“The Geometry Of Shadows” (season two, episode three; originally aired 11/16/1994)
There’s a consistent thread running through the first batch of episodes of Babylon 5 season two: something bad is coming. I like to compare the first third of the season to Legolas’ speech at the start of The Return Of The King, where he insists that “a chill wind rises in the east” as though the first two books/films were insufficient in demonstrating the power of the story’s villains. But it’s not necessarily about where the stories are in a literal sense. It’s about setting a tone and indicating that the story has shifted form. In Lord Of The Rings, that means that the story’s momentum has hit the point where there’s no longer wonder and exploration, but instead inevitable confrontation. It’s similar on Babylon 5, where ominous threats indicate that the first season’s somewhat haphazard, sometimes goofy, world-building has given way to something more structured and intentional. If you’d known that Babylon 5 was supposed to be a five-year-long story, perhaps this wouldn’t have been a surprise. But if not? This is a major, fascinating change.
The Lord Of The Rings comparison is particularly apt in “The Geometry Of Shadows,” where the Chill Wind Speech of the Week is uttered by a science-fiction wizard who even goes so far as to quote Gandalf The Grey’s “Do not meddle in the affairs of wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger.” The idea of prophecy and ancient evil put Babylon 5 partially in the realm of fantasy at this point, and the enemy spacecraft looking like monstrous spiders or crabs only reinforces that idea.
Although I find the fantasy tinge of the show in early season two understandable and even appealing, it’s a little bit over-the-top in “The Geometry Of Shadows.” I’ve never read Michael Moorcock’s Elric novels, though I had heard of them occasionally even before I watched Babylon 5—they’re reasonably famous in fantasy and science fiction circles, if before my time. They’re not before J. Michael Straczynski’s time, however, and “The Geometry Of Shadows” is built directly on a reference to them. The main guest star is a “Technomage” named Elric, whose power corresponds enough with Moorcock’s Elric that the author described it as “straight homage.” It’s a mild annoyance to have an episode built around a foreign reference, and more to the point, it doesn’t really fit in with Babylon 5’s consistent tone—this is, after all, a show that had an episode with two Lost In Space actors and deliberately avoided having them interact, since there was no internal story reason for it to happen.
Elric, however, turns out to be damn entertaining to watch, which makes the allusion much more forgivable. Michael Ansara gives the role over-the-top power and dignity, swishing the words around in his mouth before letting them into the air, to hover ponderously over the head of whomever he’s talking to. He’s not the only actor hamming it up in supremely entertaining fashion. “The Geometry Of Shadows” also introduces William Forward as Lord Refa, Londo’s conniving ally in the imperialist wing of Centauri politics. I’m quite partial to Refa, as his presence usually indicates that we’re getting a good Londo episode.
That’s certainly the case here. “The Geometry Of Shadows” is the first episode to truly focus on the effects of Londo’s successful alliance with Mr. Morden. Londo is no longer an innocent, nor is he being manipulated. He is instead an active instigator of nefarious plots. His goal is to get a picture of himself with a Technomage, apparently an important group in Centauri history, in order to increase his standing in Centauri politics. Elric sees right through him, however, and delivers a withering “endorsement,” worth quoting in full:
“You are touched by darkness, ambassador. I see it as a blemish that will grow with time. I could warn you, of course, but you would not listen. I could kill you, but someone would take your place. So I do the only thing I can do. I go. Oh, I believe it was an endorsement you wanted. A word or two, a picture to send to the folks back home confirming that you have a destiny before you.”
“Yes, it was just a thought, nothing more.”
“Well take this for what little it will do. As I look at you, ambassador, I see a great hand, reaching out of the stars. The hand is your hand. And I hear sounds, the sound of billions of people calling your name.”
This is a shocking change for a character previously presented as comic relief. Londo is not merely a good person who made an unfortunate bargain with a sinister figure, as “Chrysalis” and “Revelations” imply, but he is going to be a galaxy-wide villain. This is a remarkable switch for any television character, let alone one from this particular time in television history.
