“Matters Of Honor” (season three, episode one; originally aired 11/6/1995)
The world is bigger now. Babylon 5 has shown a slow but noticeable expansion of its important spaces since it began. Early in the first season, we never saw anything that took place on other worlds, and the characters only left the station in the occasional Starfury flight. Late in the season, a few of the characters went to the planet below, for the first scenes taking place on solid ground in Babylon 5, and they followed that with an examination of Babylon 4 in a different part of space. In the beginning of season two, G’Kar went off to the Galactic Rim for some exploration, the first time we’d seen a cast member far away from the station. This was followed by a few scenes of other characters on other planets, like Mars and Centauri Prime. And in the most dramatic episode of the second season, Londo Mollari traveled to Centauri Prime himself, for the first scenes of a major character on another planet.
This is not a coincidence. Babylon 5’s geographic scope has grown in direct correlation to the scope its story. Almost all of those settings first appeared in a core mythology episode that escalated the story’s stakes: “Signs And Portents” to “Babylon Squared” to “Revelations” to “The Coming Of Shadows” to “The Long, Twilight Struggle.” And the story just gets bigger and bigger. By seasons four and five, it’ll be taking place as much off-station as on it. And “Matters Of Honor” is one of the most important episodes for getting to that point. The setting of Babylon 5 is dramatically expanded in just this one episode.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t actually make “Matters Of Honor” any good. Essentially all it does is expand Babylon 5’s universe and introduce a new character. It otherwise fails pretty completely at building tension or telling a coherent story. It’s an episode filled almost entirely with exposition, and a disjointed, awkwardly edited one at that. Scenes go on a few seconds too long, actors look lost, and the first-ever direct confrontation between the heroes and a Shadow Battlecrab doesn’t actually have any stakes.
The main vehicle for the expansion of Bablyon 5’s scope is the White Star, a small, destroyer-sized ship built with a combination of Vorlon and Minbari technology. It’s given to Sheridan for use in helping the Rangers out. It can’t take a Shadow vessel head-on, but it is powerful enough to quickly wipe out several Centauri mines, and seems to be as fast as anything in the galaxy. In story terms, however, it’s a device that allows the characters to travel anywhere, quickly, and together—five cast members are aboard the ship and off-station for the first time ever.
One of those cast members is the new Ranger liaison to the station, Marcus Cole. Marcus’ introduction here is that of a tortured badass, able to brush off physical trauma with ease. There’s only one moment of comic dialogue for him in the whole episode, when he makes fun of a belligerent thug, but other than that it’s just business. It’s not an auspicious beginning for a character who will demonstrate so much more later, particularly as the first non-Londo character who’s able to be consistently funny.
“Matters Of Honor” also includes one of Sheridan’s biggest decisions in the series so far, but the show doesn’t actually acknowledge it as such. A few of you mentioned in the comments two weeks ago how Sheridan’s acceptance of command of the Rangers may have been treason—he was accepting an alliance on behalf of himself, when he had no authority to do so. I don’t entirely agree—I think Sheridan has a bit more autonomy than that—but it is something that comes into play in this episode, when he’s forced to choose between dealing with an EarthGov VIP or bailing to save the Rangers. Sheridan doesn’t even blink—he’s off to deal with the Rangers, and deliberately withholds information about the Shadows from the Earth representative investigating them. Of course, we know that Sheridan and the others are opposed to a conspiracy on Earth, and they may not trust Agent Endawi’s motivations. But that’s never actually mentioned in the episode. Sheridan has simply cast his lot with Delenn and the Rangers, and that doesn’t seem to deserve explanation.
“Matters Of Honor” is a season première, so that lack of explanation sticks out even more. Theoretically, there are new viewers tuning in. In fact, there are a lot of things new about this—a new MedLab commented upon by the characters, and a fantastic new intro with Ivanova narrating. Even the general aesthetics are different. Everything’s a little more colorful, almost exotic, which ties back in with the idea that Babylon 5 isn’t just about Babylon 5 anymore. These are all good and important changes for the show. But this isn’t a good episode for showcasing them.
- “It was… necessary.” “Well, as answers go, short, to the point, utterly useless, and totally consistent with what I’ve come to expect from a Vorlon.” “Good.”
