Babylon 5: season 5, part 1

Babylon 5: season 5, part 1

Season five of Babylon 5 was an accident. At the time it seemed like a happy accident: cult show receives surprising pick-up, gets to complete its story! But even from the start, there were unhappy elements. For a season that begins with an episode entitled “No Compromises,” there were some pretty obvious compromises.

The first is the new captain, Elizabeth Lochley, played by Tracey Scoggins. By far the most consistent Human character across the show’s run was Claudia Christian’s Susan Ivanova. Ivanova was a fan favorite; the most quotable and the most badass, and could also be as fun and occasionally as deep as the other standouts, Londo and G’Kar. To have her announced as not returning was a huge strike against the season. (The precise reasons for this are controversial, but from what I can tell: actor contracts were notably worse than they had been before, and the actors were not given much time to think it over. Christian wanted more concessions before signing, and her bluff was called.)

Scoggins’ Lochley is not a terrible replacement, but she’s severely hampered in two ways. First, she’s far too direct a replacement for Ivanova. Same no-nonsense professional characterization, same role as pragmatic leader of the station, and similar long auburn hair. Comparisons were going to happen, and even if Scoggins could have had a chance with good character development, she barely received it. The captain/commander of the station has been the most important role on the series, but Lochley isn’t even in two of the five episodes this week, and in a third, she mostly just barks orders. “No Compromises” gives some hints at depth, but it takes until the fifth episode, “Learning Curve,” for her to even be given a second dimension thanks to her speech to Garibaldi about why she stayed with Earth.

The second issue became apparent at the end of the fourth season: the story was largely resolved. There were a few loose ends that could turn into major story points—the telepath problem and how Londo got to the point he was in during the flash-forwards—but they had to be revved up from next-to-nothing. As I noted in the “Severed Dreams” review, Babylon 5’s greatest strength, after its weak early problems, was how it managed to maintain momentum thanks to its interlocking, progressing stories. So what does it do now that it has to start almost entirely from scratch?

The third problem is the answer to that question: Babylon 5 uses a new character named “Byron” to reintroduce the telepath problem. To be briefly fair to Byron (Robin Atkin Downes, who played one of the Grey Council quite well in “In The Beginning”), this is a difficult position to be in. He has to play a radical antagonist to a bunch of liberals, he has to reintroduce a difficult story out of nowhere, and he has to maintain his hair. He’s simply given far too much to do and it’s too detached from everything else. Perhaps, had season five been known to be happening during the plotting of season four, his telepath story could have been combined with, or least run in parallel to, the Edgars anti-telepath conspiracy (which itself was given short shrift).

But that doesn’t explain everything. Byron’s “Sit, telepath!” speech to Lyta in “The Paragon Of Animals” may be the most insufferable thing Babylon 5 has done so far (and its only competition is that damn song he and his telepaths sing later). He’s arrogant and snotty and not at all appealing here. For a charismatic cult leader, he doesn’t demonstrate any charisma at the point when, recruiting a main cast member, he should be demonstrating the most. And that’s much more due to the writing than it is the acting.

Finally, there’s the somewhat unexpected network compromises. TNT gave Babylon 5 a strong marketing push initially, which sounds good in theory but also meant that early episodes had to be friendly to new viewers. Yet the biggest and best stories the show has done are built on its history. So the early part of the fifth season is a strange combination of introduction and celebration, plus strange formal experimentation now available to the show since the fast-paced serialization of the fourth season is past.

This is not to say that season five is unhappy as a whole. I do think that, on balance, it gets to do more good than bad. Some of the later episodes are almost as powerful as the show at its peak, and it gets to do something extraordinarily rare for a serialized TV series: it gets to wind down and say goodbye slowly. Plus, whoa, that intro/outro music is fucking FANTASTIC—and I’ll have more to say about that in later, more appropriate reviews. But for now, it’s awkward.

“No Compromises”

Given its role as an introduction to new viewers after the universe-shattering stories have been completed, “No Compromises” is remarkably successful. Which is to say that it doesn’t fail. Lochley is used as a decent audience surrogate, learning how complicated things are early assumptions, and pushing Sheridan and the rest of the cast to explain themselves. Even Byron is entirely tolerable here, although his introduction of “Special Simon” strains that. (Simon is, I believe, the last and by far the most worthy of JMS’ “no cute kids unless they die” rule.)

