Babylon 3 1/2

by Arthur B

Babylon 5 was a wonderful show for its first three seasons. A good but flawed show for its fourth. And the fifth season? Don't even think about it.
~
I've been rewatching Babylon 5 lately, after finally getting around to picking up the 5th season on DVD, and I was torn about whether I'd bother reviewing it. On the one hand, I reasoned that Babylon 5 is quite old and was, at the time, a pretty major show, and I thought most people interested in space opera TV shows would already be familiar with the show anyway.

Then I reconsidered. Firstly, because it's been over 10 years since the finale aired, and in those 10 years SF TV has moved on - we've had Battlestar Galactica, we've had Star Trek driving itself into the ground, we've had Farscape and more Stargate spin-offs than I can keep track of. It's worth looking back at this point and seeing whether Babylon 5 still stands up to scrutiny now that there's more choice on the market, or whether we latched onto it simply because it was epic space opera on TV which wasn't some flavour of Star Trek. Secondly, 110 normal length episodes and a feature-length pilot is one hell of a time investment; it's taken me a while to decide to take the plunge with the Battlestar Galactica remake, and that has a three hour miniseries at the start to act as a taster before taking on the main series. (The pilot episode of Babylon 5 isn't as good a sample of the series itself because so many major characters were replaced between it and episode 1 of series 1.) If I were pondering whether to give something this epic a go I'd appreciate as many opinions as I could get my hands on.

I won't be covering the much-maligned Crusade in this review, because it's a separate show. Nor will I be covering most of the feature-length episodes that were produced for the series, because A Call to Arms was the pilot episode for Crusade, Legend of the Rangers was the pilot episode for another sequel series that never even made it off the ground, and In the Beginning, Thirdspace and River of Souls were prequels and side stories that aren't necessary to following the main arc. As a matter of fact, In the Beginning, the prequel, covers events which are already perfectly adequately covered and explained in the main series, and the events of Thirdspace and River of Souls aren't even alluded to in the core episodes.

Likewise, I won't bother with The Lost Tales, a straight-to-DVD release with a pair of episodes that represented show creator J. Michael Straczynski's last gasp attempt to squeeze a little more story out of the dried-up husk of B5. Straczynski himself has pretty much directly admitted since the Lost Tales debacle that the five year plot arc should be regarded as the heart of the series, and he isn't going to be producing any more material unless he's convinced it will actually add to that rather than detract from it (and even then only if he's given enough budget to do whatever new idea he has justice).

I will, however, be reviewing The Gathering, the first feature length episode, seeing how it was actually the pilot episode for the whole show and is therefore an integral part of the 5 year arc rather than a subsequent embellishment of it.

The Gathering


The series kicks off in 2257, in the wake of a devastating war between upstart humanity and the Minbari, a civilisation vastly technologically superior to Earth. The war ended abruptly when the Minbari simply quit for mysterious reasons; realising that their technological disadvantage compared with most of the major powers of the galaxy would mean disaster if they got into another war, Earth has turned to diplomacy, and as part of that initiative has proposed the Babylon Project - a plan to produce an Earth-administered space station in neutral space which would act as an open talking shop to promote trade, scientific collaboration, and above all diplomatic contact between the various galactic civilisations.

Babylon 5 is the floating League of Nations the Babylon Project intended; it's number five because the first three Babylon stations were destroyed by terrorist action before they went active, and the fourth just plain disappeared. Things are therefore tense as the station staff - led by Commander Jeffrey Sinclair (Michael O'Hare) - welcome the various diplomatic parties of the great powers onboard. When an assassin strikes at Kosh (Ardwright Chamberlain), ambassador of the enigmatic Vorlon civilisation - unthinkably technologically advanced, aggravatingly mysterious in their rare pronouncements, and so devoted to their isolation that they are only willing to appear in public wearing bulky encounter suits that completely obscure their true form - Sinclair has to tackle the first major threat to the station's existence. It's bad enough that Sinclair is forced to order station doctor Benjamin Kyle (Johnny Sekka) to breach Kosh's encounter suit in order to save the ambassador, against the direct urging of the Vorlon government; it gets worse when he asks telepath Lyta Alexander (Patricia Tallman) to scan Kosh's mind to discover any clues as to the killer's identity, at which point she accuses him of being the assassin.

As with many pilot episodes, there were a heap of changes between The Gathering and the beginning of the series proper. Not least of this is the fact that with the exception of Sinclair himself and security chief Michael Garibaldi (Jerry Doyle), pretty much all the significant human characters were replaced when the series itself began. Whilst Patricia Tallman would return to the series in the second season as a guest star, and made a full return in season 3, Johnny Sekka would never come back and his character would be written out completely, as would Tamlyn Tomita, whose role as Lt. Commander Laurel Takashima - Sinclair's second in command - admittedly is pretty slight this time around.

On top of that, the design of the alien makeup for some of the species, such as the Narn and the Minbari, would be altered - this is particularly jarring in the case of the Minbari, which actually look a lot more alien in The Gathering than they do in the series itself. This is probably because Delenn (Mira Furlan), the Minbari ambassador, would eventually evolve into being one of the most benign characters in the show, and the makers presumably didn't want her to look too scary, but given that she metamorphoses at the end of season 1 anyway (more of which later on) that seems kind of daft. Seeing how one of the points that Straczynski constantly makes with the series is that fine appearances aren't what counts and it's totally what's inside that matters, making the Minbari seem more alien even though they turn out to be in some ways more human than any of the other alien races would be entirely appropriate.

That said, most of what would ultimately define Babylon 5 is already in place. You've got the station commander battling to resolve a major crisis that threatens to shut down the station, you've got an immediate mystery whose resolution hints at wheels within wheels, and most importantly the ambassadors of the four major alien civilisations are in place - Kosh of the Vorlons, Delenn of the Minbari, G'Kar (Andreas Katsulas) of the Narn and Londo Millari (Peter Jurasik) of the Centauri - the rivalry between G'Kar and Londo being a major element of the series. Likewise, some of the series' flaws are also evident - the acting tends towards the broad and heavy-handed, as does the writing at points, and the CGI has dated woefully. (More on that when I discuss the first season.)

Inevitably, there are also a few places where The Gathering isn't up to scratch with the rest of the series - where Straczynski and crew are still rusty and need to tighten things up. In particular, there is a great gaping plot hole which Straczynski and his continuity people don't manage to catch, and which is well in excess of any plot issues the rest of the series had - if Kosh was in his encounter suit when the assassination attempt happened, and the assassin used a contact poison, how did the assassin find any bare flesh to administer the poison to since Kosh was completely covered up? There's a really groan-inducing scene in series 1 which was blatantly shoehorned into the episode it appears in to allow Straczynski to have Sinclar explain what happened to the missing characters from The Gathering (well, two of them, Takashima is never mentioned again), and also slips in a really unconvincing explanation for the plot hole. The scene in question is horribly stilted and consists of two characters standing around spouting facts at each other, and I'd almost prefer it if Straczynski hadn't felt the need to cover that ground.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. To be honest, The Gathering is as good an introduction to the series as any, so long as you don't get too attached to any of the human characters who aren't Sinclair or Garibaldi. If you find The Gathering moderately entertaining and are interested in the mysteries it sets up you'll probably enjoy the series, but if you absolutely hate it you can probably afford to give the rest of Babylon 5 a miss because Straczynski and company simply don't make the sort of fundamental changes to their approach that would be necessary to win you over.

Season One: Signs and Portents


This is actually the most difficult season to review, because watching it again after seeing the rest of the series is a very different experience from watching it for the first time. When Babylon 5 first came out it seemed as though the episodes comprising the first season were all over the place, each week introducing a new crisis or plot twist which wouldn't have very much connection to the show's overall plot. In fact, whilst the main plot of individual episodes might just be another crisis of the week, almost every episode of season 1 introduces plot elements which would later become important, or contains pointers to the direction in which a particular element of the setting will develop. For example, the Vorlon's dramatic intervention at the conclusion of Deathwalker betrays a high-handed and paternalistic side to their culture that would eventually come to the fore in season 4, as well as establishing the point that the Vorlons are so ridiculously advanced that none of the other races even consider protesting at their actions. Likewise, EarthGov's attitude to the docker's strike in By Any Means Necessary reveals Earth's increasing tendency towards harsh, fascistic attitudes.

Eventually, this approach would work to set Babylon 5 apart from Star Trek - and most previous space opera shows on television, to be honest. In a show like Star Trek: the Next Generation or Blake's Seven or the original Battlestar Galactica, the alien life-exchanging technology in The Quality of Mercy would most likely just be a MacGuffin to drive the action for an episode, and only a minority of episodes in any particular season would be of any long-term consequence; in fact, the machine plays an important role in saving a major character's life at the start of season 2, and again towards the end of season 4, and season 1 Babylon 5 has almost no episodes which stand absolutely alone.

But whilst you can see that there's no filler after watching the show from beginning to end, you'll probably feel differently when watching it for the first time. And as with the pilot episodes, there's some aspects to Babylon 5 which just plain take some getting used to. Straczynski's often-corny dialogue doesn't really improve much over the pilot, and never really gets massively better over the course of the entire season. The same is true of the quality of the acting, which (like the script) is something you can kind of overlook in a pilot episode because everyone's still working out their roles and things but once a proper season gets underway you expect a little more, which isn't delivered. There's points in the show where sometimes it feels as though Straczynski decided to save money on actual actors by just hiring a bunch of LARPers to read the lines, because the quality of the acting on display isn't that much better than what you'd see at your local Camarilla meetup. This is especially apparent when actors have to act deep and mysterious and alien and wise, when - with the exception of Ardwright Chamberlain, who voices Kosh and gets to benefit from spacey effects on his voice - they almost invariably come across like a LARPer trying to make their character look deep and mysterious and alien and wise when they just kind of look like a prat.

