In retrospect, it’s easy to call “Signs And Portents” an important episode of Babylon 5. We’ve had years to process the show, and we know that Mr. Morden, introduced here, becomes one of the primary villains of the piece. We can fairly easily see that each season is given a name, that season one is “Signs And Portents,” and it’s a fairly safe assumption that the seasons are named after some of their most important episodes. And it’ll show up on most lists of most-important Babylon 5 episodes.
On the other hand, if you imagine that you’re watching Babylon 5 every week as it airs in 1994, maybe not paying attention to the message boards where J. Michael Stracyncki is letting people know that this might be a special episode, and you sit down to try to describe “Signs And Portents,” then it doesn’t sound like much. As a thought experiment, I think the hour is worth comparing to “The Parliament Of Dreams.” Both episodes feature a mysterious and powerful alien spaceship, which can destroy without even seeming to try. Both have a main plot that features the dangerous internal politics of one of the major alien empires. And both have a somewhat contrived structure that allows each of the alien ambassadors a chance to consecutively demonstrate their personalities. In fact, it’s fairly easy to put together an alternate Babylon 5 where the events of “The Parliament Of Dreams” turn into a major component of the series: Narn political intrigue with G’Kar at the center combined with the Sigma 957 aliens taking a more active role in the universe—hey, we have a serialized arc on our hands!
Yet to actually watch both episodes in quick succession negates such a theory. “The Parliament Of Dreams” is structured and edited like a standalone episode. It’s fairly light, and even the big mystery of the Sigma 957 aliens is resolved by its designation as an unknown mystery. It’s not necessary for them to return. In “Signs And Portents,” though, there’s an open door. Londo wonders how he’ll be able to find Mr. Morden again at the end. Morden replies “We’ll find you, ambassador.” If Morden doesn’t return, it will be a disappointment; a promise broken.
That’s just one example of many regarding the entire tone of the episode. Although “Signs And Portents” tells a complete standalone story of raiders and Centauri honor on its own, it feels like a slice of a much larger story. Immediately, Londo and G’Kar are introduced arguing about the Narn/Centauri conflict and the attack on Ragesh 3 from “Midnight On The Firing Line.” So in addition to the promise of the future, this episode relies on the past. It starts immediately with that refresher, and doesn’t have the extended ending so many Babylon 5 episodes do.
There are a couple of other ways to tell that this episode is notable. It doesn’t merely feature a scene with each ambassador—it features a dramatic confrontation with each ambassador. Morden gets under their skin, and provokes a reaction—except in the case of Kosh, who takes his strongest, most direct action yet, confronting Morden and scaring him off the station. “Leave this place. They are not for you.” The score also contributes to the episode’s tone. When the Starfuries launch, the theme music from the opening credits plays, which gives the emotional clue that this is Babylon 5. We also see the biggest space battle of the series so far, with the station attacked by a raider carrier.
“Signs And Portents” is also serious. This is perhaps its weakest point—Straczynski’s dialogue feels notably clunky here. Everything is a Statement or a Speech, and several of them don’t work. The worst example: The seer Lady Ladira says “Babylon will fall!” The episode builds the tone of importance, but “Signs And Portents” doesn’t quite have the quality to deserve that importance yet. (That quality for the important episodes will come, don’t worry.)
It’s this prevents me from fully embracing “Signs And Portents” as one of the best and most important episodes of the first season. I admit that I’m giving my personal experience some priority here. Back when I started Babylon 5, I missed a significant chunk of the first season, including “Signs And Portents.” When I caught up later, I was surprised by just how much foreshadowing is included in the episode—but also how little there is beyond that. This is a prologue. The real story will happen later. With that said, I do think there are two essential scenes. Morden’s queries of Londo and G’Kar are the purest distillations of the ambassadors’ (and their respective races’) personalities that we’ve seen.
There are two important thematic discussions in this episode. Morden’s question, “What do you want?” becomes one of the three big recurring questions of the series. It’s one we’ve heard before, actually: Sinclair shouts it at the Minbari in his flashback to The Line in “And The Sky Full Of Stars” and doesn’t get a reaction. Ed Wasser, who plays Morden, embodies a creepy charm that translates to each of the ambassadors, forcing a response. The question itself cuts through to the core of the recipient’s personality, eliminating posturing and demanding an emotional response. It wants the “id,” as it were.
Londo’s response, and indeed most of his dialogue, points at the second theme: the danger of nostalgia.
“These are no longer the good old days, Lord Kiro.” “Yes. More’s the pity.” For all the tragedy and moral ambiguity in Babylon 5, it’s still a fundamentally optimistic show. We can do better in the future, despite it all, the show says. As is clear from this episode, and the reactionary Home Guard politics in several previous episodes, Straczynski is skeptical of that mode of thinking. We’ll be seeing much more of this in the future.
Yet despite its willingness to grapple with big questions and imply stronger serialization, “Signs And Portents” doesn’t reach the top tier of Babylon 5 episodes. It’s not bad, and it does build momentum. But Babylon 5 can’t quite match its ambition. It’s closer than it was with “Midnight On The Firing Line,” but we’ve got a few episodes to go before things get really good.
The Great Spoiler Machine: Another reason that I hold “Signs And Portents” at arm’s length: I think that Babylon 5 fans have over-prioritized the Shadow War. One of my core beliefs as a critic is that “bigger scope” doesn’t necessarily mean “better episode.” This comes directly from my B5experience, specifically “Into The Fire,” the climactic episode of the Shadow War. That’s a good episode, but it’s too cramped. Still, at the time, I thought it was one of the best because I felt that it had to be one of the best. Bigger equals better, right? It was only when I saw some people complain about it that I realized that I could detach those qualities from one another.
This applies to the Shadow War as a whole, including “Signs And Portents.” The Narn-Centauri conflict is easily the most compelling aspect of the show, and I’d argue that most of the other major arcs—corruption on Earth, Religious/Warrior Caste tension on Minbar, and pre-Byron telepath drama—are sometimes better as well. So yes, the Shadows are introduced here, but I’m not sure that’s a bigger deal than the introduction of the Psi Cops in “Mind War,” for example. And it all pales in comparison to “Chrysalis” at season’s end. Babylon 5is about so much more than the Shadow War, and I’m wary of it being framed as such.
- “Find anything interesting?” “Yes.” Morden, at least, is a fully embodied character from the beginning. This is a perfect introduction.
- “And then what?” “I don’t know.” This is an example of how the speechiness of the episode works in its favor. It feels very theatrical and artificial, but does so in order to convey the key point that the Narns, and G’Kar, don’t entirely know what they’re doing.
- Lt. Corwin shows up! He’s the new mulleted speaking character in Command & Control. Although always playing a minor role (with a few exceptions), he appears in more episodes than several credited cast members.
Next week: Shit gets real. No, that's not it. It gets real shit. "Grail" and "TKO" are two of the show's worst, though at least there's some ridiculous terrible skiffy fun to be had with both.