As I had said in my review of season two, visually season two’s opening credits were my favorite. That said, visually, season three’s titles were a pretty good successor, however, musically, I think Franke hit this one out of the park. The rising notes are a reflection of the season’s rising tension and the industrial sounding “hammer strike” as I like to call it gives season three an ominous feel. We are definitely being set up for something dark and dangerous.
Season three is a bit of an oxymoron in as much as so much happens but nothing really happens. Sounds kinda weird huh? Bear with me, I’ll try and explain that statement.
Episode one begins with the introduction of yet another new character. In the opening scenes of Matters of Honor we meet Marcus Cole (played by Jason Carter). Marcus is a Ranger fleeing a drazi colony that, so far, has given the rangers safe haven but has now come under scrutiny from the expanding Centauri empire. He comes to Babylon 5 to ask Sheridan to free the rangers from the hostile Centauri blockade.
I’ll be honest, when I first watched season three – what, sixteen years ago – I didn’t like the character of Marcus. Looking back, I find it hard to remember why. Maybe it was because I was happy with the character set B5 already had and I was unhappy that Straczynski had thrown someone else in to the mix. Maybe it was because I was British and Marcus felt like every British stereotype I’d ever seen on TV before. The plummy accent grated on my every nerve. Honestly, I expected Marcus to break out into “Tally ho chaps! Into the fray we go!” at any moment. A leather flying cap and goggles felt more appropriate than a ranger’s robe and Minbari fighting staff. Marcus should have been flying spitfires, not spaceships and the character just felt out of place to me on a sci-fi show.
In hindsight, I was a lot younger when B5 first aired and perhaps my dissatisfaction with Marcus’s character back then says more about me and my own prejudices than it does about Carter’s acting because, much like my initial over-critical assessment of Claudia Christian in the role of Ivanova, on a second viewing, Marcus is actually a pretty good character and a worthy addition to the cast.
So, back to Matters of Honor. Since Delenn is the leader of the Rangers Sheridan has no real recourse other than to oblige Marcus’s request (a) because it’s the right thing to do and (b) because Sheridan also needs to do the right thing by Delenn who, by now it is clearly obvious, is his romantic interest. As a result, Sheridan discovers he has a new ship at his disposal – the White Star – Minbari built with Vorlon technology, this thing tops out all the specs and has its own jumpgate capability. Everything is set up for a first face-off with the Shadows. Oh yeah – this is gonna be a good season.
As with every other season, the opening episode is a no-brainer. You have to see this episode. It sets up so much of what’s to come. Similarly, with the previous two seasons I had said that the episodes not to be missed were those written by Straczynski. In season three every episode is written by Straczynski – and that should tell you something. This is not to say every episode is a “must see” in fact Convictions (Ep. 2) could be easily passed by were it not for Londo and G’kar.
In Convictions, a terrorist is setting bombs aboard the station. Patrick Kilpatrick stars as the terrorist in an appearance uncannily reminiscent of John Malkovich in In the Line of Fire – but it’s not this plotline that makes this episode memorable. What makes Convictions good is the interplay between G’kar and Londo, who, as a result of an explosion, are trapped in an elevator together. Together, they steal the show. If you believe everything you read on the internet, apparently the following scene was supposed to be played seriously, but Andreas Katsulas (G’kar) decided to ad lib it and Straczynski let the two actors run with it. Whether you believe that or not, it remains a truly memorable scene and many people cite it as a favorite.
The point is, there were episodes in season three that maybe weren’t quite as strong as others, but it was scenes like this that made each one worth tuning in for because you never quite knew what you were going to get. Similarly, characters made choices or decisions in episodes which would go on to be significant subplots. Franklin’s stims addiction for example was subtly introduced in A day in the Strife (Ep. 3) and in the same episode Londo arranges for Vir to become an envoy to Minbar, effectively sending him away. This is not because Londo dislikes Vir, on the contrary, he has actually become quite fond of his attaché. No, Londo needs to get rid of Vir because Vir is fast becoming like a conscience to him, reminding him of all the missteps and poor decisions he has made and continues to make. It is this that has become distasteful to Londo and the fact that he feels the need to send one of his few remaining friends away because of it further outlines the tragic nature of Londo’s character. Yet both of these subplots are secondary to the main thread of the episode.
