Babylon 5: Babylon Squared

Never believe in a meritocracy in which no one is funny-looking.
Teresa Nielsen Hayden

In the last episode, we brushed up against one of the persistent themes of the series: vocation. Draal was called to the Machine, both by Varn’s projection and by the nature of his character: his beliefs, his values, and his desires.

Now we get to see the difference between vocation (like Draal’s) and fate. Both are important for the series, but it’s clear that JMS feels that they are different things, and I’d agree. The crucial distinction is choice: one’s vocation, one’s calling, is something one chooses. One has less control over one’s fate.

The episode starts with a kind of miniature of the greater plot of the show: Sinclair uses his soothing voice to send Ivanova to sleep, then (along with Garibaldi) convinces her that more time has passed than really has. It’s a nice insight into the cameraderie among the three of them (“I’ll notify your next of kin,” jokes Sinclair as he leaves Garibaldi to take the heat for the prank1.) It’s also the most charming I’ve seen Sinclair; more of that and I’d regret the Sheridan swap.

But then we get serious. The 30 year old pilot sent to investigate the unusual level of tachyon emissions in Sector 14 comes back dead of old age, with the characters “B4” scored into his belt buckle. And Ivanova may have thought herself adrift in time, having lost half an hour of her morning, but it turns out that the skeleton crew of the missing station really are, and it’s cost them four years of the rest of the universe. That’s fate: the story arc of reality, indifferent to who gets caught up in it.

Meanwhile, for a contrast, we also get a subplot about Delenn. She’s got a fate appointed for her, too. The Grey Council has summoned her to “stand between the candle and the stars”. They want her to give up her life on Babylon 5 and become the leader of all Minbari, now that the period of mourning for Dukhat is over.

She really does not want to do this. She argues that it was not meant to be. “My calling is to serve, not to lead,” she objects,a phrasing that casts this calling as an external thing imposed on her. It’s fate by another name. She also cites “the prophecy…” But the Council isn’t listening. “The prophecy will attend to itself.” They’re pleased with their own decision, and don’t see why anyone would want to remain among humans. “It must be a great relief knowing you will never again return to Babylon 5.”

The action returns to Babylon 4, where Sinclair and Garibaldi have come aboard and met Major Krantz, the construction supervisor, who has been in charge of the station during its journey through time. While they’re talking, Sinclair has a vision of himself and Garibaldi evacuating a station. Once again, we drag in fate: this is happening in the future, but it’s portrayed as inevitable. But there’s also the first thread of the difference between it and vocation in the scene. Garibaldi gets to choose to play Horatius at the bridge, sending Sinclair to safety while he provides covering fire. “I was born to do this!” he shouts, but it’s not his birth, really. It’s his choice.

Delenn, back on the Minbari ship, is also moving from seeing her work with humans as an external, imposed fate to a vocation accepted. This is when she stops talking about what she’s called to do in the abstract and becomes more personally engaged. This is when she chooses to answer the call.

Delenn: I cannot do it. I cannot accept the calling [to lead the Minbari].
council member: In over a thousand years no one has refused.
Delenn: Then perhaps it is time. I hear their calling.  I know the reasons for it. And part of me yearns to accept.  But I must listen to the greater calling of my heart.
council member: And what does your heart tell you?
Delenn: That I must stay where I am.  That I must remain with Babylon 5.  That I have a part to play in the change that is coming.
council member: They will say it is just the voice of ego, and of pride.
Delenn: Perhaps.  I wish to reconvene the council. I must speak to them.
council member: That has never been done.  But if it were to be done at all, this is as good and as bad a time as any.  Do you know what you are doing?  Are you fully aware of consequences?
Delenn: Yes. I am.

That, by the way, is the true sound of a vocation being accepted: heart-certainty in the face of baffled incomprehension2. Other characters can cite a millennium of precedent, threaten someone with being an outcast, and use every form of social pressure they can bring to bear. But Delenn has made her choice.

Mind you, in comparison to the next character we meet in the episode, Delenn is a candle in the wind. I can think of no one in Babylon 5 who is more certain in his (their) vocation than Zathras. And that’s, for me, the primary charm of the character, even more than his distinctive appearance and dialog style.

Zathras: Great war. Terrible war.  Is much killings.  Everyone fighting. A great darkness.  It is the end of everything.  Zathras warn, but oh, no, no one listen to poor Zathras. Zathreas know. Great war, but great hope of peace.  Need place.  Place to gather, to fight, to organize.
Sinclair: You need Babylon 4 as a base of operations in a war, is that it?
Zathras: (nods) To help save galaxy on the side of light.  So they tell me.  Must have or it is the end of all.  The One leads us.  The One tells us to go, we go.  We live for the One.  We would die for the One.  We pull this place through time to save us all.

