Babylon 5 claims to be about three big philosophical questions: “Who are you?” “What do you want?” “Why are you here?” It may seem slightly contrived to turn those questions onto Babylon 5 itself, but the show occupies a rare—possibly unique—position in the history of television where it actually has the time, space, and motive to examine itself. There are a few things that make B5 a candidate for self-reflection. First, JMS has the general inclination in his writing for analysis and self-analysis. Second, his long-term plan means that the story has long-term climaxes that can be seen building up throughout the entire series.
Finally, the accident of renewal, where the fourth season was meant to be the last if it wasn’t picked up by a new channel, meant that the climax of the season was accented, and we got to see what happened after that. That is, “Rising Star” was supposed to be the last normal episode of the series, followed by “Sleeping In Light,” which takes place 20 years in the future. Thus this episode could serve as ending of the direct plot threads, while serving as an encapsulation of the series as a whole. This makes it triumphant, even including a specific scene where Delenn apparently lays out the ideals of the series.
But that surprise renewal did occur, which JMS used to push “Sleeping In Light” back to the fifth-season finale. He then took the first-produced episode of season five, “The Deconstruction Of Falling Stars,” and shifted it to be the last-aired episode of season four (which is why it doesn’t include Claudia Christian). This episode maintains “Rising Star’s” idea of encapsulating the series, yes, but it does so while knowing that it isn’t the end. Thus it’s also forward-looking, saying what the show has been about, but also having to promise what it will continue to be about.
When Babylon 5 was renewed by TNT, the network also commissioned four telefilms (we’ve looked at “Thirdspace” already), as well as airing repeats of the entire show so far. One of these movies, “In The Beginning,” was specifically created as an introduction to the entire series for TNT viewers who might have wanted to jump in. It aired, along with the re-edit of “The Gathering,” immediately before TNT began airing both new and old episodes. So it was JMS’ opportunity to take all that he knew about what the series had become thematically, and deliver it directly to potential new viewers. (More practically, it was also an opportunity to show just how much better the show could be than its, uh, inconsistent early episodes.)
Thus there were two episodes and a movie, which aired sequentially, all of which attempted to answer the who/what/why questions from totally different angles. So what do these episodes say about what Babylon 5 thinks it’s supposed to be?
“Rising Star” answers this question in a direct plot sense, so it’s worth starting from. While some of the episode is spent cleaning up the biggest characterization issues—Ivanova’s resurrection at the cost of Marcus’ life, Garibaldi finding Lise, and Londo becoming emperor—the driving force through the episode is the creation of the Interstellar Alliance. This is how Sheridan’s story problem of how the Earth Alliance political structure deals with his mutiny is resolved, and he is our main character. Its reveal is built up throughout the episode; its intro gives no details, but does have Londo declare “I am so rarely in the presence of living history. It thins the atmosphere, makes me quite giddy” in order to build anticipation for the eventual revelation. Then the moment when the show’s four main political characters, Sheridan and the three ambassadors, go to Earth’s seat of power and declare the ISA’s existence, says that this is the political point of the show.
Here’s what G’Kar and Delenn (oddly not Londo) say the Interstellar Alliance means: The premise supports diversity. “Strength comes from a multitude of voices. Humans build communities.” The Alliance helps keep its members safe and provides communication and assistance, and oh yes, “...promote(s) free trade.” Finally, the ISA is supported primarily by a shift in focus for the Rangers: “Their goal is to create the peace, not to enforce the peace.”
This is considered the best and most heroic outcome for the show. Sheridan loves it: “We’ve been building this thing up for months, bit by bit.” And to a certain extent, the show supports it. The first and third seasons were often spent wrestling with the League Of Non-Aligned Worlds to convince them to, well, align with what was good and just. And in the fourth season, Sheridan and Delenn start specifically moving to create a foundation for further, institutionalized co-operation. Way back in the pilot or the early first season, Sinclair specifically referred to the League Of Non-Aligned Worlds as akin to the United Nations. But as their name implies, they were closer to the League Of Nations, and Babylon 5 can, in the macro sense, be seen as the story of the construction of a space United Nations, arising from the ashes of apocalyptic war.
But Babylon 5 adds something to its United Nations: the Rangers. As described, the Rangers are paramilitary force to defend borders and trade, and spy on all the races of the galaxy. The importance of the Rangers is only reinforced by “The Deconstruction Of Falling Stars” and “In The Beginning.” In the latter, Minbari rejection of the lead Ranger’s request for resources is prefaced by Londo’s narrating that this was equally as arrogant as the Humans believing they could beat the Minbari.
That has nothing on “Deconstruction,” though, an episode that claims that, for a million years after the events of Babylon 5, the one constant in Human history is the Rangers. At the end of our sun’s lifespan, the Rangers will be leading Humanity to its new home and new evolutionary status (the Human watching the clips comprising the episode has a Ranger pin on his encounter suit). The final cause of the show’s plot is to give institutional power to the Rangers, and their triumph is the show’s triumph.
