Babylon 5 came about by working on two different ideas for series. One was a vast, galaxy-spanning, huge show following the rise and fall of empires. The other show in the back of my head was about a small space station, and people trapped in a tin can, as it were, having to deal with each other in a closed environment. Both far in the future. And I realized: no, these are the same story.
In many ways, my view of the season finale mirrors my feelings about the entire first season of Babylon 5. It has good bits, but it’s not on fire the way that later seasons are. The JMS quote above is a good explanation of the problem: it’s two shows at once, and it takes a while for them to grow into an organic whole.
This episode is particularly problematic. It’s supposed to carry a lot of emotional impact, but I found it mixed at best. It contains enormously significant events: the destruction of the Narn base in Quadrant 37 and the assassination of President Santiago. But they struck me as shallow, pointless, and rather grey. And it’s not that the show doesn’t try hard to sell them. Na’Toth’s shock and the bridge crew’s stunned silence are well-depicted. But I found it difficult to care and easy to be distracted by, for instance, the rather dated rendering of EarthForce One’s destruction.
But leaving aside the big historical happenings, there were smaller, interpersonal events that mattered more to me: Sinclair missing the chance to speak to Delenn before the cocoon is complete, Garibaldi’s shooting, Londo’s realization that he has betrayed principles he did not even know he had. This “second series” that JMS conceived of in his head carries the episode, where his attempt to give the epic the weight it needs fails.
A lot of the problem, of course, is that the plot has lost its suspense for me. I’ve seen the rest of the show, though I don’t recall all the details. I know that Garibaldi survives. I know that the guard who shot him stays in the security team like a worm in an apple. I know that all the menacing notes in Clarke’s initial speech really are flags of the bad times to come. I know what Delenn turns into.
What interested me about the episode, what worked for me, was not the points where the characters are left hanging off of a narrative cliff. It’s the moments where they have already lost their grip and fallen, watching the edge recede from their outstretched fingers, and are beginning to contemplate the ground that is rushing to meet them.
The obvious example of this, of course, is Londo. He is as he has been throughout the season: ambitious but frustrated, wryly aware of his own weaknesses, caught in what a human would call a mid-life crisis.
There comes a time when you look into the mirror, and you realize that what you see is all that you will ever be. Then you accept it. Or you kill yourself. Or you stop looking into mirrors.
It is at this moment of weakness that Morden makes his offer: his “associates” will take care of Quadrant 37. All Londo has to do is take the credit and owe them a favor. Morden sells Londo on the plan with the line, “If it’s hopeless, then there’s no harm in trying, is there?” It’s the deal the devil always makes with the down and out.
Londo knows there’s something wrong even before Vir has called Centauri Prime with his message. He makes himself a drink, but then pours the glass back into the bottle. And when the truth comes out, he’s horrified, the way one is at one’s first grave sin.
Londo: What have you done?
Morden: Only what you asked me to do. You had a problem with Quadrant 37. We took care of it.
Londo: But you killed ten thousand Narn.
Morden: I didn’t know you cared. Ten thousand, a hundred thousand, a million…what’s the difference? They’re Narns, Ambassador. Your sworn enemy.
Londo: I know, but…I didn’t think…I thought that you might find a way to protect our ships, or cripple their forces, not…
Morden: Ambassador, your name is being spoken at the highest levels of the Centauri government. They don’t know how you did it. They credit you with saving them embarrassment without creating another war in the process. They’ve noticed you, Ambassador, which was the point of the exercise. I hear they have great plans for you.
Londo: Yes, but ten thousand! In cold blood?
Morden: Ambassador, you’re a hero. Enjoy it. I’ll be around.
It’s touching that the next time we see Londo, he’s joining Ivanova to watch over Garibaldi’s surgery.
If you don’t mind, I would like to wait with you. He is an annoying man, but I would miss him if he…
That trailing-off is a telling delicacy. With a few more deaths under his belt, Londo will be able to finish the sentence. The second transgression is always easier than the first. And Morden knows this.
When the time is right Ambassador Mollari will do exactly as we wish.
Another turning point is G’Kar, whose stubbornness pushes Londo too far. Sinclair sees it happening, and tries to warn him:
I’ve had this feeling lately, that we’re standing at a crossroads. And I don’t like where we’re going. But there’s still time to choose another path. You can be part of that, G’Kar. Choose wisely. Not just for the Centauri, but for the good of your own people as well.
Of course, by this point in the episode, Londo has already accepted Morden’s help. I thought at first that it would have been subtly better plotting to have this scene come before the one in the labyrinth, as though G’Kar could somehow forestall Londo’s choice. That way Sinclair would have been telling the factual truth when he said there was still time to choose another path. But ordering the episode as he does, JMS makes Sinclair’s line resonate with a deeper truth: the path G’Kar must choose is not about the Narn base, but about how he will react to the provocations and stresses of the times to come.
