Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Babylon 5: In the Beginning

And so we return and begin again with the Babylon 5 prequel/sequel In the Beginning. As the reaction to the new Star Wars trilogy shows, it’s tricky to make a good prequel, how can you involve people in a story where they already know the outcome?

An ongoing TV series is different from a film in that the length of it allows you to make more realistic long term character development. A movie will generally focus on the most tumultuous period in a character’s life, and end with a return to normalcy, some kind of static status quo they’ve earned for enduring the tumult of the film. While a show may have an overall story arc, there’s always going to be periods of new drama, and moments of quiet. Those moments of quiet are really what separate an ongoing story from a film.

In a TV show, we generally start with the characters at a relatively uneventful place in their lives, and over the course of the series, they go through major changes. The problem with doing flashbacks to before the series is that there shouldn’t be too much of interest there, most of the important stuff should happen in the time that the series covers. That’s my major issue with Lost, if you’re stranded on a desert island, you’d think that would be the major trauma in your life, not some parent issues from years ago. It’s fine to do the occasional flashback, but it’s better to see your characters grow as the show moves forward.

Babylon 5 certainly does a lot of that, and considering how many episodes there were, I think it’s certainly interesting and worthwhile to take a look back on the events that led up to the world we saw at the beginning of the show. That’s what I was expecting from In the Beginning, what I wasn’t expecting was to get some followup on events near the end of the series’ chronology. What I really loved from this film was the framing device, which gave me a bit of the resolution I wanted for Londo’s story, but didn’t receive from the end of the series.

The most successful prequel of all time is Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, a film that hops through the series’ chronology to simultaneously illuminate the beginning of the series and give a sense of closure to the overall experience. In the Beginning functions in a similar way, with Londo reflecting on the events that led him to this moment when he knows he has to die. We’ve already seen most of his failures occur during the series, but he brings up one more here, and I’m guessing his logic is, if he hadn’t destroyed the Narn ship, the Earth/Minbari War would have ended, and he’d never have been put in the position where he could have met Mr. Morden and made his deal with the Shadows. In reality, I’d imagine the Morden meeting would be what he would reflect on at this point, but I’ll forgive it since that story hasn’t been told. And, he does elude to the Shadow meeting, so it’s still present in the story.

At one point, Londo says war isn’t glory, it’s death and pain, a summation of one of the series’ key themes. The series is concerned with destroying the mythology surrounding war. Sheridan isn’t a hero after destroying that Minbari ship, he’s a hero later on when he manages to bring the different races together and create a lasting alliance. JMS always focuses on the negative consequences of war, and in the series’ best moments, such as ‘The Long Twilight Struggle’ and ‘The Fall of Centauri Prime’ shows you the full extent of what war does to a people.

Here, we’re in an interesting moral place because we have attachment to both sides. During the series, we’re used to seeing the Minbari as a force for good, and even though the humans have some issues, this was pre Clarke, when there presumably a lawful government that was working for the peoples’ interest. Both sides are also presented with their flaws, there’s a lot of infighting going on with the Minbari, and they lack the vision required to take on the Shadows. Even though they are consistently presented as the most evolved race, both this and season four show that the caste system can easily fall into chaos without a war to center them.

It’s really interesting to watch this with the knowledge that Jeffery Sinclair is Valen. At the start, the Minbari have lost faith in the order that Valen has created, the society is reverting to the old ways, becoming more warlike. It takes the return of Valen to center them again and prepare them for the war against the Shadows. It’s particularly cool to think that Sinclair just made these prophesies as a result of hearing those prophesies that were already made. They were only created because they already existed, an interesting time travel paradox.

The further away I got from the first season, the fonder my memories of Sinclair. He got such a fantastic sendoff in ‘War Without End,’ I had almost forgotten just how bad an actor he was. But, seeing the season one footage, it all came back and I remembered why I was so happy he left. He did great as the season three Sinclair, but as a heroic captain, he just didn’t work.

I was impressed by the way they were able to incorporate that season one footage seamlessly into the new movie. There were no real issues, it all flowed together well and felt like one piece. We even got to see Michael York back, tying into that season three episode. This episode also gave us more context for the flashbacks we saw from Delenn in season four. Watching the episode that first time, I didn’t emotionally connect with just how grave an error she had made. We saw her going crazy, but we never saw just how many lives her actions cost. This movie made clear that she made a really major error with her decision to attack the human ship, almost as bad a choice as Londo did with Mr. Morden. I suppose what separates her from him is that she learned from her mistake and worked to correct it, but Londo got caught up in the spiral of his bad decision and never escaped from that.

That said, I think Delenn’s tantrum after Dukhat dies is Mira Furlan’s worst acting moment on the series. She goes so far over the top, even throwing in those weak punches on the guy next to her. It’s really out of character, and she winds up looking like a five year old, or just a bad actor. I think it might have been better to go for a quiet, burning rage. The scene as is definitely needed some more takes.

This episode seemed designed to blame everyone for the start of the Earth/Minbari War. Londo claims the blame, Delenn takes the blame, and we also see Sheridan refusing to go on the ship that would meet them, where he could have potentially stopped them from firing. It’s how they react after the mistake that defines the character.

