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My Guilty Pleasure – Babylon 5 – Thirdspace

Prior to picking up Babylon 5 for it’s fifth and final season, TNT commissioned two Babylon 5 TV movies.  The first of these to be filmed in 1997, but which aired second in 1998, was Thirdspace.

 

 

Thirdspace is set, as we learn in Captain John Sheridan’s opening monologue, in the middle of the Earth year 2261 – the year between wars. In terms of Babylon 5’s series chronology, this places it somewhere between Into the Fire (S4, Ep.6) and Atonement (S4, Ep.9)

Whilst returning to Babylon 5 after a skirmish with raiders, Ivanova’s starfury squadron picks up something on their scanners.  Ever the curious ones, they go to investigate and find a massive artifact floating in hyperspace that they then tow back to the station.

artefact

Always wondered where I’d left that hammer!

Preliminary investigations reveal nothing since anything that goes near the thing gets sucked dry of its power, but back on the station itself, all is not well.  Aboard B5, the telepath Lyta Alexander (Patricia Tallman), who has visited the Vorlon homeworld and been somehow altered by the ancient alien race, is clearly disturbed by the artifact’s presence.  Could it have anything to do with the fact that the artifact itself is covered in Vorlon hieroglyphs?

sheridan_lyta

“Lyta, if you wanted to get to know me better, all you had to do was ask!”

It is not long before Interplanetary Expeditions (IPX) get wind of the discovery and before you can say “first contact situation,” Dr. Elizabeth Trent (Shari Belafonte) and Bill Morishi (Clyde Kusatsu) have arrived on B5 to request access to (read: take over the investigation of) the artifact.  Having had experience of IPX (It was an IPX expedition to Z’Ha’Dhum which resulted in the loss of his wife), this irks Sheridan no end – thus setting up a tense situation between the B5 captain and the team of archeologists who feel a misplaced sense of entitlement to the artifact.

ipx

Shari Belafonte representing IPX – “We’ll take it from here, Captain.”

As time goes by, stranger and stranger things begin occurring on Babylon 5 with many people experiencing visions (including a shared dream between Vir and Ivanova), and the station itself going into crisis mode as the artifact stationed outside slowly drains B5 of its power.  Thus Sheridan is thrown into a race against time, both to protect the station and its population and to find out what the artifact is before IPX unlock its secret.  All the while Lyta Alexander gets progressively more distressed because, as she knows, the Vorlons have seen this awful thing before.

vir_ivanova

“Are you seeing what I’m seeing?”

As a stand alone movie Thirdspace works, and by that I mean it completes its story arc and comes to a satisfactory conclusion.  What hurts Thirdspace is where it falls chronologically in the overall Babylon 5 story arc.  Because of when Thirdspace is set, many of the major characters we have come to know and love are out of the picture – Garibaldi is absent having resigned as chief of security, Londo and G’kar are both on Centauri prime.  Even some of the major characters who do remain on the station barely feature (Delenn, Franklin, Marcus, Lennier), with a couple of them making only brief cameos.  Admittedly this movie is not about them but the result of the scripting means that Boxleitner, Christian and Tallman have the lion’s share of the acting put firmly on their shoulders and it is on them that the movie ultimately gets carried.  Boxleitner, as always, does an excellent job as Sheridan, and Tallman does a lot of acting weird and passing out when it all becomes too much for her brain to handle, but Besides Shari Belafonte’s commendable effort as Dr. Trenton, the movie feels as if it’s padded with construction worker/starfury pilot “redshirts.”

Like all B5 movies, Thirdspace suffers from infodumps – specifically when Dr. Trenton informs Sheridan of how much they know of Lyta’s visit to the Vorlon homeworld and when Lyta herself tells Sheridan what they (the Vorlon’s) know about the artifact.  However, it is perhaps more excusable in Thirdspace given that the fifth season of B5 was almost written off before being picked up again and the TNT movies provided an opportunity to address some of the story arcs that had been present in the show.  Also, if we’re going to watch Thirdspace as a stand-alone movie, we need to know about these characters and their histories – and there really is no quick or easy way to do it without having a character espouse all this information.

My one major criticism of Thirdspace is its ending which feels like an inevitable outcome from the moment the artifact arrives in B5 territory.  The movie seems to barrel towards its conclusion without a second thought for other possible scenarios that might warrant some lengthier exploration – but maybe that’s the point.  It’s a movie crammed into a finite period of time – it’s meant to have a definitive ending.  The only problem is, when it comes it feels very much like a deux ex machina moment.

There’s a commentary on the DVD which has input form the director, Jesus Salvador Trevino, Bruce Boxleitner, Jeff Conaway, Patricia Tallman and Stephen Furst, but those of you looking for any particular insight will be disappointed.  Trevino does his best to drop some nuggets in about the movie, concept design and the shoot and Boxleitner humors him throughout but for the most part the v/o consists mostly of Tallman, Furst and the late Jeff Conaway goofing around and reminiscing about their time on the show.  If you’re interested in that kind of thing, then great, but it’s not exactly a commentary on the movie per se.

Overall, Thirdspace is an OK addition to the B5 canon but it’s certainly not a “must-see” in terms of its quality, storyline or content relating to the B5 timeline/universe.

Related Posts:

My Guilty Pleasure – Babylon 5 – Season Four

My Guilty Pleasure – Babylon 5 – Season Three

My Guilty Pleasure – Babylon 5 – Season Two

My Guilty Pleasure – Babylon 5 – Season One

My Guilty Pleasure – Babylon 5 – The Gathering

My Guilty Pleaure – Babylon 5

Stuart Clark is the author of the Project U.L.F. series of Sci Fi adventure novels

 

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My Guilty Pleasure – Babylon 5 – Season Three

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.