That choice, G’Kar still has to make when Sinclair speaks to him. And although he has his great turning later on, his calm evaluation of the situation now, his ability to deduce the existence of the Shadows, is a turning point as well. (Contrast it to his uncontrolled fury over the G’Quan Eth plant, for instance.)
The third missed opportunity is the most obvious one: Sinclair is too late to hear what Delenn has to tell him. I don’t recall, in retrospect, that it mattered nearly as much as she implied:
We have lot to discuss. In coming to you, I’m putting both our lives at risk. There’s is much you should know.
But might-have-beens and missed opportunities are always painful, and mysteries always intriguing. And it’s interesting that, after all the times that JMS makes his characters into unconscious oracles, he leaves Delenn in doubt about her own destiny.
Lennier: Are you sure there’s no other way?
Delenn: What must happen will happen. Valen said this day would come. Who are we to stand in the way of prophecy?
Lennier: But what if you’re wrong?
Delenn: Then speak well of me when I’m gone.
A more self-certain character would not have said that last line.
One excellent exchange from the episode:
Londo: This is like being nibbled to death by, um…what are those Earth creatures called? Feathers. Long bill. Webbed feet. Go quack.
Londo: Cats. Like being nibbled to death by cats.
The next writeup will cover Points of Departure, the first episode in Season Two.
That last exchange was my inspiration for a stuffed Centauri “cat”, Quacko Mallardi.
I never got any farther with Bab5 than this episode. I can’t exactly say why, except to say that the whole thing seemed to be headed in some direction that for some reason didn’t interest me very much.
Maybe it’s kind of like X Files. I liked the X Files for a different reason than one of my closest friends, with whom I discussed every episode as it came out. He was very taken up with the Plot Of Alien Life, the government-conspiracy stuff, the Ciggie-Smoking Man – the “Big Picture.” I fundamentally thought the Conspiracy was intellectual garbage, but the Monster-Of-The-Week interested me. (Of course that’s intellectual garbage too! But more entertaining I thought.) Of further interest, after so many years, the X File episodes which are the most fun for me now are the comedies (some of which are genuinely funny – remember the vampires?) and second, the better Monster episodes.
So also Bab5, as far as I got with it. I didn’t really much care about the Fate of the Galaxy, but I did enjoy the interactions of the very diverse characters on the space station itself. (“All alone in the night!”) A failure on my part, I suppose, to take in The Big Picture.
I love this one; it’s my second-favorite season ender (after S2’s The Fall of Night, probably my favorite episode of the whole series). The sense of mounting dread coming in from all directions, like relatives gathering for a funeral, makes everything seem just terribly important — gives the episode, for me, the feeling of galactic importance that JMS so often doesn’t quite evoke when he wants to.
Joaquin Murrieta @2:
My problem with the Big Picture X Files episodes was that nothing changed because of them. They had the evidence in their hands and had to give it away to save each other again and again. And neither Mulder nor Scully seemed to change as a character. Perhaps I’m glossing over deep and profound personal story arcs, but although we learned more about them as the seasons passed, we never seemed to see them evolve. Given that, the rather weak tea of Freak of the Week episodes was what lasted.
The strength of the later seasons of Bab 5 is that that did not happen. The political becomes intensely personal for the characters on-station, and the choices they make affect not only the wider galaxy, but their own moral and emotional development. Watching Londo become corrupted by Morden and try to find himself again, following Garibaldi and Franklin as they wrestle with addiction, watching Vir find the courage of his convictions and be rewarded for it, seeing G’Kar immerse himself in his faith until he comes to the blinding and transformative understanding of forgiveness…that’s what mattered to me when I first saw the series, and that’s what I’m looking forward to experiencing again.
When I say above that the two series hadn’t grown together into an organic whole by this point in the show, that’s what I mean. JMS hadn’t yet finished put the characters in the place where their own personal journeys reflected and influenced the historic story arc, or where the great events of the galaxy have such intense, powerful, and real effects on the characters. He gets it together in the second season.
Abi: That may be why I find the first season the weakest of the five. The show hadn’t quite jelled yet.
For my own part, the two weeks that saw the first broadcast of Chrysalis, Points of Departure, and Revelations saw me more excited about a television show than I have ever been before or since. The stuff that had not yet jelled for you, certainly had for me.
David Goldfarb: There were certainly excellent episodes in the first season, Chrysalis being one of them, but the season as a whole is weaker than the others. (Don’t get me wrong, that still makes it miles above most TV.) Also, I have a somewhat odd perspective on the first two seasons, because I started watching B5 in the middle of the third season. I saw all of the third season and the beginning of the fourth before seeing any from the first two. Then a friend sent me tapes and I caught up in a hurry.
