“Point Of No Return” and “Severed Dreams (season three, episodes nine and 10; originally aired 2/26/1996 and 4/1/1996)
“The Babylon Project was a dream given form.”
That’s our introduction to Babylon 5. It’s a line that states that the station is the literal form of a peaceful ideal, yes, but it’s followed by something slightly more specific—that the station was built 10 years after the Earth-Minbari War, in order to prevent something like that from happening again. The dream of Babylon 5 isn’t just peace as a vague concept. It’s peace, as practiced by humans—and sure, everyone in the galaxy could benefit, but Earth stands to benefit most. This is what “Severed Dreams” means: It’s not merely that the human characters’ ideals are betrayed—the Earther “dream given form” no longer counts as Babylon 5’s premise.
Babylon 5 doesn’t merely reject a core component, it does so with verve: “Severed Dreams” is the best episode of the series. (Yes, I’m changing my mind from “The Long Twilight Struggle.” So there.) That such an important episode of Babylon 5 is one of its best isn’t surprising at all anymore, but I think it’s instructive to see why “Severed Dreams” works so well.
A huge part of that is that it’s not just one episode. “Severed Dreams” is often listed as part three of three, following “Messages From Earth” and “Point Of No Return” in a trilogy of escalating conflicts with EarthGov. I find that somewhat inaccurate. When I think of a multi-part TV episode, I think of a story with a consistent focus and tone that doesn’t entirely fit in a single hour. These three episodes vary widely: “Messages From Earth” is a fairly light-hearted action-adventure, “Point Of No Return” is a character-based political thriller, and “Severed Dreams” is a straight-up war story. All three episodes do build up the story of Earth descending deeper and deeper into fascism. But because the first two approach the story in such different and somewhat indirect ways, it’s still surprising how “Severed Dreams” goes directly for the jugular.
“Point Of No Return” is more important than “Messages From Earth” in this sense, because its character focus is different. The other two episodes focus on Sheridan and Delenn, our heroes, but “Point Of No Return” is very much the story of Zack Allan, the show’s everyman. For months now, Garibaldi’s been berating him in one ear, and various Nightwatch leaders bullying him in the other. As the title suggests, it’s now time for him to choose. And, because Zack isn’t one of the main characters, and because he isn’t clearly one of the heroes, that choice matters. We know that Sheridan is always going to do the right thing, or at least not do a horribly wrong thing. We know that he’s not going to die part of the way through a season. But Zack? Zack can fuck up, just as Londo did. Or he can die, just like Keffer. Thus the feeling of watching “Point Of No Return” is one of empathy—I want to believe that, like Zack, I’d be able to do the right thing in that situation. It’s a different feeling from watching Sheridan et al. be powerful, wise heroes in the other two episodes.
This manner of changing the focus on the characters, while maintaining the forward momentum of the serialized story, is a fairly rare one on television. The vast majority of the time, when the story is barreling forward, the focus progresses linearly as well—that is, as a story comes closer to its climax, the important characters become the corresponding focus. But in “Severed Dreams” Zack’s all but a background character again. (One similar example: in Angel’s fifth season, the episodes are all fairly standalone and change focus and tone rapidly, but the thematic layers of the story slowly build to a fantastic finale.)
“Point Of No Return” also helps “Severed Dreams” avoid the overstuffed, too-fast feeling that plague the show’s big episodes. It serves as the buildup that would otherwise have occupied a big chunk of the climactic episode; Earth and Clarke and the political danger that the command staff is in are at the forefront of the story. Compare that with “The Coming Of Shadows,” where not only have we never met the Centauri emperor who dominates the episode, we haven’t even heard him mentioned as a character of import before (beyond his distant title). Thanks to a better set of prior episodes, “Severed Dreams” never feels too rushed or too short.