But the highlight of the episode is G’Kar, and that’s the way it should be. It’s a little odd to see him so thoroughly thrown into the comedic role of the brilliant, quirky writer(“The words and I will be locked in mortal combat until one of us surrenders.”), but Andreas Katsulas handles it well, maneuvering the difficult paths of both soaring rhetoric and amusing pretense. And when he’s called upon to sum up the chaos of Sheridan’s inauguration, he plays practical G’Kar brilliantly: “You want to be President?” “Yes!” “Put your hand on the book and say ‘I do.’” “I do.” “Fine, done, let’s eat.”

That exchange alone makes the episode worthwhile, and in a sense, encapsulates the season as a whole. It may be smaller-scale Babylon 5, and things may have changed, but there will be enough moments of brilliance to make it worthwhile.

Stray observations:

  • Corwin sets Lochley straight. “On B5 trouble comes looking for us.”
  • “I won’t lie, I’m gonna miss this place when the time comes. It’s going to take a while to get used to living on your world. But we do need a permanent headquarters for the Alliance, and that’s the logical choice.” Is it? In an odd way, Babylon 5 as a whole serves as an endorsement of both the Minbari and Vorlon philosophies. Sure, they may have gone totally berserk in recent wars, but other than that, they’re the way everyone else should be.
  • “The geometries that circumscribe your waking life, drawn narrower and narrower until nothing fits inside them any more.” Reading this now is mildly painful, so yes, Robin Atkin Downes does well to attempt to make Byron palatable as best as he can.
  • Sheridan gets meta, inviting the newbies to learn more in reruns and celebrating the show’s greatest moments with existing fans: “Many times you have spoken with tremendous eloquence in the Council chambers. When your world fell to the Centauri, the words you spoke made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.”
  • “But where is it written that all our dreams must be small ones?”
  • “If more of our so-called leaders would walk the same streets as the people who voted them in...” Seriously?

The Very Long Night Of Londo Mollari”

An episode designed almost entirely to placate newbies is followed immediately by an episode that exists almost solely for people who’ve seen most of the series. The two tensions here are Lennier’s would-be relationship with Delenn, and Londo’s regret—but lack of apology—for his role in the war crimes against the Narn. Both of these would play out as superficial without the knowledge of the character history behind them—and perhaps Lennier’s still does, as his unrequited love for Delenn has only been remarked upon once or twice before.

But the key to this, and to Babylon 5 as a whole, is the Londo/G’Kar relationship. I’ve argued before that Londo is the show’s true protagonist, but even if that’s a stretch too far, the relationship between the two ambassadors has to be seen as the heart of the show. And as they’ve become allies and friends, it stands to reason that they need to take the next step—true apology and regret from the one who committed the worst crimes. In one sense, this is the promise of the fifth season, almost instantly fulfilled: with the plot explosions out of the way, now there’s time for the character arcs to finish.

And yet for an episode so absolutely critical to the show’s soul, I find “Very Long Night” a mild disappointment. So many episodes have been improved by the idea that if you put Londo and G’Kar in a room together, great things will happen. And that occurs here, but they’re merely good things. G’Kar interrogating Londo and forcing him to confront his own stubborn pride is fantastic in theory, and it works well enough. But these scenes just don’t compare to the previous scenes that made them necessary: G’Kar buying Londo a drink, Londo screaming at G’Kar in the council chambers, the two trapped in an elevator, G’Kar invading Londo’s mind, Londo making a deal with G’Kar. Those are the best scenes in the series. These are nice to see, but too forgettable.

Stray observations:

  • “You have Sheridan now. He is now your...other half. And I’ the way.” I gave B5 some shit last time around for its apparent pro-friendzone story with Marcus, but it’s good to see the negative side of it here.
  • “All of the bottles here are empty? The metaphor here is getting a bit thick, don’t you think?”
  • “I can’t. I don’t know what he wants from me.” “Yes, you do. The thing that has eaten away at your heart until it could not endure the pain a moment longer. You must let go of this, or you will die here, alone, now.” “Perhaps that is for the best then.” I mean, I don’t want to undersell this episode. Jurasek is great.
  • “You were a witness! It doesn’t matter if they’d stopped! It doesn’t matter if they’d listened! You had an obligation to speak! out!”
  • “Only a word was required the first time we stood here. And only a word is required now.”
  • Vir’s shocked face at Londo’s apology may be the best part of the episode.

