Babylon 5: “Voices Of Authority”/“Dust To Dust”

Babylon 5: “Voices Of Authority”/“Dust To Dust”

“Voices Of Authority” (season three, episode five; originally aired 1/29/1996)

“Voices Of Authority” is fun. This is not commonly a term that can be ascribed to Babylon 5. Sure, the show's had fun moments, and it's has aimed to be fun, or funny, on several occasions. But for this hour of television, Babylon 5 becomes fun as a whole. The main characters, writing, premise, serialization, and guest stars all work together to make this episode an unexpected treat. I don't want to oversell “Voices Of Authority” as it's not one of the all-time great episodes. It's more the kind of strong buildup episode that great series need, and as such, the clearest sign of just how good the third season is going to be.

The oddest thing about the episode is how disjointed it is. There's no real main plot to it—it's a series of interconnected stories, all of which are derived directly from the serialized story. In a sense it's a serialization of the week episode. A “Political Officer” named Julia Musante arrives on the station, in order to “help” Sheridan avoid the embarrassing mistakes he's made recently. She also authorizes the Night Watch to escalate their anti-sedition activities, and continues to apply pressure to Zack Allen to engage more fully with the Night Watch, which strains his relationship with Garibaldi. Garibaldi has been hiding the secret War Council meetings, which in this case, are being called because Delenn believes it's time to contact the First Ones as allies against the Shadows. This causes Draal to reappear and invite our heroes to the Great Machine. Ivanova goes down and discovers some First Ones, which she and Marcus head off to contact. Along the way, she also finds video evidence of President Clarke ordering the assassination of President Santiago. The release of that evidence causes the Julia Musante to leave the station. None of these are the main plot, but all are important, and all interconnect. We often give JMS credit for his construction of the overarching plot to Babylon 5, but “Voices Of Authority” is a fine example of how he can construct an episode out of nothing.

The Political Officer is probably the most memorable part of the episode. Musante, as played by Shari Shattuck, is some horrifying combination of true believer and utter cynic. She seems to believe everything she says, even, perhaps especially, when she's saying she doesn't believe everything she says. Sheridan asks when they turned Earth into a utopia, and she answers “When we rewrote the dictionary.” Then she tries to seduce Sheridan as directly as possible, and turns around and drops the most explicitly fascist rhetoric that the show has used. The more often that I watch “Voices Of Authority” the more I respect the character's portrayal. Perhaps it's the cynicism of age, but I find Musante less and less cartoonish. I've known people like her, who only exist to serve power and manage to convince themselves and others that they're doing something more. So where I used to believe her sexually aggressive move on Sheridan was over-the-top, now it seems to be part-and-parcel of her constantly-shiftting personality. And the glee with which Shattuck plays her is a critical part of the fun of the episode.

A second important aspect of “Voices'” fun is Marcus Cole. The angsty seriousness of the season premiere is gone, and the playful smartass that defines the character is now his dominant mode. He and Ivanova head off on a quest for the First Ones who nearly killed Catherine Sakai at Sigma 957 way back in the first season. Taken literally, as a story where Ivonova manipulates ancient near-gods into joining her war effort via toddler psychology is fairly painful. Taken less literally, as an amusing side quest intended to reveal a little bit more about these two characters and how they interact as well as what they believe about the upcoming Great War. For that to work, it's absolutely critical that Jason Carter as Marcus can hold his own with the banter. He can; he manages to transcend JMS' oft-clunky comedic dialogue. Saying he's going to put a bucket on his head to portray a Vorlon god is clunky, yes, but his murmured “I'll go get a bucket” after Ivanova responds with “That's it!” is exactly the sort of fast-paced banter that's been missing from Babyon 5 other than occasional moments from Londo, Ivanova, and Garibaldi.

There's a lot more to like here—Draal's scenery chewing is as welcome as ever (“It will Assuming you're not vaporized, dissected, or killed in an assortment of various painful ways. Exciting, isn't it!”) and the Night Watch story has perhaps the most emotional resonance it's hard yet, thanks to Jeff Conaway's fairly incompetent struggles between his multiple bosses. It's over-the-top, especially when he manages to squint only one eye in order to indicate tension, but the idea that Zack is not terribly smart, that he literally doesn't know how to respond in situations like this, gives the whole story more power.

If there's a weakness to “Voices Of Authority” it's in the major plot revelation, that Clark was indeed behind Santiago's assassination (and that Morden helped him do it). This is put in the background by the characters—Ivanova says that she can't tell Sheridan what it is, but she'll show it to him, and Sheridan just passes it along to let his superiors in the counter-coup faction who release it into the world. It doesn't feel like a major new step in the process, just a minor instigator toward whatever's supposed to happen next. But that's fairly minor. “Voices Of Authority” is a busy episode built around what's happened in the past and what will happen in the future. The assassination video isn't necessarily good now, but it is an effective promise that things will change in the future, just as the episode promises that the serialization promised throughout the show so far will be redeemed, and soon.