What do you mean it’s not 1942?

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.

Franklin knows his days as doctor are numbered

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.

Can’t you people just leave me alone!

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.

Neroon

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.

“I’ve changed since you last saw me John – but I’m still your wife!”

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.

Looks like the costume department finally got a new budget

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

Watch:

Them all if you can.

Meh:

Exogenesis (Ep. 7)

A Late Delivery from Avalon (Ep. 13)

Related Posts:
My Guilty Pleasure – Babylon 5 – Season Two

My Guilty Pleasure – Babylon 5 – Season One

My Guilty Pleasure – Babylon 5 – The Gathering

My Guilty Pleaure – Babylon 5

Stuart Clark is the author of the Project U.L.F. series of Sci Fi adventure novels

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My Guilty Pleasure – Babylon 5 – Season Two

As far as opening credits go, visually, I think season two was my favorite.  As someone who works in visual effects, I can tell you that using the 5 from the Babylon 5 logo as a mask to reveal the picture below is a basic and simple effect, but I never grew tired of watching that thing zoom out of the screen at me.

Season 2 Command Crew & Ambassadors

The year is 2259 and Babylon 5 has a new captain.  Wait?  What?

Season two’s first WTF moment hits you right out of the gate.  In Points of Departure (Ep. 1) Commander Sinclair has gone, reassigned as Earth’s first ambassador to the Minbari homeworld.  In his place comes Captain John Sheridan played by Bruce Boxleitner.

Bruce Boxleitner as Captain John Sheridan

I had said in my review of season one, that I thought Babylon Squared was a risky episode so late in the season.  Here again, I think in Points of Departure, major (but absolutely necessary) risks were taken.  There is no question, in terms of storyline, that Boxleitner’s addition to the cast was necessary, but from a viewers point of view it raised all kinds of unpleasant questions.  Firstly, just what on Earth (or Babylon 5) was going on? Secondly, if the show couldn’t keep arguably its most important character then was it really worth continuing to invest our time in it?  Personally, I think this major character change ran the risk of alienating (pardon the pun) at least some of the fan base that it had worked so hard to accrue.

Hey, don’t ask me. I only work here.

Simlarly, from a non-fan point of view, Points of Departure was not going to be an easy entry into the B5 universe.  For those people who had missed or dipped in and out of season one and thought maybe they would use the start of season two try and get back in to the show, Points of Departure made it very clear that this was not Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica (first time around) – this was something altogether different. Both Garibaldi’s and Delenn’s stories have spilled over from season one and there are references to Sinclair, the Gray Council and the Battle of the Line throughout.  To fully comprehend what was going on in Points of Departure I think you would have at least had to have seen either the pilot movie The Gathering and/or The Sky full of Stars (Ep. 8) and Chrysalis (Ep. 22) from season one.  So, as I say, a risky episode in as much as the show could easily have lost some of its fan base but also because it also made it difficult to build on that fan base at the same time.

I’ll sidetrack here a little bit and say that for me, personally, it was a thrill to see Boxleitner in the show.  Although he doesn’t know it, Bruce Boxleitner holds a special place in my heart since, early in his acting career, he starred in a show called “Bring ‘em back Alive” which was in part, inspiration for my own series of Project U.L.F. novels.  When Boxleitner joined B5 in 1995, I was writing the first in the series.  Seeing him on screen again, in a sci-fi show that I was growing to love, seemed almost fated.

Boxleitner as Big Game Hunter Frank Buck

What was immediately apparent was that Boxleitner was a very different actor from  Michael O’ Hare.  Boxleitner is a very non-verbal actor and by that I mean, he gets so much across by NOT speaking.  His lines are constantly punctuated by non-verbal cues – loaded pauses, a wry smile, a thoughtful “Hmm.”  To be honest, I had forgotten how often he did it and when revisiting season two, to begin with, it got a little irritating but when you get used to Boxleitner in the role of Sheridan those nuances become an integral part of the character.  It must be extremely gratifying to Boxleitner to know that the majority of B5 fans consider the show to have been at its best between seasons two and four – when he was at the helm.

But I digress…Episode 2 (Revelations) continues some of those major story arcs and as such I peg it as a must see.  Like Points of Departure, it is a great episode for fans, and for those who haven’t seen season one but want to start watching the show, this might be a great entry point.  There’s LOTS to digest here and LOTS of references to season one so a newbie might get a little bit lost, but the Shadows feature a lot, Morden makes an appearance and the seed of Babylon 5’s break from Earth, although planted in the last episode of season one, is also very evident here.

Whilst not essential viewing I’d also recommend The Geometry of Shadows (Ep.3) purely because it introduces the character of Lord Refa played by William Forward.  Refa is another of those small yet significant characters that flits in and out of the show and his appearance here goes to show us that perhaps Londo has no control over his devious, scheming ways – maybe he’s just hardwired that way.  For as much as those of the old Centauri republic talk about honor, what is clear is that they would happily say one thing to your face and then stab you in the back.  Political espionage seems to be the order of the day at the Centauri royal court and Refa is a fair-weather friend who seeks to align himself with Londo after “Londo’s” show of considerable power.

But Londo, sneaking around the royal court with hair this big is not easy.

Along with Refa, there’s two other subplots going on in The Geometry of Shadows, one which concerns a drazii dispute which personally I found a bit silly and didn’t much care for, and the second, which deals with the technomages who are fleeing the “great darkness” that is coming.  (Again, foreshadowing for what is to come).  Here, as in other moments in the show, Londo seeks an endorsement for his political aspirations.  It is a tactic that never ends well for him.

