Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Babylon 5: 5x16-5x18

Not since the final run of season four have I been as invested in the show as I was during these three standout episodes. The entire season, and for Londo, the entire series, was building to this, and for the most part, it did not disappoint. There have been better series, but I hesitate to think of another show with the scope of these galaxy-spanning wars that Babylon 5 does so well. Be it the Narn-Centauri conflict, the Shadow War or this war, JMS is always able to make the huge conflicts relevant on both a universal and personal level, and unlike a lot of writers, he is primarily interested in the devestation of war, in this show, a war isn’t won, it is stopped.

‘And All My Dreams Torn Asunder’ pretty much does what it title says, depicting the collapse of the alliance into jealousy and isolationism. The opening, with the Centauri government essentially on trial doesn’t totally work for me, I think that courtroom scenes in general are really hard to do, because they’re basically just people saying stuff we already know. The whole point of the scene is to build suspense for the verdict, but if that suspense comes at the expense of wasting time in the present, it’s not a good thing. I do like the intercutting of the testimonies with Londo and Vir in his quarters, but that’s not enough to sell it. Now, this might be a DVD viewing issue, if it had been a couple of weeks since I’d sent his stuff happen, a little catchup might have been nice.

Anyway, the wrap up of this was strong. The government tells Londo to keep the party line, and under the direction of the Regent, he breaks away from the Alliance, tearing dreams asunder in the process. My issue here is that it’s sort of unclear how much the Minister knows about what’s up with the Regent. He should know that it makes no sense to attack the other worlds, so why would he go along with the Regent’s odd plan? Now, maybe he’s someone like Refa who opposed collaboration and saw this as a way to return the Centauri to glory, but if that’s the case, then wouldn’t he take issue with the fact that their plan makes no sense and is just about causing random violence. Perhaps he too is controlled by the Drakh, we can’t be sure.

Throughout this run of episodes, it’s tough to watch the dichotomy between Londo’s public persona and his internal doubts. He doesn’t agree with what his government is doing, and is clearly very suspicious about the Regent’s condition, yet he still presents the party line when he speaks before the Council. One of my major issues with this arc was his refusal to reveal his doubts to Sheridan and Delenn. If he had said, I think something’s up down there, help me to find out, he might have saved the government, instead he refuses to give them anything, and winds up bringing the attacks down on his planet.

Now, one could argue that it was his pride that prevented him from doing this, his loyalty to the Centauri tradition. But, I felt like his whole arc over the course of the series was to move away from this outdated conception of national pride and embrace the possibilities of the Alliance. It’s frustrating that he won’t open up, and I think it’s meant to be, but my frustration stems as much from it being out of character as from what he’s actually doing.

Throughout the episodes, I get a sense of resignation from Londo, like he is just playing out a pre-determined destiny. This is most notable during the scenes on Centauri Prime. After first, he maintains his fire, refusing to abandon G’Kar, trying to get to the bottom of what’s going on. In prison, there’s the great scene where a sudden white light bursts onto the screen and Londo undergoes an alien abduction experience. This scene ties back to what we saw with the telepaths, apparently the alien creatures are the ones who do body modification for the Shadows. It’s all very Cronenberg, with nasty organic technology messing with Londo. Reading The Inivisibles concurrently, I’m struck by the way this alien abduction imagery was so culturally prominent in the late 90s. This is right out of The X-Files, and I haven’t seen similar stuff much in the 00s. I think 9/11 caused a major change in the conspiracy subculture, and led to the decline of this kind of imagery. But, that’s a topic for another post.

I’m assuming this experience actually did happen, and they performed some kind of memory wipe after so he wouldn’t know about it. Londo has proven to be a worthy vessel for the keeper, and his ascension to emperor is now guaranteed.

Concurrent with this, we’re witnessing the Alliance tearing itself apart as a result of the Centauri attacks. I like the fact that Sheridan’s control over the Alliance slipped because a lot of their earlier conflict seemed to resolve too easily. He would pull some kind of trick and they’d realize the error of their ways, then move on. Now things are more complex, the actions of the Centauri have tarnished the notion that the Alliance has the authority to oversee these worlds and create peace, which combined with Garibaldi’s failures leads to the Narn and Drazi attack on Centauri Prime.

Garibaldi’s arc continues its downward spiral here. I liked the scene with Zack, though I felt they were hitting it home a bit too hard with the series of shots framing Michael through a glass. Maybe if those shots were quicker, it would work, but by doing dramatic pans and holding on them for so long, they oversell the visual metaphor. By the end of this arc, Garibaldi seems to be doing okay, I’m assuming that his troubles are just on hold, there didn’t seem to be any turning point that would indicate he’s overcome his problems.