- “Are you trying to cheer me up?” “No sir. Wouldn’t dream of it.” Ivanova and Sheridan are getting better and better at banter.
- Londo can almost always be counted on to salvage a middling episode as best he can. “I do believe you have got it surrounded, Mr. Morden!”
- “I try never to get involved in my own life. Too much trouble.”
- One of the most amusing things about the guest star is that he exists entirely to make the characters provide exposition to the audience.
- “With all due respect, ambassador, I’ve heard that before.”
- “They called it the ’bonehead maneuver.’ No offense.”
- Another geographical expansion: we see an event on Earthdome for the first time, with Morden connected to both the Psi Corps and a senator.
- Perhaps the most frustrating thing about watching this episode, having seen the rest of the series, is how closely the main plot mirrors that of an episode just down the road (“Messages From Earth”), but how pointless these stakes seem in comparison.
“Convictions” (season three, episode two; originally aired 11/13/1995)
“Convictions” is the reverse of “Matters Of Honor” for most of its airing time. It’s not expansive, but self-contained instead. A bomber threatens the station, and the staff attempt to figure out how to expose and arrest him, as the other characters deal with the effects of his bomb. There’s a certain charm to the simplicity of the episodic construction, and I found myself liking it far more than I’d expected for not being anything more than a procedural with some good character-building work, particularly for Londo after Lennier is injured while saving his life.
Then in its last third, “Convictions” becomes something more, thanks to two long scenes. First, a blast in the ambassadorial quarters traps Londo in an elevator with G’Kar. Babylon 5 is often best when it shuts two characters in a room and lets them bounce off one another, but this scene in “Convictions” transcends even that. It’s the first scene the two star characters have had with one another since the end of the Narn-Centauri War, and G’Kar uses that to unload all his bitter irony on Londo. The way he cackles madly when Londo says “We must work together!” is fantastic enough, but it just escalates throughout the scene. Inasmuch as Babylon 5 is the story of these two characters, the elevator bits in “Convictions” become a necessary, brilliant part of the show as a whole. It’s G’Kar at his lowest point, Londo at his highest, and yet they’re still equal sparring partners.
If it ended with that scene followed by a perfunctory capture of the villain, “Convictions” would be a strong case-of-the-week episode of Babylon 5. But only one of the ambitious capstones actually works. The scene where Sheridan confronts the bomber is as frustrating as the scene with Londo and G’Kar in the elevator is great. Patrick Kilpatrick plays the bomber with all the spittle-flying, scenery-chewing a good Babylon 5 guest star should have, but he doesn’t actually have anything worth overacting for. He’s not quite deranged enough to make for a tragic story of mental illness, and he’s not quite coherent enough for his philosophy of chaotic times to reveal anything interesting about the show’s settings or themes. He’s merely a bad guy who must inevitably be defeated by the heroes—and an annoying one at that.
One of the odd things about how Babylon 5 is that its transitions between seasons were totally different from the normal way TV is viewed and understood. For whatever reason, PTN, the company that sold the rights to the show in America, regularly decided to air the final episodes of the prior season in the fall, immediately before the next season started. The last four episodes of season two were separated from the rest of the season by four months, then followed immediately by the first installments of season three. Production-wise, there were huge differences: changes in sets, characters, the intro, and so on. It also corresponds to changes in quality: TV shows as a general rule tend to be much weaker at the start of their seasons, as their cast and crew reacquaint themselves with how things are done. But for viewers of Babylon 5 then—and now with DVDs or streaming or download, where access to the next episode is just about as easy as it was with the last—it caused a jarring drop in quality. Fortunately, it’s an understandable drop with the expectation that it’ll get better soon. And even more fortunately, just as in the doldrums of the first season, Londo Mollari is around to keep things entertaining even if nothing else happens to work. There’s always that.
- “Zack, do me a favor and explain the missionary, uh, position to these folks.”
- “We’ve come here to learn all those names.” Brother Theo and his monks are participating in a classic science fiction story.
- Lennier traps himself behind doors in order to save Londo. I just realized on this viewing that this visual gets an important callback later.
- “I heard a joke today. I probably should not repeat it, but who are you going to tell, hmm?”
- “No many fishes left in the sea, not many fishes, just Londo and me.” More G’Kar singing. Always G’Kar singing.