“Points Of Departure” (season two, episode one; originally aired 11/ 2/1994)
If you want to understand Babylon 5’s place in television history, you can grasp a lot just in the first few minutes of “Points Of Departure.” First, there’s the introduction of Captain Sheridan (Bruce Boxleitner), the new main character, who replaces Commander Sinclair without any fanfare. This is a television series which, in 1994, replaced its protagonist and hero. Any show that could be labeled “important,” or “quality” since then simply hasn’t done such a thing—just imagine if season two of Buffy The Vampire Slayer had opened with Kendra showing up, only to be told that Buffy had moved away to be with her dad, all with no goodbye.
At the time, this was perhaps not so extraordinary. The business of television meant that actors got replaced. It was just 25 years since Dick Sargent replaced Dick York on Bewitched, probably the most famous recasting in television history. Soap operas, then the most common serialized form of television, were also famous for their characters and actors being in a constant state of flux. Across the Atlantic, the British science-fiction series Blake’s 7 got rid of the eponymous Blake halfway through its run. So Babylon 5’s willingness to fire its star and get a new one makes it clear that it is an old-fashioned show, one that aired before the current Golden Age was kicked off by the aforementioned Buffy, then The Sopranos.
That’s not all that’s changed, though. The intro starts, and it’s different—had to change, thanks to losing its narrator—but the words have changed. The music and the text are darker and more intense. The heart of that change is in the most obvious new line: “The year the Great War came upon us all,” Boxleitner says, as one of Mr. Morden’s creepy arachnid ships is shown blowing up a Narn cruiser.
A “Great War” is a big promise to make. It’s a huge change in the status quo, and television of the era didn’t really go for huge changes to the status quo. Babylon 5’s most direct analogs certainly didn’t—Star Trek: The Next Generation had dealt with wars over the course of an episode or two, but they weren’t “great.” Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, then starting its third season, was ponderously building serialization that could bring to wars and other major events into the Star Trek mythos, but that still hadn’t happened yet. The X-Files became famous for constantly threatening to upend the status quo and always finding some way to avoid doing so.
Beyond the simple implications of the war in terms of story, its tonal impact is quickly apparent. The color of the series seems to have changed—the first season was tinged with cool blues and greens just like the station itself, while the second season intro is on fire with reds and oranges. That this goes beyond simply a more violent intro and theme song isn’t immediately clear, but the show will quickly back it up over the first part of the second season. This would be the future of television, and a hallmark of shows considered important and of high quality—we often describe it as simple “serialization” but it’s more than that. The shows make longer-term plans, use foreshadowing, and back that up with their themes. Babylon 5 is still saying that those are its goals.
Fascinatingly, Babylon 5 was structured with the understanding that it existed in that transitional state. Even while doing things other television series hadn’t ever done before, it also acknowledged that changes happened in the business. J. Michael Straczynski would describe how he had a “trap door” for every major character, so that if something happened involving that actor, he could replace and the story would remain intact. Sinclair would not be the only character for which the trap door would be deployed—in fact, it’s slowly happening in these two episodes with Na’Toth. You may have noticed that she was recast during her multiple scenes in “Revelations,” but that’s probably the last time you’ll notice her as she gets written out of the show, quickly.
This partially explains the symbolic nature of the show’s characters. Both Sheridan and Sinclair are heroic patriarchs, filled with enough pathos to make them three-dimensional—but still generally correct, ethically and strategically. The alien ambassadors each represent their empires’ fortunes, where, say, Londo turns dark and powerful as the Centauri return to glory. It’s part of how Babylon 5 has to work, but it also explains why its strokes are so broad, so often.
JMS posted an open letter about Sinclair’s departure to various online forums, and it’s worth reading in full. In it, he describes the decision as mutual between him and O’Hare, with the idea that it was better for the show to have new characters and different tensions, and how it was better for O’Hare to not be typecast and to be able to show more range. There were also rumors that this wasn’t the whole story, that the studio mandated the change, etc., and it’s likely there’s more to the story than the contents of that letter. Personally, I find speculation on the subject tired, nearly 20 years on—the replacement was made, it worked well for the show, and that’s what matters.
Whether it’s the past or the future of television, Babylon 5 is still itself, and what that happens to be is also apparent within the first few minutes of “Points Of Departure.” When Sheridan declares that “The last time I made personal contact with a Minbari warship, I sent it straight to hell” he’s engaging in some good old-fashioned Babylon 5 overdone awkwardness. Moments later, when Ivanova reprises the line—“the whole place has gone straight to hell”—she follows that up with a corny Ivanova-yelling-at-people scene, the sort that Claudia Christian drags past “tolerable” into “amusing” through sheer force of will.
