Babylon 5: “The Geometry Of Shadows”/“A Distant Star”
B+

Babylon 5: “The Geometry Of Shadows”/“A Distant Star”

“The Long Dark” (season two, episode five; originally aired 11/30/1994)

I have a soft spot in my heart for “The Long Dark,” even going so far as to include it in my TV Club 10 for Babylon 5. It had been difficult for me to pin down exactly what I like about it, but on this viewing, it finally clicked for me during G’kar’s brief speech to guest star Anne-Marie Johnson: “Take my advice and go back to the time you came from. The future isn’t what it used to be.” That rejection of the future’s potential clarified what I find so mesmerizing about this episode: It’s Babylon 5’s clearest rejection of science fiction television conventions.

“The Long Dark” damns the optimism of space travel. In so much media, we see the idea that humankind’s destiny is to travel and colonize the stars. On Star Trek, the clearest parallel to Babylon 5, the future and space travel are portrayed in an unambiguously positive light. Humans have eliminated prejudice, even money, and seen the wonders of the universe. There may be danger, but it’s never so much that this component of human history, nay, destiny, could be rejected. This is not to say that Babylon 5 is inherently better for its pessimism, just that the different perspective was important and refreshing simply for being different.

“Maybe it’s just as well Will never woke up. I don’t think he would have liked this world,” says Johnson’s character, Mariah, about her dead husband. There’s not much reason to believe that she’s wrong. The other major guest star, Dwight Schultz (a.k.a. Star Trek’s Lieutenant Barclay), is a member of Babylon 5’s underclass, a Lurker. The show may go a little over-the-top in depicting how rough life is for the Lurkers—Schultz’s character Amos is introduced ranting in a filthy hallway as a totally unremarked upon petty crime occurs right in front of him. When Amos is taken into custody, a security guard remarks (terribly) “Damn Lurkers. We oughta space all of them!” to rub in just how oppressed they are.

Amos’ problems don’t just extend to his economic status. He’s also been abused, manipulated, and fed upon by a “Soldier Of Darkness.” This entity is treated as the latest demonstration of the impending Great War. First, the aliens of the Non-Aligned Worlds refer to the stirring evil as if it’s a widely-accepted fact, which is interesting, because prior to this it’s only been the main characters, often apart from one another, foreshadowing doom to the viewers. Apparently that audience included the Markab ambassador as well. Sheridan and Ivanova get extra reinforcement of this knowledge when they discover that the Soldier Of Darkness had set a course for the planet G’kar wanted investigated, and G’kar confirms the connection for the audience when his religious book has a picture of the Soldier. This all serves to connect what would have been a conventional monster of the week episode into both the show’s storyline and the thematic core of early season two.

I’m also extremely fond of the premise of Mariah’s side of the story. I find the idea of the sleeper ship, or a generation ship, extremely appealing as a story construction in science fiction. It allows for time travel without much magical hand-waving, and fish out-of-water stories without contriving a way outside the setting. (On the rare occasions when I consider writing fiction, I often want to write about fast/slow space-travel cultural collisions.) This also ties Babylon 5into literary science fiction traditions, which was and still is rare on SF television.

There are still some major problems with “The Long Dark”; I don’t want to oversell the episode. The act structure gets fractured as it comes to a conclusion, with Garibaldi recruiting Mariah to find Amos, and then suddenly Garibaldi’s in the right place and Mariah’s bumped off-screen. The climax also lacks tension as the Soldier Of Darkness also goes down pretty easily when it’s finally exposed. But hey, the episode boasts Londo and G’Kar being charismatic and Schultz chewing scenery delightfully. “The Long Dark” is the episode that, to me, defines the first half of season two.

Grade: A-

“A Spider In The Web” (season two, episode six; originally aired 12/7/1994)

“A Spider In The Web” serves as a brief shift in focus from the rise of evil threatening the entire galaxy to the rise of evil threatening humanity—a parallel that Babylon 5 demonstrates an attachment to over the course of its run. Thematically it works rather similarly to “The Long Dark.” The idea that the future is just as bad as the present, if not worse, runs through both episodes. In “Spider” that takes a conspiratorial form, which is very 1990s in its overt presentation, but does a good job of tackling broader real-world issues.

