Friday, January 19, 2007

Babylon 5: 'War Without End' (3x16 & 3x17)

Wow, this episode is labelled as a two parter, but in reality it's a three parter, only the first part aired back in season one. When I first saw Babylon Squared, I liked it, but not as much as some of the fans I've talked to did. On the first view, the episode is pretty confusing, filled with ambiguous dialogue and cryptic hints about the future. It's a tough viewing experience because you get no resolution at all, just more questions. But, having seen the resolution, I'm sure I'd appreciate the episode a lot more. It was amazing watching the pieces of this episode connect with that one, and by the end of this episode we've got a much fuller picture of the B5 universe, its past, its present and its future.

'War Without End: Part I' begins with the return of Sinclair, now hanging out on Minbar. I wasn't a huge fan of him during his time on the series, but seeing as how all the pieces fit together now, it seems like his less than stellar acting led to a fine conclusion. O'Hare's big issue was with doing more emotional work, here he's allowed to be a stoic, deified figure, and he does that well. He's better at cryptic mysticism than human emotion, and I was really pleased with the characters' development here. I wouldn't have minded seeing Sinclair show up more and help them out, but he's decisively gone by the end of the episode.

This pair of episodes was like nothing I've ever seen before on TV. The only comparable thing I can think of is a couple of issues of The Invisibles, one in which Robin spins through various time periods and also the last issue, where we flash back to a whole bunch of points in time, paying off various threads of the story. Babylon 5 and The Invisibles are the only two works that seem perfectly planned out, like the creator saw the entire story from the beginning and just had to take the time to play things out. There are references in the very beginning of each series that aren't understood until much later, and plot points span across time and space, gradually locking into place as things move forward.

I love experiencing a series where the creator knows everything about the universe because it gives meaning to every element. In a show like Lost or The X-Files, you're not sure what was a carefully considered choice and what was just tossed in to fill time. An episode like this makes it clear that JMS has a vast knowledge of his world, and that virtually everything in the series has had some larger purpose. Now, seeing the Soulhunter's words pay off here might not redeem the lameness of that episode on the whole, but at least it'll give me something to look for on the rewatch. And, I'd imagine it must be much cooler to watch Babylon Squared knowing what will follow in this episode.

That said,I'm left with some questions about the episode's place in the overall arc, in light of O'Hare's departure, and I'd love to hear if anyone's heard a JMS explanation, assuming it doesn't spoil future events. Was Sinclair always meant to go to the past and become Valen? It fits with these season one clips, but I'd have assumed that he would have been the one eventually getting into a relationship with Delenn had Sheridan not come along. The two of them were pretty close, right from the pilot, and it would have been a logical character path. And, if Sinclair was to remain in the present, what would they have done about his aged appearance when he takes off the suit? I'm always curious to hear about the road not taken, and I've heard one of the JMS script books includes a complete outline for the series if Sinclair had been the captain. I'll definitely want a look at that when I finish watching the show.

But, back to what actually happened. Part one raises the question of what's the actual future and what's just a possibility. The impression I got was that the message from Ivanova came from a possible future which will now not happen. But, if we're to assume that all time already exists, something that the rest of the episode supports, how could this alternate future exist? I suppose the temporal rift opens into a multiverse of possibilities, and this transmission came out because it was what they needed to hear to bring about the events that would occur later in the episode. Everything that happens in this episode was pre-ordained, because the moments already happened. It's not like they go back in time and alter the past, they were already there, they have already acted, and now they are just shifting their temporal perception from their bodies in the present to their bodies in the past.

That raises the question of whether the universe where Sheridan dies, Sinclair and Garibaldi fight together and Babylon 5 is destroyed exists. It clearly can't, but did it ever exist? Was that the future that was going to happen, or was it just a vision that they needed to receive in order to bring about the ends that needed to occur. That would make the most sense in the light of the rest of the episode, they were just shown what they needed to be shown. But, JMS does seem to open the possibility of a multitude of alternate universes existing. In that case, the vision of Sinclair and Garibaldi is a possible future, but won't happen in that exact way. I'll have to look back when I finish the series and ponder because right now I'm not sure how to reconcile the two glimpses of a possible universe with the rest of the show where we're shown a world where all time already exists.

The most interesting revelation out of part one is the fact that Babylon 4 went back in time to help defeat the Shadows in the original Shadow War. This fits well with what we've heard before, and brings the two eras even closer together. The knowledge of what defeated the Shadows the first time has already been critical in helping the fight against them this time, and I'm sure more revelations are yet to come. The Narn and Minbari were involved in this war, but we haven't heard anything about the Centauri. What were they up to at the time? I assume we'll find out eventually. One of the small touches I liked was the shot of Sinclair looking at Delenn and Sheridan holding hands, it was a really nice, well played visual moment.

While it is a strong episode, Part I is really just about teasing what will happen in Part II. When Zathras, nice to see him back, talked about the time stabilizers, I knew someone was going to get unstuck in time, and Sheridan's a good choice. Everything is swirling up to a head at the end of the first episode. The main crew boards Babylon 4, and Sheridan's off to the court of Centauri Prime, seventeen years in the future.

The looking out the window reminded me of a similar moment in a similarly insane trip through time episode, The X-Files' 'Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati.' There, the Smoking Man opened a window onto a world savaged by UFO attacks. Here, the imagery wasn't quite so powerful, I thought the place would be doing a bit worse, but it was still a strong moment. Even though I loved the two parter, I've got to say JMS again botched the cliffhanger moment. In both this episode and 'A Voice in the Wilderness' the final five minutes had a bunch of killer break points, but the episode actually ended at a seemingly random moment. I'd been obviously hooked by what had happened already, but it's always nice to show To Be Continued at the moment when you absolutely positively have to see more.

Luckily I'm watching the show on DVD, so the break is of little consequence. We move on to what I'd say is the show's best episode so far, one of the most complex things I've ever seen on television. It's a joy to watch the action on Babylon 4, seeing all the pieces fit together with what we'd already seen. It was pretty impressive that the scenes matched so seamlessly, there was occasionally a slight change in film grade, but considering this was two years later, it's a great match. Because we went on the first mission, we can play like the characters, and gradually become aware of the events that must be fulfilled to match what happened. This time, we see the meeting between Zathras and Sinclair from Zathras's perspective, finally understanding what he was talking about.

We also get a nice payoff on the spacesuited person mystery. I was very curious about what Sheridan and Delenn were doing on their journey through time. I thought that they had become extratemporal agents, moving all around, doing good on Babylon 4. Not so, they just happened to be there, helping the station fulfill its destiny. Sheridan may be on a mission outside time, but Delenn was not.

While the present stuff was fun, the greatest treat in this episode was the glimpse into the future on Centauri Prime. It's a bold choice to reveal so much of what will happen here, though it's more confirmation than actual revelation, since you could probably piece together most of this from what we've already seen. But, it's totally different to actually experience it. Because Delenn tells John he once told her that this happened, but she didn't believe him, that would imply that this is a future that actually happens.