In spite of all this, you can see the improvements. The CGI is a little crisper (although it’s difficult to judge just how much, as the DVD transfer process changed from season-to-season as well). But it’s Boxleitner who most instantly exudes a dynamism that Michael O’Hare never achieved as Commander Sinclair. Dynamism isn’t the be-all and end-all of acting, of course, but Babylon 5 was often a slow show. An energetic main character seems like a big improvement.
On the other hand, “Points Of Departure” is too successful at differentiating Sheridan from Sinclair. For years after the switch, I remember fandom divisions typically ending with someone saying “Well, Sinclair is better if you like more thoughtful characters, but Sheridan’s better if you like action.” This episode certainly seems to justify that: Sheridan is introduced as a victorious military hero, not someone who got captured and lost his memory. His nickname is “Starkiller,” which isn’t exactly the sort of name you give someone who sits around carefully considering diplomatic terms. Sheridan even seems younger than Sinclair, which is a neat trick since Boxleitner was two years older than O’Hare.
That’s just not actually accurate. Sheridan gets treated as if he’s an action hero by the Minbari in “Points Of Departure,” and he does exude that dynamism. But what does he actually do? His crucial decision in the episode is that he orders his pilots notto fight apparently attacking Minbari—and he’s proved right. Compare this with Sinclair’s two introductions: in “The Gathering” he runs off to fight the owner of the changeling net, and in “Midnight On The Firing Line” he leads an attack on raiders himself in order to avoid a sticky diplomatic situation. He wasn’t necessarily wrong in either of those cases, but he was portraying an action hero, not an intelligent diplomat, as Sheridan does.
I had remembered “Points Of Departure” as existing primarily to introduce Sheridan while its follow-up, “Revelations,” is the real conclusion to the cliffhangers introduced in the season one finale. Yet there’s still a lot of good and interesting stuff going on in “Points.” It’s the episode that finally explains the central mystery of the first season, what happened at the Battle Of The Line, though that’s anticlimactic without the presence of Delenn or Sinclair, the central figures of that mystery. However, Babylon 5’s planned structure makes it exceptionally good at letting the end of one story lead directly to the next. In this case, there are two core questions that Lennier’s explanation leads to: Why does it matter to anyone except the Minbari that they believe that Minbari souls are being transferred? And what did Lennier mean when he conveniently told Delenn on-camera that he’d left out the bit about an ancient enemy?
There’s also thematic strength in “Points Of Departure” that I hadn’t noticed before. Lennier’s speech also included the line that new generations of Minbari are considered “lesser” than those who came before. He has a religious explanation for it, but these arguments are often made by humans who tend to have self-defeating mindsets. Baseball players/the economy/gender relationships/the kids are never as good as they were. Yet the Minbari have made their whole culture about it! Small wonder they’re totally divided and have warships go rogue because there wasn’t enough killing. And small wonder that the worst of them can’t escape their rigid mindsets: “The war has already begun. All that remains is honor. And death.”
This ideal stands in deliberate contrast to Sheridan’s Lincoln speech: “We cannot escape history. We will be remembered in spite of ourselves.” There’s a deliberate acknowledgment through lines like that that the great figures of history were the anxious Lenniers and Sheridans, who happened to be around in times of great stress and managed to succeed. That’s a good thematic position for a première to take, and bodes well for the season.
“Revelations” (season two, episode two; originally aired 11/9/1994)
It’s difficult to describe “Revelations” without using some kind of game metaphor. The deck has been reshuffled. The pieces are shifting on the board. The events of “Chrysalis” upset the balance of power in the galaxy and among the characters on the station—there’s those symbolic broad strokes I mentioned above. The episode’s title implies that it’s about revealing where everyone stands. As such, it’s not the most exciting hour of the series, but it is effective and necessary at setting up Babylon 5’s second season.
The most dramatic revelation is Delenn’s. The effect of her chrysalis is revealed; she has become half-Minbari and half-human. This, she claims, is meant to be a bridge between the humans and Minbari, and she undertook the process with the blessing of her government. Yet both in the first season and in “Points Of Departure,” high-ranking Minbari have expressed skepticism or distaste for the chrysalis project. Delenn may have the best of intentions, but she seems ignorant or dismissive of the divisions within her society.
