Welcome back to T.V. Club Classic coverage of Babylon 5! You may have noticed that the form of the reviews is different now. After discussions with the editors, we’ve decided on a form that gives me the flexibility to bunch up larger groups of episodes according to their themes, as opposed to reviewing individual episodes two at a time. I’m excited about this form, as it’ll ideally allow me to focus less on recapping and reacting to individual episodes in the style of someone watching for the first time, and instead step back and analyze from the perspective of an expert on the full series, which is generally my preference anyway. (This will also allow me to blaze past some of the worst of season five—I don’t have much more to say about “Secrets Of The Soul” than “ugh.”)
However, since there are going to be larger chunks of episodes for me to digest, I’m generally going to be covering episodes every other week. The only exception to that is next week, where I’ll be covering the two final episodes of the Shadow War. I’ll put the next month’s schedule at the bottom of the review, but first, let’s get to it.
The fourth season of Babylon 5 is a dynamic, exhilarating experiment in forms of serialization that TV had only hinted at before, and would come to be industry standard for “quality television” in less than a decade. The fourth season of Babylon 5 is also a mistake of production, a text that (along with the fifth season) only exists in the form that it does because of behind-the-scenes negotiations and compromises. These are not exclusive theories. The argument could be made that Babylon 5 invented modern serialization because it was going to be canceled. It would be a difficult argument—I’ve yet to see any major player in 2000s cite B5 as a direct influence—but it could be made. Regardless, Babylon 5 was a precursor, or a premonition, of what was to come. And that was largely an accident.
The story of the production seems to be fairly simple to put together. In the United States, Babylon 5 was produced by Warner Brothers and distributed through PTEN, a WB “network” of shows that were sold to independent local stations around the country. (Those stations chose when to air the show, so a new episode could air on Monday evening in Georgia and then Saturday afternoon in Colorado, which was a ton of fun for Babylon 5’s robust community of Internet fans.) But the continued expansion of The WB network led Warner to get rid of PTEN, without integrating its surviving shows. That decision was made in time for Babylon 5's fourth season. So J. Michael Straczynski and crew went into this season with the understanding that their distribution channel was disappearing, likely leading to cancellation.
But since Straczynski had a five-year plan that he was 60 percent of the way through, and with only one definite season for the last 40 percent of story, he had a problem. This was resolved via two methods: cramming the essential storytelling into season four, and filming a finale for season four that could easily be moved to the end of a potential fifth season if that came to pass (as it did, on TNT of all networks). The latter of those decisions proved to be an unambiguous success, but the former was a bit less so, although we won’t really see that manifested until the end of this season and especially the start of season five. For now, it means that season four starts off fully serialized, one episode bleeding into the next.
When we left Babylon 5, it didn’t look this way. Sure, the end of the third season was highly serialized in that the events of one episode led to the events of the next, but each episode was still its own distinct entity, with an A-plot and a B-plot, each of which were resolved even if the resolution led immediately to a new story. Like so:
- “War Without End” A: Sinclair & Babylon 4
- “Walkabout” A: Franklin continues his journey
- “Walkabout” B: Telepaths tested as a weapon against Shadow ships
- “Grey 17 Is Missing” A: Delenn becomes leader of the Rangers
- “Grey 17 Is Missing” B: ugh
- “And The Rock Cried Out, No Hiding Place” A: Londo moves against Refa
- “And The Rock Cried Out, No Hiding Place” B: Sheridan refreshed by religious ceremonies
- “Shadow Dancing” A: Sheridan’s fleet confronts the Shadows
- “Shadow Dancing” B: Franklin is stabbed, his walkabout ends
- “Z'ha’dum” A: The Shadows respond to Sheridan’s victory by sending Anna to recruit him
While certain overarching elements of storylines remain—the Shadow War's escalation and Franklin's walkabout—each hour is a distinct entity. You could call this “episodic serialization” in that the episode itself remains the central unit of storytelling. That’s not the case in season four, where in just these four episodes we have stories on the following subjects:
- Sheridan’s alliance needs motivation following his death
- Sheridan is dead?
- Sheridan and Delenn’s romance
- G’Kar tries to find out whatever happened to Mr. Garibaldi
- Londo and Vir deal with the Emperor
- Garibaldi returns and reintegrates
- The Vorlons and their ambassador behave badly, including toward Lyta
- Marcus and Ivanova hunt down the First Ones
While some of these storylines do resolve in these four episodes, most of them are continuing concerns throughout. The stories merge, or the characters may switch which storyline they’re focused on as Marcus moved from G’Kar to Ivanova, but regardless, there are multiple threads throughout each episode that don’t necessarily connect, and that don’t resolve in each episode.
I’m going to use the term “integrated serialization” here because I don’t necessarily know of a better one. The episodic form is still relevant, as there is still at least one specific problem in each episode that gets resolved. For example, in “Whatever Happened To Mr. Garibaldi?” the big resolution is Sheridan’s surrender to death. In “The Summoning,” it’s both G’Kar’s scream and Sheridan’s speech re-unifying The League Of Non-Aligned Worlds. But even with those semi-resolutions, there are still direct premises of tension that go unresolved. Cartagia still lives. The Vorlons are still turning dark. Garibaldi’s status is still dubious.
