Babylon 5: The Coming of Shadows

Spock: Edith Keeler. Founder of the peace movement.
Kirk: She was right. Peace was the way.
Spock: She was right. At the wrong time.
The City on the Edge of Forever

Somewhere in my gut, storytelling and polyphony are mapped to the same pattern. They both start with a known base state which has some kind of harmony or stability. Then things get complicated: voices move away from one another and explore the melody; characters act. Dissonance, or conflict, occurs. Conclusion is resolution, a return to some kind of harmony.

(It’s an inexact analogy, and probably reveals as much about my ignorance of music theory as it does about anything else. But bear with me here.)

A short story is like a short composition: the voices don’t stray far or for long, because the resolution is coming right at us, counting down from the three minutes and fifteen seconds we had at the start. So false resolutions are rare and tricky things. But a longer piece may tease us with the hope of early resolution and snatch it away, just to show us how deep the dissonance is, and how far we have yet to go before harmony of any kind can be restored.

This is that episode. It’s the demonstration that this is going to be a long, long piece, because even the hope of resolution is a false one. The medium of this message is the story of one of the saddest characters of the series: Centauri Emperor Turhan.

Emperor Turhan wants to go to Babylon 5. His prime minster doesn’t want him to; his health is poor, and the trip will be strenuous. But he’s determined. He goes, leaving his wig behind1: “I will go among them as I am.”

G’Kar is, unsurprisingly, outraged at his coming:

G’Kar: He’s a monster…an aberration…a criminal! His family is directly responsible for strip-mining my world. His father personally ordered the execution of a hundred thousand Narns!
Sheridan: But he himself did nothing. Am I correct?
G’Kar: A technicality!
Sheridan: In fact, unless I’m mistaken, the current emperor has gone out of his way to offer your world concessions and return lost territory.
G’Kar: Stolen territory!

Essentially, G’Kar is offended that the Emperor’s wig is coming to Babylon 5. He’s offended enough to plan an assassination attempt2. But when the man, not the wig, arrives, the conflict in this episode seems resolvable. The Emperor’s mission is to apologize:

Franklin: He wanted to say he’s sorry.
G’Kar: What?
Franklin: He came all the way out here, risked his health and endangered his life, so that he could stand beside a Narn in neutral territory and apologize for all the things the Centauri have done to your people. For all the things his family did. He said, “We were wrong. The hatred between our people can never end until someone is willing to stand up and say, ‘I’m sorry’ and try to find a way to make things right again. To atone for our actions.” He said it was the only choice he ever made in his life. And now that seems to have been taken away from him.
G’Kar: I had…I had no idea.
Franklin: No, I’m sure you didn’t. Maybe that’s the biggest tragedy of the whole damn story.

It’s tantalizing to contemplate what could have happened, had the Emperor not had his heart attack on the way to the reception. Maybe it would still have failed; maybe G’Kar would have succeeded in his assassination attempt, or been killed while trying. Had he been captured but not killed, I suspect the Emperor would still apologize.

(Also, it’s a little irritating that JMS again uses an overt mistiming to rob his characters of useful encounters. I was OK the first time he did it, when Delenn goes into a cocoon before having a necessary conversation with Sinclair. But repeating the technique is starting to feel like poor plotting. It throws me out of the story a little.)

The other mistiming, equally painful, is that G’Kar goes looking for Londo after Franklin has delivered the Emperor’s message. It’s too late for that peace offering as well: Londo has already taken his next turn toward the darkness and called the Shadows in to attack the base on Quadrant Fourteen.

But the truth of the matter is that no perfection of timing would have saved the situation. Suppose it had all run straight: imagine the Emperor had apologized at the reception. Presume that G’Kar had bought Londo that drink before the latter promised Refa that he would do “something extraordinary—something unparalleled—to stand out” from the crowd of people maneuvering for the succession.

The Shadows would still be out there, looking for cracks in the unity and good order of sentient species the way that water looks for cracks in a dam. The anger of the Narn and the pride of the Centauri run deeper than an Emperor’s apology or an ambassador’s acceptance of it can heal. Refa would no doubt use the apology as evidence of the Emperor’s weakness and work to overthrow him, with or without Londo’s help; perhaps one day soon he’d get a dark-haired human visitor asking, “What do you want?”

And Refa has none of Londo Mollari’s virtues.

