Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Babylon 5: 4x05-4x08

Some major events happen in this run of episodes, most surprisingly the end of the Shadow War. I figured the war would run for the rest of the series, or at least until the end of this season, particularly with the added presence of the Vorlons. But, it's over and that makes me really curious about the future of the series. The opening run of the fourth season is one of the show's strongest, and 'Into the Fire' in particular is one of the series' best episodes.

But first is 'The Long Night.' On Babylon 5, things are basically moving forward to the big conflict next episode. But we get some major development down on Centauri. I've really enjoyed the palace intrigue plot, and think it's critical to giving a sense of forward momentum to the season. The stuff on Babylon 5 is good, but bleeds together. Partially because G'Kar and Londo are such interesting characters, the Centauri stuff feels even more important. I love the scene where G'Kar breaks free of the chains, all the rage he's accumulated over his life poured into this one moment.

The actual death of the Emperor was brilliantly executed. He's getting even more unstable, turns on Londo just in time for Vir to kill him. I read on the Lurker's Guide that this wasn't originally planned, but it's clearly a case where the story took control of things and moved them in a better direction. Vir's entire arc has been about moving from naivete and total pacifism towards a more machiavellian approach to political action. He is becoming like Londo, and now comes in to finish things where Londo could not. Considering we know he'll become Emperor, it also is foreshadowing of the kind of sacrifices he'll have to make as leader. It was a really dramatic, well executed scene.

Following this triumph for the Narn, the joy crashes down, with G'Kar watching his people begin to again perpetuate the cycle of violence. I like the fact that the show refuses to give us easy triumph, even for an episode. It's the same in 'Into the Fire,' JMS seems as much concerned with the aftermath of war as he is with the war itself. This is more realistic and makes it feel like a fully realized universe, not one just built for this story. Life continues, but G'Kar walks out, having already exhausted himself freeing his people.

Jumping ahead a bit, I was unnerved by the scene in 'Epiphanies' where G'Kar tells Londo he will have nothing to do with him from here on out. Even though Londo was acting in his own self interest, he did reach out to G'Kar and liberate Narn. I thought they'd have a mutual respect by this point. But, I suppose G'Kar still remembers the way he commanded the Shadow vessels to attack Narn, and those wounds do not heal so easily. It's frustrating for the audience because we've been trained to have a short memory, they're working together and things are cool now, right? Not so much, that was an alliance of convienence, it served its purpose and for G'Kar, it's now over. I'd assume G'Kar and Londo must have some kind of reconciliation before the seventeen years in the future stuff, once their interests are again in alignment.

Tracking back to 'Into the Fire,' we get some more great Centauri stuff. Morden, thankfully back in human form, returns. I'm not sure if JMS realized that it was a mistake to put Morden in that weird makeup, or if this was always the plan, but regardless it's a good choice. Londo finds out that Morden was the one responsible for killing Adira, a nice callback that prompts Londo to finally definitively break his alliance with the Shadows. I love the moment where he guns down Morden's Shadow bodyguards, that may be the most badass moment of the series to date.

But moments later he goes even badderass when he nukes an entire island just to destroy the Shadow vessels docked there. I know JMS is a big Alan Moore fan and that moment reminded me a lot of Adrian's "I did it thirty minutes ago" at the end of issue eleven. Rather than doing the typical struggle, we get a character who's one step ahead, and finally plays the ultimate player. Morden is dragged out, promising to exact revenge on the Centauri and when next we see him, it's Vir waving at his head on a pike. It's tough to lose Morden, but with the Shadows gone, it makes sense. There's further evidence of Vir's corruption here. I was expecting him to reconsider his happy wave when he actually saw Morden dead, but apparently not, he's thrilled to see the man dead. He's learned a lot from Londo.

I've been knocking intercutting a number of times in recent reviews, both for this show and for Battlestar Galactica, but the intercutting of the major space battle with the Centauri drama worked really well. The critical thing for intercutting is that the plot strands are equally interesting. I think the best intercutting is in Return of the Jedi, where all three phases of the battle are riveting, and each jump between scenarios amplifies the tension. Both segments here are playing out stuff that's been in the works since the beginning of the series, and I like the way they crossover, with the departure of the Vorlons from Centauri just in time. Because of the intercutting, that moment felt earned rather than a copout.

