“No Surrender, No Retreat”
Babylon 5’s fourth season may have accidentally created a new, more heavily serialized form of television storytelling, but it wasn’t terribly consistent at maintaining that serialization. This can mean a midseason lull, as discussed in the last review, where the episodes are neither satisfying on their own nor driving the overarching plot forward well enough. On the other hand, that inconsistency can also lead to some exciting experimentation.
Here’s the structural issue that “No Surrender, No Retreat” has to deal with. It has to escalate the long-simmering civil war on Earth, as the plot says it does. But it also does so in a way that’s almost totally self-contained. It’s both highly serialized and immediately satisfying. As serialization has led the way into TV’s recent “Golden Age,” that combination has remained surprisingly rare. (I wonder if part of the success of Breaking Bad is that it managed to capture that episodic/serialized combination better than most other shows.)
The chief method that “No Surrender, No Retreat” uses to accomplish this is one of television’s oldest: the guest star. On older TV procedural dramas, the main cast was relatively static, while the guest stars would show up and grow through the arcs of the hour. They were the ones making the ethical decisions, they were the ones dealing with tragedy or change, they were the ones who did the dramatic heavy lifting. Such is the case here, where the never-before-seen captains of Earth Alliance destroyers are the dramatic focus of the episode, not Sheridan or the rest of the cast.
Structurally, it works like this: Last episode, Sheridan found out that President Clarke was destroying refugee ships from Proxima 3, one of the other Human colonies to secede. This is what triggers him taking an active role in the civil war. There are six ships, two of which are doing the firing on the refugee transports. Sheridan also finds out the names of the ship captains, and clearly recognizes at least one of them. So his plan is to isolate the aggressive ships, and recruit or at least neutralize the others with diplomacy.
This works in a few different ways. First, it humanizes the conflict. For half a dozen episodes now, we’ve been told that the fight with Earth will be more personal and difficult than the show’s other conflicts, but apart from the confusing and ineffectual arguments between Sheridan and Garibaldi, that hasn’t been demonstrated. It is in “No Surrender, No Retreat,” though, immediately by re-establishing a simple and archetypal bond between Sheridan and former teacher Captain MacDougan. “Soldiers aren’t machines,” says Sheridan, reminding “Maccy” of his lessons.
Another important part of the success of the episode comes from how well the ship captains are portrayed in just a couple of moments. Ken Jenkins as the Heracles’ captain does a nice job of showing a straining eye-twitch, and character actor Richard Gant is characteristically solid as MacDougan.
Second, it allows the possibility of failure. Two of the six ships are probably lost causes, yes, but the other four are up for grabs. It’s highly unlikely that Sheridan will lose the battle or the war, but losing his teacher, or losing the chance to recruit seemingly-decent people? Those can sting, and that gives dramatic weight to this fight in a way that the over-epic battle in “Into The Fire” didn’t have.
Third, and this one is largely Babylon 5-specific, it allows the heroes to be criticized. There are legitimate reasons for criticizing Sheridan, especially as he launches into a civil war. But Babylon 5 has largely put whatever critiques it’s been willing to make of its heroes in the mouths of clear villains or compromised cast members. Garibaldi’s argument with Sheridan just a few episodes ago wasn’t about anything. It had no anchor other than Michael’s rage.
But when Sheridan gathers the captains for a meeting, because they’re free agents in the structure of the show, they’re allowed to question Sheridan. In those few minutes, we get 10 times more of a debate than Garibaldi was ever allowed to engage in. “It’s not the role of the military to make policy,” and when Sheridan attempts to reply that it is the role of the military to deal with threats and Clarke is a threat, MacDougal slices right through that: “Splitting the hair mighty thin, John.” This particular scene—and all the tactics and negotiations that go into it, and the uncertainty heading out from it—helps make “No Surrender, No Retreat” my favorite episodes of the season.
The other crucial part of “No Surrender, No Retreat”’s greatness is that, really for the first time since the end of the Shadow War, Londo and G’Kar work together again. They’ve had a few scenes since, but the CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT that they’ve been known for has been set aside for a while. But here, Londo finally makes his pitch for, well, he doesn’t frame it as “forgiveness” but it’s easy for us to. Based on shared experiences and motives, his pitch goes, he and G’Kar can attempt to work together to make their worlds and the universe as a whole better places. Yet Londo’s pitch is intensely personal, not pragmatic, as opposed to almost all of the times when they’ve worked together before. “I do know who my friends are. And that I have not done as well by them as I should have.”
And then, in true Londo and G’Kar fashion, the Narn rejects Londo’s plaintive overture. Sheridan and the rest of the heroes aren’t allowed to fail, but Londo and G’Kar are. They have. The show’s best scenes often come from these characters trying to connect or do the right thing, and utterly failing. So it is conceivable that, for an episode or a season or maybe even the entire remainder of the series, these two will have too much hate to work together. And that’s what makes G’Kar’s relatively swift change of heart so meaningful. Like the captains Sheridan called to recruit, this could have gone wrong. That it didn’t ends up tremendously satisfying.
- Speaking of things worth criticizing, the way Sheridan annuls treaties the League worlds have with Earth is remarkably heavy-handed.
- “Trust Ivanova. Trust yourself. Anyone else, shoot ’em.” Hey, it’s like being back in season one for a while.
- Londo goes into G’Kar’s quarters for the first time ever.“It has much the same feeling as your world. Dry. Red. And depressing. Isn’t it depressing how we fall into the same patterns?”
