Babylon 5: Hearing the Voices

[W]e are discussing a TV show on Making Light, a blog run by several close friends where we can talk about writing and politics.
Steven Brust

There’s a subtle technique to bringing a reader into a story; Jo Walton dubbed it “incluing”. Because the rule show, don’t tell doesn’t always cover introductions. Sometimes you have to tactfully mention something the viewer needs to know but isn’t yet aware of. It’s a fine line: too much of it too obviously, and the characters jaw each other dead rehashing things they are already entirely aware of. Not only does it rob the story of momentum, but it’s also deeply annoying. You’re an idiot, says the author, and need a good firm whack with this here clue-stick to figure out what’s going on.

Babylon 5 has a terrible case of it in the first half of the first season, both in the micro and the macro. The series of Problem of the Week episodes that follow Midnight on the Firing Line are fractal patterns of patronizing exposition, from their existence in the first place through their carefully character-revealing plots, and right down to their excruciating dialog. A wiser writer would have dropped us into the big plot and trusted us to figure out the personalities on the fly.

This entry will use the first five PotW episodes to rant about the problems of excessive exposition; feel free to join in in the comments. There’s enough summary here that you can skip the episodes completely, or watch them as worked examples of incluing gone horribly wrong.

Soul Hunter

This is a Delenn episode, making up for the fact that her name is never even uttered in Midnight on the Firing Line. She deserves the attention; she’s important to both the culture of Babylon 5 and the plot to come.

Unfortunately, the episode reveals a completely different, and much less admirable, person than the one we see in the rest of the series. It’s the equivalent of the “Éowyn is a bad cook and prone to giggling” scene in the extended version of The Two Towers. Delenn starts off by waving a loaded weapon around Medlab, to the peril of everyone there, then excuses herself by explaining that Soul Hunters are bogeymen for Minbari children. Later, she allows herself to be captured and tied up, alternately shrieks and faints, and ends up being rescued by a guy with a gun. The episode closes with her petting soul-globes like little kittens.

This is a strange contrast to the stern Satai Delenn who helped shield the dying Dukhat from the Soul Hunter during their last encounter. Religious-caste Minbari don’t end up on the Grey Council by being the equivalent of Penelope Pittstop, but that’s what we see of her here. There’s also very little here on which to build a character who can tell an entire war fleet to “be somewhere else”, and see them fly off.

The one good piece of characterization in the whole thing isn’t about Delenn at all. It’s Ivanova’s funeral for the murdered grifter. Her simple recitation of the prayer for space burial is both businesslike and deeply felt. It even pulls Dr. Franklin into a reflective mood. (We’ll come back to Ivanova, and faith in general, in another entry.)

Born to the Purple

This episode, written by Larry DiTillio rather than JMS, is probably my favorite of the group. It’s Londo’s turn in the spotlight. We’re supposed to be fond of him at this point in the long plot, and episodes like this make that easy. He is a fool and a buffoon, but all the world loves a lover.

The plot is straight-up “hooker with a heart of gold”: Adira, a Centauri slave and dancing girl, is forced by her owner to obtain files of secret blackmail material from Londo. She and Londo are having an intense affair, so much so that he’s neglecting important negotiations with the Narn Regime. But it’s clear that Adira and Londo do care for each other: she’s deeply reluctant to betray him, and he, on finding himself betrayed, is still desperate to protect her.

In the meantime, Garibaldi is investigating a misuse of the station’s priority communications channels. He finally hacks into the signal in time to see Ivanova talking to her dying father back on Earth.

The expository dialog in the episode is spectacularly dreadful. Both Londo and Adira preface emotional statements with, “I am Centauri,” as though after the time they’ve spent in bed there could be any species-doubt left. And Garibaldi’s “As you know” explanation of the Gold Channels to Ivanova is a classic of the type. What of the following would she not already know?

Lieutenant Commander, Gold Channels are priority access, usable only by express permission of Commander Sinclair. No one outside of the ambassadors and the senior officers even knows they exist.

But what saves the episode for me is Londo’s final words to Adira:

I am an old man. I have been in love many times, and I have been hurt many times. I’ll survive.

Because sometimes people really do explain themselves to each other in the clear.

