Babylon 5: Season five, part three

Babylon 5: Season five, part three

The fifth season of Babylon 5 has a poor reputation. I know of many fans who say that they never even finished it, which I find quite sad given how fantastic the series finale is (not to mention several of the episodes leading up to it). To a large extent, Byron taking over the entire first half of the season is the main reason for that. But even with Byron gone, as is the case in this week’s batch of episodes, Babylon 5 still feels lesser this season. These aren’t bad, but they aren’t great either—either in quality or in feeling of magnitude.

One of the main points of these reviews has been how Babylon 5 pioneered new forms of serialization. Generally I, and many others, consider this a good thing. But serialization can have its drawbacks, and I think the fifth season shows what those drawbacks might be.

First, season five illustrates a case of diminishing returns. The biggest, most explosive storylines—the Narn-Centauri conlict, the Shadow War, and Earth’s descent into fascism—have all been resolved. Conceptually, the disintegration of the Interstellar Alliance, combined with the danger to Londo and his redemption arc, should be able to match those. But those stories received years of buildup, with rising and falling action. Here we several episodes of buildup, yes, but there’s no real sense of history behind the acts leading to war, which makes it feel like a weak recreation of better stories. One of the show’s greatest-ever scenes involved Londo playing the part of the evil ambassador, defending Centauri rampages and excess. So here he does it again, and it’s good, but it’s still an inferior copy of something done better, earlier.

Still, the events leading to war feel bad because the characters we’ve come to like see that it’s bad, and that’s not something that should be overlooked. But despite being given the gravitas of an episode like “The Coming Of Shadows,” (consider these episode titles; “And All My Dreams, Torn Asunder” should be in the heart of the series!) the events of these episodes never really give that feeling of betrayal; of knowing that it could have been better but characters’ choices made it not so.

A huge part of that is that there isn’t a tragic figure at the center. The last couple episodes of this group make a big deal about how Sheridan “promised” that the Alliance would take action against the attackers, but at no level does a President representing the wishes of most of his constituents rise to the level of “tragic.” Those constituents are little more than mob as well, without enough individuality to represent a human core of the issue. There’s also clearly some kind of evil puppeteer working, but neither the audience nor the characters know who they might be enough to add any kind of weight. (Fans actively connecting the dots at this point could see that these were former Shadow client races, but without a Mr. Morden they just read as “evil bad guys behind the scenes.” More on this in the next set of reviews.)

Babylon 5 also struggles with its tone throughout the fifth season. JMS famously described Londo’s arc as “light and funny, then dark and tragic, then light and tragic,” and those accurately described him, sequentially, through the majority the first four seasons. Here he goes through all these roles in the space of a few episodes, comically enjoying Vir’s anger at the Drazi merchant, viciously rebutting the facts of the Centauri attack (and rejecting G’Kar’s attempt to get him to acknowledge that they knew something like this might be possible during their visit) and then standing up for G’Kar and being sent to prison for it. Considered next to the consistency of characterization in, say, the second half of season two, as Londo fell into darkness and friends tried to bring his humanity out in bits and pieces, and, well, there isn’t a comparison beyond Jurasik making each scene entertaining.

But the most important issue here is one that almost every other serialized show after B5 has had to confront at some time or another: serialization on its own is insufficient to maintain interest. I’ve described how Babylon 5 accidentally pioneered the modern form of serialization in its fourth season, and that same form is largely used in the fifth. However, there are two key differences between the fourth season and the fifth. First, season four had more exciting overall events, both in and of themselves with the giant battles, betrayals, and galaxy-shattering endings, and in terms of the amount of time the show had spent leading up to those events. It’s a lot easier, as a viewer, to forgive flaws when you’ve invested time in getting to the end of those particular storylines. That’s not the case with the fifth season and its new stories.

Second, serialization doesn’t guarantee interest or quality. It helps—it helps a lot!—but Babylon 5 struggles in this fifth season at doing anything other than working on the nuts and bolts of its story. When the Narn-Centauri War began, Babylon 5 used that change in its status quo to tell new and different kinds of stories. G’Kar struggling to keep his people in check; a TV news crew observing the station in a crisis; Franklin working with refugees, and so on. But in this fifth season, the form of serialization had crystalized to the point where every story can be seen as the main story or a sideline. There isn’t much that’s both. This is perhaps most readily with Lennier’s mini-arc. In “Meditations On The Abyss,” he has a near-parable about working with an insecure fellow Ranger recruit while out on a White Star. In the next episode, “Darkness Ascending,” he’s in the same place, but his work exists entirely in the realm of moving the story forward. This also makes a few of these episodes, particularly “Ragged Edge” and “Meditations,” feel like disjointed collections of stories as opposed to complete episodes on their own.

