Babylon 5: A Distant Star

When I was a kid, I dreamed of being an astronaut. I didn’t pursue it, which was fortunate—my tendency to motion sickness alone would have been enough to disqualify me. But what do you do if you have pursued a dream for years, and suddenly find yourself shunted onto some other path? What if you figure out that you’ll never achieve your goal just when your friend who has done so stops by?

There are lots of flashy things going on in this episode, plenty of life-and-death moments and big scary things. And there’s food and physical comedy (this is the Bagna càuda episode), and tiny incidents that will have greater consequences. But if the heart of every story is transformation, then the heart of this one is the process of compromising between an ideal position and the demands of reality. And how, and why, and what results are the limbs and outward flourishes.

The major compromise is John Sheridan’s. Until his assignment to Babylon 5, his career was the classic military progression from ship to ship, each one larger than the last. He was headed for the ultimate command in EarthForce: an Explorer-class vessel. These are the ships that explore the Galactic Rim, out of contact for years at a time. The structure may be more plausible, but think of it as a United Federation of Planets Constitution-class ship (old-style; no kids, bartender, no holodecks).

And then he comes to Babylon 5. He’s Captain Kirk piloting a desk.

His growing discontent is magnified when his old friend and former commanding officer, Jack Maynard, arrives in the Cortez. Then Sheridan becomes snappish (cutting Garibaldi off in the midst of a report on shoplifting) and defensive (trying to find a way to define his job to Maynard that doesn’t make it seem pedestrian). Maynard doesn’t help at first—he starts out thoroughly disappointed on Sheridan’s behalf.

Maynard: What about you, Johnny? This isn’t exactly what you trained for. It’s not really what you wanted.
Sheridan: Jack, I can make a difference here. It’s important.
Maynard: I suppose. I just never figured that a die-hard spacer like you would wind up tied to a desk.
Sheridan: Well, it’s a hell of a desk to be tied to.

By the end of his visit, though, Maynard has seen something in the role that Sheridan hasn’t yet.

Sheridan: The adventure is out there, Jack. A man has to go and meet it.
Maynard: Well, sometimes it comes to you. Wait for it, Johnny.

The Cortez departs, leaving Sheridan even more discouraged. Ivanova tries to get him to talk about it.

Ivanova: Ever since the Cortez arrived, you just haven’t been yourself. I thought perhaps you’d like to talk about it.
Sheridan: I command starships. Not cities in space. These problems…the petty complaints, the endless bickering, the constant negotiations. Jack Maynard said this isn’t what I was trained for and he’s right. I mean, I am constantly sandbagged, swamped, drowned and snowed under by nothing but trivia. I mean, look at this desk. I can’t find a thing on it. You know me. Is this me? Huh?
Ivanova: Starships run on details. You’ve always run a tight ship. That’s an admirable trait. B5 can never run in quite the same way. But you’ve had to settle your share of crew squabbles in your time, so forgive me for saying this, but there must be something more than just that.
Sheridan: Maynard is right. I’ve been beached.
Ivanova: Hardly. Running B5 takes just as much energy, intelligence and patience as it does to command a starship.
Sheridan: There is a difference. They have turned me into a bureaucrat. A politician. And I’ll tell you one thing. If the primates that we came from had known that someday politicians would come out of the gene pool, they’d have stayed up in the trees and written evolution off as a bad idea. Hell, I always thought the opposable thumb was overrated.
Ivanova: You’re here because the President thought you could handle it. As your Executive Officer, I have the right to know: was he wrong?
Sheridan: I don’t know. Maybe he was, and it’s just taken this long to sink in.

I’ve had conversations like that, enough to have a rule of thumb: If entropy, evolution or economics is to blame, the problem is in the mind and heart. I know that Sheridan will become a superb diplomat, facing down interplanetary war and genocide, finding the narrow path of safety through a wasteland of disaster. Ivanova and Maynard know that the job he’s doing is a worthy challenge, and that he’s a worthy candidate for it. But the person who has to find the value in his role is John Sheridan. Because this is television, he manages it within the episode.

The solution is twofold: action and words. The Cortez loses its navigation beacon as it enters hyperspace, leaving it adrift and unable to return. They send out a distress call, but there’s little hope; ships lost in hyperspace simply do not come back. But Babylon 5 receives the call, and Sheridan gets to do a lot of ship-captain stuff: plan a rescue, mobilize fighters, command and coordinate. Although the dramatic rescue is performed by others (with a nice mix of peril, innovation and sacrifice, as well as a creepy view of the Shadow ship), Sheridan gets to act, and realize that his job still includes those things that he values.