Infection

I actually have a theory that this is a long-lost Old Trek episode. JMS found it in a trunk somewhere and tweaked it to show us some more of Dr. Franklin. The setup has all the hallmarks: species-level conflict, imminent peril to the ship station, easy good guy/bad guy distinctions, and a swift solution with no longer-term repercussions. There’s a plot hole the size of a jump gate (they got the guy’s name from his alien-species RNA-equivalent in under half an hour? A day ago they were tentatively guessing that the artifacts might be biological.) And the climactic battle between the gung-ho commander and the monster finishes with a moralistic speech about tolerance and the value of science over religious orthodoxy.

Key takeaways, if you want to skip this episode:

  1. There are big corporations in this universe. They use their money in unethical ways.
  2. Dr. Franklin is a highly principled man. He can be tempted, briefly, by a lot of money, but will resist in the end. Particularly if there’s murder involved.
  3. Sinclair is very clever, and can think and talk as well as fight.
  4. Garibaldi thinks Sinclair is being too much of a daredevil.
  5. The Babylon 5 Generic Reporter Character can be intimidated by Susan Ivanova. (“Don’t. You’re too young to experience that much pain.”)

Parliament of Dreams

In my opinion, this is the worst episode in all of Babylon 5. (At least we get it over with early.) The three subplots neither intersect nor mirror one another. And they are almost entirely dreadful.

The fierce-hearted representative of the Narn Regime, G’Kar, tempered by generations of genocide and war, hears that an old enemy has sent an assassin to Babylon 5 to kill him. He immediately panics, decides he mistrusts his new aide Na’Toth, hires a thuggish grunt from the underworld to protect himself, lets Garibaldi find lacy red human underwear in his quarters during the investigation of the grunt’s murder, and nearly loses track of the little crayfish he intends to have for dinner. He is, of course, captured, subjected to great pain, and rescued by Na’Toth. And their glee at framing the assassin with his own guild is as shallow and pointless as the rest of the subplot.

Meanwhile, Sinclair’s old flame, Catherine Sakai, has come to Babylon 5 to arrange some survey work. The subsequent romance is plagued by a chronic case of As You Know, Bob My Darling about their long and tangled past. Mind you, I don’t have a problem with that kind of behavior between consenting adults, but I wish they’d take it behind closed doors. It scares the horses and bores the audience. I’ll be nasty and ruin the surprise: they do in fact get back together, still protesting that this is a bad idea because it never works out. As they both know. Darling. Smooch.

All of this takes place against the backdrop of a celebration of the various religions on Babylon 5. For most of the episode, this is just a weird distraction. I suppose it’s informative to find out that Centauri celebrations involve cheering about genocide, getting drunk, and yodeling, and that the Minbari have a shared-meal ritual. I’m baffled why the deeply religious Narn don’t get a look-in till a later episode. But this is the thread that redeems the story for me, just a little, when Sinclair is supposed to show the ambassadors the “dominant belief system” of Earth. He simply arranges a long receiving line of members of different Terran religious traditions and introduces the aliens to everyone. The two touches I particularly appreciated were that he started with an atheist, and that there are multiple tribes of Native American represented.

Mind War

This is neither the worst nor the best of the episodes in this sequence. But it’s a good place to stop and show how all of this frightful exposition could have been done better. Also, it’s got my favorite casting decision in the whole series: Bester, the PsiCop, played with dead-eyed brilliance by Walter Koenig. If you’re only going to watch one of this set, watch this one.

Bester and a colleague (Kelsey) come onto Babylon 5 in pursuit of a rogue telepath, Jason Ironheart. Ironheart is rather like River Tam, a psionic driven mad by people trying to boost his power. He’s also an old friend and lover of Talia’s; the episode is partly to set her up as a “good” telepath, in opposition to the Psi-Corps.

This involves making sure that we know that the Psi-Corps is bad. Ironheart tells us all about it, first when talking to Talia:

We all thought Psi-Corps was controlled by the government, but that’s changing. They’re starting to pull the strings behind the scenes. They’re more powerful than you can begin to imagine. Telepaths make the ultimate blackmailers, Talia. I’ve seen it all. I’ve seen it all.

(Note the repetition at the end of the speech. That’s a particular quirk of JMS’s scripting, intended to emphasize the last point. It can get tiresome. It can get tiresome.)