That's one of the things that makes this two parter so special. Most shows would do an episode like this and have the character go off into a possible future, but in the end, it would be eradicated, think of something like X-Men's 'Days of Future Past.' Reading that, you never think that the characters will actually get to that world. Here, this is seventeen years in the future, it's what will happen, and for us, it's just a matter of finding out what events occur to bring the characters to this point. Most shows couldn't tell you where their characters would be one year from now, let alone seventeen, JMS's plan allows for some fantastic, unique storytelling here.

What we do find out is that the Alliance defeated the Shadows, but not entirely, and now the Shadows have turned on their former allies, the Centauri. Coming just one episode after Londo restarts his alliance with the Shadows, it's clear that Londo's actions will have horrible consequences. He will become Emperor, but literally lose himself in the process. I'm really curious to see how the 'Keeper' comes about. Are the Shadows completely in control of the Centauri court? That's the impression I got, which means that Londo is a prisoner in his place of power.

Now, the Keeper does absolve Londo some of the guilt for what happened. I think it works well as a reflection of his mutlifaceted personality. He can be kind and funny at times, but is also so cruel and vengeful. Now, the good Londo is split off from the bad, and it's the good who ultimately helps Sheridan and Delenn escape to a ship in the back.

After this, G'Kar emerges and we again see the scene glimpsed in Londo's dream, G'Kar strangling Londo and Londo fighting back. After watching 'Dust to Dust,' I pondered what could make G'Kar back into a vengeful person who would murder Londo. Well, it turns out that this was a mercy killing. With the good Londo slipping away, he sacrifices himself to his greatest enemy, and G'Kar's final act is to remove the evil Centauri Emperor and pave the way for Vir to take over. Vir doesn't seem too confident as he picks up the crown, and his country isn't in good condition, but perhaps he can do something with it.

Elsewhere, we get a whole bunch of revelations about Sheridan and Delenn. They apparently have a kid, David, and are still caught up battling the Shadows, despite winning a major victory against them years earlier. Their war left behind loose ends, and now they are again caught up in that fight. If I had to guess, I'd say we'll return to their journey on the ship before the series ends, and presumably some time after this, they defeat the Shadows for good, or at least send them back to the rim, to rebuild for another thousand years. And perhaps in our year 2993, we can pick up the story.

Delenn tells Sheridan not to go to Z'Ha'Dum, Kosh has previously told him that if he goes to Z'Ha'Dum he will die. But clearly he goes to Z'Ha'Dum and survives, because Delenn tells him to tell his past self not to go here. Knowing JMS, there must be some payoff on the death, my guess is the Shadow War ends when Sheridan goes to Z'Ha'Dum and destroys them once and for all, sacrificing himself in the process. Alternatively, he could go through a kind of symbolic death, but that doesn't seem like JMS's style.

The other intriguing scene is Delenn's brief flash forward. Her and Sheridan have apparently just slept together when she hears a woman's voice at the door. I'm guessing this is Sheridan's wife, it's not any of the women already on the show and she's the one who would be most likely to make Delenn drop the snowglobe. Plus, I've been predicting that his wife returns right after they sleep together for a while now, so I'm going to stick with that.

That covers the glimpses into the future, back in the present, we get Zathras telling Sinclair, Delenn and Sheridan their role as the three. What he's saying implies that there is an evolution of the soul from pure Minbari to Minbari/Human hybrid to just human. What I take this to mean is that the Minbari fought the first war, the second is being fought by Minbari and Humans together, and eventually the Minbari will follow the first ones into the beyond and humans will be left to rule things. The Minbari remind me of the elves from Lord of the Rings, and those books end with the elves sailing away, I feel like JMS is building up the same kind of thing. The age of man is in ascendence.

So, the main crew leaves, and Sinclair stays behind. Any show that gives you a 1,000 years in the past title is obviously working on a whole different level. The scene with Zathras and the Minbari is great, building up to the fantastic reveal of Sinclair flanked by two Vorlons. It's a powerful image, and also a great wrapup of the character's story. I had some issues with him, but it all worked out for the best. I love the fact that he is the one who builds up Minbari culture, and that their prophesy and lure actually derives from his knowledge of the future. This sort of cross time exchange is fascinating and few works have pulled it off. This episode certainly does, with the events of the past, present and future all clicking into focus here, forever changing the way we view the series, both what came before and what's still ahead.

It's a bold choice to give us this much information about the future. Some of the mystery is removed, but I think the tension is still there. We only know the fates of a few of the characters, and there's still a lot of mystery about what gets them there. I think we had to assume that Sheridan wouldn't die, and that Londo and G'Kar would, so that's not a huge shocker. But, this does radically alter our perception of Londo's vision. Will it change again before we reach that point in the story? I wouldn't be surprised if it does.

This episode is the best thing the show's ever done, and one of the most ambitious, complex, but well executed things I've ever seen on TV. Very few people are working on this level, as I said before, the only comprable thing is The Invisibles, and for me to compare a work to The Invisibles is the highest praise. I loved the glimpses of the future, I loved the connections with the past, and the present was exciting too. This is fantastic work.

Babylon 5: 'Ship of Tears' and 'Interludes and Examinations' (3x14 &3x15)

By the end of 'Interludes,' the proverbial it is most definitely on. After two seasons of teasing, the Shadows have finally emerged and the war is into the open conflict stage. More importantly, a major character is dead and the others are thrown into tumult. It's the biggest episode of the season so far, and on par with the other major escalation episode, 'The Coming of Shadows.' The buildup is over, and the war is on.

But first there's 'Ship of Tears,' another strong episode. Here, we get the return of Bester. He's only been on, I believe, four episodes so far, but it feels like he's always showing up on Babylon 5. I suppose that's a major difference between watching the show in one block and watching it week by week. I feel like he just left and all of a sudden he's back, but in the world of the story, six months had passed. One of the problems with having the show set on a space station is the fact that all the guest stars have to come there. In the first season it was getting ridiculous with the way important people from the characters' pasts would constantly show up. We haven't seen that as much lately, but it's odd that Bester would constantly come to a place where he's so hated. Of course, by the end of the episode, it becomes clear why he is here again, so it's not a major issue.

Anyway, the new Starfuries are pretty cool. I like the 2001 style reflection of LCD display onto Sheridan's visor. That said, the profile shot looking into the cockpit looked a bit cheesy. It's actually a testament to the overall quality of the show's effects that a bad shot is now something that really stands out.

This episode moves Bester into the role of uneasy ally, still manipulative, but potentially huge in helping the Alliance to defeat the Shadows. When they first appeared, they seemed completely invulnerable, but JMS has laid in some weaknesses as the show's gone on, and this vulnerability to telepaths is the most critical one yet. It's interesting that the Shadows actually use telepaths to fuel their ships, it raises questions about why a Psi Corps official was involved in the meetings with Morden and Earthdome. Is Psi Corps supplying telepaths to the Shadows for some reason? Presumably we'll see Bester create a splinter Corps that will go up against the main establishment, echoing what happened with Babylon 5 and the Earth military.

