It’s hard to be bad. I don’t mean “bad” in terms of quality, but bad as in ruthless. Babylon 5 is trying to raise its stakes. It’s trying to turn previously sympathetic characters into antagonists and anti-heroes. It’s got the serialization down, and it’s working on the moral grey areas and difficult choices that, as a transition into the age of “quality TV,” it should be attempting to accomplish. It’s just not there yet. It can’t make its characters be ruthless.
This is, I think, the critical thematic difference between Babylon 5 and Battlestar Galactica, its chief parallel in many ways. BSG always had that potential ruthlessness, especially in its first two best seasons, with (to simplify a great deal) Adama’s pragmatism walking a line between Tigh’s ruthlessness and Roslin’s idealism. Babylon 5 doesn’t have a Tigh, so the practical characters are always pulled toward idealism.
I’m generally of the opinion that the great Y2K division in television is overwrought. TV didn’t suddenly become great when Tony Soprano fed those ducks. But I also can’t argue against the idea that the quality of ruthlessness really did switch over. The clear ethical delineations of Buffy The Vampire Slayer got muddied in Angel. Fox Mulder became Jack Bauer. Tony Soprano and Stringer Bell became archetypes instead of aberrations. And the grand space opera of Babylon 5 and Star Trek was replaced by the more claustrophobic, less immediately heroic Battlestar Galactica and even Firefly.
The reasons for the shift are inevitably complex—the terrorist attacks of 9/11 are a very easy explanation, a more cinematic approach in tone and subject from cable television shows, continued experimentation from Hill Street Blues through the science fiction and procedural dramas of the 1990s, I’d also call attention to the fading memory of the Code Of Practices For Television Broadcasters, which was finished off in the early 1980s. Like its cousins in comics and movies, the code boils down to “the good guys need to win, and conventional morality needs to be upheld.” While it may have been suspended by the 1990s, as a motivating factor in how the people both making and watching television understood the medium, the core remained.
On Babylon 5 this manifests as a general understanding that the heroes are always heroes. They’re always good, and that goodness allows them to win. And in order for the heroes to always be heroes, the situations that they’re placed in have to allow heroism to be a viable option. A post-2000 show like Angel worked on the theme that heroism was an inevitable failure (unviable) but still a necessary choice to make to be moral. On Battlestar Galactica, heroism became largely irrelevant in the face of the need for survival. On Babylon 5, being a hero wins wars, prevents wars, and always works.
The problem is that any it prevents any difficult situation that would undermine the potential for heroism from seeming plausible. These five episodes are filled with examples of the difficulties of this kind of storytelling. Chief among them: the continuing development of Michael Garibaldi, nominal antagonist.
In “Racing Mars,” the first of these five episodes, he and Sheridan have their biggest confrontation yet. After an initial olive branch from Sheridan, the emotional gloves come off, and the two men start pounding on one another verbally, taking out their frustrations. Sheridan doesn’t understand why Garibaldi quit, why he’s so antagonistic, and why he did the ISN interview the way he did it. The Captain isn’t at his best here, to be sure. His arguments against Garibaldi’s behavior are primarily hierarchical, an understandable point-of-view given his military background. He wants to keep problems in-house instead of having them aired publicly, but he doesn’t have a good argument for why Garibaldi is wrong to believe what he does.
On the other hand, Garibaldi’s rationale is utterly nonsensical. He consistently speaks in platitudes (“…watch everything that you’ve worked for die, right before your eyes knowing that you could have done something to stop it.”), declaring the Sheridan has decided that he’s more important than the cause, but there’s no discussion of what the cause is or how it would be better-served. And to top it all off, the moment when the confrontation becomes physical, Garibaldi takes violent offense at an alien Sheridan-fan’s behavior, and thinks that Sheridan defending her body from his causing her pain is the same as Sheridan wanting fans. There’s no defense for this, but Garibaldi interprets it, and everything else, in the worst way possible. His rationalizations reminded me of nothing more than “Obama Derangement Syndrome,” or, the way that some Obama opponents view everything in the world as Obama’s fault, for example, saying that Russia is aggressive in Ukraine right now thanks to Obama’s weakness in Benghazi. (Or, for an older variation of “Bush Derangement Syndrome,” I remember once reading someone theorizing that the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004 might have been due to the Earth shaking from too many bombs in Iraq.)
