“Comes The Inquisitor” (season one, episode 21; originally aired 10/25/1995)
What if the heroes aren’t actually the good guys? I’ve spent some time discussing how Babylon 5 is pitched halfway between a traditional TV series and contemporary, morally ambiguous serialized dramas, but when it comes to answering the question above, the show is at an advantage. Babylon 5 features character who appear to be heroes, unlike the massively flawed protagonists, antiheroes, and charming villains that fill our airwaves today. But the show’s willingness to evolve its characters, serialization, and thematic surprises makes it entirely plausible that our supposed heroes are wrong and headed for a fall.
“Comes The Inquisitor” is the correct episode for delving into our heroes’ psyches, finding out if they are heroes or just seeking meaning and glory. According to Lennier, and, I think, the show itself: “If you do the right thing for the wrong reason, the work becomes corrupted.” (I disagree, but I’m not exactly religious caste here.) The main thrust of the episode involves Kosh, apparently concerned about the purity of Delenn’s motives, sending for an Inquisitor to test her.
What ensues is a short, simple, three-person play (with a cameo by Lennier). Sebastian the Inquisitor questions Delenn, who doesn’t understand what he’s getting at. She retreats, she queries, she insults, and she examines herself. When it’s not enough, and the inquisition escalates, Lennier runs to get Sheridan, who barges in. Sebastian is prepared for him, and adds the captain to the test.
Babylon 5 is often at its best when it gets its actors in a small room and lets them work with one another and the sweeping dialogue. As Sebastian, Wayne Alexander functions as the core of the “Comes The Inquisitor”; Alexander would become a go-to actor for the series, playing a variety of different aliens after this episode. He infuses Sebastian with the necessary combination of philosophical viability and sneering malice. “Do you know what your problem is, Delenn? You are a piece of the machine that believes itself the whole of the machine,” he says, and the fact that he’s villainous about it doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s wrong.
And so it falls upon Delenn to prove herself. Her most important act in the show’s run so far is deciding, without sanction from anyone except “prophecy” and perhaps Kosh, to transform herself into a half-Human. For that action, everything she’s done has been called into question by other characters. Was she ever an effective leader, worthy of respect, or did she just fall into that place thanks to her proximity to Dukhat? I don’t think Babylon 5 actually wants us to think that Delenn is anything less than heroic during this process, but up until just a few episodes ago, these criticisms have been legit, even if they’re uttered by bigots. Ignorance is the most sympathetic motivation behind Delenn’s transformation—but vaingloriousness seems more accurate.
Yet with the Inquisitor, Babylon 5 offers this criticism up to help forge Delenn into the good person she’ needs to be. This, I think, is how “Comes The Inquisitor” makes the most sense. Sebastian seems to know that his test, as described, will be compromised. Sheridan’s arrival moves it to the next stage instead of ruining it. Only with Sheridan present can Delenn actually pass the test, by offering to sacrifice her life for his. “This is my cause! Life! One life or a billion, it’s all the same.”
Delenn’s offer is fascinating, because it’s an obvious cop-out. The hyper-religious Delenn—pained, desperate, and watching the torture of a man she has a massive crush on/is in true love—is always going to make that offer. It may be the easiest time and place for it, regardless of Sebastian saying that it’s unique and special. After all, Sebastian may exude malice, but the idea that he’d kill Delenn or Sheridan in this test never appears to be on the table. So the whole thing—the whole, small, televised play—seems staged. Indeed, that “staging,” works two different ways, for Delenn and for the audience, who will of course see her supposed unseen sacrifice in the dark.
In other words, I don’t think “Comes The Inquisitor” is meant to taken literally. It’s meant to create a metaphorical crucible through which a new Delenn is created, but it’s also meant to make us examine the nature of a television hero, through the “Who are you?” refrain. For doing those two things, effectively and impressively, it’s one of my favorite episodes of the series.
And thanks to a too-clever twist at the end, treating “Comes The Inquisitor” as a metaphor is also essential for enjoying the episode. It turns out that “Sebastian” is not merely a random dude in a top hat, but actually Jack the Ripper, abducted and preserved by the Vorlons to serve them in looking for would-be heroes. I’ve seen a few people who think that this twist ruins the episode, which I can’t agree with at all. That doesn’t mean I like the twist, more that I think it’s not terribly relevant. (J. Michael Straczynski , apparently, was fascinated by Jack the Ripper, which helps explain why he randomly appears.)
“Comes The Inquisitor” isn’t all Sebastian, though: A side story involves G’Kar, organizing the Narn on-station and attempting to fund a resistance back home. The skepticism of his fellow Narn serves as a mirror to a similar conflict several episodes back in “Acts Of Sacrifice,” but this time, G’Kar solves it with diplomacy and connections instead of violence. But his role in the episode is most notable for a scene with Vir, who attempts to apologize for his race’s actions. G’Kar responds by cutting open his hand, and saying “Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead.” for each drop of blood that falls to the floor. “How do you apologize to them?” It may be G’Kar’s most memorable visual of the series, coming just a week after Londo’s. It’s one more reason to put “Comes The Inquisitor” in the pantheon of great Babylon 5 episodes.
- “We must keep reminding the others that we exist! We are still here!” I love G’Kar’s desperation here. Excellent moment.
- “Doubt is the wrong word. He wishes confirmation.” “It’s the same thing.” A nice little exchange between Delenn and Lennier.
- “I thought the war was over.” “You were misinformed. Our tactics have changed.”
- “So why don’t we just pretend I’ve lied about it, you’ve caught me in your web of ineluctable logic, and get to the point.”