I liked the reveal of what the Shadows' 'weapons' actually were, and the finale with Carolyn was cool visually, despite some sloppy execution. I really like the idea that some of her humanity was taken by the Shadows and now she needs to be connected to a machine, even if it's not a Shadow ship. I always like that cyberpunk cyborg imagery and her mess of wires worked well. That said, I think it was an improbable coincidence that Bester knew and loved her. I guess the reason to do that was to humanize Bester more, but I think we got that already, and this stretched the boundaries of believability. But, I am curious to see how the alliance with Bester develops.

Elsewhere, G'Kar is finally let into the alliance. The scene with him and Delenn was very tough to watch. Even though he tells her that he understands why she didn't help him, it's still very tough to listen to someone say that she had to sacrifice his homeworld. And on top of that, there's the personal betrayal, after he completely trusted them. However, in the end he does make it in and he's fulfilling more of what Kosh told him to do in his vision.

'Interludes and Examinations' picks up where the last episode off, using Ivanova's voiceover to update us on where the world is at this point. I'm not sure if there's a particular significance to Ivanova being the voice of year three, the year of the Shadow War. Her first voiceover closed season three, she took over the credits and now speaks over this episode's opening. A lot of people claim that using voiceover is an example of telling, not showing, but it can actually be a great opportunity to do more visual storytelling. In the opening, and also when the Ivanova/Sheridan conversation is played over scenes of him going to sleep, we receive two distinct data streams, sound and picture, double the information, and through their juxtaposition can gain even more understanding. The moody foreboding of this opening reminds me of Battlestar Galactica's frequent instrumental cut to a bunch of characters teasers, it's an effective way to immerse us in the world and prepare for the imminent changes.

There's a lot of stuff going on here, let's begin with the smallest plot thread. After a couple of seasons building up, the Franklin stims plot finally comes to a head. Going back to the first season, I was wondering when we'd finally see some real consequences of Franklin's total commitment to helping cure others, no matter what the cost. If nothing else, this episode is a wonderful example of the way that JMS's five year plan gives meaning to what would be insignificant standalone episodes on other shows. Even though I might not have particularly enjoyed the Franklin focus episodes in year one, they did build his character up and bring us to the point where his stim addiction is a believable long term affliction. We've watched his usage grow until it became a problem.

Here, he hits bottom, making mistakes and becoming paranoid. He already knew he had a problem, but couldn't acknowledge it out in the world. I guess looking at his blood tests forced him to admit what was going on. I'm a bit torn on whether it would have been more powerful to have his patient die. It would have made his bottoming out more believable, but would have been the more obvious way to go. Maybe the fact that he almost made a critical mistake actually shakes him more than losing a patient would. He's lost people before, but here it clear that his stim usage was the issue, if the guy had died, he might have been able to write it off as just something that happens.

I'm really curious to see where Franklin goes as a character now that he's left medlab. He was defined completely by his work, as he says, we've very rarely seen him outside of the lab. I'm assuming he'll stick around the station, but it's possible they might send him out to help on the front lines, finally living up to his father's wishes. But, that would pretty much cut him out of the show, so there'll probably be an arc about his struggle for meaning without the lab, as he tries to rediscover himself. And who will be in charge medlab now? Will it be one of his rotating cast of minority female assistants or a new character? Are we going to see the return of the doctor from 'The Gathering'? Hopefully not, he was a pretty bad actor.

Season three has been about rehibilitation for Londo. He ditched Morden and poisoned Refa as a way to completely cut the Centauri off from the Shadows. He still had some major issues, but it was looking better. I was a bit torn, happy that the character was turning around, but missing the total moral corruption of season two Londo. I love to see characters go down dark paths, so I'm torn in situations like this. I hated what Londo did to G'Kar, but I loved that the show made me hate his actions in that way. If he returns to a more acceptable moral position, there won't be that same extreme feeling.

So, even as I'm hating that Londo once again got played by Morden, I'm eager to see where he goes in the next bunch of episodes. Back when it aired, I enjoyed the Adira episode back in the first season, but I didn't expect her to come back and play such a critical role later in the series. Coming from a tradition of TV shows that will have someone declare a character the love of their life and then never mention them again, it's hard to believe that Londo could really consider Adira the love of his life. But, in real life, it's quite possible he would. After all, it's only been two years, and he doesn't seem to have too much else going on personally. I'm not sure if Adira was always meant to play this critical a role, but she fits perfectly, and knits the series closer together.

Scenes between Morden and Londo are always great, the opening meeting is dramatic, mostly as evidence of just how manipulative Morden is. I compared him to the Smoking Man a few reviews ago, and this episode reinforces that. He is the ultimate operative, totally aware of how to manipulate people to produce a specific result. Having the power of the Shadows backing him makes that possible, and he's a great human face for their evil.

It's tough to watch Londo after he sees Adira's body, I think Jurasik does a great job of staying in character as he shows Londo's pain. The voice and mannerisms are more suited to either comedy or evil, but he manages to show off another side. I'm always impressed by how good Jurasik and Katsulas are at keeping the characters totally believable despite the huge amounts of makeup they're wearing.

While I love the turn of events, I have to question Londo's conclusion that Refa was behind it. Shouldn't he have at least suspected that with Morden on station, wanting him back in the fold, he could be behind this. Now, I suppose he isn't aware of just how much of a player Morden is, after all, he broke off the arrangement when Londo asked. I think it would have been more effective to have Londo remain uncertain about who did it, then hear about the poison and connect it to Refa.

But regardless, the final scene is a singularly powerful moment. After Kosh's death, I wasn't sure where the episode had left to go, but this took things up another notch. Londo wants revenge, and he doesn't care if that means attacking his own world. The piecs are all starting to fall into place, by using the Shadows to attack the Centauri court, he is paving the way for his own ascent to Emperor, and creating an even greater debt to the Shadows. He is going to make the Centauri their subordinates, likely leading to the moment from his dream where he looks up and sees the Shadow ships attacking his planet.

It's quite a turn of events, and we've still got another shocking plot thread to cover. Needing proof that the Shadows can be defeated, Sheridan goes to Kosh and finally calls him out on his ambiguity. It was refreshing to see someone finally questioning the cryptic statements that Kosh gives and not letting him walk away without getting an answer. But, as Sheridan went on, the scene got uncomfortable. There's certain social boundaries you just don't cross, when someone leaves a conversation, you usually just let them go, Sheridan refused to do this and it put Kosh on edge. That prompted Kosh to finally give into his demands and send the Vorlons into action.

Of course, in a show like this, every action has consequences. To use the Vorlon ships means not having Kosh available down the line, when Sheridan will go to Z'Ha'Dum. This was alluded to before, and I thought this was a pretty good consequence. Presumably later in the show, a situation will come up and Kosh will say he can't do anything, Sheridan had used up the favor. Of course, that's creating an artificial consequence, Kosh doesn't have limited access to these ships, he would just be choosing not to act. Still, he's a mysterious guy, so it makes some sense.

