Thursday, January 25, 2007

Babylon 5: 4x01-4x04

After the events of Z'Ha'Dum, it was clear that things would be shaken up a bit. Sheridan was presumed dead, Garibaldi was missing, and the League was breaking up. However, all those changes pale in comparison to the paradigm shift in the series' cosmology that came out of Sheridan's meeting with the Shadows. Last time, I talked about the similarities to The Invisibles, how at first you're led to believe in a strict idea of good and bad, but as the series goes on, that manichean worldview breaks down, and the need for both authority and chaos becomes apparent. It looks like we're headed down the same path here, an unexpected, and quite satisfying twist.

But that's not the only major change for the series. When the show first started, it was almost exclusively standalone episodes, some hints about the future were dropped, but there was little direct connection between stories. By season three, things were fairly continuous, but there was generally still a clear divide between each episode. Season four, so far at least, has moved to a serial format, with little resolution at the end of each episode, and almost always ending on a cliffhanger. This sort of storytelling has a lot of merits, most notably the lack of fat, each piece of the episode contributes to the larger picture and we're not wasting time with new one week only characters. The issue with it is plots can bleed together and you get less satisfaction from each piece. That said, I think it was a smart choice, at this point, the vast majority of standalone stories are going to pale in comparison next to what the arc has to offer.

That means there'll be a slight change in review style. I'm going to go more from the overall arcs than focusing on individual episodes. As the series begins, we're in a situation much like what the Buffy crew faced in 'Bargaining.' Their leader is gone, and they're struggling to fight on without him. The status quo is majorly disrupted and routine places feel alien without our hero there. I think this show is even more dependent on Sheridan than Buffy the show was on Buffy the character. The Buffy supporting cast was so well developed, I wouldn't have minded seeing half a season without the title character. That's not true here, most of them need Sheridan around to bounce things off of, without him, they're too isolated. Particularly with Londo and G'Kar off station, the people left on Babylon 5 couldn't exactly carry the show. So, I was right with the characters in hoping that Sheridan would find a way to return.

Even though I don't talk that much about his performance, his absence makes it clear just how important Boxleitner has become to the show. He is the center around which everything else revolves, and the closer the peripheral people are to him, the better they usually are. When you get an episode like 'Grey 17,' where Garibaldi is off on its own, it's not particularly interesting, but when he's working with Sheridan, he's a lot better. Sheridan has great chemistry with everyone, and that makes his absence all the more noticable.

With Sheridan, Garibaldi and Londo off station, the show's scope has expanded beyond what we're used to. In season one, I don't think we ever saw anything outside Babylon 5, now the characters are spread across multiple planets in a galaxy spanning war. I think the show is hurt in some respects by the fact that they shoot everything on sets. Battlestar Galactica may have reused that same patch of woods a few too many times, but their alien worlds feel more believable and real, likely because they are real places. Particularly on the planet where G'Kar visits when searching for Garibaldi, it's pretty obvious they just built a set that looks like a cave. I don't get the sense of being on an alien world. Centauri Prime at least has those CG establishing shots, but then they move right onto sets. A better way to do it might be to shoot somewhere real and then build the CG off of the existing location, but I suppose the budget isn't there for that. I'd have loved to see Centauri Prime rendered with the same magnificence as Rome on the HBO show, but I believe the budget for one twelve episode season of that show is more than was Babylon 5's 110 episodes cost. They're working with what they have, but it can make things feel theatrical rather than realistic.

In that respect, Babylon 5 is like the Hollywood studio system while Battlestar Galactica is like the French New Wave. Disregarding narrative, that comparison is really fitting for nearly all aspects of production. Babylon 5 is focused on having the actors deliver the dialogue clearly, rarely indulging in excess naturalism or method style emotional acting. BSG is all about the mumbling, verite delivery, and the actors feel much more immersed in their roles. Similarly, B5 uses very classical cinematography and staging, while BSG is full of stumbling handheld. BSG gives the impression of catching this action as it unfolds, while B5 feels staged for the camera. Both are valid approaches, I prefer the look and feel of BSG, but a lot of what they're doing is only possible because of technical advances in the ten year gap between shows.

One of the major threads of the first couple of episodes is Sheridan's talks with Lorien on Z'Ha'Dum. The explanation, or lack thereof, for his ressurection at first felt pretty contrived. Obviously he was going to survive the fall, and no explanation is going to be really satisfying, but at least put in a bit of effort. However, in 'Apotheosis,' we do find out what happened, and it makes a lot of sense.

But, that doesn't excuse the excess of rambling monologues from Lorien. JMS loves the big monologue, but I think he went to the well once too often with Lorien. The big issues are great, but I felt like the theme was conveyed and the guy just kept on talking. Part of that might be my anticipation to see Sheridan get back to the station, but if you're going to do a story like this, you have to know your audience is just waiting for it to be over, and make it so good, they enjoy it in spite of that. There were some cool, strange things in there, a bit reminiscent of Mulder's cosmic resurection journey in 'The Blessing Way,' but things never went into really strange, trippy territory. Instead, Lorien talked.