This can work if the story is moving, but Babylon 5, like most serialized shows, to be honest, doesn’t move very quickly. We, the audience, have known that the Centauri, likely aided by Shadow clients, are behind the attacks for multiple episodes (likewise, we knew Byron was heading toward a violent confrontation at some point soon). We don’t know how or why. Every episode that we see that doesn’t take the characters to the same place is, in plot terms, an annoyance. This is fine if the other events in the episode are compelling, but too often shows assume that believe they’re working toward the resolution, they’re automatically compelling. It’s a nasty cycle.

Finally, there’s a sense that the show is winding down and it knows it. Slowly but surely, the main characters are being given reason to leave. Londo is becoming emperor, Franklin takes a job on Earth, Lyta wants to explore for a telepath homeworld, and Garibaldi is off to run Edgars Industries. So trying to build to a climax at the same time feels half-hearted. “I think I’ve come to a decision. One thing’s for sure. I sure am gonna miss this place” makes it tough to believe that the temporary crises are really that world-shaking. (Unsurprisingly, this season ends up at its best when it’s not trying to build to those climaxes.)

There is one huge exception to all these issues, however, and it manages to grab hold of season five and hold its center together: Garibaldi’s drinking. Almost every general criticism I’ve made is partially negated by this story arc. Garibaldi’s choices (or perceived choices) to return to drinking make him a tragic figure throughout the collapse of the Alliance, albeit one who’s not quite at the center of power. This gives the episode a strong character core; we want to know what’s happening with Garibaldi.

It also allows the episodes to come at the story of the Centauri raiders without simply being directly about the finding of evidence. Michael’s little side quest to the Drazi homeworld, and his encounter with his old friend Tafiq, functions as a story that couldn’t exist without the main plot, but also exists on its own, taking advantage of the potential of serialization. Also, most of the best scenes of the week involve Garibaldi trying to avoid confronting his alcoholism, first with Lise, then with Zack.

These five episodes are a definite improvement over the Byron episodes, largely because they don’t have Byron. But they still have many of the same weaknesses, indicating that the issues were more with the show itself than one particular mistake. Yet there are still enough strengths that Babylon 5 is worth watching, even if it is slightly diminished.

The Ragged Edge”

There’s another thematic through-line here: Prophet G’Kar. We’ve seen as many or more faces of the Narn Ambassador than the Centauri Ambassador that it’s worth mentioning that he’s fun in most of them. The exasperated teacher is a surprising new direction, and one which gives him both the opportunity to wax poetic, and tease the rubes. “Good, good. Now, put your face in the book.” This, plus the aforementioned Garibaldi plot, make “The Ragged Edge” entirely worth watching.

Another interesting side effect of the modes of serialization used is that sometimes B5 resorts to cliché television form, then sometimes it breaks it immediately. This episode starts with a guest start who can fill an important role, and TV logic dictates he at least starts to fill that role. But he doesn’t even speak again, assassinated before Garibaldi can reach him, a major surprise and a big indication that Garibaldi’s drinking is a huge problem. Then it follows that up but Garibaldi declaring that there’s a leak right as Londo walks in, a groaningly obvious cliché. This season is weird.

Stray observations:

  • “Well have you considered the possibility that you’re simply not meant to be happy, no matter where you are?” Londo and G’Kar banter, always a draw.
  • “Well there you have the key to your popularity: your absence.”
  • “See, now you can fly over, and drop these things called bombs.”
  • “For a hundred years we have taught ourselves one thing! How to hate and how to fight!” THAT’S TWO THINGS, G’KAR!

The Corps Is Mother, The Corps Is Father”

I didn’t mention this episode at all in the main review because, well, it doesn’t fit at all. But I’m a fan of it. Given that Babylon 5’s fifth season was a surprise, and given its willingness to experiment with form in episodes like “A View From The Gallery” and “Secrets Of The Soul,” it’s clear that there was room this season for formal experiments. But those two episodes weren’t exactly good formal experiments. This one, with Bester as the hero at the center and focused on his two fresh-faced Psi-Cop interns, is.

It’s especially aided by the direction of Stephen Furst (Vir). Furst consistently uses rigid, downright cold framing to make the relative alienness of the perspective work. This is most apparent early in the episode, at Psi Corps headquarters, with its sparse rooms and near-total lack of colorful décor, but there’s another shot later that really hammers it home. The Psi Cops are talking to Dr. Franklin, and the camera is a little shorter than normal (perhaps at Bester’s height) and put between their perspectives, as if we’re a third party in their eyes. This also makes Franklin look less heroic, less flattered than he normally does. He’s just kind of a guy in that shot.

Stray observations:

  • “No, much as it might offend their sense of perspective, not everything is about Babylon 5.”
  • “...annexing the Sudatenland?” I’m not sure that Zack Allen would know this reference, but it’s entertaining regardless.
  • “You’re an optimist. Thank you. I’d almost forgotten what one of you looked like.”
  • “Let me...please?” This is an excellently creepy way to end the episode, especially given how cheery she’d been all episode.