Having worked out this scenario in my head, I was shocked when Morden showed up in Kosh's quarters with some Shadows in tow. Kosh was a character I figured was off limits. He'd live through the war then go off at the end to some higher place, after making the world safe for humans. I never really considered that he could die, so it was shocking when he did. I love the way they finally allowed him to express emotion, by incarnating him in the body of Sheridan's father. There, Kosh told Sheridan he was right, echoing his words to G'Kar that some must be sacrificed to save the many. He is apparently one of those who will be sacrificed. I guess he knew in the hallway that attacking the Shadows would put himself at risk, but he chose to do so anyway. It was a fantastic twist and raised the stakes way up in this war. We'd only seen the Shadow ships at work, but now we know that their ground forces are just as deadly.

Looking ahead, I'm guessing Lyta Alexander will function as the new Vorlon ambassador. It's past the time for more of Kosh's ambiguous stylings, and she clearly has some extra-human characteristics already. Kosh's sacrifice gives the Alliance an edge, but it also makes it clear that the Vorlons are not invulnerable. He was right when he said they weren't ready, but there's no time left to wait, the war is on, and apparently it is without end. That's up next.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

X-Factor 1-8

After reading the first few issues of Essential X-Factor, I was none too happy, but having gone deeper into the book, I'm starting to get into it. At issue eight, I'm on the cusp of the Mutant Massacre, the first in a run of three absoultely incredible X-Men crossovers. But, until issue eight, the book has very little to do with the actual X-Men, how did it do in making its own world?

I'll still contend that X-Factor 1 is one of the most nonsensical openings for a comic that I've read. The goal of the book was clearly to reasssemble the original X-Men, logic be damned. So, we wind up with Scott, the hero of the book, leaving his wife to kick things off. That's not a particularly heroic start. I covered that in the previous post, but even after that, there's more odd stuff. Scott is basically absolved from guilt in the following issue when he tries to call Maddy and finds out that she has gone missing.

Now, he certainly still suffers from guilt, but as readers, we can't really blame him for sticking around with Jean and the crew, he doesn't know where his wife is. Of course, he could always fly back to Alaska and investigate his house. He got on a plane minutes after hearing Jean was alive, but when he finds out that Madelyne is MIA, he just angsts about it. I suppose he feels that she doesn't want him, but it's an odd turn of events nonetheless. It would have been more powerful to have Scott go up there, find the house abandoned and maybe find a forged note from her. At this point, I believe she had been attacked by Sinister's Marauders and was lying in a coma somewhere in San Francisco, so it would have been a good chance to show more of Sinister's manipulations.

I think the major change that happens over the course of these issues is in the perspective of the writer, the major change coming when Louise Simonson takes over the book. In the first few issues, I got the impression we're supposed to support Scott's choice to leave his wife, and the major issue is how he will tell Jean about his marriage, presumably leading to them getting back together. As the issues go on, we get into more angsty territory, Jean knows something is awry, no one else wants to say anything, and the naivete she had early on gradually shifts into anger and discontent. By the end of issue eight, the book is filled with angst, and that's pretty much what X-Men is about.

But, first let's track back and consider more of the early issues. There's a ridiculous storyline involving a mutant named Tower, a chance to do goofy switching between the X-Factor and X-Terminator outfits. One of the things I liked about X-Men was the lack of secret identities, and having this charade doesn't really work. The point of X-Men is that they are forced into this role through their genetic mutations, not because they wanted to be heroes. They are fighting for their people, for their lives. In the best eras of the Claremont run, the team was on the run, not fighting bad guys, just struggling to survive.

Here, the X-Factor front gives them a different set of issues, and once we get past the stage where they unequivocally follow Hodge, it's actually pretty interesting. By working for X-Factor, they're actually helping mutants, but they're creating a culture of hate. I don't know if there's a direct real life equivalent, but it has relevance for minority struggles, the need to make sacrifices to get aid from the establishment. As time passes, they recognize the flaws in the strategy and I'd imagine the Mutant Massacre will put an end to the X-Factor front once and for all.

The early issues do have some notable developments. One is the de-furring of Beast. This is symptomatic of the book's tendency towards conservatism, they want to recreate the original status quo, and a human Beast is part of that. Obviously it didn't stick, though I'm not sure how Beast gets furred again. It seems like whenever the X writers don't have a plot they decide to either turn a character blue or make them regular again. This blue-ing trend will crop up again later in the book's run.

The first four issues or so just aren't very good. The dialogue is apalling and the character motivations make little sense. But, then things get more interesting. The issue with the heroin addict who had to use heroin to stop his power presented an interesting conundrum, and admirably refused to give an easy solution. He stuck with the heroin because it was the only option for him, even though it ended up killing him.

This storyline led us to the introduction of Apocalypse. We get some hints of his actual nature, but it's pretty vague. He's not the menace he would one day become, and his design looks pretty bad 80s. I'd still contend that X-Men is best when it sticks to a more realistic universe, but Apocalypse had some good moments, despite the inauspicious start.

One of the ongoing threads I've liked is the development of Artie and Rusty. Artie's mutated giant head and huge eyes make him an instantly sympathetic character, and you can't help but feel for him when he's running out to help Rusty wearing clothes that are much too big for him. Rusty is a classic angsty teen, but he works in the book, his presence always making the older X-Men aware of their own insensitivity and self absorption. Jean and Scott seem to alternate when it comes to taking out their issues on Rusty. It was good to see Rusty get a companion his own age when Skids shows up.

I'd only seen these ancillary X-Factor characters in their crossover appearances, and didn't think much of them. They didn't catch on big with the mainstream, but Rusty has some good stuff here and I'll be curious to see this younger branch of the Factor develop.

Issue eight is the best so far. This is the first real crossover with the events of X-Men, specifically the Central Park fight from issue 208. So, we get Freedom Force appearing here, in a twisty battle, with the good bad mutants of Freedom Force doing battle with the bad good mutants of X-Factor, but who's actually doing better work for mutantkind?

Concurrently, we get the Jean/Scott angst coming to a head. She won't forgive him for lying to her and that makes things awkward for the whole team. Having personal problems converge with the major evil threats is what makes X-Men great, and this looks like a good example. Everything is in chaos as we had into the big crossover.

The writing still isn't as good as Claremont, but this was such a fantastic time in X-Men history, it's good to relive it through a different lens by reading this book. Popular opinion holds that the Dark Phoenix saga was the height of the Claremont run, but that's just not true. For me, there were two highlights, one was the Paul Smith era, which featured acutely powerful depictions of personal emotional trauma. The other was the run from roughly 205 to Fall of the Mutants, the era that has come to define the X-Men. This is when mutant/human conflict became the thematic center of the book, and the X-Men truly became outlaws, fighting for a world that hates and fears them.