- This exchange is my favorite line, delivery-wise, of the inquisition: “And if the world says otherwise?” “Then the world is wrong.”
“The Fall Of Night” (season two, episode 22; originally aired 11/1/1995)
Most of Babylon 5’s best episodes are among its most important episodes, but that’s not always a guarantee. Yet, especially early in the series’ run, the show occasionally acts overwhelmed and unfocused while trying to include everything at once. In episodes like “Signs And Portents”, I think the show doesn’t quite manage, whereas “The Coming Of Shadows” manages to transcend an initial disjointed feeling. “The Fall Of Night” splits the difference. It doesn’t entirely shake off a messy beginning, but the second half of the episode is as good as Babylon 5 gets.
On several occasions, I’ve seen fans call “The Long, Twilight Struggle” the second season finale. It’s an easy mistake to make, to be honest, as the Narn-Centauri War dominates so much of the season that its incredible climax ought to be the finale. Instead, Babylon 5 takes a different route: The actual finale shows the low point for the station’s human crew, final proof that Earth is rotten to the core. A Minipax representative arrives on the station and allies with Centauri, while his partner sends goons to ruin the lives of people who criticize Earth publicly. And then, at the climax, there’s a moment of… hope? beauty? transcendence? Revelation, perhaps: In order to save Sheridan’s life, the Vorlon Kosh finally reveals himself as an angel with a different face for every race on Babylon 5.
The Earth stuff may be the most ham-handed Babylon 5 has ever been. The diplomat who arranges the alliance with the Centauri even goes so far as to say “We will, at last, know peace in our time,” an allusion to Neville Chamberlain and the most infamous case of “successful” diplomacy in recognizable history. Meanwhile the Night Watch ramps up its skeeviness, turning into a private collection of spies for Earth’s political leaders. The Night Watch leader even uses the line “Sometimes those harmful ideas can be very subtle” to try to manipulate Zack Allan—a sort of harm Babylon 5 never has to worry about. (The Night Watch leader is played by John Vickery, who also plays Delenn’s rival Neroon. There he’s an aggressive dick; here he’s sleaze incarnate.)
And then a Narn cruiser shows up, asking for sanctuary and repairs, and throws everything into chaos. Awesome, awesome chaos. The inelegant buildup with the guest stars may not be entirely redeemed by what comes next, but it is necessary for the episode to work. The spies expose Sheridan’s semi-secrets, including the Narn cruiser, and first the diplomat, then Londo fly off the handle. Londo brings a Centauri cruiser in to attack the Narn ship, but Sheridan keeps his promise to protect the Narn and ends up destroying the Centauri vessel.
This is easily the most tense space battle we’ve seen so far, in part because the CGI, directing, and editing is so well done, and in part because the stakes are higher. We now have reason to sympathize with the Narn, and want their only remaining capital ship to survive, and that’s something that the show can threaten and arguably follow through upon.
But that’s not even the climax. Sheridan is asked to apologize to the Centauri, and given the leeway to write his own speech. It is, perhaps, his finest character moment. Given the slightest opening to be a moral character, he throws that door wide open, fists up, ready to destroy his career if it also gives him the chance to destroy Earth’s alliance with the Centauri. “And I’m sorry I waited as long as I did before I blew them all straight to hell.” Unfortunately, he doesn’t get the chance. A Centauri attack destroys his transport, triggering Kosh’s reveal.
There’s one final twist. Keffer, the otherwise pointless pilot character added to the second season, fulfills his destiny and sacrifices his life to expose the Shadows, sending a recording to ISN as he dies. With this, a theme of the last three episodes of the second season emerges. There are gods walking among the younger races of Babylon 5. The Shadows can destroy an entire Narn fleet. The Vorlons have gone to Earth, stolen, and perhaps reformed, one of its cruelest denizens for their service. And in “The Fall Of Night,” both races of gods are exposed, at least partially. Who they are, and what they want, is still unknown. But that’s a hell of a hook to leave out for the third season.
- There’s a cute scene between Vir and Lennier about the difficulties of working with their ambassadors. “And they never listen to us. Makes me nervous.” It’s also rare to see the aides get the chance to interact with other characters without their ambassadors present.
- “Do not start getting delusions of grandeur. You. Will not survive them.” Funny Londo is great, of course, but this among my favorite Dark Londo lines.
- Robin Sachs played the captain of the Narn cruiser, and I believe this is the first time we’ve seen a Narn with a non-American accent.
- “My hands are clean. Are yours?” I liked Welles’ grinning response to this, like he could tell that Ivanova was doing a JMS Speech.
- “I remember the first time I put on this uniform. I felt 10 feet tall, like I could take on the whole galaxy before breakfast. Now I look at it… it’s just cloth.”
- “No need. You can phrase the apology any way you see fit. As with everything else… it’s the thought that counts.”
- Londo is asked what he saw when Kosh popped out of his encounter suit: “Nothing. I saw… nothing.”
- I can’t grade this episode that poorly, given the massive goosebumps Ivanova’s final monologue prompts—especially the quick shot of Londo’s angry gesticulations in the Council chambers. “We came to this place because Babylon 5 was our last, best hope for peace. By the end of 2259, we knew that it had failed. But in so doing it became something greater. As the war expanded, it became our last, best hope for victory. Because sometimes peace is another word for surrender. And because secrets have a way of getting out.”
- There was a big 20th anniversary Babylon 5 reunion at the recent Phoenix Comicon. Video of the event can be found all over the Internet, but this may be of particular interest: JMS describes how the battle with mental illness is what took Michael O’Hare away from the show.