And then he has a long talk with Delenn1.

Delenn: They saved others. At the right time, they were in the right place. They knew what to do. As did you.
Sheridan: What makes you think this is the right place for me?
Delenn: The universe puts us in places where we can learn. They’re never easy places. But they are right. Wherever we are is the right place and the right time. The pain that sometimes comes is part of the process of constantly being born.
Sheridan: You sound like you’ve been doing some thinking about this on your own.
Delenn: Perhaps. We are both, I suppose, going through transitions. But the universe knows what it is doing.
Sheridan: I wish I had your faith in the universe. I just don’t see it, sometimes.
Delenn: Then I will tell you a great secret, Captain. Perhaps the greatest of all time. The molecules that make up your body are the same as the molecules that make up this station, and the nebula outside. That burn inside the stars themselves. We are starstuff. (chimes in the background) We are the universe made manifest, trying to figure itself out. And as we have both learned, sometimes the universe requires a change of perspective.

I find both the logic and the sound effects in that conversation regrettable, but they’re what Sheridan needs.2 He accepts that the task in front of him is the one that he should do, and that his choice is to do it well or badly. And that’s no choice at all; at the end of the episode, he’s sorting out his desk and, by implication, his workload.

The lesser mirror of this subplot is Dr. Franklin’s attempt to improve everyone’s eating habits. Like Sheridan, he has a vision of what he should be doing with his career, and letting the station staff eat the way they do isn’t part of it. First he tackles Garibaldi, with the excuse that his gunshot wound will heal faster if he eats properly. The diet eating plan he prints out3 bans salt, starch and fats. Since Garibaldi is preparing for his annual birthday dinner of Bagna càuda (a dish made entirely of salt, starch and fats4), he is…reluctant.

Emboldened by having imposed an eating plan on Garibaldi, Franklin then finds a reason to inflict one on Sheridan as well: the captain has gained a few kilos since moving to Babylon 5. Then, without any excuse, he also gives Ivanova an eating plan. (He does point out that being slim is not the same as being healthy, and comes very close to telling her that she is too thin, both messages that I’d like to see more of on TV. But he undoes that all with a gratuitous and inappropriate physical compliment5).

This lesser plot is played for laughs. The scene where the three of them sit down to their dinners, realize that they’re each eating what the other would prefer, swap meals, and then hastily swap back when Franklin catches them is one of the best pieces of physical comedy in the series. And Delenn’s inadvertent betrayal of Garibaldi’s smuggling, when she asks when the reception for the new aliens—the Bagna càuda whose arrival the security chief is preparing for—is scheduled, is funny too.

But in the end, Franklin, like Sheridan, has to accept that his real job is not the clean, abstract ideal he’s been cherishing. He, too, has to get into the messy interpersonal details, compromise, and grow. Rather than forbidding Garibaldi his Bagna càuda, he has to engage with his patient’s reasons for eating it. This does end up with him sharing the dish, and discovering (as so many Puritans do) that indulgence is fun. Although his personal and professional journey is only sketched out at this point in the series, it’s a useful humanizing moment for him.

Peripheral to the major and minor plots, there is also one scene of note in the episode. Delenn is approached by a leader of the Minbari community on Babylon 5. He is worried that she is no longer truly Minbari. “I am more one of us than you can imagine,” she reassures him, but the Minbari still asks to speak directly to the Grey Council to discuss her standing. This is an early pebble in an avalanche: Delenn’s status as a Minbari will be questioned on and off from this point forward.

  1. Like so many important conversations about good and evil and temptation, it takes place in the station garden.
  2. Sometimes the characters in this series are simply Not My People. I’m OK with this.
  3. Dr Franklin’s paper printouts are the third illogical form of text display shown on the episode:
    • The communications officer on the Cortez uses a PDA to take down Maynard’s message to Sheridan. I’m baffled why Maynard has to dictate it like a 1950’s executive
    • Ivanova gives Sheridan Maynard’s message printed on a piece of acetate. Have you ever tried to read a message printed on acetate while holding it over a visually complicated backdrop, such as the Babylon 5 C&C? Spurious modernity. Bah.
    • Paper printouts. Triggered by Franklin’s PDA, printed out, torn off, handed to the recipient. I’d be floored if they didn’t have PDAs themselves. They certainly don’t wear pockets or carry portfolios to store the sheets of paper.
  4. If you want to try it, we use the recipe on Epicurious. I cannot answer to its authenticity to either Piedmont or the orbit around Epsilon III, but it’s certainly delicious.
  5. Ivanova: All of my life, I’ve fought against imperialism. Now suddenly, I am the expanding Russian frontier.
    Franklin: (sotto voce, a wise move) But with very nice borders.

