This is the end of Babyron 5.
And not a goddamn moment too soon. I mentioned distaste for the character in the last set of reviews, but it goes beyond simply a character being annoying. Byron’s plotline is, quite simply, the biggest mistake Babylon 5 ever made. There were weaker sections in the show back in the first season, yes, but those had the excuse of Babylon 5 being a brand new show with all the competency issues that entails, as well. In hindsight, I definitely believe that B5’s continuity and overall plot arc should have been introduced earlier and stronger, and they certainly would be if the show were made today, but back in the early 1990s that’s not something that could be expected from a serialized TV show.
Yes, season five had to rebuild a story from scratch, as I discussed last week, but even with that caveat, Byron is still a disaster. Structurally he’s weak, and the writing surrounding him is intolerable. Most damning of all, the editing, directing, and music of the show demonstrate that it has no idea what to think about Byron even as it builds itself around him. He’s in every single episode of the six this week except one (which, in filming order, occurred after his death. It aired right in the middle.) In fact, Byron’s appeared in eight episodes out of the first 10 or 11. I think that’s more than Lochley, and more than Vir and Lennier combined. Moreover, Byron is treated by the show and all the other characters as the protagonist. It’s about him, his desires, his choices, his inability to control his people. He is the subject. Sheridan is object. This is never more clear than in “Secrets Of The Soul,” an episode that doesn’t even include Sheridan, but centers on Byron’s revelations.
The structural issues with Byron are simple. Babylon 5 has derived its greatest power from its cycling of storylines, where one leads directly and logically to the next. The Narn hate the Centauri, they have a war. The Centauri win the war, the Narn are occupied. G’Kar and Londo work together to end the occupation. G’Kar and Londo work to become friends. There’s a direct progression there. With Byron, the driving force seems to be “Telepaths are the only major dangling plot thread remain, and Bester’s still at large.” Only Bester provides any sense of history to the proceedings for the bulk of the arc, and he’s not there for most of it. But instead of taking a few episodes to rebuild the telepath problems organically, we just get characters saying “Byron is trouble” and “there’s a telepath war coming.”
There are two belated attempts to make Byron’s story fit in with Babylon 5’s history. First, it’s attached to the Vorlon genetic engineering program, which should give it extra moral weight. And it does, briefly, until Byron brushes aside “but the Vorlons are gone!” complaints with “they need to give us what we want.” There’s an immediate and totally illogical escalation of events. This isn’t Londo triggering the Narn-Centauri War because of a tragic flaw, this is a television writer trying to lead to a violent confrontation by making an apparently heroic character a total idiot for half an episode. It’s straight-up contrivance.
Second, the way that the telepaths and Byron are written and costumed, they are straight-up devoid of irony. Now, Babylon 5 isn’t Buffy levels of self-aware, and I wouldn’t say “cleverness” is one of its greatest strengths. But all of its characters have a level of self-reflection and deflection, where they’ll make a speech and realize they’re making a speech. Like Sinclair in “Chrysalis,” fumbling over the words to get to “do you wanna get married or not?” Or Delenn’s warm humor at Lennier’s bumbling, or Sheridan’s little gasp of disbelief as he complains about whatever’s going wrong this time. Byron has no filter like that whatsoever. His speech about how he knew Lyta as a “coppersmith” in “Strange Relations” is one of the more intolerably precious/unaware speeches on the show. Lyta demonstrates that she’s still human by making fun of him briefly (“Thank you. That was probably the most eloquent attempt to change the subject I have ever heard.”), before falling totally under his spell.
That kind of writerly lack of self-awareness would be perfect characterization for a religious nut, the martyr that Zack and a few other characters recognize Byron as. But Babylon 5 as a production never for an instant treats Byron as anything other than a hero. Apart from his spying gamble in “In The Kingdom Of The Blind,” everything he does is ethical and understandable. When something bad happens, like his telepaths committing violence, his pain is the first shown on screen, and it aligns with theoretical audience pain. When he sings his stupid fucking song, everything about the direction and editing suggests that this is a beautiful and touching moment. And in “Phoenix Rising,” when he breaks his vow of nonviolence, it’s not to take up arms against our heroes, but to save one of them from a character who is purely villainous. And then to ram it all home, Sheridan uses the same “the inconvenient way” line as the EarthGov President had used on him, which Delenn notes, and which therefore puts Sheridan and Byron on equal moral footing.
In short, every single clue that Babylon 5 can possibly give using its implicit form and craft suggests that this is Byron’s show, and we, the audience, need to like, respect, and agree with Byron. Meanwhile, explicitly, we have well-loved characters like Zack and Garibaldi declaring, quite accurately, that he’s a martyr who can’t be trusted. And he’s just incredibly fucking annoying.
I don’t know if JMS wrote him to be incredibly fucking annoying and that we should be pissed off that Lyta joined him, or if JMS just utterly failed to give a one-dimensional character the nuance that he thought he did, but the fact that Byron’s presentation and his words are so totally at odds with one another renders his presence infuriating. The final Byron-related shot of the week, with Lyta touching hands to all the telepaths and saying “Remember Byron” is the final proof that Babylon 5 had no idea what it was doing or trying to do with the character it centered the first half of its fifth season on.
