Babylon 5: Points of Departure

Nothing’s the same any more.
—Commander Jeffrey Sinclair

The last line spoken in Chrysalis is the lament of anyone whose old certainties—some so solid they weren’t even identifiable as certainties—have passed away. It’s an excellent summing-up of the end of the first season of Babylon 5.

This episode is about what happens next.

Ivanova: The chief of security is in critical condition in Medlab. He thinks there’s a conspiracy concerning the president’s death. Ambassador G’Kar has mysteriously vanished. After two years, we still don’t know what Ambassador Kosh looks like inside his encounter suit. And Ambassador Delenn is in a cocoon.
Sheridan: A cocoon? As in a moth, or a butterfly?
Ivanova: Yes, sir. (Gestures) About yea high.
Sheridan: Interesting place you have here.
Ivanova: Yes, sir.

The first change, of course, is that Sinclair himself is gone. Obviously, this is for real-world, rather than in-series, reasons, but the characters have to deal with it on the show. His successor, John Sheridan, is of a very different character. He has superstitions, like the requirement to give his speech within 24 hours of taking a new command. And he doubts himself.

When I got my orders, I figured this place was a great opportunity. Now I wonder if coming here was irresponsible. This whole mess with the Trigati might not have happened if I hadn’t been here. I mean, my presence, my actions in the War…I’m to blame for bringing all this trouble to Babylon 5. What was it our friend in the Grey Council1 said? If there’s a doom on this station it was you who brought it here. Well, maybe he was right.

I spoke with the President. He’s the only other human who knows why the Minbari surrendered. And he doesn’t believe this stuff about us sharing Minbari souls, and I can’t say that I do either. But they believe it. That’s why they chose Sinclair to run this place. That’s why they picked him to live on their world. He was their first human contact. Him, they trust. Me? I don’t know. If Sinclair had been here instead, maybe they might not have attacked.

That’s an enormous contrast with Sinclair, who was never shown second-guessing himself or wondering if what he did was correct. Nor is it the only difference between the two commanders. As Sheridan points out, his history with the Minbari is more problematic than Sinclair’s2. As a result, he presents a risk to the extant balance among the various powers that meet on Babylon 5. And the Minbari are not slow in reacting. They feel, and are not shy about saying, that his presence shadows the station.

Ivanova, too, speaks of change and discomfort.

I just keep seeing EarthForce One blowing up, over and over again in my dreams. All my life, I thought that I could handle everything. Fix any problem. But when I saw that, I just realized I couldn’t do anything to stop it. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so helpless.

That line, by the way, and Claudia Christian’s delivery of it, sold me on the importance and impact of Santiago’s assassination in the way that nothing in the previous episode did.

But this uncomfortable sensation that everything has changed from a known reality to an unknown one is a useful feeling to take into the heart of the episode. Because the force that drives the plot is the way that the Minbari, an inherently stable society, are reacting to a profound change, one they sense more than understand.

The warrior caste see the Minbari as a people become cowards, who turned and fled from a conflict they were about to win. The friction between them and the Grey Council (along with the religious caste), is an ongoing problem in their society. It came out last season, when Alit Neroon was all too ready to restart the war over the Shai Alit’s body. Now Kalain and his renegade warship, the Trigati, are the current incarnations of the issue.

I like Kalain as a character. He knows there’s something deeply wrong in his society, something hidden by the Grey Council. It’s wrong enough to shake his faith in the old traditions, including the prohibition on shedding the blood of fellow Minbari. As a fighter, his impulse is to bring the problem out into the open and deal with it publicly, rather than let people like Hedronn manage it out of view. But he’s warrior, not a berserker. He’s not needlessly violent. He goes about his mission in a tight, controlled, honorable way.

He threatens Hedronn, but does not harm him. Given the chance to kill a security guard, he does not. He’s unflappable when interrogated, and calm about his own death. The only time he goes off-mission is the extra moment he holds the gun on Lennier, testing the younger Minbari’s courage and determination. Lennier passes, responding coolly:

If you are going to kill me, then do so. Otherwise, I have considerable work to do.