That said, the buildup made Sheridan's return all the more awesome when it finally happened. When I saw that all the aliens were gathered together badmouthing the alliance, I knew he was going to show up for a dramatic entrance, but that only enhanced his walk up the stairs and re-emergence on Babylon 5. The music here was great, swirling, looping lines leading to a majestic crescendo when he and Delenn finally embrace. That was a great moment, and an echo of what we saw in 'Severed Dreams.' Delenn and Sheridan are the parents of this alliance, and only together can they keep it united.

In the next episode, we find out that Sheridan did die, but was gifted life by Lorien. However, he will die in twenty years. This leads me to assume the final episode will feature Sheridan's death. Considering we've already seen Londo and G'Kar's passing, perhaps they'll go Six Feet Under and show everyone's death. I still think it's a bit of a copout on the "If you go to Z'Ha'Dum, you will die," warning. That's like saying "Eat that apple and you will die...fifty years from now." Technically, I guess he did die in the present, and obviously Sheridan wasn't going to stay dead, but I figured JMS would be a bit less cheap than that. Originally I was expecting him to survive this trip to Z'Ha'Dum, but go there again in the future, and die then. Perhaps that will still happen.

The resolution of the Z'Ha'Dum business raises the question of why Delenn told him not to go to Z'Ha'Dum in the future. There's the obvious answer of he went through all that trauma and now only has twenty years, perhaps it wouldn't be like that if he didn't go. But, if he didn't go, wouldn't all time have been changed? Perhaps, he told her she said that, and as a result she repeated his message, completing the time loop and ensuring that the past remains the same. That would make sense, though he still hasn't told her the full extent of his vision of the future. I'd assume we'll see that scene eventually.

'Apotheosis' also brings us the engagement of Delenn and Sheridan. I think the two of them are great together and this is a good development for the characters. It was the absence that made it clear how much they love each other, and even though I was cracking on JMS's speeches earlier, Sheridan's words to Delenn there were quite nice. I'm still not clear on how common interspecies relations are in the B5verse. We saw G'Kar having sex with some human women earlier, but no mention other than that. Is it socially acceptable, and will someone at least mention their obvious differences upon hearing of Sheridan's engagement? Will there be a standalone episode in which a veteran of the Earth-Minbari War comes back to kill Sheridan upon fiinding out that he's marrying Delenn? If it was season one, I'm sure there would be, now I don't know.

While the Captain comes back in good spirits and full of life, Garibaldi is not looking so good. This plot is still unfolding, but apparently he's been programmed by the Psi Corps to serve as some kind of a sleeper agent. It's interesting that the Shadows picked him up and dropped off at whatever facility he was stationed at. We still don't know the full extent of Shadow involvement in the Earth government. However, now that we know the Shadows' agenda, their alliance makes more sense. They want to help the strongest survive and let the weak die off, exactly the same message the Ministry of Peace was pushing when they were on the station.

It's jarring to see Garibaldi's cynicism take on such a dark edge. I'm assuming this is a followup on the work they did with Talia, trying to get more information on the inner workings of the League. The question it raises is when will they figure out what's going on with him and how will they deprogram him without destroying his mind? The original Talia was completely lost, will Garibaldi have the same fate? I'd assume not, but it's possible. Perhaps Garibaldi will be the one to voice opposition to the Captain and Delenn.

Elsewhere, we get further development of Marcus and Ivanova. Like Sheridan and Delenn, they're spending a long time in the flirting stage, not quite making the jump to relationship. The scene between them on the White Star in 'The Summoning' was great. Other than Sheridan, Marcus is my favorite of the human characters, and I'm hoping he'll get more screentime as the scene goes on, and perhaps finally receive the deflowering he deserves. I'd imagine the slow development of these relationships must have been quite frustrating to viewers when the show was on, I feel like they're been dancing around this forever and I only saw his first appearance on the show a couple of weeks ago.

Another major thread is the series' first ongoing independent subplot, the drama in the court on Centauri Prime. It's a bold move to sever Londo from his ties on Babylon 5, but ever since the Shadows stuff began, he's been isolated from everyone anyway. Perhaps it's the Chris Claremont love coming out, but I always enjoy having these long running side subplots in addition to the main narrative. The Helo stuff in BSG season one was great, and this stuff is great too. They're clearly drawing from Roman history, from the architecture to the insane Emperor, and it works well. I particularly like seeing another piece of Londo's dream realized.

The Emperor stuff doesn't really take off until G'Kar gets there. I'm not quite sure G'Kar's relationship to Garibaldi was sufficiently close that he should go off looking for him, but that's basically the justification to get him out there and captured. Once on Centauri, we witness him go through a series of awful humiliations, all the while plotting with Londo take out the Emperor. I like the way these two have evolved into allies, not through a change in values, but rather through the realization that their ends have much in common. Londo has been mellowed by having all his dreams realized. The Narns have been conquered and it hasn't brought the Centauri back to glory, it's put a crazy man on the throne and placed the planet into even more danger, through the presence of Shadow ships.

