“Babylon Squared” (season one, episode 20; originally aired 8/10/1994)
“I am serialized!” shouts Babylon 5 during “Babylon Squared.” It’s impossible to miss at this point. “Midnight On The Firing Line” contained one scene that seemed to promise that something more would happen. And “Signs And Portents” certainly had the feel of an episode from a serialized show. But if you sat down and described their events to someone, they wouldn’t seem that special. Two empires have tensions rise, but the crisis gets resolved, in the first; in the second, a major character has a difficult situation get resolved by a bizarre ally in the second. “Babylon Squared,” on the other hand, offers no other explanation than that this is a tremendously ambitious show. The questions raised cannot be answered without a surprising (for the time) escalation of storytelling intensity.
Here’s what Babylon 5 has to deal with thanks to “Babylon Squared”: It has to explain where Babylon 4 went in time, to a great war between good and evil. To a lesser extent, it also has to explain how this happened: time travel, such a staple of the Star Trek universe, hasn’t been presented as a possibility here, and it isn’t explained at all. Sinclair’s flash-forward, which shows Garibaldi fighting off overwhelming unseen invaders on Babylon 5, is too intense to forget about. Finally, and most importantly, we see an aged Sinclair, who is treated with reverence and called “The One” by the alien Zathras, He is also clearly responsible, with Delenn (whose lack of direct appearance demands questions of its own), for stealing the station.
This kind of gamble reminds me of nothing more than the “Opera House” flash-forward from Battlestar Galactica, which appeared at the end of its long-running Kobol arc in its first and second season. There, like here, we had an intense look at a crucial moment in the future for several major characters. It acts as a promise; it says that there’s a deeper meaning to the whole story.
But B5’s promise is significantly better and more interesting than BSG’s Opera House (and this isn’t even going to get into the end results of the prophecies). Ironically, one of the reasons for that is that Battlestar Galactica was, 20-odd episodes in, a much better show than Babylon 5. B5 was struggling to find its footing for most of its first season, so it needed a jolt of intensity and mystery, which this episode provides. On the other hand, BSG had plenty of intensity and drama already, making its prophecy a distraction from what it had already done so well. Along those lines, “Babylon Squared” is a significant improvement over the average B5 episode, whereas BSG’s Kobol storyline is the first time that show meanders. This is also an effective delineation between the two shows, arguably the best non-Trek space operas on television: Babylon 5 started slow, but was remarkably effective at taking risks that paid off in the short and long term, while Battlestar Galactica started amazingly well and frittered that away by taking unnecessary risks.
There’s another major milestone in “Babylon Squared,” possibly as important as the prophecy, but much more subtle: the (non-Londo) comedy is working. It’s not great. It’s not even all that close to laugh-out-loud funny. But it isn’t cringe-inducing. It’s demonstrated in two early moments, both involving Sinclair and Garibaldi (who is the Most Improved Comedic Character here): their prank on a sleepy Ivanova at breakfast, and their banter while flying the shuttle to Babylon 4. “Wanna talk socks?” “No!” The alien Zathras also has entertaining verbal tics, giving the mystery of Babylon 4 some levity.
Improved comedy scenes makes Babylon 5 significantly better beyond the simple usefulness of being funnier. It starts to eliminate the biggest hurdle new viewers have in the series: its awkwardness. When it’s closer to “funny” than “corny,” it’s much easier to take the show seriously as important when you don’t wince at every fifth scene. It also gives the show another potential character development dimension. Both Sinclair and Garibaldi become notably more likeable during these conversations.
Combined with “A Voice In The Wilderness” before it and the season finale, “Chrysalis” soon after, “Babylon Squared” demonstrates that Babylon 5 has grown out of its awkward, stage-setting beginning. This is starting to become a show deserving of T.V. Club Classic status.
“The Quality Of Mercy” (season one, episode 21; originally aired 8/17/1994)
Sandwiched between “Babylon Squared” and “Chrysalis,” the first season’s two best episodes, “The Quality Of Mercy” seems like something of a distraction. It’s a standalone episode, for one thing, and it focuses on some of the less important characters: Lennier, Franklin, and Talia. As such, it does disrupt the momentum of the season.