Sure, I won’t argue with that. Just, the things that Abi says were “shallow, pointless, and rather grey” weren’t that way at all for me.
there were smaller, interpersonal events that mattered more to me: Sinclair missing the chance to speak to Delenn before the cocoon is complete
That pretty much is what wrecked “B5” for my wife. We stayed on for about a year after that, and eventually quit. It obviously was a mistake. Well, I have the first season on DVD, and there is NetFlix – while I’m trying to make my way thru 2009’s season of “Eureka” although the delay in my watching is telling about the possibility that I’ll give it up and free up my DVR’s memory
Sorry for the digression away from “B5”.
Abi, I have to agree with you about this episode. The subject matter, along with JMS’s obvious capability of writing this kind of subject (see other episodes with similarly world-changing events, perhaps most obviously Messages from Earth and Point of No Return in S3, and compare their emotional effect) should have made this a great episode. From my first watch of the show I remember it being much better than I think of it now, but I think I was interpolating what actually should have been there for myself.
Santiago’s death is pretty much a non-event. There’s no lead up to it. Santiago hasn’t actually appeared in the show, so we know little about him. We also know little about his vice-president (other than that, as Ivanova said in an earlier episode, he has no neck). There’s no real reason to care whether he lives or dies. Would Santiago be a better president? Or Clarke? We have no way to know. We don’t know yet that Pynexr vf vzcyvpngrq va gur nffnffvangvba, be gung ur unf orra znxvat qrnyf jvgu Zbeqra, so we don’t have those reasons to dislike him.
Garibaldi’s injury? Garibaldi’s a main character — we therefore have an inbuilt hesitation to accept that any such injury will be fatal. Yes, later episodes show that B5 isn’t really that kind of show — but that hasn’t happened yet, and for now we have no reason to doubt that he will recover.
Delenn’s transformation? Unfortunately this plot was spoiled for me by the fact that I watched a number of season 2 episodes before I went back and filled in the ones I missed. I don’t know how I would have felt had I not already known what the outcome would be… but the same logic that applies to Garibaldi would probably leave the point somewhat moot.
At least the attack on the Narn outpost at Quadrant 37 manages to raise a chill. Probably largely because no matter how many times you see them, the Shadow ships are still creepy as hell.
So how could this episode have fulfilled its real potential? First, we should have known both Santiago and Clarke. Second, we should have seen at least one major character die (or otherwise be removed, c.f. Gnyvn) already by this point. We needed to know that nothing was entirely off the cards
 Having started another rewatch now myself, I’m now on my second complete start to end watch, with another that ran only season 1 -> 4 (S5 hadn’t yet aired at the time I did that one) and a random sampling of season 1 and 2 episodes prior to that.
 I’ve now got to write a story with Z’beqra as a character’s name. Vinabin and Q’ryraa would also have to appear in the same story, presumably on the opposite side.
Serge @9 — I’d love to know why you think Sinclair not getting to talk to Delenn before her transformation is a mistake. I think the promise that when she’s finished with whatever she was doing she might be willing to reveal some important information is actually some reasonably good suspense for the early season 2 episodes.
Jules… That may be, but my wife and I don’t like people to go their separate ways without at least a real goodbye. That may make for good story suspense, but that’s a button for both of us.
I saw all of B5 in rerun rather than in original broadcast, and so saw some episodes out of sequence. I had the advantage of seeing the prequel film that framed the original season, and that provided a great deal of context for me.
I’m being tempted to do a rewatch (especially if we jettison ourcable subscription and switch to an all internet Hulu and Netflix tv service — we watch little more than an hour of television a day, a bit more on Saturdays) by this. Especially since Gail didn’t see B5, and I’d definitely want to introduce her to it.
I’m afraid the whole Delenn-transformation thing fell pretty flat for me. “Er…so?” I get that it impacted her relationship with the Minbari, and at the same time opened other avenues for her. But I never really grokked why this was such a big deal. Maybe because I’d largely fallen away by halfway through season four, and never have seen season 5, except for “Sleeping in Light.” And maybe because I’ve always been an outsider, the significance of losing “insider” status is lost on me.
One of the disadvantages of following along on the Internet while the show was airing for the first time was JMS’s big build-ups. And then the show would air. And…well it might have been “breath-taking” in JMS’s mind, but for me it was (with a few notable exceptions) rather less so in execution.
Oh yeah, and X-Files: maybe you’ve pegged one of the reasons I never got hooked: the characters never interested me particularly and, as you say, they never evolved. I’ll forgive damn near anything if the characters intrigue me. Otherwise…there are always dishes to wash.
[“Abi: That may be why I find the first season the weakest of the five. The show hadn’t quite jelled yet.”]
That is why BABYLON 5 evolved into a great show. It didn’t start out great like “LOST” and flip-flopped during the rest of the series. It started out slow and built up naturally, like any good story.
Pingback: B5 Rewatch: S1E22 "Chrysalis" | ***Dave Does the Blog