I should backtrack to comment on Morden's change. While I don't have a big problem with him surviving the thermonuclear blast, he's such a great character, it's good to have him around, I'm not a fan of his new appearance. The whole point of the character was he was this regular guy who worked for a totally alien force. Now, he loses that ordinariness and becomes just another strange looking bad guy.

So, Londo, G'Kar and Vir plot to kill the Emperor. I think the scene with the jester hat was great, perfectly conveying both G'Kar's suffering and the Emperor's insanity. However, the electrowhip scene didn't work as well as was intended. Again, they draw on slavery imagery, and things were set for a great scene. But, the electrowhip effect was a bit cheesy and the sound effect didn't convey that much pain. I didn't really believe that fortieth lash would have killed him. However, the plot's thematic tie in to the idea of destroying Narn pride as the final barrier to total conquest works well. We've seen this before in the episode where the Vichy Narn official came to Babylon 5 and Londo said he still needed to be broken more. Here that pride becomes a liability and G'Kar must sacrifice it in order to save his people. He now runs into the question of whether he's losing something essentially Narn to save all of Narn. That ties in to his dream, something must be sacrificed to save the whole. And in addition to his pride, he's also losing his eye, another piece of the future vision falls into place.

The other major change is the paradigm shift for the Vorlons. Up to this season, we'd been led to believe the Vorlons were like benevolent parent figures for the younger races, helping out when needed, giving us that push we need to go our own way. Now, it turns out that they are just as unwavering as the Shadows, totally committed to their own way of doing things and out to destroy that which stands against them. At this point, the show has moved into the area of allegory, the story makes some sense literally, but a lot more sense if you view the Vorlons and Shadows as incarnation of two different worldviews. They are the extremes and humanity must find a way to work in the middle.

It's odd to see the characters fighting against the Vorlons. Kosh I had become a part of the team by the end, and 'Apotheosis' makes clear the difference between the new Kosh and the original. That blinded them to the overall Vorlon agenda, which is to wipe out the Shadows and anything contaminated by them. On the individual level, that leads to a nicely executed fight scene in which Kosh II is drawn out and killed by Kosh I and Lorien. On a larger scale, it forces the characters to interrogate their own relation to the overall war. Because both sides have become so extreme, the League has no choice but to wage a dual war. If they don't succeed in deterring the larger forces, they will become collateral damage.

I love the fact that the very nature of the war is radically changed at this point in the story. We'd been led to fear the Shadows for so long, having this new foe changes everything. It's still early in the development, but so far the fourth season has not gone at all the way I was expecting, and that's a good thing. I thought the Shadow speech in Z'Ha'Dum was about bringing layers to the villain, not completely changing the game. But, JMS kicked things up a notch and I admire that. The other seasons started slow, then got going around episode eight or nine. This one was going by episode three, that bodes well for the future.

TV Status Report: Winter 2007

One of the things I'm glad to see developing in the world of TV is the split run system, where shows do a run of 10-12 episodes in the fall, take a couple of months off and then come back for a run of 10-12 in the spring. It makes it easier to keep track of when there's a new episode, and also allows the story to flow without interruption for as long as possible. Having caught up on a bunch of stuff on DVD, I'm now watching more shows on a weekly basis than ever before, though the process of natural selection may cause some of these to slip away before the season ends. Anyway, here's an update on what I'm watching.

24 - Due to an excess of Babylon 5 and other stuff, I've only seen the first two hours of the season. They were pretty strong, but I'm more aware of the 24 formula at work. I'm sure I'll get caught up in the season as it goes, but this opening wasn't as riveting as last year's. I've got the next three episodes and will hopefully catch up with them soon.

Battlestar Galactica - It's sometimes frustrating, but no other show on the air now comes close to the experience of watching a new Galactica. The effects just keep getting better, and this last episode did a good job of setting up a bunch of potentially interesting storylines. This is always a Sunday night watch, no waiting.

Friday Night Lights - I haven't seen yesterday's episode yet, but I could see this show going away for a while in February sweeps, so it's no rush. This is still one of the best shows on TV, and the past couple of episodes have done a great job of maintaining the show's quality. No other show feels more real than this one, the camerawork, acting and writing all make it totally believable, and that believability is the key to the show's success. I have the feeling this could be a show like Freaks and Geeks, where it's cancelled after one year, but every actor on the show goes on to success.

Gilmore Girls - I haven't seen Tuesday's episode yet, but I've grown somewhat disenchanted with the show under its new leader. Attachment to the characters keeps me watching, but the storylines just aren't that good, or particularly original, and I'm just waiting for the inevitable Lorelai/Christopher breakup. I have the feeling this is going to be an X-Files situation, where collective consesus will conclude that the last seasons didn't happen.