Everyone else in the entire series—not just this episode, but the whole great story—with a vocation is a hero, and looks it. They’re all attractive3, well-dressed, and articulate. They’re brave and noble, too. Even species with callings to greatness are praiseworthy. Witness Delenn’s paean to humanity in front of the Grey Council:4

one council member: What is it that makes the humans so special? What is it that draws you to them?
another council member: They fight.  They argue.  They are ruled by passions and fears.
Delenn: Yes.  That is their strength.  They do not seek conformity.  They do not surrender.  Out of their differences come symmetry.  Their unique capacity to fight against impossible odds. Hurt them, and they only come back stronger. The passions we deplore have taken them to their place in the stars, and will propel them to a great destiny.  Their only weakness is that they do not recognize their own greatness. They forget that they have come to this place through two million years of evolution and struggle and blood.  They are better than they think, and nobler than they know.  They carry with them the capacity to walk among the stars like giants. They are the future, and we have much to learn from them.

But Zathras? He’s snaggle-toothed and ragged-nailed. He shifts and shuffles, clicks his tongue, walks funny, and dresses funny. He’s submissive, self-deprecating, and sarcastic (“Zathras not of this time. You take, Zathras die. You leave, Zathras die. Either way, it is bad for Zathras.”). But he’s is also the most steadfast and self-sacrificing of all of the beings who work for the Light (“Zathras does not want to die. But if it is the only way, then Zathras dies. It is life.”).

Zathras is the funny-looking guy who proves the meritocracy. If Zathras is called to greatness, anyone can be.

After Zathras’s self-sacrifice, it’s time to wrap up the threads. We get one last reminder of the difference between fate and calling after everyone leaves Babylon 4. It reaches its destination in time, and we get to see who was in the space suit5. An older, scarred Sinclair, discouraged, says, “I tried. I tried to warn them. But it all happened. Just the way I remembered.” Because the events on Babylon 4 were fate, not vocation. Even Sinclair doesn’t get to choose everything.

And another thread: as she leaves the Minbari ship, Delenn gets the triluminary that she will need to fulfill her vocation. It’s hard not to see a symmetry between that gift and the time-stabilizer Zathras gives the older Sinclair. In his own way, even the Minbari council member has a calling to answer and a sacrifice to make.

(And, last of all, completely unrelated to the theme of this post: this was also the episode where I finally got annoyed at the instantaneous communications between places that take hours to fly to. Did someone invent an ansible and not mention it?)

  1. There is some rich—and spoiler-rich—irony here.
  2. Of course, it’s also the sound of being a crackpot. Life is like that sometimes.
  3. A crowd where Vir is the least charismatic member is an attractive crowd indeed, in my opinion.
  4. In addition to being another flavor of the eternally tiresome Humans are Special trope
  5. Borrowed, apparently, from the props department of 2010.

The next post will discuss The Quality of Mercy.

Index of Babylon 5 posts

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24 Responses to Babylon 5: Babylon Squared

  1. TexAnne says:

    Old Sinclair didn’t bother me until we got to the Significant Unveiling. When did he have time (hur, hur) to get old and scarred? And where did the triluminary come from in the first place?

  2. Will "scifantasy" Frank says:

    Regarding your last point: They do discuss tachyon-based communication at some point–I just figured that, akin to most other SFnal universes (both Trek and Star Wars), and mirroring reality (on the smaller planetary scale), communication is next-to-instantaneous over distances that take time to travel physically.

    (I have nothing useful to add to the rest of it, because…yeah, that.)

  3. Er, it’s Horatius at the bridge. Hate to quibble but that’s the name used throughout Macaulay’s long poem. And even the ranks of Tuscany could scarce forbear to cheer.

  4. I recall being shocked by the appearance of Sinclair in the spacesuit (as a foreshadowing of what he was to become).

  5. Fragano @3:

    Thanks. Fixed.

  6. Abi #5:

    Then out spake brave Horatius,
    The Captain of the gate:
    ‘To every man upon this earth
    Death cometh soon or late.
    And how can man die better
    Than facing fearful odds,
    For the ashes of his fathers,
    And the temples of his Gods?”

  7. JM says:

    I wish I’d seen this when it first ran. I saw the War Without End two-parter before I had access to any of the first season, so I always knew what had happened to Babylon 4, and thus this episode isn’t nearly as exciting as it could have been and I get stuck on weaker spots like Delenn’s “yay humans” speech.

    I don’t have much else to add, except great post.

  8. Lenora Rose says:

    This episode surprised me a bit on the rewatch for being better than I remembered; I always recalled A Voice in the Wilderness as triggering my ‘meh’ buttons, and apparently that assumption carried over to Babylon Squared just due to proximity and ‘future season set-up’ similarities.

    quibble under ROT13 as it’s mostly about a later season:
    Rkprcg bs pbhefr vg jnfa’g nyjnlf Fvapynve va gur fcnpr fhvg. VVEP, bapr jr frr Jne Jvgubhg Raq, gur crefba jub trgf ybfg va gvzr naq trgf gur fgnovyvmre vf Furevqna. Juvyr V qba’g guvax WZF cynaarq vg gung jnl nyy nybat (Sbe boivbhf ernfbaf, V qb guvax ur cynaarq sbe “gur Bar” gb or zber pbzcyvpngrq guna vg svefg ybbxf ng guvf rcvfbqr’f “BZT vg’f Fvapynve” zbzrag.

