Friday, February 16, 2007

The Invisibles #8: 'Arcadia: Part 4: H.E.A.D'

‘H.E.A.D’ is unquestionably the series’ best issue so far, simultaneously very entertaining in the present and illuminating of the series’ cosmology in a more clear way than the ending is. After reading ‘Glitterdammerung’ for the first time, I was deeply confused, and I wish that someone had pointed me back to this issue, because it pretty much sums up what the supercontext is and why The Invisibles’ mission is important. Of course, you’re not likely to flip back to this issue at the end of the series because that’s not how fiction usually works. But, this is a nonlinear, unconventional series, where sometimes we’re given answers before we even know what the questions are...

I've taken down my posts on The Invisibles because they're all coming out in book form. The book, Our Sentence is Up, features revised and expanded versions of each blog post, covering every issue of The Invisibles, plus an extensive interview with Morrison himself. Visit your local comic store and order a copy now!

The Invisibles #7: 'Arcadia: Part 3: 120 Days of Sod All'

After the action oriented sixth issue, we get one of the series’ most intellectually ambitious issues, Morrison’s treatment of De Sade’s ‘The 120 Days of Sodom.’ I’m not particularly familiar with the original work, I’ve wanted to see Pasolini’s ‘Salo’ for a while now, but it remains frustratingly unavailable. But, I think the story is integrated so well into the series’ themes, it’s not really necessary to understand its relationship to the original...

I've taken down my posts on The Invisibles because they're all coming out in book form. The book, Our Sentence is Up, features revised and expanded versions of each blog post, covering every issue of The Invisibles, plus an extensive interview with Morrison himself. Visit your local comic store and order a copy now!

Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Invisibles #6: 'Arcadia: Part 2: 'Mysteries of the Guillotine'

‘Mysteries of the Guillotine’ is the least dense issue of the Arcadia arc, moving the plot forward, and reinforcing some thematic points, but it’s not as mindblowing as the other issues in the arc.

The opening pages show the way that the peasants have to come to ascribe the qualities of a god to the guillotine. It is the thing that will bring them liberty, and they worship it as such. This connects what we saw in ‘Down and Out in Heaven and Hell,’ the way that objects can be infused with power from belief....

I've taken down my posts on The Invisibles because they're all coming out in book form. The book, Our Sentence is Up, features revised and expanded versions of each blog post, covering every issue of The Invisibles, plus an extensive interview with Morrison himself. Visit your local comic store and order a copy now!

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Battlestar Galactica - 'The Woman King' (3x14)

I watched this episode a couple of days ago, before I went on the binge through the end Babylon 5 season four, and going through that great run of episodes doesn’t make the lackluster ‘The Woman King’ look any better in comparison. This episode is representative of virtually everything I find frustrating about Galactica, and only a little bit of what’s so great about the show.

I’ll start with what was easily the best scene of the episode, Sharon’s visit to Six’s cell. Basically everything works here. The dynamic between the two of them is full of conflicted feelings, Sharon thankful that Six helped her escape from the ship, but still uncertain why she did it. Six herself is apparently uncertain as well, as her Gaius makes clear. I loved the interaction between her and the vision of Gaius. The fact that she is having these visions would indicate that she too has some sort of special destiny, and is being manipulated towards it by a higher force. The sequence where D’Anna saw the white column world between life and death seemed to prove that these hallucinations are connected to some kind of essential force and aren’t merely a chip.

Beyond that, we get the great reveal that Roslin is watching and recording all this. She looks menacing there, baffled by Six’s behavior. There’s a great mix of darkness and comedy, because we’re aware of what’s going on, but she remains clueless. It’s not a deep Cylon functioning, it’s her own particular psychosis. A really top notch scene.

As for the rest of the episode, it’s Galactica on autopilot. Very rarely do their standalone episodes work, primarily because they truly are standalone, very rarely making important leaps in character or plot. The Sopranos season five was structured with primarily ‘standalone’ episodes, each telling a story that wrapped up within the hour, generally focusing on one or two people within the cast. However, there, the episodes actually weren’t standalone, they used a one time story to go deep and push the characters in new directions. The story may have been resolved, but the issues for the character were far from over. You got the sense that everything mattered and there was real progress forward. The same is true of Angel season five, which used a standalone structure to actually go deeper into the world than they had during the relentlessly serial fourth season.

But, this is more in the X-Files model of set up a story, play it out, then forget about it. Helo may go through some troubles here, but we don’t get the sense that there’s any lasting consequences. With a few exceptions, the characters on here don’t change too much. Stuff happens, but it doesn’t accumulate in the same way it did on a Buffy or Six Feet Under, and that’s frustrating. Again like the X-Files, the characters only seem to remember stuff on occasion, during the mythology episodes, and are manipulated into whatever circumstances the plot demands at other times.

The ideal way to do a standalone structure would be as a chance to build up the minor characters, but you can’t get true insight into people when they’re consumed by the conflict of the week. ‘Unfinished Business’ was a fantastic example of this, giving us real insight into Kara and Lee by narrowing the focus to their relationship, they should do more standalones like that, and less focused on a lame plot of the week..

Sadly, next week isn’t looking much better as we get a trapped in the airlock episode. The 13 episode pickup for next season may be the best thing for the show since it’ll cut down on filler and give more focus to things.

Babylon 5: 'The Deconstruction of Falling Stars' (4x22)

‘Deconstruction of Falling Stars’ reminds me of Buffy’s fourth season finale, ‘Restless.’ Both episodes follow what would be a standard season finale, resolving all the season’s arcs and leaving you wonder where else there is to go. Both episodes feature four separate segments that take place outside the show’s standard narrative reality, giving us further insight into the characters and their world.

The basic conceit of the episode is something that only Babylon 5 could do. Virtually no other show in history has as fully realized a universe as this one, a universe with a million years of history. Just the idea of going a million years into the future is difficult to conceive, but JMS pulls it off, and does a lot of interesting thematic stuff along the way.

