Remember back in Mind War, when G’Kar was playing Mysterious Soothsayer to Catherine Sakai?
Let me pass on to you the one thing I’ve learned about this place. No one here is exactly what he appears.
This is another one of the episodes where we catch glimpses of that. To a certain extent, it has to be. We’ve had five episodes to get used to Captain Sheridan’s surface character. It’s time to hint that there’s someone a bit more interesting under the bluff and slightly cuddly exterior.
First, we’re reminded that, although his appointment was not as much of a thorn in EarthGov’s side as Sinclair’s was, he’s not a pushover for whatever agenda his superiors on Earth want him to pursue. In this case, he refuses to eavesdrop on the negotiations between FutureCorp and the Mars provisional government.
With all due respect, Senator, my duties as commander of B5 don’t include spying on civilians.
Then we get a glimpse of Sheridan the Explorer and Meeter-of-Aliens. This scene rang almost entirely false to me: it neither advances the plot nor adds to the texture of the world. The first contact story he tells Ivanova is the sort of basic background on the TiKar that she should already know. And when he describes his time inside their ship, his narrative subsides into verbal mush:
It was incredible. I’d never seen so much space on a starship. And the TiKar themselves are so unlike any other alien species we’d encountered. I spent two days with them, and what I learned in that time made me realize just how wondrous this galaxy of ours really is.
But the real revelation about Sheridan, the genuine unsuspected depth, comes in pursuit of the main plot. He’s the one who has a lead about the Lazarus project, EarthForce’s cyborg-building initiative. It’s his information, covertly obtained, that allows them understand what Horn is, and
angle the deflectors recalibrate the station’s sensors to detect the eranium crystal’s emissions1. But why does Sheridan have this information? As he tells, Garibaldi,
Some people collect coins, or art. I collect secrets: black projects, conspiracies, secret organizations. They fascinate me.
Of course, it’s a trope in these sorts of stories that characters will have all kinds of unlikely and useful hobbies. One never knows whether a preteen girl trapped in the out-of-control dinosaur zoo will have Linux skills, but in cinema, that’s the way to bet. Likewise, Sheridan’s conspiracy-collection hobby turns out to be just the thing for the problem at hand. (It will come in useful in the future, too.)
Is it enough depth to make us trust him, as a narrator and as a strong character? Probably.
On a lesser scale, we get to see more complexity in a couple of other long-running characters: Garibaldi and Talia Winters.
As the season has gone on, Garibaldi’s habit of turning up just in time to escort Talia in the lift has become steadily more annoying for her2. She’s always passed it off rather than confronting it directly. But in this episode, she simply does not have the spoons to pretend that it’s not a problem.
Talia: Mr Garibaldi, Taro Isogi was like a father to me. I loved him as a client, and as a mentor, and as a friend. And now he’s dead. You’ll forgive me if I’m not in the mood for your usual badinage.
Garibaldi: You’re right. It’s a bad time for you. I’m being a yutz.
Talia: Apology accepted.
Garibaldi: Could you at least tell me what badinage means?
Talia: (slightly hysterical laughter)
Garibaldi: My pop always said that laughter’s better than pills for what ails you.
Talia: I think he was right.
Garibaldi presents himself very much as the stereotypical working-class guy who usually does end up in security. But his response to her request to drop the flirtation is swift and complete, with no entitlement or sullenness. He’s able to turn it into a joke on himself—a kindly thing—in short order. And although he then does end up drinking tea with Talia, he’s doing it for the pleasure of her conversation, not to put the moves on her.
(It’s possible that Garibaldi isn’t so much revealing hidden depths as conforming to a slightly different stereotype than the one I read him as. But in my universe, nice guys don’t stalk.)
Talia also reveals a good deal of complexity as the story unfolds. Her loyalties have always been finely balanced between PsiCorps and the people around her on Babylon 5: she defied the Corps over Jason Ironheart, but urged Alisa Beldon to join them. The anecdote she tells Garibaldi over tea serves two plot purposes (as well as balancing his own stories about his father):
Talia: I never really knew my father. Or my mother. I was raised by PsiCorps from the time I was five. Of course, there was Abby…
Talia: She was my support during my first year at the Center. When telepaths first come, they’re assigned a senior telepath to guide them through the early stages of the program. The first day, I was crying all the time. I was scared and confused and hurting. And then Abby came. She held me for a very long time, never saying a word. I didn’t know it then, but she was scanning me, ever so gently. And little by little, the pain and fear and confusion melted, and all that was left was this warm, safe place in my mind. It was wonderful. But the next year, Abby was assigned to another newcomer.
Leaving aside the rampant creeps that that anecdote gives me as a parent, it tells us something about what telepaths mean when they use the word “scanning”; clearly it’s not as read-only a procedure as the name implies. This is useful for understanding the Lazarus procedure described in the next scene.
It also prepares us for the fact that Talia, no matter how much she seems to be working for the good of the station and her clients, will be as reluctant to expose the failings of PsiCorps as the rest of the crew would be to embarrass their own parents. And, indeed, she makes just that choice, hiding the fact that she saw a PsiCop in Horn’s memory of his conversion to a cyborg.3.
Both of the introduced characters who have significant screen time turn out to be complex as well. Angela Carter is neither the entirely-clean politician she first appears to be, nor the fanatic that her MarsFirst! background would suggest. She’s someone who has grown and learned over time, and promises to continue doing so. One can see why Bureau 13 would want to use Horn to damage her politically. Meanwhile, in this company of the naturally multilayered, Horn himself seems almost straightforward: a single-minded man with a single-minded evil riding him.
Only the walk-ons are simple. Senator Vordreau embodies callous utilitarianism in the passive voice:
These are volatile times, Captain. Practicality is more important than principles if lives are to be saved.
Taro Isogi displays a martyr’s optimism:
Mars could be the beginning of a whole new life for the human species. As it was meant to be.
And, of course, the unknown PsiCop wallows in acquisitive evil:
If there’s a deeper point to this episode, it’s not just that EarthGov has a spider in its web. It’s that all of the characters do too, one way or another. Some of them are monsters, and some of them are harmless, or even useful. But there are secrets in the shadows, everywhere we look, even when the people themselves don’t realize it.
Sheridan: “Tell me, what do you think of her?
Ivanova: Ms Winters? I think she’s an interesting person.
Sheridan: You’ve never described anybody that way.4
Ivanova: I mean, I don’t really know her that well. I mean, we’ve chatted from time to time. And she’s…interesting.
- It bemuses me that the computer can tell Sheridan which quarters the crystal emissions have been found in—Red 7, Suite 15—but he has to remember for himself who is staying there. Like the idea that the stolen plans of the Death Star can be retrieved when they’ve been electronically copied, it’s one of those hints that the script was written before a fundamental watershed in our thinking about pervasive data.5
- And, by the way, to me too. I think this is another example of how Babylon 5 is the future of a different time. I find Garibaldi’s behavior sufficiently creepy that I’ve been struggling to see him as a good guy. I can’t picture that a writer now would consider his behavior toward Talia a mere personal quirk.
- Mind you, if any member of an organization I was loyal to were to mug, grimace and gloat in her evil the way the PsiCop did, I’d keep it pretty quiet too. Not so much for the wickedness as for the tackiness.
- The more I think about this conversation, the more I think this reaction is intentionally marked. And the more I adore the show, stalking tolerance notwithstanding.
- And then there’s the hardware. Angela Carter’s compact computer in a suitcase. The inch-thick tablet computer Sheridan puts aside when Garibaldi arrives at his quarters to hear about Project Lazarus.
The next writeup will cover Soul Mates