There are a very limited number of exceptions to the otherwise mediocre quality of the acting. A small subset of the actors - Michael O'Hare, Andreas Katsulas, and Peter Jurasik - seem to take the view that even if they provide good acting, they're going to be dragged down by all the bad acting surrounding them, so they decide to go for "so bad it's good"; O'Hare as Sinclair takes the square jawed starship commander archetype and cranks it up to 11, which is great, but the kings of scene-stealing ham acting are Kutsulas and Jurasik, who make the snarling feud between G'Kar and Londo a saving grace of the series. This latter point is especially important since the age-old conflict between the Narn and Centauri civilisations is not just a major element of the series as a whole, but one of the driving plot threads of the first season - the first episode, Midnight On the Firing Line, being dominated by the diplomatic fallout from a Narn incursion into Centauri space, and the finale, Chrysalis, featuring the consequences of Londo's deal with the devil he's struck to halt the slow crumbling of his civilisation in the face of the upsurgent Narn. The impression the early episodes give, in which the Narn seem to be the aggressors and the Centauri the sad, declining defenders, gives way to a more complicated picture in which a long cycle of aggression from both sides is eventually manipulated by a third force for its own ends. We wouldn't care about any of that if we didn't care about G'Kar and Londo by the time shit hits the fan, and we care about them because they are so hilariously over the top.

Another axis of acceptable acting centres around Jerry Doyle (who appears to have been cast as Security Chief Garibaldi on the the basis that he kind of looks like Bruce Willis a little) and Richard Biggs, playing replacement head doctor Stephen Franklin, who opt for underacting as opposed to overacting and just play their characters as normal, ordinary people who often get kind of frustrated about all the ridiculous over the top mayhem they have to handle but not so much that they can't have a sense of humour about it. This also supports the themes of the five-year arc quite well, because this basis for the crew's interpersonal chemistry - and episodes like By Any Means Necessary - underline the point that the colonisation of space can't just be carried out by big heroic figures; if it happens, it will happen because ordinary people, cops and soldiers and doctors and dockworkers, all pile in. This is a point which sadly gets lost in the later seasons, and there's at least one episode in season five which completely turns it on its head, so it's nice to have it intact early on. (For what it's worth, Claudia Christian in her role as Lt. Commander Susan Ivanova, the new Number Two, manages to blend both hammy scenery-chewing and normality into her role, veering dizzily from one extreme to the other.)

By Any Means Necessary is, come to think of it, the episode where Straczynski's position as a left-leaning, liberal (in the US politics sense of the world "liberal") Clinton voting sort, writing in the mid-1990s when the Cold War was over and the Twin Towers were standing and we all thought maybe the different countries of the world might agree to get along (after malcontents like Serbia were slapped into playing nicely) - well, it's not written by him, but it was produced under his watch and it seems to fit his own position in the early episodes pretty well. The Rush Act, the fictional law which allows EarthGov to empower Sinclair to end the dockworker's strike "by any means necessary" if the Senate chooses to invoke it, is named after Rush Limbaugh, who was as noxious and shrill back in 1994 as he is now, and seeing how it's portrayed as a nasty fascistic measure which is used to justify atrocities on the off-world colonies in a populist manner which would appeal to Earth voters I think you can see where the show is coming from. I suspect most people reading this will see the show's stance, and the clever way in which Sinclair subverts the point of the Rush Act, to be a plus, but if you're a Republican it'll probably grate. And even if you agree with Straczynski when his ideas are filtered through someone else's writing, at points his own writing can come across as preachy. Whilst this doesn't happen so often this season it does occasionally occur - the bit at the end of The Parliament of Dreams in which Sinclair arranges a demonstration of Earth's dominant belief system by arranging a parade of one representative from every single religion of Earth might be warm and fuzzy and tolerant, but let's face it, it's also a really weaksauce copout when he could have just held up a wad of cash and credibly called it Earth's dominant belief system.

The CGI graphics in this season and the pilot look severely dated; later seasons would ditch the old Amigas for more powerful PC-based systems, and that's probably a good thing since the epic space battles of later seasons would probably be beyond the capabilities of the CGI in season 1. However, watching this season after coming from the pilot will bring you face to face with some of the mastering problems that plague the entire DVD set, and have made the chances of a blu-ray release for the series remote. Whilst the pilot was shot in a 4:3 aspect ratio and is presented as such on the DVD, the series was produced when Laserdiscs were sidling onto the market and HDTVs and DVDs, whilst not commercially available yet, where foreseeably about to come onto the market. This prompted the producers to try out a method of filming the series such that it could be broadcast originally in a standard 4:3 aspect ratio, but that on widescreen home media formats (such as the DVDs) they could be released in a 16:9 aspect ratio and still look great. The method used seemed to make sense at the time and was quite forward-thinking, but in retrospect has caused major problems for the DVD release.

So, all the live action sequences were shot in a 16:9 aspect ratio, which was trimmed to 4:3 for broadcast, and - as far as purely live action shots go - they look gorgeous on the DVDs. Better than they did on the TV, in fact, because you get the entire widescreen shot rather than the trimmed version for television, so you can take in all the details. The purely CGI shots were rendered in 4:3, but in such a way that you could trim them to a 16:9 image and not wreck the image composition; this was alright in theory, but in practice taking CGI shots like that is inevitably going to reduce the picture quality, so the quality of the space scenes is very slightly less than it was in the original broadcasts. It's apparently even worse on the PAL DVDs, which I was watching, because the conversion from NTSC introduced more degradation in quality. In theory, they could get around these issues by simply re-rendering the scenes in 16:9, but unfortunately the companies who did those CGI sequences have gone bust so all the original 3D models of the planets and ships and space stations and jumpgates and things have been lost. But that's not so bad.

Where the picture quality goes completely to hell is in any scene which mixes live action footage and CGI. Whilst the purely live-action shots were stored in an HD-ready format, the shots combining CGI and live-action were stored in a standard definition 4:3 NTSC format, because they expected that they could just go back to the original companies with the original 3D models to redo the CGI bits for the HD release. They couldn't, so any scene mixing live action and CGI has a 16:9 picture which is actually trimmed down from a 4:3 picture, and if you're watching the region 2 DVDs is converted from NTSC to PAL. In non-technical terms, they look horrible, all grainy and low-definition. Even if you don't understand aspect ratios and NTSC and all that, the drop in picture quality is very noticeable.

So there's picture issues, corny dialogue and a political agenda which will irritate its opponents regularly and its supporters more often than it should, and uninspiring acting (except for the Ham Brigade and the Alliance of Normal People). What is there to actually like about the show? Well, the big thing that season 1 needed to do was draw the viewer into the Babylon 5 universe and make us interested in exploring it and learning about its destiny, and it by and large does the job. Episodes like Born to the Purple and Mind War tantalise us with little glimpses of Centauri politics, or the mysterious business of the Psi-Corps, giving us a look at the tip of a very large iceberg - and most importantly, you do get the impression that there is a whole iceberg under the surface to explore - and episodes like Signs and Portents and Babylon Squared establish enough of an aura of mystery about the overall plot arc to make you want to watch it to the end - as badly acted and heavy-handed as it might be. The first season also manages to be something which subsequent seasons, due to the increased prominence of the plot arc, don't manage to be - a great collection of mostly (but not completely) self-contained episodes, many of which I'd say rank amongst the best the series had to offer.

If you weren't sure about Babylon 5 after the pilot episode but were inclined to explore further, I'd suggest that the first season is the make or break point - if you're not sold by the end of this season, nothing subsequent to it is going to prompt you to change your mind. Conversely, if you're hooked by the end of this season, you're probably going to want to keep going regardless of what I say in the rest of this review - at least until the end of season 4.

Best Episode: Probably Believers, in which Dr Franklin is faced with a medical ethics nightmare: he has a child patient, Shon (Jonathan Charles Kaplan), who has a life-threatening condition which could be corrected with a simple, safe and reliable surgical procedure. However, Shon's parents Tharg (Stephen Lee) and M'Ola (Tricia O'Neil) absolutely will not allow it: for Shon, Tharg and M'Ola are of the Children of Time, a highly religious alien sect who believe that invasive surgery inevitably causes the soul to leave the body. Appalled that they would allow their child to die for the sake of such a belief, Franklin tries to convince Sinclair to intervene to give him permission to operate without the parents' consent; ultimately, both Franklin and the parents are driven to drastic courses of action based on what they believe is best for Shon.

You can pretty much ignore the subplot in which Ivanova takes some of the station's fighter pilots out on a pirate-hunting foray, which seems to have been slipped in to appease a desire to have some action each episode - though the brief shots of action in space do actually prevent the episode being a parade of heavy, emotional scene after heavy, emotional scene. What makes this episode great is the way that it takes a real-world issue, casts it in science fiction terms to allow us to get some distance from it (we all know about cases with Jehovah's Witnesses refusing transfusions and the like, but the episode wants to make general points rather than go after the Witnesses specifically), and examines it from all sides. And, most of all, it pretty much refuses to take a side and declare whether Franklin, Sinclair, or the parents are right. Yes, by the end of the episode the parents have committed an extreme and regrettable act; but you can't necessarily say that Franklin's actions in operating without their consent were necessarily the right course of action either. It invites the reader to think about the issues at hand, but warns the viewer that there are no easy answers, and that one episode of one television series can't really say who is and isn't in the right on this one.