Now let’s get back to that opening statement of mine – So much happens but nothing really happens. What do I mean by that? Well, when I say nothing really happens I mean none of the major story arcs are concluded. In season three everything is building toward the Shadow war and yet we don’t get to see the climax of the Shadow war (not yet). In season three, the command staff of Babylon 5 find their position as a remote arm of Earth Gov as untenable but yet there is no war against Earth (not yet).
Here Straczynski is sticking to the basic tenets of writing – building tension towards a climax somewhere near the end of act two, where the story is a story of three acts. Act 1 – Introduction. Act 2 – Exposition. Act 3 – Denouement. Now, depending on what school of thought you are from, you might have your three acts all an equal part of the whole, or, if you’re like me, I like my introduction to be about 25% or the first quarter of a story and then the exposition to be approximately the next 50% with the last quarter of the story allowing for a quick wrap up. Either way, having your climax at the end of act two places it about 66-75% of the way through the story which, in Babylon 5’s case puts that climax firmly in the first half of season four (which is exactly what happens). For my thoughts on that you’ll have to come back and read the next season review.
So, with all that said, season three was a perfect opportunity to explore some interesting subplots whilst the main story threads thundered onwards towards said aforementioned climax. Babylon 5 was able to do this because it had established itself, it knew exactly what it was about and where it was headed and its fan base was on board and not going anywhere soon.
Thus, in season three we see Richard Bigg’s character, Dr Franklin, struggle with a stims addiction and that scenario play itself out. More importantly Franklin’s character was written in such a way that we could all empathize with him because the truth is, we’ve all known people like Franklin. People who can’t delegate, who believe that the only way to get a job done properly is to do it themselves and who, ultimately, pile so much pressure on themselves that they crack.
Similarly, G’kar, who we have seen go from bitter, hate-fuelled warrior to freedom fighter, undergoes another transition in season three when he is incarcerated for attacking Londo in Dust to Dust (Ep. 5) . After weeks of being locked in the brig, G’kar emerges a changed Narn. The solitary confinement allows him time to reflect on his situation and the fate of his race. This coupled with his vision in Dust to Dust results in G’kar becoming the Narns’ spiritual leader – a change that Katsulas handled with aplomb and which made the character of G’kar all the more likeable.
Delenn is also still also trying to find her own place in the universe. Banished from the Gray council and outcast from her own people; neither human or minbari, Delenn is truly alone.
What becomes clear in season three (if it wasn’t before) is that ambassador Kosh – the Vorlon – is messing with people’s heads. We know from the All alone in the Night (S2. Ep11), and The Fall of Night (S2, Ep.22), that Sheridan can hear Kosh in his head and that outside of his encounter suit, Kosh appears as different things to different people, but up until this season, Kosh has kept a low profile, seemingly on screen only when necessary to throw in a cryptic line or two. Now that the Shadow forces are moving, Kosh is turning up more and more often – and the reason for that is half the battle in the upcoming Shadow war.
In the meantime, Earth is going to hell in a handbasket, with President Clark declaring martial law and the Night Watch on B5 becoming more aggressive in their tactics. Sheridan still has friends in Earthforce though. A few generals on Earth who know when to keep their heads down and their mouths shut and a few renegade Captains who can bring some muscle to a fight in the shape of Earthforce destroyers. The mid-point of the season (Episodes 9 through 11) sees Sheridan deal with these challenges from within Earth Gov. Severed Dreams (Ep.10) was a Hugo award winning episode and provided one of the first major space battles of the show. Extremely effects heavy, Severed Dreams had over a hundred CG shots and was literally being worked on until the last possible hour at which time it was rushed over to an uplink facility for broadcast. Severed Dreams was also the episode in which B5 officially “goes rogue” and breaks from Earth.