Heroes - I watched the most recent episode yesterday, and even though the show is technically fantastic, it's still never really hooked me. I think the reason is I just don't care that much about the characters. On a TV show you're pretty much there for the characters, sitcoms are basically about hanging out for a half hour with your fictional friends, and dramas are about watching your fictional friends go through tough times. But, I don't really care what happens to the Heroes people, much like Lost, the appeal of the show is in the shocking revelations rather than logical character development. It's still entertaining, but they're going to have to kick up their game a bit to get me back for the next season. The show is lacking that magic that makes you really care about what happens to the characters.

The Office - I'm through episode 3.7, and even though I still don't think it comes close to its British counterpart, the show is still one of the funniest American sitcoms ever. It's broader than the UK one, and that sometimes hurts them, but much like the last two seasons of Seinfeld, that broadness can also get bigger laughs. It's such an easy show to watch, always entertaining.

Rome - I'm through episode eight of the first season, and am hoping to catch up before episode three of the second season airs. HBO's shows are always a cut above when it comes to production value and ambition. The show manages to make the historical figures lively and accessible, and the emotions always feel real.

Veronica Mars - I wasn't particuarly impressed with the first half of the third season, but there's always just enough of interest to keep me watching. Maybe the lack of an overarching mystery in the last chunk of the year will free them up to do some bolder creative things. If I drop one show, it's most likely to be this one.

Wow, that's a lot of stuff, and I've got Babylon 5 in there as well. But, there's a lot of good shows out there, and once you're hooked, it's hard to back out.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Battlestar Galactica - 'Rapture' (3x12)

After a month long hiatus, Battlestar is back. It's a bit jarring for me to come back to this sci-fi universe after spending so long in the world of Babylon 5. I'd gotten so used to the 1997 era effects of B5 that the BSG shots had renewed dazzle. In the last few episodes, the BSG effects team has been outdoing themselves, this episode features a whole bunch of incredible shots, most notably the Supernova at the end of the episode.

The opening sequence did a good job of bringing me right back into the world after the layoff. The highlight is the Sharon/Helo scene, a really well done, wrenching moment. Coming off of this, we get a scene that really bothered me, where Roslin and Adama yell at Helo for killing Sharon. As the scene went on, I was baffled that Helo didn't yell at them for taking his child and then allowing her to fall into the hands of the cylons. He's the one with the right to be angry, and thankfully they got around to that after a little while. But still, I'd like to have seen him more on the offensive. I guess this is the President he's talking to, but I would have preferred the big outburst to the boiling under the surface rage.

One of my major issues with the show at this poitn is that Adama and Roslin have gotten too close. I don't have a problem with that per se, but in the early days, they were critical as representatives of two different viewpoints. If we got a third voice in there to counter them, it would be fine. But, now they're basically the same. In this case, they may have wanted to present a united front to Helo, but we're given no reason to believe that they're not in agreement on the issue. It's one of the problems with a long running show, the edges get worn down and rivalries turn into grudging respect, and eventually friendship. I'd like to see Zarek, or a new character, come back and provide some opposition to Adama and Roslin.

The military stuff on the planet was well done, with some great staging on the action sequences. It was refreshing to be back in a dynamic, handheld world. Even when Battlestar stumbles on story stuff, the show's look and production values remain unmatched.

For me, the core of the episode was, unsurprisingly, the stuff involving the cylons. D'Anna breaks with the council and goes to the planet in search of meaning. Once there, we return to the temple from 'Kobol's Last Gleaming,' at which point she finds out someone unexpected is a cylon, before dying. It's frustrating to be teased in this way, but the scene was staged nicely so I'll forgive it. Clearly, the issue is still in play, and in this case, the mystery is probably more interesting than any eventual revelation we'll get.

The end of the D'Anna model is a loss for the show, she was a great character, but it is a fitting end to her arc. She got too close to knowledge that should be secret, and had to be removed as a result. I'm guessing we'll see much less of the cylon ship in the next chunk of the season. With Hera, Baltar and Caprica Six on the Galactica, there's nothing tying us to the ship. Plus, critical reaction to the basestar stuff wasn't very positive. I loved it at first, but they basically just had this environment and some cryptic dialogue, there was no actual forward progress there. I still enjoyed that stuff every time it appeared, but I can see why it'd wear on others.

The best scene in the episode is Sharon Athena's confrontation with Sharon Boomer. The motivations are on the surface a bit cyrptic, why has Sharon Boomer turned on Athena, what makes her willing to kill Hera? I would argue it's jealousy. Boomer had the same feelings for the chief that Athena has for Helo, only her love is unrequited. She probably thought that she would be the one to make the hybrid child, and she has taken on Hera, being the closest thing to her mother. With Athena's return, Boomer is rendered irrelevant, and that's why she reacts so strongly. Athena is living the life she wanted, the life she once had.

