“There All The Honor Lies” (season two, episode 14; originally aired 4/26/95)
One of the major divisions in how TV shows are judged is whether a show succeeds on its own internal terms or whether it succeeds according to external criteria. A show will establish its rules and tone, and then proceed to follow through with that. It will also have parallels to the real world—either in setting, plot, or theme, and those can be examined and judged. To take an example from “There All The Honor Lies,” according to the internal logic of the show, Babylon 5 has never had a gift shop, and now it does, and it's understandable for the characters to be upset about that. According to external criteria, Babylon 5 not having a gift shop seems utterly ridiculous. “There All The Honor Lies” makes a good test for how you might judge television, because if you judge it according to internal criteria, it's a remarkably elegant and assured episode. By external criteria, it's occasionally naïve, even embarrassing.
So there's now a gift shop on the station. This comes as a shock to Sheridan and Ivanova, who oppose it. They're our heroes, and their opposition seems principled enough. “We're not some deep space franchise, this station stands for something!” says Ivanova. The gift shop story leads to several great comic moments as well as tying into the main plot in unexpected fashion. By Babylon 5's own rules, it works, and it's easy to enjoy.
On the other hand, Babylon 5 is a “port of call, a home away from home for a quarter of a million humans and aliens.” It's our “last best hope for peace.” It's something special, unique, and accessible for the rest of the universe. The idea that it, clearly a Destination, wouldn't have a gift shop seems utterly absurd. And Ivanova's complaint using the term “deep space franchise” firmly establishes that the target of this satire, at least in part, is one of Babylon 5's real-world competitors. Is this plotline a reference to some WB exec telling Babylon 5 the show that selling more merchandise would improve its budget? Those considerations can make it difficult to enjoy.
This division hold true for the main story of the episode, in which Captain Sheridan is framed for the murder of a Minbari instead of acting in self-defense. The conspiracy falls apart easily when it's discovered that its two main members were related, which, according to Minbari custom, means that the key witness can actually lie about what Sheridan did. Again, some of this doesn't make sense. The idea that Minbari don't lie unless they can save face for another basically seems like all they have to do is come up with good excuses for lying. Likewise, how does their political system where people can be of the same clan but not of the same caste even work? (Confusion about Minbari politics is pretty consistent through the show's run, for whatever reason.) Why on earth would Sheridan be surprised or dismayed to be sent a lawyer when he's being accused of murder? And on a show which has demonstrated how well it can do dramatic stakes, the idea Sheridan's going to be booted off the station mid-season just doesn't work.
But flip the part of your brain asking these questions off, and “There All The Honor Lies” is remarkably effective at moving Babylon 5's story along. In much of season one and in the first few episodes of the second season, Earth-Minbari relations were one of the show's main focuses. The arrival of Starkiller Sheridan and Delenn's transformation into a half-human theoretically should have encouraged more dramatic stories around that theme, but while people have talked about those relations, other than Delenn's meeting in “All Alone In The Night,” they have been sidelined.
In “Honor” both Sheridan and Delenn are forced to confront the results of their actions. For Sheridan, it's an inconvenience—it's clearly a one-episode inconvenience, and we know he's in the right, as we've seen the events in question. But it's still a good acknowledge of the character's origin story. Sheridan has done what he's needed to do, and others remember that.
For Delenn, it goes much deeper. Her issues of integrating with both Humans and Minbari have existed all throughout the season, although they've been masked by the fact that Delenn hasn't actually had the main story of a specific episode for her trials. Yet being told “I answer to other Minbari, not freaks” to her face probably marks her lowest point since her transformation. For whatever reason, over the course of this viewing, I'm noticing just how close to breaking she is (and how it makes the premises of a couple future episodes make more sense).
It may sound like I'm ambivalent about “Honor” but I'm actually quite fond of it. Two aspects of the episode make me quite happy to take the side of watching it on Babylon 5's own terms. First, this is possibly one of Londo's best episodes of the series' run. His “Captain! Commander! Can we talk?” while holding up his action figure is one of the show's all-time great moments, and his treatment of Vir is both funny and sweet while not ignoring the increasing darkness of the character.
The directing of the episode also seems to be significantly better than the average episode, with several shots, including Londo's with the doll, proving quite memorable. Sheridan's moment of “beauty in the dark” is perhaps the most obvious of those, but there are many others: the low camera when Londo sees the women making fun of him, or the claustrophic business of the gift shop when Ivanova visits. That's enough to make me forgive the episode its plot holes and illogic.