After the first few episodes, Babylon 5 returns to its episodic nature.  There’s a couple of self contained episodes (ep.4 – A Distant Star, Ep. 5 – The Long Dark) and then the show seems to veer off on a tangent that concerns itself mostly with telepaths and The Psi Corps.  I’m not sure any of these episodes contribute much to the greater story arcs. A Spider in the Web (Ep. 6) feels like it’s setting something up for later episodes/seasons but nothing really comes of it.  It may simply be the case that these episodes exist simply to paint the Psi Corps and its splinter factions as nasty organizations.  Regardless, Talia Winters features a lot and Bester returns – and both of these are good things.

Talia Winters…just because.

I consider Episode 9 – The Coming of Shadows – as the next must see episode. Again, there’s lots going on here and this episode is a good example of Londo showing his true colors once more.  With his life nearing its end, the Centauri emperor visits Babylon 5 to make amends for his people’s oppression of the Narn’s.  Of course, neither Londo nor G’kar know this and while Londo and Refa maneuver themselves politically, G’kar plots to assassinate the emperor.  Nothing goes as expected though and things go horribly awry.  Jurasik (Londo) and Katsulas (G’kar) really make this episode and their scene in the Zokolo showcases the two actors at their best.  Here again, the comic-tragic nature of both of their characters is evident – G’kar because he foolishly thinks the Centauri might have changed their ways and yet is ignorant of what has passed.  Londo because he has needlessly set wheels in motion that will have catastrophic results.   Other things that make The Coming of Shadows worth seeing are that Sinclair puts in an appearance, we are introduced to the Rangers and, for the first time, Vir actually gets a back bone.  Up until this point, Vir has always been portrayed as a bumbling fool; always willing to do his master’s bidding. What becomes evident in season two is that Vir is a conflicted character because for as much as he cares for Londo, he also finds Londo’s actions deeply troubling.  He becomes the perfect foil for Londo because as Londo resigns himself to the fact that his decisions are necessary and driven by a greater good, Vir continues to believe that it is not too late for Londo to change his ways and that he can make better choices.

I had said in my review of season one that many of the episodes of Babylon 5 worked on two levels and that is also true of season two, but at about the midway point of season two there was a definite shift in the way this was done. In season one, the stand-alone story in each episode made the bulk of the episode and information relating to the major story arcs was dropped in here and there.  By Ep 11 of season two – All Alone in the Night – this had changed.  At this point the character stories are all now intertwined with the greater story arcs.  Subplots continue and are self contained but become less of a factor and more a pleasant distraction.  From here forward, it gets very hard to pinpoint stand-alone episodes.  Interestingly enough, between now and the end of the season, there are only two episodes not written by Straczynski.  If you’ve read my review of season one , I said that the unmissable episodes in that season were those written by Straczynski.  I would suggest that the same applies for season two and really, you should watch every episode in the second half of season two. I would also argue that if you’re really not “digging” the show by All Alone in the Night you should probably give up on it.  For as much as I am a fan and I want people to enjoy Babylon 5 as much as I did/do, if all that has come before hasn’t got you hooked on the show at this point then I don’t know what will.  Maybe B5 really isn’t for you.

The next episode I think warrants a mention is And Now for a Word (Ep. 15).  In the B5 future, news is broadcast by the Interstellar News Network (or ISN).  In And Now for a Word, a news crew has come aboard the station to cover the escalating Narn/Centauri conflict and get reaction from the station’s ambassadors and command crew.

ISN news reporter Cynthia Torqueman in “And Now for a Word”

Babylon 5 had a habit of doing this and I think in each of seasons two through four there was at least one episode dedicated to a reporter or news crew from ISN being on the station.  In hindsight it’s understandable why – as things back on Earth start going sour, ISN becomes the media/propaganda arm of Earth Gov – so I think these episodes are in there just to remind us that ISN is there and that the truth of what is happening is being warped by the media (How about that?).  However, I never did like these episodes.  I found them to be very jarring, ripping me out of the main story threads that, by now, were steamrolling along.  Honestly I think Babylon 5 would be better without these “ISN episodes – or at the very least, the ISN subplot could have been handled more subtly.  I don’t think entire episodes dedicated to it really worked.

As season two draws to a close there were definitely a few highlights for me.  Firstly Episode 16 – In the Shadow of Z’Ha”Dhum – in which the cocky, arrogant and wonderfully sinister Mister Morden returns. (Basically any episode with the word “Shadow” in it is a no-brainer).

Remember me?

This is also the episode in which we are first introduced to the ministry of peace a.k.a. The Night Watch – an Earth Gov implemented program in which the security staff of Babylon 5 get an extra fifty credits a week to “keep an ear to the ground” (read: spy on their own people).  In his commentary, Straczynski refers to this as the start of the incremental lie – something that is presented as small and innocuous but soon becomes something much bigger and much more ugly than people ever gave it credit for.  The ministry of peace is billed as something to keep people safe during troubled and turbulent times but what it is intended to foster is a culture of paranoia that allows the ruling government to divide and conquer the people. (I’m beginning to think Straczynski was a brilliant visionary).

I think Episode 17 – Knives – is one of my favorite episodes of the entire season. Not because it is necessarily a must see episode but because it is an excellent character study of Londo.  It was about this point when I first watched Babylon 5 that I was really starting to like Londo and what Peter Jurasik was able to do with the character.  In Knives Londo runs the full gamut of emotions, from the opening scenes where he is laughing and joking with his attaché Vir (brilliant BTW), to the end where he is grief stricken.

In Episode 19 – Divided Loyalties – Lyta Alexader (Yeah, remember her from the pilot?) returns to inform B5’s command staff that there is a traitor among them.  WTF(#3)???  Nooooooooo!  That’s all I have to say about that. 😦

Remember me too?