Television of Babylon 5’s sort relies on its characters being rational. Every character has reasons why they do what they do, and those reasons should be either explained directly, or easily theorized by the audience. If the character doesn’t appear rational, then they’re either overtly villainous (say, Tuco from Breaking Bad), or there’s something going that will be revealed later. Garibaldi is so clearly in the latter camp that his swerve into anti-heroism simply cannot be taken seriously. What could, perhaps should, be a legitimate philosophic and personal debate between two strong-willed, intelligent individuals with very different understandings turns into a mystery: who’s fucked with Garibaldi and how? Hence Sheridan remains a hero.
The second major storyline of these episodes is likewise hampered by the need for heroism, although this one is more complex, having to do with its genesis as much as its execution. The Minbari Civil War arc is one of my least favorites of the entire series, springing from nowhere and ending up with very little meaning.
At its heart, the problem is that the depiction of the Minbari has, before this season, been incredibly one-sided. The Religious Caste, as represented by Delenn, is good. The Warrior Caste, as represented by Neroon, is bad. There’s some minor complication, but it’s usually in the form of minor Religious characters being traditionalists, and Neroon showing a bit of mercy. But in these episodes, suddenly the Religious Caste is as bad as the Warriors, suddenly there’s a huge power struggle of some kind involving a minor civil war threatening to consume the whole planet. But what are they fighting for, and why? Is it simply a Warrior Caste grab for power?
Much like Garibaldi, the conflict here feels like a manipulation. But unlike Garibaldi, the manipulation is not some unknown, in-world force doing the manipulation, but writer J. Michael Straczynski. Normally JMS is quite good at developing tension and at least showing where complexity could exist (even if it doesn’t show up directly on-screen). Here, it feels like the Minbari Civil War exists primarily to give Delenn something to do, to allow her to show heroism, and to show that the Shadow War somehow affected all the major homeworlds negatively.
The most manipulative line in all of this is Delenn staring at the camera, as if at the audience, as she recreates the Grey Council with a Worker Caste majority, and condescendingly saying “You had forgotten about the Worker Caste, hadn’t you?” Yes! Of course we forgot about the Worker Caste, because Babylon 5 itself never gave any indication of caring about the Worker Caste! We’d never met a Worker character, never seen any indication of what they might want or care about in Minbari society. The whole thing seems to exist simply to make Delenn look wise.
This feeling isn’t aided by Neroon’s final act. Alongside Bester, Morden, and Refa, Neroon has been a reliable scenery-chewer and antagonist, giving the Warrior Caste an entertaining face as they tried to make Delenn’s life miserable. But his sacrifice in Delenn’s place, and his last words declaring that “in his heart, he was Religious Caste,” shifts the focus again. Neroon, previously a bad guy, is only able to act as a good guy by also declaring himself a member of the Religious Caste. In order to be a hero, he had to endorse and attempt to be like Delenn. It’s nonsensical, strongly implying that the Religious Caste should be guiding the entirety of Minbari culture, instead of being treated as effectively equal to the Warriors.
Even a relatively minor subplot suffers from Babylon 5’s inability to truly confront the difficult moral issues that it wants to. Franklin and Marcus are off on Mars, attempting to recruit the Mars Resistance to directly ally with Babylon 5 when Sheridan makes his move. In the process, they meet a Resistance leader, Philippe, who’s set off a bomb that’s killed ten civilians as collateral damage. Instead, they, and the Resistance’s “Number One,” simply yell at Philippe. “No killing civilians!” they say, and eventually, he acquiesces. There’s a slight argument about the efficacy of terrorism in an occupied land, but Philippe’s arguments are never given any weight. And the end result is Franklin, speaking for Sheridan, telling the Mars Resistance that they’ll win as long as they act more heroically.
Perhaps the most unfortunate part of all of this is that Babylon 5, when not dealing directly with its heroes, has demonstrated that it can deal in moral grey areas extremely well. Both Londo and G’Kar—barely present in these episodes—have been heroes and villains and anti-heroes in various forms. I’m not sure whether it’s the actors’s skill, or the Narn-Centauri history that made this possible, but I’m increasingly coming to the conclusion that it’s because they were never supposed to be pure heroes. Since Delenn and Sheridan are the heroes, they and their races are forced into simple stories with heroic resolutions. Garibaldi’s arguments with Sheridan about the increasing tyranny of a Chosen One aren’t without merit. But at this point in Babylon 5, they’d be better-served aimed externally, at Chosen One narratives, than a character in the world himself.
