Last time around, Babylon 5 blew up its universe. The grand mythological premise for the series has been resolved, and the huge thematic “Third Age” teaser from the intros has been explained. In many cases, this would have been the end of the show. But it wasn’t the end of Babylon 5. B5 had at least the bulk of its fourth season to go, even before counting the unexpected fifth season renewal. It had to learn to tell stories without leaning on the increasing serialization of the Shadow War, its default mode for nearly a year or more, if you count the buildup before that.
The loss of the show’s motivating force left Babylon 5 without much momentum, true, but it also gave it an opportunity for reinvention or revitalization. For the first time in a long while, it could have weekly episodes with their own tones and stories, instead of variations on a galactic war. Each of the ensuing episodes pointed in different directions, demonstrating the show’s versatility, albeit at the slight expense of quality.
The first of the post-Shadow War episodes knows what it has to do. Right off the bat, it has to re-engage the people who understandably felt that the show was over. So it stars the show’s chief remaining recurring villain, Walter Koenig’s Bester. He’s immediately reintegrated into the plot by the biggest-scale unresolved plot thread reminding us of its existence: the increasingly fascist state of the Earth Alliance and its attempts to regain control of Babylon 5. It’s a good thing Bester’s there, too, because the actor playing the Psicop who gives him his orders is just incredibly awkward. It’s not a high-quality return to the universe of Babylon 5, but it is sufficient. This makes “Epiphanies” the most conventional of these episodes.
So immediately we have a guest star and a grand strategic reason to care, but not even that’s enough for the show. It quickly introduces a character-based mystery, as Michael Garibaldi quits his job as security chief out of nowhere. He gives a speech about how “…this, this I gotta do for myself” and his goals of finding happiness, but it doesn’t entirely ring true. The first problem is the mysterious fractal “message” he receives, then, stone-faced, deletes immediately before tendering his resignation. But the whole thing rings false. Part of that has to do with the show itself, which, to its detriment at times, seems entirely focused on the command staff of Babylon 5, so Michael’s departure doesn’t seem “real.” But a bigger part is just that Garibaldi’s logic seems entirely insufficient. Watching again, I couldn’t help but feel that Sinclair, who knew Garibaldi before B5, would have torn the rationalizations to shreds in an instant.
Regardless of its effectiveness in-world, it serves a strong structural purpose. There’s a mystery of “what’s causing Garibaldi to act to so strangely?” that clearly was not resolved by the Shadow War. And even if you don’t pay much attention to the secret message Garibaldi received (and it is easy to mentally elide), there’s still the biggest shakeup on the command staff since Sinclair left. In fact, this one might be even bigger, because Sinclair simply left and was replaced by a new patriarch; the character changed but the position remained. But Garibaldi is taking an entirely new role on the show, as a free agent on the station, still around, still taking up time in each episode. It’s an entirely new direction for the show to go in.
Most of the rest of “Epiphanies” falls into place from the premise. Bester’s back more to remind viewers who he is and what he wants, and the story does that. The only character who’s given more depth in the process is Lyta, who begins to develop a rivalry with Bester and a friendship with Zack Allen (“Zack, how come the only time someone comes to see me is when they want something?”)
Yet there’s still some cleaning up to do, and this leads to “Epiphanies’” best and most memorable scene. For the first time since the assassination of Cartagia, Londo and G’Kar run into one another in the Zocalo, in a scene that seems to be deliberately shot as a callback to their encounter in “The Coming Of shadows.” Londo’s got a little more courage this time, though his impulse to hide from G’Kar remains. G’Kar approaches, and says simply: “My world is now free. You no longer exist in my universe. Pray that we never notice each other again.” “Epiphanies” shows that there’s no escaping history on Babylon 5, but there’s no escaping change either.
- “I’m thinking….pastels!” A bit of cleaning to do on Centauri Prime.
- “I know it is a burden but you will simply have to wait your turn!” Londo’s back, everyone!
- “I assume my usual quarters in the brig are available. I’ve grown so attached to the place.”
- There are actually two scenes where nobody knows how to deal with G’Kar. The paranoid Garibaldi has no idea he’s there for a hug.“Welcome home Mister Garibaldi! Hahahahaha!”
- “Maybe so…but that’s my price.” Bester is desperate, and Walter Koenig really sells the idea.
- “For you it’s a lose-lose proposition.” The grey areas of civil war loom, after the clarity of the Shadow War.
“The Illusion Of Truth”
The return to the more episodic form at this point in the season allows for more formal experimentation. “The Illusion Of Truth” is Babylon 5 shifting into a more overtly metaphorical mode, using science fiction to comment on modern America. But it’s not really modern America now. Even in the less than 20 years since this episode was made, our society has changed in ways that make “The Illusion Of Truth” feel especially outdated.
