“The Parliament Of Dreams” (season 1, episode 5; originally aired 2/23/1994), “Mind War” (season 1, episode 6; originally aired 3/2/1994)
T.V. Club editor Todd VanDerWerff uses the term “procedural world-building” to describe early parts of shows that aren’t serialized, but instead are laying the groundwork so that they will be. I first heard him use it to talk about Firefly, a show filled almost entirely with standalone episodes, but one which was clearly building towards something big. In this week’s two Babylon 5 episodes, we can see how the show is using “procedural world-building” to develop its setting. There’s only one moment that overtly suggests serialization: Talia realizing she’s been given the gift of telekinesis at the end of “Mind War.”
Procedural world-building differs from normal serialization in that there isn’t a clear story being built towards. For example, Buffy The Vampire Slayer had dozens of procedural episodes, but it usually introduced its main story or villain within the first episode or three of a new season. Both Babylon 5 and Firefly introduced some historical mysteries early on—What happened to River? Why did the Minbari surrender at The Line?—but these are primarily background information for understanding the characters and universe.
While “procedural world-building” is a good lens for understanding these shows, it’s a difficult one to utilize overall without further information, which makes it tricky. Firefly was obviously (to savvy viewers) going to become more serialized, because Whedon’s other shows were becoming more and more serialized. Some Babylon 5 viewers would have known that the show was building towards something bigger, thanks to JMS’ internet presence and advertising of that fact, or for most of us now, we know about it in retrospect. On the other hand, a casual contemporary viewer might likely have compared to Star Trek: The Next Generation or early Deep Space Nine , both of which were procedurals and spent time creating a universe that could have supported serialization—potential that TNG never realized, while DS9 would eventually try to.
So, despite being a fairly shallow episode in terms of plot, “The Parliament Of Dreams” is interesting and useful for understanding Babylon 5’s universe. The premise is designed for that: EarthForce has decided that the station should host a week of religious celebrations for all the different races. It’s contrived, sure, but Garibaldi notes as much early on, deflecting it, and allowing us to see the Minbari, Centauri, and human celebrations. The dramatic portion of the episode focuses on G’Kar and Narn culture (and we even meet our very first Drazi in the opening of the episode). In “Mind War” there’s much more focus on the human side of things—what had appeared to be a dysfunctional if conventional liberal democracy is much darker.
But the cultural and political surveys, while notable, aren’t the most important aspects of these two episodes. Both “The Parliament Of Dreams” and especially “Mind War” focus on some of Babylon 5’s dominant themes: mystery and transcendence. At the end of “Mind War,” G’Kar spells the first out:
“Yes, they are a mystery. And I am both terrified and reassured to know that there are still wonders in the universe, that we have not yet explained everything. Whatever they are, Miss Sakai, they walk near Sigma 957, and they must walk there alone.”
This is a clear statement that Babylon 5 wants to be different from television generally and Star Trek specifically. The point is not necessarily to understand the universe, but to deal with it. G’Kar may not be able to understand or explain what exists at Sigma 957. But he does know that he can try to dissuade Sakai from making her attempt, and can also attempt to rescue her if that fails.
Both of these episodes also add dimension to G’Kar, who had previously been treated as a straightforward villain, albeit occasionally a respectable one. In “The Parliament Of Dreams,” G’Kar is a victim of a (perhaps justified) revenge plot. He spends the bulk of the episode worrying about an assassin, whom he beliefs is likely his new attaché, Na’Toth. The worrying helps build sympathy, but it’s the relationship with Na’Toth that really humanizes the ambassador. She’s the calm, snarky, ruthless one, as he panics or dithers.
He also sings.
Yet it’s “Mind War” that delivers the most important change to how we perceive G’Kar. Even when he’s been non-villainous so far, he’s still been conniving and looking for the best deal, either for himself or for the Narn. Here, he’s downright charitable, saving Sakai for no notable reason. Babylon 5 is quite aware of this, with Sakai being skeptical even over a too on-the-nose speech from G’Kar about how “No one here is exactly as he appears.” This is a character being given a third dimension as we watch. I’m not sure I’ve seen a show actually acknowledge its character development in such a straightforward fashion, which increases its charm. “If I surprised, so much the better.”
Transcendence is overtly the plot and theme of “Mind War.” A rogue telepath, Jason Ironheart, appears on the station. He admits to Talia, his former lover, that he’s been experimented on by Psi Corps and EarthForce Defense, which has made him something more than human. “I am becoming.” “Becoming what?” “Everything.” And he does. The episode ends with him becoming an awkward CGI energy being, essentially a god. What G’Kar says about the beings at Sigma 957 is going to apply equally to the Ironheart-being.
