This is the end of Babylon 5.
You may have noticed that I’ve started multiple reviews with this line in the past few months. This isn’t redundant. Instead, I’m trying to call attention to the fact that Babylon 5, perhaps alone among serialized dramas, has multiple endings, spread across two seasons of its runtime. There’s an ending for the mythology, and an ending for its explosive heroism. There’s an ending for its long-term plot arcs, and an ending for the continuity of the station’s five-year story. This week, the last of those takes place. (Next week, we say goodbye to Babylon 5’s hero.)
This is not the typical television ending. Most of the time, serialized stories ramp up as they head for their finales. The ultimate season receives the ultimate threat. The states are never higher, as the main characters go into the toughest fight they’ve had to face, so their last victory is the biggest and best. But that’s counterproductive in many ways. The stories that are the most affecting aren’t necessarily the biggest; Buffy scored the most points by turning theoretically good characters evil in its second and third seasons, not by having gods or hordes of super-vampires in its fifth or seventh. Dramas try too hard, and end up not having the chance to say goodbye.
Babylon 5 says goodbye. Indeed, Babylon 5, more than any other show, takes the time to wind down, to give us to opportunity to say goodbye to it, and it the opportunity to say goodbye to itself and to its viewers. In these last three episodes, there are hints of episodic stories, but the focus is on the main characters saying goodbye to the station. First Londo, in the last review’s episodes. Then G’Kar, Lyta, Garibaldi, Franklin, Delenn, and Sheridan in these three. They get speeches. They talk about what the station means. “Our voices will linger in these walls for as long as this place remains.”
And, well, it’s nice. We’ve put five seasons into these characters. We’ve seen their victories and their defeats. We’ve seen then work for redemption or for understanding. Our relationship with them deserves the chance to go out on its own terms, not chasing some final rush of a Big Bad and a space battle to end all space battles.
The best “winding down” moment in these episodes comes early in “Objects At Rest,” when Sheridan and Delenn, leaving Babylon 5, take a moment to say goodbye from the bridge of a White Star. They turn to look directly at the station, and from C&C, Captain Lochley and the rest of Babylon 5’s replacements look back. Some of the logic behind the replacements doesn’t make much sense: why aren’t the Narn and Centauri ambassadors going to Minbar too? Why is Dr. Hobbs only just making an appearance again after two seasons of nothing? But as the music swells, and Sheridan and Lochley salute, those questions don’t really matter. It’s a beautiful moment, that makes much of the fifth season feel worthwhile.
Indeed, the parts of the fifth season that don’t feel worthwhile are almost entirely left behind here. The arbitrary escalations of conflict that characterized both the Byron and shipping attacks plotlines are missing. Almost all of this feels organic, built up from where the stories and characters were coming from before. G’Kar worries about his religious power. Lyta worries about her literal power. Franklin goes where he can do the most good. It’s almost like a graduation ceremony, largely sweet, but with just enough bitterness to stay interesting.
And, to be honest, this all feels like it’s what Babylon 5 wanted to be all season. Listen to that theme music again. It’s triumphant, even celebratory, with just a hint of darkness. And it doesn’t fit the story before now. It says “we love what we’ve accomplished, even if it was tough!” while the first 2/3s of the season say “No, no, no, you’re winning the peace wrong.”
Likewise, there’s the title of the season, “Wheel Of Fire.” Every other episode that’s been promoted to season title has been one of the best and most important episodes of the season: “Signs And Portents,” “The Coming Of Shadows,” “Point Of No Return,” and “No Surrender, No Retreat.” To have “Wheel Of Fire” tossed in with those gives the implication that it’s really what the season’s about. And then the season is about the problems of Garibaldi, Lyta, and G’Kar to re-adapt to normal life after the galaxy-shattering events of the previous few years. And that’s okay—hell, in this episode, it’s pretty great. But it’s not something you can sell people 22 episodes of. But it is where Babylon 5’s heart is. These three episodes don’t make the entire last season great, especially if you might have expected more dramatic or explosive forms of climax for the entire season. But they do redeem much of the season conceptually and emotionally.
If I do have issues with these episodes, it primarily that they’re still wedded to the plot. Way back in the days of the series premiere, I discussed how much power Babylon 5 derived from foreshadowing and prophecy. But there’s a downside to that manner of storytelling: the closer the pre-planned events gets, the more its setup feels like busywork. So the great prophetic/flashforward event of the final confrontation of Londo, G’Kar, Sheridan, and Delenn on Centauri Prime has to be painstakingly programmed, with Londo giving a “gift” of a Keeper for Sheridan/Delenn’s child (“Our son is safe!” said Delenn, in the flash-forward.)