I'm not sure what happens to X-Facotr at the same time, but I suppose I'll find out shortly. It's so good to be back in this universe, I love the characters, particularly at this point in their history. The X-Men universe is a vast mythology and I navigated much of it when I read the parent title, but X-Factor holds it own threads of the overall narrative and it's interesting to discover them firsthand.

I'm planning on picking up the second Essential X-Factor to read after I finish this, and I saw that Marvel put out TPBs of Claremont's New Mutants and Excalibur runs. After I finish that, I'm going to grab those and continue my journey through X-Men history. I suppose it's a journey that won't be done until I've read everything in the universe from Claremont's start to Claremont's end.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007


Inspired by the Golden Globes' tribute to Warren Beatty, I rewatched Shampoo yesterday. I saw the film for the first time in the summer and really enjoyed it. I really enjoy the styles and issues of the 60s and 70s. It was a really tumultuous time politically, and this film is a fine piece of social satire. But, it's also just very funny.

The core of the film is the relationship between George and Jackie. Beatty and Christie were fantastic in McCabe and Mrs. Miller, their charisma there is what makes the film different from Altman's other work. Normally, Altman makes stars recede into the background, in McCabe, their magnetism rises to the fore and carries the film. I love the two of them there, and even though their roles are different here, there's the same energy and tension between the two of them.

It's odd to think of Beatty writing the script for this, casting himself as the ultimate ladies' man, who can have anyone he wants. Now, it was probably a reflection of his own personal experience, how does he seperate the character from himself? He was in a relationship with Julie Christie during the time he was writing the film, is this something of an apology to her, pointing out his flaws and showing that he really loves her, even if she's moved on? The background is interesting, but not essential to understanding the film.

What it's about is showing the way that these peoples' excessive lifestyles makes them blind to what really matters. Everyone in the film is involved in trading sex for money, except for George, who says he doesn't fuck for money, he fucks for fun. Jackie is having an affair with Lester to make herself comfortable and safe, Jill is willing to go with Johnny to advance her career and Felicia has an affair with George as a way of getting back at her husband. The only people who seem to actually be in love are Jackie and George, but he winds up messing that up.

In addition to the personal drama, the film is largely about the lifestyles. The two parties are the film's setpieces. One shows the lies underlying conservative, establishment types. Lester claims to be an upstanding citizen, but he's here balancing his wife and mistress, unable to control either. I love the scene where Jackie tells the old man what she wants is to "suck his cock," her vulgarity completely shocking in this sophisticated setting. They want to keep the bad stuff under the surface, claiming that they're working for the betterment of America, to return it to traditional values. But, they're all corrupt at heart.

The other party is radically different, more sexually open, with psychedlic drugs instead of alcohol, but I feel like the film is saying it's just as hollow. Given the chance to be with Jackie, George turns away the twins and their invite to the hot tub. He is focused on one woman, and in his most mature moment in the film, tells her that when he's fifty, he wants to be with her. Here, he steps up and does the responsible thing. That brings them together again.

But, George's greatest flaw is that he wants everyone to like him. That's why he lies to Felicia at the beginning, telling her he really wants to stay, but this girl's life is in danger. He can't say no to a woman, a position he sums up in his speech to Jill at the end. He likes them all, but can't commit to loving one. So, when Jill finds him and Jackie together, he runs off after her. If he'd just stayed, he probably could have had Jackie, but he didn't want to leave on bad terms with Jill. Running after Jill tells Jackie that he was lying to her before, he hasn't changed, and she leaves. I really like his frantic run across the party, flashing through the crazy strobe light room, one of the best strobe scenes I've seen in any film.

At the end, George finds out that he was too late. When he left the poolhouse, he lost Jackie, and now she's chosen the safe, comfort of life with Lester, over the possible true love with George. The film simultaneously celebrates and condemns George's lifestyle. I think we're meant to admire and envy his magnetism at the beginning of the film, but in the end, we see that all he has is hollow. Ultimately, everyone winds up in a hollow relationship, choosing money and comfort over real love, because none of them were honest enough to expose their feelings.

While I like the film's plot, the real appeal for me is the aesthetic. I love the 60s/70s look everyone has. Julie Christie's silver hair, and shimmering black dress are absolutely gorgeous. The music is great too. Apparently this was before it became prohibitively expensive to license a Beatles' song because we've got 'Sgt. Pepper' and 'Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds' on here. The 'LSD' sequence is a particular highlight.

The film ends with The Beach Boys' 'Wouldn't It Be Nice,' a song that asks "what if?" This fits well with the end of the film, even though its upbeat melody seems at odds with the downbeat finale. All the characters just missed out on real love, and they'll left to think wouldn't it be nice if things had worked out.

I've got Heaven Can Wait on the way, to wrap up the Beatty/Christie trilogy. And I also want to see Dick Tracy, I loved the film as a kid, but haven't seen it in over ten years. I'm curious to see if it holds up.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Babylon 5: 3x11-3x13

After the big tumult of the previous three episodes, things settle back and JMS takes some time to explore the new status quo. While these episodes certainly lack the epic scope of the previous arc, the first two at least have a lot of interesting stuff going on and do a good job pushing the characters forward.

When I was watching Buffy, I'd frequently wish that they'd do episodes without any major conflicts and just let the characters hang out and interact with each other. Part of what I love so much about season six is the way there is no external antagonist, instead the issues come internally, from the characters' struggle to deal with their relationships and personal development. Babylon 5's characters aren't as strongly developed as the ones on Buffy, but I increasingly find myself wishing we could have less plot and more down time, so we can spend more time with these people outside of their jobs.

'Ceremonies of Light and Dark' has a decent main plot. It's logical that Nightwatch would stay around the station and try to take back control. Their plan to target Delenn is a logical reaction to the Minbari ships who just showed up the Earthforce fleet. But ultimately, I just wasn't that engaged in the hostage situation on a narrative level, it's much more interesting as a way to explore the developing relationship between Delenn and Sheridan.

This is something that's been in the works for a long time, at first I was wondering if I was reading into something that wasn't there, but by now it's clearly in play, and JMS enjoys taunting us with the possibility of the two of them finally making it physical. They've both already admitted how deeply they feel for each other, that's Sheridan's secret here at the end of the episode, and it's just a matter of them figuring out where those feelings will go.

The ceremony itself provided the wonderful opportunity for everyone to reveal a secret. Lennier's was interesting, it would certainly make sense that he loves Delenn, but knowing that he can never act on that love gives a different spin to the scenes with him and Delenn. He says she is destined for another, at this point, we've got to assume that's Sheridan. Does Lennier know who this person is, or does he just know it's not him?

We also get some more information on Marcus. As I mentioned before, it's great to finally see one of the human characters have some of the irreverence and inner conflict of the aliens. If I've got one issue with the show, it's that the main four humans still aren't that interesting to watch. Sheridan has some great moments, but the other three only occasionally get really good material to work with. They're all workaholics, totally committed to Babylon 5. Marcus' different attitude makes him a welcome addition to the crew.