Things resolve with Londo and Vir hugging as equals. I really disliked Vir in his early appearances, but he's worked well here. He's grown up as the series has progressed and is now wearing hair as big as Londo's. Londo becomes Prime Minister and is presumably on the road to Emperor. Londo has acheived his goal, but finds that doing so just creates a whole new set of problems. Post 'Into the Fire,' that seems to be one of the major themes of the series.

The last I've seen of the Centauri is the Minister with a keeper on his neck. Following the departure of the Shadows, I was wondering who would be there to torment Centauri Prime. That's becoming clear, they're already exerting their influence. I love that JMS chose to show us that glimpse of the future, it's a different kind of tension as we watch things unfold, pieces fall into place to create the future we saw. We don't get the initial shock, rather it's a different kind of surprise, at how things happen rather than happens.

Back with the main crew, 'Into the Fire' marks the end of the series' primary structural thread, the war against the Shadows. I was really shocked to see just how much happened in this episode, particularly the ending. It's a bold, risky choice, but regardless of what happens after, it makes for one amazing episode. Things open with the crew gearing up for battle. I particularly like the scene with Ivanova and Lorien. Lorien says that humanity's greatest gift is the belief that there is such a thing as eternal love. JMS may sometimes go overboard on the philosophical monologues, but they are always interesting. I went back to rewatch this one after the episode finished, it's a really interesting point, and a great example of using genre conventions to discuss universal human truths from a different angle. You just don't see issues like this discussed on TV a lot, and it's refreshing to get that. I thought that the monologue would provide the impetus for Ivanova to finally make things happen with Marcus, but that will apparently have to wait for a little bit.

From there, we move to a dazzling space battle. I had watched a Battlestar earlier in the day, and these effects stood up pretty well next to it. There's a massive number of ships, and a really interesting environmental texture around them. To do this on a TV schedule in 1997 is phenomenal, this was a really epic space battle, with the music and visuals making for a great sequence.

Throughout the sequence, there's a continual focus on parent-child conflict. The battle is about the child races asserting their independence, showing that they can make it on their own, that the Vorlons and Shadows have become unnecessary. But, this is not something that's easy for the Vorlons and Shadows to accept, they have defined themselves in relation to their children, and cannot allow them to break free of their influence. They make it necessary to choose, when the only viable way to go is a third path, somewhere between control and chaos.

Fittingly, it's Sheridan and Delenn together who must strike the final blow. They are taken into a psychic dimension and given a final pitch from each race. Visually, I love the ice lady representing the Vorlons. It's something really unique and striking, moreso than the somewhat cliche, though still effective morphing Vorlon figure. I'm not sure exactly what happened to bring this scenario about, but it's a cool way to resolve things, very Morrison.

I've already mentioned the conflict's similarities to The Invisibles. That series was also about its characters moving beyond dualism and finding a third way, somewhere between total anarchy and total control. The people left behind in The Invisibles were the ones who clung to one side, like Sir Miles and Jolly Roger. There, the conflict was centered on evolution, moving beyond the restrictions of individuality and embracing the oneness of all humanity. In Babylon 5, we've already seen the individual races overcoming their differences and uniting to form the massive fleet. This fleet is a literal representative of oneness, a moving incarnation of the dream of Babylon 5. The other ships taking missile hits for the White Star is evidence of just how powerful this connection is.

The Vorlons and Shadows don't want humanity to evolve because that means they become superfluous. What good is manichean conflict in a world of infinite possibilities? Strict doctrine becomes restrictive and that's what the rejection is about. I love the way this ties into the series' central theme, the station's goal of uniting alien races across old boundaries. As episodes like 'Illusion of Truth' make clear, JMS is very concerned with our current political situation on Earth present day. The series is advocating a move beyond war mongering, embracing a more global planet, where conflict is resolved through discussion rather than violence. I'm not sure what his personal views are, but you could easily connect the victory they have here with the move towards the Supercontext in Morrison's work, the embrace of a collective rather than individual identity.