Most TV writers are character people, interested in lives and personal journey. Some are plot people, JMS is odd in that I think he’s primarily a thematic writer. He’s most interested in big ideas and concepts, and most of the show’s character arcs exist as a way to illuminate the larger themes he has in mind. That’s why an episode like this works here where it probably wouldn’t work on any other show. I wouldn’t be particularly interested in hearing what the inhabitants of the Buffyverse have to say about her and her crew a million years in the future because the show is about the real people, not the perception of them. Here, the characters are involved in such large scale conflict, it makes sense to step back and consider their place in history.

The first segment is fairly standard stuff for this series, showing the new ISN at work. JMS captures the contentious dialogue of pundits fairly well, though they all speak at about double the speed he has his characters here talking. If there’s one issue I have with his depiction of the news, it’s that it’s very leisurely paced, I’d imagine in 200 years, the screen will be covered in graphics, flashing ten different kinds of information at us at all times. But, that would probably be annoying and distract from the points he’s trying to make, so I can see why he wouldn’t use it.

Already, there’s some skepticism about Sheridan, with people calling him a criminal, not a hero. That comes to the fore one hundred years hence, as we watch an academic roundtable about Sheridan and Delenn. This sequence is a fairly harsh critique of academia and the way they deconstruct national myths. I can sympathize with a lot of JMS’s point, I think it’s impossible to view figures from the past by today’s standards of morality. You can say that Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves as a way to win the Civil War, that anyone would have in his situation, but still, he did it, and that’s why he’s a national hero.

I think one of JMS’s critical thematic concerns is the idea that the individual can exert control over history. He completely disagrees with the idea that things just sort of happen, which the academic woman asserts. For him, it is individuals who stand up that turn the tide. Having seen the events of the series, we know that it was Sheridan’s bold decision to go after Clark that saved Earth. The resistance didn’t just happen, he made it. The juxtaposition of academic opinion with what we know is emphasized by the return of Delenn, now very old, who defends Sheridan’s reputation.

The impression I got is that Sheridan became something of a mythological figure, and people assume that no one man could do all he did. Now, you could argue that JMS has built up Sheridan too much, and the fact that they’re calling his achievements inconceivable is a reflection of his poor writing. But, I think it’s more a reflection of academic skepticism. Ultimately, you have to believe in something, and if you’re constantly deconstructing mythology, you can lose sight of the purpose it serves. Figures like Delenn and Sheridan inspire people, the reality of who they are is secondary to that. This is a central Grant Morrison/Alan Moore idea, the notion that fictional constructions can exert great control over our world, essentially become gods. Sheridan the myth is separate from Sheridan the man, the reality is long gone. The reason Delenn returns is that she knows the best way to protect Sheridan’s memory is to ensure that his reputation as a powerful fighter for good remains. That memory is his immortality, much like she tells Lennier in ‘Rising Star,’ that by remembering Marcus, they preserve his life.

This sequence also gives us some teasers about season five. They will try to start a Psi Corps colony on Babylon 5, leading to disastrous results. The most interesting hint is the discussion of Sheridan’s death. There is a myth arisen around it, and we found out later that he is purported to have ascended in body out of this world. The academics write it off as a myth, but I would assume this refers to him having joined the first ones beyond the rim. If I had to guess, I would say that Lorien, and possibly Kosh, come back and escort him off into the beyond.

Next up we jump to 2732, where things are not looking good for Earth. One could read the episode as a cynical piece, as we watch the reality of what happened continually distorted, Sheridan’s image disparaged and the alliance fail, plunging Earth into a new dark age. Is all that our heroes do in vain if it ultimately leads to this? Not exactly, the show has always been concerned with cycles, the way that changes shift and reoccur, the Shadows recede then return. It shall always be so, new darkness arises to replace the Shadows, a human darkness, for within each of us, there is the same capacity for order and chaos found in our forefathers.

The 2732 stuff is tough to watch, as our characters’ images are warped to serve the ends of a corrupt Earth government. What it shows is that the story of Babylon 5 still has power all these years later, that Sheridan and Delenn linger as figures in cultural mythology even after their bodies and souls have moved on. The impression I got is that the holographs are artificial intelligence simulations of the people they represent, at first programmed to mimic them exactly, but gradually warped as time passes.

One of the things this episode raises is the way that history will be perceived in a world where everything is recorded. In the past ten years alone, the internet has become the greatest repository of knowledge in human history. In the future, if historians want to know how people felt about major events, like a 9/11, as it was happening, they need only go through old pages. Now, history on the internet is transient, pages remade and lost, but once things settle down, and archiving becomes a serious project, we will be able to return to any moment and re-experience it as it was. That completely changes the discipline of history and alters the notion of past and present. On top of that, there’s all the video records of historical events, never again will the past be a mystery to be discovered only through artifacts buried in dirt and rock.

Or at least it won’t be until there’s a major societal collapse, as happens at the end of the 2732 section. It’s disturbing to see Sheridan turned into the mouthpiece of a fascist government, the mission they started in ‘Intersections in Real Time’ finally complete. The sequence raises a lot of questions about the nature of artificial intelligence and the manipulation of identity in a world with technology like this. Once you’re dead, they could manipulate your image to any purpose, we’ve already seen this to some extent with ads that resurrect the dead to sell a product, is there any greater way to destroy cultural mythology than to co-opt its imagery? Ultimately, Garibaldi’s true self shines through and the experiment backfires, but it’s not enough. I found this sequence a bit long, I felt like we got the point but it kept going. Part of that may have just been the discomforting nature of the world it explored, I did not want to spend time there.

My favorite section of the episode was the 3262 sequence, as we see a world plunged into a new dark age. The parallels to the middle ages are obvious, the way that monks there tried to preserve the knowledge of the Greeks and Romans until society was ready to begin again. The sequence is full of interesting thematic stuff. I suppose it’s inevitable that our society eventually fall into another dark age. We’ve been going strong for a long time, and perhaps we will make it to the stars before it happens, but we came perilously close to mutual destruction during the Cold War, all it takes is one leader crazy enough and we’ll be in a post apocalyptic world like this one. JMS may have laid it on a bit thick with the old school monk outfits, but other than that, this sequence was all great.