The Long Twighlight Struggle (Ep. 20) is not only a great episode, it’s also a testament to just what the visual FX team could do.  This episode contains Babylon 5’s first major battle scenes as the Narn/Centauri conflict comes to a decisive end and is a taste of what’s to come in the seasons to follow.  Given computing power back in 1995 (they used a render farm of 486 PC’s and a single frame of footage could take an hour to render), it really is quite amazing what they achieved.  Yeah, it does look dated now, but even so, it still looks pretty good.

Centauri cruisers do battle

Season two’s finale (Ep.22) – The Fall of Night – is another good episode and a worthy end to the season.  It doesn’t pack quite as much of a punch as season one’s finale and ends more on a whimper than a bang, but that’s okay. The episode closes on an ISN report of a shadow ship seen in hyperspace.  There’s something out there – and nobody knows what it is.  (Except you, the viewer, and Londo Mollari).

“A spider big as death and twice as ugly.” – Nice.

Whereas season one’s final episode was more a case of “Oh my God! What just happened?,” season two had more of a thoughtful and reflective ending.  At this point, the whizz-bang cliffhanger ending wasn’t required.  Babylon 5 had its fan base and given the complexity of the story threads, it wasn’t about to add to it. Also, I think it is safe to say that those of us who were fans at this point were going to tune in for season three regardless.  Straczynski could have pretty much written drivel and I would have tuned in for season three.

So, all in all, a good season and better than season one.  As I did before I’ll give you a brief episode listing and then highlight those I think you absolutely need to see.  Please note that just because I’ve not listed all of these episodes as “Unmissable” or “Recommended” doesn’t necessarily mean you should miss the others.  It’s just that the other episodes are more self-contained and, to my mind, don’t contribute much to the greater story arcs.  Most are good episodes in their own right and, as in season one, some provide great character studies.  For me, the only episode I really didn’t like in season two was Ep. 15 – And Now for a Word.

Ep.1* – Points of Departure  – Introduction to Sheridan.  Garibaldi and Delenn’s ongoing stories from Season One. Lennier reveals why the Minbari surrendered at the Battle of the Line.

Ep.2 – Revelations – G’kar investigates Quadrant 37.  Concludes that a new race is responsible for its destruction. Frankin uses alien device from S1. Ep 21.  Sheridan backstory. Londo gets more mixed up with Morden. Delenn emerges from her transformation.

Ep.3* – The Geometry of Shadows – Londo seeks endorsement from the technomages who make an ominous prediction.  Green/Purple Drazi dispute.  Introduction to Lord Refa.

Ep.4 – A Distant Star – A surprise visit from an old friend has Sheridan questioning his ability. Shadows are seen in hyperspace.

Ep.5 – The Long Dark – Something nasty comes aboard the station from a long lost ship.

Ep.6 – A Spider in the Web – Psi Corps references.  Bureau 13.  First signs that Earth Gov policies are not very savory.  Subtle.

Ep.7 – Soul Mates – Londo must choose between his three wives.  Talia Winters’ ex-husband arrives on the station.  Talia’s backstory.  Good character study of Londo.

Ep.8 – A Race through Dark Places – Bester returns.  Talia learns some unpleasant things about Psi Corps. Someone on the command staff is running an underground railroad for rogue telepaths. References to Mind War (S1, Ep.6)

Ep.9 – The Coming of Shadows – The Centauri emperor comes to apologize.  Londo and Refa position themselves politically. Londo gets more mixed up with Morden and the Shadows. Ranger’s make their first appearance.  Sinclair features. Vir gets a backbone.

Ep.10 – Gropos – Franklin’s father commands 25,000 troops in to battle using B5 as a billeting station en route.  Good character study of Franklin.

Ep.11  – All alone in the night – Sheridan abducted and forced into death matches.  Delenn expelled from Gray Council. General Hague visits and reports his suspicions of Earth Gov.

Ep.12 – Acts of Sacrifice – Sheridan finds himself trying to be peacemaker in the midst of the Narn/Cantauri conflict. A new race (the Lumati) inspects Babylon 5 to see if it is worthy of their alliance.

Ep.13 – Hunter, Prey – Franklin’s old mentor and physician to President Clark is on the run and on B5. He has information that Earth gov and Psi Corps will kill for.

Ep.14 – There all the Honor Lies – Sheridan is accused of murdering a Minbari warrior.  Good study of Minbari culture and Lennier.

Ep.15 – And Now for a Word – ISN come aboard the station to cover events on Babylon 5 and the Narn/Centauri conflict

Ep.16* – In the Shadow of Z’ha’Dum – Sheridan unlawfully holds Morden prisoner in a desperate attempt to figure out what happened to his wife. Introduction to the Night Watch.

Ep.17 – Knives – An old friend of Londo’s comes seeking help but ends up challenging him to a fight for his honor.  Excellent character study of Londo.

Ep.18 – Confessions and Lamentations – An alien plague wipes out an entire species while Franklin scrambles for answers. Delenn and Sheridan’s relationship goes up a notch.

Ep.19 – Divided Loyalties – Lyta Alexander returns to the station with the news that someone on the command staff is a traitor.

Ep.20 – The Long Twilight Struggle – The Narn/Centauri conflict comes to a decisive end.  G’kar is stripped of his ambassadorial status.  Delenn puts the Rangers at Sheridan’s disposal.

Ep.21 – Comes the Inquisitor – Delenn is put to the test by the Vorlons.  G’kar goes from ambassador to freedom fighter.

