's hurt or killed at the various secret prisons he's got out there.

And, he may not have constitutionally limited freedom of the press, but he changed the dialogue in such a way that made it impossible for a balanced discourse. The buildup to the Iraq War was one of the most shameful moments in the history of American journalism, to the point where the New York Times literally apologized for their failure to investigate things. Bush lied to the press about the existence of weapons of mass destruction to put our country at war, and he went on to say "You're either with us or you're against us," opposition to the war is aid to the terrorists. This is exactly like what happened with Clark and the Nightwatch. At one point I think Sheridan even said you can be loyal to Earth without being loyal to the president, but Clark doesn't go along with this.

And has Bush made it look like he's the best thing since buttered toast? I think so, he's implied that he has been chosen by God to run the country. That is going pretty far.

Not to go too far into liberal conspiracy, but the circumstances of Bush's election were very questionable, he may not have killed his opponent, but he used a lot of morally objectionable tactics on the road to his election. Now, yes, he's not a dictator, and he's not out there regularly killing American civilians, but I think the situations are pretty close, it's just that there's no force outside of America, or within it, that will stand up and combat his lies.

And as for the idea of open revolt, I think Babylon 5 is correct in showing that the Earth/Mars population isn't aware of the full extent of what's going on. Most people just accepted the Bush lies, like the idea that Sadaam was connected to 9/11, and are unaware of just how much bad stuff he's done. It's starting to get out there now, but for a long time, people were trapped in his logic.