Babylon 5: This Wooden O

…can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
Henry V, Act I, Prologue

You know, the problem Shakespeare’s referring to doesn’t go away when you move onto multiple sets and break out the CGI. At a certain point, you still end up with a bunch of actors hanging around on a sound-stage, twiddling the scenery and trying to sell the idea they’re standing inside two million, five hundred thousand tons of spinning metal, all alone in the night. There is no magic by Shakespeare or Straczynski that can turn the map into the territory.

But the problem of setting is deeper than mere staging. Even if you could film the show on a real, life-sized Babylon 5, the way Firefly did with the Serenity set, you still have to show your audience that you’re on a space station. It’s not merely some weirdly-shaped office building with insufficient windows and a bunch of very funny-looking tenants. Setting has to influence plot, affect characters, and create tension and interest, or it’s just backdrop.

Babylon 5 does pretty well at creating and using realistic setting. There are certainly areas that feel like office space, or a rather bland convention center: Blue and Green sectors, which are where the nice quarters are; Medlab; the Zocalo. But the station also has a darker side, which tugs at the plot from very early on. Soul Hunter includes two sequences in Brown sector, where the dregs and hull rats hang out. It’s clearly underheated; most of the people down there are shown wearing hats and gloves. It’s also underlit, complicated, and full of niches where murder can be done before help will arrive.

There’s an entire criminal underworld on the station, too, controlled by what appears to be a large preying mantis in the non-oxygen breathers’ area. Shady characters run strip clubs (Born to the Purple), own slaves (ibid), sell access to better areas (Soul Hunter), and hire out toughs (The Parliament of Dreams). Sinclair is aware of this underworld, and knows the names of some of the principal players (Born to the Purple), but he doesn’t have any illusions that he controls it, or could put an end to it. That tells us a lot about the size and complexity of the station population. (Can you picture Kirk allowing an underworld among the 400-odd people on the Enterprise?*)

I note in passing that this knowledge is the product of good exposition and incluing. No one asyouknowbobbed it into us. When characters buy access to the better levels from the underworld, we learn that levels are access-controlled as well as that the underworld exists. We see the vast green of the hydroponics section when Sinclair and Talia trade unrealistic dialog as they go through it in Mind War, but neither of them feels compelled to say, “Look! Hydroponics! Those plants give us food and oxygen.”

All of this musing is brought on by the next two episodes, whose plots are both shaped by various aspects of the setting of the show.


The episode starts with an interesting slice of setting and a wry piece of exposition. Garibaldi and Ivanova, along with a mixed crowd of civilians, file through a low-gravity area (a voice in the background reminds them to grab the handholds at all times) and discuss the upcoming visit of the newly-elected President Santiago. It’s classic As You Know, Bob plot setup, all about how the President is giving the space station a new fighter wing, which should have been theirs some time before; how the fighter bay was mothballed and now needs urgent refurbishment; and how the people doing it are inexperienced and overworked. Then we get a good Ivanova quote, which at least waves in the direction of explaining why they’re talking:

Ivanova: What, does something about this surprise you, Mr Garibaldi?
Garibaldi: Nothing the government does surprises me.
Ivanova: That’s a very Russian attitude. I commend you.

Then there’s an explosion in the new fighter bay, and the plot starts rolling.

Only one person survives the explosion, a tech named Nolan. He’s unconscious in Medlab as the investigation gets underway, starting with the umpteenth turf battle of the season so far. Major Liana Kemmer, of the President’s security staff, wants to be in charge. She clearly doesn’t trust Garibaldi, and he is clearly hurt and angry. It turns out that they knew each other 17 years ago, when he worked security in an ice mining installation on Europa. She was a child at the time, and he was a friend of the family. When her father died after sabotage intended to take him out, she blamed him. He blamed himself as well, and turned to drink, which (as it so often does) made everything much worse.

While Garibaldi has been explaining this to Sinclair, Major Kemmer has been interrogating the dying Nolan. He says the explosion was caused by a bomb planted by Garibaldi. Kemmer insists that Garibaldi be suspended. Then a search of his quarters yields a plan of the bay and a large quantity of Centauri ducats, and Garibaldi flees to avoid arrest.