The next writeup, which will appear much sooner than this one did, will cover The Long Dark

Index of Babylon 5 posts

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16 Responses to Babylon 5: A Distant Star

  1. Fade Manley says:

    First: Hurrah for new posts!

    Second: at the description of Sheridan as “Captain Kirk piloting a desk,” I suddenly realized why I disliked Sheridan so much when he first appeared. (He grew on me.) One of the reasons, anyway. As a sedentary sort myself, and having done admin and secretarial work and combinations thereof many times, I’m deeply familiar with just how much a lot of that paper-pushing matters, and so I get growly when characters of Action! and Adventure! are displayed as sneering at, or finding it beneath them. Bureaucracy doesn’t just exist because a bunch of people went, “Hey, I’d love to sit at a desk all day.”

    But then, he does figure out, eventually, that these things are important too. A lot of things that aren’t particularly glamorous or exciting are important, much as stories would love to have us believe otherwise. (And I begin also to appreciate just how much police officers loved the scene in Hot Fuzz when there was a dramatic montage of police filling out all the paperwork related to their exciting action sequences.)

  2. Avram Grumer says:

    Not that I think the show’s creators thought out those scenes this way., but I can imagine a society, descended from our own, in which paper is hardly ever used, but when it is used, it’s for high-status purposes, like maybe doctors’ prescriptions. A doctor wanting to give his recommendations the weight of his authority as a physician might hand out hard copy even if it’s not strictly necessary.

    I’d love to see a science-fictional future handled with attention to detail along the lines of that used in Mad Men. (Though even that show gets some of the bits wrong.)

  3. brjun says:

    Hooray for new updates! A friend and I have been watching the show (second time for me, first for him) and reading your analysis. First we were behind and struggling to catch up, but now we are ahead. So, I am glad that the posts are still coming!

    Also, I love the description of Sheridan as “Kirk, piloting a desk”. It is part of why, originally, I really liked Sinclair much better — he seemed like he was messed up enough and interesting, while Sheridan just reminded me of all other commanders out there. He eventually grew on me, but he still feels like a non-entity, somehow.

  4. cavyherd says:

    Another thing that JMS got wincingly wrong: the diets. To be fair, dietary recommendations have evolved some in the last eighteen years. But still….

  5. Nick Brooke says:

    An update: hurrah!

  6. Serge Broom says:

    A bit off topic, but not that much… Who else noticed that Captain Maynard was played by Russ Tamblyn. Yes, he who will be a Jet “till his last dying day”…

  7. Lylassandra says:

    @6: I’m now picturing Capt. Maynard and Zack Allen having a sing-off…

  8. Marc Mielke says:

    Lylassandra: There’s an unexpectedly large number of B5 guest stars best known for musicals. Theodore Bickel being the one I remember best. Jason Carter has a funny singing bit in S4.

  9. It’s a shame they never did a musical episode, a la Once More with Feeling. (Am I tempted to write one? Yes. Do I have time? Not so much.)

  10. Serge Broom says:

    Coming soon, “Beach Blanket Babylon 5”!!!

  11. Lylassandra says:

    @8: Oh, I remember that bit in S4, have no fear. He was the love of my life when the show first aired. (I was all of twelve at the time.)

    Now I must go look up Theodore Bickel…

  12. Mary Aileen says:

    Lylassandra: He’s probably easier to look up if you spell his last name Bikel. 🙂

  13. Paul A. says:

    cavyherd @ #4: Another thing that JMS got wincingly wrong: the diets.

    For what it’s worth, this is one of the episodes JMS didn’t write; it’s one of the three written by Star Trek’s DC Fontana.

  14. Paul A. says:

    Serge @ #6:

    I saw that when I looked him up on IMDb, but I haven’t seen West Side Story often or recently enough to have recognised him unaided. (As it happens, I found myself thinking that with the beard and the accent he vaguely reminded me of Stephen Sondheim.)

  15. Serge Broom says:

    Paul A @ 14… I don’t think I’d have recognized Tamblyn if not for his name being in the opening credits. He sure looked different from the way he did in George Pal’s “Tom Thumb”.

  16. Pingback: B5 Rewatch: S2E04 "A Distant Star" | ***Dave Does the Blog

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