By all rights, this two-parter (which I’ll just shorten to “The Fall Of Centauri Prime” because it’s quite back-loaded) should be included in the best of Babylon 5. Any climactic episode involving the Narn and the Centauri, Londo and G’Kar, and the examination of Londo’s death-dream is basically a guaranteed contender for “best of the season.” These episodes would appear to fit right in with “Chrysalis,” “The Coming Of Shadows,” “The Long, Twilight Struggle,” and the like, and to a certain extent, they do—I wouldn’t hesitate to put “The Fall Of Centauri Prime” in the top two to three episodes of season five—but they still feel slightly off.
What’s off about them isn’t necessarily a matter of production competence, as was the case in many previous ambitious episodes; nor is it the hurried plotting that so damaged the first half of the season. No, the issues with “The Fall Of Centauri Prime” are primarily conceptual; a demonstration that as much as Babylon 5 can still put together a great episode with an intense collection of scenes, there’s a sort of expectation that this is good enough that holds it back from being as essential as the story suggests it deserves.
The disappointment can be summed up in a single word: Drakh. The villains of the story just don’t work, from multiple directions, and that’s a pretty huge problem for what is, essentially, the climax of the fifth season.
The first issue is that the Drakh are given almost no story weight. Babylon 5, through almost every story, has tried to have an entertaining character embody the antagonists. Londo and G’Kar both filled that role a number of times, but they had plenty of company in recurring guests like Neroon, Refa, Morden, and Bester. The Drakh, meanwhile, are given face and form, but no personality. Wayne Alexander has done a lot with a little so many times before that maybe the producers expected him to make his characters here work out of nowhere. But it’s not enough, given that they have like five lines across both of these episodes.
It’s no surprise, therefore, that the moment when the Drakh seem the most threatening is the one where a) they’re most present, and b) they have another character who can fill that embodiment role. That’s the one late in “The Fall Of Centauri Prime” where Londo finally goes to the Regent to find out what’s been going on, and the Regent finally explains everything, while a Drakh watches. Damian London has done a ton of primarily pathetic or comedic work on the show, and having him turn tragic in his final scene was remarkably impressive. The Drakh, meanwhile, gets some fun body horror, detaching the Keeper from his very body to take control of Londo.
But even the Drakh’s lines indicate part of the issue: he describes his people as “a shadow of a shadow.” Perhaps it’s meant to be poetic, and it’s not that it’s not a good line for an epic tragedy. Instead, the problem is that it’s literally true. We’re simply repeating the cycle of the Shadows, except with their weaker little brother manipulating everyone, especially Londo, into causing chaos. And here’s the issue with “A Call To Arms,” which most explicitly positions the Drakh as the new enemies, while also making them clearly a Shadow wannabe by giving them the Shadow’s biggest weapons. Even the point where they’re given the most exposition, in one of Galen’s many monologues, he holds their face up in a circle surrounded by a ring of fire, in what seems to be an evil callback to the season three intro and its weird jumpgate/headshots. “And introducing… the Drakh!”
What I think disappoints me most, however, is that the Drakh reinforce the simple good versus evil dichotomy that Babylon 5 worked against. After spending a couple years building up the Shadows as the embodiment of evil, B5 gave them a motive—chaos (I didn’t say it was a good motive)—and then demonstrated that their counterparts, the order-loving Vorlons, could be just as nasty. But now the Shadow client race of the Drakh are treated as pure evil, while arguably their closest counterpart, the Vorlon client race of the Minbari, are once again treated as pure good. I’m not going to pretend that “order and chaos taken to extremes are both bad” is the world’s subtlest plotline, but it beats the hell out of “evil is bad!” The Drakh carry no thematic weight to go along with their near-total lack of plot weight.
And that leads into the final issue, which is less with episode 18 of the season itself, and more with the extended lead-in to this climax: it hinges on the mystery of “Who is the enemy here?” Building a story on a mystery like this isn’t how Babylon 5 has ever operated. In fact, B5 has, perhaps more than any other show, used prophecy, foreshadowing, and understanding of genre tropes to its advantage. It’s generally abided by the rule that the journey is far more important than the destination. But here, it withholds the direct knowledge that the Drakh were behind the attacks up, and why, until as late as possible. It creates a bizarre drone technology plotline in order to support that. It requires that the characters not remember “hey there are powerful Shadow clients out there.” And there just isn’t a great reveal at the end. What ends up great about “The Fall Of Centauri Prime” is its continued connection to the epic tragedy that is Londo Mollari’s life.