So now we’re into a classic “the Fugitive” plot; Garibaldi has to investigate while on the lam. He goes to Londo, who denies any involvement, accuses G’Kar, and lends him some money. G’Kar also protests his innocence, but offers Garibaldi the chance to defect to the Narn regime. The underworld is equally unhelpful; even with Londo’s funds he can’t buy the access he needs to check things out further. Then he’s cornered and beaten up by some of the station’s less reputable inhabitants, who have a grudge against him. Only Sinclair’s timely arrival prevents real injury. But Sinclair wants him to hand himself in, and he flees again rather than do so. He ends up hiding in a truly regrettable dive, the Happy Daze Bar, and starts drinking. He gets into the “happy fun drunk” phase of falling off the wagon, then falls over at Major Kemmer’s feet when he leaves.

During the subsequent interrogation, Garibaldi manages to extract enough information from Kemmer to piece together the plot against him: Nolan was a member of the Homeguard, and set the bomb himself. He died because it went off early. Kemmer’s first officer, Cutter, was one of the few who knows Nolan had named Garibaldi, and is the person who “found” the evidence in his quarters. When it turns out that Cutter is also the one inspecting the hangar before wing leaves for its ceremonial fly-by, Garibaldi persuades Kemmer to take him along on a final personal check.

Cutter is, of course, the bad guy. He disables Kemmer, then has a nicely dramatic fight with Garibaldi during the countdown for launch. At the very last second, Garibaldi manages to get Ivanova to call off the flyby. It then turns out that all the bay doors were rigged to explode, and everyone is quite pleased with this outcome. There is subsequent unravelling and reconciling. One can tell that Major Kemmer is more comfortable with her emotions at the end because she’s got her hair loose, but no one staying on the station is shown to have changed much.

So why do I call this a setting-intensive episode? Well, first off, it has a lot of interesting places in it. I particularly like that it shows more than one kind of faintly disreputable dive. Garibaldi finds Londo in a tacky nightclub, complete with holographic tabletop dueling knights. He then ends up in a thoroughly unpleasant place while on the run. It’s one of those realistic touches that there are gradations of grubby drinking establishment on-station, rather than Ye Solitarye Dysreputable Cantina (with band).

But more importantly, it’s an episode that could not have happened just anywhere. Both Santiago’s visit and the Homeguard sabotage are the product of Babylon 5’s unique position in the show’s universe. Just as we see Garibaldi’s character in many aspects, from his poor temper control, impulsiveness and tendency to alcoholism to his determination, passion for justice, and fierce loyalty to his friends, so we see multiple facets of the station. The action ranges from the most to the least official spaces, from the controlled to the uncontrolled, and all of them, among them, create an understanding of the essential whole of the place. It’s nuanced characterization of a location.

Mind you, all this fun with the setting still leaves time for some good quotes:

Londo: You’re a very suspicious man, Garibaldi. But yes, there is a reason. We are alike, you and I. We’re both—as you say—the odd man out. I have been in your place. I can feel how you are pinned. And it would give me some small pleasure to know that things can work out, even for us.

G’Kar: The universe is governed by the complex interweaving of three elements: energy, matter, and enlightened self-interest.

Kemmer: I demand you open a channel to Earth at once.
Ivanova: I am a lieutenant commander in Earthforce, Major. I do not take demands. If you have a request, I’ll consider it.
Kemmer: Very well then, I request that you open a channel to EarthDome.
Ivanova: Request denied. Have a nice day.

By Any Means Necessary

This episode centers around another aspect of Babylon 5 as a physical place: its function as a freight port. It’s logical that if the station is both a trade destination and home to many people, it’s going to need a lot of material shipped to it. And all of that material needs loading, unloading, and managing.

Unfortunately, the (space) dockworkers have been the victims of tightening budgets. They’re working long shifts with substandard, badly-maintained equipment. The episode opens with one consequence of that: a Narn freighter crashes and its cargo is destroyed. One of the dockworkers is killed in the explosion. This is the last straw for the rest of the crew. Contractually barred from going on strike, they start calling in sick, and pretty much all freight shipment to the station stops. Earth sends a negotiator, Orin Zento, with authority to invoke the “Rush Act”† if the dockworkers cannot be persuaded to back down. This would grant Sinclair all but unlimited powers to break the union; the workers themselves expect to go to jail if it’s invoked.