Ep.22* – The Fall of Night – Sheridan offers sanctuary to a Narn battle cruiser while Earth seeks to sign a non-aggression treaty with the Centauri. The Night Watch’s methods become more aggressive.  The media first reports on the shadows

*Commentary/Special Feature available on DVD

Unmissable:

Ep.1 – Points of Departure

Ep.2 – Revelations

Ep.9 – The Coming of Shadows

Eps 11 thru 22 (with the exception of perhaps Ep.15 – And Now for a Word)

Recommended:

Ep.3 – The Geometry of Shadows

Ep.6 – A spider in the Web

Ep.8 – A Race through Dark Places

Meh – Watch if you have time:

Ep.4 – A Distant Star

Ep.5 – The Long Dark

Ep.7 – Soul Mates

Ep.10 – Gropos

Ugh:

Ep.12 – Acts of Sacrifice.  For what it’s worth, I found the Lumati subplot in this episode pretty lame. Again, I think because Ivanova was treated as comedic relief.  I watch the closing scenes of this episode and cringe.

Ep.15 – And Now for a Word

Related Posts:

My Guilty Pleasure – Babylon 5 – Season One

My Guilty Pleasure – Babylon 5 – The Gathering

My Guilty Pleasure – Babylon 5

Stuart Clark is the author of the Project U.L.F. series of Sci-Fi adventure novels

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My Guilty Pleasure – Babylon 5 – Season One

And so, it begins.

I watched season one of Babylon 5 when it was first broadcast, and back then it seemed very episodic in nature.  It is only when you go back and watch episodes and seasons in quick succession you can have a better appreciation of the “greater whole” of Babylon 5 than you ever could by getting it piece meal, week-by-week.

In reviewing season one, I don’t intend to give a blow-by-blow account of each and every episode, but more of a broad overview and my impressions of the season as a whole.  There are some that would argue that you can’t or should not miss any episodes from season one.  I would disagree and say that it really depends what you want to get out of it.

Apart from the week-to-week character development, there were three main threads to the Babylon 5 story, first, the shadow war, second, the break from and subsequent war against Earth and finally the telepath “war”.  What I’ll hope to do with this review is provide indicators of which episodes are relevant to the major story arcs, should you just want to sink your teeth in to that and not have to watch every single episode.  What becomes clear though on a second watching, is that even episodes that didn’t necessarily contribute to the greater story arc(s) had relevance in terms of just being great character studies – in helping the viewer understand these characters, their ideologies and motivations better.

Season One Cast

Babylon 5’s five season arc covers five years in the story of the station.  Season one corresponds to the Earth year 2258.

One of the first things that strikes you when beginning season one is the change in Babylon 5’s command staff compared to the pilot movie The Gathering.  Lieutenant Commander Laurel Takashima is replaced by Lieutenant Commander Susan Ivanova played by Claudia Christian, Doctor Benjamin Kyle is replaced by Doctor Stephen Franklin (Introduced in Episode 2) played by Richard Biggs, and resident Telepath Lyta Alexander is replaced by Talia Winters played by Andrea Thompson.  Considering the pilot aired a full year before season one began, I’m not sure anyone watching the original airing of Midnight on the Firsing Line would have even noticed or cared to remember these changes, but in my personal opinion they were all for the better.

Claudia Christian as Susan Ivanova & Richard Biggs as Dr Stephen Franklin

In the first two instances because I thought Christian and Biggs were better actors than their former counterparts and in the latter case, because Andrea Thompson had the sexiest, huskiest voice this side of Mars Colony and I had a complete nerdcrush on her!  She alone would have kept me tuning in! (Not that I had anything against Patricia Tallman who played Lyta, and who would return in later seasons)

Oh Andrea, if you could only know what I’m thinking…Oh No! You can!

Another change in the show was the addition of attache’s to each of the primary alien ambassadors and so we are introduced to the bumbling and downtrodden Vir Cotto of the Centauri (Stephen Furst), and the proud Na’Toth of the Narn regime (Caitlin Brown).

Stephen Furst as Vir and Caitlin Brown as Na’Toth

Sci-Fi fans would also recognize Bill Mumy, known for his role as Will Robinson in “Lost in Space,” as Delenn’s humble and loyal assistant, Lennier.

Danger Will Robinson! – A bony plate is about to grow out of the back of your head!

I grew to love all of these characters but in season one I particularly liked Caitlin Brown’s portrayal of Na’Toth,  It was a small (and underutilized part, IMO), but Na’Toth was a super strong female character that Brown played with conviction.  It was easy to believe that were you to ever cross Na’Toth she would rip off your head and spit down your neck.  The character of Na’Toth would later be played by Mary Kay Adams but Caitlin Brown would guest star, as a human, in There all the Honor Lies in Season three.

Season one opens with the episode Midnight on the Firing Line.  To be honest, it’s probably a better kicking off point than The Gathering.  Firstly, because in this episode you will be introduced to the command staff that will populate most of the series’ first four seasons and secondly because, well, it’s just better.

In Midnight on the Firing Line, we learn that Ragesh 3, a peaceful Centauri agricultural colony has come under vicious attack by the Narns.  This immediately sets up Londo (Peter Jurasik), the Centauri ambassador, as a sympathetic character but later we learn that the Centauri have enslaved the Narn homeworld and the attack is really a retaliatory strike.  The ongoing feud between the Narn and the Centauri becomes a significant Babylon 5 subplot and is the primary motivation for many of Londo and G’kar’s actions throughout the series.  In this first episode, G’kar (Andreas Katsulas) is portrayed more as a villain than a victim.  As Babylon 5 progresses, we will come to learn that Londo and G’kar are more alike than they are different.  One can sympathize with both of these character’s positions – Londo, more for when he gets himself mixed up with the Shadows and begins to question what he has done, G’kar because he is backed in to a corner and trying to fight back while his hands are tied by political correctness, bureaucracy and apathy.  They are also both tragic characters, Londo because he clings to the ideals of a Centauri republic long since vanished and in doing so embarks on a path that he will later regret. G’kar because he is driven by a pathological hatred of the Centauri and a need for revenge.  They are also both proud patriots, and over the course of five seasons, both of them will grow wiser and see the error of their ways.