Ceremonies of Light and Dark (Ep. 11), whilst not one of the stronger episodes of the season is worth watching just for the interplay between Londo and Lord Refa and for the last five minutes of the episode. In a rebirth ceremony organized by Delenn, each of our primary characters must reveal a secret that no-one else knows. For most of them their revelations are no great shock to the B5 fan, but Ivanova’s confession had me wishing I had a DVR fifteen years ago. Wait? What did she just say? Talk about a conflicted character! WTF#4.
A Late Delivery from Avalon (Ep. 13), despite the guest star power of Michael York, is perhaps the weakest episode of the season, but from here on out, season three steamrolls on to its end.
Episode 14 – Ship of Tears – is another episode that makes me want to sidetrack and talk about the writing on the show. I had said before how much I was impressed by Straczynski’s ability to drop references in to earlier shows, only to have them be much more significant later. Ship of Tears is a case in point.
In Ship of Tears, Walter Koenig returns to Babylon 5 as the Psi Cop Bester. Bester has information that shadow ships are transporting weapons and, with the help of Sheridan and crew, they can prevent the Shadows delivering their deadly cargo. Sheridan takes Bester with him on the White Star to engage the Shadows and they capture the cargo vessel, only to find that its cargo of “weapons” is actually cryogenically frozen telepaths with cranial implants. Bester is as astonished as Sheridan by this discovery.
Ship of Tears is an important and clever episode in as much as it draws many story threads together but also sets up things that will not come to fruition until late in season four. Highly recommended.
Speaking of story threads coming together. Remember that hot mess of paradoxes that was Babylon Squared in season one? Well finally the B5 faithful will get all of their answers as to what that was all about in the form of War without End – parts 1 and 2 (Episodes 16 & 17). It only took two seasons (two years in broadcast time!!!) but now the plethora of questions that were raised by Babylon Squared will have their resolution. Tim Choate reprises his role as Zathrus and this time around, because we finally understand why Zathrus is behaving as he is and saying what he says, he actually comes across as quite charming instead of intensely irritating. Babylon 4’s disappearance is explained and everything finally makes sense. Kind of. I think.
Of course, as well as plenty of flash-backs to tie all three episodes together and references from as far back as the Soul Hunter (S1. Ep.2), there’s also some flash-forwards to act as teasers and pique our interest in what’s to come much later on.
In War without End, again Straczynski employs one of the basic tools of a writer, that of making you, the viewer, omniscient. Because we’ve seen half of the events already in Babylon Squared, we know a lot of what is going to come in War without End. In letting the viewers be more aware of what is going on than the poor characters who are about to walk in to this mess gives us a vested interest seeing how the characters are going to resolve their predicament. It’s a great ploy for sucking people in to a story.
It’s around this point in the season that Doctor Franklin goes all spiritual/aboriginal on us, decides to resign as the doctor of B5 and go ‘walkabout’ to find himself in an attempt to rid himself of his stims addiction. I have to say I thought Richard Biggs handled Franklin’s addiction marvelously; from the initial stages of denial, through acceptance and then owning the problem.
Because Franklin is an integral part of the command staff his resignation and absence leaves a huge void. On occasion other members of the command staff need information that only Franklin knows and so they go searching for him around the station. Garibaldi does it once in Walkabout (Ep. 16) and then Ivanova does it again in Grey 17 is missing. At this point Franklin gets quite upset and it’s understandable why. Here’s a man trying to confront his demons on his own terms and nobody will leave him alone. He effectively tells Ivanova that he’ll give her the information she wants on the condition that they never come looking for him again. Self-imposed exile won’t work for Franklin if people won’t leave him in peace.
I liked the stims subplot. It was believable and well done and complemented the other story arcs. Interestingly enough, because Straczynski was writing these episodes week-by-week, Biggs didn’t even know if his character of Franklin was going to make it. In his commentary on Interludes and Examinations (Ep. 15), Biggs says he went to Straczynski and asked “I am coming back, right?”
Also in Grey 17 is missing, John Vickery makes a welcome return as the warrior caste Minbari, Neroon. Neroon was another one of those bit parts that I always enjoyed seeing on screen. He is to become much more significant in season four.
