Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
—Worstward Ho, Samuel Beckett
You know the trope. Young Trainee goes to Hidden Monastery in the Mountains (or functional equivalent) to learn Obscure Art. There follows a montage of action shots: Young Trainee attempting tasks, failing, being injured, nearly despairing, trying again, being tutored by Older Disciple, succeeding. There may be Interesting Music, gongs, or both. The Ascended Master will either look on in serene detachment or occasionally join the fray to demonstrate how effortless Obscure Art should be. Then when the real plot of the movie gets going, Young Trainee’s skills in Obscure Art play their part the final reckoning.
And there’s a sub-trope involving two trainees: the dark one and the light one. Sometimes the dark one finishes the training (Draco Malfoy); sometimes not (Jasper in A Wizard of Earthsea). In either case, the dark student’s fatal flaw, which will damage all future endeavors, also manifests itself during apprenticeship. That which the dark student tries goes awry; the lessons learned are the wrong ones. Not even an Ascended Master can make it right.
This episode is that montage, and the Obscure Art in question is authority. JMS has established most of the characters he needs for the conflict to come. But two of them—Ivanova and Londo—though the right people, are not yet ready for their roles. However quotable her inner misanthrope is, Ivanova is either going to have to get people to follow her or she is going to be a failure. And Londo’s slow-growing dreams of empire will bear no fruit without legitimacy, real or perceived.
One of the subplots is explicitly about Ivanova’s learning curve. As a result of her promotion to Commander, she’s given the task of dealing with the sudden upswing of violence among the Drazi. Every five years, the entire species divides into two groups, the Greens and the Purples, and fight. Traditionally, the violence stops when the opposition is unconscious, and the entire exercise ends when one side or the other has won an overall victory. Unfortunately, when enacted on a mixed-species space station, this particular Drazi tradition produces a good deal of collateral damage.
Ivanova tries a rational approach first: get everyone together and talk things out. She wants to find the basis of the conflict and solve it. It’s a nice, collaborative approach, fitting her mental image of how an EarthForce commander should act. But she’s doing katas, and this is the real thing: an un-discussible, baseless problem. The Drazi are fighting each other because of random assignment into the Green and the Purple sides1. Simply putting a purple sash on a green-sashed Drazi causes his former compatriots to attack him. In the melee, Ivanova is injured. (Cut to shot of pupil face-down on the training ground, face suffused with pain.)
The sensei comes in to refocus the student and test her resolve:
Ivanova: Not exactly an auspicious beginning to my diplomatic career.
Sheridan: We learn by doing, and in the process, you’re going to fall on your face a few times. Though I didn’t think you’d take it quite that literally. So. What’s your next move?
Ivanova: Other than sticking the Drazi into a ship and firing it into the sun?
Sheridan: Other than that, yes. On the other hand, look. You got pretty banged up there. If you want to give it a day or two…
Ivanova: No. No. I started this, and by God, I’m going to finish it. Getting them together to resolve their differences didn’t work, because they don’t have any differences to resolve. So maybe I’ve got to come at this from another angle. Maybe find a nonviolent way to structure the conflict so that nobody gets hurt.
Sheridan: Good! I agree, one hundred percent. So, keep me informed, and take care of that foot.
Ivanova: But don’t you want to be there?
Sheridan: I have absolute trust in your abilities, Commander. (walks away)
Ivanova: Well, that’s a hell of a thing to tell someone. Hah! No pressure.
But real events outpace the student. The Green Drazi have started killing the Purples. Ivanova’s second try at a meeting turns into an ambush. And the Greens, having begun with a small group, now expand their plan to cover all the Purple Drazi in the station. Impersonating her, they have told the 2,000-odd Purples on-station to gather in Brown sector; their intention is to space the lot of them. If she resists, they will start killing humans as well. And, rather than commanding the Drazi, she finds herself a prisoner.
This is when Older Student appears. Garibaldi is the classic senior journeyman with no ambition for mastery. He practices the Art effortlessly, but in pursuit of his own goals. People come up to him and ask him to give them orders.
Welch: Seriously, Chief, when you coming back? Everybody misses you. It’s just…you know, it ain’t been the same without you.
Garibaldi talks his way into the Green Drazi headquarters while they’re holding Ivanova prisoner. But he’s a classic Older Student, there to help Ivanova learn rather than to solve her problems himself. When she tries again, this time through research, he’s her mouthpiece but not her replacement.
Garibaldi: Going somewhere? Hey, guess what? It looks like the Purple Drazi bought that story of yours about one big fight to the death. They’re waiting for you in Brown 29. Now, I can’t let you space them, as appealing as that idea sounds at the moment, but we do have another solution. As long as they’re all together in one place like that, we’re going to keep them there for a while.