Meanwhile, Lennier finally betrays Sheridan, as he was told he would by Morden back in “Day Of The Dead.” It’s such a bizarrely half-hearted betrayal, both in terms of what Lennier actually does, and how little import it has over the show’s storyline. Given the current dominance of love triangle stories, especially in genre TV, I suppose it’s okay that Babylon 5 half-assed its love triangle, but that still means that Babylon 5 half-assed one of its season-long storylines. (The only way Lennier’s story seems to matter at all beyond fulfilling Morden’s prophecy is if we’re supposed to take its juxtaposition with Londo’s setup for the “War Without End” flash-forward; it seems to imply that Lennier’s redemption will come in that point of crisis, perhaps rescuing David Sheridan?)
As I mentioned at the start of this season’s reviews, the renewal of Babylon 5 was a surprise, a gift, even. But it wasn’t a perfect one, and for many fans, the season isn’t even canonical or worth rewatching. It’s definitely a step down, but these last three episodes serve as the culmination for the reason that I like it and still consider it worthwhile. Twenty-two episodes may have been longer than Babylon 5 needed to say goodbye, but it still found worthy ways to say goodbye.
“Wheel Of Fire”
If the biggest disappointment of season five of Babylon 5 was something that happened—Byron—the second-biggest disappointment was something that didn’t happen. That would be that there’s no real reason for Elizabeth Lochley’s presence as the new captain of the station. She got introduced, she talked with Byron a couple times, and then she disappeared from relevance. Had Corwin been promoted to captain, or had the position simply been eliminated or ignored, it wouldn’t have made much difference at all. Instead, she was built up as a major new character, then hung out to dry.
With one exception: her history of substance abuse. First introduced in “Day Of The Dead” as a way to flesh her out, in “Wheel Of Fire” it finally becomes a way for her to relate to another character, and to make choices that affect the plot, in a way she didn’t have the chance to before. Lochley confronts Garibaldi about his alcoholism, and Tracy Scoggins just kills it. “There is no normal life, Michael. There’s just life.”
Between Garibaldi and Lyta’s stories here, “Wheel Of Fire” has the most character-based tension of these three episodes, and clearly the best. The scene with Lyta tapping her fingers alongside everyone else in the Zocalo is as creepy as it should be, and Pat Tallman plays the idea of the conflicted leader well, resolute in the righteousness of her goals and her ability to achieve them, but not entirely willing to commit their moral implications—she has the power (“You cannot stop someone who’s been touched by Vorlons.”), but she’s not sure she wants to fully use it. And I like the idea that while every character gets a resolution to their storyline, not all of those resolutions are happy ones, but they are still satisfying.
- “I should mention that there are a few of your people waiting for you in customs.” The “understatement to the point of being a prank” is one of JMS’ most successful comedic tropes.
- “I’m offering you love, compassion, and co-ownership of one of the biggest corporations on Mars.” Lise is quite charming in these episodes, an improvement over her previous appearances.
- That said, I do think it was pretty presumptuous of Lochley to hack into Garibaldi’s e-mail to get Lise there, instead of simply sending an honest message as a friend.
- “If I have to choose between the baby and her, it’s her.” Sheridan does subvert typical hero roles here, and I’m super happy about that.
- “What camera?” Yes, Lyta.
- “One would think you haven’t seen a pregnant half-Human half-Minbari before.”
“Objects In Motion”
I feel bad for James Hornbeck. He gets a perfectly good procedural role—the assassin sent to kill a main character. He kills a redshirt, he gets to do some cool stuff, then he dies or gets arrested. But Hornbeck, who plays the part with charming, down-to-earth style, only gets half an episode for that. If only he’d had a role like this in, say, “Ceremonies Of Light And Dark”! The show pretends to have a conventional plot, but really it’s interested in, again, saying goodbye. On the other hand, because Babylon 5 doesn’t actually care about building up the tension of the hitman as its main plot, it does something interesting: it lets its characters actually be smart. Zack sets up a plan to catch the guy, then figures out that he’s hacked a link, then clears him out early. Garibaldi wishes he was ever that competent.