Yet I do think that “Mercy” fits in with the overall improvement seen in the final third of season one episodes. For one thing, it’s structured much better and more confidently than previous episodes. It uses three small stories (two of which overlap) to maintain the momentum of the episode much better than some of the prior filler-dominated monster/case of the week episodes. There are also some twists along the way. The Franklin storyline seemed oddly resolved early, although its twist is rather predictable. Lennier using badass martial arts in a bar fight, on the other hand, was much more surprising.
“The Quality Of Mercy” is also a good, straightforward science fiction of a certain classical style. It asks the question of how technology can change human behavior. In this case, capital punishment is examined from two different directions. EarthGov has apparently banned the physical death penalty, but in its place it has “death of personality,” where a criminal’s mind is wiped, new memories are implanted, and the body sent to work serving society.
Babylon 5 doesn’t immediately explore the ramifications of this concept (yet—this isn’t the last time we’ll see it discussed on the show) but just opening the question is interesting enough. Is death of personality that different the death penalty? How does belief in the existence of the soul change the equation? What are the consequences for the society, for the people who have to deal with the rebuilt personality? Is there a moral hazard in presenting this as an option, since it seems less dramatic than physical death?
We spend less time on the alien healing machine, but it’s an entirely different approach to the same issue. The doctor who uses it suggests that it was designed for capital punishment, where the body of the criminal is harvested for the benefit of others in society. Indeed, she uses it to that effect herself. Yet she’s damaged by the experience, even though it was as ideal a situation as possible: the criminal was convicted, unrepentant and dangerous; and the beneficiary was a good person, in need of the medical aid, and acting in self-defense. Yet it still involved the death of another for her benefit. Guilt was inevitable.
The alien society that created the machine is never shown, and I think that’s a good move for the episode. This form of capital punishment is presented only as a theory, as a counter to the Human form of the death penalty. Further specific examination, especially a defense, would have turned the episode into a debate on the subject, much like “Believers.” That has its place, but I like the open questioning in this case.
We also see Centauri penis, so really, this episode can’t be bad.
The Great Spoiler Machine: As much as I enjoy “Babylon Squared,” I’m not quite so fond of its second part in the third season. Most of it has more to do with the mechanical nature of the second part of the episode. The characters mostly go through motions of telling the B^2 story from the other side. A small part of that is also the Sinclair/Sheridan switch, making Sinclair’s future much less interesting. However, given that the timing adds up to make it seem like “War Without End” would have been the original final episode of the series, I’m deliriously happy that the slow, elegiac “Sleeping In Light” took its place.
If you consider “Passing Through Gethsemane” a thematic second part of “The Quality Of Mercy,” that one is much, much, much more successful at expanding the ideas of the initial episode. Also, man, in retrospect, the monologue about the stims should have a flashing neon sign claiming “foreshadowing!”
- Where’s Firefly in my list of best non-Trek shows? With less than 20 episodes, I don’t feel like it’s in the same realm of comparison. I do feel like it was on track to be the best, by a wide margin, if it had gotten to 50 episodes.
- “Fasten, then zip. You?” Does anyone zip then fasten? I mean, sometimes I fasten and forget to zip, but that’s different.
- “We’ve become UNSTUCK IN TIME, Commander, that’s why we have to get out of here.” That was an...impressive line reading.
- “Not The One.” “Not the one what?” “You’re not The One.” Oh man, so many Compuserve discussions about those lines. SO MANY.
- “Also its spleen, its kidneys, a veritable parade of internal organs.”
- “I did the necessary thing. That is not always the same as the right thing.”
- “Did you think these were just decorations?” I find it difficult to believe that, given Centauri political and economic expansionism, something so basic as their sexual reproduction organs are unknown to the rest of the galaxy.
Next week: Season One saves its best for last with “Chrysalis,” an episode I’d probably put in my top five of the entire series. Don’t miss it.