This is particularly good because it stands in stark contrast to some of Straczynski's worst habits, indulged in the later seasons, of deciding that a particular position is definitely correct, and depicting those characters who disagree with it as not only being objectively wrong, but morally flawed in their incorrectness to boot. That's probably because the episode wasn't actually written by Straczynski itself, but was cooked up by David Gerrold - a veteran SF author and television writer who was also responsible for Star Trek's The Trouble With Tribbles. It's more than possible that my love for season 1 Babylon 5 might be due to it being the season in which Straczynski wrote the least episodes - he wrote more in season 2, and the last 3 seasons were written by him alone, except for one episode in season 5 which was written by Neil Gaiman.

The part in which Tharg and M'Ola go to each of the ambassadors, imploring them to intervene to make Sinclair forbid Franklin to go ahead with the procedure, and in which each ambassador brushes them off is particularly good, especially since each ambassador has a good reason to stay out of it - Londo and G'Kar for pragmatic reasons, Delenn and Kosh for less tangible ones. It's a nice way to both showcase different responses people might have to the situation, as well as reinforcing the characterisation of the four ambassadors - all of whom (with the exception of the ever-impassive Kosh) express a great deal of sympathy for the family, but none of whom can quite bring themselves to actually stick their head in this particular hornet's nest.

I think it's some of the cleverest writing in television.

Worst Episode: This is a tough one - whilst there are some episodes which just aren't as good as the others in season 1, none of them are truly, unwatchably bad. I'd probably have to nominate Infection, simply because it's so incredibly bland. Dr Franklin's buddy, Dr Vance Hendricks (David McCallum of Man From UNCLE and Sapphire and Steel fame) arrives on the station with his henchman Nelson Drake (Marshall Teague) in tow. They have an alien biomechanical device with them - which actually they've illegally smuggled onboard, not that they're telling Franklin. Franklin and Hendricks experiment with it, it possesses Drake and turns him into an alien supersoldier, Sinclair convinces the supersoldier not to blow up the station by showing it something its programming can't deal with, the end. Like I said, not absolutely terrible, but not especially exciting either - especially since the Ikarra VII civilisation the artifact came from never plays any significant role in the series either.

The episode's subplot revolves around an InterStellar News reporter's repeated efforts to get an interview with Sinclair, which he eventually agrees to at the end of the episode. She asks him whether space is worth it; he says yes, because one day the Sun will go out and if humanity hasn't spread into space by then the whole thing has been a waste of time. That's true enough, but Straczynski (who wrote this episode) has him say it in such a toe-curlingly gushy and unashamedly preachy way that it makes you wish the Sun would explode just so that the episode will stop.

That monologue isn't just cheesy - it's also a pointer to an aspect of Straczynski's writing which becomes more prominent over the course of the show: for a self-declared atheist, his outlook is in many ways awfully religious, and that's reflected in the universe he's created. Space is the promised land, and the salvation of mankind. The realm beyond the galactic rim is where the godlike ascended civilisations of the ancient past have retreated to, and where we will all go once we reach a certain state of enlightenment. For someone who doesn't claim to be a Christian, Straczynski really loves his messiah figures. "Faith manages" is in many ways the motto of the show, and if you lack faith? Well, that's a moral failing; you've got to have faith in something. There's points - especially where he's depicting the ascension of super-advanced minds into a non-corporeal state - where Straczynski reminds me of the sort of Transhumanist you can find by the dozen on the Internet, where the tropes and images and ideas of religion are swapped out for pseudoscientific ideas about the Singularity with no more solid basis in observable, empirical facts than the religious views atheist Transhumanists claim to discard.

In other words: get off my side, Straczynski.

Season Two: The Coming of Shadows


With the last season ending on a major cliffhanger - President Santiago of Earth being assassinated, and Garibaldi being gunned down by one of his own men who were in on the conspiracy - season 2 already had a difficult task ahead of it in maintaining the momentum established by the first season, making the major plot arcs more prominent and toning back the number of stand-alone episodes. What made this even more difficult was Michael O'Hare leaving the show after season 1 concluded, forcing Straczynski to find a new commander for the station. Fortunately, the writing team had planned exit strategies for all the major characters, so in the opening scenes of Points of Departure Ivanova, who has been serving as acting commander during Sinclair's absence, learns that Sinclair has been reassigned to become Earth's first ambassador to the Minbari homeworld - a development which sets Sinclair on the path to his own special destiny, which becomes apparent in the third season.

The new leader of Babylon 5 is Captain John Sheridan (Bruce "Tron" Boxleitner), a former starship captain infamous for being one of the only Earth officers to do any significant harm to the Minbari during the Earth-Minbari war. He also has his own agenda; his superior, General Hague, and other figures in the Earth military and government are concerned about the increasing authoritarian streak in EarthGov, and in particular suspect that President Clark (Gary McGurk), who was Santiago's Vice-President, may have had just a little to do with Santiago's assassination. Sheridan's covert mission is to assess which members of the Babylon 5 command staff can be trusted to put the interests of humanity above President Clark's directives (as it turns out, almost all of them), bring them into the loop, and work with them to find any clues he can which might prove that Clark was behind the assassination.

This is all good stuff, but for the first few episodes of this seasons there's a problem: Sheridan is just kind of a wuss. Boxleitner's acting and Straczynski's scripts overplay Sheridan's disorientation at being reassigned to Babylon 5 just a little too much - it goes beyond being slightly nervous and overwhelmed and straight into "you wouldn't put this pushover guy in charge of a primary school, let alone a battlestation" sort of territory. Yes, he does get to show his grit a little in a face-off against Minbari war cruisers, but he comes across more like a yappy dog than the big rottweiler he needs to be to make the scene work. That said, after the first few episodes Boxleitner starts to grow into the role and Sheridan's character starts to get interesting; this is highlighted in In the Shadow of Z'ha'dum, one of the best episodes in the season, in which Sheridan discovers that the mysterious Mr Morden knows something about the fate of his wife, thought lost with an archaeological expedition to an uncharted world. Sheridan's grim determination to get the truth out of Morden, whatever it takes, makes for great drama - especially when he faces off against Garibaldi, who's appalled at the measures Sheridan is willing to go to in order to get the truth. (It's also one of the last episodes in which in a disagreement between Garibaldi and Sheridan, Garibaldi is shown to be right.)

By this point in the series, the one-off episodes are beginning to become the exception rather than the norm (and a lot of the time they aren't completely standalone, at least having a subplot linked to the ongoing arc). Some of them tell powerful stories that don't necessarily fit into the overall arc - I particularly like Confessions and Lamentations, in which Franklin investigates the mysterious decline and fall of the Markab civilisation. Others seem intended to provide a little lightheartedness in the midst of all the heavy plot developments - one of the funniest episodes in the series is Soul Mates, in which Londo's three wives arrive from the Centauri homeworld to discover that the Emperor has permitted Londo to divorce two of them (predictably - but amusingly - he keeps the one who openly declares her disgust with him, rather than the two who are all sweetness and light and poisoned daggers behind their backs), and Delenn asks Ivanova to help her work out what to do with her hair.

Oh yeah, Delenn's hair. Another change from the first season is in Delenn's appearance; in order to facilitate an understanding between Earth and Minbar, Delenn enters a cocoon at the end of the first season, and when she emerges she is half-human. This is an interesting idea which is difficult for the writers to convey visually, since (aside from the Centauri) the Minbari are the most human-appearing of the alien species depicted in the show - especially following the redesign that happened after the pilot episode. So, there's only two things about Delenn that really change: the bone ridge on her head becomes smaller, like a headband, and she grows a full head of hair, where previously (like all Minbari) she had been bald. This frankly, looks ridiculous, especially since to keep her bone-ridge visible the hair ends up going under it, so it's like this ridiculous cartilage hairband. Since Delenn ultimately becomes Sheridan's love interest, I am inclined to suspect someone somewhere decided that the audience wouldn't be into a love affair in which the female participant is bald.

Aside from the visual shortcomings of Delenn's transformation and Sheridan's shaky start, however, season 2 sees Babylon 5 still firing on all cylinders. Big, serious things happen, and everyone on the station is affected, and Straczynski and his fellow writers don't pull their punches. Probably the biggest shock comes in the way that Talia Winters (Andrea Thompson), Lyta Alexander's replacement as station telepath, is written out of the series in Divided Loyalties, the very same episode that the ongoing flirtation between her and Ivanova seemed to be consummated. (Then again, that episode does at least see the return of Lyta Alexander, who kicks several orders of magnitude more ass than Talia anyway.) The brutality with which Talia is ripped screaming out of the fabric of the station is one of several incidents which underline just how high the stakes are: with the Centauri on the warpath, backed by the mysterious Shadows, with Earthforce's paramilitary Nightwatch making its presence felt more and more on the station, and with every one of the station's command staff potentially up for being executed for treason if their activities as part of General Hague's conspiracy come to light, it's made clear that things are getting serious and that from this point on, every episode counts.