The end of the show gives us access to a secret from the whole crew. I was really hoping we'd see this happen, though the execution was a bit odd. You'd think someone right outside the door could just have listened in to the secret. But, I guess they didn't want to go through a big production for all four characters. Sheridan's secret wasn't much of a secret, the others' are a bit more interesting. Garibaldi's fear makes sense, he likely uses humor to cover for the deep concern he has about keeping the station safe. Franklin's isn't a shocker either, but now we know that he know he has a problem. It's just a matter of admitting it to the others and seeking help. However, as 'Avalon' shows us, he's only concerned with being right and trying to fix people, unable to see another path. So, even though he knows he's got a problem, he very likely is unwilling to scale back on his hours and delegate his work.

Ivanova's is the most interesting, though another we already kind of knew. It was never revealed exactly how far her relationship with Talia went, the impression I got was that they slept together in 'Divided Loyalties,' and who knows where it could have gone from there. I'd imagine Ivanova must have had some deep pain after Talia's transformation, and I think it would have been smart to engage with her pain there. She could repress it on the outside, but I think it would have good to develop some internal trauma there, give her a more painful emotional arc. I suppose I'm so used to the Joss/Alan Ball model of extreme character pain, I want a loss like that to linger, rather than get compartmentalized into the background.

In the show, all the characters seem resolutely alone, totally committed to work and interested in nothing else. This season has seen the development of some flirtation, if not full relationships. Katherine Sakai and Sinclair were the only couple on the show, and she only appeared a few times. I like the developing relationships here in the third season, but I feel like JMS should get these things moving. It raises the emotional stakes to have the characters deeply connected, and particularly on a show like this, relationships can mess with character loyalties and force people to make incredibly difficult decisions. Plus, it'd give us a better insight into the characters outside of their jobs. I can certainly see why Ivanova would have trouble adjusting to life outside of Earthforce, as far as the show is concerned, her work dominates her life from wake to sleep.

So, the secret thing, while a bit gimmicky, was very interesting. Much like in the Buffy episode 'Fear Itself,' getting a glimpse into the characters' internal lives gives us a better idea of what's motivating their external actions. And the A plot, while not great, was a good, logical followup to the big events that preceded it.

'Sic Transit Vir' is another good marker of how far the show has come in terms of character and world development. The humor here isn't necessarily different from the stuff I criticized as too sitcomy back in the first season, but because we know the characters so well, it's much funnier. The scene with Londo and the bug has virtually no narrative point, but it's hilarious, his hair rising up behind the counter is the standout image, and the frantic swording of the bug is great too. We know the guy so well, it's fun to just watch him in his apartment, killing a bug. I was really happy when that bug infestation didn't somehow collide with the main narrative and become a crucial plot point in the end. It was just a funny thing on its own.

Vir has consistently been caught up in moral conundrums, torn between his moral sense of right and wrong and his obligation to Londo and the Centauri. He has been Londo's conscience, and his rebukes were a big part of what made Londo break off his arrangement with Morden. The reason he looks at the invasion of the Narn homeworld with such pain is because Vir gave him the idea that maybe it's wrong to just kill Narn. Sending Vir to Minbar was probably the worst thing Londo could have done, because it made him even more aware of different cultures, morality outside the Centauri.

One of the most effective things about this episode is the way it veers from goofy comedy to heavy drama at the end. When we first see Vir with Lyndisty, his fiancee, I was expecting the sort of goofy comedy that did ensue. Watching the scene in the garden, I realized that Stephen Furst is basically doing a Woody Allen impression when he plays Vir. I really didn't like his acting in the first couple of episodes, I've gotten used to it since, but he's still a bit mannered. I suppose that's who the character has become, but he occasionally overplays things. It probably doesn't help that he's working with Peter Jurasik, who also sometimes pushes the limits of overplaying, but is so consistently entertaining, you forgive him. Plus, Jurasik can do heavy darkness just as well as the goofy comedy, making it easier to accept the light moments. This episode features some of Furst's best work, but also spotlights the tics he uses constantly.

Moving forward, the scene with Vir and Ivanova is great, bringing out an almost Office level of awkward comedy. It's a bit odd that Vir would talk with Ivanova about this, apparently he's not too aware of the fact that humans don't have the six system. But, I guess he's looking for general information, and the scene was funny enough logic doesn't necessarily matter.

Over with Sheridan and Delenn, we get further progression of the relationship, starting with the sweet dinner scene. Sheridan is doing whatever he can to win her over, and it seems to be working, right until they're untimely interrupted by Ivanova. It's difficult to figure out their relationship trajectory because they both seem to have basically said they love each other, but they've never quite made it to a physical place. They also haven't addressed the issue of Delenn's Minbari physiology, which will presumably come up at some point. But, they're pretty much assured to be getting together at some point, it's just a matter of when and how.

So, the episode was going along in a generally comedy place, then in the back half it got much darker. The scene where Vir is accused of murder and Londo congratulates him was pretty heavy, but it's the final scene with Lyndisty that's the capper. The thing I love about this scene is the mix of her total sweetness and the utter hatefulness of what she's saying. The Narn have always been equated with historically oppressed people, victims of colonization and exploitation. However, on occasion, they're equated with African slaves in Ammerica, notably with the story of G'Kar's father. That connection is re-established when Vir calls himself Abrahamo Lincolni, and furthered in Lyndisty's speech.

That speech was really disturbing to me, it's rare you see that level of hate speech presented on TV without any clear indication that this is wrong. She is trying to convince Vir that she's right, and there's no malice at all behind what she's saying. She thinks Vir is the one who's deluded and in need of correction. The decision to not put any obvious menacing music, or have Vir outright say she's wrong was pretty bold. I think it makes what she's saying more jarring, because you're forced to draw the connections and recognize how wrong it is. The best villains are the ones who think they're doing the right thing, and that's what makes her so powerful here.

I loved the buildup there, and the scene ended on a great cliffhanger. But, things cut at the moment of greatest drama and we never get a real resolution to what Vir did there. Presumably he didn't kill the Narn, but I think it would have been more effective to see him assert his authority and tell her that he won't murder the Narn. Even if he didn't do that, I'm curious to see how he got himself out of the situation.

Then, to have him apparently still willing to go along with the marriage to Lyndisty is off. It doesn't fit with what he's done previously in the episode. Now, this might be an attempt to show that Vir is more conflicted than he appears, and still willing to go along with some of Centauri tradition. I suppose that's realistic, but I would have liked to see that actively explored rather than just implied. Perhaps it will come up in future episodes, but judging from the fate of Londo's wife, I wouldn't expect to see Lyndisty return.

Next up is the weakest of this run, 'A Late Delivery from Avalon.' Bringing back themes from the first season's 'Grail' probably wasn't a good idea, though this one is certainly better than that episode. The teaser has a very early X-Files feel, I like the look of the black and white footage, even though this sort of ambiguous stuff with random person lost its appeal as a tease a while ago. In a TV show, you're there to see the ongoing stories and series characters, for a random person teaser to work, it's got to be a pretty extraordinary event, and most of the ones on here aren't quite there. But, I'm obviously going to watch the whole episode, so it doesn't matter too much. I suppose JMS is always thinking of new viewers and trying to give something that would intrigue them. I pretty much only watch shows from the beginning all the way through, so it's difficult for me to say what sort of teaser would attract new viewers to an existing series.