You could, perhaps, describe a ladder of serialization form. At the bottom is character serialization, where decisions a person on the show make matter, but overall stories almost never carry over week-to-week, like Star Trek: The Next Generation. Then there’s the episodic serialization I described, where stories and characterization carry over, but the core hour-long structure remains intact. Buffy The Vampire Slayer was the popularizer of that form, swiftly followed by The Sopranos. B5 used this throughout its second and third seasons.
The integrated serialization used by Babylon 5 in this season and this season alone reached its peak with The Wire. These two shows may look quite different in many respects, but a huge amount of that is The Wire’s naturalistic visual style, which added a sort of perception of documentary realism that B5 clearly never had nor aspired to. But in terms of multiple characters dealing with their own multiple interweaving storylines while still maintaining a core episodic unit, they’re very similar.
Then there’s hyperserialization, a more recent development. Hyperserialized shows are shows where the episode is no longer a core unit apart from airing practicalities. This tends to take two forms: the single-story, constant “To Be Continued” of a show like Breaking Bad, for one. Or, perhaps most ambitious, a multi-hyperserialized story of a show like Game Of Thrones, where there are a dozen interconnected storylines across a season or more. The key aspect of a hyperserialized story: An individual episode will make no sense out of order. Of course, this is all a continuum. The Wire is much closer to hyperserialized than Babylon 5 is most of the time, and you could argue that Battlestar Galactica fits that mold as well. (Meanwhile, if there’s any show that jumps up and down the serialized ladder as much as Babylon 5, it would be Angel, which follows a similar pattern of escalating serialization through its first four seasons, followed by a reversion to episodic serialization in the final fifth season. Angel handled the latter part far better than B5, though.)
So what does this mean for Babylon 5 in its own context? First, across the course of the season (but especially in these four episodes), the unattached standalone episode has been removed. There are episodes whose stories can be separated into individual units, especially once the Shadow War ends, but they are still directly connected to what came before. Every story in season four is a resolution of what came before, or is directly working toward that resolution. There’s no crazy puppets like “Grey 17 Is Missing,” not even a plague like “Confessions And Lamentions.” The reverse is also true: every major story needing a resolution gets at least a partial on in season four.
This is largely a positive for the show, although not totally. Babylon 5 has always raised its game for its most important episodes, and this format makes every episode important. On the other hand, it also eliminates the simple, effective episodic structure that Babylon 5 also did well—occasionally exceptionally well, as with hours like “And The Rock Cried Out No Hiding Place.” The end result is that season four of Babylon 5 is much more consistent and better on average, but without as many extreme high points like “Severed Dreams” or “Chrysalis.” (I could give 80 percent of this season’s episodes a B+ and that would be entirely justifiable.)
In terms of the early episodes of the season, they’re in a difficult situation. Almost every conventional 22-episode drama struggles in their early seasonal episodes, and Babylon 5 wasn’t an exception in its first three seasons (and won’t be in its fifth, either). But with no room for error as it speeds toward the end of the Shadow War at the start of this season, thanks to season four’s accelerated pacing, Babylon 5 proceeds as if it’s still at its best. But it’s not quite at that level—the pacing seems a wee bit off, the writing lacks a touch of energy, and some of the actors (the ones playing Vir, Lyta, and Garibaldi especially) seem to be struggling to reintegrate with their roles and fellows. It’s impressive that the early-season episodes managed to do as well as they did, but it’s also hard not to imagine that they might have been with more time and space.
Normally I prefer to get into the text over production, but in this case, it was impossible to avoid. And believe me, there is plenty of text in these dense episodes. But many of the biggest issues will have their own space to deal with, particularly the Shadow War next week, and Sheridan’s new brand of leadership over the course of the next seasons. But, before I get into brief episodic reviews and grades, there is one thing I’d like to spend a little time on, and that’s Babylon 5 as an epic fantasy.
The line between fantasy and space opera can blur fairly quickly at times, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a science-fiction story switch modes to pure fantasy quite like this does. There was always a tinge of the Tolkeinesque to Babylon 5, with Delenn and the Riders Of Rohan coming to Sheridan’s aid in “Severed Dreams,” or Z’ha’dum’s phonetic similarity to Khazad-dum, but it’s out of control here. Sheridan finds the most magical wizard of all, a LARPer with the over-elven name of Lorien, who not only has a ridiculous crown, but can also cast Raise Dead (though not Resurrection, you still have to take the Constitution hit).
Meanwhile, Londo and Vir are doing a speculative fiction re-enactment of I, Claudius, with Roman parallels so palpable that I expect any random Centauri to break into evil/inaccurate British accents. And then there’s the Vorlons and their planet-killer, advanced technology indistinguishable from magic.
I make fun, but I don’t actually think this is entirely a bad thing. I do love fantasy about as much as I love science fiction, after all. But the fantasy feeling only works because Babylon 5 has so successfully raised its scale over its entire run, and because it seems to so clearly hurtling toward a climax of the Shadow War. I’ll put up with Lorien and his pseudo-philosophical BS as long as he’s peripheral, but right now, Ivanova’s description of “the hour of the wolf” and her vodka glasses make metaphorical sense alongside the mythological confrontations taking place on- and off-screen.