The end of ‘Movements of Fire and Shadow’ features a succession of cliffhangers that are just overwhelming. Looking on IMDB, I saw that there was a four month gap between this episode and the next, which must have been painful to wait through. I was planning on going to sleep after ‘Movements,’ but the end of the episode made that impossible. There’s a revisiting of the image from Londo’s dream, this time he watches the Narn and Centauri bombarding his homeworld, not the Shadows. That was intense, particularly coupled with the shots in space of the Narn and Centauri forces opening fire. Everything is spiraling into chaos and Sheridan is powerless to stop it, even more so because Delenn’s ship is missing.

And on top of that, we get the cool sequence with Lyta and Franklin’s mission to the Drazi homeworld. I’m a bit torn on this because it’s weird that Franklin should suddenly turn into an action hero, I don’t think people use casual violence as much as he does, either on Drazi, or when defending Vir on Babylon 5. What happened to first do no harm? But, the rest of the Drazi stuff was cool. I loved the sweaty, dirty vibe of the place, and particularly liked seeing Lyta put her powers to full use. The scene where they broadcast to Sheridan had a really weird power for me. The shots that just showed them were conventional, but the effect they did for showing them in the ship, with the static, made it seem like the most urgent transmission of all time. Excellent stuff.

The moment I was most invested in was that buildup. It’s not that ‘Fall of Centauri Prime’ wasn’t a great episode, it’s just that almost nothing could live up to that fear about not knowing what’s going to happen next. I was totally in the moment at the end, loving every plot and curious to see what happened next.

‘Fall of Centauri Prime’ reminds me of ‘Rising Star,’ both really powerful episodes that are centered around the denouement of a larger conflict. The best scene was the Londo/G’Kar farewell. I got the sense that this was the last we’d ever see of the real Londo, and weighing over it all was knowing that the next time they’d see each other would probably be when they met in ‘War Without End.’

The next scene suffered from the same issues I was mentioning before, the fact that Londo seemed to be acting to fulfill a destiny, or play out predetermined plot points. My basic issue is that it doesn’t make sense to me why Londo would choose to take the keeper. He knows that the Regent has acted in a way that has put the Alliance in jeopardy, and is also pretty crazy. The scenes between the two of them had a great sadness, and I would have thought that would motivate Londo to try to save himself rather than just submit to the plan.

Now, the attempt at motivation is provided by the Drakh planting fusion bombs on Centauri Prime. That’s a nice reversal of what Londo did, and a great way of showing how his initial mistake continues to haunt him. But, I can’t help but feel like Londo should have told G’Kar what was going on, and at least tried to resist the Keeper process. Obviously he’s risking billions of lives by doing that, but it’s the silence that bothers me. If the Alliance knew what was going on, maybe they could help him. The scene itself was well done, with Londo taking off the outfit he’s worn for the entire series, standing there in just a black shirt, preparing for the change.

It’s painful to watch the manipulated Londo addressing the city after being keepered. His speech is the exact opposite of the message that JMS is espousing with the series. Since the beginning, the goal has been to move beyond individual differences and work together to help bring about peace. Londo is saying that the Centauri must serve their own interests, and retreat from galactic politics. It is a a dangerous road to take, and a broken, burning homeworld is the final punishment for the crimes Londo committed.

I’m still a bit uncertain on what was the Keeper here and what was Londo. I’m guessing that the speech and his talk with Sheridan was all Keeper, but when with Vir, the old him seemed to come through. I suppose part of the Keeper arrangement might be that he can’t tell anyone about it, or it will cause him pain, but I’m still not quite satisfied with how that all played out. Perhaps something in the next couple of episodes will clarify things, we’ll see.

The montage of Londo’s good times had some powerful images, but felt a bit too melodramatic. I think it’s the kind of thing that would work much better on the original airing, I still remembered all these moments well, but if it had been five years since I’d seen them, it would likely have been more powerful. Still, I love the closing image of him alone on the throne, aware that his life is essentially over.

The final positive act that Londo makes on the galactic stage is saving Delenn. I enjoyed the scenes with her and Lennier in the wrecked plane, you got a strong sense of the desperation they were feeling, though I’d imagine Lennier is getting quite annoyed at constantly being in situations where he’s running out of air. The man should strap an oxygen tank to himself at all times.