But when that tragedy is given the most weight, it’s great, even fantastic. Babylon 5 still nails many of its biggest moments. Londo’s Hitler speech could easily have gone wrong—especially with the special effect of him being projected across the entire city, something the show has never really attempted—but it’s works well enough to let the words and the character shine through. Likewise, the flashbacks to who Londo was, as he surrenders himself to evil, could easily have felt over-manipulative. But, as we’ll discuss in the last two reviews, at this point Babylon 5 has earned the chance to be manipulative. Londo’s character development across all five seasons has been incredible, even unprecedented, and that deserves recognition.
In one of the simpler but most powerful scenes, Londo faces G’Kar for the last time in full possession of his faculties, and says goodbye. And G’Kar, after five years, or even longer if you count “The Gathering,” says: “My people can never forgive your people. But I… can forgive you.” Babylon 5 has built to this point. And it makes it work, despite all the issues of the fifth season.
“A Call To Arms”
This is the only piece of Babylon 5 that I’ve only seen once, and that was on its initial airing in 1999. I had a negative memory of it, largely due to its soundtrack, by Evan Chen instead of Christopher Franke. “A Call To Arms” is a fantastic demonstration of how essential Franke was to the show. It feels weird and wrong without Franke’s “whooshiness” (that’s the official music theory term). At the time I also intensely disliked the new music, now I think it’s kind of cool, but still has a dissonant feeling well beyond what it should.
Apart from that, however, “A Call To Arms” isn’t bad either as a semi-pilot for a new series, nor as a extension of B5 as a show. It’s not fantastic, but the new characters—Carrie Dobro as Dureena and Tony Maggio as Drake especially—bring different and welcome energy to the proceedings.
But the real star of the show, and the main thing that makes “A Call To Arms” feel worthwhile is Tony Todd as Captain Leonard Anderson. Well, that’s not entirely true. It’s Tony Todd’s facial expressions while he watches the other characters. Him watching and making various amused/skeptical faces at the situations worthy of those emotions is a joy to behold, even if nothing else in the telefilm really is. That it ends with his death, instead of putting him in charge for the Crusade spinoff, is a lost opportunity.
- “Consider this a charitable donation. Hell, it might even be deductible.” Lyta gives Vir the soft sell… kind of.
- “You picked a terrible moment in your social evolution to develop principles,” in one episode; “Yes, you would have done the same.” “Yes, but I am a better person.” “You ingrate!” in the next. Hooray for Londo and G’Kar.
- “You can’t just fight a war to fight a war.” If this summer has proven anything, it’s that you apparently can. It’s not smart, but it’s doable.
- Robin Sachs reprises his role as the Narn captain—now admiral—which gives his betrayal of Sheridan a little extra sting.
- “The regent could run an offensive war without anyone knowing about it.” Topical drone analysis!
- “You are now what we need you to be. A beaten, resentful people who will have to rebuild.”—Londo Weimari
- The Lennier/Delenn storyline is also a bit of a weak point, seemingly existing simply to add tension to their relationship and give Londo a moral choice at the end. “Do you think we’ll have to fight out way out of this?” “For their sake, I hope not.”
- “As a symbol of our new isolationism…” Remember back when I said Babylon 5 was a neoliberal fantasy? Yeah.
- “I have every confidence that he will do… at least as good a job as I did.” Great line from Londo recommending Vir.
- What kind of secret thieves’ guild gets tattoos?
- “That’s it. First I will shoot you, then I will shoot myself. I will consider it a public service.” “Thank you!” Dureena’s a bit of a stereotype, but still well-played.
- Consider this your Crusade open thread, as we’re not going to be covering it.
Next time, on Babylon 5: Episodes 19-21 of the fifth season on September 5 plus the “River Of Souls” telefilm starring MARTIN SHEEN and IAN MCSHANE. I’ll be focusing on how Babylon 5, more than any other show I’ve ever seen, is able and willing to wind down, and the power that holds. (If you remember that I promised “Wheel Of Fire” this week, you’re right, and I watched, but it fits in with next week’s episodes far more than these.)
And the week after that: “Sleeping In Light.” Get hyped, friends.