Thrown into the midst of this are the command crew of Babylon 5 who need to find a diplomatic solution to the latest flare up of the ongoing feud.  In my previous review of The Gathering, I had said how much I liked Michael O’Hare in the role of Commander Jeffrey Sinclair.  I seem to be in a minority with that sentiment, but for me he brought just the right amount of authority, level-headedness and philosophical reserve that were required of the commander in season one.

Don’t make me mad – I just might have to raise my voice

Ivanova, on the other hand, was a different story.  I remember thinking back when the show first aired, that I wasn’t completely convinced by Claudia Christian’s portrayal of Ivanova in season one.  She seemed a little bit stiff and a little bit unsure of herself in the role.  However, on watching season one again, whilst I do think it took Christian a few episodes to settle in to character, that judgment was perhaps a little bit harsh and she is actually a lot better than I remembered.  In hindsight, I think the thing that irked me most about the Ivanova character was that she was often treated as the comic relief – she always got the snarky, sarcastic lines – and the humor just didn’t work for me.  Ivanova was at her best when she was being a hard-nosed, kick-ass Lieutenant Commander/Commander – they just should have left it at that. Midnight on the Firing Line reveals important information about the Ivanova character as, through her dealings with Talia Winters, we learn of Ivanova’s deep distrust of telepaths.  Again, a recurring theme that will span the life of the show.

Like many of the episodes in season one, Midnight on the Firing Line worked on two levels: (1) It was its own, self-contained story, but (2) it put in place elements that would contribute to Babylon 5’s greater story arc(s).  Episode two – The Soul Hunter – would continue in the same vein.  On the surface it seemed like a very well contained individual episode, but there’s exposition here relating to Sinclair’s missing twenty-four hours that I personally think makes this episode unmissable.  As an aside, episode two is also the episode in which we get introduced to Dr. Franklin  and for that reason alone I’d recommend it.

After that, Babylon 5 meanders onward to episode six, Mind War – an important episode because it introduces the character of Bester (played by Star Trek veteran Walter Koenig).

If I just open my eyes…Aw c’mon Scotty, you beamed me to the wrong ship again!

Bester is the embodiment of the Psi Corps, the shadowy organization that watches over (read: controls) telepaths.  Bester himself proves to be a somewhat underhanded character, working in surreptitious ways and revealing only enough information to get what he wants.  As a result, he is not trusted and never gladly received on the B5 station.  Bester is an important but background character and Koening guest stars in the role in all five seasons.  Mind War is worth seeing for another reason though, as our assumptions of G’kar are challenged in this episode.   Straczynski says numerous times in his various commentaries that he liked to set things up and then surprise the viewer and up until this point, G’kar has pretty much been painted as a villain.  In a subplot in Mind War, Sinclair’s love interest, Catherine Sakai goes on a deep space exploration to a region that G’kar has expressly warned her away from.  When she gets in to trouble G’kar makes arrangements for her rescue with no obvious gain to himself.  It is the first chink in G’kar’s armor that we see and a sign of things to come.  In fact, even he says to Sakai in the episode, “No one here is exactly what they seem.”  G’kar’s monologue at the end of Mind War is still one of my favorite bits of the entire five seasons.

Episode eight – And the Sky full of Stars – is your next unmissable episode, as two covert knights come to Babylon 5 with the intention of interrogating Sinclair to find out what happened at the Battle of the Line.  Pieces of Sinclair’s missing twenty-four hours start falling in to place.

….And then there’s Signs and Portents (Ep. 13)

If you were in any doubt as to whether there was something bigger than just the weekly storylines going on in Babylon 5, this was the episode to quash that doubt.  Signs and Portents heralded the introduction of the sinister Mister Morden, emissary for the Shadows.

Ed Wasser as the delightfully despicable Morden

Morden was played absolutely perfectly by Ed Wasser and, like Bester, was a small yet significant character that flitted in and out of the show. To this day, I still think some of my favorite episodes were those with Morden in them.  Morden has come to Babylon 5 at the behest of his “associates” to ask each of the alien ambassador’s a simple question – “What do you want?”  The answers will have catastrophic results.  Signs and Portents is really our first introduction to the Shadows and the start of the Shadow war thread that will run through to the beginning of season four.

At this point I really must stop to talk about the writing on this show.  I’m not talking about the dialogue but the attention to detail in the overall story arc(s).  There are moments in this show when I find it truly mind-boggling that Straczynski managed to plot out five seasons in the manner he did.  In fact I would go so far as to argue that you shouldn’t just watch this series again for pleasure, you should watch it again after that, just to pick up on all the references you missed first (and second) time around.  For example, when Morden avoids Kosh in Signs & Portents, you really have no idea why he’s doing it.  Sure, you could pass it off as Kosh being a little bit weird but only when the shadow war is over (3 seasons later) are you really going to understand why.  Another example is Delenn’s first words to Lennier in The Parliament of Dreams (Ep. 5).  Only much, much later in B5’s run are you going to understand the significance of it, or of Neroon’s (a warrior caste Minbari) line in Legacies (Ep.17) when he says to Sinclair – “You talk like a Minbari, commander.”  These are just a few examples of easily missed but crucial references that pepper the entire five seasons of Babylon 5.