The one episode this week that doesn’t include Byron, “Day Of The Dead,” illustrates just how far down the air vent Babylon 5 had gone chasing this martyr story it couldn’t get right. Unlike essentially every episode so far this season, “Day Of The Dead” is grounded and character-based, adding depth and meaning to characters who haven’t been given any this season, or, in the case of Lochley, ever.
A large part of it is that, for the first time since the middle of season two, this episode was not written by JMS. It’s written by geek-at-large Neil Gaiman, and this ends up being incredibly refreshing. Not because I love Gaiman’s work generally, and not because JMS is in any way bad, but because Gaiman, by virtue of being a competent writer who’s knowledgable about B5, finds different angles for characters and themes. Or, to put it bluntly, whatever JMS was trying to do with Byron had single-mindedly dragged Babylon 5 into a hole with all its characters, and it needed a fresh set of eyes and words to begin crawling out of that hole.
Take Lochley. Nearly a dozen episodes into the season, we know nothing about her in character terms other than “loyal hardass.” Then Gaiman comes in and gives her a tragic backstory, a drug-addled youth that turned to tragedy when her best friend overdosed. From there we can extrapolate how and why Lochley became who she became. Before this, she was just a shouty voice in a uniform.
Londo’s barely on-screen in “Day Of The Dead,” but his story might be the most important. Following Byron, season five increasingly becomes about Mollari being led to his tragedy. First he has to make up for his crimes, as we saw in “The Very Long Night Of Londo Mollari,” but then in “Day Of The Dead” he’s given the chance to be at peace. He gets a temporary reward. There is no real plot value to this, but that gives it so much more value that the majority of events of season five, which seems to see the characters as pieces on a chessboard more than three-dimensional people with inner lives.
JMS hadn’t totally forgotten this. G’Kar gets a resolution to two of his outstanding storylines in “A Tragedy Of Telepaths.” His aide, Na’Toth, who disappeared when her replacement actress didn’t work for the show, is found played by the original actress in a Centauri dungeon. Here we get the chance to tie up a loose plot end—“Whatever happened to Na’Toth?” was never directly answered on-screen—but more importantly, it’s a chance for G’Kar to exercise power that he’s rarely had. Through strength of will and morality, he forces Londo to work with him to figure out a way to free her. In so doing, he comes full circle from the fourth season, freeing himself from the pain inflicted upon him by Cartagia and the Centauri.
Even the silliest part of “Day Of The Dead,” Penn and Teller playing futuristic comedy duo Rebo and Zooty, works. Their conversation with Delenn and Sheridan gives the duo a thematic and character-based justification for the Alliance, instead of the crisis-to-crisis plotting that had been used instead.
To use one of Babylon 5’s more famous quotes, season five, prior to “Day Of The Dead,” had been almost entirely moments of transition. But the moments of revelation are what gives stories moral and emotional power. I don’t know how JMS managed to get himself into the Byron trap that he struggled to get out of, but it was the show’s greatest failing. It’s all uphill from here though, happily.
Probably the worst Byron episode of all, with his coppersmith speech and Lyta joining in his humorlessness cult. “So yeah, I believe in them. Byron has a dream for all telepaths. I wanna help make it come true.” But what makes it worse is that at every possible juncture, characters just straight-up say what’s going to happen and what relevance it has. Byron’s a martyr! Lochley confronts Sheridan and gets him to say“I’m caught in a web of my own good intentions.” which is the most obvious thing can ever obvioused. There are lots of good little character bits in the episode, and it does have a certain momentum, but then it ends on that song. That fucking song.
- “How’m I doin’ so far?” “Annoyingly logical.” “Thank you.” “It wasn’t a compliment.” Scoggins and Boxleitner do have a good chemistry.
- G’Kar likes the idea of trolling the Centauri. This is why we love you, G’Kar.
“Secrets Of The Soul”
Look, I’m all for a show experimenting with form. You’ve got a surprise fifth season! Let’s try to see what happens when you take the main characters out of an episode! And then you get “Secrets Of The Soul,” which should make everyone run screaming for the welcoming arms of Sheridan, Delenn, and Garibaldi.
It’s like there’s a competition between which side of the story can possibly be worse. Lyta and Zack have the most tone-deaf argument about Byron possible—Zack’s using bigoted phrases like “those people” and Lyta manages to get her valid complaints in. And then she still manages to lose the Byron-defending argument with “What could you possibly say in five minutes that would change that?” Then Franklin comes along chasing an alien mystery involving a diplomatic attache for the Hayak who might be the most annoying guest star in the show’s history. (To be fair to the actress, it’s possible that those masks constrained anything other than “shrill” vocal inflection.)
