Babylon 5: Signs and Portents

Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow
The Hollow Men, TS Eliot

I’m a huge fan of roller coasters. And one of the best parts of every ride, for me, is when the cars have been cranked all the way up the long slope and sit poised at the top, with the entire track laid out beneath them. There’s just time for comprehension to sink in before the long, swift descent into what awaits.

This is that moment.

The episode has much the same rough shape as the earlier ones this season, albeit with a higher plot density. Instead of two or three parallel streams that may or may not intersect at the end, there are four: one with ships and shooting, one digging into Sinclair’s past, one about Centauri politics, and one that looks like yet more character exposition.

The first major narrative stream concerns yet more attacks by the ubiquitous raiders. There’s a new pattern to their activities: they’re striking and escaping faster than should be possible. Raider vessels are generally too small to generate their own jump gates, but these ships aren’t matching expected travel times to known ones. After yet another freighter is hit, Sinclair, Garibaldi and Ivanova are at a loss to understand how they do it. The meet to discuss strategies for figuring the matter out.

After Ivanova leaves, Sinclair tells Garibaldi what he recalls of the missing time after the Battle of the Line and asks him to dig into things. It’s a strikingly-filmed conversation, with the camera following Sinclair tightly as he walks in circles, explaining the situation.

Meanwhile, in the political thread, Londo has arranged purchase of something called The Eye. It’s “the oldest symbol of Centauri nobility, property of the very first emperor.” It cost his government the price of a small planet, and they are keen to get it back to Centauri Prime discreetly. That way its “rediscovery” can help consolidate the Emperor’s position.

The man chosen to transport it, Lord Kiro, arrives on Babylon 5 with his aunt. The Lady Ladira is a seer, and starts having visions of “death, pain, and fire” as soon as she arrives on-station. But Kiro doubts her prophetic abilities. “On my first birthday, she said someday I would be killed by a shadow,” he chuckles at Londo*.

Lord Kiro has his own agenda. He doesn’t want to be messenger boy for the current emperor; he wants to use the Eye to catapult himself onto the throne. He tries to enlist Londo’s help, but Mollari isn’t sanguine about his chances and declines to get involved.

We see that the two dramatic subplots, the raiders and the Eye, are related when an attack on the Achilles lures the Delta Wing away from the station. A shady character on Babylon 5, who has also been following Kiro, reports that “they’ve taken the bait”.

Sinclair, without this insight, has to piece the next part of the plot together himself. The cargo manifest of the Achilles shows nothing of real value. He realizes that the attack is a diversion, and that the real target is probably Kiro’s ship. By the time he goes to warn Kiro, the man who’s been sneaking around the station has shot two guards and taken the three Centauri nobles hostage. When Sinclair interrupts them, he lets Londo and Ladira go and escapes with Kiro and the Eye.

Sinclair blocks the jump gate from accepting the Centauri liner’s codes, which should trap it at Babylon 5. Then we find out how the raiders have been moving their small fighters around: they have a ship large enough to generate its own jump gate. It appears (in the midst of a really well-filmed space battle) and spirits Kiro’s liner away.

And it turns out that the kidnapping was a ruse. Kiro funded the ship for the raiders so that they could disrupt his trip back to the homeworld with the Eye and give him his chance at the throne. But those who are bought don’t stay bought; the raiders aren’t interested in furthering his Imperial ambitions. They’re in the midst of ransoming both him and the Eye back to Centauri Prime when a mysterious ship appears and destroys them all. Ladira, back on Babylon 5, has a vision of his death.

Now, all of that would be enough plot for an episode. But there’s been one more thread running as well: the last subplot, the character-revelation one. If anything, it seems a little weak in contrast to all these Centauri politics and raider machinations. It’s just a guy, Mr. Morden, asking ambassadors the same question over and over: what do you want?

He gets an answer from G’Kar:

G’Kar: What do I want? The Centauri stripped my world. I want justice.
Morden: But what do you want?
G’Kar: To suck the marrow from their bones, and grind their skulls to powder.
Morden: What do you want?
G’Kar: To tear down their cities, blacken their sky, sow their ground with salt. To completely, utterly erase them.
Morden: And then what?
G’Kar: I don’t know. As long as my homeworld’s safety is guaranteed, I don’t know that it matters.

Delenn doesn’t answer. A triangle appears on her forehead, which she covers up, and she sends Morden away unsatisfied. “They’re here,” she says, with rather more dread than communicativeness, when the door closes behind him.

He’s more successful with Londo:

I want my people to reclaim their rightful place in the galaxy. I want to see the Centauri stretch forth their hand again, and command the stars. I want a rebirth of glory, a renaissance of power. I want to stop running through my life like a man late for an appointment, afraid to look back, or to look forward. I want us to be what we used to be. I want…I want it all back, the way that it was.

Morden seems to be hiding from Kosh, but the two of them meet during the space battle. Things are not the same as with the other ambassadors. Morden doesn’t ask his question. And Kosh seems to know him already, and tells him to “leave this place. They are not for you. Go. Leave. Now.” Morden smiles, but doesn’t look minded to depart. We don’t see what happens next, but Kosh’s encounter suit is listed as damaged at the end of the battle.

If you’ve seen more of Babylon 5, you know who Morden is and how significant this episode is. But remember that by this point in the series, the characters have been overtly explaining themselves so much that this dialog is unremarkable. The audience is used to this level of exposition, and used to discounting it. What with all the more dramatic action, this subplot can almost slip by the first-time viewer.

But there are signs that Morden is not merely a Bob for expository dialog. The way Delenn and Kosh react is a warning. While G’Kar’s and Londo’s answers are not firearms laid openly on the mantlepiece, not Chekhov’s guns, it’s possible to figure out that they’re Chow’s (warning: graphic violence†).

Londo, despairing of his career at the end of the episode, gets a taste of this when Morden gives him a gift from “friends you didn’t know you have”. In a case rather the worse for wear, Londo finds the Eye. And there’s a strong hint of a price to come, when he’s told that the givers “will find” him.

By this point we’re almost out of time, so the last couple of threads to get wrapped up feel rather rushed. First, Garibaldi tells Sinclair§ that the Minbari government had veto power over who was chosen to run Babylon 5. Apparently, they declined every nominee before him.

Then Sinclair rushes to the departure lounge to see Lady Ladira off, and she does the Centauri equivalent of a mind-meld with him in order to share her vision of the destruction of Babylon 5. She assures him that it is “a possible future” rather than a guaranteed one. “We create the future with our words, our deeds, and with our beliefs.”

The episode has an excellent Ivanova quote early on, before the plot gets going:

Sinclair: Sleep well?
Ivanova: Sleeping is not the problem. Waking up, that is the problem. I’ve always had a hard time getting up when it’s dark outside.
Sinclair: But in space it’s always dark outside.
Ivanova: I know. I know.


* Kiro needs to read more TV Tropes.
† If you don’t want to watch the video: it’s a scene from A Better Tomorrow where Chow Yun-Fat is going into a restaurant to kill someone. As he walks down the hall to the dining room, canoodling with a woman, he places guns in the flowerpots that line the walls. Then, when he’s retreating under fire, they’re readily to hand.
§ In the men’s room. A toilet on a space station. Win.

The next entry will look at TKO.

Index of Babylon 5 posts

– o0o –

Originally posted and discussed on Making Light.

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