In the end, the Shadows and Vorlons have no choice but to leave. They are outdated and go with the first ones and Lorien out beyond the rim. There's a lot of Lord of the Rings similarities here, the idea of the ancient races moving on to inaugarate the third age of man. It's a powerful theme, and works well here. Plus, it pays off some concepts dropped in the first season's voiceover, that it was the dawn of the third age of man. We finally know what that means. What I'm still curious to find out about is why this was the last of the Babylon stations.

After the end of this episode, I was really curious about the new direction the series would take. It was a moment of happiness for everyone involved, a victory over the foe who's threatened them for the entire run of the show. So, I watched the next one, which gives us an idea of where things will go. As I was saying before, JMS's primary concern now seems to be showing us the part of the story we don't usually see. The movie ends here, with the Shadows defeated, our heroes celebrating and Delenn and Sheridan off to a happy, married future. But life doesn't end there, there's still a lot of mess, and issues to deal with. I'll have to see how things go because I'm still not sure it was smart to end the war with over a season and a half to go, but we'll see.

'Epiphanies,' also the title of an Angel, Battlestar Galactica and Spaced, brings us a new foe, Earth. They may have lost their Shadow allies, but that doesn't mean they're not ready to try and reclaim Babylon 5. I'd imagine they're threatened by this alliance and want to undermine its center. Bester gets some good stuff here, including some followup on the seemingly random appearance of his love last season. Judging from this and the next episode, that plot point is by no means done with. The actual events of the episode are mostly just wheel spinning, setting up the new status quo, but it's still fun to watch.

For the first time, we get to see Lyta Alexander outside of her professional role. She seems to be the only person on the station who actually has downtime, it's good to know someone does. I like her awkward meeting with Zack, and the way Sheridan's menacing confrontation with her at the end segues into his pizza offer. Clearly she's got some major power that we haven't seen yet, and I'd imagine it'll become an issue as things progress.

Another major development is Garibaldi's resignation. I'm now not sure whether he's been brainwashed as a sleeper agent, or is just unsatisfied with his role on the station. The dissatisfaction may have been exposed by whatever happened to him on the Psi Corps ship. I like that we get a dissenting voice, it's giving him the most interesting material he's ever had. I particularly like his interview in 'The Illusion of Truth,' where he makes some harsh, but true points about Sheridan's behavior. I'm not sure about the animosity between him and Sheridan, I thought they had got pretty close, but I guess there haven't really been that many scenes with the two of them together outside of work.

'The Illusion of Truth' is a bit heavyhanded, but very effective at showing the way the news can distort facts. It's surprising how prescient JMS is, all the things he's addressing here are things that the Bush administration has done. I'd imagine the episode actually works better today than when it aired. Back then, it was probably viewed as excessive and unrealistic, but not so much today. ISN is basically Fox News, a propaganda arm of the government, helping to enact their agenda.

I'm glad that the entire episode wasn't a news show, it was much more effective to see the actual events first, then watch how they're distorted by the news broadcast. EarthGov is waging a war on all fronts against Babylon 5, and with no opportunity to counter, this broadcast will likely shape public opinion of Babylon 5 on Earth.

Xenophobia is the critical structuring element for this broadcast. Dan Randall plays on the public's fear of alien races, presenting this false alien/human hybrid program on the station. It's hard to watch as he distorts the reality of Sheridan and Delenn's relationship, and insinuates that she is the first of a race of hybrids. That's the nastiest thing on there, and the first sign that there will be resistance to their relationship. I'm assuming that will become an even bigger issue as the season progresses. Their relationship, like the station itself, is a living embodiment of the characters' goals, to unite alien races in a peaceful, understanding way.

The one moment that strayed a bit too far into political commentary outside the series was the HUAC throwback. While I appreciate the point he was trying to make, it had little connection with the series as a whole, and that made it feel self indulgent. It wasn't a huge mistake, but I think the rest of the episode made the point well enough, we didn't need that scene.

But, on the whole it was pretty crushing to watch that news broadcast, and I like the odd fisheye final image. To go cliche, the silence was deafening. How will Sheridan and Delenn deal with this? How will the cryogenicallly frozen Shadow technology play into future plots, and will the Earth conflict continue for the rest of the series? I shall watch on and find out.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Battlestar Galactica: 'Taking a Break From All Your Worries' (3x13)

BSG has come back strong after the break with a couple of top notch episodes. While 'Rapture' had a lot more obvious showy, meaningful stuff, I think this was actually the stronger episode, with one of their strongest A stories in a while. The subplot held things back a bit, but on the whole, it was a great experience.

