“Ceremonies Of Light And Dark” (season three, episode 11; originally aired 4/8/1996)
Whatever happened in the episode after “Severed Dreams” was guaranteed to be a comedown, but it didn’t have to be quite as much of a letdown as “Ceremonies Of Light And Dark.” I suppose it stands to reason that if Babylon 5’s highest-stakes episodes are its best, the lower-stakes episodes are generally going to be weaker.
Three of “Ceremonies”’ storylines seem to flow directly from the secession events of the previous week. Delenn wants to hold a rebirth ceremony in order to improve the emotional state of the station’s leaders. The remnants of the Nightwatch are working to retake the station for EarthGov. And the station has to deal with all its infrastructure being set up to be connected to Earth.
The last of those is by far the least impressive. A reset of the station’s computer system in order to ensure that EarthGov can’t just hack it leads to an “artificial intelligence” with the personality of an a chatty blue-collar worker written with a sense humor that might charitably be described as “old-fashioned.” More honestly, it’s awkward and horribly annoying. To be fair, the characters on the show also find it annoying and work to fix it. But if the show acknowledges that it’s annoying, what purpose does it serve? There’s no drama in the appearance of the AI voice or its disappearance. It’s just… there, annoying everyone, viewers and characters alike.
The tension of the episode is supposed to come from the remnants of the Nightwatch plotting the station’s recapture. They reject the idea of assassinating Sheridan, instead working on getting the Minbari protection to leave the station by kidnapping and perhaps killing Delenn. This is exactly the sort of storyline that should come out of the events of the last week. Yet at almost every level beyond its basic premise, it falls apart.
The guest stars are the biggest problem. The Nightwatch leader, Boggs, seems to have been written (and cast) almost entirely according to a superficial idea that ugliness equals evil. His right-hand man (listed as “Sniper” in the credits) is supposed to be a frightening psychopath, but he comes across as little more than “slightly twitchy.”
I’m not sure how much of this is the actor and how much is the director, but given the ragged way the episode as a whole is shot and paced, I’d lean director. Everything is very by-the-numbers. In the most egregious example, the climax of the episode has Delenn stabbed and taken to MedBay. In the next scene, after a theoretical commercial break, we see Lennier walk into Sheridan’s office, he’s asked how Delenn is doing (as if that wouldn’t be the first thing he’d say anyway), and he says essentially “Good news! She’s going to be okay!”, once again removing any sort of tension. But there’s other smaller stuff, like the incredibly clunky way the blocking is done during the Nightwatch meeting, with every character positioned for maximum ominousness, rather than appearing the way actual humans might for a meeting of this kind.
Much of Delenn’s ceremony seems to fit in that awkwardness, but then when Babylon 5 actually needs to pull it together for the moments of long-term importance, it does so. The scene where the command staff comes to confess their secrets to Delenn is built for simple, powerful characterization, and it doesn’t disappoint, particularly Garibaldi’s “No one knows, but I’m afraid all the time. What I might do if I ever let go.” And the visual demonstration of the rebirth—the new uniforms Delenn has had made for the staff—is a great moment. Those uniforms are an odd (but perfectly Babylon 5) combination of pure cheese and pure awesome.
Lennier’s secret, confessed to Marcus, is a cleverly written scene, where we finally see some depth given to a character who’s been treated almost entirely positively so far. It turns out that Lennier is a Nice Guy, who’s been totally friendzoned by his preferred lady. But it’s okay, because Lennier’s love for Delenn is “A pure, perfect love, as it were” and therefore superior to anything else those silly humans can engage in.
There is one unqualified success for “Ceremonies Of Light And Dark,” however: the moment where Londo finally turns against Refa in order to detach the Centauri from their alliance with the Shadows. “Because I have asked you to. And because your loyalty to your people should be greater than your ambition. And because I have poisoned your drink!” Peter Jurasik is having so much fun in this scene—he doesn’t merely chew more scenery than William Forward, he devours Refa as well. That this scene works so well while the others don’t indicates that it’s not just the characters on Babylon 5 who are struggling to figure out what to do after the highs of the station’s secession from Earth, it also seems to have been the people making the show who were a bit exhausted.
- “Now we do this by the numbers, or not at all.” Since when is there a manual for the Nightwatch fighting an insurgency on a spinning tin can in space without any communication from home?
- “Only the heir to the throne of the kingdom of idiots fights a war on 12 fronts.”