Caprica leaves with Sharon for Galactica, a move that creates a lot of interesting potential storylines. The goal here was likely to reverse the dynamic they had with Baltar on the cylon ship for the first half of the season. By bringing Caprica over, they keep a cylon presence on the show, without having to always have them near the Basestar and in direct conflict. I'm guessing that Caprica will not wind up in prison and instead be able to wander the station in some kind of freedom. They already did a storyline with an imprisoned model six back in season two and I don't see the point of retreading that. I prefer the idea of Caprica being something of a cross cultural ambassador, trying to understand the humans.

But, they could also go the route of having her and Baltar imprisoned together. She still has Baltar's greatest secret, that he was the one who allowed Caprica to get attacked, and I wouldn't be surprised to see that factor in future proceedings. It'll be interesting to see Baltar and Caprica try to patch things up after the stuff with D'Anna. They, along with Sharon, are the best characters on the show and it'll be good to have them all in one place.

The Eye of Jupiter itself doesn't seem to have done much, since the only person who got its vision is now dead. So, in essence, the point of the whole two parter was to shift some people from the Cylon ship to the Galactica, and get another vague clue about Earth. Even though I was loving being back in the style and intensity of Galactica, they still ultimately don't have the same cohesiveness as Babylon 5. It's more like The X-Files, where they'll drop these phenomenal episodes every sweeps period, but when you look back, they're all basically the same, hinting at some great revelations, but not giving us anything.

Of course, the show actually does strong character development, so I'm not too concerned about the revelations. I'd rather see characters grow and change in the present than get secrets about the world's past. Bringing Caprica and Hera on to the Galactica opens up the possibility for some really interesting development.

Of course, if you just look at the promos, you'd have no idea any of this was taking place because the show is apparently about Lee and Kara's love quadrangle. That stuff entertaining enough, but not really what I'm watching the show for. I think my major problem is that Kara is such an interesting character, and Lee such a dull one, I'll forgive Kara anything she does, no matter how much it hurts the others. I am seeing the show from her perspective, so I'm going to be biased towards her. It's the same with the Cylons, because they're so much more interesting than most of the people on the Galactica, I'll be inclined to sympathize with them over the humans.

That can create interesting ambiguity, but I think it's also a reflection of the problem with having your characters trapped in the control room. They were more interesting on New Caprica because they were just people, not stuck in roles. Tigh back on New Caprica got a vast range of emotions to cover, here he gets a couple of lines. It's probably pointless to complain about this still, but it was a huge mistake to leave New Caprica.

I only complain because I love the show and it can be so great. This was a top notch episode and opens up a lot of possibilities for the future. I'm eager to see what's up next week.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Babylon 5: 3x18-3x22

Season three comes to a close with the show on the verge of a new era in the Shadow War. For the first time, the antagonists' purpose is truly defined, and our heroes are scattered across the galaxy. It's a very strong final run, and opens up a lot of interesting possibilities for season four.

But first, there's a few more standalone episodes to deal with. 'Walkabout' has some good stuff, but nothing too spectacular. The most interesting stuff is the followup on Kosh's death. I'm not thrilled with the decision to bring in another Vorlon, particularly one named Kosh, because I think this could easily take away some of the impact of the original Kosh's death. But, so far, there seems to be a clear divide between the original Kosh and Kosh II. Later in the season, we see more evidence of original Kosh's connection to Sheridan, and his warnings linger on.

Elsewhere, Lyta Alexander returns and we get a demo of the telepath techniques used to combat the Shadows. The sequence is pretty exciting, though the telepath attacks sometimes come off as a bit goofy. It's not really the fault of the actress, it's just very difficult to convey mental action in a physical plane. Maybe there could have been some effects used to represent her subjective experience of events, so we get a better idea of what she's feeling.

The other issue I have with this sequence is that it's making the Shadows too vulnerable. Much like the evil rival team in every sports movie, we're at first led to believe the Shadows are completely invulnerable, but after some training, our heroes are now taking them out fairly easily. This bothered me at the time, but in retrospect, it appears to be preparation for the 'pause' in the war that occcurs at the end of the season. The Shadows could not remain invulnerable forever, they will have to change their tactics if they hope to win.

But, even with that issue, the moment where G'Kar and the League ships roar out of the hyperspace gate was pretty fantastic. It was great to see the Narns get some revenge on the Shadows after all they've been through.

Elsewhere, we return to Stephen and his quest for identity. The storyline with Cailyn was pretty close to the episode with the woman who was cryo froze back in season two, and even though I enjoyed the singing sequences, it wasn't anything too special. I think they acheived what they set out to do with the story, but it just wasn't particularly compelling. The problem is we don't know who Stephen is outside the lab, and neither does he. This episode doesn't tell us much we don't already know.