Any discussion of the quality of “Racing Mars” has to deal with the unfortunate situation of “Captain Jack,” the contact who brings Marcus and Franklin into the Mars Resistance. Played by Donovan Scott with an inexplicable Cockney accent, and seeming imported from a totally different show, his presence and importance for the climax of the episode color everything about that storyline. It’s just not good, and not even the increasingly entertaining repartee between Marcus and Franklin, or the surprisingly steely presence of Marjorie Monaghan as “Number One,” can transcend that issue.
And even if you take performance out of the equation, Captain Jack’s motives for betraying the Resistance are poorly-done. Rather than treating him as a human being with agency who can be manipulated, turned, decieved, or perhaps even that he was always a traitor, it’s a mind-controlling Keeper alien that turns him. A story about the tough decisions required to be a freedom fighter turns into a battle of good against evil.
- Ivanova forces Sheridan to take a vacation: “You’ve been declared dead at least once, and you know how tiring that can be.”
- “Who won?” “We did. We all did!” “Well, good for us.” The lack of information, and how it spreads, is an important part of these episodes. Sometimes it lets Marcus be funny.
- “The odds of you having such an accident are greatly reduced by signing on.”
- “I’m a Ranger.” “Well, you a long way from Texas, son. And that ain’t the right accent.”
- “Woo hoo?”
“Lines of Communication”
We’re in the heart of the slight lull between the end of the Shadow War and the start of the Earth Civil War. So while these episodes are fairly serialized, they’re generally still very distinctive, both in tone and subject. “Racing Mars” is comic but quickly turns tense and focuses on Mars, while “Conflicts Of Interest” is action-oriented and is about what Sheridan and Garibaldi are up to on-station. “Lines Of Communication,” on the other hand, fits firmly in the middle of a bunch of different stories, as a slice of serialization. Delenn is off to Minbar, to find out how bad things are getting. Sheridan works on a propaganda counter-attack. Franklin and Marcus attempt to recruit the Resistance.
Some of this works well, particularly the Sheridan-based stuff. His manic cheerfulness hasn’t really been seen since the middle of the second season, and it’s still fun to see how Boxleitner plays him as a kid with a bright idea. But other two are…strange. Delenn’s encounter with the Drakh is good in that it allows us to see the Minbari ambassador in resolute mode once again (“End this.”). But the Drakh themselves are so obviously conventionally evil that it’s difficult to believe that any alliance with them would ever seem plausible. Finally, Franklin and Marcus continue to be entertaining, but their climactic scene, where they argue in favor of the alliance with B5, is strangely shot. The camera moves to tight, oddly angled zooms on speakers’ faces, implying speeches directly at the viewers, when the whole point is about convincing the other people in the room—and they feel almost nonexistent.
- So many love stories involve badass women who become subservient when “won” by male heroes. Babylon 5 has done that a bit with Delenn, so it’s good to see that, when push comes to shove, it’s firmly on the side of Delenn having agency and not merely being an accessory. “John, it pleases me that you care for what I have become. But never forget what I was, who I am, and what I can do.”
- Sheridan recruits Ivanova as a news anchor. “Yes, I know, I hated it.” “You were great at it!”
- Here’s an example of B5’s implied complexity that it doesn’t follow up on: “No one here’s forgotten that Sheridan helped put down the Food Riots after the Earth-Minbari War.” I think this may have been mentioned once or twice before, but not with any kind of moral ambiguity.
- “Fighting a war is easy. Destroying is easy. Building a new world out of the old is hard.” Not in season four it’s not.
“Conflicts Of Interest”
While there are pieces and storylines in other episodes this week I like more, “Conflicts Of Interest” is the most consistent and best-structured of the episodes. There’s a particular instigating event: Sheridan wants Garibaldi’s old Security Chief perks removed, and he sends Zack to do it. From this, everything proceeds until resolution. Garibaldi’s annoyance at Zack turns him against security, his lies to Zack escalate Zack’s ill will, this turns a relatively simple chase into Garibaldi needing to think quickly on his feet, that and the increasing rift with station command sends him into the enigmatic arms of wealthy industrialist William Edgars. Everything works together.