Ironheart also warns Sinclair about the Psi-Corps:

The Psi-Corps is dedicated to one thing, Commander: control. Control over telepaths, the economy, the courts, over matter, over thought itself.

Thing is, these warnings are entirely unnecessary. In simple pursuit of the plot, Bester and Kelsey ream Talia’s mind in distressing fashion, mislead Sinclair in order to constrain his choices and control his actions, reach into people’s minds without asking their permission, and out-menace Garibaldi. Bester, creepy to the last, leaves the station with the salute, “Be seeing you.” Since when do we need to be told they’re sinister and controlling?

Likewise, this kind of speech isn’t how to show that Talia and Ironheart were close:

We were lovers. He was everything to me, the perfect model of what it meant to be in the Corps. Do you know what it’s like when telepaths make love, Commander? You drop every defense, and it’s all mirrors reflecting each other’s feelings. Deeper and deeper, until, somewhere along the line, your souls mix, and it’s a feeling so profound it makes you hurt. It’s the only moment in a telepath’s life when you no longer hear the voices. He came to say goodbye, Commander. He came to say goodbye.

There’s too little spark between the characters in the episode, so this speech doesn’t work. But it would have taken very few touches or long looks to wordlessly establish everything that Talia says to Commander Sinclair. It would have been more tasteful as well, and reduced the amount of bad bluescreening in the episode by a marked degree.

By contrast, while Talia is engaged in frantic exposition with someone who will shortly resemble a character out of Reboot, Catherine Sakai is learning some genuinely interesting things about her fellow characters and the universe at large. There’s only minimal gratuitous speechifying involved. She’s been contracted to explore a world in Narn space, though G’Kar has warned her that it’s not safe. She insists on going anyway. Before she leaves, he carefully clears off a gun-sized area on the mantlepiece:

Let me pass on to you the one thing I’ve learned about this place. No one here is exactly what he appears.

Catherine’s subsequent encounter with a mysterious ship, and her rescue by the Narn vessels that G’Kar sent, are good exposition. From this we learn that there are bigger forces in the universe than the species who inhabit Babylon 5, and that G’Kar can be subtle and gracious in his own way.

And then, at the end of the episode, we see the newest gun on the mantlepiece: a brief glimpse of the G’Kar that is to come.

They are a mystery. And I am both terrified and reassured to know that there are still wonders in the universe, that we have not yet explained everything.

In some ways, seeing that kind of good self-explanation just makes all the wrong attempts worse.


Next up will be The War Prayer and And the Sky Full of Stars, two early steps into the larger plot of the series.

Index of Babylon 5 posts

- o0o -

Originally posted and discussed on Making Light.

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3 Responses to Babylon 5: Hearing the Voices

  1. It is generally agreed amongst us fans that the first season is the weakest, so I take from it the best I can find.

    For me, the best things to take away from these episodes are :

    Souls Hunter : The increasing tendency for Sinclair to act as “the action hero”, and getting in over his head, and Delenn’s final comment “I knew, you would come . We were right about you”, adding to the mystery.

    Born to be Purple : After all, some fine addition to Londo’s character.

    Infection : Probably the weakest of them all, (even in JMS’ view). The Sinclair speech at the end about why we should go into and stay in space, even if it is a bit long winded.

    Parliament of Dreams : I have to disagree with you on this one being the worst. Being in the beginning it does give a fair amount of exposition, and for that I can easily live with this episode. Not spectacular, but not too bad.

    Mind War : Bester is so well played by Walter Koenig, that we completely forget that he played the Chechov character in Trek. The small foreshadowing about G’Kar is just so brilliantly portrayed. – and yes, we have seen the trope of someone evolving into an almost omnipotent “spiritual” being before, but again – had Talia stayed we would have had a “Chechov’s gun” for her development right then and there. Well done.

  2. babylonlurker @1:

    My writeups of the first season are certainly marked by a certain “come on, please can we get to the plot?” impatience. There have been episodes I’ve only got through on the memory that it does get complex and interesting in season 2.

    Out of curiosity, which episode would you say is the worst? And why?

  3. Pingback: Babylon 5: Soul Mates | Noise2Signal

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