Best Episode: Probably the season finale, The Fall of Night, in which a large number of strands come together. We see the orbital bombardment of the Narn homeworld, there's an attempt on Sheridan's life which prompts Kosh to reveal his true form, and the shit of a dozen star systems hits the galactic fan. I also like it for the way Straczynski skillfully turns a burden into an asset; in this season the network pushed the producers of the show to include a dashing Starfury pilot on the ship's crew, so Straczynski introduces Warren Keffer (Robert Rusler), who's precisely what the executives ordered. After witnessing a Shadow ship pass by in hyperspace, Keffer becomes intent on discovering more about these mysterious entities. He succeeds in this episode in obtaining footage of a Shadow vessel... and is immediately killed by the Shadow vessel in question, with only the video evidence being recovered. The adaptability shown in taking an unfortunate circumstance (the network forcing a new character into the show) and working it into the arc is pretty smart; I wish Straczynski could have brought it out in season 5.

Worst Episode: If anything, this one is even harder to pick - this was a hell of a season. But if I had to pull out one, it's probably A Distant Star. It's not that it's bad, so much as it's overshadowed by other episodes which have more to do with the overall arc - aside from Keller's encounter with a Shadow vessel, there really isn't very much in this episode which ever becomes relevant again (and that only happened because Straczynski was forced to insert Keller into the series in the first place). It's a shame, because I thought Russ Tamblyn did a good job as Captain Jack Maynard, commanding officer of the EarthForce exploration vessel Cortez, and it would have been interesting to see him play a part in the Shadow War or the Earth Civil War - both conflicts in which a vessel such as the Cortez could have believably played a major role. Really, my complaint about this episode isn't anything to do with its quality as such - it's more to do with its wasted potential.

Season Three: Point of No Return


With Straczynski taking over writing duties completely, season 3 is the one in which the plot arc dominates - and in which, I think Straczynski's own writing is at its best. Because the Shadows cease hiding and begin openly moving to conquer much of the galaxy in this season, Straczynski opts to make a few additions to the setting to facilitate more off-station action, both of which are introduced in the season opener, Matters of Honor.

First off, the station gets its very own White Star - a new class of hyperspace-capable craft based on a fusion of Vorlon and Minbari technology. When I originally watched Babylon 5 I was mildly concerned by this turn of events, since it seemed as though the addition of the White Stars would lead to the series evolving into a Star Trek knockoff, but thankfully the majority of episodes in this season remain firmly focused on the station. (After all, it does declare independence from Earth this season.) The White Star does add a new dynamic to the series, since it means that the characters can interact with events happening far from the station, but it isn't permitted to become the focus of the series in the same way as the station is - its crew members are never developed to the same extent. And it does play a particularly awesome role in the season finale.

I was also a little put off by the other major addition in Matters of Honor, and unlike the White Star I never quite warmed to this one: Marcus Cole (Jason Carter), a member of the Rangers - a secret society of humans and Minbari led by Sinclair. Marcus is meant to be an ass-kicking mystical spy, but he's just so incredibly wet. It doesn't help that Jason Carter is one of those Babylon 5 cast members with a tendency to sound like they're LARPers trying to be all serious and important who I was talking about earlier; that sort of thing you can overlook for a bit-part character, but not for a major addition to the cast. But what really gets on my nerves is his naive schoolboy outlook - hell, he even talks like his voice hasn't quite broken yet. He gets into this really creepy unrequited love thing with Ivanova where he makes declarations of love to her in Minbari (which of course she doesn't understand) and generally acts as though he's got Nice Guy syndrome coming out the ears, combined with a complete failure to acknowledge when he's aggravating her. No, Straczynski, it isn't cute or endearing when he does that, it's just irritating, in the same way as it's irritating to include a hand-to-hand combat specialist in a setting with perfectly reliable and accurate laser blasters and in which the main characters haven't really needed a badly-socialised guy with a staff fighting alongside them so far.

I don't know; maybe Marcus is the Marmite of the series or something where you either love him or hate him. Personally, I can't stand the guy. Every one of his lines is the most irritating thing he could have possibly said at that point in time. It's uncanny how reliably he gets on my nerves. The only thing worse than Marcus is the way Marcus's story ultimately ends in the far future, as written by Straczynski in a short story; it involves him waking up from a long time in cryogenic suspension to find that Ivanova is long dead, so he creates a clone of her, provides the clone with her memories up to a certain point in her lifetime, and then strands the clone and himself on an isolated planet with no hope of rescue and pretends it's still the middle of the Earth Civil War and they've been shot down and stranded in deep space. Talk about creepy.

But aside from these new additions, season 3 progresses much as season 2 did, only this time both the Shadows' conspiracies and the Babylon 5 command staff's resistance to Earth cease being covert. The major events of the season include Babylon 5 declaring independence from Earth, Ambassador Kosh being assassinated by the Shadows after he convinces his fellow Vorlons to openly join Sheridan's alliance against them, Sinclair returning in the two-parter War Without End to reveal his unique destiny and to take Babylon 4 on a one-way trip through time, and Sheridan's own wife returning from the Shadow homeworld of Z'ha'dum to invite him to peace talks. This latter sets up the events of Z'ha'dum, the incredible season finale which sees Sheridan finally encounters his opposite number amongst the Shadows - who turns out not to be Morden, the negotiator, but the mysterious Justin (Jeff Corey). Although Justin only appears in this episode, wasn't mentioned before, and isn't mentioned again, I really like his meeting with Sheridan, partially for the implication that just as the Vorlons have been working to build up Sheridan is this big shining figurehead, the Shadows have been helping Justin establish himself as the ultimate manipulator behind the scenes, sending emissaries like Morden, Sheridan's wife and others out to do his dirty work, helping to hook the Shadows up with just the right people in EarthGov, and so on. The way he explains the Shadow agenda to Sheridan with complete sincerity but without any malice or anger is compelling, and I do like the idea of the master manipulator behind everything being a nice tea-drinking old man shuffling about in a cardigan.

What makes this season work is how Straczynski makes sure that the grand sweeping events spanning the galaxy have a direct impact on people onboard Babylon 5 itself - characters we've already been introduced to and care about - and the interactions of those characters play out those historical events in miniature. The Londo-G'Kar double act reaches its peak in this season, with their rivalry playing out in a series of fantastic episodes - including Convictions, in which a random act of terrorism causes both Londo and G'Kar to be trapped together in an elevator with poor odds of rescue. Under the terms of the Centauri occupation of the Narn homeworld, G'Kar can't kill Londo because that would cause widespread punishment killings back home - but he can take pleasure in sitting back and watching him die. Both Jurasik and Katsulas take the opportunity to chew the scenery with gusto, but I think Katsulas ends up ahead - you can't help but smile with him as he expresses his glee at Londo's impending end, or feel for him when he wails with despair at his vengeance being snatched from him as the rescue teams make their way into the elevator. The rivalry also helps set up the action of And the Rock Cried Out, No Hiding Place, a memorable episode in which Londo is able to use his well-known feud with G'Kar a key part of his plans against his political rival, Lord Refa (William Forward).

Straczynski also manages to work in an interesting subplot in which Dr Franklin realises he's become addicted to the stimulants he's been taking to work long shifts in medlab, and so goes on a long walkabout across the lesser-seen parts of the station in order to find himself. As well as providing a springboard for some Franklin-centric episodes (which are usually pretty good), it's a nice way to remind the viewer that despite the cosmic events unfolding life does go on in the scuzzier areas of the ship - as Franklin witnesses. Due to the action of season 4 being contracted in order to complete 2 seasons of the planned arc in one, there wasn't space for such an ongoing off-arc plot, and I think that season was poorer for it. Of course, season 5 consisted entirely of off-arc plot, and sucked for it, but I'm getting ahead of myself there...

Best Episode: Although this season is packed with great moments, overall if I had to pick out one episode to rewatch in isolation it would be Passing Through Gethsemene, mainly because as well as being a welcome break from the major arc it also manages to tell a really good SF story in its own right, giving Straczynski a chance to really explore the implications of one of the imagined technologies of the setting. Borrowing an idea from Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man, the setting of Babylon 5 doesn't have the death penalty so much as it has the death of personality; those who have committed especially dire acts, or who are found to be dangerously and incurably insane, are subjected to a complete mind-wipe, so that their old deviant personality can be erased and a more socially acceptable one can take its place.

Often the new personality has no idea about its criminal past; this is the case with Brother Edward (Brad Dourif), a peaceful monk who is part of a small Cistercian Order community on Babylon 5, led by Brother Theo (Louis Turenne). However, a series of bizarre events brings Edward face to face with reminders of his past as a notorious serial killer; the accompanying spiritual crisis soon becomes a dire threat to Edward's life, as vigilante relatives of his past victims close in on him.

As I said before, for an atheist Straczynski often has an extremely religious way of looking at the world, and in this case it's helped him, because it enables him to create this SF-themed meditation on guilt, forgiveness, criminality, the death penalty, and whether a person can ever change to the point where you can set aside their past deeds. The Christian trappings he chooses to dress the plot in are carefully chosen; whilst not subtle, they do manage to add flavour to the story whilst at the same time showing respect to the religious basis of the ideas in question. Brad Dourif is, of course, an asset in anything he appears in, and his performance as the genuinely good man forced to face up to a terrible past is heartbreaking to watch.

Also Lyta Alexander makes her return in this episode, which I approve of.

Worst Episode: The titular mystery in Grey 17 is Missing is just plain stupid - I don't buy for a second that the station command staff in general could have forgotten about the existence of an entire level of the station, especially not someone as paranoid as Garibaldi. And if it was really intended to be an abandoned level, why keep the life support turned on in there? No, the whole plot surrounding the missing level is just a big heap of filler, and not particularly interesting filler either.