Even after the burn, the figures of Babylon 5 linger on in cultural mythology. Sheridan has become a Christ figure, having died, been resurrected and raised up into heaven. Delenn and Ivanova linger as well. Over the course of the episode, we’ve witnessed the way that ordinary people are transformed into mythological figures with the power of gods. Because the stories about him have persisted so long, Sheridan has become much more than just the man he was, he’s become a symbol of freedom and resistance, of hope for the people locked in a corrupt government. This is the closest humans can come to immortality.

The rangers have also become figures in cultural mythology, like the Vorlons were to the characters back in the present. They move around Earth secretly, bringing pieces of technology and culture to help us along the way. I’m not sure what else is going on out in space at the moment, but presumably many of the races still survive, the Minbari and many humans having become like the first ones were, helping us along, but not giving us everything. Humanity must learn from its sins, linger in the destruction until it can resolve the internal issues that destroyed their society in the first place. After that rehabilitation, they will be stronger, ready to return to the stars in peace.

For these people, the reality of Babylon 5 is so far from them that it seems like another world, a false one. But, it is the faith in their dream that matters. Faith is what gives stories power, what gives life power. If we believe that we can do more, then we will be able to do more. As JMS says, “Faith manages.” While the episode presents some dark turns for humanity, what is constant is the desire to move forward. Even under the most oppressive conditions, there is always someone looking to the stars, channeling the spirit of Sheridan and his crew far into the future.

It always baffles me that period pieces are considered high culture while science fiction is low culture. I suppose it reflects a general societal trend to value nostalgia and tradition over the future. But, works like Babylon 5 are critical because they explore and present a model for humanity’s future. In this episode, we see history on a grand scale, our own and an imagined one reflected back at us, and see that is the belief in good and progress that endures. This is an important episode, and perhaps more than any other in the series, gives us a sense of the individual’s position within the whole of human existence. As the ISN montage makes clear, Sheridan was not born a hero, he grew into that role and his actions echo, inspiring humanity a thousand years into the future. We too can do the same, that to me is the core of the episode, the idea that the individual can make a difference.

JMS connects this to the act of making the series when he gives his fuck you dedication to those who thought he wouldn’t make it. For him, the mission was to tell his story, he has done so despite much belief to the contrary. He never gave up, and it is perhaps the fifth season pickup that inspired him to write this episode. In the Lurker’s Guide, you can see him considering the show’s place in TV history and its future viewers, much like Sheridan and Delenn ponder their place in the overall journey of humanity. This series of reviews is testament to the fact that the show still has power ten years later, and that it’s if anything even more relevant than when originally broadcast.

The episode concludes one million years into the future. I can think of only one other man who could write something a million years in the future, and that’s Grant Morrison. He has that same embrace of the fantastic, of the potential of humanity to become immortal through action and change, and the image of a human as pure energy is something that Grant could certainly embrace.

The one million sequence takes place against the backdrop of the sun going nova and wiping out Earth. Apparently, it is Sheridan’s story that has endured and must be preserved after the planet is gone. It will be carried with this man off into the stars.

The new human has much in common with the Vorlons. We can assume that the humans have adopted their role, and are shepherding the new races through their struggles. Perhaps it is the fact that Sheridan was the one who brought about the third age that his image continues. He was the last to see the first ones, the first model of a new humanity. Shifting between human form, and energy ball form, the man enters an encounter suit, then jets off for the stars, leaving behind an exploding sun.

The message of this final sequence seems to be we must go to the stars or face the loss of everything we have ever had, something that Sinclair said back in season one. It is this journey that grants us immortality, and we know that Sheridan’s will be carried on, will endure in this new age. I got a 2001 vibe from this sequence, the idea that humanity has grown beyond its cradle, Earth, and is now ready to accept adulthood among the stars. I would have loved for a more extended sequence of the sun tearing through Earth rendered in beautiful new CG, stretching on for five or ten minutes, but there wasn’t time for that. As I said before, JMS is more interested in the thematic point, and that was well conveyed.

I’ve never seen another work of fiction like this episode, rarely do you encounter a work with the scope or thematic depth that this holds. It recognizes the deep flaws and destructive tendencies of humanity, but ultimately celebrates our capacity for good and forward progress. While I have issues with the show from time to time, I love it because it can create episodes like this, that are more challenging and intellectually rewarding than virtually anything else on television.

As I said before, it baffles me that a work like this isn’t valued by society. JMS is using science fiction to ponder the whole of human history and map us a new road to the stars, but we remain frustratingly tied to the here and now. But, somewhere, there is a John Sheridan out there, waiting to guide us forward, to unite in peace on Earth and explore out into the stars. It is our destiny, and though we may go face obstacles on the way, eventually we will get there.

Next in the Babylon 5 blog series, I'll probably do a general post wrapping up season four, then watch 'In the Beginning' and review that, then move on to season five. And finally, this post is dedicated to everyone who thought I wouldn't be able to review every episode of the series. Faith manages, people, faith manages.

Babylon 5: 4x16-4x21

Note: 4x22 Spoilers in here as well

After starting stronger than any other Babylon 5 season, the middle chunk of season four had a lot of issues. For a while, the show lacked any sort of urgency, the threat of Clark was still out there, but it wasn’t immediate, and with the character arcs generally on hold, that meant wheel spinning. But, after Sheridan’s declaration that it was on at the end of ‘Moments of Transition,’ things kicked into high gear, and the five episode run from ‘The Face of the Enemy’ to ‘Rising Star is easily the best sustained storytelling in the show’s run. After going through most of season four at a three of four episode a week pace, I went through six episodes in one day. That’s testament to the sheer cliffhanger addictiveness of this run.