The most ominous revelation is Londo Mollari’s. He once again meets with Mr. Morden, and the man with the greatest shit-eating grin of all time is as helpful as ever, except with one tiny change—Morden wants a small favor. That favor ends up being the destruction of an entire Narn cruiser as it goes to investigate an ancient adversary that Londo’s old rival G’Kar believes threatens them all. Londo may not have known that this would be the result, and he does demonstrate some slight concern about Morden’s apparent power, but he is unwilling to let go of the tiger he decided to ride.
The most fascinating revelation is G’Kar’s. The first season’s G’Kar was angry, conniving, and capricious; he was the villain initially. Over the course of those 22 episodes, he was given depth and made sympathetic, but he was still a wildcard at best, and always a potential antagonist. That caprice has been wiped away by the events of “Chrysalis” and his experience chasing shadows in “Revelations.” He is now totally driven, and is even willing to imply that he’d make nice with Londo and the Centauri in order to deal with the threat he perceives. The show backs G’Kar’s concerns implicitly as well: when Sheridan says “the Great War” in the title sequence, the scene where the cruiser gets destroyed is shown. This is a huge and understandable change in a character’s personality.
The most motivating revelation is Garibaldi’s. I mentioned how “Points Of Departure” ended one major story thread but triggered two more when Lennier described what had happened to Sinclair at The Line. This is a similar process. The vague “something is wrong on Earth” storylines of the first season have shifted. It goes beyond xenophobic splinter groups like the Home Guard to include a conspiracy involving the powerful Psi Corps and possibly even the vice president. The shift from paranoia to conspiracy isn’t huge, but it is noticeable. It also allows the characters to shift from reaction to action—they have targets to investigate, instead of simply passively watching bad things happen.
The most impressive revelation is Sheridan’s. His sister, visiting the station, allows the show to detail the tragic life event from which he is recovering. It’s not a terribly creative backstory, and JMS’ continued adoption of the “letting it out means you’ve recovered” television plotline doesn’t help matters. But the important thing is that Boxleitner makes it work. His monologue about how he thinks his dead wife Anna is still around—even though she’s been gone for two years—shows Boxleitner’s range quite well. I grew increasingly impressed with Michael O’Hare’s ability to convey ideals or images, but this level of personal emotion? This is a definite improvement.
The first season of Babylon 5 ended with Commander Sinclair declaring “Nothing’s the same anymore.” The opening of the second season demonstrates just how correct he was—even if he had to be sacrificed for that to be accomplished.
- I’m delighted to be back reviewing Babylon 5, especially for the second season, which is my favorite of the five. Thanks to everyone who read in the first season, read the TV Club 10, and demanded the reviews come back in comments and on Twitter. We’re not all alone in the night here.
- You may have noticed that I’ve streamlined the reviews from the first-season format. Most of what I’ve cut out were the parts of the reviews intended to act as guides for new viewers. Although the show still isn’t at its best quite yet, in general it’s watchable and shows consistent improvement from here on, with a few exceptions (which unfortunately includes next week’s “A Distant Star,” perhaps the last skippable episode for a while.) I’ll keep grading, though, because judging can be fun!
- Since the reviews ended last year, Michael O’Hare passed away. He joins Richard Biggs, Jeff Conaway, and Andreas Katsulas in the category of Babylon 5 cast members who died before their time. Along those lines, veteran science-fiction character actor Robin Sachs, who played the Grey Council member in “Points Of Departure” and will pop up a few more times on Babylon 5, also died recently.
- “If there is a doom on this station it is because you brought it here!” is one of Sachs’ lines that stood out to me. He’s using “doom” in the modern, negative sense, but in older literature, “doom” often means destiny, without the negative connotations. This fascinated me because Sheridan, unlike many of the other characters, is at that point detached from the prophecized doom and destiny of so many characters, and the station itself, in season one.
- “Captain, we’re not getting anywhere” says Ivanova during the interrogation of the warrior Kalain, even though they clearly are getting somewhere.
- Ivanova redeems herself with the dead “And I thought I was a pessimist” after the Minbari’s “all that remains is honor and death” line.
- Londo gets the best line of the week in “Revelations,” though, complaining about Delenn’s absence from the Council: “While the other has decided to explore new career options, like BECOMING A BUTTERFLY!”
- “I don’t know you.” Garibaldi’s weakness and paranoia come through really well here.
- Reminder: If you’re planning on talking about events that happen later on the show, please clearly mark your SPOILERS in comments.