Babylon 5: Midnight on the Firing Line

A person, a place, and a problem. Action and movement. Often a time of year or a time of day.
These are not bad things to get into the first chapter. If you can get ’em onto the first page, even better.
Learn Writing with Uncle Jim

And so we begin. The show starts at shift change on an orbital defense station, with a surprise attack by unidentified ships. That very first scene is like a Tarot card of the series: succession of powers, war from peace, enemies recognized just too late, death.

JMS has a lot to do in this first episode. He’s got to establish as many of the major characters as he can, using as little cardboard as possible. He has to make us feel at home in the setting, both physical and cultural. At the same time, he must get the plot and conflict moving.

These goals sound more contradictory than they are. If he can prove that their conflicts have momentum and history, he’ll be a long way to creating realistic characters out of the funny-looking people in their weird clothes. Answering why? gives him who?, what? and where? if not for free, at least at a deep discount.

He also has to signal to us the audience that this is not episodic SF. We can’t forget what’s happening now, because it’s going to influence what happens next. Actions will have consequences. Promises will be made that must be kept. Remember Chekhov’s rule about plotting? One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it. Chekhov’s guns are promises of plot to come, and Straczynski isn’t shy about strewing them around the characters’ mental spaces.

So here’s a gun of Londo’s:

In my dream, I am an old man—it’s twenty years from now—and I am dying, my hands wrapped around someone’s throat, and his around mine. We have squeezed the life out of each other. The first time I saw G’Kar, I recognized him as the one from the dream. It will happen. Twenty years from now, we will die with our hands around each other’s throats.

A second gun; G’Kar’s had it a while:

I will confess that I look forward to the day when we have cleansed the universe of the Centauri, and carved their bones into little flutes for Narn children. It is a dream I have.

Another in Londo’s arsenal. It’s new, but it fits right in:

On the issue of galactic peace, I am long past innocence and fast approaching apathy. It’s all a game, a paper fantasy of names and borders. Only one thing matters, Commander. Blood calls out for blood. If Carn is dead, there will be war. Today, tomorrow, the day after, it doesn’t matter. If it’s the last thing I do, if it’s the last breath I take, there will be war. This I swear to you, Commander. This I swear.

It’s not just the aliens. Watch Ivanova and Talia juggle this one back and forth:

Ivanova: What happened back then is not your fault. But it’s part of what you are. And yet, you’re as much of a victim as my mother.
Talia: I don’t feel like a victim.
Ivanova: No, and so far I cannot tell if that is good or bad.

And here’s a gun lying on the mantlepiece of the entire station:

[Santiago’s] agenda for the coming term includes creating a closer relationship with the Mars colony, and a greater emphasis on preserving Earth cultures in the face of growing non-Terran influences.

Of course, somewhere in the midst of all this exposition, the characters have a problem to solve. The Narn Regime has attacked a Centauri agricultural colony. They’re wrong in many ways, from the attack itself to the parading of Londo’s nephew as a hostage. But they’re not cartoon warmongers: they have some claim to the world in question, and grounds for their historic grudge against the Centauri. Does that justify interspecies war?

The characters in the thick of it want to use force to solve the problem: Londo because he blames himself for the fact that his nephew is in danger; Sinclair because he’s afraid that inaction will draw humans into another disastrous war. But both of them are working against orders from their homeworlds.

The solution is political, but with realistically messy and unbalanced politics rather than stage compromises. There is no easy middle for everyone to arrive at and be happy. Since this is storytelling rather than reality, all the threads do come together neatly: Talia’s telepathy averts Londo’s attempt at murder, and the subplot about the raiders gives Sinclair the leverage to force the Narn off of Raghesh 3.

The message is that politics and collaboration can save us from violence. We start the series as JMS means for it to go on, at least for a while.

I’d say that this particular outcome is very much a product of the time that the episode came out. It first aired on January 26, 1994, the day after Bill Clinton’s summed up his first year in office in his State of the Union address. The Northern Irish conflict was still active, but the Downing Street Declaration fostered hope of a negotiated settlement. The former Yugoslavia was at war—Srebenica was fresh in everyone’s mind—but there was also Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Divorce, a year old and working well. The Maastricht Treaty had just created the European Union, while North America was implementing NAFTA. South Africa had adopted an interim constitution in advance of the first election in which blacks could vote. And the US had recently signed treaties limiting nuclear and chemical weapons.

There were certainly troubles unsolved by diplomacy: the Tamil Tigers had assassinated the Sri Lankan president the previous year; the Zapatistas were just getting started in Mexico; and in the US, negotiation had failed disastrously in Waco. And politics wasn’t pretty: Vince Foster’s suicide the previous July was already fodder for partisan ugliness. Still, the faith was there: diplomacy works. Cooperation and collaboration work. Politics works.

I don’t know that one could express so much optimism now.

The episode closes with one of my favorite pieces of characterization: Delenn sitting with Garibaldi, trying to understand Duck Dodgers and eat popcorn. She manages neither.

Ivanova quotes:

  • “I’m in the middle of fifteen things, all of them annoying.”
  • “I do not like Santiago. I’ve always thought that a leader should have a strong chin. He has no chin. And his vice-president has several. This to me is not a good combination.”
  • “Mr Garibaldi. You’re sitting at my station, using my equipment. Is there a reason for this, or to save time should I just go ahead and snap your hands off at the wrist?”

The next post will deal with Soul Hunter, Born to the Purple, Infection, Parliament of Dreams, and Mind War.

Index of Babylon 5 posts

– o0o –

Originally posted and discussed on Making Light.

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4 Responses to Babylon 5: Midnight on the Firing Line

  1. You got mostly what I did from this episode.
    I am planning to make a slooow walk through all episodes later, but I think I will follow your walk through from my memory of the episodes. After all, I have seen the series a few times since it came out. I hope you may join me at that stage on my blog (link above). Now for my comment :

    The second Ivanova quote about “having chin” I regard as a piece of foreshadowing as well.

    It is amazing how much foreshadowing is found in this episode alone, of course we did not know when we started watching the series.

    Jan from Denmark, a.k.a. the Babylon Lurker

  2. Mary Aileen says:

    babylonlurker: A good point about the “having chin” quote.

    This discussion started over on Making Light, before this blog was created; you might want to pop over there to read the rest of it.

  3. Discussion is welcome either here or on Making Light; I read both.

  4. Mary Aileen says:

    Oh, yes, I wasn’t trying to shut discussion down here; I’m sorry if it came off that way. I just thought that babylonlurker might be interested in the previous/other discussion following this post at ML.

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