I just don’t buy it. At no point, through the four seasons of Babylon 5 so far, did I think that the Rangers were anything other than a tool, invested with heroism because they happened to include the heroes of the show. Yet even still, the person who actually embodies the Rangers on the show in the same way that all the alien ambassadors embody their races, Marcus Cole, is notable for being an exception. Every other Ranger is taciturn, hyper-competent, and boring. Marcus doesn’t fit in with the rest of the Rangers, thanks to being impulsive, witty, and entertaining in any way whatsoever.
Also, quite frankly, having the White Star fleet—which just fought against Earth ships in a war that supposedly wasn’t about conquest—fly over the capital during Delenn’s speech is just a dick move.
Yet Babylon 5 continues to push forward with the idea that the Rangers are a purely good institution. And when it does so, it suggests that a Ranger-like institution would be something that would allow our modern-day United Nations and the best of our internationalist impulses to thrive. Only an elite paramilitary force could support free trade, protect borders, and prevent wars before they happen.
Yet the Anla’shok are never treated as a three-dimensional institution that seems in any way plausible. Babylon 5 simply believes that they’re good, treats them as good, and acts like since its heroes have so much invested in the Rangers that viewers should agree. To its credit, Babylon 5 attempts to complicate both the ISA and the Rangers in its fifth season; it succeeds to some extent with the former, but the latter is almost as unsuccessful as Garibaldi’s fake critique of Sheridan in season four. You can see that partially beginning in “Deconstruction,” where a few ideologues on media shows attempt to discredit Sheridan, the ISA, and by extension the Rangers, but these people are all treated as ridiculous caricatures of political blowhards and ineffectual revisionist academics.
What we’re left with, then, when examining Babylon 5 and the story it thinks its telling, is that the show’s overt themes in these episodes are either ineffective or counter-productive. The ideas of strength through diversity and the value of domestic (note how much focus the interim President is given when she declares that retribution must come through the courts) and international institutions are both very much of the classical liberal tradition and the 1990s, Clinton-era strain of that tradition. Who’s going to argue against community or diversity? But when Babylon 5 starts to imagine how to maintain those ideals in a dangerous universe, it seems naïve.
Then again, maybe that’s not such a bad thing. I’m always going to be skeptical of paramilitary organizations like the Rangers, but the other 1990s aren’t the worst things to try out. I’m not exactly opposed to multiculturalism or respect for classical liberal institutions, at least as a starting point for discussion. And if nothing else, it certainly marks Babylon 5 as a product of its time, in the way that most great televised SF is.
(I haven’t followed JMS’ post-B5 career in full detail, but I have read several of his comics, and there’s definitely a change in how he treats these questions. Rising Stars, published soon after Babylon 5 finished, and much of it prior to 9/11, has a similar level of faith in strong individuals to do the right thing and support the right institutions. But his Squadron Supreme—a sort of Marvel remix of DC’s Justice League—directly confronted the Iraq War, and the potential abuses that even a well-meaning government might force upon heroic individuals. Finally, while I’ve critiqued JMS’s portrayal of the Great Man arguments about Sheridan in season four, his examination of that debate in his Spider-Man during Marvel’s Civil War event, with Peter Parker learning to question Tony Stark, is arguably the best part of that massive crossover. It does everything I would have wanted Garibaldi to do to Sheridan in season four.)
The oddest thing about this episode is that it shows the triumph of Babylon 5 and its idealized neoliberalism over Earth and the rest of the universe (or really, alongside them), but doesn’t take place on Babylon 5 itself. Well, there are two scenes resolving the Marcus-Ivanova story, so the station isn’t totally forgotten, but it is an afterthought. I read in two conflicting ways simultaneously: that the story of Babylon 5 has become the story of the whole universe; and that the show has had to move so far, so fast, that it can’t stay with its roots.
That said, the speed with which season four had to resolve itself ensured that it would be impossible for all the threads to be tied up with the right amount of time and focus. “Rising Star” does a valiant job, like when it shows the hard-fought respect between Londo and G’Kar, “We are developing a very strange relationship. At times I think I almost enjoy it.” Or when Bester goes to visit Sheridan, and through sheer force of will, Sheridan manages to turn a situation that Bester had control over into a moral victory for the new president. “I find it amazing that you still think threats will do anything to me.” This is good stuff, albeit disjointed.
- “I think I saw what I wanted, and I was afraid.” No don’t justify the friendzone ideology, don’t do it don’t do it.
- I find the interim president oddly cast. She’s got a relatively strong accent and seems incredibly young, both of which make her a bit offputting, but I think I’ve come to like her. Possibly largely because of the writing. “Which means I should give you the Medal Of Honor, then have you shot.”
- “You cannot make history. You can only hope to survive it.” Great Londo line.
- “What is built endures. And what is loved, endures. And Babylon 5, Babylon 5 endures.”
“The Deconstruction Of Falling Stars”
This is a ridiculously ambitious episode and also a fairly ridiculous one. But every time I see it, I think I gain more respect for its science fiction pastiche and massive future history, and just how contrived its storytelling is and how it presses ahead anyway. It’s comfortable with itself, and it doesn’t seem like it should be.