A shift in Captain Sheridan’s characterization allows the episode to have that added depth. We’ve seen Sheridan geek out about history before—he’s the first to identify the sleeper ship in “The Long Dark”; now that hobby has a point that’s useful for storytelling as well as exposition. “Some people collect coins, or art. I collect secrets,” he tells Garibaldi. This is used to explain how Sheridan knows about the Project Lazarus that gives the episode its threat, a semi-resurrected terrorist named Abel Horn. But it’s also used to show Sheridan’s ambitions.

Before this episode, the new protagonist of Babylon 5 was treated as something of a Boy Scout. He’s just happy to be on Babylon 5, where he can take showers, eat oranges, and interact with aliens. He’ll deal with problems as they arise, but he hasn’t yet been shown as an agent who will choose to instigate the story. However, when he tells Garibaldi that part of the reason he collects secrets is because he wants to find and destroy black ops groups like the “Bureau 13” revealed in “Spider,” he takes that new role. He is now a political creature, an idealist whose ambition is to cleanse the evil from his own government. Most interestingly, Sheridan believes that he can accomplish this goal. There’s no “I’m just a soldier” humility that we, the viewers, know to be untrue. Sheridan understands that he has significant power already, and he’s willing to acquire more power to achieve his goals.

While this may be an important step in his characterization, the process not without its issues early in the episode. A phone call from a new government contact—hello Senator Malory Archer!—puts Sheridan temporarily in the position of being a stooge for the nasty parts of his government. When Senator Lucille Bluth asks him to spy on corporate negotiations about Mars’ future, he’s initially skeptical to her, but his behavior toward Talia Winters, who witnesses the first terrorist attack, indicates that he buys into the senator’s depiction of what’s happening before Talia smacks him down: “Mars was his dream, Captain. And now he’s been murdered for it, and you’re trying to cast the blame on him.”

Talia, largely missing from the second season so far, returns as a critical character as “A Spider In The Web”’s other main point of interest. After Ivanova declares that the telepath is trustworthy, Talia keeps an important secret from the rest of the crew when she doesn’t reveal that one of the people who rebuilt Horn as a cyborg assassin is a member of Psi Corps.

“A Spider In The Web” is not a tremendously significant or memorable episode apart from these two character moments, and the shift of focus to Earth. Babylon 5 often struggles when it’s missing its primary alien characters, who aren’t present here. It’s a buildup episode, like so many at this point in the season, and like them, its success hinges largely on whether there’s an eventual payoff.

Grade: B

Stray observations:

  • “I know some good counselors.” “Now. What would a man with everything in the world. Do with one of them?” I just love when someone comes into Babylon 5 and overacts correctly. Wait, that’s a false construction: There’s no such thing as overacting on B5.
  • Mariah struggles to cry after getting out of the cryo-tube. “I used to be able to do this!” is what she should have said, thus turning this week into Arrested Development week.
  • “It’s gonna take a lot more than 100 years to evolve a better human.”
  • “The forces of darkness do not move openly. They use others.” Hey, why’s everyone including the camera looking at Londo?
  • “If there is something aboard this station, find it. And kill it. It’s that simple. The rest is nonsense.”
  • “Standing in a ball of lightning. It looked like it had come straight from hell.” “How did you survive?” “I didn’t!” Speaking of what the Soldier looked like, the improvement in quality of actor/CGI moments from the first season to second is astonishing.
  • FutureCorp is a good name for a corporation that exists in the future.
  • “Practicality is more important than principles if lives are to be saved.” Sometimes I wonder what the show would have looked like had it been written after the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq started.
  • Sheridan spends a lot of time describing how amazing the Tikar are, they’re like no other aliens. So they cost too much to depict on-screen.
  • “I trust in individuals. Not in organizations.” Wise words from our hero. Also deeply ironic ones.
  • Hello, Zack Allan! You certainly don’t seem like a major character in any way whatsoever!
  • IMPORTANT NOTES FOR NEXT REVIEW: First, I’m going to be covering a conference next week, so no reviews. When we come back on April 5th, I recommend reversing the airing order of the two episodes: “A Race Through Dark Places” first, then “Soul Mates.” Certain characterizations will make more sense that way.

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