Green Drazi Leader: How long?
Garibaldi: Just a few days. Ivanova checked the data files on your people, and it turns out this stupid contest of yours lasts just one cycle. The Drazi week is six Earth days, so, in four days…
Green Drazi: (laughter)
Ivanova: What? What’s so funny?
Green Drazi Leader: Cycle not Drazi week. Cycle is Drazi year. One Drazi year equal 1.2 human years. Can you keep Purple Drazi that long, Earther? This is our way. You can do nothing.
Try four is arguing.
Ivanova: Don’t you understand? This is insane. It doesn’t make any sense to go around killing each other over a piece of cloth.
Green Drazi Leader: You do same, yes? For flag, for honor?
Ivanova: That’s different.
Green Drazi Leader: Is it?
Ivanova: Yes. Our flags at least mean something. It’s not as arbitrary as yanking a color out of a box. I mean, you’re fighting and dying over a stupid piece of cloth. (takes leader’s cloth) Look, there’s nothing special about it. It’s not patriotic. It has nothing but this stupid little star in the middle of it.
Now, at the end of her training montage, Ivanova discovers the secret of leadership. She seizes the Green leader’s sash and he suddenly snaps to attention. Tony Robbins or Steven Covey would probably explain that this is because authority is a thing to be taken rather than given, but I disagree. I think the secret is what it always is in these stories: be yourself. For Ivanova, that means lose your temper and grab something dramatic to make your point.
Green Drazi Leader: Who takes green is Green, and follows Green Leader. Who takes cloth for Green Leader is Green Leader. Greens follow Green Leader.
Ivanova: Wait a minute. You’re saying that because I’m holding this right now, I’m Green Leader? But I’m human.
Green Drazi Leader: Rules of combat older than contact with other races. Did not mention aliens. Rules change…caught up in committee. Not come through yet.
Ivanova: Yeah, Bureaucracy. Tell me about it. Well. What do you know? All right. Greens follow Green Leader, hm? Green Leader says we’re all going down to the quartermaster’s office. I’m sure there will be some dye hanging around, and those of you not spending the next two months in the brig for assaulting an Earth Alliance officer are going to look absolutely gorgeous in purple.
By contrast, the dark student of this episode—Londo—fails abjectly. His approach to acquiring authority is less to take it than to steal it: trick the technomages into meeting with him, spoof their endorsement, and thus enhance his reputation at home. First he sends Vir2 to get an appointment with them. When that fails, he tries to use Sheridan to force a meeting that he can secretly film. He tries to pilfer authority like a pickpocket, just as his power over himself is being drained away by the Shadows.
Because I retain some affection for Londo, I’m willing to theorize that he fails because he’s not acting according to his true nature. He may think he’s subtle, manipulative, and ruthless, but in comparison to the forces beginning to control him, he’s laughably transparent and marshmallow-soft. His strengths lie elsewhere: he is at his best as a lover or a friend, and in the simple power of overt action. My memory of his story arc is that he is at his most commanding when he plays to these strengths.
No Training Montage is complete without the sensei, showing us how it’s done. In this episode, it’s Sheridan, not only mentoring Ivanova, but effortlessly winning Garibaldi over. Compare this quote from the very beginning of the show:
Garibaldi: Besides…I don’t know about this guy. I keep thinking about how everybody and his brother wanted Sinclair out of here. And now, all of a sudden, this change in command. Sinclair, I could trust. This guy? I don’t know.
With this one at the end:
Sheridan: Oh, and Mr Garibaldi—
Sheridan: Michael. I’m glad you agreed to stay on.
Sheridan does a master’s turn at a specific kind of claim to authority: winning a convert. It’s a different task than Ivanova or Londo faces, but it’s clearly the same art. And Sheridan’s tricks and tactics are all on the surface. There are no conversations we don’t see, but he doesn’t need them. He lays the entire lesson out in one single speech, covering three steps:
- Acknowledge the other person’s position, even if it’s awkward.
Sheridan: Good to see you on your feet. I talked to Dr. Franklin. He says you can come back to work any time you want. What do you say?
Garibaldi: I don’t know. I don’t know if I’m ready to come back, or if you want me to come back. Maybe it would be easier on everybody if I just resigned and moved on.