- So there’s a destroyer named The Furies and it carries Starfuries. That’s not confusing.
- “Issue the joint statement. I will sign my name. But not on the same page, do you understand that?”
“The Exercise Of Vital Powers”
Sheridan is barely in “The Exercise Of Vital Powers.” This is, from beginning to end, voiceover to voiceover, Garibaldi’s episode. “Mars. I can’t believe I’m back on Mars. I gotta be out of my mind.” He’s finally on Mars, and has joined William Edgars’ organization directly. We finally get to see Edgars, played with some relish by Efrem Zimbalist Jr. The episode is largely devoted to them feeling each other out.
This is a fairly interesting game for viewers. Edgars is largely a blank slate, and while Garibaldi at this point may not be at his best, there’s still the puzzle of why he’s not at his best and how that fits in. Plus, with his voiceover framing the episode as a bit of a detective piece, Garibaldi is treated as a subject and not an object for the first time this season.
While the character dynamics of the episode can hold it together, unfortunately, as with most of the Garibaldi storyline this season, the story itself doesn’t manage to work together. Edgars’ exposition about how telepaths are the real danger and mega-corporations have been running things for years and how Clarke’s on his way out anyway comes across as much less of a revelation (especially for someone like Garibaldi) and more of a description of the show’s setting. The end, with Edgars meeting with the test subjects of his telepath plague, indicates that there’s more going on, but it’s only just enough to maintain interest, instead of being the massive revelation it perhaps should have been. (“Enough pain in the universe already. Let’s not add to it until we have to.”)
This section of the story is the biggest casualty of the accelerated storytelling that Babylon 5 was forced to undergo in its fourth season due to the increased likelihood of cancellation. We don’t get enough time with Edgars and the telepath plague for it ever to seem like a critical part of the show. It’s the excuse for Garibaldi to have been the way that he was through the season more than a driving force on its own. Meanwhile, the war itself, which was given such a strong story the week before, becomes a sideline.
Perhaps most disappointing of all is that there’s another weak telepath storyline that runs through the start of the fifth season. I dream of a Babylon 5 where it was tied to the Telepath Plague plot, and both were given the right about of depth and weight, instead of this one being too fast and light, and the later one being too slow and ponderous.
- Garibaldi as subject: Wade snidely says “try not to touch anything.” Garibaldi touches everything.
- “Everybody lies.” “That’s a very sad view of the universe, Mr. Garibaldi.”
“The Face Of The Enemy”
There are a few weird episodes across Babylon 5’s run, but this is easily the most important of them. “No Surrender, No Retreat” derived strength from its adherence to traditional television structures, but “The Face Of The Enemy” laughs in the face of conventional plot arcs. Its most dramatic moment, arguably the most dramatic moment of the entire season, comes 20 minutes in, when Garibaldi betrays Sheridan, setting him up to be beaten and captured.
After this, it’s nothing but a parade of exposition and anticlimax. First Edgars explains his Telepath Plague, then Garibaldi pulls a fake tooth to summon Bester. Bester then proceeds to explain how he hijacked Michael’s brain to find the plague. And then Edgars and Wade are killed, with the plague disappearing, Garibaldi forced to confront what he’d done.
It shouldn’t work at all, but it largely does. The main reason is that there’s a strong undercurrent of dread, building through the episode. That feeling doesn’t peak when Sheridan gets captured. It peaks toward the end, when Ivanova says “I want that sunovabitch shot on sight.” Bridges are burned, and through no fault of Garibaldi’s own. It also helps that Koenig and Zimbalist are good with their exposition. Edgars’ initial excitement, then realization as he says “The telepath prob!...the telepath problem will finally be over” is one of the better line readings in the series, all the better because B5 goes against its normal instincts and doesn’t call attention to it. Meanwhile, Jerry Doyle plays Garibaldi’s depression as something that manifests for other characters, instead of just as a clue for the audience, and it’s a massive improvement over his kneejerk anger from the rest of the season. (“In the final analysis, once he’s better, Sheridan may even thank you.” “Somehow I doubt that.”)
And of course, the other thing that makes “The Face Of The Enemy” one of Babylon 5’s better episode is that crazy scene where Sheridan gets captured. It’s just entertainingly weird in a way that B5 almost never manages to pull off. That dingy bar doesn’t look like any set the show’s used before; its grimy denizens, and the odd, industrial-music-video framing of Sheridan’s capture all combine to make a scene unlike any other in the show’s run. When it first aired, I was unambiguously amazed by it—even grabbed the soundtrack and listened to the song on repeat. Now, I find it half-affecting, half-goofy, but all the more endearing for how it holds together despite Bruce Boxleitner’s silly faces and the over-the-top direction.
- The CGI looks really good in the initial scene with the combat in the asteroid field. Way better than it did for the Proxima 3 fight, in fact, which seems odd to me.
- “This is endgame. We’ll be okay as long as nothing goes wrong.” Oh come on, Ivanova voiceover. COME ON.
- “The crew trusts you, Captain. They believe you’re a pain in the ass, but they trust you.”
- “The danger before us is nothing less than the death of human liberty and human thought.”
- Interesting that Garibaldi’s resignation was a surprise to Bester, since that seemed to be the most clearly “programmed” action he took all season.
- Continuing Babylon 5’s love of heroic agency, Bester tells Garibaldi “I used you because I had no other choice.” This seems mildly far-fetched.
Next time: On June 13, we’ll finish off the Earth Civil War with “Intersections In Real Time,” “Between The Darkness And The Light,” and “Endgame.”