“The Hour Of The Wolf”: B+
Okay, I’m going to be honest: This week’s form of four episodes was rough. There was a lot I wanted to cover in a conventional format. I’m pretty sure this will be the only week like this of my planned division, but still: I wish I could write about Babylon 5 sending its three main female characters off on a quest to be badasses, only to have them fail miserably, their lives saved by a man; while Sheridan himself gets saved by the literal patriarch of the entire galaxy instead of the women who care about him.
My urges toward feminist analysis aside, this is a well-done episode. It reintroduces the current issues of the galaxy without engaging in extreme over-exposition, and it makes room for some strong character work, like Ivanova’s monologue about the episode title, or that wonderful creepy hilarious scene between Londo and Morden that also gets at Londo’s core: “And because you’re afraid what someone else might do in your place.” It’s also quite funny, with Londo’s “I can only assume you have not been paying attention!” to Vir, and Lennier’s “Initiating…‘getting the hell out of here’ maneuver.” Plus, G’Kar in a hat.
“Whatever Happened To Mr. Garibaldi”: A-
The introductory work done in the premiere comes to quick fruition here, as this is the strongest thematic episode of the bunch, bouncing from prisoner to prisoner. There’s Sheridan, trapped by aliens, philosophy, and/or himself. Garibaldi is a literal prisoner throughout, even evoking The Prisoner. Lyta is a prisoner of… whatever hold the Vorlons have on her. And the episode ends on one of the series’ most powerful possible notes, G’Kar held prisoner by the Centauri, and by Londo Mollari, his once-greatest enemy.
The best scene of all four episodes comes at this end of this one, between Londo and G’Kar, in the Centauri prisons. “If you wished to die, you could have simply told me. I would have attended to it, quickly. With at least a measure of dignity.” Londo demands aid from G’Kar. G'Kar demands freedom for Narn from Londo in return. There's a great exchange: “You are not exactly in a position to bargain, G'Kar.” “Neither are you.” And then, Londo looks away, and simply says “You have my word.” He doesn’t shout it or whisper it or emphasize it in any way. It’s simply a deal to him. It’s the final sacrifice of the old Londo, the one who wanted nothing more than to see the uppity Narn ground underneath the Centari’s heels. And it’s no longer an important event. It’s simply a thing he has to do in order to redeem himself, and to redeem his people. And Peter Jurasik sells all that perfectly.
“The Summoning”: B
One of the downsides to stronger forms of serialization is that they often involve wheel-spinning as the various pieces work their way into place. That’s the case with the Babylon 5 side of the story, with Garibaldi return only partially covering it. Sheridan’s speech, and his return to Delenn’s arms, are damn inspiring, but they’re only a part of the whole. Meanwhile, on Centauri Prime, the story of G’Kar’s torture creates some striking visuals, but the story primarily reinforces without adding anything new.
“Falling Toward Apotheosis”: B+
Is this the greatest or the worst episode title in television history? I don’t even have any more to add to that. The confrontation with the Vorlon is impressive, although lacks emotional resonance since Ulkesh was never developed enough to make his betrayal sting. It’s also impressive in that whatever was done with the DVD transfer finally manages to make the mix of live action and CGI effects work well together.
- A huge thank you to everyone who clicked on and commented on past reviews, as well as encouraging the editors to resume coverage. You have done the impossible, and that has made you migh… no, that’s not it. We fell off a cliff, and have learned how to fly.
- “You cannot win this war, Commander. You can only survive it.” I always wish for an alternate history where the naysayers are right. That Drazi could be right!
- “In the flesh. What’s left of it.”
- “What greater good?” “Ah! Mine, of course!” I'm not totally sold on Cartaggia as a character or as portrayed by Wortham Krimmer. But I am sold enough to be entertained by him, and that's pretty impressive given the cliches/cultural heritage used to create him.
- “I like it,” G'Kar tells Marcus about his pike. Rare to see playful G'Kar these days.
- Londo’s a fantastic bullshitter: “I had your majesty's spirit in my heart.”
- “And I thought the First Ones were rare.”
- “You can't save them all.” “I'll try.” “You'll fail.” “We'll see.” Sheridan and Lorien banter.
- “Right now, our greatest enemy is fear,” says Ivanova. She seems to be forgetting about the Vorlons. And the Shadows.
- “Sometimes I don’t know which scares me more, winnin’ or losin’.” “God, I thought I was depressing.”
- Sheridan’s manipulation of Delenn while forcing the engagement ring onto her is a real dick move.
- “I was just thinking… I don’t like the way he’s looking at me!”
Upcoming schedule (biweekly on Fridays at 10 a.m. Central):
April 11: Episodes 5-6 (How do you end a mythology so early?)
April 25: Episodes 7-9, Thirdspace (How do you pick up the pieces?)
May 9: Episodes 10-13 (I dunno, let’s watch and find out I guess)