I was really impressed by the makeup and hair work in this episode, everyone did seem much younger. It was crazy to jump from the old Londo to the really young guy meeting with the Earth officials. Sheridan seemed younger, and Ivanova looked younger too. I’m curious about the timing of this production, wouldn’t Claudia Christian have left the series by this point? If she was willing to come back for the movie, why didn’t they get her to do a cameo in the series? I would have loved to see her appear in even just one episode, letting the crew know what was up to her, and say why she decided not to return to Babylon 5, even if only to set up her return in ‘Sleeping in Light.’

The film’s strength and failures stem from its narrative structure. I liked the way we seamlessly moved between sides, picking up characters when they were important to the plot and letting them go when they were no longer needed. Because we already know what will happen to Franklin and Sheridan, we can stop in to see them do their mission, and then just let them drift out of the film. I loved the way we were made to sympathize with both sides in the war, and not given any easy answers about who was responsible. The Minbari wound up looking like villains, but that’s only because they were winning.

However, the jumping between narrative strands meant the film was lacking a strong present. It felt like I was being told a story, not experiencing it firsthand. And, I’m sort of torn the ‘continuity porn’ element of the film. Much like with the Star Wars prequels, it was great to see characters we knew, but it made it feel like a really small universe when G’Kar happens to be the one to go on a mission with Franklin and Sheridan. I suppose it’s necessary for this story, I’d rather have him there than some random other person, but it took away some of the expansiveness of the story. I suppose that’s one of the basic problems with prequels, particularly when you’re telling the story of a universe rather than one person. Fire Walk With Me, as originally envisioned, would have suffered from the same issues, jumping to random scenes of the various townsfolk. Though I’d still love to see the deleted scenes, I’m happy they weren’t in the film, and we instead got to focus on the story of Laura.

That’s not to say it was an emotionless film. The final section, where Londo describes the humans’ final stand against the Minbari, was very powerful. I was feeling a Battlestar Galactica vibe when the president talked about fleeing the planet and setting out to start a new civilization. I really understood what the Battle of the Line was, and just how remarkable it was for the Minbari to surrender there. That brought a lot of things together, and I’d imagine makes the first season a lot more emotionally relatable. In that case, watching this film means that we experienced the moment of the war, and can understand Sinclair’s struggle in a new way.

But, for all that, it was the framing device that really got me, particularly the closing revelation that this is what happened right before Londo met with Sheridan and Delenn at the end of ‘War Without End.’ It makes sense that he would look back on his life after meeting his friends again for presumably the first time since ‘Objects at Rest.’ Jurasik is so good here, making us understand exactly where the character is emotionally. His agedness is particularly evident in contrast to the enthusiasm of the kids. He used to be like them, now he’s worn down, forced to rely on getting drunk as the only way to overcome the keeper. He sees Sheridan and Delenn together in the cell, and knows that he did not spoil the chance for human/Minbari peace, and in letting them go now, he can maybe help set things right. That closing pullout is a great moment, we know what’s coming next, but are given a better understanding of who the character is at that point in time. I would have loved to see old G’Kar come out there and get a better context for where the two of them are at this point, but I guess we’ll never see that piece of the scene now.

I thoroughly enjoyed this film. The past stuff was really solid, and I was particularly happy with the bonus of more old Londo. That scene gave me what the end of the series didn’t. Even though I’ve still got four movies and Crusade to go, this felt like a strong point of closure for the series, bringing it backwards to go forward.

One side note, seeing old Londo again made me hope that we get to see a Lost Tales movie focusing on the character. He’s consistently been the most compelling on the series, and I’m sure there’s another story about his life in there, perhaps a split story of him and Vir. The other lost tale I’d really like to see is one about the latter days of Valen. Even though I’m not a huge O’Hare fan, the first Shadow War would offer the most exciting material to center a movie around. Other than that, I’d really like to see one focusing on what happens to Lyta Alexander after the end of the series.

Well, that was a great movie, now it’s on to ‘Thirdspace.’ From here on out, I’ve got lowered expectations for everything in the B5verse, but who knows, maybe there’ll be a pleasant surprise along the way.


Paul said...

Not the first Shadow war. The second-to-last, out of thousands. A pet peeve of mine.

Angie said...

I think there is another important difference between Delenn's catastrophic wrong choice and Londo's. Delenn acts out of rage, she is deeply wounded and lashes out. Londo is calm and collected, he decides rationally and has more than one chance to correct his decision before the results become catastrophic.

A lot of Londo's and Vir's story between the second to last episode and Londo's final moments has already been covered in three novels, the Centauri trilogy. They're canon and very much recommended, though the last one is hard to find (or expensive).

Patrick said...

That's definitely true, and it's the same with the Shadows, Londo has so many cogent moments where he could choose to stop things, but he doesn't until it's too late. It fits wonderfully that his fate at the end of the series is to lose his autonomy and be completely subject to the whims of others.

And, those Centauri Prime books sound pretty good, certainly the story I'm most interested in after the serires. I'd still like to see it in the Lost Tales, but if we don't get Londo there, this will have to do.

Angie said...

From what I've heard it's very likely that Londo will be on one of the DVDs. (If the first one sells well enough, that is.) I just don't think JMS will "waste" one of these DVDs to tell a story that has already been told in another medium. That would also rule out the conclusion of the Garibaldi-Bester-storyline. But then, IANJMS ;-)