‘The Exercise of Vital Powers’ did a good job of setting up the stakes for Garibaldi’s betrayal of Sheridan. There’s a lot of time spend building up Edgars and his agenda, and by the end, you can clearly see why he’s doing what he’s doing. The idea that corporations are the real power, and outlast the transient government is one with a lot of relevance for our world today. Bush may leave the White House, but Halliburton is still going to be around, and they’ll continue to exert their influence.

And, I think his fear of the Psi-Corps is perfectly understandable. We go into X-Men territory, literally referencing Homo Superior. If there really were telepaths, I wouldn’t want them going around without controls, and Edgars needs to create a mutually assured destruction scenario, where any attempt by them to take power would lead to their own deaths. Judging from the season finale, telepaths will remain a major issue, and cause Sheridan problems, and I’d imagine there will be forces out there seeking to revive Edgars’ plans. The world JMS has created is closer to what I imagine it’d actually be like if an evolved humanity did emerge. The X-Men may protest the Mutant Registration Act, but if someone with the power of a Xavier emerged who wasn’t willing to limit his powers and use them for good, he could destroy our entire society. The uneasy relationship between normals and the Psi Corps is perfectly understandable.

There’s a bunch of setup here, which culminates in ‘The Face of the Enemy,’ where Garibaldi calls Sheridan down to Mars and allows him to be captured. It’s a wonderfully tense setup, with Sheridan deciding to go even though everyone around him, and we the viewers, are aware that something’s not right. He walks into the bar and right from the beginning, it’s clear that something’s different. For one, this is the first rock song ever heard on the show. One of the reasons I have issue with period pieces and sci-fi films is that they can’t use contemporary music. While I love a good score, most composed stuff winds up receding into the background, serving as punctuation rather than a valid source of pleasure in and of itself. When you pick the right song to go with a scene, it can create a moment of pure film magic. I don’t know what the song in the bar scene was, but its air of menace and driving beat made the scene something special.

Stylistically, this sequence was unlike anything else the show has ever done. After it finished, I declared it the best scene in the entire series. That may have been a bit overzealous, I’d still give the edge to Londo watching Narn getting invaded in ‘The Long Twilight Struggle,’ but in terms of film technique, this is working on a whole different level. The strobe light as Sheridan is attacked was a fantastic start, then they drop in the still frames, color corrected to an odd texture, on top of that there’s the swinging light and jump cuts on Garibaldi, putting him alternately in light and darkness. The sequence goes on for a while, and like a nasty guitar solo at a concert, you just don’t want it to stop. I feel like Babylon 5 is a band that plays a tight set, sticks to the songs and delivers them well, in this moment they turned into a ridiculous jam band and cut loose for the first time. It’s great to see, and makes what could have been a fairly standard capture into a total immersion in pain. Just last post, I remarked that JMS had a lot of trouble showing characters in pain, this scene made up for those failures.

Watching the sequence reminded me of watching ‘Restless’ or ‘The Body’ on Buffy, this is a moment that’s just so far beyond the rest of the series in terms of technique, it can’t help but make you wonder what could have been if every scene was given the care and attention this one received, the effort to use all the techniques that film has to offer in service of telling the story. On a television schedule, it’s basically impossible to do that, most films don’t even come close, but it shows what you’re capable of doing with enough effort and consideration. Considering there’s so many different directors passing through, you’d think they could each bring something special, but it seems that the job of a director on a TV show is just to maintain a consistent style with what’s come before, not do their own thing. Doing their own thing could lead to a final arc of The Invisibles style artistic disjunction, but it could also lead to a much more exciting, visually dynamic world.

Anyway, I’m glad to have the scene, it’s a masterpiece and I hope we see more like it again. Having heard about Edgars’ plan, Garibaldi goes out and meets up with Bester, who debriefs him. When he first returned to the station, I was pretty clear that Garibaldi had undergone some kind of psychic manipulation, but as time passed, that kind of receded and I began to think that maybe he’d just changed. The resolution of his Judas arc is troubling for me because I think it erases everything that made his character interesting and more complex this season by basically hitting the reset button and returning him to his pre-season four incarnation.

I liked the idea that someone in Sheridan’s crew was skeptical about what he’s doing, and was offering a voice of opposition. JMS did a good job of making his grievances believable, though I did question whether even a disgruntled Garibaldi would set Sheridan up in the way he did. But, watching him there under the swinging light, I saw a guy who was resigned to playing out a role he didn’t necessarily relish. He didn’t consciously want Sheridan gone, but it had to be done, and he had no choice but to just sit back and watch it happen.

Now, there is an attempt to preserve some of Garibaldi’s agency, when Bester points out that they only brought out what was already there. I don’t have an issue with him being programmed, what I have an issue with is the way all that’s happened to him is just erased when Bester snaps him out of the program. It would have been much more interesting to have everything that happened be the result of them heightening what was already there, depriving him the chance to return to easy obedience. It would have been more interesting to see him continue his independence and maybe come to fight for what’s right on his own, rather than just snap back to his old persona. I know there was a ton of stuff going on, but he seems to get accepted back into the circle really easily. At least Sheridan should have had some issue, particularly since Garibaldi also put his father in danger. Now, maybe this will come up next season, but the flash forward in ‘Deconstruction of Falling Stars’ indicates that Garibaldi is back as chief of security, working with Sheridan.

Ultimately, I feel like the choice to reset was an attempt to have it both ways. The character goes down a dark path and betrays the crew, but he can easily come back at the end. It’s like what would have happened in the original ending of the Dark Phoenix saga, blame the Phoenix for the crimes and let Jean off, ignoring the collateral damage of the planet she destroyed. It’s a cowardly move on a show that prides itself on making characters face the consequences of their actions.

But, regardless of this, having Sheridan get captured raises the bar on things so much, after that happened, I wasn’t going to stop watching until the story was over. This is the moment when the war with Clark gets personal, when we feel what he’s doing and share the rage the other characters feel at Earthgov. After the crazy bar sequence, we get another experimental thing, with the one set, play like ‘Intersections in Real Time.’ I admire the boldness of the episode, and think it does its job, but it’s exhausting to watch. Because we’re confined to one location, with all the scenes playing out in basically real time, we’re feeling the same thing as Sheridan, the frustration and imprisonment.