- Delenn invites Londo to a ceremony for some kickass meditation. “This by you is a good time, yes?”
- “Well they said I was carrying around a lot of repressed anger?” “And?” “I’m not repressed anymore.” Marcus is a little angsty in this episode, but still manages a few great lines.
- I had thought that the show made it fairly clear that Ivanova wasn’t the best at small arms combat, but she’s the one who gets Boggs.
- I’ve often come across the complaint that Babylon 5 is hard to watch because it clumsily tries to bring you up to speed with everything going on after every commercial break. This isn’t something that I’ve really noticed the vast majority of the time. “Ceremonies,” however, fits well within that annoying minority.
“Sic Transit Vir” (season three, episode 12; originally aired 4/15/1996)
The idea that the people making Babylon 5 were perhaps a little exhausted at this point in the third season doesn’t lose currency with “Sic Transit Vir,” an episode with some interesting ideas ruined by an utter disaster of an ending. Unlike “Ceremonies,” “Vir” is a narrowly focused episode, staying on the title character, but that doesn’t end up helping.
There are two storylines to the episode, both about the title character. On the one side, Vir has had a marriage arranged for him, with Londo facilitating. In the other, the command staff discovers that a Centauri named “Abrahamo Lincolni” has been shipping several thousand Narn off their home planet, and that could only be Vir. They’re both coming-of-age stories of a sort, with Vir having a potential sexual awakening to match his development of political clout.
Vir’s wife, Lyndisty, is played in a manner similar to the Fox News Lady from “Voices Of Authority.” She’s so ridiculously over-the-top in the guise of a poetic young lover that she almost doesn’t seem real. “Then let me be a fever from which you never recover, and our nights an anarchy of pleasure.” She’s perfect for virginal Vir (how many characters on the show are virgins? Three adults of a dozen?) which sets up a sort of comedy of manners as they learn to love one another.
But of course she’s too perfect: It turns out she’s also a horrifying racist, daughter of a leading war criminal, and perhaps a war criminal herself. The compelling idea of this episode is that a person can be a perfect romantic match at the same time as being a horrible person. That’s a complicated issue, and one that would be especially interesting in regards to Vir, a character whom we now know will come into a significant amount of power. “I thought I was doing something good. But it was actually something bad. For me.”
There’s just the tiny problem that Lyndisty’s crimes are well beyond being politically opposed to Vir. She claims to have been present for the murder of what has to be thousands of Narn at least, and claims to have murdered over a hundred herself. The fundamentally decent Vir, who treats the Narn as people, couldn’t continue to view Lyndisty as something salvageable—yet the episode ends on a tender goodbye, and Vir uttering the sitcom-esque line “Well. What relationships don’t have ups and downs?” as though we’re not talking about war crimes that would likely get her executed in a court of law.
The related resolution of the Narn Underground Railroad story might be even worse in its way. When the command staff discovers that the Narn Vir is smuggling have apparently been killed, Londo can barely contain his glee at the idea that his protege is now a mass murderer. Certainly the ambassador has never rated Narn lives highly, but he’s also deliberately worked against specific personal evil. Londo has been horrified by the mass-driver assault on the Narn homeworld. He has let the murder of a racist, violent Centauri go relatively unpunished. He has always been about the act of glory more than the act of violence, and believing that there’s a difference is a key part of his tragic flaw, which it seems like he’s recognized and is trying to fix.
Finally there’s a problem of sheer incompetence. In the climax of the episode, Lyndisty brings Vir to a captured Narn, for him to kill. She tells him about her family and history and hands him the knife. And then nobody mentions what happens. It’s fairly clear that Vir lets the Narn go, but the fact that this information was edited out of “Sic Transit Vir” (and it was accidentally edited out, according to J. Michael Straczynski’s unhappy messages at the time) is another good indication that the production of Babylon 5 was, at this point, only slightly more efficient than the station itself.
- “I do not like anything with eight legs!” Wacky Londo turning to Genocidal Londo needs to be handled with more care than the same process from a guest star.
- “Humans can be a very depressing people.” “Only if we get turned down for dinner.” I actually liked the John/Delenn relationship here. It was nice.
- “I’ve never been a hero before.”
- “We have… six.” And lo, a scene was written for Claudia Christian to practice her reaction faces, and it was… not as bad as it could have been.
- “She’s a good woman. True Centauri.”