    I think you’re absolutely right about Zathras, though, and I hadn’t thought about him that way before.

  9. Mary Aileen says:

    Lenora Rose (8): In the later episode, jrera’g gurer (ng yrnfg) gjb crbcyr va fcnpr fhvgf? Jr frr byqre-Fvapynve gnxr uvf uryzrg bss, ohg vg jnf Furevqna jub unq gur qnzntrq fgnovyvmre.

  10. Mark Wise says:

    True, the heroes are (mostly) well dressed and handsome.

    I like JMS also had attractive villains. Evil doesn’t always look ugly. Mr. Morden and a certain back-stabbing security guard are both beautiful men. Ditto for a certain telepath who takes a turn for the dark side.

  11. Lenora Rose says:

    Mary Aileen: Just so. That’s why I said “wasn’t always”, not “wasn’t”. It was the complication of the situation I was getting at. And I really do think JMS meant it to be trickier than it looked all along.

  12. Peter Erwin says:

    The episode starts with a kind of miniature of the greater plot of the show …

    Now I’m kicking myself for never having noticed that… thanks for pointing it out.

    And I agree with you that it’s one of Sinclair’s best scenes.

    … this was also the episode where I finally got annoyed at the instantaneous communications between places that take hours to fly to.

    But why is this annoying? Leaving aside the fact that FTL travel violates what we know of physics just as much as FTL communications would — that contrast has been the case for most of the 20th Century.

    (Personally, what annoys me is the nonsensical cliche of “trapped in accelerated time = ages many years”, but I guess it’s got a combination of folk-tale pedigree and fear-of-aging-and-death kick behind it that’s hard to resist.)

  13. Peter Erwin says:

    Mark Wise @ 10:
    I like JMS also had attractive villains. Evil doesn’t always look ugly.

    Attractive villains aren’t all that unusual, though, are they? Basil Rathbone, Claude Rains, Jeremy Irons, Sean Bean… (at least JMS doesn’t seem to overdo English-accented attractive villains.)

  14. Peter Erwin @12:

    I think the thing that gets my goat about the realtime communication is that it makes the physical isolation of the mission much less pointed and powerful. That’s kind of a general point, not just in this episode. These little Star Furies really are “all alone in the night”, and C&C being on the other end of the phone coordinating them feels wrong.

  15. I agree about the “corpse looking like an old man” bit — surely if someone was trapped in an accelerated-time field what would really happen is they would die quickly of either thirst or oxygen deprivation. You’d get a corpse reduced to a skeleton, and a big puff of bacterial waste-product gas.

  16. Jacque says:

    abi @14: These little Star Furies really are “all alone in the night”, and C&C being on the other end of the phone coordinating them feels wrong.

    OTOH, I immediately think of Apollo 13, wherein Mission Control back on Earth is coordinating, engineering, calculating (with pencil and paper, fercrissakes), and Apollo is so “all alone” that there’s not even the chance of rescue if things really go south.

  17. Jacque says:

    Argh. Missed a </b> tag. Feh.

  18. Paul A. says:

    TexAnne says: Old Sinclair didn’t bother me until we got to the Significant Unveiling. When did he have time (hur, hur) to get old and scarred?

    My recollection is that it’s explained in the episode where Old Sinclair appears as happening in an instant as a side-effect of too much messing around in exotic tachyon fields: a bit like what happened to the pilot in this episode, only inside out.

    And this is one of those moments where JMS might have been, as Leonora Rose said, planning for it to be more complicated than it initially appears. One sees Old Sinclair and thinks he’s from many years in the future, but then he shows up before one was expecting him, old before his time. Did JMS plan that, to mess with people who thought they could guess what was going to happen? Or was it an improvisation he came up with when it became apparent Sinclair wasn’t going to be sticking around for many years? (With JMS, it’s sometimes hard to be sure.)

  19. RogerBW says:

    Paul A.@18, I’ve certainly heard it said that JMS had “escape hatches” built into the plot in case he lost any of the main cast between seasons. The Sinclair one worked reasonably well, I thought; the other, not so much.

  20. RogerBW @19:

    My memory of the other escape hatch–if it’s the one I’m thinking of–was that it was fairly effective, actually. The betrayal and departure certainly stick in my head, though it’s true that I never found the replacement character as interesting as the original.

  21. Mary Aileen says:

    I can think of two other escape hatches: Talia to Lyta worked pretty well, think; Ivanova’s departure left a pretty big hole.

  22. I was thinking about Talia to Lyta. To be honest, I drifted away from the show toward the end there, so I don’t entirely recall how I felt about Ivanova leaving. I’ll see how it goes on the rewatch.

  23. Mary Aileen says:

    I hated Ivanova’s departure at the time. But I became reconciled to it when I learned that she had been slated for what became Lyta’s role in the Byron storyline. That would not have made me happy (to put it mildly).

  24. Pingback: B5 Rewatch: S1E20 "Babylon Squared" | ***Dave Does the Blog

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