There are two major parts of society that the episode wants to deal with: the media, and government-induced hysteria. Babylon 5’s always had a difficult relationship with the idea of the media. It wants to exist when it’s helpful—an occasional documentary or reporter, newspapers being read and the evening news being watched. But it never really wants to engage with the media as a critical part of existence in an interconnected universe, let alone examine how the press might work in the future. For example, there’s a big party on the station at the start of “Epiphanies.” But how would those people all know to party? Were there embedded reporters in the fleet at Coriana 6?
Media is given theoretical power in this universe with “The Illusion Of Truth” as Clarke’s propaganda war hits Babylon 5. The ISN reporter who arrives claims that he wants to sneak as much of the truth as he can in, and that assuages Sheridan. But what ensues is a way-too-obvious warning of media bias, lies, and so on. The reporter actually makes a good speech about the problems with believing in “objective” reporting, but the episode goes out of its way to discredit him, by showing him go out of his way to discredit Sheridan and Babylon 5.
So what’s the moral to take from this? Never trust any reporter? Never trust a reporter who doesn’t believe in objectivity? Never trust a reporter from a fascist state? The episode is far too didactic and far too willing to engage with the concept of media bias to not actually be saying something. But what it says is too muddled or too simplistic to get anything out of.
That didactic side is also encouraged in the most striking scene of the episode, during the ISN newscast before the B5 presentation. In a direct homage to the Red Scare of the 1950s, a filmmaker is shown, beaten, giving up his co-workers in order to avoid being blacklisted or worse. There’s a simple clarity here, about the dangers of demagoguery and mob rule. Sure, it may be overly simple, but at least the anti-paranoia message is clear. That’s not the case with the rest of the episode. Happily, the didactic form of “The Illusion Of Truth” doesn’t end up being the one that Babylon 5 adopts moving forward.
- The plus in the grade is largely thanks to the scene with Sheridan and Ivanova meeting the reporter for the first time. “I thought we saw the worst of the Shadows and the Vorlons during the war. But there’s something worse than the Shadows…reporters.”
- “Sorry, she meant to say stripped naked and thrown out the airlock.”
Of the three main episodes, “Atonement” is both the best in quality and the most interesting in form. Its focus is almost exclusively on the history of a single event, the start of the Earth-Minbari War, and a single character, Delenn. Thanks to a previously undisclosed Minbari ceremony, Delenn has to put her potential marriage to Sheridan in the hands of her clan. We’ve spent quite a while treating the Minbari religious caste as helpful-if-occasionally-arrogant elves, so it’s good to see them in full jerk mode again, treating racial purity as an inherent good. (This’ll be important for the show soon, so it’s not just an intro to this particular episode’s main plot.)
The bulk of “Atonement” is spent in a single series of flashbacks depicting Delenn’s relationship with Dukhat, the Minbari leader whose death triggered the war. Telling any story through flashbacks is a difficult ask, but Babylon 5 benefits from German actor Reiner Shöne as Dukhat. Shöne’s physical presence, good humor, and powerful morality make him feel perfect for the role of a man who sees potential in someone, takes her as an apprentice, and molds her into a leader. (“They each have their reasons. Would you like to hear them?” “Perhaps, another…” “The correct answer is yes!” “Yes.”) It’s a pity he couldn’t have appeared more on the show.
However, the crux of the episode is the revelation that Delenn was the tiebreaking vote for war with the Humans after Dukhat’s death. It’s presented as a slight obstacle to her relationship with Sheridan, but the issue is bigger than that. Or at least, it feels like it should be. It doesn’t really inform Delenn’s character in that it drastically affects how we understand her and her ambition, in large part because it’s unclear if this was added into the character this season or if it’s something that was always supposed to be part of her motivation. Neither of the options is terribly appealing, either: if this was always intended, then it wasn’t necessary for understanding Delenn before, and if it was new, then it seems excessive.
But the episode still works as an examination of Delenn and the Minbari, and really, as a reminder that these aliens are people, with factions and motives and depth, which has been sorely lacking overall. In doing that, and in examining the history of what was once the motivating factor for the show, “Atonement” also makes Babylon 5’s feel more detailed and lived-in. Babylon 5 is rebuilding itself via world-building.
- “It can work…outside of me?” “Yes.” “Interesting.”
- “Whatever you see in a face mashed against a pillow and drooling, I don’t know, but I try not to be judgmental about alien cultures when they are dressed like that.” Thanks, John, for finally mentioning just how ridiculous these damn traditions are.
- “Don’t interrupt when I’m being kind. It does not happen often, Delenn.”
- “I cannot have an aide who will not look up. You will be forever walking into things.” The callback here is utterly fantastic, and says good things about who Lennier is and who he could be. Unfortunately, Shöne’s line reading here, and only here, fails. His emphasis on “things” in the end just sounds bizarre.
