“A Voice In The Wilderness” is one of the best spots to get into Babylon 5. If I were doing a Gateway To Geekery feature on the subject, it would be my pick. I’ve described some of the major issues facing new Babylon 5 viewers before, and “A Voice In The Wilderness” bypasses most of them. The bad episodes that frighten most people away from the first season are in the past, and “Wilderness” itself is relatively good. It’s not Babylon 5 at its best, but given the awkwardness inherent to 1990s science-fiction television, it’s a strong pair of episodes.
There are a few reasons that “A Voice In The Wilderness” is an especially good entry point. First, as a two-part episode, it has some room to breathe, and develop its themes. This is only partially successful in the first episode, which has a fair amount of filler. Yet even that filler is fairly interesting, at least as a curiosity. It can be seen from the typical opening shot, framing the station before the action starts. But here, there’s a second or two where the planet behind the station, Epsilon 3, dominates the shot. It’s a slight difference which quickly gains import when the episode demonstrates that the planet, literally just a piece of background for so long, is actually the focus of the episode.
Part one of the episode has several of these CGI framing shots. Interestingly, they tend to focus on the mundane activities necessary for a space station. Here’s a group of people in space suits moving containers; there’s a tanker refilling a space ship. Yes, the CGI is outdated, but I’m more impressed by the way the show tries to convey how Babylon 5 works, in as economical a set of shots as possible.
The space to breathe also allows the different characters to do more than simply move the plot along. The two most critical here are regular cast member Peter Jurasik as Londo Mollari and the main guest star, Louis Turenne as Draal. The latter has a bit too obvious of a character arc, playing a variation on the old Star Trek redshirt joke: “Two main cast members and one guest star go to a planet that requires one character to stay—who leaves the show?” But Turenne does just enough to infuse Draal with personality and a history with Ambassador Delenn that his departure has some meaning.
But, really, “A Voice In The Wilderness” is The Londo Mollari Show. The best parts of each episode are Londo-focused, which is fair, given that Jurasik inhabited his character more effectively than any other from the very beginning of the series. In the first episode, his “whatever it is, it can’t be that bad” speech contains both humor and pathos, while his “Blood calls for blood” speech regarding G’Kar and the Narn is a fantastic statement of insight and resignation.
Although Londo is most often defined by his relationship with G’Kar, the latter doesn’t show up in either half of “Wilderness.” I think this is actually a good thing, as it unbalances the episode slightly. So many episodes involve the Narn and Centauri being treated as competitive equals; first the guest star visits G’Kar, then Londo (then maybe Delenn and Sinclair and Kosh). This has the effect of making the characters seem like objects, existing only to represent their cultures for comparison to each other and humanity. Detaching Londo from G’Kar and the “meet the ambassador” structure gives him room to be a character on his own.
And yes, if you’re watching Babylon 5 for the first time, Londo’s hair is ridiculous and his characterization a little cliché. For now. But the groundwork is being laid here for one of the most dynamic character arcs in television history, one comparable to that of Buffy The Vampire Slayer/Angel’s Wesley Wyndam-Pryce, who likewise started as buffoon with dreams of becoming something more.
Two other smaller strengths of “A Voice In The Wilderness”: It shows the obvious imperfections of human government. Commander Sinclair’s verbal battles with Captain Pierce over jurisdiction are fairly comparable to Sisko or Picard taking on Starfleet admirals, but the violent rebellions on Mars, and the characters’ complicated reactions to it, are not. This is the sort of political work that helps set the stage for the tense political conflicts of Battlestar Galactica.
Finally, “A Voice In The Wilderness” is well-structured, taking advantage of its space and form. The first episode does have a bit more filler, but it’s an effective mystery, albeit one that leads to a manipulative cliffhanger. The second episode resolves that mystery with some tense politics and the show’s biggest space battle to date (also one which demonstrates the show’s commitment to space physics).
While “A Voice In The Wilderness” is only mildly important to the show’s notable dramatic arc, it’s a critical episode in a few other ways. Londo’s character work is matched by Garibaldi’s, making it essential for two of the show’s six most important characters. But more than that, I think it’s important because it demonstrates Babylon 5’s willingness to “go big” in scope. The stakes are higher here than any previous episode, because the two parts allows time for them to be discussed in detail. This makes the space battle all the more exciting—usually these situations are diplomatically resolved. Finally, from here on out, Babylon 5 gets damn good. With only minor exceptions, there’s no looking back from here, with three fine episodes closing out the season followed by dramatic improvement in the second season. That’s why “A Voice In The Wilderness” is a great place to start watching.
“A Voice In The Wilderness” (Part One): B+
“A Voice In The Wilderness” (Part Two): A-
The Great Spoiler Machine: The return of Draal in season three is matched by one of the more successful recasting retcons I’ve seen. The “younger” Draal does a great job of being just enough like Turenne to not be off-putting, while certainly giving his own twist on the character.
I think that “A Voice In The Wilderness” is a perfect encapsulation of Londo’s first season characterization. The seeds of the darkness are there, in his regret and pride, but those exist in fairly normal amounts in his “light, funny” phase. It’s the addition of power that changes them to darkness. When that happens, it’s a surprise, but not a shock. “Who said the good old days were gone, eh?” If only you knew, Londo.
- “Yes, but if it isn’t, will you tell me?” “No.” Another great sly Sinclair moment.
- “Now, I go to spread happiness to the rest of the station. It’s a terrible responsibility, but I have learned to live with it.”
- The “Office Of Planetary Security” sends Captain Pierce to Babylon 5, seven years before that particular framing of a government agency became popular.
- “A show of force is required.”
- Triple threat of Ivanova Intentionally Classic Lines this time around. I’m not a huge fan of the “Ivanova is God” speech, but “Boom. Boom boom boom. Boom! Have a nice day.” is better, and “Worst case of testosterone poisoning I’ve ever seen” is an all-timer.
- The use of “enlightened self-interest” as a political balance is cynical, idealistic, and appealing.
- I believe that this is the only time the characters set foot outside the station in the entire first season. It makes for an interesting comparison with the fourth and fifth seasons, which take place off the station as much (or more) than on it—something which we’ll be discussing in greater detail as the show goes on.
Next week: I go on vacation! But, the week after that, we come back with “Babylon Squared,” one of the most important and best episodes of the first season—our potential first “A” grade! It’s paired with “The Quality Of Mercy,” an effective standalone episode with one of the most memorable B-plots in the series. Because of penis.