And then we come to And the Rock cried out No Hiding Place (Ep. 20). Rock is a brilliant episode because everything you are led to believe gets thrown on its head come the conclusion. In terms of storytelling it’s almost diametrically opposed to War without End. As I said, War without End gave us, the viewers, a great power over the characters because we knew much of what was to come. In Rock, Straczynski sets us up to believe one thing and then throws us for a loop – something he admits to enjoying doing in his commentaries. Rock is an extremely clever episode and was written very carefully. I would suggest you watch Rock twice, the second time immediately after the first. On the second viewing listen very carefully to what Londo says (and equally to what he doesn’t say). All the clues are there if you listen for them. Given all the political sparring that Londo and Refa have done before, Rock plays on the viewers assumptions to envisage an ending that never comes. That said, when the ending does come it’s as shocking as it is brilliant and I challenge any of you who are fans of the show at this point not to be punching your fists in the air and shouting “Yeah!”
Shadow Dancing (ep.21) gives us the first major confrontation of the shadow war. Up until now, every battle with a shadow ship(s) has pretty much been a hit-and-run affair with the use of one White Star. Now, Delenn and Sheridan have convinced the other races in the league of non-aligned worlds to lend their ships to the fight and what we get is a CG treat in the form of two massive armadas going at one another.
In fact, Shadow Dancing is an episode of confrontations – Franklin’s stims addiction subplot finally runs its course as he meets and confronts his personal demon (and I mean that in more ways than one) and Sheridan is forced to face his wife, Anna, a woman he has believed to be dead for five years (WTF#5).
Yes, not only does Straczynski like throwing his viewers for a loop, he also does it to his characters too. Despite everything Sheridan has been led to believe, his “dead” wife has returned. As we learn in Z’Ha’Dum, the season finale, Anna has been living on the shadow’s homeworld for the past five years, unable to get a message out to her husband. Sheridan can’t believe it. He wants to believe it, but he can’t and then, in the end, he simply refuses to – because Anna’ reason for visiting is to take him back to Z’Ha’Dum and, as Sheridan has been told time and again by Kosh in Season three – “If you go to Z’Ha’Dum, you will die.” Regardless, knowing that it is almost certainly a trap and undeterred by the advice of an ancient Vorlon, Sheridan agrees to go.
The observant among you will notice that the actress playing Anna Sheridan has changed since Revelations (S2. Ep2). Apparently, the actress first used as Anna Sheridan was unavailable when it came time to shoot Z’Ha’Dum so, Straczynski, learning that Boxleitner was married to an actress (Melissa Gilbert of Little House on the Prairie fame) asked her to stand in. Melissa agreed to do it for much less than her usual rate, but it did also mean that Anna Sheridan’s last message to her husband had to be re-shot.
Z’Ha’Dum is a powerful season ending episode. For fans who have watched the character of Sheridan grow over the past two seasons; who have become invested in that character and grown to like him, it is difficult to watch him go to what is almost certain death. Yet at the same time it is this that makes it riveting television. All season we’ve been told that if Sheridan goes to Z’Ha’Dum he will die and perhaps we prepared ourselves for that eventuality (the foreshadowing has to be there for a reason right?). Perhaps we thought if Sheridan went it would be in some final confrontation with the shadows – some gigantic space battle that would leave him mortally wounded – but now, here he is, walking in to the lion’s den of his own free will! The first time I saw it, Z’Ha’Dum’s ending left me stunned. Noooooooo! How could they leave us hanging (literally) like that?
So all in all a good season. Perhaps the best season of all. By season three Babylon 5 had certainly hit its stride. The characters were all well developed and the story threads were all woven together like a braid. At this point, you missed an episode at your peril because watching Babylon 5 was no longer about tuning in each week for an episode, it was about seeing where the story went next and hoping you didn’t miss anything – whether that be a great scene between characters you had grown to love, or subtle references that were going to be significant later on (although you probably wouldn’t know it a the time!)
Season three was all about building tension – the title music inferred as much – and in that it succeeded. But season three was also about great change, so while the storylines sung like arrows flying toward their predetermined targets, Straczynski took some time out to play with his characters.