It reminds me a lot of the interrogation sequence in V For Vendetta, the way Alan Moore totally deconstructs Evie’s mind, until she has no concept of outside reality, just what lies inside the room. Sheridan’s interrogator is a seemingly nice guy, never lying to him, but that niceness becomes even more obnoxious than a ‘bad cop’ approach would be. Sheridan hates bureaucracy, so this kind of ‘just doing my job’ guy would be his worst enemy.

I feel like the episode has about 35 minutes of content, and suffers from the stretching. A lot of experimental episodes like this almost, but don’t quite make it, that’s what makes them simultaneously rewarding and frustrating. I love that they did something different, I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a sustained interrogation scene on TV, but I’m not sure I’d want to watch it again. JMS clearly has a major hatred of Orwellian style government persuasive techniques, and both this and ‘Illusion of Truth’ do a good job of showing the way that image can be distorted to serve a specific purpose. The episode with the Drazi is a fantastic example, giving Sheridan the illusion of victory than cruelly taking it from him at episode’s end. I always love this kind of mindfucking, and the ending really sold the extent of Sheridan’s torment.

This episodes ties in nicely with the scene 500 years in the future in ‘Deconstruction of Falling Stars,’ in which Sheridan’s image is literally reprogrammed to discourage the resistance. They couldn’t change the real Sheridan, but once he’s gone, they still want to harness the power of his image to serve their agenda.

Moving on to ‘Between the Darkness and the Light.’ Back on Babylon 5, a place we barely visit during this run of episodes, there’s the wonderful scene where Londo and G’Kar convene the League of Non-Aligned Worlds to go to war to help Sheridan. I love the way those two grew closer over this run of episodes, but more on that later. The significance of this scene is that it’s evidence of Sheridan’s dream in action, he has shown them the value of cooperation, the way that humans can be the glue to unite them all, and now they will go to war for him. It’s the perfect embodiment of the series’ central theme, the fact that the various races are more powerful together than apart, united they can make a better world. Rather than struggle with a corrupt Earth, they will liberate it and ensure that the galaxy is safe for peace.

Concurrent with this, there’s the Franklin/Lyta Mars plotline. Lyta has shown evidence of her vast psychic power by speaking with the Shadow telepaths, and that sets her off on the mission with Franklin to aid the Mars resistance. I like the tension that her presence with the resistance produces, particularly the awkwardness between her, Stephen and Number One. Even though I complained about the ease of Garibaldi’s redemption, I felt like his return to the resistance was suitably contested, he earned the return, and I particularly like the way he was able to use his notoriety to aid them in capturing Sheridan.

I really liked their mission to the bunker, they pulled off the exterior Mars scenes pretty well. That said, the acting on their contact in the bunker totally killed it for me everytime she was on. She was just so bad, it’s baffling to me that they wouldn’t do another take and try to get a better delivery. I’m sure there were a ton of things to consider in the episode, but that doesn’t mean you can forget about the little details.

The payoff the Shadow telepaths was good, particularly the scene in which Lyta brought them to life, nicely edited with the dissolves connecting her to them. I loved the way they had those shifting boxes of colored light on them. There was one shot with a woman who looked like Pris from Blade Runner that absolutely owned. Lyta brings back the black eyes, and a psychic talent that is so powerful, she must eventually suffer for it. If the history of genre fiction tells me anything, it’s that red haired women with vast psychic power whose eyes go black will eventually turn dark. Will she follow the path of Willow and Jean Grey next season?

Up on the ships, Ivanova leads her crew into battle against the hybrid Shadow Destroyers. These ships looked great, and I like the way shadow technology remains in the universe even after they’ve moved on, a reminder that wars may end, but darkness always remains. We see that again in the 2762 sequence in ‘Deconstruction of Falling Stars,’ forces analogous to Clark rise again and finally do scorch the Earth.

But, before that, we get the climactic battle between the Earth ships and Sheridan’s forces. The effects here are top notch, and the forces at work in the battle are clearly laid out. There’s a lot of ships, but we’re always aware of the stakes, particularly once we get down to the defense grid. The moment where the Agamemnon goes through the cloud of fire is the visual highlight of the battle. I don’t have too much to say about this other than it was cool and successfully wrapped up the Earth War storyline. I’m not sure that Clark would have killed himself, but I think it was necessary to bring about resolution, so I don’t really mind it. The fact that he wanted to take the whole Earth down with him is the perfect testament to the failures of his rule.

While the big battle was great, what really had me hooked was what was going on with Marcus and Ivanova. Back in the bedroom of the White Star, the place where all romantic connections happen, Ivanova reveals that she knew what Marcus told her in Minbari, then leaves the room. It was likely this statement that killed him because it gave him hope, but perhaps he’d rather have died with that hope than lived without it. Either way, things go awry when Ivanova is wounded and sent back to Babylon 5.

The more I watch of the show, the more it becomes clear that very few things in the first season happened without a larger reason. The healing machine was an alright standalone episode, but that episode was critical to earning the moment we get at the end of this episode. From the moment Lennier hesitated, I knew where we were headed, and in this case, I think that’s good writing. There’s an inherent tension once we know what Marcus could do, wondering whether he will do it.

The close of ‘Endgame’ is an absolutely heartbreaking moment, as Marcus tells Ivanova, “I love you.” This is the first time he’s outright expressed his feelings to her, but it’s only as he’s slipping away. At this point, I ran over to my shelf, got the last disc and put it in, then began ‘Rising Star.’ By this point, I needed to see the resolution of this story, there was no more waiting.