I have some issues with the way the “I love you” sequence played out. For one, it reminded me a bit too much of the scene in Almost Famous, where the guy in the band declares he’s gay moments before the engine rights itself. But, that wasn’t the big issue. I felt things were going great, even quoting The Empire Strikes Back to add to the epicness. But then, Delenn does the same sort of nice, but actually hurtful act she pulled back in ‘Rising Star.’ Obviously something was said and she heard it, it’s out there and saying she didn’t catch what he said only made it feel like melodrama. The more mature thing to do would just be accept that certain things can never happen, feelings can never be acted upon, even if they are out there. With only four episodes left, I’m wondering if we’ll get to Lennier’s betrayal of the Rangers. What’s left to drive him to that point?

For that matter, what’s left for the series to cover? I’m guessing that Lyta and her telepath quest will be one of the issues, though it seems like too much to do in just four episodes, perhaps one of the future movies can focus on her. She’s easily the most interesting human character on the show, and I hope she continues to get good material as the show winds down.

I particularly liked her line about the Vorlon homeworld, and the fact that humans won’t be able to go there for a million years. That clarifies the end of ‘Deconstruction of Falling Stars,’ and reinforces the idea that by that point, humans have become what the Vorlons once were. And, there’s a nice connection between the telepaths, children of Vorlons, seeking a homeworld and the Drakh, children of Shadows, with the same quest.

What else have we got? There’s the restructuring of the Alliance, the resolution of Garibaldi’s alcoholism, further clarification on Londo’s situation and presumably the move of Sheridan and Delenn to Minbar. But, on this show, it could jump anywhere in time to provide closure.

I loved this run of episodes. It’s always good when you reach that place where you just need to watch the next one, and I got that here. It’s fascinating to watch all the pieces fall into place, and gradually bring us to the world we saw in ‘War Without End.’

And that brings me to my final question, when will Sheridan tell people what he saw during his time in the future. He has to tell Delenn at some point, but shouldn’t he at least consider the fact that Londo may be under the influence of the same thing he saw then? Does it take him seventeen years to go back and try to fix things down there? I really hope he brings that up, because it’s so critical to the viewer’s understanding of the series, it’s odd that the characters never mention it. Perhaps he’ll recount the tale at the end of the show, as a way of bringing that information back and resolving Londo’s story for viewers who didn’t see ‘War Without End.’

I could see myself finishing the series tonight, so look for a review of 5x19-5x21 soon, and then I’m assuming the final episode will be worthy of a standalone review. At least there’s these new movies coming out, that makes the end a little bit easier.


Angie said...

I just love the way everything's going to hell in these episodes. I love the way Sheridan stares at his shoe, I love Delenn's monologue about the flame of life and I love Sheridan's outburst in the Council. And, of course, Londo's goodbye to G'Kar...

The way Delenn deals with Lennier's feelings... I'm not sure, but I think I already mentioned it before: it's a very Minbari thing to do. She is trying to help him save face. It's frustrating to watch, I know, but I believe it's totally in character.

Colin Blair said...

Maybe it wasn't clear, I haven't rewatched the episode, but Londo was being monitored. He couldn't tell anyone without risking detonation. The more important point was that Londo was doing this to protect his own people, the Centari were too damaged to be any threat to the outside world. The Centari will spend the next 20 years or so cut off from the rest of the alliance. The hard part would be to keep the B5 equivalent of WWII from happening when they finally rebuild.

Patrick said...

Monitoring makes sense, it's just I feel like they should have shown him at least try to communicate his plight to the others, it plays on an intellectual level, but emotionally I would have liked to see the Drakh exercise their authority and show why he couldn't tell anyone. It gets back to the classic show, don't tell thing. If you tell us there's fusion bombs, we can understand it, but if we don't see them in action, it doesn't feel like a real threat.

The WWII parallels were definitely there, though I feel like Sheridan should have come up with some kind of Marshall Plan for the Centauri people, not gone with the WWI style make them pay. That would only increase resentment. I wonder what Vir did that ultimately brought some stability back?

As for the Delenn/Lennier scene, I suppose it is Minbari, but we've usually seen Delenn more sensitive to peoples' feelings. The scene is on the border, definitely frustrating, but for me equally because of the writing and the actions themselves.

Colin Blair said...

It isn't that Sheridan wouldn't think of a Marshall plan approach, the problem is that Londo would be forced to reject it. The Drakh want the Centauri isolated, that was the point of the regents secret attacks. They knew that the Centauri would suffer a crippling defeat at the hands of the alliance, that was the point.