The main plot here is a bit goofy. Marucs already provides a Camelot feel, but at least fits into the series' universe. Having 'Arthur' wear chainmail and classic apparel makes it feel hokey. I'd rather have seen some kind of future reinvention of the classic look. Though, I suppose the fact that he thinks he's transported from the past to the future means he wouldn't update the clothes, he'd stick with the classic. That said, I did thoroughly enjoy the scenes with G'Kar and Arthur. G'Kar has grown into a warrior king, guiding his people well, so it's logical to equate him with the Round Table.

Confronting David with his real past connects the episode to the series' history, and provides a nice, sad denouement to the Arthur story. When he was lying in the coma, I felt like the episode provided a really interesting moral conundrum for Franklin. Franklin always advocates trying to find a cure, trying to save people, but he doesn't realize that not everyone wants to be cured. In this case, the cure went up making David catatonic, losing the unique drive he had before. Ending with that would have forced Franklin to really think about what he'd done.

But, having David rehabilitate himself and continue the fight absolves Franklin of any guilt and gives everyone the best outcome possible. The sequence where he's resurrected is striking, though I'm a bit mad they passed up an opportunity to have Mira Furlan play the Lady in Lake, without her Delenn makeup. It would have been cool to see her like that, though I suppose it wouldn't have made much sense in the storyverse. But, I feel like the more powerful ending would have been to either have him return to his psychosis and continue to believe he's Arthur, or just have him go catatonic and insane.

This episode brings us another old British actor. Michael York was great in Cabaret, and it was good to see him here, but it got me thinking about how much older this cast is than most shows. The guest stars are almost always above middle age, likely the result of JMS flipping through his movie collection and picking out actors he wants to work with. But, in a TV culture that values youth and attractiveness above everything else, it's odd to see a show that never seems to have anyone below thirty appear.

In general, the cast of the show is much more ordinary looking than your average series. Looking at Buffy, it's saying something when Sarah Michelle Gellar is the least attractive female in the cast. Most shows have great looking, young people on them, not so much here. It's not that they're ugly, they're just regular, some of them are attractive, some not, but nobody's a knockout, and that's rare in TV. Compare this group to Battlestar Galactica's crew, major difference in the level of sex appeal, and also in the focus on characters as objects of desire. There, the alien others are basically a crew of models, here they're made up to look truly other.

I think part of this comes from the wardrobe and makeup style. Everyone's always wearing military uniforms, which aren't very flattering. And, particularly in the early seasons, everyone's got that sort of early 90s look about them, a kind of makeup and cinematography style that isn't used so much today. I suppose this is a reflection of JMS's personal vision, he cast who he wanted for their acting talent, not for their looks, and that's a very admirable position. I'd be curious to see how fandoms for the show took to the characters, because so much of the Buffy fandom, particularly with a lot of women, is about attraction to the characters and shipping, etc. I'm sure there was shipping with B5, but I don't think anyone in the cast is going to create the same desire as a Scully or Spike.

Well, that was a bit of a digression, but it's something to consider. I will say that styles of attractiveness change every once in a while, and the 80/early 90s look has not held up nearly as well as the 60s or 70s style. So, the actors have that working against them to begin with.

I have now passed the halfway point in the series. I'm still at the point where there's a vast array of uncharted story territory to explore, but I'd imagine about a season from now, the end will start to loom closer and closer, the gaps will fill in and by the end of season five, I'll be wishing it was a longer plan. But, between the TV movies, Crusade and the new DVD movie, there should still be plenty of B5 material to occupy me going forward.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Babylon 5: 3x07-3x10

This run of episodes brings the Earth internal conflict to a head, ending with Sheridan declaring a new direction for Babylon 5. It's a riveting bunch of episodes, full of a lot of strong action stuff, though I don't think it ever reaches the emotional heights of the best of the Narn-Centauri stuff from season two. That said, these episodes are primarily about moving us into a new status quo, from which the rest of the season will operate.

But, before all that, there was one more standalone episode, 'Exogenesis.' This episode had a pretty weak main story, but some great stuff on the periphery. The main story was reminiscent of a couple of X-Files and also an Angel episode, in which a parasitic organism burrows into peoples' backs and takes control of their minds. So, I wasn't particularly excited for this, but the twist at the end at least kept it a bit fresh. These organisms are trying to accumulate a set of experiences and preserve them into the future. The speeches at the end were very reminiscent of Roy Batty's 'Tears in Rain' speech from the end of Blade Runner, though they didn't reach that level of profound emotion. Still, I was expecting worse when I saw the teaser.

On the outskirts of the story, we get the great awkward meeting between Corwin and Ivanova. I love him buying the roses, and then his awkward backtrack when she asks him about them. It's very funny stuff and has a nice more downbeat denouement when he reveals his loyalty to Earthforce.

I also liked the further development of Marcus. He's got an irreverence that's refreshingly different from our core four human characters. They each have their issues, but are so utterly commited to doing what's right, it can get a bit one note. Marcus is out to do good, but he's got less respect for rules and procedures than they do, happy to do whatever he feels is right in service of the cause, and also to attain his personal goals. I'd like to see further development of his relationship with Ivanova, the scenes between them, with the roses and, later, the chain of command diagram are a lot of fun.

'Messages From Earth' is a reprise of a lot of the themes of the premiere, with Sheridan and Delenn again taking the White Star into action to do battle with the Shadows. The episode features some strong sequences were a voiceover and visuals are used to convey information and move things forward, rather than the traditional dialogue. I'm not sure if that was a deliberate choice, or if it came about because they were low on time or had scenes that didn't work, but regardless, it worked very well and I'd like to see it again.

The most intriguing sequence here was Kirkish recounting what happened to her on Mars. The effects here were fantastic and we again saw the powerful menace of the Shadows. While I like this continued buildup, I think it's getting to the point where we need some kind of payoff on the Shadow threat, for them to make their presence known in the political sphere. I'm guessing that Earth will announce its alliance with the Shadows in the episodes shortly after 'Severed Dreams,' setting up a conflict between the Earth/Centauri/Shadow alliance and the forces of light, centered around the newly independent Babylon 5.

Anyway, this news prompts Sheridan off on a mission to take on the Earth government with the White Star. The best scene in the episode was Delenn and Sheridan's conversation in the bed room. It's one of the rare times we see Sheridan in a totally off duty moment, and the two of them can interact as people rather than political leaders. I'd like to see more of these moments on the show, if there's one thing it's missing, it's a sense of who these people are when they're not wearing the uniform. They're all defined almost exclusively by their jobs. On Buffy, they'd always take time to show that while all the characters may be involved in an age old struggle between light and dark, they also like to just hang out sometimes. The early episodes of B5 did that, but it felt too calculated, like they were trying to make the characters relatable on our own cultural terms. Now that we have a better understanding of who they are, it'd be more fun to just hang out with them.