'Grey 17 is Missing' has a few good scenes, but also a plot that's straight out of the dark times of season one. The Grey 17 story was just nonsensical and despite some vaguely interesting themes, doesn't really go anywhere. I would guess they wanted to give Garibaldi a storyline on his own turf, outside of the Shadow War and the Captain's influence, but at this point in the overall story development, it's hard to care about some random stuff happening on the station.

Delenn getting promoted to Ranger One was a more interesting story, and I enjoyed the conflict between Marcus and Neroon. I also liked the followup on Sinclair, as she picks up his things, we get to bid him farewell one last time. The knowledge that Sinclair is Valen puts everything Neroon says in a different light, and I like that added meaning. But, ultimately, the episode doesn't do much of interest.

Next up is 'And the Rock Cried Out, No Hiding Place.' We begin with the ominous tagline Z-Minus 14 Days. It raises the stakes, making it clear that something major will happen at the end of the season. Having seen the last episode, I'm not actually sure what the countdown is referring to, it could be the pause in the war, or maybe the attack on Z'Ha'Dum, but regardless, the countdown isn't so much about the end result as it is about creating tension in the moment, a foreboding atmosphere that lends added importance to everything that happens.

The major thread here is the continuing story of Londo's rise to power. The Centauri Court is perpetually locked in rivalry, and in this episode, we see Londo defeat his primary rival, with the assistance of G'Kar. In the flash forwards in 'World Without End,' we saw Londo refer to G'Kar as 'old friend,' and willingly submitted to G'Kar to kill him. Ultimately, what the two of them have in common is an interest in accumulating power for themselves and their people. In this case, those interests overlap, the enemy of my enemy is my friend, so they form an alliance and take out Lord Refa.

I like the way things played out here. I was expecting the obvious G'Kar gets played storyline, or perhaps Londo and Refa's troops clash, allowing G'Kar to escape. Usually the big twist that appears without the viewer's knowledge bothers me, but it came organically out of the story here, and worked well with where we've seen these two developing as the season progressed. Londo gets the revenge he sought in 'Interludes and Examinations,' and G'Kar also gets revenge. G'Kar is more aware of the role he needs to play in the system, that's why he works with Londo here, whereas a year ago he never would have been willing to collaborate in this way. Ever since seeing the vision in 'Dust to Dust,' he knows that compromise and sacrifice are essential to helping his people move forward.

The intercutting of Refa's death and the Gospel song was a new stylistic choice for their series. It was jarring, and in that sense effective, though I'm not totally sold on it. It seems to minimize the potential emotional impact of the scene, turning it into something darkly comic. It certainlly works on some level, but I'm not sure if it was the best choice. It might have been more interesting to play some of G'Kar's potential guilt about killing this guy in cold blood. It might have been a justified reaction to what Refa did to the planet, but will it actually make things better? I guess he justifies it because of Londo's promise to release 2,000 Narns from imprisonment. In that regard, Refa's life is a very payable price.

Elsewhere, this episode shows Sheridan suffering under the stress of his role as commanding officer. The primary goal is to show that Sheridan needs to share his burden with someone, and that someone is Delenn. I think the show has done a good job of moving them slowly together, and this episode is critical in reinforcing the important role they play in each others' lives. The speech from the Minister might have been a little head on, but we are so immersed in Sheridan's subjectivity that we hear what he's saying apply it to Sheridan's own life. In the end, they kiss in front of a fleet of White Stars, a strong moment to close on.

Next up is 'Shadow Dancing,' an episode with one of the most impressive space battles the series has done to date. Before the battle proper, there's some fun bits with Ivanova and Marcus. Ivanova hasn't gotten much to do this season, and I'll still contend that one of the series' major flaws is the fact that the human characters just aren't that interesting. Ivanova has gone through some changes, but she gets nowhere near the quality of material that Londo or G'Kar do. Now, it's tough to compete with them regardless, because the actors are just so good, but I feel like one of the best things about Whedon's shows would be when he'd give the actors material to stretch with and they'd rise to the challenge. Who'd have thought Amy Acker could play a character like Illyria? Not I, but she could and I'm glad that Joss gave her the chance to do it.

Ivanova and Garibaldi get basically the same stuff to do every week, and any emotional troubles they do have are kept below the surface. That's one of the consequences of doing a story as big as the Shadow arc, personal drama needs to be on that same scale to compete. With this episode, we get the intercutting of Franklin's near death experience and the space battle. This is perhaps the biggest moment in Franklin's entire life to date, but it just can't compete with what was going on outside, and whenever they were on him, I wanted to go back to the space battle. I think it would have been smarter to put those scenes with Stephen in a less crowded episode so they could get the focus they deserve. They were good scenes, it's just they weren't in the league of the space battle.