A large part of that is that its guest stars feel comfortable. Babylon 5’s guest actors (and much of the cast) often feel stilted. Usually this is in an effective, theatrical sense, but sometimes it’s just not good enough. But most of the media types in “Decontruction”, never before seen and never seen again, are comfortable and natural in their roles. The reporter in the first ISN segment, who’s chatting about Sheridan’s past while walking through Babylon 5, actually feels like a trained reporter that you’d see on TV and not the show’s usual sort of Reporter Archetype. As I mentioned, this was in the TNT production run of episodes, so I’ll be paying attention during season five to see if this a consistent pattern for the show in its last season.
Regardless, it’s that formal competence that keeps “Deconstruction” moving, and, other than deification of the Rangers, makes it seem like a plausible progression of its universe.
- Londo again: “Once you know that it cannot get any worse, you can relax and enjoy the marriage.”
- “They should be applauding themselves, not us,” say Sheridan and Delenn, trying to shove the Great Man theory back into the box, far, far, far too late.
- On the 2262 ISN broadcast, I really like clearly post-Limbaugh the white dude anti-Sheridan guy was. JMS saw where things were headed.
- Also with the MOOC from 2362
- “Large political movements are rarely the work of one single person,” says the mercenary political scientist, before falling totally into bullshit. “It was only the force of history that saved them”
- Delenn slams down any criticism of Sheridan“You do not wish to know anything. You wish only to speak. That which you know, you ignore, because it is inconvenient. That which you do not know you invent. None of that matters except that he was a good man, a kind man, who cared about the world even when the world cared nothing for him.”
- “Intent is to deconstruct historical figures currently revered by prole sector, thereby legitimizing current government policies.”
- I imagine Boxleitner begging JMS to have the opportunity to play Evil Sheridan; he’s clearly enjoying himself.
- “The blessed Sheridan, who lived and then died, and then came back. Ivanova the strong, Delenn the wise.” Ugh.
- “That’s all that faith requires. That we surrender ourselves to the possibility of hope.”
- “But it doesn’t matter. We did what we did because it was right, not to be remembered. History will attend to itself. It always does.”
“In The Beginning”
Speaking of ridiculous, to take “In The Beginning” at face value in terms of plot is absurd. Having Londo, Sheridan, G’Kar, Delenn, and Franklin all hold so much power and influence over the Earth-Minbari War, and even have met with one another, defies plausibility. And if you turned the film off with 20 minutes to go, that’s all it would be. But in those last 20 minutes comes one of the top scenes in Babylon 5’s entire run, where Londo narrates the last two years of the war, leading up to the Battle Of The Line. These few minutes, and the President’s speech immediately after, turn “In The Beginning” into a must-watch part of the Babylon 5 canon, instead of being a “Thirdspace”-like side note.
Christopher Franke’s music is never better. The CGI is never better. Peter Jurasek is always good for a speech. And when JMS nails a monologue, you damn well know he’s nailed it.
- “What do you want?” “Tell me a story!” “Luc!” “No, no, it’s all right. He did far better with that question than I did.”
- Robin Sachs and Reiner Schone are exceptional as well. “It is an elegant and simple solution, Coplann. Thank you for giving it to me.”
- “Sheridan, you are the most stubborn man I have ever seen. And mainly at your own expense.” I like that Lefcourt has such an important role here, after his thematically important but rarely on-screen importance in “Endgame.”
- If I really wanted to push the idea that Babylon 5 was about the rise of neoliberal multiculturalism, I’d note that the most conservative and villainous Human characters—the captain and crew of the Prometheus and the general who demands Franklin’s notes—all have southern accents, which is often used as a stand-in for conservative parochialism.
- “...unless anyone else has a better idea?” Boxleitner goes a little too far with Sheridan’s inexperience-as-nervousness here.
- “We’ve heard that certain elements of their government want to arrange a meeting to find a way out of this war that doesn’t involve the annihilation of Earth.” “Most progressive of them.”
- “Together we stood on the eve of destruction, as the result of a terrible, terrible mistake. A mistake which none of us can afford to make again. The Babylon station will provide a place for us to work out our problems peacefully. It is, we believe, our last best hope for peace.”
Next time, on Babylon 5: I’ll be covering the first six (!) episodes of season five. Let’s get through Byron as fast as possible, y’all. (Also, those of you paying close attention might have noticed that I’d intended to include “No Compromises,” the fifth-season premiere, in this week’s review. I failed. DUN DUN CHHHH.)
Finally, I’d like to say a huge “Thank you!” to Todd Vanderwerff, TV Club’s outgoing editor, without whom these reviews would not have happened. Beyond just that he hired me, Todd’s belief that any show could be worth writing about if the right writer’s voice was attached is the reason the A.V. Club has supported reviews of a cult show. And since I think I’ve been able to do some of my best work on these reviews, he was probably right. Good luck, Todd.