Aside from Lennier, the warrior caste definitely comes off best in this episode. Both Alit Diran, Kalain’s second in command, and the Trigati‘s fighters display the same discipline and direction as their leader. Meanwhile, the religious caste is shown as divided, uncertain, vexed.

Hedronn: So…she’s done it, has she? She’s in there. We told her to wait. The prophecy will attend to itself, we told her. Now we are committed to the path.

This ambivalence may be the product of their deeper understanding of the dissonance in Minbari society. What Kalain doesn’t know, but the Grey Council (and Lennier, somehow) do, is that that imbalance goes further back than the end of the War. And this is the episode where humans— and we—find that out.3

It is our belief that every generation of Minbari is reborn in each following generation. Remove those souls, and the whole suffers. We are diminished. Over the last two thousand years, there have been fewer Minbari born into each generation, and those who are born do not seem equal to those who came before. It is almost as if our greater souls have been disappearing. At the Battle of the Line, we discovered where our souls were going. They were going to you. Minbari souls are being reborn, in part or in full, in human bodies.

Lennier opens to us a vision of the journey of a single soul, going from perpetual rebirth in the ordered, regimented society of the Minbari to our more chaotic and fractious species, where desperation and bravery are indistinguishable. And that, really, is the image of the episode, whether we’re talking about the transition from controlled Sinclair to scrappy Sheridan, or the way the Minbari warrior caste has gone from the forefront of clean war to the excluded margins of messy peace. It’s a fair analogy for the transition of the series, too, as we move from the tried-and-true episodic structure of the first series into what was at the time a brave new world of large story arc.

The plot continues, following the death of the old-school warriors (they are hampered by the messy and ill-mannered humans, but truly foiled by the ambiguous emnity of their own kind). But that image is the heart of the show.

Of course, at the end of the episode, JMS feels compelled to plant the hooks of the next chunk of plot. He’s painfully unsubtle about it, both in the way it’s phrased and in how it’s delivered. As You Know, Cocooned Ambassador,

I only wish I could have told them the rest. About the great enemy that is returning, And the prophecy that the two sides of our spirit must unite against the darkness or be destroyed. They say it will take both of our races to stop the darkness. I am told that the Earthers will discover all this soon enough on their own. I hope that they are right. Because if we are wrong, no one will survive our mistake.

Some things never change.

One of the side pleasures of the episode, by the way, is the return of good Ivanova quotes:

And as far as I’m concerned, the transports can wait until the sun explodes. And if you’re not happy with the seating arrangements, I will personally order your seats to be moved outside, down the hall, across the station, and into the fusion reactor. Am I absolutely, perfectly clear on this?

I can only conclude that I am paying off karma at a vastly accelerated rate.

Alit Diran: The war already begun, Captain. All that remains now is honor and death.
Ivanova: And I thought I was a pessimist.

I learned a while ago that there’s enough guilt in the world to go around without grabbing for more.


  1. It’s more than a little clunky that Hedronn both accuses Sheridan of bringing a curse onto the station and authorizes Lennier to tell him the deepest secret of the Minbari race. But the revelation was clearly planned before JMS had to deal with the switch of actors. It needs to go here, by hook or by crook, to prepare the way for Delenn’s emergence in the next episode. And, at the same time, Sheridan’s reputation needs to be established right away by the ranking Minbari on the station4.

  2. At least, it’s more problematic for the Minbari. Not having been abducted, tortured and mindwiped is probably not a huge problem for Sheridan.
  3. This is interesting timing: rather than finish the last series with it, or lead up to it with a mini-arc, JMS drops it on us in the first episode of the new season. It gives him some time to work through the implications as the story heats up, but it’s a somewhat unusual approach to revelations. Babylon 5 is prone to that, and it’s frequently effective.
  4. More precisely, the ranking Minbari not currently in a cocoon.

The next writeup will deal with Revelations

Index of Babylon 5 posts

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24 Responses to Babylon 5: Points of Departure

  1. Serge Broom says:

    With each of these B5 posts, I fall further and further behind.
    Well, I can still enjoy your wonderful writing.

  2. Jules says:

    “The first change, of course, is that Sinclair himself is gone. Obviously, this is for real-world, rather than in-series, reasons, but the characters have to deal with it on the show.”