This scene, in which Delenn and Sheridan sleep together, literally, intensifies their relationship again. Later, Sheridan talks about how he wishes Delenn were with him, and at the end of 'Severed Dreams,' it is he and Delenn who will serve as mother and father for this new Babylon 5. There's been a lot of hinting at it, but they haven't crossed that line to a romantic relationship yet. Will it happen? I feel like it's got to at least be voiced, you don't build something up like this if it's not going to pay off in some way. I still think that they will get together and moments after Sheridan will hear that his wife is alive.

The space battle surrounding the Shadow ship was well done, but it felt like too easy a victory. Triumphs work better if they come after really heavy loss, and so far, we haven't seen the Shadows actually cause any problems for Sheridan and the force of Light. When the Narn cruiser wounded a Shadow ship back in season two, it was a huge thing, because they had been so thoroughly defeated before. Here, they've already destroyed one Shadow ship through a gimmicky tactic, and we see the same thing here. Also, I feel like it's a bit of a copout to give them a third way out from the dilemma of surrendering or firing on an Earth ship. Later, we do see this conflict played out again, and actually dealt with, so it's not a huge deal.

In general, I think the conflict with Earth is effective, but could have been handled a bit better. The problem is the sides have been set up in such heavy opposition. There's no way to support the Earth government, with its propaganda and omnipresent Nightwatch. The fact that we know Clarke killed President Santiago means it's tougher to even consider his side of things. It would have been more effective if Clarke had started out as a moderate, but in light of the death of the president and attacks on Earth, got pushed down the path of fascism. Now, we know he was plotting this from the beginning, and there's no ambiguity. To quote the obvious real life parallel, if George Bush had caused 9/11 just as a way to insitute martial law, he's just an absurdly evil person. But, if he overreacts to 9/11 by restricting speech and freedom, in the name of doing something good, it's a more complex situation, and you can be more sympathetic to his viewpoint.

Of course, in real life, Bush is just as much a ridiculous cardboard villain as Clarke, so I suppose it's hard to complain about the story for its lack of realism. But, ambiguity is always better in storytelling. That's where Zack's story works well. This is a guy with good intentions who's not sure what the right thing is. He's trying to work within the system, but has been so manipulated, he's lost any sort of moral compass.

But, the viewer is never forced to explore that same grey territory, and that means it's a more straightforward scenario than the Narn/Centauri War. There, we sympathize with both Londo and G'Kar, and that makes it even more painful when the tragic events unfold. I love that really ambiguous territory, good people getting taken down a bad path, and people who've done bad things trying to reform themselves. That's what makes their arcs so much more compelling than the humans for me, Sheridan may have trouble attacking an Earthforce ship, but we know he's doing the right thing. Londo thinks he's doing the right thing, but is horribly misguided and doesn't realize it until it's too late. Now, I suppose JMS wants to keep some traditional heroes on the show, but it's more interesting to watch heroes struggle with internal questions that they can't answer than to battle an external foe we know they can defeat. The conflict here comes from the fact that we have an innate sympathy towards the Earth government, because it's us, not because of anything the show actually gives us.

Being a title episode for the season, we get a glimpse of the future, by way of Londo's encounter with the seer. Unlike 'Signs and Portents' or 'The Coming of Shadows,' we don't actually see the future, rather we're told some things. There's the decidedly ambiguous words from Morella, and also some the unambiguous declaration that both Londo and Vir will become Emperor. Now, the route that seems most likely at this point is Londo becomes Emperor, the Shadows eventually turn on the Centauri and they're so defeated that the Narn, possibly as part of the Alliance of Light, invade and G'Kar kills Londo. Then, due to his connections to the Minbari, Vir is installed as Emperor and oversees a period of peace for the Centauri, picking up the legacy of Emperor Turhan. I'm assuming it won't proceed exactly like that.

For one, Londo seems to be Emperor about twenty years in the future, and I'm not sure how that chronology will match with the fact that the new DVD movies are presumably set the real time ten years after the series' end. I'm assuming we get a jump into the future at the end of the series, to pay off the dream, but if we jump in to the future, wouldn't that spoil whatever happens to Sheridan in the new DVD movie? Now, perhaps that movie is just a standalone tale, taking place between some of the series' ending chronological jumping. Or, it's possible that the events seen in the dream actually happen earlier than we're led to believe there. I suppose I'll learn the answers to these questions once I finish watching the series.

I was glad to see G'Kar finally getting bumped up to member of the Ranger Crew. The entire season so far has been about assembling the alliance to do battle against the Shadows. Assembling this alliance allows for Babylon 5 to secede from Earth and still be a viable military force. G'Kar seems totally changed by his prison experience, and apparently sees working with the humans as the key to moving the Narn forward. Being part of this alliance would put him in a good position to reclaim his homeworld once they finish doing battle with the Centauri. But, as we see, that battle will not be without its costs.

After a lot of dancing around it, 'Severed Dreams' pays off the conflict with Earth. It's a huge episode, with really exciting battles happening on two fronts. The effects here were the best the series has done so far, with seemingly hundreds of ships swirling around the station during the battle sequence. It was well staged, tense and the moment where the Minbari show up, and we see Delenn in command of the White Star was an incredible payoff, that push in to her face a moment that gave me chills. I don't know if I'd agree with Sheridan that it was the finest moment of his life, but it was pretty damn good.

I also loved the ground battle stuff. We'd seen aerial fighting before, and I don't think this sequence had the intensity of the Narn/Centauri or Narn/Shadow conflicts, but we'd never seen a ground battle like this. They pulled no punches in showing death, that final pan over the Narn and human corpses was particularly powerful. While I wasn't glad to see all those Narn killed, I was happy that they stood by the alliance and fought for the station. As Delenn, G'Kar really has changed, and become a better leader for his people.

The victory at the end of this episode was earned, and with it, a new status quo for the station is announced. The crane shot at the end was obvious, but worked, the multi-species crowd a testament to the success of Babylon 5's mission, in uniting the various peoples in a world that wants to destroy them. It has become the center of hope in a universe seemingly intent on destroying itself.

From here, as I mentioned before, I'm ready to see the full breakout of the Shadow War. It's been building for a couple of seasons and I'm hoping to get full on escalation shortly. I'd imagine there'll be a few standalones exploring the new status quo before a return to heavy arc stuff. Right now, I'm curious as to how much the B5 crew knows about the Earth alliance with the Shadows. Franklin mentioned something specific about an Earth/Shadow alliance, but was that just a reference to the ships, or does he know that they've met with Morden. I could see Earth announcing a pact with the Shadows in light of the secession of their various territories. And, before the season ends, I'm expecting Morden to come to Sheridan with news of his wife, making Sheridan choose between his wife and his allegiance to Babylon 5. That will be a more wrenching choice than the one he makes here.