Throughout my reviews of the series, I’ve criticized JMS for not giving Ivanova much to do, and I know Claudia Christian said the same thing. For most of season four, she’s just sort of been there, but in this episode, she finally gets a powerful, emotional scene, and her final moments on the station are her best in the entire series. Right from his first appearance, JMS set up a potential Ivanova/Marcus relationship, and continued to hint at it as things went along, but it never paid off. I found this frustrating, I think he’s a great character, and I wanted to see him achieve his goals.

But, it just never happened, and in her last scene, Ivanova talks about this exact fact, the frustration that she feels at not having been able to open herself up to him. I was seriously close to crying here, and I usually don’t get that way with movies or TV. He had this total devotion to her and she couldn’t even let him know that she appreciated it. He sacrificed his life for her, and she didn’t even give him the slightest affection. It causes painful guilt, and that guilt will presumably haunt her for the rest of her life.

The final thing Ivanova says is that “All love is unrequited love,” a fine message for Valentine’s Day. I think it’s true in some sense, at least for these characters. As she and Stephen speak, JMS turns what I’d consider one of the series’ faults into an advantage. Rather than just being unemotional characters, we see that they each have deep emotions, but guard them zealously, not opening themselves up to potential love. I love the way they each speak about their own experience, but ultimately say the same things, ending with Ivanova collapsing in tears in Stephen’s arms, totally overwhelmed by the depth of what Marcus did for her. The only other things in the series that hit me this hard on an emotional level were the massive acts of destruction perpetrated by the Shadows, this is the first one that worked on a personal level.

The other scene that’s just devastating in this episode is Lennier and Delenn’s conversation. Lennier mentioned way back that he was in love with Delenn, but like Marcus, he is unable to pursue it. Delenn seems totally clueless about this, and gives him a touch on the cheek that seems to break his heart. We stay on him while Delenn walks away, lingering on the pain in his face, such a contrast to her joy. Without going deep into things, let’s just say that all this sadness of unrequited love hit home for me now.

Anyway, it’s the sign of a great work when it can bounce seamlessly from tears to laughter, and that’s what we get when Londo and G’Kar walk towards the shuttle together and discuss each other’s sexual prowess. The two of them have been through so much and emerge here at the end as friends. Back in ‘War Without End II,’ G’Kar called Londo “old friend,” and it’s clear not that wasn’t a sarcastic thing, by this point, they really are friends. They work together to build the new Alliance, and as the episode ends, are just hanging out together, enjoying each other’s company.

It’s been a long road for these two, and I feel like the détente was earned. They’re both aware of just how strong and willful the other is, and ultimately that makes them respect each other. Now, the impression I got is that when this episode was filmed, it was meant to be the second last of the series. For Londo and G’Kar, it plays that way. What I’m left wondering is where they’ll go next season, will there be a new source of tension between them or will they just stay aligned? While it probably makes sense to bring some tension back, I really don’t want that, I don’t want to see them opposed to each other again.

The other major revelation here is that Londo has been named Emperor. He knows that this will eventually bring his death, and that’s why he’s so subdued. It’s a piece that was going to fall into place eventually and now it’s come. I’m curious how this will play in season five. Now that the Alliance exists, it would make sense for him to be on Babylon 5 sometimes, but I’d assume he’d spend most of his time on Centauri. I’d imagine we’ll see the Drakh invasion at some point during the season, and presumably Londo’s possession by the keeper.

I loved this episode, but I do felt they went to the ISN broadcasts a couple too many times. I understand the need to convey exposition, but using ISN doesn’t give us any sort of emotional impact, it’s just pure infodump, and I think there would be more effective ways of letting us know what we need to.

Sheridan finds himself subject to Earth law again, and that initially poses a problem. I like the reversal when, after resigning, he reveals that he’s now president of the Alliance, and even more powerful than Earth’s own president. The Alliance is the final realization of the dream of Babylon 5, it is a legitimate hope for peace, and will live on long after the station is gone.

Sheridan and Delenn get a nice resolution, particularly in the scene with Sheridan’s father, where we see that Delenn has been accepted as part of the family. The final image of them lying in bed together is very sweet, and captures the thematic journey of the series, the union of human and alien in pursuit of peace. Sheridan and Delenn are the living incarnation of that dream, that’s why they are the thematic centerpiece of this season.

If this was the end of the series, I think it’d be a perfectly fine place to stop. Some of the supporting cast isn’t particularly resolved, but all the major people have a fitting end to their arcs. Garibaldi finally gets together with Lise, giving him a second chance at the happiness he lost back on Mars. It remains ambiguous whether he’ll return to Babylon 5, considering there’s another season, he definitely will, if there wasn’t, I’m not so sure.

Ivanova leaves the station, unable to deal with the issues surrounding her resurrection. Now, this is motivated by Claudia Christian leaving the show, but I think it still works. However, much like with Andrea Thompson’s departure, I feel like we needed another scene, a final conversation with Ivanova and Sheridan, to give the character closure. I suppose her breakdown to Stephen does that, but seeing a more sober Ivanova resigning her commission would have been fitting.

Stephen, Zack and Lyta would remain uncertain, but they were always on the periphery, all the critical plot and thematic work is done. The war is over, and even though there will be more struggles, things look good for the future. A major question I have is was the whole five year plan used by this point? Is the fifth season new stuff, or is it unused threads?

So, while I did have some issues, this run of episodes was overwhelming in its impact. When you’re watching a great show at its height, you enter a kind of trance, unable to do anything but watch more episodes. Buffy reached this point a lot, as did Six Feet Under, and B5 reached it here. I had no choice but to watch to this point, a line was crossed and I had to go until resolution. It’s epic, really powerful television, unlike anything else I’d seen, and for the first time, JMS also nailed the human component as well, giving us some excruciatingly emotional drama along the way. I’m sure there’s a lot of stuff I didn’t talk about, and I’ll cover some of it when I write up ‘Deconstruction of Falling Stars,’ an odd, but riveting season finale. That’s up next.

