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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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