The indications of an ancient enemy’s return, Londo joining a conspiracy built for the future death of the emperor, and his attempt to appropriate an old symbol for his future all combine to give “The Geometry Of Shadows” an interesting tension between past and future, where the present is one of the least important components of the episode. Refa illustrates this perfectly: “For a long time [the Centauri have] been looking for a sign. That it’s time for our people to step forward again. Into history.” This sort of balance between the needs of the past and the demands of the future is one of the things Babylon 5 can do better than most other shows, thanks to its master plan and strong central voice.
JMS’ strong central voice can lead to some odd places, however. The secondary plot of “The Geometry Of Shadows” may be one of the corniest to be given this much time on Babylon 5, as Ivanova attempts to mediate a political conflict between Drazi that ends up as massive public brawling. I should create a macro that says “the material is goofy, but Claudia Christian makes it work,” because that’s generally Babylon 5’s sense of humor. While there is some humor to be found, particularly in the satire of the arbitrariness of political parties, the tone gets really odd when the Green Drazi start murdering the Purple Drazi. It’s still treated as comedy, even though a dozen people are murdered, Ivanova is kidnapped and threatened, and 2,000 more Drazi are nearly killed, but it’s treated as a wacky cultural misunderstanding.
“The Geometry Of Shadows” illustrates many of the strengths—and too many of the weaknesses—that make Babylon 5 so entertaining both to watch and to make fun of. It’s ridiculous, but it’s ridiculous with a point and meaning. Most of the time.
“A Distant Star” (season two, episode four; originally aired 11/23/1994)
To briefly continue in the role of guide for new Babylon 5 viewers that was necessary in the first season, I have to argue that “A Distant Star” is my least favorite episode of the second season, and should probably be skipped by non-completists. This is the Babylon 5 that the show’s critics are talking about when they call B5 poorly acted, self-important, and dull.
The chief culprit is guest star Russ Tamblyn, playing an old friend of Captain Sheridan’s and the captain of an Explorer-class starship, the pioneers of human space colonization. Tamblyn just manages to get the tone entirely wrong for almost every one of his line readings. He broadcasts obsequiousness when he should aim for casual camaraderie, mild playful annoyance when his entire ship is in danger of slow death, and mild constipation when he performs the Chill Wind Line of the Week. He can’t be taken seriously, but the episode’s drama requires that he be taken seriously.
Everything about “A Distant Star” is just slightly off. Every character is about 25 percent more of a jerk than normal, and it makes the entire episode unpleasant to watch. Sheridan gets snotty about not being on a ship and Franklin meddles with everyone’s diet. They all act like their weight and diet are more important than any other consideration. Delenn resorts to petty hierarchy in dealing with her people, when everything we’ve seen of her before indicates a willingness to at least be sympathetic, if not an active consensus-builder. And then there’s the food politics. We’re supposed to think it’s hilarious that girls like salads! Boys like meat! Italians like oil!
“A Distant Star” is simply a mess, and not an ambitious or interesting one at that. The only important point is that Keffer, the pilot who’s suddenly a main cast member, sees one of Morden’s ships and wants to know what it is. There’s a one-line summary of everything necessary contained in “A Distant Star.”
- “Or the first step in returning our people to their rightful place in the galaxy, depending on who writes the history books.” Never trust a man who says this sort of thing.
- “Don’t you want to be there?” “I have absolute trust in your abilities, Commander.” “Oh, well that’s a hell of a thing to tell someone.”
- “There is a storm coming, a black and terrible storm.” Yeah, that’s the Chill Wind spirit!
- Not a huge fan of Cortez being treated as an explorer. Conquest and exploration are two quite different things.
- Please no more wacky sitcom music, Christopher Franke! It doesn’t make the forced comedy of the “food plan” easier to bear. At all.
- “We are starstuff. We are the universe made manifest, trying to figure itself out.” Delenn’s been reading Carl Sagan.
- “She and the universe seem to have a special relationship.” “Don’t we all?” I don’t want to say that Ivanova salvages the episode with the last line reading, but, she does.