My favorite characters on the show have always been Baltar, Sharon and Six. This season we've gotten a somewhat neutered Baltar, first powerless under the Cylon occupation, then powerless during his Cylon captivity. The man is at his best when he's got an agenda, and is scheming to get around things. So far this year, he's been just trying to survive, so we haven't got that great charge that comes from watching him trying to play Adama and Roslin. This episode, despite the catastrophic injuries caused, marks the first time we see Baltar return to full strength since the fantastic scene on New Caprica where he wakes up in bed with two hookers.

It baffles me to see people describe Baltar as a villain. I think the show is beyond clear cut ideas of good and evil, I wouldn't even call the Cylons villains, they're just viewing things from a different perspective. I'd still contend it's absolutely ridiculous to blame Baltar for what happened on New Caprica, particularly after 'Unfinished Business,' which showed that in its early days, the planet was the best these people have had in a long time. If Roslin had won and they had never settled there, there's no guarantee they wouldn't continue on a long, fruitless search for Earth and think back to what could have been if they had just settled back there.

One of the things I constantly struggle with on BSG is the writers' intent. My view of things is so biased by my character attachments, I find it hard to believe that Roslin really blames Baltar for what the Cylons did. If she was President, and refused to sign the order, would it have really changed anything? The Cylons would have deposed her, probably killed her, and installed a new President in her place. Baltar becomes a place in which they can sink all their lingering negative feelings about what happened, and maybe get some form of vengeance by breaking him. She's seeking the exact same thing that the crew in 'Collaborators' was, and apparently ignoring her own message about forgiving and moving on. Now, she claims that they are doing what they're doing because they want to find out what the Cylons know about Earth. That may be a part of it, but there's a lot of anger going into it too.

So, I'm not sure how we're supposed to respond to the whole thing. Personally, I sympathize with what Adama and Roslin are doing, but I was hoping that Baltar would survive this, and not get busted for his role in what happened on Caprica. He's just such a compelling character that I'll forgive him a lot. Because they got a lot of screentime together, I saw more of the issue I pointed out last week, that Roslin and Adama have become virtually interchangable characters. They have the same agenda, approve the same means and never question each other. I like their closeness, but we seriously need an opposing voice in there. Maybe it'll be Baltar, or perhaps Zarek, but there's got to be something. I'd like to see it become an issue among the civilians that the military and the president are now so close, particularly considering they already stole an election, isn't the democratic government at serious risk?

The show continues to be visually superlative. No show on TV is as consistently surreal and experimental as BSG. I loved the water interrogation sequence, particularly the gorgeous underwater photography. The show is very dark, and nasty sometimes, but always beautiful. Baltar's two tub dreams were great as well.

The end of the episode sees Baltar regaining some power, and getting a trial. I love how he looks more and more like Jesus, seeing the old non-bearded Gaius in the flashbacks was jarring. The Jesus thing goes beyond just the look, I love his soul searching surrounding his status as the Chosen One. Reaching back into episodes past, he ponders his role in things and is left with few answers, but increased confidence.

All episode I was waiting for Caprica Six to make an appearance, and it took until the post-episode bonus scene to get her. That scene was great and really should have been in the episode proper. But, it works nicely as a teaser for what's to come. I'm not sure what Caprica's agenda is on the Galactica, by fleeing the baseship, she has made herself an outlaw from the Cylons, but what could she find with the humans? Does she just want to get back together with Gaius, if so, then why would she testify at his trial? I suppose it could be revenge for his dalliance with D'Anna, but it remains unclear.

Elsewhere, there was more love quadrangle stuff. This plot just seems to go in circles, and I'm hoping this ends it for a while. I want to see unhinged, indiscrimintately fucking Kara, not angsty responsibility laden Kara, and Lee is rarely interesting, even when in a good story. Basically, I was left wishing they'd just not stare at each other, don't they know that D and Anders are probably watching them. Either really try to make it work or just break up.

So, this was a really good episode, it's great that Baltar's back and I'm eager to see more of his story, though apparently that will not happen for two weeks. Anyone know why they're skipping a week?