Monday, February 12, 2007

The Invisibles #5: 'Arcadia: Part 1: Bloody Poetry'

Arcadia is a critical arc in the series’ run, introducing us to the characters within the cell and giving the reader a look at a ‘typical’ Invisibles mission. It also contains all the information you need to understand the rest of the series, right through the final issue, though on the initial read, that is far from apparent. It always surprises me to go back and see just how much is laid out here, things you could never pick up on the first go around, but see glaringly obvious on the reread. That’s part of what makes the series so rewarding, each time you play the game, it’s a little different.

I've taken down my posts on The Invisibles because they're all coming out in book form. The book, Our Sentence is Up, features revised and expanded versions of each blog post, covering every issue of The Invisibles, plus an extensive interview with Morrison himself. Visit your local comic store and order a copy now!

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Babylon 5: 'Moments of Transistion' and 'No Surrender, No Retreat' (4x14 & 4x15)

By the end of ‘No Surrender, No Retreat,’ the series’ new focus has become clear, the struggle to liberate Earth from Clarke. It’s something that’s been in the works for a long time and is now finally coming to the fore. As I’ve mentioned previously, I’m not as big a fan of this arc as I was of the Shadow War. I feel like the series was built with the Shadow War in mind, all the characters had a role to play, and it gave a focus and sweep to the series that eclipses nearly everything else ever put on TV. By limiting the focus to Earth, a lot of the characters become peripherally connected at best to the goings on, though there are attempts to counter that in this episode.

But first, there’s ‘Moments of Transition, the resolution of the Minbari civil war. The Minbari are the least interesting of the core alien races, primarily because Delenn is always presented as a noble character, while G’Kar and Londo have more ambiguous morality. I like Delenn when she’s with Sheridan, but on her own, there’s less tension, she’ll fight for the right thing, and presumably wind up winning. When we’re dealing with Londo or G’Kar, it’s a lot less certain that they’ll win, and the road to get there will be a lot more treacherous.

The moment I started to love the series was when Londo authorized Morden to go ahead and attack the Narn ships, knowing full well how many lives it would take. Here was a character we really liked, a seemingly goofy, nice guy, going in a horribly dark direction. It was unexpected and riveting to watch. Because he went to such a dark place, there’s always tension involved, you want him to do good, but are aware of his frequent moral failings.

That’s a dynamic that really appeals to me, be it with Spike or Magneto, the bad guy trying to find redemption is consistently compelling. It’s precisely because you’re not expecting them to do good that them doing good is so exciting. It’s the reason that people like Han Solo more than Luke Skywalker, there’s no tension in Luke doing good, but Han could go either way, and therefore, it’s much more satisfying when he does help. In most action pieces, the heroes going to win, so you have to build tension in different ways.

This is a long way of saying that the Delenn story isn’t that interesting because she’s a good person trying to do good against a foe we’re pretty sure she can beat. It’s not bad, it’s just not particularly noteworthy. The other major issue I had with this story was the ambiguous nature of the lightray thing. We’re told that it causes devastating pain, but we don’t see Delenn suffer, and that means we can’t appreciate the nature of her sacrifice. JMS can produce some moments that have startling emotional power on a grand scale, like Londo watching Narn being destroyed in ‘The Long Twilight Struggle,’ but when it’s individual pain, he seems to stumble. This scene is like the G’Kar whipping scene earlier this season, we’re told it’s an awful ordeal, but we don’t really see it, and that means we don’t feel it either.

The reformation of the Grey Council brings back the worker caste, who I had noticed were conspicuously missing, but I felt like it mlisstepped by having Delenn speak for them. That’s not the way to convey that they are now the ones with control. But, since she is the character we know, it makes sense. Having a random worker show up and talk wouldn’t have provided the needed resolution. Ultimately, this Minbari stuff just didn’t work that well for me, I admire JMS for mixing things up with this storyline, but not everything’s going to click.

However, this episode does feature the return of one of the more interesting, and recently neglected, characters, Lyta. Lyta and Garibaldi are the most interesting human characters because they’re the ones who don’t buy into the dream. Ivanova and Franklin have virtually vanished in season four, in weight, if not in screentime. Nothing they do has any individual power because they’re just working in service of Sheridan’s dream. He is the one with agency and they just act out his will.

Franklin already had his big arc, but I feel like Ivanova has never been fully explored. Perhaps if Talia hadn’t left the show, the relationship between them would have provided her with some interesting material, but as is, she basically just goes along, working and not changing in any major ways. There was the setup for a relationship between her and Marcus, but that’s apparently been shelved, or at least put on the very slow track to fruition.

Anyway, this particularly stands out next to the troubles that Garibaldi and Lyta are facing. In this episode, Lyta is confronted with the fact that she is running out of options, it’s impossible to function as a freelance telepath, and taking on work means sacrificing some of her freedom. She remains outside of the Babylon 5 upper echelon, and is the only one who seems to have a life outside of her work. She does stuff in her apartment other than sleep, has the time to cook meals and sometimes wants to just hang out with people. I’d imagine JMS was modeling the characters’ behavior on his own life, writing every single episode of the season would leave him little time for anything else, but sometimes you’ve got to give the characters downtime so we can learn more about them.

The scenes with Lyta and Zack in both this episode and in ‘Falling Towards Apotheosis,’ tell us more about her than ten action scenes will, and they also give Zack his greatest humanity. You can tell he wants to help her, to stay there with her, but his job pulls him away, it’s the curse of all the characters on the show.

The best evidence of how trapped they are in this mindset is the total surprise that everyone has when hearing that Garibaldi isn’t returning to his position. After devoting his whole life to the station, wouldn’t it make sense that he wants some time off, to make some money and perhaps rebuild a life for himself? Now, we’ve still got the issue of what exactly happened to Garibaldi when he was kidnapped. Was there some kind of brain alteration that makes him act this way, as Zack suspects, or is it just that going through that has given him some perspective and forced him to reassess his life. Bester seems very interested in what’s up with him, so I’d assume Psi Corps did something questionable to him. Either way, he’s got a lot of interesting stuff going on, and I’m curious to see where his arc goes.