The Paragon Of Animals”

And now we get to the meat of the season. The two biggest stories, Byron and the early struggles of the Alliance, are present in this episode. They’re painted with broad, obvious strokes, but they serve well enough to get things going. I’ve said my piece about Byron and his “sit” speech, so I’ll let that slide here, and move to the Alliance.

The big issue here for me is that the season seems to want to be about the pragmatic difficulty of being the winner. Yes, Sheridan won his wars, and yes, he’s building something potentially great. But the building is difficult and forces hard decisions. (George R. R. Martin has a good quote about how this part of the story is erased, and it guides some of the later Game Of Thrones books.)

But the fights chosen aren’t pragmatic or difficult. They remain generally metaphorical. It’s difficult for me to believe that it’s even remotely possible for G’Kar to write such a grand Statement Of Principles with near-religious references to how “we are one” and receive any kind of support from such a diverse group. And the Drazi so suddenly turning against the Alliance—about as big a betrayal as possible—and having that treated like a comedic interlude leading to forgiveness is just far too easy. “The Paragon Of Animals” simply doesn’t feel believable or solid in the way that I think is necessary for it to accomplish the genre-defying work that it wants to accomplish.

Stray observations:

  • Garibaldi, realpolitikian. “But for now, you have to get their attention, and prove that you’re a power to be reckoned with.”
  • “Oh, offer them my body. Another ten minutes of this, I’ll be dead anyway.” “I second the motion.”
  • Byron sounds good here. “But we will no longer...belong to organizations that take us in only when it’s convenient. When they need us. When they can use us.”
  • Garibaldi keeps referencing the Minbari telepaths in this episode, but where are they? Why aren’t they working with the Rangers?
  • “You do this for me and I swear I will never ask you for anything again. Til the next time.” Jerry Doyle does get good lines in here.

A View From The Gallery”

Normally I try to avoid discussions of the fan culture and perceptions of episodes and how I’m going with or against conventional wisdom. It’s all a little inside baseball, and, as far as I know, these are the most prominent B5 reviews online and I want them to be able to stand on their own. But “A View From The Gallery” is so self-referential, build on in-jokes and references—it’s about two B5 fans who are working on the station, really—that it’s impossible to avoid here.

Fans hate this episode. And I can understand why. For the sort of viewer who loves linear storytelling, putting clues together, understanding serialization, and all that, Babylon 5 is the perfect show in many respects. With a single author working toward a specific endpoint, it can avoid the vast majority of the issues of wheel-spinning, false clues, and just all-around bullshit that shows that are making it up possess. On Babylon 5, every seemingly important piece of the puzzle fits in the puzzle. Then along comes the metaphorical “A View From The Gallery” with a massive alien threat, attacking Babylon 5 with the most force seen on the show since the monument “Severed Dreams” assault, and it’s a one-off thing that was never foreshadowed and never matters again. It’s a meaningless piece.

Thing is, I’m not that type of fan. I have my impulses in that direction, but I’m usually able to appreciate a show poking fun at itself, or using metaphor that doesn’t fit the plot in order to make a greater point. And one my biggest conceptual critiques of B5 is how unwilling it is to examine the little guys’ story. It wants to be so epic that it forgets the power of small-scale storytelling. That said, the episode does seem to deliberately troll the audience without being funny by starting with the big epic stuff for several minutes, and only eventually landing on the janitors. (Compare this to something like Shaun Of The Dead, which built the epic slowly in the background as its mooks tried to live their normal lives.)

Which leads to the second critique of the episode, and one I’m far less able to dismiss: it’s just not that good. And the lead characters, maintenance staff Mac and Bo, seem like they’re coming from an old-fashioned Borsch Belt routine. They’re Barton Fink-esque fishmongers. I still appreciate the attempt, but maybe, between this and season two’s Keffer, it’s for the best that Babylon 5 stayed epic.