On the plus side, Marcus gets the shit beaten out of him in this episode, which warms the icicles of my heart. On the downside, him getting beaten up is treated as this big and awesome and inspirational and heroic thing. There is nothing inspirational about Marcus. Unless you want to inspire someone to hit him, I guess.

Season Four: No Surrender, No Retreat


Straczynski and crew produced this season under the impression that the show was almost certainly going to be cancelled at the end of it, so they decided to wrap up the major arc and cover the outcome of the Shadow War and the Earth Civil War in a single season, as opposed to concluding the Shadow War this season and having the war against President Clark unfold during season 5. There are advantages and disadvantages to this. On the plus side, both plot arcs unfold at a breakneck pace, which both helps avoid prompting the viewer to overthink some of their less convincing elements and keeps things edge-of-your-seat exciting. Sheridan comes back from the dead! Ancient aliens from the dawn of time intervene! The Vorlons go apeshit and start annihilating any planet with a whiff of Shadow influence! Londo and G'Kar are forced to team up to take down the insane Centauri Emperor Cartagia (Wortham Krimmer)! Plots within plots are exposed! Earth stands on the brink of destruction as President Clark sets a scorched earth plan into operation!

Heaps of fun all round, to be sure, but the contracted space which Straczynski has to tell these stories in also means that he can't really have that many non-arc related subplots going on, so the season isn't quite as rich and detailed as season 3 was. What's more, the major arc plots also have to undergo a certain simplification in order to get them wrapped up; the resolution of the Earth Civil War is just a little too neat and easy, and during the first half of the season in which the Shadow War is raging EarthForce's fascistic elements seem to have completely forgotten that Babylon 5 exists. I mean, if you were President Clark and you observed that Sheridan seemed to be sending most of his forces off on an apparently doomed attempt to face down both the Shadows and the Vorlons simultaneously, wouldn't you at least consider trying to snatch back the station? I suspect that if the arc hadn't been contracted at this point, you'd have had several self-contained episodes in season 4 revolving around the command staff neutralising Earth's latest attempt to retake the station, just to remind the viewer that shit is fucked up back on Earth right now; there's parts in the early parts of this season where you would be forgiven for forgetting that anything bad has happened between Babylon 5 and Earth at all.

More troubling for me, though, is the way Straczynski is such a sucker for messiah figures in this season - and the way that he completely stops trying to actually engage with anyone who might disagree with the way his elected messiahs do things. Basically, from this point on in the show Sheridan, Delenn and G'Kar are right - objectively, demonstrably right and correct about all things. Anyone who disagrees with them in any respect had better get down on their knees and beg Straczynski, the harsh and unforgiving god, for mercy in the punishment he doles out to those who bicker with his chosen prophets. If they are lucky, he will only humiliate them. More likely, he will completely demonise them.

Let's take someone who's humiliated first. When Sheridan returns from Z'ha'dum with a messianic glow about him, Garibaldi is all "this is fucked up" and "Sheridan's changed" and "there's something really creepy and culty about this whole thing". These are actually all completely fair and legitimate statements. Perhaps at the end of the third season, when Justin was explaining how Sheridan had been erected by the Vorlons as a figurehead, we could have questioned whether figureheads like Sheridan are actually a healthy thing to follow at all; however, in season 4 that is not allowed. Great Men like Sheridan will free us from the bonds of fascism and injustice, not the common man! Consequently, Garibaldi's concerns, his subsequent resignation, and the way he is drawn into a nebulous conspiracy against both Sheridan and the Psi-Corps all prove to be the result of implanted subconscious commands forced upon him by his Psi-Corps nemesis Bester (Walter Koenig), who cackles as he exposes his scheme and pulls from him the information he requires to both shut down the conspiracy. So, because Garibaldi wasn't in his right mind when he expressed those doubts, Straczynski is spared having to actually address the matter of whether they had any legitimacy.

Here's another one: there's an episode in this season entitled The Illusion of Truth, which harks back to the season 2 episode And Now For a Word. The earlier episode was presented as a documentary by the Earth-based InterStellar News (ISN) on Babylon 5, and presented an interpretation of the station which was clearly oversimplified and in some respects flawed, like any journalism, but in general was pretty even-handed: it had some criticisms to make of the station, but it signed off with the point that had only been operation for a few years, and needed to be given time to meet its full potential.

The Illusion of Truth borrows this format to show how the Earth media has become utterly distorted under President Clark. In the first half of the episode, we see an ISN team come aboard the newly independent station to do a feature on it; Sheridan reluctantly (and naively) gives permission, after being assured that ISN will slip out as much of the truth as it possibly can under Clark's restrictions. We see them go about their business, stick their noses into things, and occasionally come up with some legitimate criticisms - like what, exactly, is Sheridan doing for the Lurkers? (The Lurkers are the residents of Down Below - poor people who came to the station seeking a new life but, finding no employment and being unable to afford a trip home, end up living in the scuzziest part of the station.)

In the second half of the episode, of course, we get to see the ISN piece in all its grotesque glory - an incredible, audacious hatchet job, distorting every single fact that they reporters encountered in order to support an utterly fantastical and untrue conspiracy theory about Sheridan's true motives. In that respect, at least, it's a great episode; the resemblance between this transparent propaganda and actual TV journalism is occasionally deeply disturbing, and the conclusion in which the conspiracy theory is spelled out is so incredibly audacious it's breathtaking. The final shot of the show, depicting the stunned leaders of Babylon 5 drifting away one by one in silence as Sheridan, speechless with fury, turns the television off is a great one.

But actually, isn't Straczynski behaving a bit like a propagandist himself? In depicting the ISN reporters as utter distorters of the truth, he pretty much absolves himself of any need to address the legitimate points they occasionally make at the start of the episode. The matter of Down Below and the Lurkers is a constant over the entire series, and Sheridan never makes any concerted effort to actually do anything positive for them. In fact, the only member of the command staff who proactively tries to do anything to help is Dr Franklin, who is shown running a free clinic for them in his spare time in the season 1 episode The Quality of Mercy. Actually, to be fair Ivanova does start helping Franklin out in the clinic once she discovers he's doing it, but just for that episode - for the rest of the series, she and the rest of the command staff tend to dismiss Down Below as a wretched hive of scum and villainy, and the Lurkers as a bunch of criminals and ne'er-do-wells. The abject failure of Sheridan and company to actually do anything positive for the Lurkers seems incredible, since Straczynski himself seems to make it completely clear that many of them end up in Down Below through genuine misfortune. But I suppose helping out the poor and resolving a major social injustice on the station - why can't these people find good work onboard? - just isn't important enough for Sheridan, Pharoah and living god.

Oh, and how about Sheridan's blatant war crimes? Yes, I went there: war crimes. In season 3, the team discover that the Shadows have been abducting human telepaths, scrambling their brains, and using them to power their ships. Those who have been subjected to this treatment are in deep comas; if they awaken, the Shadow mind control prompts them to attempt to interface with anything computerised or mechanical nearby, which inevitably causes severe problems. So, what does Sheridan do? In the final battle against President Clark's space forces he has a large number of these coma patients smuggled aboard enemy vessels, and then awakened by a telepathic signal from Lyta Alexander. This prompts them to try and interface with Clark's battleships, causing chaos. Although it isn't explicitly said that they all die, I think it's pretty clear that this is a suicide mission for most of them - the only rational response for the naval personnel on those ships to a mad telepath wrecking their computer systems is to waste the saboteur, after all.

So, essentially, Sheridan uses coma patients as suicide bombers. That is a beautiful and glittering galaxy of not OK.

What is even less OK about it is the fact that all the "good guys" pretty much excuse this behaviour - in fact, most of them were in on the plan. Yes, some of those on the side of right and justice think it's a bit extreme, but they calm down once it is explained to them how necessary it was. The only person who comes up with a serious and sustained objection to this and doesn't let the command staff's brush-offs overcome their objections is Bester, for crying out loud, and he's mollified as soon as he's reassured that his wife wasn't one of the suicide bombers.

Even Dr Franklin, who thanks to episodes like Believers and his other actions (such as his participation in an underground railroad smuggling telepaths away from the Psi-Corps' sphere of influence in the excellent season 2 episode A Race Through Dark Places) is one of the most compelling and credible moral voices on the show, pretty much excuses this as something that happened to be done. In fact, one of the things which makes me really angry about this particular plot development is that Franklin is absolutely and 100% complicit in this plan, which considering that in every other moral dilemma before him he holds that the lives of his patients are paramount is absolutely sickening.

It's just plain grotesque, and it frankly worries me that Straczynski honestly doesn't seem to see anything wrong with this.

If you can get past Straczynski's absolute moral conviction that everything Sheridan and Delenn and G'Kar do is roses and bunny kisses, season 4 is a fairly good conclusion to the plot arc. Yes, things are tied off a little too neatly, but there's plenty of excitement and - when Straczynski isn't engaging in wide-eyed worship of his own invented messiah - some really great episodes. It's not quite worthy of what's gone before it, but it's not a complete fucking embarrassment. If you want to, you can stop watching here; not only does season 5 suck with the force of a thousand black holes, but the final episode of season 4, The Deconstruction of Falling Stars is a great ending to the show. It's actually a better ending than Sleeping In Light, the series closer which was filmed during season 4 but moved to the end of the 5th season once it was confirmed that there was in fact going to be a 5th season. Whilst Sleeping In Light is basically a 45 minute blowjob for Sheridan, in which all the major characters line up to take his messianic member in their unworthy mouths one last time before he shuffles off the mortal coil, The Deconstruction of Falling Stars is an epic sketch of the future of humanity from the end of season 4 to the destruction of Earth and humanity's ascension to an enlightened state of being a million years in the future, stopping off along the way to pay loving tribute to A Canticle for Leibowitz. Honestly, please do consider stopping here. It only gets worse from here on in.