Grade: A-

Stray observations:

  • I cannot see the title of this episode without thinking of the suite from the second Babylon 5 soundtrack CD with its title, which would become the Season Five theme.
  • “Zack.” “Yes sir?” “Take a walk.” “Yes sir!” Speaking of banter, Angry Sheridan is surprisingly good at it.
  • “Anything else you might need?” “A glass of whiskey, a gun, and two bullets.”
  • “I like you! You're trouble.” Draal gets straight to the point.
  • Ivanova, apparently, uses a Palantir that's lodged in the Great Machine. “It is the enemy! Pull away. Pull back to the path.”
  • I know that it's in-character for Ivanova to say stuff like this, but the slut-shaming is a bit annoying. “Good luck, captain. I think you're about to go where..everyone has gone before.”
  • “Did you know that your jacket doesn't fit, Mr. Allen?” A beautiful rejection.
  • “Vorlons must owe them money or something.” Another well-muttered aside from Marcus.
  • “I told you I could help. The book of G'Quan. Read it.” “I, uh, don't read Narn.” “Learn!”

Dust To Dust” (season three, episode six; originally aired 2/5/1996)

Much like “Voices Of Authority,” “Dust To Dust” is about escalation. The core relationships that have defined Babylon 5 since its beginning have become unsustainable. Here, they start to crack. The two core relationships strained in this episode are between Babylon 5 and Earth and between Londo and G'Kar.

The former is the main plot of the episode. Bester, the delightfully smarmy Walter Koenig, visits the station again, with yet another tale of planetary security under attack. The station command, knowing that they are actively engaged in treachery or at least extreme civil disobedience, cannot abide his presence on the station unless his chief advantage of mind-reading is neutralized. So they hire alien telepaths to protect themselves, and then they force Bester to take the anti-telepathy drug in order to remove those telepaths. The heroes are as much as admitting that they are engaging in some kind of activity that would get them in trouble at home. This is not something that can last, if Babylon 5 wants to hold onto its forward momentum, which makes it potentially interesting for the future.

What makes it interesting in the present is, as ever, Bester's interactions with the station staff. He and Garibaldi are called upon to work together in order to track down the Dust distributor on station, and the two obsessive paranoids actually seem to work quite well together. Bester sees the fun in that—“A pinata? So you think of me as something bright and cheerful, filled with toys and candy for young children”—even if Garibaldi doesn't. This is what a villain should be: human, willing to adapt, willing to toy with his enemies, willing to make himself seem comprehensible to those enemies.

The other critical part of the episode focuses on a different type of villainy, or at least antagonism, as well. G'Kar gets his hands on the Dust, a drug that allows the user to telepathically force his way into his target's mind. He immediately uses it to target Londo Mollari, assaulting Vir in the process, and settling into Londo's mind. Look, it's clear that Londo is attached to the enemy now. He has become almost a pure villain, and deserves punishment, right? It's hard to continue to agree with that, seeing him whimpering on the floor, begging for mercy as G'Kar tears through his memories. The visual symbolism of Londo on the floor, as G'Kar takes a position of judgment within his mind, is one of the most powerful of the series. And it's one that indicates the end of the old G'Kar.

As Londo said just a week ago, the Narn still have their pride. But it's not torture, physical or emotional, that removes G'Kar's pride. It's religion. It's the appearance of Kosh, in his/Londo's mind, as G'Lan and G'Kar's father that pushes him toward something like forgiveness. There are times when Babylon 5's engagement with Christian forms of morality can be off-putting, and to be honest, this scene comes close to that. But I think that this time, the idea of the necessity of forgiveness and turning the other cheek is absolutely necessary. No, it's not fair that the Narn get shit on by the Centauri for the sake of the galaxy or just because. But at a certain point, what's fair has to be subsumed under what's most likely to make the universe better, both in general and for the Narn. “If we are a dying people, then let us die with honor” is one framing of it. But more resonant is the idea that someone, Narn or Centauri, has to decide to stop the cycle of vengeance. Why not G'Kar?

In a way, this episode is structured similarly to “Convictions” from a few weeks ago, where an uninspiring case of the week is rendered much better by a Londo-G'Kar interaction. Here the two ambassadors aren't necessarily a better part of the episode, but their interactions are still somewhat out of nowhere, flipping the point of the episode from a Human-oriented story to another installment in the typically excellent story of the Narn and the Centauri. Bester is there to provide color and movement to the episode-long plot, while Andreas Katsulas and Peter Jurasik make the climax work.

Grade: B+

Stray observations:

  • “Can we wound him? Just a little?” I don't entirely buy Ivanova being willing to murder Bester. Perhaps it's that the critical part of it involves her being alone, and Babylon 5 isn't all that good at the individual soliloquy.
  • This is a nice moment of characterization for both Sheridan and Bester: “How do you want it? Polite, or straight-up?” “...straight-up.”
  • “OF course, we learned some interesting things about Ms Winters over the course of her debriefing and dissect-”
  • “I'm here to save your butts! Next time, show a little gratitude.”
  • Londo gives Vir advice about describing the Minbari: “They're a deeply spiritual people.” “Yes, you can leave that in. It always scares people.”
  • “The universe is already mad. Anything else would be redundant”

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