Fans of the show get it.  They understand that B5 was epic in its reach and scope; that it was attempting to do something that had never before been done in science fiction on television – and that is why they are so passionate about it. The writing is the reason you should go out and buy the box sets of this show, and the reason you should watch episodes and seasons in quick succession so that you can really appreciate Babylon 5.

Again, after Signs and Portents, season one takes a hiatus from the major story arcs and then runs a series of self-contained, easily missable episodes.  For me, most seasons of B5 had at least one episode that I really disliked and season one is no exception.  I would suggest missing TKO (Ep.14) of season one.  TKO revolves around a kind of extra-terrestrial Fight Club that Garibaldi’s friend, Walker Smith is excluded from because he is human.  I’m sure the episode is meant to be an allegory for racism and honor or something like that but personally I don’t think it adds anything to any of B5’s story arcs and really is a one-off episode.  I’d even go as far as to say season one would be better without it.

The season then ends with a flurry of must-see episodes.  First comes A Voice in the Wilderness parts one and two (Eps 18 & 19), and I recommend these because there is foreshadowing here that bears fruit in season four.  Then comes Babylon Squared  (Ep. 20)

Babylon Squared was Babylon 5’s first WTF moment (and trust me, there were a few of them).  As Babylon 5’s moniker would suggest, B5 is the fifth in a series of space stations and, as we learn in the pilot movie and in other season one episodes, the first three stations were sabotaged before they could be completed.  Babylon 4, on the other hand, vanished twenty-four hours after going “on-line.”

Now you see it…Babylon 4

In Babylon Squared, B5 receives a distress call from the supposedly lost B4 station.  Only thing is, the time stamp on the message is four years old, corresponding exactly to when B4 vanished. Sinclair and Garibaldi go to investigate (because of course you’d send your commanding officer and chief of security into a dangerous situation instead of a couple of starfury pilots who are just sitting around twiddling their thumbs waiting to be scrambled), and, as it turns out, Babylon Four has been caught in some kind of temporal time rift and is now “unstuck” in time.  Thus ensues much rushing around, flashbacks, flashforwards and lots of talk about there “being no time” or “all the time in the world/galaxy/known universe.”  Throw in to this mix a new (incredibly irritating) character called Zathras (Tim Choate) and you’ve got one hot mess of paradoxes that will leave you thinking to yourself “What the hell just happened?”

Looking back on it now, I keep thinking that Babylon Squared was a risky episode in as much as it really could have been a make-or-break moment for much of Babylon 5’s viewership.  I mean there we all were, watching this seemingly episodic show, the first appearance of the shadows was now a distant memory, having aired seven weeks earlier – and now we were confronted with this.  Now I don’t care what you say, but there was no way to put this in to context with anything that had come before, or with anything that would come soon after, and if you weren’t heavily invested in the show, you could have easily said, “That’s it, I’m done,” after watching Babylon Squared.  B5 fans simply had to assimilate all of Babylon Squared and move forward with the blind faith that this episode actually meant something (and of course it did).

I also think it was risky for the show itself.  After all, B5 was in its infancy but nearing the end of its season run.  If it was looking to get picked up for a second season, throwing everyone for a loop this late in the game was a brave move indeed.

With all that said, watch this episode.  It’s a must-see.  You won’t understand a thing that is going on first time around but trust me, this might be the single most important episode in the whole five season run of the show.

After Babylon Squared there was a single episode before the season finale.  On the surface The Quality of Mercy, (Ep. 21) was another self-contained episode, but like many others, it contained elements that would be significant much later on.

Episode 22, Chrysalis, like all good season finales was a cliffhanger.  Sinclair announces his engagement to Catherine Sakai, Garibaldi uncovers a plot that will have repercussions for the next three seasons and Delenn begins a startling transformation.  And with that season one is/was over.

I have mixed feelings about season one.  As a fan, I love it, because it is the introduction to a show that I followed for years, but as that same fan, I’m almost disappointed because at 22 episodes long, I still don’t know if it’s that strong of a season, and by that, I mean I don’t know if season one alone could convince a non B5 fan to continue watching it. Yes, there are glimpses of the greatness to come but they are scattered among (some not so good) stand-alone episodes.  It saddens me that when I recommend Babylon 5 to people I feel like I have to add the caveat “Just get through season one, it gets much better after that.”  Agreed, this does not sound like a ringing endorsement of the show, but unless you’ve been on the B5 merry-go-round before, you can easily overlook all the references and foreshadowing that are so important in season one and DO make it a good season.

One of my complaints of The Gathering was that there was a lot of information that needed to be conveyed in a relatively short period of time.  Conversely, one of the problems with season one of B5 is that so much groundwork needs to be laid to set up subsequent seasons that it is literally drip fed to you, episode by episode.  I feel that at many points during season one, especially during streaks of stand alone episodes, viewers could literally not realize that they are being drawn into an intricate web of plotting and storylines – and that’s a shame, because they could easily decide that B5 is not worth their time.  Again, for this reason I would recommend you getting your hands on a box set and plowing through them.  If you can make it past Babylon Squared, I think you’re on for the ride.

At the start of this post, I said I would give suggestions as to which episodes in season one I think are crucial to following the greater story arcs in Babylon 5.  If you have the accompanying booklet that comes with the box set, I’d say as a general rule of thumb, watch anything written by Straczynski and/or directed by Janet Greek.  Similarly, avoid anything that has special guest stars of the known actor variety.

So, without further ado, here is a breakdown of season one.

Must See:

Ep 1. – Midnight on the Firing Line – Sets up ongoing feud between Narns and Centauri.  G’kar painted as villain. Introduction to Talia Winters, Susan Ivanova.  Vir.  Ivanova’s dislike of telepaths revealed.