    I’m pretty sure I’ve read a statement from JMS somewhere that at least part of the reason for Sinclair’s departure was plot related — that the character was becoming too perfect, and isolated from the rest of the cast, and therefore JMS worried that he would not be able to do what he needed to do. The implication was that Sheridan’s character (or at least one like him) was originally going to be brought in alongside Sinclair, and that the real world problems therefore only nudged Sheridan into a more important role rather than completely changing the show. It’s probably a stronger show for it.

  3. RogerBW says:

    Poking at footnote 3, I think it’s worth remembering that Babylon 5 was one of the first genre shows explicitly intended to be shown in a specific order rather than shuffled in syndication. The system of season themes and mini-arcs and so on that we now take for granted was not at all a usual thing; one of the things JMS did very well, which compensates to some extent for the extreme clunkiness of his foreshadowing, is to set up a framework that worked and has been widely copied since.

  4. Jules @2:
    at least part of the reason for Sinclair’s departure was plot related — that the character was becoming too perfect, and isolated from the rest of the cast, and therefore JMS worried that he would not be able to do what he needed to do.

    That’s still not plot-related/in-series in the sense that I meant. Were it that Sinclair was too perfect for the Minbari to handle, so that they requested his replacement, then it would be on the other side of the real world/fictional world line. But JMS exists on our side of the screen, and so his decision had to be translated into in-series reality.

    Having said that, I agree that Sheridan is a better character than Sinclair for the things that will happen next. He’s got a cheesy grin, true, but he’s more fallible and exposes more of his complexity.

    Roger @3:
    I think it’s worth remembering that Babylon 5 was one of the first genre shows explicitly intended to be shown in a specific order rather than shuffled in syndication.

    At this point I’m going to get my h’rrumphing on and mention Blakes Seven, which did story arc back in the 70’s. But I admit that no one much followed that lead, possibly because the special effects were astonishingly bad. Or, alternatively, because it all goes horribly wrong at the end; not a pattern most shows are falling all over themselves to follow.

    (After I finish the B5 rewatches, I’ve promised myself that I’ll do the same thing to Blakes Seven.)

  5. TexAnne says:

    Lennier being snarky! *hearts* *weeps*

    Lennier knows because Delenn told him. /headcanon

    I had something substantive to say, but perhaps it will return to me later.

  6. RogerBW says:

    Abi @4, yes, fair enough; was Blake’s 7 ever widely seen in the USA, i.e. where most of the television gets made? It’s the B5 pattern that’s been re-used since (by Buffy most obviously), as opposed to say the old-style Doctor Who pattern which we might now categorise as a series of mini-arcs but generally no larger-scale structure. (What is the Blake’s 7 pattern? A bit of season-theme, but mostly separate episodes, I suppose.)

    What I was mostly aiming to get at was that JMS was putting together what for him (I think) and certainly for many of the producers who followed him was a new way of structuring a television show; it’s not surprising that he doesn’t entirely follow the template that’s evolved since, more surprising that what’s come since is so close to what we have here.

    One huge advantage that JMS had for most of B5’s run was not having to worry about renewal – and therefore not having the pressure to build quite the same sort of end-of-season cliffhanger.

  7. RogerBW @6:

    Blakes 7 wasn’t widely seen in the US, but I’d expect someone in the business, like JMS, to have been acquainted with it.

    I think the US TV pattern that most closely matches what JMS was doing on a season-by-season basis is the soap opera. The way that things are introduced, allowed to go quiet, and slowly build to a peak has a lot of the feel of, say, Dallas in the “Who Shot JR?” era.

    I’m not denigrating what JMS did with Babylon 5; he pulled a lot of disparate strands and structures from multiple storytelling traditions together, and wove it into a more coherent whole than most of his successors. There’s a good reason I’m willing to commit to writing something like a novel’s worth of words on the series. I expect it to reward the examination on many scales, from single scenes to the grand sweep of entire character life stories.

    But part of that dissection is looking at antecedents, analogies, and parallels. Not that I’m any kind of a television historian; I can’t even do a good comparison to Deep Space Nine, and I was watching it at the same time as Babylon 5.