“And Now For A Word” (season two, episode 15; originally aired 5/3/95)
If I were reviewing most any other show, I'd be delighted at the appearance of formal experimentation for a few reasons. First, it's generally a sign that a show is confident enough in itself to play around with its structure. Babylon 5 is certainly at that level now, following a string of good-to-great episodes, and with its very best stretch just ahead. Second, formal experiments are often a sign of truly great episodes, as a few of Babylon 5's contemporaries can attest. Unfortunately that's not the case for Babylon 5, where these experiments lead to annoyance more than greatness (with one possible future exception).
“And Now For A Word,” framed as a mini-news documentary called “36 Hours On Babylon 5,” is certainly not a poor episode. But it does fall afoul of one of the major problems that formal experiments often possess: the gimmick gets in the way of the story. “And Now” is the most important episode of the Narn-Centauri War since it began, with multiple pitched battles just outside the station, and our first major clue of how the war is going (the Narn, apparently, are losing). It's the biggest on-station crisis since Sheridan took command, and beyond that, we get character revelations for several important cast members, particularly Delenn, Londo, and Franklin.
Yet because the episode is framed effectively as a news report, it feels detached, slightly unreal. The constant narration, the news-style editing (plus the much worse than normal swings in visual quality on the DVDs), and the lack of Christopher Franke's usual background music make it feel more about the gimmick, and less about the events. An episode that shouldn't feel slight, does.
The gimmick does work reasonably well otherwise, however. The documentary frame gives us the chance to see each of the show's major characters as objects more than subjects. Ivanova is always aware of what's going on. G'Kar is increasingly a Cassandra figure, and Londo increasingly villainous. Sheridan is passionate and articulate, if not always tactful. Franklin, hilariously, seems to miss the point of both of his direct questions, and chooses to passive-aggressively attack the reporter/audience by taking the moral high ground. Garibaldi probably comes across best, with his “I hope to get through this interview without getting fired. How's that for a start.” And Delenn, well, Delenn has another low point, when the reporter demands to know what she would say to the families of those who died in the Earth-Minbari War.
Large chunks of the episode also seem to be given over to examining contemporary concerns. The reporter opens her presentation with an obvious propaganda digression about the rebellions on Mars, tying the episode to the growing debate about media and bias in the era. And Senator Ronald Quantrell plays a bellicose isolationist (“We risk being drawn into a conflict that has nothing to do with Earth interests.”), something that may have seemed plausible at the time, but nearly two decades and a War On Terror later, I feel like his type would be treating isolationism as the greatest sin in foreign policy, and declaring the need to intervene as quickly as possible.
I almost get the feeling that the ambitions of “And Now For A Word” were deliberately toned down, so as not to make a relatively strange episode seem so important to the show overall. This makes it not particularly memorable, but still good enough to maintain the momentum of the season. Indeed, the entire middle third of the season exists to keep the pieces moving post- “Coming Of Shadows.” And next week, we start the end-game. Get excited.
- Sheridan describes the Minbari witness: “Bald! With a bone on his head!”
- “He was not a man, though, was he? He was Minbari. Starkiller.” Ashonn has a nice little sneer going on.
- Although next week he's given his breakthrough moment, I really like Stephen Furst as Vir here: “I'm caught between fire and flood and if there's a way out I sure don't see it.”
- “Do I have to spell it out for you?” “Oh, so you feel like you've been symbolically cast...in a bad light.”
- “I can see the synapses beginning to fire behind your eyes. A frightening sight, I might add.”
- Julie Caitlin Brown as Lawyer Na'Toth is sadly underused here.
- “It's a calm, pleasant evironment. I don't don't think I've ever seen anyone lose control here.” Corwin's growing slightly more important.
- “Perky and energetic Commander Susan I've A Nova.” That could have gone badly.
- “We're everywhere. For your convenience.” What a sweet bunch of Psi Cops.
- Delenn makes one of the points of multicultural science fiction: “Everywhere Humans go, they create communities.” I suppose it's suppose to reference and encourage the better angels of our nature, but really it just reminds me that Humans are subjects in this subgenre, and aliens always objects
- Really, what is the point of Delenn's body switch? Because she's a main character we're supposed to sympathize with, and I do, but I feel like “talking to people” fosters understanding more than “arbitrarily deciding to make yourself look like them.” Prophecy, I suppose.
NEXT WEEK: I recommend watching in the production order, with “Knives” before “In The Shadow Of Z'Ha Dum.” I will be reviewing them in that order.