G’kar goes from freedom fighter to spiritual leader. Franklin goes from doctor to addict – from healer to one needing to be healed. Delenn struggles to belong in the world and the command staff must come to terms with breaking away from Earth and becoming an independent outpost.
Even Londo tries to change in season three, realizing that his association with Mister Morden comes at too high a price, but events transpire to set him back on his dark destiny.
In previous posts I had broken down the season into what I thought were must see episodes and other not so important episodes. I won’t do that here. For season three I would suggest watching them all. There’s a couple of weaker episodes but really each episode contributes to the greater whole.
Ep.1 – Matters of Honor – Introduction to Marcus. Marcus’s backstory. Londo tries to distance himself from Morden. Sheridan agrees to rescue Rangers from a training camp. Sheridan given the White Star. First battle with a Shadow ship. Sheridan sets up war council.
Ep.2 – Convictions – A terrorist bomber threatens Babylon 5. G’kar and Londo stuck in elevator together.
Ep.3 – A day in the Strife – A centauri appointed replacement arrives for G’kar . Sheridan must deal with a first contact situation. Franklin’s stims addiction story thread set up.
Ep.4 – Passing through Gethsemane – Lyta Alexander returns (again). A man discovers he has been “mind-wiped” and was a serial killer in his former life. Londo sends Vir to Minbar.
Ep.5 – Voices of Authority – A meddlesome envoy from the ministry of peace informs Sheridan she is his new political officer. Ivanova & Marcus go on a quest for the first ones. G’kar begins to suspect there are private meetings going on behind his back.
Ep.6 – Dust to Dust – Bester returns to the station under the ruse that he is looking for a major dust trafficker. G’kar uses the psychedelic drug to invade Londo’s mind and learn his secrets.
Ep.7 – Exogenesis – An alien race symbiotically infects people with the aim of making their lives better.
Ep.8 – Messages from Earth – Sheridan learns that a Shadow ship has been discovered on Jupiter’s moon Gannymede.
Ep.9 – Point of No Return – Earth decrees martial law. Londo seeks an audience with the late Emperor’s wife. The Night Watch takes over security of B5.
Ep.10* – Severed Dreams – Rogue Earth Cruisers seek the sanctuary of Babylon 5 forcing the station into a full-on confrontation with Earth forces. Delenn confronts the Gray council.
Ep.11 – Ceremonies of Light and Dark – Delenn is kidnapped by Earth loyalists.
Ep.12 – Sic Transit Vir – Vir’s surprise arranged marriage exposes a secret and his bride is not what he would hope for.
Ep.13 – A Late Delivery from Avalon – A sword wielding man who arrives on Babylon 5 claims to be King Arthur.
Ep.14 – Ship of Tears – Bester returns again and enlists the help of the command staff to attack a shadow convoy. The shadow ‘weapons’ cargo is a surprise to everyone.
Ep.15* – Interludes and Examinations – Morden returns. Sheridan confronts Kosh and enlists the help of the Vorlons. Franklin resigns as doctor of B5.
Ep.16 – War without End (Pt1) – The truth about what really happened to Babylon 4 is revealed.
Ep.17 – War without End (Pt2) – The truth about what really happened to Babylon 4 is revealed.
Ep.18 – Walkabout – Franklin goes walkabout and finds himself falling for a singer from the Zokolo. Sheridan tests his hypothesis on Shadow weakness and engages a shadow ship.
Ep.19 – Gray 17 is missing – Garibaldi discovers a hidden level on the station. A warrior caste Minbari challenges Delenn’s leadership.
Ep.20 – And the rock cried out, No hiding place – Londo plots to win himself favor at the Centari royal court.
Ep.21 – Shadow Dancing – Franklin must confront his personal demon(s). Sheridan leads the races of B5 in a full on assault of the shadows. Anna Sheridan returns.
Ep.22* – Z’Ha’Dum – Sheridan agrees to go to Z’Ha’Dum and meet with the shadows.
* – Commentary available on DVD
Them all if you can.
Exogenesis (Ep. 7)
A Late Delivery from Avalon (Ep. 13)
My Guilty Pleasure – Babylon 5 – Season Two