Byron fights back! Lyta tells him she doesn’t feel like she fits in, so he announces that to EVERYONE in order to get her the most passive-aggressive hug attack in history—as the tune from the “better place” song plays! And that’s still not enough to take victory, because Franklin has discovered the Hayak’s secret, and it’s a terrible, genocidal secret with a contrived resolution that gives him maximum smarmy ethical power over them. How do you apologize for genocide that your race is dedicated to covering up? Well, how convenient, the only way the race can survive is by publicizing it! Everyone wins, and all difficult ethical conversations can be wrapped up with a nice little bow! Not even creepy fucking telepath sex can take the victory from the Hayakdo’s shit storyline.
Is this the worst episode of Babylon 5 ever? Possibly, and it’s certainly the worst outside of season one.
“Day Of The Dead”
I mostly said what I wanted to say earlier, but let’s just talk about the brief scene of Corwin playing with the hat. Here’s a characters who’s been around for almost the entire show, with one single episode, two years back, of getting any kind of personality. “Day Of The Dead” drops a five-second moment of him trying and failing to do a Rebo and Zooty trick, and it’s adorable and charming and reminds me why this show as worth loving.
- And oh yeah, anytime Morden shows up is a good time. “Looking back on it, I think I mostly just tried to make people happy.”
- “I’m prophetic. Not infallible.”
- Dodger’s return is a little bit odd, given that she was one character from one barely-remembered episode a while back. But she’s got a good rapport with Garibaldi. “And they’d find other ways to prove their masculinity than hacking into the stellar comm system.”
- Is this Lochley’s best-ever line? “Yes sir, I thought it was a metaphor, sir.”
“In The Kingdom Of The Blind”
Every part of this episode exists to drive the main stories forward. The Alliance have shipping attacks! Something’s going on on Centauri Prime! And Byron, Byron, Byron! This would all be okay if it was well-done, but ridiculous Drakh costumes and the failure at stylized direction for the telepath-Drazi fight show that it’s not.
Second, I mentioned some of the biggest contrivances earlier, but one of the most annoying, nagging ones about the whole situation is that it forces Sheridan to be the conservative voice of unreason. When Byron asks for a telepath homeworld, Sheridan immediately declares that it’s impossible. But there’s never any reason given for why this should be impossible. The galaxy is a huge place, and there have to be barely or unsettled worlds out there. And yet Sheridan immediately shouts it down, for no other reason than that the show requires it, and doesn’t even want to take the time to talk about why.
In “Phoenix Rising,” the other characters attack Bester for setting up a tragic confrontation. But Babylon 5, by not dealing with obvious arguments and counter-arguments, does exactly the same thing as a story.
- “He cultivated sobriety as his only vice.”
- “The Alliance we were created to serve must now serve its creations.”
“A Tragedy Of Telepaths”
The best of the normal episodes of the week, for two reason. First, while I dislike the plot contrivances that led to the Byron-Bester confrontation, as ever, Babylon 5 puts together damn strong episodes when it gets to the point. For the first time since his introduction, Byron’s dialogue, story, and setting are all aligned, making him far less annoying than normal. And the Na’Toth plot both gives weight to events outside of Babyron 5, for one thing. It also gives some classic Londo/G’Kar dialogue. Londo’s defense of the foolishness of monarchy and his paralysis in its face is a classic Londo moment, combining helplessness and a justification of foolish power. “These things happen. They just...happen.”
- “Well, with everybody on the same side now, perhaps you’re planning to invade yourselves for a change. I find the idea curiously appealing.”
- “It was as if the universe itself had turned against us, and said ‘Die. Die. Die.’”
- “Why the war, not the peace? Because it’s exciting. Because at some level people like to watch something big fall apart and explode from the inside out. And right now, John, we’re that something.” Garibaldi gets thematic.
- Okay, there’s one annoying Byron bit: when invites Lochley to crawl through the vents because it “requires comment” instead of to negotiate. Just straight-up wastes her time.
- “But...I’m not your size, Prime Minister.” “Oh, I’ll make do.”
I was all set to give this one a good grade, as it’s really a Bester episode for most of its runtime, and Walter Koenig is on fire. “You can talk to her. You can talk to me. Everyone talks to me. People like talking to me! I guess I just have that kind of face.” He’s rampaging across the station, the non-Byron telepaths are rampaging across the station in their skirts, everyone’s got something interesting to do, Sheridan has his best moment of the season so far with his conversation with Lochley about how he couldn’t live with himself if something happens to Garibaldi...
....And then it gets to the end, and it all gets annoying again. I can’t decide what’s more annoying, the way that the telepaths all slowly huddle around Byron as he prepares for suicide for no reason whatsoever, or Lyta’s “Remember Byron” high-fives at the end, like she’s congratulating her youth soccer team, but god damn. I wish I could scrub Byron out of my memory. Don’t tell me to remember.
- “And even the President...despite his ‘liberal attitudes’...knows that you can’t let killers get away.”
- “We were finally opening up a dialogue!” “I don’t believe in dialogue. Only action.” There’s a good little thematic throughline of Bester declaring saying this, then immediately going to Garibaldi and having a conversation exactly about the difference between action and dialogue.
- “You’re blocked at the point of action, but I left your rage intact. Call it...counterpoint. Dramatic irony.”
Next time: On August 8th, episode 12, “The Ragged Edge,” through episode 16, “And All My Dreams Torn Asunder.”