Best Episode: Far and away the best episode is Intersections In Real Time, which would have been the season finale if the arc hadn't been contracted. It consists entirely of Sheridan being interrogated at length by an EarthForce interrogator, the bureaucratic and officious William (Raye Berk).

The show had seen a couple of interrogation-themed episodes before - Sinclair was given the Prisoner treatment in And the Sky Full of Stars back in season 1 (which was going to guest star Patrick McGoohan as one of the interrogators, but that fell through), and Sheridan and Delenn were interrogated by a Vorlon-controlled Jack the Ripper in the season 2 episode Comes the Inquisitor. What makes Intersections In Real Time special is two things. Firstly, it's a lot more realistic than either previous episode; a remote-controlled pain collar is about the only invention Straczynski allows himself. What we have here is a dark room, a prisoner, and an interrogator using all the tried and tested methods developed by various charming state security organisations over time. William doesn't resort to physical torture so much as he tries to psychologically break Sheridan, using any means necessary, though he isn't afraid to cause him severe physical discomfort if that will help. With only minor changes, Sheridan and William could be a French Resistance operative and a Gestapo agent, or a purged Communist Party member and a NKVD man trying to convince him to confess to a wholly fictional conspiracy against Comrade Stalin, or a Guantanamo Bay detainee and a CIA goon demanding to know where Bin Laden is.

The second thing which is so special about this episode is the intensity of it. There's no subplot to distract from the interrogation; aside from Sheridan and William, there are almost no other participants. The fraught nature of the interrogation and the absolute focus on these proceedings to the exclusion of everything else creates one of the most intense televisual experiences I've ever encountered; the only thing I can think of that compares is Once Upon a Time, the penultimate episode of The Prisoner in which, likewise, Patrick McGoohan and Leo McKern had the entire episode almost completely to themselves.

It doesn't hurt, either, that we see Sheridan beaten down and humiliated in this episode, which takes the edge off the messianic tendencies he develops this season; similarly, he isn't actively committing any war crimes at the moment, which makes it completely possible to sympathise with him. An unequivocal thumbs-up to Mr Straczynski for this one.

Worst Episode: Probably Endgame. Yes, it's the one with the liberation of Earth and all. But it's also the one with the war crimes. War crimes, guys, war crimes. Oh, and Marcus dies of Nice Guy Syndrome. I'm glad he dies. But not glad he dies of Nice Guy Syndrome.

Season Five: The Wheel of Fire


Yeah, so about that five-year plan: by this point, it was completely fucked. Having expended the final plot points of the major arcs in season 4, Straczynski was left with a fifth season in which he and his characters literally had nothing to do. The upshot of this is that Straczynski ends up flailing around trying to look busy, and the characters end up doing the same. Sheridan's got a new job as the head of the Interstellar Alliance (think a waaaaay more interventionist and liberal-dominated UN), but the Alliance doesn't really have any major galactic threats to tackle; Straczynski has the Centauri start shit under the influence of shadowy dark forces yet again for the sake of giving the Alliance something to do. Elizabeth Lochley (Tracy Scoggins) comes onboard as the new commander of the station, replacing Ivanova who has had to take early retirement due to lack of actress, but Straczynski can't think of anything to do with her - even though there was scope for some fun to be had with the fact she fought for President Clark in the Earth Civil War. (I might wonder why she isn't being prosecuted for war crimes... but it's probably for the same reason Sheridan isn't being prosecuted for war crimes.)

Oh! There's a telepath community who set themselves up in Down Below and want to be free from the Psi-Corps! That could be interes... oh, they've gone and Waco'd themselves. And their leader Byron (Robin Atkin Downes) is this unlikeable floppy-haired cult leader who lacks the charisma to be a cult leader - he's more Sooty than Charles Manson. And he's got an irritating habit of saying "telepaaaaath", with a long a, when every other actor in the show says it with a short a. What, Downes, you think you're fucking special or something because you are playing up an English accent? Half the characters on this show are playing up an English accent, don't fucking get ideas. I mean, I know you think you're doing something important what with your group's tragic end foreshadowing the Telepath War, but I'd much rather see the actual Telepath War bring some closure to Bester and Lyta's plots than you swanning about being pouty.

Likewise, Londo, G'Kar: I love both of you guys, but I thought you'd made up and become firm friends by the end of season 4? Why the cooling off? Oh, it's to set up The Very Long Night of Londo Mollari, one of the shittiest things Straczynski has ever written in which a whole lot of dead horses are beaten onscreen. And, yes, I like you going along to Centauri Prime to set up Londo becoming Emperor and foreshadow the Drakh War, but... you didn't actually get around to showing us the Drakh War, did you? We were all looking forward to the two of you strangling each other to death, as has been regularly foreshadowed since the beginning of the show, the least you can do is off each other onscreen before the final credits roll.

As you've probably gathered, one of the things which really annoys me about this season is how much screen time is devoted to setting up conflicts which look like they could be really interesting, but simply never kick off during the season. Londo discovers that the Drakh, servants of the Shadows who have inherited their old technologies and conspiratorial ends, have infiltrated Centauri Prime, and the Drakh pretty much force him to accept a parasite which will control him so that he can be their puppet-Emperor; under their direction, he gives Sheridan and Delenn a gift to give their son when he comes of age, and he quarantines Centauri Prime until the day when the Drakh emerge to have their vengeance against the rest of the galaxy. All cool, but the chaos of the Drakh war happens after the end of the season, in fucking spin-off novels. Garibaldi and Lyta establish a conspiracy to overthrow the Psi-Corps, enabling Lyta to free her people and Garibaldi to finally get revenge on Bester - all cool, but all that happens after the end of the season, in FUCKING SPIN-OFF NOVELS. There is absolutely no earthly reason for all this to be set-up on screen for an audience of whom only a minority are likely to read spin-off novels anyway, especially since the sequel series, Crusade was set after the Drakh War and the Telepath War anyway.

I'm going to get counterfactual here and suggest something which Straczynski could have done to save this. He had the end of season 4, where Sheridan becomes head of the space UN. He had Sleeping In Light in the can, in which Sheridan dies some twenty years after being resurrected on Z'ha'dum. What Straczynski could have done to make this season interesting would be to abandon the 1-year-per-season structure, in which each season played out a year in the life of Babylon 5. Instead, season 5 could have spanned the entire 20 years between the end of season 4 and Sleeping In Light; a clump of episodes at the start to depict Babylon 5's role in the birth of the Interstellar Alliance, a clump a bit later to depict the Telepath War, a clump later on to show the Drakh War, the purging of Centauri Prime and the ultimate fate of G'Kar and Londo, and then Sleeping In Light to top the whole thing off. Then the season wouldn't be in the position of establishing background material which only comes to a head in spin-off novels, Bester, Lyta, Garibaldi, G'Kar and Londo could actually get some closure on-screen, and all the useless filler could be excised. The lack of any real closure for all five of those characters' stories severely hurts season 5 - in particular, the lack of an episode in which Bester finally gets taken down, which has been coming since he first showed up in season 1, is a glaring omission, but Bester's downfall - let's say it once more for emphasis - only happens in a FUCKING SPIN-OFF NOVEL.

Yes, it would be ambitious, but Babylon 5 was a show that positively thrived on ambition. You could say that season 5 failed precisely because Straczynski lost sight of that ambition. You could also say that season 5 failed because his writing turned to shit; there are a lot of episodes this time around which are just bad, not least because in the second half of the season it feels as though half the scenes involve characters standing around going "so, you're leaving the station?" and replying "yeah, I hear you're doing the same" and then the first character says "yes, I will miss this place, and I will miss you", and the other character goes "yes, you too", and shut the fucking fuck up and actually do something you self-congratulatory fucks.

But there are also some woefully bad character arcs this time around. Lennier (Bill Mumy), Delenn's secretary, suffers a terminal case of Nice Guy Syndrome and does something mean to Sheridan solely so that the penultimate episode (the aptly named Objects at Rest) can have something interesting happening in it and so that Straczynski can give us a filler episode - Meditations on the Abyss - which proves that plots which aren't centred around Babylon 5 really are less interesting. Even worse is the alcoholism plot surrounding Garibaldi.

Garibaldi being an alcoholic is something which was established in earlier seasons, but was handled reasonably sensitively, and likewise Dr Franklin's addition to stimulants was actually quite nicely observed. The season five alcoholism plotline is this incredibly lazy rendition of every single lazy alcoholism plotline shat out by third-rate TV writers since the 1950s. Garibaldi has a stressful day. He is depicted opening a bottle and pouring himself a generous glass of something. DRAMATIC MUSIC. Garibaldi fails to turn up to dinner one evening; cut to him lying on the floor of his room with an empty bottle next to him doing the first year acting school rendition of being drunk (complete with singing "Show Me the Way to Go Home", for crying out loud). DRAMATIC MUSIC!!! Garibaldi's bride-to-be arrives on Babylon 5 and finds a half-empty bottle of spirits at the back of one of the kitchen cupboards. DRAMAAAAAAAAAA! It's like J. Michael Straczynski panicked when he realised that he didn't have enough material for a 5th season and started stealing rejected scripts from a third-rate soap opera writer's bin.