The episode ends with a major “It’s on” moment, where Sheridan decides that Clarke has finally crossed the line, and must pay. This has been a long time coming, but I think it would have been more powerful if we’d been allowed to see the ship get destroyed in more detail, rather than just on video. Not to dwell on this again, but back with the Narn War, we saw the Shadows strike, and that gave us the understanding of just how important the war is. I still feel like Clarke has been more talked about as a threat than shown.

But, ‘No Surrender, No Retreat’ handles things much better, using a well executed action sequence to demonstrate the intellectual points JMS is trying to convey. He forces the characters to the point where they must choose between being loyal to Clarke or doing the right thing, the same conflict Sheridan faced back in ‘Point of No Return,’ and we get a realistic variety of answers to the issue. The effects here were fantastic and made for a really exciting battle sequence.

It did take me out of the story a bit to have Ken Jenkins aka Scrubs’ Dr. Kelso as commander of the ship. When a serious actor uses the same mannerisms in a comedic role, it can become tough to take him seriously again. Even though it’s probably got him more recognition than anything he’d done before, I think Scrubs ruined my ability to take Jenkins seriously as an actor.

But that doesn’t hurt the episode too much, and by the end we’re set up for the war against Earth. While this had previously been an isolated thing, here, Sheridan moves to bring the alien worlds in to aid him. This is a critical move, because it gives Babylon 5 a new purpose. The Shadows were an immediate threat that needed combating, the Earth government isn’t actively attacking others, but it endangers freedom throughout the galaxy. If Babylon 5 is to be a true force for change, it must stand against regimes like this and bring freedom back to Earth.

If we’re to use the parallel of Babylon 5 as the United Nations, this move would be indicative of the adoption of a new mission statement, rather than just being a reactive body that can moderate disputes, they’re moving to an active stance, trying to cut out potential troubles before they become major threats. Looking at the series in our post 9/11, George Bush led times, some things can feel a bit dated and naïve, but I think in general, the series is even richer and more relevant than it was in the 90s. Clarke is obviously quite similar to Bush, sacrificing liberty for security, and in the process losing both.

Yet, the mission that Sheridan is posing for Babylon 5 actually sounds a lot like Bush’s rhetoric, the idea of spreading freedom and democracy through preventative war. I think the United States/Babylon 5/The UN should try to be a force for good in the world/universe, and combating corrupt regimes is a part of that. The issue with Bush is that he uses this rhetoric to justify a war that merely enriches his corporate contributors and forwards a truly misguided neocon agenda. Sheridan is a more virtuous leader, and he wages a war that will help to liberate people. Sheridan is doing the kind of thing that Democrats in America should have been doing three or four years ago, but they were too cowardly to act. The idea that the government ceases to be legitimate when it violates its own law is critical, both Bush and Clarke have violated the law for too long, and at least in the B5verse, someone is doing something about it.

It’s actually hard for me to imagine watching the show in the pre-Bush times. The things that Clarke does must have seemed rather improbable, a clear exaggeration, and that probably made it less effective. There’s still an optimism in the show that you don’t see as much in post 9/11 works, like Battlestar Galactica, but maybe that optimism and agency is a good thing to try to recover.

Anyway, that stuff was good, but the real joy of the episode is the return of Londo and G’Kar to the fore. We even get to see Vir, who has been missing for a long time. He seems to have been worn down by both guilt about killing the emperor, and presumably his new role on Babylon 5. He can barely even get his hair styled when people show up to see him. It’s good to have him back, hopefully he’ll get some more to do in the future.

But the critical scene is Londo and G’Kar in G’Kar’s quarters. Londo has lost all his power in the relationship since freeing Narn, and he comes to G’Kar, pleading to be acknowledged. I think Londo has a much greater respect for G’Kar than he would publicly acknowledge, and it’s tough for him to be on the outs with him. Part of this is guilt from his deal with the Shadows, I think he feels that patching things up with G’Kar would go some way towards making up for all the lives his actions took. That is likely why he freed Narn in the first place, it was a step towards redemption.

In each of the titular episodes, Londo is presented with a critical moral choice, turning points in his arc. This is the first time that he actually makes the right choice, and tries to help someone other than himself. G’Kar won’t budge though, he was willing to work with Londo when it was necessary to help his people, but he is too proud to do so now. I think he feels a lot of shame that the only reason Narn is free is because Londo basically gave it to him.

The two of them are great here, as always. No one else in the cast can even come close to commanding the screen like either actor, and together they take things to a completely different level. I’ve gotten used to the acting on the show, but I generally still don’t love it. I feel like there’s a theatricality and distance from the reality of the story for most of the people here. However, Jurasik and Katsulas are completely in the moment, totally inhabiting these characters and that makes them utterly compelling to watch.

G’Kar eventually concedes and agrees to co-sign the treaty, but not on the same page. I like the callback to ‘The Coming of Shadows,’ the drink they had then a moment of supreme irony, knowing G’Kar’s naïve hope will soon be dashed. Now they’ve been through too much to have that same feeling, but there’s a sense of change, of old grudges being repaired, and a cautious thought that maybe things can get better.

So, with the Narn and Centauri behind him, Sheridan plans to go to war with Earth. The rebuilding of the multi-species fleet, to combat the xenophobic Earthers, fits perfectly with the show’s themes, the idea of expansive togetherness trumping old prejudices. We have seen Babylon 5 come together to defend the galaxy, now it will turn outwards and seek to make it better.

The Invisibles #4: 'Down and Out in Heaven and Hell: Part 3'

There's not too much to say about this issue that I didn't cover in the previous two. The whole point of the arc is to bring both Dane and the reader to an evolved state of consciousness, that purpose is achieved by the time Dane emerges from his romp through the surreal countryside...

I've taken down my posts on The Invisibles because they're all coming out in book form. The book, Our Sentence is Up, features revised and expanded versions of each blog post, covering every issue of The Invisibles, plus an extensive interview with Morrison himself. Visit your local comic store and order a copy now!