“A Late Delivery From Avalon” (season three, episode 13; originally aired 4/22/1996)
This is one of Babylon 5's odder episodes to try to put in context. Why does it exist? Why, when you get Michael York for a single episode, do you have him play King Arthur on a space station? Why do you do that kind of story a mere two years after another story about a possibly mentally ill man behaving as though Arthurian legend is fact, in “Grail”? Why this relative filler, so soon after “Severed Dreams” and with the Shadow War starting pick up?
There are two ways to answer those questions that makes sense to me, one of which makes “Avalon” seem quite bad, the other, quite good. In the former case, it's a simple, relatively standalone episode that, like those covered last week, came at a point of exhaustion for the show. And let's be honest: It really does, if taken literally as the story of a mentally ill man searching for closure, fail in a lot of respects. Most notably, it relies on the fictional trope of major trauma being something that can be resolved in a single revelation and grand poetic gesture. (“Doctor. I am healed. Soul and body, knitted together.”)
That's not the way I read “A Late Delivery From Avalon” this time around, however. The purpose it serves is, I think, primarily metaphorical. It's not the story of a single man with an extraordinarily guilty conscience. It's the story of Earth-Minbari War, and how it was presented to us, the audience, and how we never got closure. After all, what happened in the war was the dominant narrative thread of the first season, with clues slowly revealed throughout. Thanks to the departure of Michael O'Hare and his Commander Sincair, the character most directly connected to that storyline, we didn't receive direct closure about what happened in the war. Instead it came as a quick infodump to the suddenly-arrived Sheridan, before the rise of the Shadows took almost all narrative precedence.
So in a sense, we needed an episode like this to finally close the door on the trauma of the war that affected so much of the show's premise, especially because, as Marcus demonstrated with his pin at the start of the episode, Humans and Minbari are now considered essential allies, even twins. The embodiment of this ideal is supposed to be Delenn, which is what made that image of her playing the Lady Of The Lake and accepting Arthur's sword so metaphorically powerful, even as it's literally ridiculous. Seeing the episode in this light made me like it a lot more than I expected to this time around, but I can totally understand why not everyone would.
- “Look, I can't get into conceptual arguments with you, I got people….” And then there's Garibaldi dealing with the Post Office.
- “So now I take great comfort in the general hostility and unfairness of the universe.”
- I really liked Marcus arguing for the ancient astronauts theory, made plausible by Sebastian, while Franklin notes Arthur's speech patterns being too odd. Both felt like plausible in-universe reactions.
- “And they made a very satisfying thump!” Hey, it's Fun G'Kar! How rare these days.
- “We went up against the entire Earth Alliance and two carrier groups.” “Yeah, but this is the post office. We could get in real trouble for this.”
- “It was a misunderstanding. A misinterpretation. And see what it cost us!”
- I also thought it was clever that Delenn didn't appear in the episode until the critical moment. A slight subversion of episodic expectations, with great dramatic effect.
- Delenn's role in the surrender of the sword takes on a huge amount of added meaning based on revelations about her history in the coming season.
“Ship Of Tears” (season three, episode 14; originally aired 4/29/1996)
Apparently Babylon 5 was in negotiations for a reboot two years ago and it was very nearly completed, but the deal fell through at the last moment. I've mentioned in comments and on Twitter that I don't think a reboot is a particularly good idea, and here's why: what strikes me as interesting and necessary about Babylon 5 is its place in television history at the dawn of the current of era of serialization and “quality” television, much more than the details of its story or characters. That doesn't mean that a reboot couldn't be great—I'm sure a similar argument about the original Battlestar Galactica could have been made before its rather successful reboot—but instead that whatever appeared would be different without any reason to believe that it would be better. And then I see an episode like “Ship Of Tears” and can see exactly where a reboot could do wonders for Babylon 5.
In “Ship Of Tears,” old Psi Corps antagonist Alfred Bester returns to Babylon 5, but he's not doing it to be an antagonist. Instead, he says “It's come to my attention lately that we have a common enemy.” After describing the influence of the Shadows over EarthGov, he adds “Whoever those aliens are, they're interfering with my plans for the future.” There's an aspect of the Babylon 5 setting that we've had only tiny glimpses into, and, unfortunately, we're not going to get a lot more. Although the show is often described as political, those politics are too-rarely depicted in anything except the broadest strokes. Having different nasty factions working for control of EarthGov, with one more tolerable to Sheridan than the other for purely pragmatic reasons, is exactly the sort of story that could be done extremely well today, but which the television of the mid-1990s wasn't equipped to handle.
But as it is, “Ship Of Tears” feels perfunctory. The show has to get the Shadow War rolling once again, so it does so by having Bester lead Sheridan to a Shadow “weapons shipment” of runaway telepaths. The focus on telepaths in relation to the Shadows allows for Garibaldi to reach the grand epiphany at the end of the episode that telepaths can be used against the Shadows. Along the way we get some great Bester quips and a bit of character development (“It's the only promise I ever made that means a damn to me”), and there's a cool special effect where one of the rescued telepaths instinctively starts to take over the station machinery. But there's no real coherent plotline or sense of drama. Even the cliffhanger, where Ivanova announces that they “just got a message” of the start of the Shadow War, has her holding a piece of paper with no indication of when or how she'd received it. It's just kind of a thing that happens, much like “Ship Of Tears” as a whole.
- Bester details his information-gathering process. “I'm…a telepath. Work it out.”
- “Some must be sacrificed if all are to be saved.” Kosh's priming of G'Kar to deal with Delenn seems more manipulative than ever here. His character as a whole will be the focus of next week's review.
- “You have come a long way, G'Kar, more than I could have believed.”
- “Do not thump the book of G'Quan. It is disrespectful.” G'Kar says “thump” a surprising amount in these episodes.
NEXT WEEK: I'm doing “Interludes And Examinations” on its own, both because it's a really good and interesting episode, and also because that will allow me to have both parts of “War Without End” in the same week of reviews the week after.