“Eyes” (season 1, episode 16; originally aired 7/13/1994) and “Legacies” (season 1, episode 17; originally aired 7/20/1994)
Babylon 5 isn’t as important to television history today as I’d dreamed it would be when I was a star-struck teenager. I thought it was a doorway for television to enter into a new golden age, where stories could be longer, smarter, and better. Of course, I ended up being partially right about the impending Golden Age of Television, but Babylon 5 isn’t generally considered the start of it. That’s an honor more often reserved for some silly show about Italian-American criminals.
Instead, Babylon 5 is better described as being a “transitional” series, as I’ve discussed a few times before. Different shows in the 1990s experimented with different forms of serialization. This week’s Babylon 5 episodes feature two distinct different forms, one old-fashioned, one more modern. The episodes are also of roughly equivalent quality (average) and importance (minor), which makes the comparison more interesting.
“Eyes” is built around the old-fashioned serialization. An internal investigation of various EarthForce officers brings Colonel Ari Ben Zayn to the station to check out its command staff. He quickly works to isolate and attack Sinclair, citing numerous controversial decisions made by Sinclair over the course of the series. This is what might be called “reference” serialization, where the events of the past are direct triggers for the events of the present. One of the most popular forms of this occurs when a guest star from the past returns, so all the characters talk about what had happened before. What makes this “old-fashioned” is that the events are still constrained within the episode itself. That is, it may reference the past, but it doesn’t require the past, and it doesn’t necessarily impact the future. It still stands alone, being a contained story.
That’s the case with “Eyes,” where Ben Zayn refers to Sinclair’s behavior in “Deathwalker” and “By Any Means Necessary.” Having seen those episodes will help put Ben Zayn’s complaints into perspective, yes, but it won’t affect the dramatic arc of the episode much. Likewise, “Eyes” ends with Ben Zayn disgraced, and no apparent repercussions or insights into the future of the show, except perhaps that Bester, the Psi Corps from “Mind War,” is a major power broker. Sinclair’s past catches up to him, and then he defeats it, the end.
“Legacies,” on the other hand, seems like a more conventional standalone episode, and in many ways it is. But it’s a modern standalone episode, where the character dynamics of the past affect behavior within the episode, and they also reveal new facets of the characters for the future. The B-plot of the episode focuses on a young telepath, newly come into her powers and caught between Ivanova and Talia, each pushing her in different directions, as reflections of their different histories with the Human Psi Corps.
This storyline doesn’t require having seen “Midnight On The Firing Line” or “Mind War” to make sense. Understanding that Ivanova doesn’t trust Psi Corps, but Talia does, is simple within the episode. But their history, their arguments from before, and the slight resolution into friendship all help frame “Legacies” within a wider character-based context. We can call this “character” serialization. (Knowledge of the future helps as well, but that’s a different sort of argument.) It’s modern, but it’s not entirely good—Talia and Ivanova have rather clunky dialogue, and the actress playing the young telepath doesn’t exactly cover herself with glory. But in terms of character development driving stories, it is a model for the future.
“Legacies” is also important in another respect: It finally gives Ambassador Delenn depth, something Londo and G’Kar received early on. For the bulk of the show’s run, she’s been, essentially, the “good” ambassador. She’s friends with Sinclair, and although she represents her people’s interests, she can be counted upon to do the right thing. But what does Delenn really want, what does she represent? One of the best ways to show that is to show who she is willing to piss off. In this case, she works directly against Neroon, a powerful member of the Minbari Warrior Caste, and she does it in order to make a strong ethical stand. Her religious mentor, and his warrior mentor, ought to have his wishes honored. And if that means the religious caste having its preferences dominate the warriors, and making an enemy of Neroon, so be it. Delenn, according to “Legacies,” will stand up for what she believes in if it becomes necessary, although if she prefers to work in the background.
Neroon is a character that we’ll see more of; he’s the third of the major recurring antagonists on Babylon 5. He’s another good example of the sort of theatrical overacting that can work quite well with B5 guest stars, with John Vickery chewing scenery while maintaining a recognizable humanity in his behavior. There’s not much depth, yet, but there is potential for it to exist. It’s easy to contrast Vickery with Gregory Paul Martin’s Ben Zayn in “Eyes.” Ben Zayn lacks the core humanity of Neroon, and becomes a caricature of hatred in the process. In the climactic scene, when Sinclair turns the tables and challenges Ben Zayn’s patriotism, he chokes off a line about his scar: “I got this. Leading people. Into battle. Sinclair.” Martin’s just a notch too high in the overacting category, and that drags “Eyes” down.
“Eyes” also suffers in comparison to two of its closest parallels, Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “The Drumhead” and Battlestar Galactica’s “Litmus.” In all of these episodes, the show’s patriarchal lead is confronted by a witch-hunt of sorts, and they maintain their moral posture in the face of immense pressure. In the end, that morality and power saves the characters, with a dramatic speech exposing the flaws of their attacker triggering the end of the inquiry. But “The Drumhead” is centered around Patrick Stewart’s Captain Picard, and even a Michael O’Hare defender like myself wouldn’t even bother comparing those two actors. Battlestar Galactica, on the other hand, had from the beginning cultivated a feeling that anything could happen, and that the inquiry really could alter the dynamics of the series. By the time of “Eyes,” Babylon 5 had yet to establish its ambitions, and the idea that Ben Zayn’s inquiry could have permanent effects simply wasn’t plausible. It might have been far better had this particular story been pushed to later—the somewhat similar “Comes The Inquisitor” toward the end of the second season is one of the show’s finest achievements.
Still, these are two decent episodes, and especially after last week’s stinkers, it’s welcome to see competence from episodes that aren’t the most important. Indeed, from here on out, Babylon 5 is a solid show, with only a few disastrous episodes. It’s getting exciting.
The Great Spoiler Machine: My partner, after watching “Legacies,” turned to me and smirked about how much like a romantic comedy the Ivanova/Talia relationship was in the episode.
- Garibaldi, annoyed. “I don’t like being irritated. It gives me gas.”
- Lennier and Garibaldi putting together a 20th-century Earth motorcycle should be more painful than it is. It’s not as funny as it was probably intended to be, but it is charming. Lennier is the show’s secret weapon.
- Garibaldi, annoying. “There’s nothing more annoying than Mr. Garibaldi when he’s right.”
- “Why don’t you check her teeth while you’re at it.” It’s subtly effective to give Lennier his own time in “Eyes” and Na’Toth time away from G’Kar in “Legacies.”
- When a Minbari switches cast, how do they adjust their bone aesthetics? Do they get more pointy naturally as they grow more warlike? Do they file them, or go to bone-altering salons?
- One thing I liked about “Legacies” was that it implied that “nationality” wasn’t entirely race-based. The telepath could join the Minbari in a political sense despite not being racially Minbari. Babylon 5 rarely discusses this, which I think is unfortunate, especially when compared to Star Trek, where the Vulcan-human alliance forms the Federation, which also includes several other alien races, an arrangement which seems plausible given history.
Next week: “A Voice In The Wilderness” isn’t perfect, but this two-parter demonstrates many of Babylon 5’s available strengths while not being totally arc-dependant. For that reason, it’s my choice, to borrow an A.V. Club term, for the show’s “Gateway To Geekery.” So invite your friends! We’ll have a party!