The theme of transcendence runs through “The Parliament Of Dreams” as well. At first it’s a joke: Londo gets wasted at the Centauri religious ceremony, overacts, and then passes out. Vir (who is much improved in this episode) announces “Ah! He has become one with his inner self!” It’s less of a joke in the Minbari ceremony, which is described as being about rebirth: specifically, rebirth through struggle.
Both transcendence and mystery are key components to religion, which leads to the inevitable conclusion: these two episodes demonstrate that Babylon 5 is about religion. This may help explain the show’s archetypal characterization, the sometimes-stilted dialogue, and massive ambition. Of course, there are many other threads being woven together throughout the series. But looking at it as an examination of religion—by an avowed atheist, no less—is an effective and fascinating lens.
The final scene of “The Parliament Of Dreams” is another demonstration of this, and one of the most memorable of the series. Commander Sinclair finally decides on a demonstration of Earth’s “dominant” religions by introducing members of a variety—hundreds—of representatives of different religions. There are things to nitpick about this scene. Of course, it’s not subtle. The framing, with the ambassadors and nobody else waiting impatiently, is sitcom-esque and awkward. The idea that Earth doesn’t have a “dominant” religion (but the alien cultures do) treats humans as subjects and aliens as objects.
But that all doesn’t negate the simple power of the scene:
The literal invocations of classical liberal ideals of respect and diversity are readily apparent, but what’s admirable about the scene is that there’s no explicit judgment. “This is,” the scene says. The music, subtler than normal, suggests that what “is” possesses beauty on its own. The seemingly genuine, delighted smiles of the surprised characters, particularly Ivanova and Londo, also sells the scene.
For all their thematic power, “The Parliament Of Dreams” and “Mind War” still suffer from the first-season awkwardness that’s so difficult to avoid. The former has a better time of it, although its straightforward plot doesn’t let it be more than a setup episode, and the Centauri ceremony, though it has its moments, is way overboard. “Mind War” is painfully hampered by the early-1990s CGI combined with DVD transfer. The worst offender: a scene where Talia tries to describe telepath sex to the commander while in front of a green screen. It’s possible that this scene might have worked with another background, but we can’t know that now. Yet despite these issues, this week’s two episodes may be the first two that demonstrate that Babylon 5 is a good television show, as opposed to merely being in the process of becoming. That process will continue—but these two episodes should demonstrate to first-time viewers that there’s something more than a curiosity here.
Thematic importance: Obviously I covered the broad themes above, but beyond that, we have a few more characters to keep track of. Lennier and Na’Toth, the two new attachés, are both in the credits, so they’re notable, although Lennier is still largely in the background. Bester, the surviving PsyCorp from “Mind War,” is the first of four major recurring antagonists to appear. If you enjoyed Walter Koenig smarmily eviling it up, you are in for a treat or several over the course the series.
The idea that transcendence—an ethical/religious concept—is tied to technological progress via Ironheart and the Sigma 957 aliens is something the series will return to.
The Great Spoiler Machine: Hey, there’s that million years thing again. Sometimes I wonder if maybe the best first episode would be “The Deconstruction Of Falling Stars” just to show how much this is planned out.
Talia is so clearly being set up as a necessary, heroic figure here that her early departure should be a major issue for the show, but neither the actress nor her written character ever did a good job of playing that up well. Even Sinclair’s destiny is far better-treated.
On the other hand, the return of the Sigma 957 aliens is well-done. They maintain their individual mystery and power, while being put into a wider general context.
- “And you are cute too, in an annoying sort of way.” We didn’t have shipper names when this thing aired. Londibaldi. Garibondo.
- 75 percent of the time, I think the Sakai/Sinclair relationship is marvelously honest. The other 25 percent of the time involves Sinclair trying to be spontaneous.
- “Anatomically impossible, Mr. Garibaldi. But you’re welcome to try. Anytime. Anywhere.”
- Every character in the credits appears in “The Parliament Of Dreams” except Dr. Franklin. He doesn’t appear in “Mind War” either.
- If you agree that the quality of “The Parliament Of Dreams” is singnificantly higher than the four that came before, there’s a simple explanation from JMS at the Lurker’s Guide: “The biggest change in the show came once we began writing scripts *after* we’d begun shooting episodes, so that we/I could again see the actors and find their fingerprints. “Parliament” is the first one I wrote after we started filming; “Soul,” “Infection” and “Midnight” were all written prior to filming starting.”
Next week: I honestly have very little memory of “The War Prayer,” an episode that continues world-building but without anything earth-shattering. It’s followed by “And The Sky Full Of Stars,” an episode which is absolutely crucial to understanding Sinclair and the mystery of the Earth-Minbari war.