But I think my favorite scene is the one at the beginning, when Garibaldi trolls a man desperate to find his daughter again his daughter, and wipes out 2/3s of his fee. For the first time since he got back after his capture, we see that Garibaldi is still potentially heroic again, worth keeping on the same moral level as the rest of the main characters. It shows complexity that the character has been utterly lacking, and I wish it had happened sooner.
- “Why the rush?” “I don’t like the company he’s been keeping.” This assumes that Sheridan knows who Wade is and what Wade stands for. But without Garibaldi, who’s keeping the Captain informed? It’s not Zack, or he wouldn’t ask.
- “Or, just a crazy thought, we could try Epsilon 3.” This may be one of my favorite Claudia Christian comic moments. She exaggerates but nails the feeling of being given totally obvious advice that had completely slipped by.
- “You never get to see the faces of the people you help.” More legit meta-criticism of Babylon 5 as a show from Garibaldi. The focus on leaders and heroes instead of normal people is a major issue.
- “Zathras trained in crisis management!” Speaking of Ivanova’s comic chops, this whole scene was one take! It’s the Hard Boiled hospital scene of funny aliens and exasperated humans!
- “Maintain the peace, and protect civilians. Nothing more.” And so begins Babylon 5’s descent into the realm of Clintonian foreign policy neo-liberalism.
“Rumors, Bargains, And Lies”
Many of the critiques of the political viability of over-simplified Minbari society could easily be applied here, sure. Sheridan’s manipulation of the League ambassadors is so transparent, and their reactions so over-the-top, that yes, it would be impossible to try to find any great meaning in this beyond “Sheridan is awesome,” just as many of the Minbari plots come out as “Delenn is awesome.”
The chief difference is that this one is comic. I think Alan Sepinwall has a phrase that “funny forgives,” that viable critiques are less important for a show that attempts to be comic and succeeds. That’s the case here. Boxleitner isn’t the world’s greatest comic actor, so it isn’t laugh-out-loud funny. But his boyish glee turns infectious, and I find it really difficult not to smile throughout the whole episode. This is aided by Neroon and Delenn engaging in a little verbal sparring before the Minbar storyline goes totally bizarre. This all makes it easy to ignore the far-too-simplistic main dramatic plot of the Religious Caste Minbari and their death wish.
- Comic Londo is back! “Something called ‘country and western’?”
- “I’ve questioned your judgment, your wisdom, your temperment, but neevr your loyalty.” “Was that a compliment?” “After a fashion.”
- Comic, racist Londo! “No, we know who is patrolling our borders, the Maker has given us great big eyes, and great big scanners, and great big…ennnhhhh….”
- “But you! You are the steady rock beneath my feet.” I feel like this scene plays better as Delenn knowing about the crew members’ idiocy and attempting to guilt them into pulling back.
- “And I can’t possibly talk you out of this?” “You can not.”
“Moments of Transition”
I’ve said my piece about my dislike of the resolution of the Minbar Civil War above, but it’s worth mentioning how good the rest of this episode is apart from that. Walter Koenig as Bester is almost always a good indicator of quality, and he’s an expert troll here, pushing Garibaldi and Lyta around quite effectively. (“As hard as might be for you to believe this, I do have a life outside of Babylon 5.”) It’s also probably the first time he’s legitimately won a bout on Babylon 5, thus serving as a slight counter to my earlier claims that Babylon 5 was unwilling to be ruthless and do anything but let the good guys win.
Meanwhile, Pat Tallman hasn’t always been given enough to do, or human enough storylines, to make Lyta seem like a three-dimensional character. It could be easy to blame the actress as well, but I think her behavior in “Moments Of Transition” indicates that she certainly had the chops. My favorite scene is the one with Zack, where she approaches a breakdown, begins to lash out, then realizes that he’s merely the messenger and backs off. It’s a great contrast to Garibaldi’s reaction to Zack in a very similar situation, and indicates how much character she has outside of being a tool used by the political powers.
- Freelancing sucks, Lyta.
- “Being a freedom fighter is a wonderful thing. You get to make your own hours, looks great on a resume…but the pay, sucks.”
- “Well, if I hire you, I annoy Bester, and I like the sound of that.”
On the next Babylon 5 review:
On May 23rd I’ll be covering the next three episodes and the escalation of the Earth Civil War. They are “No Surrender, No Retreat,” “The Exercise Of Vital Powers,” and “Face Of The Enemy.”