We’ve been given a promising harmonic between the sopranos and the altos, but the basses’ themes are still anger and war. The B-plot is a potent reminder of this: Sinclair sends a message to Garibaldi (and, at the end, Delenn) explaining that he has agents—rangers—throughout known space. He has his troops in place for the conflict to come. “There is a great darkness coming. Some of the Minbari have been waiting for it for a long time.”

Trying to stand against this, Emperor Turhan becomes an almost tragic figure: the Edtih Keeler of the story. Like Keeler in Star Trek, Turhan is absolutely correct that peace must be made. The Centauri owe the Narn more than an apology, but an apology would be a good start. But also, like Keeler, he must fail, or the darkness that’s coming will overwhelm everyone.

As Turhan tells Sheridan, he’s made virtually no choices in his life:

I have never chosen anything. I was born into a role that had been prepared for me. I’ve done everything that I was asked to do, because it never occurred to me to choose otherwise. And now, at the end of my life, I wonder what might have been.

In the end, he has one intention and one desire. He means to “seize that one last fragile moment” to make peace—but we see that fail in this episode. And he wants to see a Vorlon. That, he does manage to do. But Kosh’s presence is not a comfort:

Turhan: How will this end?
Kosh: In fire.

Second only to the emperor in futility in this episode is poor Vir, still trying to be the angel of Londo’s better nature:

Londo: Find Mr Morden. Bring him here.
Vir: Londo, don’t do this.
Londo: I have no choice!
Vir: Yes you do! Londo, please, please, I know you don’t listen to me, but I’m asking you just this one time, don’t do this. There’s no turning back once you start down that road.
Londo: Do I have to go find him myself?
Vir: No. No, I’ll go, and I’ll bring him back. And someday I’m going to remind you of this conversation. And maybe then—then you’ll understand.
Londo: I understand just fine. By this time tomorrow, we will be at war with the Narn. May the Great Maker forgive me.

There are effective choices made in this episode, and there is hope. Sheridan dissuades G’Kar from his first, murderous impulse to dealing with Londo. Using the information the ranger passes to Garibaldi, he saves the Narn civilian population from death or enslavement in Centauri labor camps.

And although G’Kar regrets his turn toward peace with Londo, it’s a genuine one; what he says over their drink is a foretaste of his own redemption and the foundation of the two’s future complex relationship:

I believed your people capable of only murder and pain. But apparently there is still a spark of decency in your genetic code. It’s not much of a foundation, I’ll grant you that. But it’s a start. I never thought I would be saying this, Mollari, but to the health of your emperor. And perhaps to your health as well.

Over in the tenor section, they’re singing of better things.

  1. From what we know of Centauri society, that’s a significant choice: he’s abandoning status markers in a stratified and competitive context.
  2. Even making, in a gesture that’s more chilling now than it was when the show was filmed, a video record of his reasons for the murder

The next writeup will discuss The Coming of Shadows

Index of Babylon 5 posts

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4 Responses to Babylon 5: The Coming of Shadows

  1. fadeaccompli says:

    The tragedy in this episode is so deep and painful that it hits me again even on reading the recap. And when I first saw it, I just plain didn’t understand. Why couldn’t people move on? Why couldn’t they give up their pride and their past for long enough to do something better in the future? Everyone seemed to be acting on–well, it’s a bad word here, but essentially alien impulses. I just didn’t understand how they could prioritize the way they did, for all that it was entirely consistent with their characters.

    And I’m not sure if it’s good or bad that, ten years later, I understand those things a lot better.

  2. macallister says:

    There were key moments in this episode that were absolutely heartbreaking — G’kar’s faith regained, only to be cruelly dashed again, the elaborate dance steps that guarantee a trainwreck outcome that should have, could have been avoided if everyone was acting in good faith, and believing in the good faith of the other dancers.

    I think I rather admired the way the plot revolved around missed opportunities and poor timing, creating a situation where events sweep people — people who are otherwise decent and who WANT to be admirable — into making repulsive and indecent choices.

  3. Paul A. says:

    Come to think of it, is it established anywhere in the episode how Londo knows Morden’s on the station? I don’t recall his name coming up before Londo tells Vir to fetch him.

  4. It isn’t established anywhere that Morden is on-station, but I’m content to believe that he was (a) around because the Emperor’s visit was such a nexus of interesting possibilities, and (b) pinging Londo whenever he was going to be in the area.

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