    It really interests me that JMS put big revelations at the start of season 2, as well as how he resolved some potential cliffhangers at the end of season 1. And it interests me even more that, considering how successful it was for him, so few other writers have done it. (The current season of Dr. Who has done so, though, which is fun.)

  8. RogerBW @6:

    I realize I haven’t answered your question about Blakes 7. It’s been a while since I watched it, but my recollection is that there is a large story arc pretty much from the first episode to the last. It’s less planned and structured than Babylon 5, but the plot is consistently heading somewhere.

    There are also individual character arcs, as different people grow and change. I always think of Avon first; he becomes much more complex over the series. His relationships with the different characters evolve as well, in particular with Blake and Tarrant. (Also, ironically, with Servalan, the villain.)

    Although specific episodes could be shown out of sequence and still make sense, the show as a whole was always on a specific trajectory. Unfortunately, perhaps, that trajectory was downward, and accompanied by some of the worst special effects on TV. (Srsly. There’s one scene where a ship is in space, in orbit around a planet and blows up. Debris falls. Smoke rises.)

    There are a number of reasons why Blakes 7 is an ambiguous antecedent to Bab 5

  9. Lylassandra says:

    As a result, he presents a risk to the extant balance among the various powers that meet on Babylon 5…

    I actually thought that aspect made the command change really interesting. Santiago is gone, and Clark is xenophobic– or at least pandering to the anti-alien segment of the population. Sending Sinclair off to a post where they can get his reports but not trust him with anything makes sense. Replacing him with Sheridan makes even more. His promotion is a definite slap in the face to the Minbari, a message that humans don’t need to “cater” to them anymore; and given Sheridan’s record, Clark and co probably expect him to be in their camp as the president’s agenda unfolds.

  10. Andy Brazil says:

    But, since we were told in season 1 that Sinclair was there because the Minbari vetoed everyone else, we must assume either that they were OK with Sheridan or that the new EarthGov has chosen to ignore the veto. And yet it’s not mentioned in this episode. Surely someone on one side or t’other would find it worthy of comment?

    Re Blake’s 7 – It’s not quite a fair comparison in that the BBC, until the new Doctor at least, has never had show runners. To the extent that 7 had an arc it was an accident in that no one person was actually in charge all the way through. Terry Nation wrote the beginning and the end, but he had no control over what went on in the middle. The arc, such as it was, was the result of many authors doing one shot episodes based on what others had done before, rather than a coherent plot planned out beforehand.

  11. Paul A. says:

    Andy Brazil @ #10: we must assume either that they were OK with Sheridan or that the new EarthGov has chosen to ignore the veto. And yet it’s not mentioned in this episode.

    When Hedronn and Kalain have their confrontation, Kalain brings up the subject of Sheridan being posted to B5, and Hedronn says that they didn’t want Sheridan but EarthGov ignored them.

  12. Paul A. says:

    Lylassandra @ #9:

    An interesting wrinkle on this is that Sheridan mentions it was Santiago who chose him as next-in-line for the post, on the basis of the getting-along-with-aliens experience he was getting out on the Rim. Clark’s reasons for confirming the selection (which I think you’ve outlined well) are not the reasons the selection was first made.

  13. Paul A. says:

    TexAnne @ #5: Lennier knows because Delenn told him. /headcanon

    Hedronn tells Lennier, “You must go to the humans and tell them what we’ve told you.” So apparently it was the Grey Council that told him.

    What’s odd is the timing: presumably they told him because Delenn had done the cocoon thing, but Hedronn speaks of “what we’ve told you” in the same scene that he visits her quarters to personally confirm what she’s done, meaning that they must have told Lennier before her status was confirmed.

  14. Paul A. says:

    On a shallower note: The morphing heads on the Season 2 DVD menu are, if anything, even stranger than the morphing heads on the Season 1 DVD menu.

  15. Regarding Blakes 7 (a superior show in spite of the shockingly bad special effects!)…

    First, second what Paul said – the “arc” was largely unintentional. Terry Nation himself is on record saying they were making it without a plan, and this is the man who wrote every episode of the first season. The convincing character development was a lucky accident, and we probably owe as much thanks to Paul Darrow for that as anyone.