Ep. 2 – Soul Hunter – Introduction to Stephen Franklin. Delenn revealed to be Satai (member of the Grey Council)

Ep. 6 – Mind War – Introduction to Bester.  Talia Winters backstory. First signs of G’kar’s change.

Ep. 8 – And the Sky full of Stars – What happened to Sinclair at the Battle of the Line?

Ep. 13 – Signs and Portents – Introduction to Mr. Morden and the shadows.*

Ep. 18/19  – A Voice in the Wilderness Parts 1 & 2 – Garibaldi’s backstory. Introduction to Epsilon 3, the planet that lies close to Babylon 5

Ep. 20 – Babylon Squared – Fate of Babylon 4 revealed. Introduction to Zathras.

Ep. 22 – Chrysalis – Garibaldi uncovers a devastating plot.  Delenn begins a startling transformation.*

*Commentaries by Straczynski available on DVD

Recommended:

Ep. 3 – Born to the Purple – Good character study of Londo.

Ep. 5 – The parliament of dreams – Introduction of Lennier, Na’Toth, Catherine Sakai. Sinclair and Sakai’s back story. Good character study of G’kar

Ep. 10 Believers – Good character study of Dr. Franklin.

Ep. 11 Survivors – Good Character Study of Garibaldi

Ep. 12 – By Any Means Necessary – Good for ongoing feud between Londo and G’kar.

Ep. 17 Legacies – Good character study of Delenn. Introduction to Neroon

Ep. 21 The Quality of Mercy – Franklin discovers an alien healing device.

Meh – Watch if you have time:

Ep. 4 – Infection

Ep. 7 – The War Prayer

Ep. 9 – Deathwalker

Ep. 16 – Eyes

Avoid:

Ep. 14 TKO

Ep. 15 Grail

Related Posts:

My Guilty Pleasure – Babylon 5 – The Gathering

My Guilty Pleasure – Babylon 5

Stuart Clark is the author of the Project U.L.F. series of sci-fi adventure novels

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My Guilty Pleasure – Babylon 5

When I was a toddler, my father terrorized me by watching Doctor Who (I was petrified of Davros and the Daleks).  Then, when I was a bigger kid, he took me to see the Star Wars trilogy.  As I grew older we shared a love of science fiction and then, when I was in my late teens/early twenties, a new show came to the UK that we would sit, watch and enjoy together.  That show was J. Michael Straczynski’s Emmy award winning Babylon 5.

Babylon 5 seems to be unique among sci-fi series in as much as people either seemed to love it or pathologically despised it.  You could talk about Star Trek or one of its spin-offs and people might say “Meh, Voyager is all right,” but mention Babylon 5 and you’d either see a face light up in recognition of a fellow fan or receive a scowl and a roll of the eyes.  Babylon 5 definitely divided sci-ficionados and you were either a fan, or you weren’t.  There was no middle ground.

Perhaps the reason for this was Babylon 5’s greater story arc that encompassed all 5 seasons. Unlike other sci-fi shows which you could catch an episode of here and there and not really feel like you’d missed much, if you weren’t strapped in for the ride with Babylon 5 part way through season 2, you were lost. Which is not to say other sci-fi shows did not have an underlying theme – Star Trek spent it’s time “seeking out new life and new civilizations,” Voyager was constantly looking for a way home and the folks on the Battlestar Galactica were searching for the thirteenth colony (Earth) – but these were always far reaching objectives and weekly adventures could easily be separated from them. 

For me, being a B5 fan and meeting a non-B5 fan was always disappointing.  I would think, “How could you not like this? The writing in this show is BRILLIANT!” Now I’m not saying B5 didn’t have it’s cheesy, hammy or downright poorly written scenes – but seeing multiple, interwoven storylines progress through five seasons and contribute to a greater story arc was something I had never seen in Sci-Fi before.  The only thing that was even remotely close to Babylon 5 was the Star Trek spinoff Deep Space 9, itself concerned with the characters that inhabit, and the machinations of, a space station – and if you trawl the internet you’ll find plenty of evidence to suggest that DS9 was lifted from the B5 idea. (Even Straczynski has been quite vocal about it).   Certainly, Straczynski met with Paramount executives to pitch the idea of B5 to them, a pitch they declined to bite on.  Soon after, however, DS9 went in to production and whilst DS9 aired first, the similarities between the two shows are startling.

When Babylon 5 first aired in the UK, I managed to follow it all the way through to the first few episodes of season 4.  I can’t remember exactly what happened at that point.  I think there were rumors that it was going to be cancelled and the air time got moved around to the point where I just couldn’t fathom what day or time it was on.  (I’m sure I also had lots of important socializing to do).  Regardless, at that time I never did get to see the show in its entirety but I did remember it fondly.  In the following years I managed to acquire Babylon 5 on VHS, rounding out my collection just as the format was dying.  I never did get to watch them all before I relocated to the US and so, changing from a PAL to an NTSC television system meant that if I was serious about completing the Babylon 5 experience I would have to start collecting the series over again on DVD.  Well, the day finally arrived that I owned a complete set of DVDs.

Having recently completed my novel series and armed with a netbook and a hellishly long commute to the day job, I decided to take a hiatus from writing and embark on a trip down memory lane, reacquainting myself with some old friends along the way.

I’ve been revisiting Babylon 5 and watching both the series and the movies according to this suggested viewing order.  Currently I’m at the end of season three.  In the next few days I’ll be posting my thoughts on the Babylon 5 pilot movie The Gathering. I hope you’ll “jump” back for that review. 

Stuart Clark is the author of the Project U.L.F. series of sci-fi adventure novels.

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