I did enjoy the downtime scene with Marcus and Ivanova in the canted bed room. It seemed designed to deliberately echo the Sheridan/Delenn scene there earlier in the season, and I'm imagining these two will be getting the proverbial it on at some point next season. The Minbari translation stuff was the high point there, though I also liked the comedy schtick later in the scene. What made this scene work while the Franklin stuff felt extraneous was largely its position in the story. Here, their humor is in light of the overall forboding atmosphere, it contributes to the overall narrative rather than distracts from it, like the Franklin stuff did.

The battle itself is quite spectacular. There's some great camera move, particularly one huge pan shot. I loved seeing all the ships working together, that is the thematic essence of the series in action, disparate groups coming together to combat the darkness. Sheridan and Delenn have united them and that unity is enough to defeat the Shadows. This fight was a bit more even than the lopsided battle in 'Walkabout,' and that made it feel more like the victory was earned. I want to see the Alliance win, but that victory is meaningless if it doesn't feel earned.

Some of the shots in this sequence were Return of the Jedi level in their hundreds of ships buzzing through spaceness. I don't think any other work has ever topped that space battle, but this one does an admirable job of standing next to it.

The episode ends with a return to the scene from 'War Without End,' and the return of Sheridan's wife. Back in my review for Comes the Inquisitor, I said, "If this was a Joss Whedon show, they would be about to get together when Sheridan receives a call letting him know that his wife is still alive." And it happens pretty much like that. It may have been a predictable route, but in the world of B5, sometimes it's less about shocking the audience with the reveal than it is about shocking them with the context. This was such a good story, such a good moment, they couldn't pass it up. That must have been a long week between episodes back when the show first aired.

And so we move on to the end of 'Point of No Return,' 'Z'Ha'Dum.' After the massive battle in the last episode, we scale things back for a focus on personal conflict, with Sherian uneasy about Anna's return. My major issue with this episode is the disparity between what the characters, specifically Sinclair, know and what we the audience know. I think it's usually a cheap ploy to keep a character's intentions from the audience, ambiguity is great if it comes organically out of the story, but when they're clearly not showing us some critical scenes, like Garibaldi's checklist, it becomes an easy way to retroactively get out of a seemingly impossible situation. Now, part of it may just be the device working, it's supposed to make me want to know more, to know what Sheridan's doing on Z'Ha'Dum, but I think they went too far towards having Sheridan behave slightly cruelly towards Delenn when clearly he actually trusted and believed in her. That's the manipulation I take issue with, the deliberate distorting of a character's behavior to make us believe one thing before twisting another way.

Much like with Lyndisty back in 'Sic Transit Vir,' I like that the face of evil is a pleasant, seemingly harmless woman. Anna may have lost her personality, but she retains all the social niceties needed to ingratiate herself into Sheridan's company. The fact that her ruse fails indicates that the Shadows are missing knowledge of something fundamentally human, something that once taken away means that a person is irrevocably changed. On the station, she asks John to go with her to Z'Ha'Dum, and she makes it sound like a smart choice, something that's worth doing.

Sheridan ultimately decides to go, and here's where I run into some trouble. Sheridan says he is going because he thinks Delenn from the future tells him not to go, and he thinks by going, he can change everything and end the war now. But, if Delenn is telling him not to go, wouldn't that imply he did go and his going had some awful consequences? I think we're moving towards that future that he saw regardless of what he does now, because he has always done it. If all time exists, then the actions they take are the ones that will bring them to that point, seventeen years hence.

I love the scene where Delenn hears his message, he finally tells her he loves her, but he must put his duty above his personal attachments. Thus is the fate of many TV heroes, at least until their last episode. I like that Sheridan finally told Delenn at least some of what he saw in the future, I'd imagine there'll be a more in depth discussion down the line. I would guess he didn't tell her because he doesn't want to put pressure on her to fall in love with him like she was there,but I think that is something that will happen regardless. He must tell her eventually because in the future, she knows.

At the end of 'Shadow Dancing,' Sheridan analyzes the dream vision he received from Kosh. In it, he hears himself reference a man in the middle, when he finally goes to Z'Ha'Dum, he hears from a self described middle man, who at least reveals the Shadows' overall agenda. I love the scene where they're walking into the compound. There's certain things that just have an almost subconscious appeal for me, that resonate on some really deep level. This episode touched those places on multiple occasions. One of these is the journey deep into the enemy's compound. If I had to psychoanalyze myself, I'd say it comes from Star Wars, the idea of our hero going into the heart of the enemy's territory, just a lone figure to fight vast hordes. The corridor moment also recalls stuff from The X-Files and particularly The Invisibles, works that had a major impact. Does this sort of work tap into some essential mythic resonance that exists within all humans? I can't say for sure, but it certainly does for me.

The scene with the Shadows is a bit talky, but full of really interesting thematic stuff, information that totally changes our perception of the war and the reasons for it. The Vorlons and Shadows are locked in an age old battle for the lives of all peoples. The Vorlons are the agents of order, seeking peace and stability. The Shadows are agents of chaos, seeing to disrupt the system and bring about evolution through conflict. They are literally the force of natural selection, weeding out the weak races and enhancing the strength of those who are more powerful. When they aid the Centauri, they disrupt the balance of power, and create one ultra-powerful race out of the ashes of another.