The crash of the Narn freighter has another effect as well. Among its cargo was a G’Quan Eth plant, whose seeds G’Kar needs for a particular ritual on a particular day. It turns out that the only replacement obtainable before the ceremony is in Londo’s possession. He vacillates between offering to sell it at an obscene price and simply using it to infuriate G’Kar. Despite its deeply-felt undercurrents, this squabbling of the two ambassadors is the lightweight foil to the more serious antagonism between labor and management.

The labor negotiations fail, of course. Zento is not portrayed as an honest broker, and there is no serious attempt to address the strikers’ grievances. Nor is the union disposed to trust him; the previous year’s contract negotiations had been concluded with a verbal promise of a pay increase, which was never written down or enforced. Inevitably, a riot breaks out, the Rush Act is invoked, and Sinclair is ordered to end the strike “by any means necessary”. The means he chooses are unexpected: he reallocates funds from the military budget to meet the strikers’ pay and equipment demands and declares an amnesty for participants in the illegal strike.

In the meantime, the escalating quarrel between Londo and G’Kar has taken a comical turn: G’Kar has caused the statue of one of the Centauri gods to be stolen. Sinclair sits the two ambassadors down like minor characters from The Breakfast Club and forces a compromise: G’Kar will return the statue, and Londo will sell the plant to him. Londo agrees, partly because it’s now too late for G’Kar to do his ritual. It’s supposed to be performed in the light of the sunrise of a particular day on Narn, and Londo has managed to delay the matter beyond the appointed hour.

Sinclair, clearly infected with a case of intellectual over-cuteness, points out that the light of the correct sunrise ten years ago will shortly be reaching Babylon 5, and that G’Kar can do the ritual when it hits the station. (Again, Babylon 5’s physical location is relevant to the plot.)

I found this episode really interesting in the ways that it illustrates a particular point in G’Kar’s growing faith. Londo accuses him of caring about the ritual less for religious reasons than out of a desire to maintain his status in the Narn community, and I suspect that that’s a reasonable reading of G’Kar at the start of the series. But I also think we can already see a change in his relationship with his religion. There’s a point in the episode where he is throwing his possessions around the room in frustration at being unable to get a G’Quan Eth plant. He is about to hurl his Book of G’Quan, but then chooses not to. That’s the act of someone in transition: an unbeliever would have thrown it; a faithful follower of G’Quan would never have considered doing so.

I’ve been in that place myself, when the tentative desire for deepening has not yet become channelled into the rules of the faith one is headed into. People do strange things in that time: they’ll take the advice of the most astonishingly inexpert people, reinterpret the rules in the oddest ways, and (if they’re lucky) reach through the thicket of regulations to the heart of the matter. Watching the ritual that closes the episode, as G’Kar recites a litany of the gifts of his life, I tend to think he was that kind of lucky.

(While we’re on the subject of religion—this episode contains evidence that the Narn have more than one:

G’Kar: You’re not a follower of G’Quan, are you, Na’Toth?
Na’Toth: My father was a disciple of G’Lan. My mother didn’t believe in much of anything.
G’Kar: What do you believe in?
Na’Toth: Myself, Ambassador.
G’Kar: Too easy an answer. We all believe in something greater than ourselves. Even if it’s just the blind forces of chance.
Na’Toth: Chance favors the warrior.

So there are at least two religious traditions, plus a strain of atheism in Narn society, and the aide of its ambassador to Babylon 5 is not at threat for not being religious.)

Of all the episodes in the series, this is the one I’d least expect to be made in the present day. It’s a sympathetic portrait of a striking union, which I gather is Axiomatically Bad in current American discourse. Not only that, but many of the characters in it, from Garibaldi to Sinclair to Senator Hidoshi, take pride in being descendants of union members. But though I think it’s currently impolitic, I don’t think it’s unrealistic. These things ebb and flow; unions will be back in the future.

I do wish I could reproduce the best Ivanova quote of the show, but it’s simply her counting down from ten in an extremely firm voice.

* Another way that Babylon 5 is not like Star Trek: In the next episode, Signs and Portents, Sinclair and Garibaldi will have a conversation in the men’s room.
† Named, apparently, after one R Limbaugh.

The next entry will look at Signs and Portents.

Index of Babylon 5 posts

– o0o –

Originally posted and discussed on Making Light.

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