Another structural aspect of Babylon 5 helps “Severed Dreams” serve as the peak of the series: The show’s willingness to build and complete smaller-scale story arcs. Babylon 5 is often considered to be one story told across multiple seasons—the show’s marketing as a “televised novel” encourages that concept—but it’s not so. Babylon 5 is really several dozen intersecting plots, which range in length from half a season to a little longer than a season. The stories go roughly like this:
- The mystery of the Battle Of The Line (the first season to the start of the second)
- Rising Human nativist sentiment/general feeling of Earth being bad (the first season, changing after Santiago dies)
- Narn-Centauri tensions (from the start of the series until “The Coming Of Shadows”)
- Return of an ancient evil (the first third of season two)
- Gathering of evidence against the conspiracy on Earth (early season two to early season three)
- The Narn-Centauri War (latter two-thirds of season two)
- Zack and the Nightwatch (mid-season two to early season three)
- Narn Resistance (end of season two to ?)
This isn’t entirely comprehensive: the telepath issues, for example, exist throughout the series. But it is a good way to understand how Babylon 5 gets its big events so right when other shows don’t always connect. In the case of “Severed Dreams,” there are four different stories which have been with the show for months. The Zack/Nightwatch arc is the most self-contained of those; six months ago he got his armband, this week he tears it off.
The story of problems on Earth has been building and shifting through the whole series, but what we see this week is the release of both the short-term and long-term tension. There’s a direct escalation from Ivanova’s discovery of the assassination information six episodes ago through each episode (except “Exogenesis”) that culminates in the secession, yes, but we’ve also see several things pay off from longer before, particularly the revelations of conspiracy and counter-conspiracy of President Clarke and General Hague from the second season. And then there’s the story of G’Kar’s redemption alongside the redemption of his people. The religious symbolism used for the Narn at this point is occasionally discomfiting, but their shift from victims into actors is important and impressive.
But the most surprising (and eventually stunning) storyline to peak in “Severed Dreams” is Delenn’s. I’ve talked quite a bit about how she was beaten down in season two, until she finally gained strength from suffering. Here she finally does something with that strength, confronting her political opponents in the process. And I don’t think she ever has a better moment than when she comes through the jump point with her “Be. Somewhere. Else.” speech. The tying of those four plot elements into a two-episode bundle shows the incredible attention to structure that J. Michael Straczynski used when writing the show. These combinations of story peaks aren’t accidental, and they don’t feel accidental. “Severed Dreams” feels like the right set of events for Babylon 5 to have happen when they do.
So with all that in place, all “Severed Dreams” has to do is kick ass. And it does. I don’t really know what to say about it without gushing. The CGI space battle has to be one of the very best in television history. Christopher Franke’s music is at its best. Bruce Boxleitner’s delivery during both the scenes of moral ambiguity and set-jawed heroism. That scene with the Narn charging into the fray. Corwin’s plaintive “Captain. How did this happen? What did we do wrong?” Even the mistakes, like the Major called in to replace General Hague, work out well. What can I say? Episodes like “Severed Dreams” are why I watch television.
- “Vir! Intelligence has nothing to do with politics!”
- Meanwhile, Majel Barrett! Her scenes with Londo are generally good enough to help me forget that they’re mostly a distraction, but this line’s fantastic: “We say there is no choice only to comfort ourselves when the decision has already been made. If you understand that, there is hope.” It’s a direct repudiation of most of Londo’s justifications for his worst behavior. Does he realize it?
- Jerry Doyle gets his own kick-ass monologue. “If anything I’ve ever said or done has ever meant a damn to you, then stop this. Stop this now.” One of the interesting things about “Point Of No Return” is that it seems to explicitly endorse the superiority of clearly defined, local hierarchies over nebulous loyalties to nations or “the greater good.” That’s not something that really comes up again so directly over the course of the show.
- “Yes, another cloth, please.” Sassy Vir!
- “You’re kidding. You’re not kidding.” Franklin’s just kinda hanging out for most of these episodes, but he sells this one.
- “You will also be emperor… why are you laughing?” PLOT TWIST.
- “The Grey Council has said the problems of others are not our concern.” And so Babylon 5’s love affair with liberal interventionism begins.
- “The pride was yours. The presumption was yours.”
- “As of this moment, Babylon 5 is seceding from the Earth Alliance.”
- Good to see that on the DVDs, the ramming ship name was changed to the Churchill—when it aired, it was the Alexander that seemed to be destroyed.
- “Seeing your face in that moment was probably the finest moment of my life.”