Meditations On The Abyss”

There are some interesting concepts in this episode about teaching, learning, and growing up. Lennier’s captain acts as a father figure to Lennier, while Lennier takes the role of the older brother to a recruit. Londo watches as Vir becomes ready to become an ambassador. G’Kar tries to teach his Narn wisdom, only to find they can’t keep up. But the episode never really coheres; none of these stories reach out and demand to be treated as the main storyline, nor are they directly treated as a sort of television triptych. They’re just sort of shoved together, like a burrito with all the beans on one side and all the cheese and sour cream on the other, instead of a proper mixture. None of the stories are bad, and all have their moments, but the end result feels incredibly trifling.

Stray observations:

  • Delenn and Sheridan are on different sides of the bed from the episode with Lochley’s revelation. WHO SWITCHES SIDES? WHAT COUPLE DOES THIS?
  • “...I eat at McBari’s.” Cute, JMS. These kinds of jokes have to be rare.
  • “So, Ambassador, how is the wife? Not too tired, I hope?”
  • “The circular mark is a coffee stain left by Mr. Garibaldi. When I confronted him with it, he said it’s the best part of the book!”
  • “Truth is...a river.” “Ah, yes! And what is God?” “God is........the mouth of the river.” Just a fantastic bullshitter, G’Kar is.
  • “Something I can do for you, Vir?” “No, just need to borrow this for a minute, I’ll be right back.”

Darkness Ascending”

Another issue with this set of episodes, and the slow buildup of almost entirely serialized stories, is that they tend to rely on contrivances to maintain episode-to-episode drama. For example, the core of “Darkness Ascending” is about Sheridan discovering Delenn’s snuck Lennier to the front, them fighting about it, and Lennier going off on his own. Which is all well and good, except the way that Sheridan and Delenn fight seems ridiculous. First, Sheridan pulling Lennier’s ship back without talking to Delenn seems petty at a level that he’s never really demonstrated with someone he cares about, but it does give Lennier the impetus to go off, dangerously, on his own.

Second, Delenn’s counter-argument is, if not totally implausible on its own, at least implausible in how Sheridan reacts. Her argument relies on a painfully obvious logical fallacy, and one which seems ridiculous on the show—are there literally no other Rangers who can figure things out like Lennier? I also find the waiter at the restaurant Garibaldi and Lise go to cartoonishly villainous in his own way. Demanding that Michael order a real drink is an artificial tension inducer more than anything. I dunno, it’s too easy to find things that bug me in this episode, especially given its critical nature in the buildup.

Stray observations:

  • “No one ever trusts anyone, Vir. It is the natural order of things. But until now it has never interfered with business.”
  • “This, this is my own little act of rebellion, yeah. I may not be in control of what other people do to me but I can at least be in control of what I do to myself.” Jerry Doyle is really good at acting like he’s convincing himself.
  • “It is absolutely inappropriate of you to pull a stunt like that without telling me...” “You are right!” “...ah, dammit, Delenn. I have been working up a good mad all day and I am not about to let you undercut it by agreeing with me!”
  • “Pity. We never did find out what your pleasure threshold is.” A reference to evil G’Kar! How long has it been since we’ve seen HIM?

And All My Dreams, Torn Asunder”

The bulk of this review was really about this episode, so not too much to say here. Just that, even in its weaker moments, when Babylon 5 needs to pull it together, it does. This isn’t a classic by any means, but it creates emotional resonance out of a story that had almost none before.

Stray observations:

  • Londo wants into the council chambers:“Every right in the world to be in there!”
  • “Any reactions, Ambassador?” “No. Not until I speak with my government.” And a good Londo turning moment.
  • I’ve always remembered this line. Both the phrasing the intonation stick in my mind. “He pronounced it the most clever fraud he’d ever seen.”
  • Speaking of goodbyes, G’Kar to Delenn. “I found in your eyes all the thanks that I will ever require, in this life, or in any other.”
  • “If you wanna hurt me there’s a more efficient way to do it.”
  • Sheridan reaches for the tragedy. “And damn you for asking for it! And damn me for agreeing to it! And damn all of us to hell, because that is exactly where we’re going! We talked about peace, you didn’t want peace. We talked about co-operation, you didn’t want co-operation. You want war! Is that it? You want war, well you’ve got a war!”
  • “Don’t worry. Even one as arrogant as this would not take it upon himself to imprison his own prime minister.” And then a Gilligan cut! A literal Gilligan cut! To finish off an episode that’s supposed to be high tragedy!
  • Was Lochley in ANY of these episodes? Five in a row, without the station’s captain?

Next time, on Babylon 5: The next three episodes (17-19) on 8/22, plus the backdoor pilot TV movie, “A Call To Arms.” We’re gonna talk Drakh.

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