Another one of Straczynski's sins is his utter waste of talent: Neil Gaiman pops by to write an episode this season, and his Day of the Dead has an absolutely fascinating premise - a particular alien culture "buys" a segment of Babylon 5 for the day in order to perform their Day of the Dead rituals - which mystically cuts off that area of Babylon 5 from the rest of the station, since on a spiritual level it's back at this alien race's homeworld, and the people stuck therein encounter the spirits of dead people from their past. There's a lot you could do with that, and Gaiman does so - he manages to make Lochley an interesting character briefly, he lets Garibaldi have a bit of fun for once, he confronts Lennier with the spirit of Morden to point out that the way Lennier's thoughts are taking him aren't actually healthy or good. But even this island of comparative interestingness is hampered - in this case, by a guest appearance by Penn and Teller as asinine Earth comedians Rebo and Zooty. The idea of Rebo and Zooty as being these utterly shit and incomprehensibly popular Earth comedians was perhaps one better kept offscreen, because whilst it's fun to laugh at a character's affection for really shit comedy, it's not actually fun to watch really shit comedy yourself. And seriously, you've got Penn and Teller there, why not have them do something that's actually funny?

There is pretty much no reason to watch season 5 unless you're a completist. It adds absolutely nothing of worth to the series. About the only good thing you can say about it is that Marcus isn't around.

Best Episode: Probably The Wheel of Fire, in which Garibaldi and Lyta hatch their conspiracy against the Psi-Corps. But that's mainly for the glimmerings of potential that the plotline has rather than anything else. Actually - especially once she is disentangled from Byron's cult - Lyta is probably the best thing about season 5. Her anger at Sheridan for his complete failure to find anything for her to do mirrors my anger at Straczynski for failing to find a use for any of the characters this season nicely. And the bit at the start of one episode where Garibaldi wakes up to find her burrowing her way into his mind and she makes him forget it is pretty much the scariest thing that ever happens in the series. I have big cartoon hearts for Lyta; it's a bit of a shame that Straczynski turns her into a cartoon fanatic by the end of this season. But at least she's doing something interesting.

Worst Episode: Without a doubt, A View From the Gallery, in which an alien invasion of Babylon 5 is experienced not from the point of view of the command staff, but by blue collar maintenance mechanics Mack (Raymond O'Connor) and Bo (Lawrence LeJohn), who offer their own commentary on the main characters of Babylon 5 as they observe them going about their business. This was apparently a story idea suggested by Harlan Ellison, who's credited across the entire series as a "conceptual consultant", and it really isn't a bad concept. In Straczynski's hands, it becomes a nightmare.

Where he could have used this new point of view to present the criticisms and opinions average workers might have of Sheridan, the Interstellar Alliance, Lochley and the rest, in this case Mack and Bo engage in unadulterated, unending hero-worship. By the end of the episode they've met most of the main characters and think they are all totally awesome people. I genuinely think that Straczynski would have depicted them licking the ground that Sheridan and Delenn walk on if he thought he could get away with it. It's the most appalling and disgusting example of Straczynski's hero-worship bordering on actual full on religious worship that the series offers.

The contrast to the political views espoused in By Any Means Necessary back in season 1 are profound. Whereas that episode - penned by Kathryn Drennan, admittedly, but still produced under Straczynski's watch - shows the working class as a necessary component of space exploration and decries those who would crush them underfoot in the name of keeping the starports open, this episode casts them as mere insects who would be honoured to have even the slightest interaction with their betters. Contrary to what he may believe about himself, Straczynski's writing in latter-day Babylon 5 reveal his politics to be odious in the extreme. What's most disturbing is not the way he depicts these workers grovelling at the feet of their betters, but the way Straczynski kids himself into thinking he's on their side.

Seriously, don't watch the fifth season. It will actually make you forget why you liked the show in the first place.
~

bookmark this with - facebook - delicious - digg - stumbleupon - reddit

~
Comments (go to latest)
Alasdair Czyrnyj at 22:06 on 2011-01-31
That was really interesting recap, Arthur. I was always a Deep Space Nine man (I'd more or less missed out on Babylon 5 for various reasons), so I was comparing this to what I remember of DS9. It's a little odd; in Trek circles DS9 is usually praised as being the most risk-taking of the Trek shows, but compared to Babylon 5 its plotting and class consciousness are downright traditional. For what's it worth, later DS9 never came to bits in quite the way Babylon 5 did.

As an aside note, I found it mildly amusing that Babylon 5 introduced the White Stars at about the same point in the show's run that DS9 brought in the Defiant. Of course, I don't think Babylon 5 was copying DS9; both shows had just evolved to the same point where introducing a ship made sense from an in-universe perspective and for broadening the show's world.

Out of curiosity, would you have been happier if Robin Atkin Downes had been playing up a German accent?
Arthur B at 22:50 on 2011-01-31
I would have been happier if he'd been even slightly charismatic enough to make it believable for his cultists to willingly commit mass suicide with him.

But hell, why not a German accent? Anything to move away from the mid-Atlantic accents that seemed to be the default for the humans.

I remember when DS9 came out I was all snotty and dismissive because I thought it was copying Babylon 5, but I actually think late DS9 holds up better than late B5 by miles - DS9 improved over time (like The Next Generation did), whereas B5 suffered this increasingly rapid decline over the years. Then again I haven't rewatched DS9 lately.
Arthur B at 23:53 on 2011-01-31
By the way Alasdair, I finally got around to reading that Asking the Wrong Questions article on B5 you linked in the Playpen - I was holding off because I was still writing this article and didn't want it to cloud my judgement.

It's really good, as is the later followup, and I agree with pretty much all of it - B5 really is best if you take it as comfort food for your inner teenager. Also Straczynski has a severe problem with journalists.

Plus I'm glad I'm not the only one astonished at Sheridan's BLATANT WAR CRIMES.
http://londonkds.dreamwidth.org/ at 12:16 on 2011-02-01
I hugely agree with you about the tone of Season Four and its treatment of Sheridan and Delenn as unquestionable anointed ones. However, I'm surprised that you're so positive about "Deconstruction of Falling Stars" in the light of that, given its lengthy scene devoted to showing that historians who question the legends of Great Men are worthless, jealous little men who need Delenn to turn up and verbally humiliate them.
Arthur B at 12:30 on 2011-02-01
Oh, absolutely the Sheridan-worship is fully intact in The Deconstruction of Falling Stars. But I do feel it's a better ending to the series than Sleeping In Light. Sleeping In Light is pretty much exclusively a celebration of Sheridan, with a brief nod to the fact that there was some space station called Babylon 5 which was relevant to the Great Man, and even briefer nods to the fact that there may be some other characters who've died or something that people feel vaguely sad about. But not so sad it spoils Sheridan's "I'm Gonna Croak" dinner!

Yes, The Deconstruction of Falling Stars also fanboys Sheridan, but it does at least have nice things to say about the other characters. The scene with the historians is probably the worst segment, but then it's followed up with the great bit with the future scientist using AI reproductions of the command staff to produce anti-Alliance propaganda - at least in that part the Sheridan-AI is reduced to being a helpless puppet, and it's the Garibaldi-AI who actually saves the day. (Saves the day by provoking a global nuclear war, sure, but saves the day regardless.) This is, incidentally, the last time Garibaldi is ever permitted to be awesome.

And there's room to interpret the Canticle For Leibowitz part as contrasting a religious veneration of legendary figures which obscures their actual intents and flaws and character on the one hand, and a (covert) secular appreciation of them as historical figures whose achievements we might all look forward to meeting one day. The hero of that part isn't Sheridan at all - it's the covert Ranger who's working to bring Earth-bound humanity back to the stars. Sure, he's doing it in Sheridan's name, but at least Sheridan himself isn't around to take all the credit.

But most of all, I like the way Deconstruction on the one hand acknowledges that humanity will often blunder and make mistakes, but on the other hand also has faith that the species as a whole will eventually live up to its full potential. That's an idea that's bigger than Sheridan.
While the hero worship of Sheridan may have gone a bit over the top, it is somewhat necessary given the amazing things he did: coming back from the dead, uniting an army of quarrelsome races to face a superpower, ending the "Shadow wars" for good, starting an peacekeeping alliance that endures for thousands (maybe millions) of years, and so on. Yes, he still has his flaws, but damn! The show still indicates that he makes mistakes like allowing the telepaths to reside on Babylon 5 and nearly getting the whole alliance military wiped out.
Arthur B at 20:20 on 2011-02-02
Actually, Sheridan's actions in the formation of the Interstellar Alliance are often pretty shady. Both before and after the Alliance is established he has no qualms about using deceit, propaganda, disinformation and similar dirty tricks to keep the various alien races in line. He isn't miles more honest than President Clark, and between that and the war crimes thing it is hard to really point out many differences between the two; yes, politically speaking Clark was a xenophobic Earth supremacist whilst Sheridan was a liberal internationalist, but they both used a combination of deceit and violence to get their way.

I kind of suspect that Straczynski points out the whole telepath colony thing as Sheridan's big mistake of his first year in office simply as a get-out for accusations of hero worship, rather than depicting it as an actual mistake. Yes, Sheridan's decision to allow the telepath colony on the one hand whilst maintaining a policy of letting races decide their own telepath policies on the other was untenable - the latter especially, since there's no sense in which Earth's treatment of its telepaths were in any way in keeping with the declared ethical goals of the Alliance. But as far as errors go, it was really an error of foresight rather than a moral failing. Sheridan's flaw, if we are to believe Straczynski, is that he was too big-hearted to turn Byron's lot away, so he ended up making promises which the pragmatic realities of the situation (and Captain Lochley's sovereignty as the EarthForce-appointed commander of the station) could never have allowed him to keep. In other words, his major flaw as a leader was that he was too nice.

