Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Babylon 5: 'Secrets of the Soul' and 'Day of the Dead' (5x07 & 5x08)

So far, season five of Babylon 5 has harkened back to the tradition of season one, doing a bunch of standalone stories, without any sort of overarching narrative goal. The major difference is the complexity of the characters and situations. Even though the stories may be standalone, we don’t get any easy resolution. These two are both really strong episodes, though very different.

‘Secrets of the Soul’ at first seems like a fairly regular episode, continuing the telepath storyline, backed with a Franklin subplot. But as it went on, I realized that the episode featured only three of our regular cast members! I think this is the first episode since he arrived that didn’t feature Sheridan, and a very rare episode that didn’t feature Garibaldi. Odd, I’d imagine that bothered a lot of people, but I was thrilled to spend the hour with Byron and Lyta, and their ongoing intrigue.

But first, I’ll just say that the Franklin plot was right on the level of most of his standalones, not very good. I’m guessing it was meant to foreshadow what could happen with the conflict between telepaths and humans, but the makeup and acting on those aliens felt artificial, and I didn’t really care what was going on. It was about a season one level of quality.

However, I loved the developments on the Lyta side of things. Back in season four, she and Zack seemed to be building a connection, and it’s smart to use that as the background for their conflict over the telepaths. Zack is rather oblivious to Lyta’s changing priorities, still thinking that the station can use her for their own agenda. I really sympathize with her feeling of being used, she only appeared on the show when they needed her, but never seemed to really integrate into the inner circle. I’d imagine the experience with Talia made them reluctant to let a telepath in, and now that coldness has backfired.

The conflict between mundanes and the telepaths is a bit obvious, not really breaking new ground, but I think it works because of the tension it creates between Zack and Lyta. He clearly has some feelings for her, but unwittingly sends her off to Byron, where they have sex. I liked how she took control in the scene, just taking off the top to initiate the series’ first sex scene.

I was actually quite impressed by this sequence, it did a great job of telling the story visually. The cutting between the two of them together and Lyta’s mind created a seamless, building mood. The Vorlon experiment imagery is great, and it does a good job of tying this storyline to the series’ overarching mythology. I felt like we’d always sort of known that the Vorlons created telepaths, but this confirms it, and having that knowledge out there changes the way that Byron sees things.

The scenes where we see the other telepaths watching Lyta and Byron having sex give things a weird quality. We’ve already got the cult vibe going on, and this makes them seem even more odd. Of course, one could also read it as the telepaths unified on a deeper level than humans, less aware of the boundaries between them. I’d imagine a lot of this storyline came out of JMS’s time in a cult, which someone alluded to in the comments. Any further details on that?

The end of the episode shows Byron moving to a more aggressive stance, and I’m guessing the conflict will be escalating soon, and we’ll see the telepaths moving to a more obvious villain/threat role. I like the dynamic they have, and I don’t see them as villains. But, I also sympathized with Magneto, and I feel like it’s the same basic conflict here, between the status quo and the future. If I was an average person in the world, I wouldn’t want Byron around, but as a viewer, I find his vision of a new world just as compelling as Sheridan’s. The final speech raises parallels with many minorities, particularly the Jews and Israel, and we all know how stable that’s turned out. I’m expecting some major upheaval soon.

‘Day of the Dead’ flips the cast for a really great episode. I’ve been waiting for this one ever since I heard that Neil Gaiman wrote an episode. I loved Sandman and I was curious to see what he did with these characters. I’m not sure how much input JMS had, but this one felt totally organic to the world, drawing on a lot of deep continuity to create one of the most satisfying standalones in the series’ whole run. I’d guess Neil must have been a pretty big fan of the series to craft an episode like this.

The basic premise reminds me of Buffy’s ‘Conversations with Dead People,’ and this episode may have been an influence there. I loved getting to see some characters from the show’s past, particularly Morden. He was the series’ most charismatic individual villain, and now he’s tormenting Lennier even from beyond the grave. The scene where Lennier asks Delenn how her ‘partner’ is was extremely awkward, and Morden’s speech indicates that Lennier’s jealousy is going to lead him to do some bad things down the line. He certainly seems more aggressive, actively seeking out the dead for some reason. I suppose Delenn’s marriage pushed him over the line, destroying any illusion that he could be with her and sending him down a more violent path.

I like Londo getting the chance to see Adira one more time. After all he’s been through it’s nice for him to get one more moment of happiness, even though we’re painfully aware that it won’t last for long. By this point, Londo seems resigned to his fate, and will just enjoy the good things he encounters along the way.

I hope that they explore more of Lochley’s junkie past, mostly because it’s so different from where the character is at now. Everyone seems to have some issues in their backstory, but her’s sound pretty severe, and I’d imagine the weakness that first drove her to drugs could cause issues in her governance of Babylon 5. The best thing I can say about that story is that even though we’d never seen Zooey before, I still found her visit really interesting, and I wasn’t wishing that another character was in there. That said, I do feel like it was a huge missed opportunity not to have Sheridan visited by Anna.

In these sort of episodes, I always dislike when they try to get some plot tension in there. In Buffy’s ‘Restless,’ I just want to enjoy the dreams, not deal with the first slayer, and here I don’t really care about Garibaldi’s attempt to get in touch with the rest of the station. Though, I suppose you could read it as his attempt to avoid dealing with Dodger. That storyline was hurt by the fact that we don’t know where Garibaldi’s at with Lise. Are they still together, or have they broken up. If they’re still together, his reluctance is understandable, but as is, they just flirt and go nowhere, just like last time. But, we don’t know why he’s acting this way.

Elsewhere, we get a pretty fun story with Rebo and Zooty. The idea that they’re going to drop comedy and focus on politics could work as a jusitification for the show itself. Substitute comedy for sci-fi, and this could be JMS, claiming he’s making major points, but getting ignored because he’s working in sci-fi, not a traditional serious genre. Ultimately, I’d agree with Sheridan’s point that the reason we fight for freedom is so we can create art that brings us joy. The creation of fiction is a noble pursuit, and the work of someone like Jon Stewart is a testament to the fact that comedy can illuminate people as well.

Neil Gaiman did a great job with this episode, he has the style and voice of the show down, and does manage to get some of his own ideas in. The show doesn’t do too many formally experimental episodes, and I feel like this one works better than the two news episodes, though it’s not up to the level of ‘Deconstruction of Falling Stars.’ This is a brilliant conceit that allows us to go deeper with the characters, and at this point in the show, that’s really what we want. No plot is going to match the Shadow War, so the focus should be on continuing the characters’ journeys. That’s what season five has been about, and it’s the primary reason I’ve been enjoying it so much.


Colin Blair said...

Secrets of the Soul is in volume 12. Volume 10 is releasing today(3/8/07).

Angie said...

And, again, it would have been ever so great to have Ivanova in "Day of the Dead"...

Patrick said...

Yeah, it would have been great to have Marcus back. I was surprised he didn't make an appearance in the episode, this seemed like the perfect opportunity, but I guess he would have only fit with Lennier, and that wouldn't have raised the menace that Morden's appearance did. But, they could have been connected through their selfless love.

But, him and Ivanova reunited would have easily been the most powerful part of the episode.