Thematically, this ties in with the probe that visited the station some episodes ago. That probe sought to destroy any race evolved enough to answer its queries, and protect its place in the universe. The Shadows are 'above the game,' not concerned with any personal rivalries. Rather, they seek to elevate the strong and destroy the weak. To do so, means using weaker individuals as fuel for their organic technology.

I think the scene does a wonderful job of making you understand, and even sympathize with the Shadow viewpoint. Their points make some sense, and in their own way, they are trying to move the galaxy forward as much as the Vorlons are. Because the Vorlons no longer play by the rules of their arrangement, they feel justified in attacking and killing Kosh. In this universe, the Vorlons and Shadows are like Greek gods, locked in a perpetual conflict that echoes down onto the lives of all mortals.

The whole sequence reminded me a lot of The Invisibles, particularly my favorite arc in the whole series, Black Science II. There, Jack goes into the stronghold of the Archons, and is shown the nature of their worldview. In that series, The Invisibles are the force of chaos, disrupting existing social structures and forcing the population to evolve and change. There, the agents of stagnation are archons, who actually look a lot like the Shadows. They are the ones who seek to restrict humanity's access to higher levels of consciousness, to not let them see beyond their petty conflicts and view the whole picture of existence. So, the Shadows actually have a lot in common with the Archons, both seek to encourage in fighting to prevent the whole from uniting.

(An Archon)

What the Shadows feel, and what Jack ultimately realizes, is that this fighting is in some ways necessary. We cannot just be gifted a higher consciousness and expect to appreciate it. By giving telepaths to Earth, Vorlons accelerated evolution, humans did not earn those gifts. Shadows would claim that the telepathic gifts should only be held by those who are strongest, and in that society, the best would be unencumbered by poverty and weakness, able to ascend untethered by the weak. Their worldview echoes what Clarke and the Ministry of Peace were saying, that opportunity is available to everyone and those who don't take it deserve to be left behind and made obsolete.

In The Invisibles, we saw our heroes sacrificing some, claiming it was needed to help wake humanity up, but in the end, they realized that the two sides are the same, and it is the conflict between the impulses that helps move humanity forward. To surrender completely to chaos would mean total anarchy and free loss of life, but we cannot just be given aid, we have to earn it. The Vorlons could just go in and defeat the Shadows, but then their goals would not be acheived. If the goal is to move the worlds into a fully functional whole rather than a bunch of disparate parts, the struggle is an essential part of it. The Vorlons provide an aspirational model, and The Shadows a threat large enough to unite them. The fight exists to cement the alliances, and to ensure those alliances persist and the conflict does not come again. When the worlds again become splintered, the Shadows will return, they are a regulatory mechanism, a necessary counter against the complacency of the Vorlons. The two both must exist, the reason that bad things happen to us is to make us stronger. The Shadows are a virus on the worlds, and through battling that infection, the body ensures that it will not become diseased again.

Sheridan is not swayed by the Shadows' argument, and attacks them to escape. I love the moment when the Shadow comes into the room, but the high point of the episode, and perhaps the best scene in the whole series, is the sequence on the balcony. Here, Sheridan is given a hollow shell of the woman he once loved. However, he has come to terms with her loss, and has no desire to be with this false version of her. This sequence is another one that touches on something either mythical or just like Star Wars. The sequence is much like the confrontation between Luke and Darth Vader on Cloud City. Sheridan is battered, bloodied, pushed to the edge of a giant hole. He could make everything better if he'd just give in and join the dark side.

He refuses and Anna comes at him with the Shadows behind her. Then, we see the White Star cutting through the sky, burning with light. It's like a bird crashing down towards them, destruction imminent. Sheridan jumps, and then Anna stares up at it, illuminated with wind. I love that image, the whole moment is just incredible, the explosion, the fall. I can't really address any deeper meaning, I'll just say that it touched something deep. The show has such a massive scale, unlike pretty much any other work out there. A nuclear bomb tears a planet apart, the station is engulfed by Shadows, all is chaos across the universe.

As the season ends, G'Kar reflects on a pause in the war. The Shadows must take time to recharge their forces, and the Alliance grieves for its two losses. The season ending voiceover is a great note to go out on, and I'm curious to see what the next phase of the war looks like.

Season three was a fantastic piece of television. It took a while to meet the heights of the end of season two, but starting with 'Interludes and Examinations,' there was a killer run of episodes, and the season went out with a truly epic finale. While I still have some issues with stuff on an episodic basis, the overall narrative is fantastic, and truly developing in a way that no other series has before. That is the advantage of the five year plan.

And just to cap things, here's my five favorite episodes of the season.

1. War Without End II
2. Z'Ha'Dum
3. Interludes and Examinations
4. Shadow Dancing
5. War Without End I