Sheridan: Probably. The universe doesn’t give you any points for doing things that are easy…
- Explain your decision
…Your record is colorful, to say the least. But everything I’ve heard suggests that you know this station better than anyone else. I’d be foolish to throw away a valuable resource without at least trying to work together. I need someone I can trust running security. I’d like it to be you…
- Give the other guy the space to make his choice
…Now if you decide you’d rather be someplace else, I’ll understand. I’ll hold your job open as long as I can. Don’t take too long, OK?
In addition to the leadership dojo, there are the usual crop of interesting and prophetic quotes in this episode.
- Vir, being correct while Londo fails to listen:
Londo: Vir, do you believe in fate?
Vir: Well, actually, I believe there are currents in the universe, eddies and tides that pull us one way or the other. Some we have to fight, some we have to embrace. Unfortunately, the currents we have to fight look exactly like the currents we have to embrace! The currents we think are the ones that are going to make us stronger? They’re the ones that are going to destroy us. And the ones that we think are going to destroy us? They’re the ones that are going to make us stronger. Now, the other currents—
Londo: VIR! Yes or no!
Vir: Yes. You know, somewhat. Why?
- Have I mentioned that I adore Vir? I adore Vir.
Elric: You don’t frighten easily.
Vir: I work for Ambassador Mollari. After a while, nothing bothers you.
- A vexing misquote. Did no one think to go back to the source text?
Elric: There is an old saying. Do not try the patience of wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger.
- This sums up the technomages for me: pretentious, but quotable.
Sheridan: If we went back in time a thousand years and tried to explain this place to people, they could only accept it in terms of magic.3
Elric: Then perhaps it is magic. The magic of the human heart, focused and made manifest by technology. Every day you here create greater miracles than a burning bush.
Sheridan: Maybe. But God was there first, and he didn’t need solar batteries and a fusion reactor to do it.
Elric: Perhaps. Perhaps not. It is within that ambiguity that my brothers and I exist. We are dreamers, shapers, singers and makers. We study the mysteries of laser and circuit, crystal and scanner, holographic demons and invocations and equations. These are the tools we employ, and we know many things.
Sheridan: Such as?
Elric: The true secrets. The important things. Fourteen words to make someone fall in love with you forever. Seven words to make them go without pain. How to say goodbye to a friend who is dying. How to be poor. How to be rich. How to rediscover dreams in a world that has stolen them. That is why we are going away. To preserve that knowledge.
Sheridan: From what?
Elric: There is a storm coming, a black and terrible storm. We would not have our knowledge lost or used to ill purpose. From this place, we will launch ourselves into the stars. With luck, you will never see our kind again in your lifetime. I know you have your orders, Captain, Detain us if you wish. I cannot tell you where we are going. I can only ask you to trust us.
- This is what happens when you try to force prophecy:
Londo: I wanted to thank you for your amusing little gift. It took me two hours to repair the damage to my quarters, and I don’t think the smell will go away for days. Now, if I may ask, does this torment end when you leave, or am I going to spend the rest of my life paying for one little mistake?
Elric: I’m afraid you’re going to have to spend the rest of your life paying for your mistakes . Not this one, of course; it’s trivial. I have withdrawn the spell. But there will be others.
Londo: What are you talking about?
Elric: You are touched by darkness, ambassador, I see it as a blemish. It will grow with time. I could warn you of course, but you would not listen. I could kill you, but someone would take your place. So I do the only thing I can. I go. Oh, I believe it was an endorsement you wanted. A word or two, a picture, to send to the folks back home, confirming that you have a destiny before you.
Londo: Yes, it was just a thought, nothing more.
Elric: Well, take this, for what little it will profit you. As I look at you, Ambassador Mollari, I see a great hand, reaching out of the stars. The hand is your hand. And I hear sounds…the sounds of billions of people calling your name.
Londo: My followers?
Elric: Your victims.
- I have a lot of problems with the fairly simple-minded portrayal of the Drazi in this episode. Their customs are shallow and silly; their language use is deliberately primitive, and their discovery of genocide feels weirdly unsophisticated. Their culture Other for the sake of Having an Other: classic cardboard.
But the guy who plays the Green Leader subverts this with his nuanced, clever portrayal. He’s hard to argue with, he has a sense of irony, and he has substantial personal charisma. One wonders what he does in their community the other four years, and how rare it must be that the leader’s scarf falls to such a one on a regular basis. (Or maybe all Drazi are like that, when liberated with the marks of mastery? There might be lessons here I can’t fathom, as a human.)
- Vir shows a lot of character in this episode. He’s braver in the face of the Technomages than Londo is, more perceptive about the greater shape of the problem they face, and generally shows the growing moral clarity that will make him one of the great treasures of the series over time.
The next writeup will cover A Distant Star