    Second, the show doesn’t go “horribly wrong” at the end! It’s the PERFECT ending for that show, such that I can’t really see it having ended any other way. I have a long-winded defense of that episode:

    http://jwherring.com/TOWM/2008/01/04/what-happened-on-gauda-prime/

    Third, I doubt whether JMS had heard of Blakes 7, but I’m certain Joss Whedon had (he was a student in England in the early-to-mid 80s, when Blakes 7 would’ve been fresh in public memory). Any similarities between Blakes 7 and a FOX show called “Firefly” are NOT AT ALL coincidental. I’d appreciate, but have never seen, an explicit acknowledgement of same by Whedon. I read somewhere that Paul Darrow called him out on it, though, responding jokingly to a question about a possible remake at a B7 convention with “It’s already been redone. Has anyone seen Serenity?” HA!

    Fourth, I’ll put myself down as one of the apparently few Sinclair fans. I liked him better than Sheridan.

  16. Well, I stand corrected on the idea that Blakes 7 was a deliberate story arc. But it still feels story arc-y to me. I’m perfectly happy to thank Paul Darrow for that (and for a hell of a lot more about the show), though seeing what was going on and running with it they way the writers did gets some gratitude too.

    My definition of “horribly wrong” in the context of the end of Blakes 7 was in-show, in other words, from the point of view of the characters and their endeavors. I agree that out of their universe, it was perfect and inevitable (and I think your analysis of why is sound). My point is that it’s not a story arc that bends toward happiness…

  17. Cadbury Moose says:

    On a real world note, Zack has passed away (according to Ansible):

    &gt • Jeff Conaway (1950-2011), US actor whose best-known genre role was as security officer Zack Allan in Babylon 5 and its spinoff tv movies, died on 27 May aged 60. [IC]

  18. Lylassandra says:

    @12: I had quite forgotten that, thank you for mentioning it. One begins to wonder just how Santiago and Clark ended up running mates at all…

  19. albatross says:

    Lyla:

    I only started watching with this episode, so maybe I’m missing something, but the natural guess is that Santiago/Clark were political bedfellows resulting from some kind of coalition-building attempt, probably trying to tie together the less and more xenophobic elements of Earthgov.

    My sense from watching the rest of the Clark story arc is that he was part of a largish coalition of disparate interests that had seized control, and it wasn’t 100% obvious that he was even the most powerful member of that coalition. Immediately upon seizing power, he had a lot less power than he would later, when he’d gotten his cronies positioned in more places, gotten Minipax and Nightwatch going, etc. Probably, Sheridan’s posting on B5 didn’t seem all that important, and was approved by Clark without all that much concern. (After all, he’d just pulled off a coup, and was trying to keep power.) Visibly putting a well-respected Earthforce captain in that position probably seemed sensible (the last thing you need when you’ve just pulled off a coup is to get the military against you), and the thumb in the eye of the Minbari presumably played just fine to his more xenophobic backers.

  20. Lylassandra says:

    That sounds likely. I tend to forget about the idea of coalitions since the political climate here in the states has been so polarized and against any such thing for most of my political memory, but of course they’re quite common elsewhere.

  21. Mary Aileen says:

    Even in the US, vice presidential candidates are often picked to appeal to another portion of the electorate. Often that’s regional–a candidate from New Hampshire is unlike to pick a running-mate from Massachusetts; they’ll go with one from California or Alabama–but it can be political/philosophical, too, at least to a certain extent.

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  23. Dave Hill says:

    There had been mention early days of a scandal where PsiCorp might have been supporting Clark in an election — which, to use the US model, would make me think it was during the “primaries,” and that Santiago/Clark ticket was an old school “Hey, both candidates are popular, let’s make one of them the VP nominee” political maneuver. Which, in this case, didn’t work out so well.

    I also have the recollection that General Hague had a role in Sheridan getting posted out there, as someone he knew could be relied upon in the coming crisis, perhaps whispering in Clark’s ear to sell him on the prevoiusly-made appointment.

  24. Pingback: B5 Rewatch: S2E01 "Points of Departure" | ***Dave Does the Blog

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