Stray observations:

  • “I heard he was dead once?” “Well, nobody’s perfect.”
  • “I wasn’t talking to you. I was talking to the Universe.”
  • “Dead or alive, I’d claw my way through 10 miles of solid rock to see that smile again.” I like Mira Furlan and I like Delenn, but the idea that she’s some beacon of courtly love-style perfection seems desperately opposed to what’s great about the character. Feels like a case of JMS trying to force a specific narrative.
  • As does this. “Captain Lochley! Uh, I know you’re new here and all, but I just wanted to say, uh, you’re okay in my book, ma’am.” We know nothing about her! Don’t tell us what to think!

Learning Curve”

If “A View From The Gallery” illustrated the perils of too much freedom for formal experimentation, “Learning Curve,” at least, offers as a swift rejoinder. It’s not a great episode, but it is a fascinating one.

First, it immediately moves to confront two of the overall issues I’ve had with the series. The Rangers are, as we saw last time, supposed to be a beautiful and perfect embodiment of the series’ ideals. But we know next to nothing about how they actually work other than being cool dudes in cloaks who follow the heroes’ orders. Here, we see how they’re trained and what they’re supposed to do.

Second, “Learning Curve” attempts to redeem Minbari culture as a whole. For the past year of the show, the Minbari have continued to be implicitly praised via their Rangers and the Alliance’s move to Minbar, but the actions on the show have shown otherwise. “In The Beginning” illustrated a race gone mad, attempting a genocidal war. And the civil war on Minbar depicted in the fourth season showed a race with a ridiculous political system that it was unable to justify or maintain.

The latter is much more successful than the former, thanks largely to the presence of two guest stars. Turhan Bey (who’d previously portrayed the Centauri emperor) and Brian McDermott play two older Minbari teachers, one Religious and one Warrior, as friendly rivals. The Warrior caste has been so villainous for so much of the series that it’s a good idea to depict one as pleasant in any way, and the two actors have an immediate repartee with each other and their roles as teachers. McDermott narrating the final confrontation is a thoroughly entertaining scene, as is their banter in the cold open.

On the other hand, the focus of the Rangers’ story—one student is violently beaten by a B5 thug, and must learn to free himself from terror—is quite creepy. I recall finding the Rangers’ vigilante justice mildly offputting when it aired, but to hear Delenn’s justification for their brutal ritual after decades of an increasingly meaningless national “War On Terror” is striking. “Those who harmed him, now have power over him. He must take back that power, or he will never be whole again.” This could all too easily be used to describe the desperate and counter-productive actions of my government since the terror attacks of September 11th, and to see one almost entirely pure hero of the show use them is not entirely pleasant.

Still, that unpleasantness is not exactly a bad thing for the show. This episode, far more than “The Paragon Of Animals,” demonstrates the difficult choices and pragmatic issues with creating and maintaining an institution with as much power as the Interstellar Alliance possesses. Delenn and the Rangers are problematic, and “Learning Curve,” perhaps for the first time since the Rangers were introduced, actually acknowledges that honestly.

Stray observations:

  • “As for thinking, well, let’s leave that for the advanced classes. We shouldn’t expect too much of you at once.”
  • The Minbari repartee reminded me of that of Delenn and Draal (in both incarnations). If the Minbari are the elder teachers of the rest of the galaxy, I suppose it’s a good thing that their elder teacher characters are pretty excellent.
  • Jeff Conaway does some great sitcom-style work attempting to defuse the awkwardness between Lochley and Garibaldi. “Does anybody else think this food tastes funny? I think it’s saffron. I hate saffron... Garlic. I think it’s garlic.”
  • “The Anla’Shok are above local security and police forces. Yours included.”
  • I remember this episode having arguably the most ridiculous “On the next Babylon 5...” promo, with the thug’s declaration that he was now running Babylon 5 treated as a takeover of the entire station.

Next time: Episodes six through eleven. Let’s finish this Byron stuff in two weeks. We can do it! (If I accomplish six in two weeks, which I didn’t this time. But I’ve learned.)

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