Well, except for the part where Lise gets shot anyway. But even that doesn’t prevent Babylon 5 from driving down Resolution Road, as it lets Garibaldi drop a surprise proposal on her. In theory I’m a little disappointed that Babylon 5 goes with traditional modes of relationships with which to reward its heroes—Sheridan and Delenn with a baby, Garibaldi with marriage—but it does so with enough good humor that I can forgive it.
- “It’s a cell. I’ve gotten used to them.”
- “You’ve been taking care of everybody since you got here. Let us take care of you.” Don’t think too hard about how effective Garibaldi’s caretaking has been.
- “That’s the problem with going from a soldier to a politician. You have to sit and listen to people you’d have shot six months ago.”
- “Well, since you asked nicely…” I do enjoy Pat Tallman’s take on scarely concealed disdain.
- “And it only has two hundred and forty light years on it!”
- “When this place was built I think irony was one of the primary materials used for construction.”
- “It occurs to me, I have never walked the length of this place, end to end.” This is a great ending. I don’t even care how silly it is. I love it.
“Objects At Rest”
I think I covered most of this above. Moments of goodbye are great, moments of preparation seem pointless. One important note from the two “Objects” episodes: Marjorie Monaghan as Number One/Tessa is just great. I especially like her opening scene in this episode, when she immediately inspired more confidence in Garibaldi’s old job than Garibaldi ever did.
- “Check the records. I think you’ll be amused.” Yes, evil G’Kar was a sight to behold.
- “One of the most difficult words for me to learn was ‘goodbye.’” I question this linguistically but admire Delenn’s ability to give a speech on a dime.
- “Hell, I’ll probably still be here when they turn off the lights.” FORESHADOWING!
- “Still walking around with your head in the clouds, eh Mr. President?” Londo’s reapparance was a surprise and, other than the plot contrivance, a pleasant one.
- “I suppose they feel I am dangerous enough sober.”
- “When you see your husband, tell him ‘I’m sorry.’ I would do it myself, but I am…too ashamed.” Another resolution that’s both bad and somehow satisfying, thanks to Bill Mumy’s performance.
“River Of Souls”
And those moments of preparation seem extra pointless when you consider that this is the TV movie that the show went out with. All the others had a recognizable point: “In The Beginning” introduces the show to newbies, “Thirdspace” is a fun action movie, and “A Call To Arms” gets the spinoff going. But this? You get Martin Sheen and Ian McShane (pre-Deadwood, admittedly) for this?
Roughly the best thing I can say about “River Of Souls” structurally is that, like “Wheel Of Fire,” it gives Tracy Scoggins something to do. But even that feels half-hearted, given that the episode preceding it had that show of Babylon 5: The Next Generation, and this only has Lochley and Zack from that crew.
I dunno. There’s some fun to be had here, especially in the first half of the film with Ian McShane chewing the scenery and the holo-brothel actually acknowledging that humans would take any technological advance and try to fuck it. But the philosophizing is too pat, Sheen doesn’t fit his role, and the story of the ambitious archaologist causing mayhem with an ancient device is exactly the same as “Thirdspace’s” plot. I don’t think Babylon 5 needed to show the end of the Londo-G’Kar arc in full context. But to have that story teased in “Objects At Rest,” and this trifling telefilm released instead of that story, seems like a deliberate sneer at the audience.
- “Suddenly I have this great blinding pain behind my left eye.” “You know, I get that too, right here.” One unambiguously good thing about “River Of Souls”: more fun for Corwin.
- “Thank you for the translation, Mr. Garibaldi. If you hadn’t jumped in I might have gotten confused and, fallen over.”
- “Death becomes part of our daily routine….” Oh jeez, get a security guard and fire this guy for being overwritten, Michael.
- “Oh come on. We have faced Shadows and invasions and threats to this station. And now we’re gonna give into lawyers?”
- “Okay, so I believe in Heaven, you got a problem with that?” And fun for Zack is good.
- “And…then…what…what?” is probably the only time I liked Martin Sheen’s character.
- “We assumed, we never thought to ask…”
- “Public domain, she’s a public figure, free speech, it’s satire!” Hey, look, the theme of “River Of Souls” is that consent is good. I don’t disagree, technically.
- “Why else would they choose my image?” “I hear it’s…very popular.” “Is it?” “So I’m told.”
- I think, perhaps, the ridiculous way that both Sheen and McShane collapse at the end of the movie is a metaphor for “River Of Souls” as a whole. Great actors doing silly things. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it keels over.
Next time, on the last Babylon 5: “Sleeping In Light.” September 12th. Be there.