- “I managed to…explain matters to them. They will recover in time.” Speaking of Lennier, this line’s a good combination of his dry wit and surprise badassery.
“Thirdspace” wasn’t produced at the same time as these episodes, but it fits in chronologically (nitpicking fans place it after the first scene of “Atonement,” but before Delenn departs for Minbar.) Instead, it was one of two TV movies made between seasons four and five, with Claudia Christian still around, but set to air on TNT. Still, it fits with the theme of this review, in that it’s a different version of Babylon 5.
“Thirdspace” is Babylon 5 re-imagined as a big, dumb action movie. Since he’d arrived on-station, John Sheridan has been occasionally called into action, yes, but he hasn’t resolved major conflicts with it. He’s negotiated his way out of situations, brought moral force to bear against the Shadows and Vorlons, sacrificed himself on Z’Ha’Dum, but just straight-up blowing things up? That’s always been a starting or mid-point of a conflict, but rarely an ending.
Then in “Thirdspace,” he straps a damn nuke to his body, flies out of the station, and blows Cthulhu’s spaceship straight to hell. Given the strength that Babylon 5 has derived from intelligence and thematic power, J.J. Abrams-style action movie isn’t a great look for it. But it’s kinda fun to see Ivanova dropping kung fu moves, Zack punching the hell out of people, and one of the biggest space battle’s the show’s ever done. Moreover, I prefer that, if it has to be done, the show gets its “action movie” out of the way in an easily disposable TV movie than embarrassments like Nemesis’ buggy scene. “Thirdspace” asks for, and can receive, exactly as much attention as you’re willing to give it. I kinda like it myself, but if you want to say it’s outside of the canon, sure, why not.
Well, except for one scene. The budding relationship between Zack and Lyta, which got fleshed out in “Epiphanies,” gets its biggest scene here. Zack makes his play for Lyta, but Lyta, taken over by Vorlon programming, doesn’t even know he’s speaking. But he doesn’t realize this, and leaves, saying they should both forget it. Jeff Conaway does a great job with a difficult speech:
“Bottom line is…I like you. I’ve liked you ever since you got here. And I know things have been tough on you lately. And I know…I know I could do right by you. Eh, I’m not the captain, I don’t bring home the big bucks, and I’m nothing to write home about. And I know there’s a big gap between us and the kind of life you lead that maybe I could never understand. Well, maybe I could understand. Maybe I could try. You’re the kinda person that makes a guy want to try. There’s something about you, frankly, I’m nuts about.
So, uh, I think it would be great if maybe I could see you once in a while. Hey, listen, you don’t have to answer now. Y’know, take your time, think about it for a while. Not to imply that you have to have an answer, because you don’t, you don’t owe me one, that’s for sure. I think, I think that I could care for you. You’ve been through a lot. And I guess I just wanna do for you…oh. Oh, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said anything. I didn’t mean to offend you. This was probably the wrong time. Both had a hard day, gotta work together, you know how that goes. It’s just, uh, awkward. So maybe you’re right. Maybe it’s best that we don’t.”
On a show where J.Michael Straczynski’s five year plan led to almost every relationship on Babylon 5 resolving itself satisfactorily (if not happily), the Zack-Lyta dynamic was always a loose thread, a disappointment in terms of symmetry, even though it makes sense with the directions that the plot took. I think JMS realized that, and added this scene to turn the relationship into a tragedy, instead of an oddly missed opportunity. It worked.
- “No no no, it’s not the speaking that’s the problem. It’s the listening.” There’s a nice line from JMS.
- “John, whenever something comes into our proximity that has to do with the unknown, your eyes light up like two tiny suns.” It’s been a while since we’ve seen this side of Sheridan, but it’s good to know that Delenn remembers.
- “But maybe you’ll push the wrong button. Blow yourself up.” “I know. Exciting, isn’t it?”
- A couple SFX notes: the mini-starfury on Sheridan’s jetpack is super adorable. Also, the Thirdspace aliens have the only shields in the entire Babylon 5, well, multiverse. B5 was fairly notable science fiction universe in that didn’t have the genre trope of shields, until now.
- Vir wakes up. “What am I doing here? Why are you hitting me?”
- Another nice touch in “Thirdspace” is the idea that the Vorlons’ mistakes were the problem. After the Shadow War ends, the show often forgets that the Vorlons could be/were just as bad as the Shadows. This movie doesn’t. “One mistake out of so many. So many others.”
Five episodes, from “Racing Mars” (410) to “Moments Of Transition” (414), to be published on May 9th. The combination of rising tensions on Mars plus the big Minbar arc should make it quite a fruitful discussion.