Not, you know, that he committed war crimes.
Actually, Sheridan's actions in the formation of the Interstellar Alliance are often pretty shady. Both before and after the Alliance is established he has no qualms about using deceit, propaganda, disinformation and similar dirty tricks to keep the various alien races in line. He isn't miles more honest than President Clark, and between that and the war crimes thing it is hard to really point out many differences between the two; yes, politically speaking Clark was a xenophobic Earth supremacist whilst Sheridan was a liberal internationalist, but they both used a combination of deceit and violence to get their way.


Oh, come on! Faking pirate attacks and sacrificing a few (probably hopeless case) telepaths is hardly equivalent to assassinating the President of Earth, creating a paramilitary force loyal only to you to squash rebellion, overthrowing the legislative branch, destroying the free press, interning dissenters in concentration camps, savagely bombing Mars, killing refugees and torturing your opponents!

In a war like that it is hard for anyone to keep their hands clean. You only need to look as far as the so-called "good guys" of World War II to see that.
Arthur B at 21:53 on 2011-02-04
Oh, come on! Faking pirate attacks and sacrificing a few (probably hopeless case) telepaths is hardly equivalent to assassinating the President of Earth,

I hardly think using coma victims as suicide bombers is very much worse than political assassination.

creating a paramilitary force loyal only to you to squash rebellion,

I'll give you that one: the Rangers were set up by Sinclair and the White Star Fleet was mainly engineered by Delenn (with a bit of help from Kosh). So Sheridan didn't create any paramilitary forces he used to keep the galaxy in line, he just happily used those paramilitary forces which were placed under his command by their founders.

overthrowing the legislative branch,

Who was the legislative branch on Babylon 5 when they were independent? Oh yes: Sheridan and his mates.

destroying the free press,

Apparently Sheridan slips a reporter an emetic during an interview in The Lost Tales which prompts her to lose her lunch on live intergalactic television. Which isn't destroying the free press, but it does show an absolute and total contempt for it.

interning dissenters in concentration camps, savagely bombing Mars, killing refugees

These are actually fair points.

and torturing your opponents!

Like Sheridan was going to do to Morden before Garibaldi stopped him?

Joking aside, though, I accept the point that in a dirty, underhanded war like the one with President Clark, Sheridan was going to get his hands dirty. What I object to isn't that he gets his hands dirty, but Straczynski doesn't recognise that he got his hands dirty. The suicide bombing is declared a necessary sacrifice when actually Straczynski doesn't even slightly do the legwork required to really establish that - for one thing, how come it's possible to smuggle coma victims onto the battleship but not bombs, or electronic jamming devices, or saboteur teams? As for the faked pirate attacks, it's pretty telling that for a series that prides itself on having a big plot arc with heaps of ongoing continuity, nobody ever challenges Sheridan when it comes out that the pirate attacks never happened (as surely someone must eventually discover). You'd think at least a few of the League worlds would get pissed off at being duped into letting Sheridan essentially become the galaxy's policeman.

Also, are you seriously suggesting that it's OK to sacrifice people on suicide bombing missions simply because they're probably hopeless cases?
Dan H at 23:42 on 2011-02-04
I think part of the problem with the hero-worship of Sheridan is that he's a fictional character which means, well, yeah, of course he does remarkable, selfless, and uncomplicatedly good things, because the text arranges itself to allow him to do them.

Sheridan doesn't set up a private army to crush everybody who disagrees with him, but he doesn't *have* to, because the *universe itself* effectively punishes anybody who disagrees with him (Garibaldi, Lennier, future historians, everybody). He doesn't abolish the free press because, within the context of the setting, a truly free press would never say anything bad about him - within the context of the series criticizing Sheridan *is evidence of corruption*.

Similarly all of his achievements - ending the Shadow Wars, forging the interstellar alliance, coming back from the dead - are things he can only achieve because he's singled out by the text as the one who can achieve them. If all it took to end the Shadow Wars was for somebody to tell them to grow up and fuck off, they should have been sorted out centuries ago.

The problem with Sheridan is that he embodies a belief system which many people (particularly SF writers) subscribe to, and which despots and terrorists put into practice: that there are some people in the world who are so superior that their every action is justified merely by dint of their superiority.

Within the context of the setting, of course it's completely right to hero-worship Sheridan, because he is *literally* the messiah. Of course all of Sheridan's actions are justified in the show, the show is written in such a way that all of his actions turn out to be justified.
Alasdair Czyrnyj at 02:40 on 2011-02-05
The problem with Sheridan is that he embodies a belief system which many people (particularly SF writers) subscribe to, and which despots and terrorists put into practice: that there are some people in the world who are so superior that their every action is justified merely by dint of their superiority.


Hm. This is persuading me to stop beating around the bush and dig out that copy of The Iron Dream, since it seems like part of Spinrad's motivation for writing it was to take the piss out of that attitude in SF.

However, I've got a book club coming up, so I'm going to be reading some Robert Heinlein first.

Irony!
Arthur B at 09:04 on 2011-02-05
The Iron Dream is one of the funniest things I've ever read.
http://londonkds.dreamwidth.org/ at 16:38 on 2011-02-09
He doesn't actually slip the journalist an emetic, he's being interviewed on a spaceship and he gets the captain, by pre-arrangement, to do a manoeuver during the interview that is notorious for making people throw up (and from off-screen dialogue it works). Still a seriously nasty moment, especially when you remember the opening of "Intersections in Real Time".
Arthur B at 16:45 on 2011-02-09
Ah, I'd had crossed wires due to reading synopses of the stuff in question. (I don't intend to ever actually watch The Lost Tales because it's the B5 spin-off which even Straczynski admits is shit...)
Cressida at 23:24 on 2011-02-13
I have weirdly mixed feelings about B5 that I've never quite been able to sort out. I didn't watch it when it was first on; some friends who are major fans were buying the box sets when they were coming out a few years back, and they eagerly pressed each of the first four season boxes into my hands as soon as they'd finished re-watching them. (They moved away before Season 5 came out, and I never felt the need to go rent it beyond the first disc, especially since everyone said it wasn't that great.) I enjoyed each episode at the time and couldn't wait to see what happened next. But somehow, once it wasn't actually in front of me, it left a bad taste in my mouth and I actively did not want to see it again, as opposed to passively not caring whether I saw it again.

Maybe it's because, although I was interested in the characters, I didn't really care about what happened to them, so once I found out the story, there was no reason to spend time with them any more. Maybe it's because of the cheesy dialogue, which bugged me at times even on the first time through. Maybe it's because in retrospect, I grew increasingly irritated rather than geeked out at the heavy borrowing from Tolkien and Arthurian myth.

I'm surprised, by the way, that you speak so highly of "In the Shadow of Z'ha'Dum" and yet are so upset by Sheridan's using the telepaths in the war. To my mind, they suffer from the same problem: they show Sheridan doing some very unsavory things, and yet JMS seems utterly convinced that I love and root for Sheridan in spite of them. Clearly lots of people find Sheridan's story powerful and inspiring, but my reaction to him was basically the same reaction I get to a Gary Stu. At the time of "ITSOZ," Sheridan hadn't done anything to earn my love and respect, so I just disliked him for his behavior. With the telepaths, at least they made a gesture toward explaining it as a necessity of war, but with Morden, it was just supposed to be "Awww, the woobie wuvs his wife so much that he'll torture people to get information about her!" (I wonder if I would have been more sympathetic had the series continued with Sinclair, whom I had come to like by the end of the first season? Perhaps, but mostly I'm just glad he was spared from that storyline.)
Arthur B at 23:47 on 2011-02-13
The thing about In the Shadow of Z'ha'dum is that it's made very clear that what Sheridan wants to do is wrong. Not only is it wrong on a pragmatic level - if Sheridan forces Morden to confess to the existence of the Shadows, it will prompt them to attack before the forces of Law are ready - but it is also just morally beyond the pale. Garibaldi, who isn't exactly all sweetness and light when it comes to actually arresting perps and has pretty hardline views on how to treat them once they're caught, straight up threatens to resign over the matter - and not because he's privy to Delenn or Kosh's plans, but because he can't be part of a system where doing what Sheridan wants to do to Morden is ever OK, and especially not one where the justification for doing it is "the station commander has a personal stake in this". This is well before Garibaldi has his mind tampered with, mind, so we're still at a point in the series where Straczynski doesn't dismiss every objection Garibaldi has to Sheridan's behaviour on the grounds of "Garibaldi's not feeling himself right now" - he's still a credible voice at that point in time and the way his resignation scene is set up I genuinely think we are meant to side with him and believe that Sheridan, whilst justifiably angry, is seriously going off the rails.

In other words, it's not saying "Awwww, he wuvs his wife so much that he'll torture people to get information about her!", it's saying "Sheridan is so desperate to get information about his wife that he goes right to the brink of committing a morally unforgivable act and making a catastrophic strategic error for the sake of getting information about her." In short, it's establishing his anguish at not knowing what's happened to his wife as a weakness - a weakness the Shadows show no qualms about exploiting at the end of season 3.

And I kind of miss the point in the series where Sheridan did have weaknesses. I almost wonder whether B5 would not have been better if it had ended at the end of season 3 - with Sheridan's sacrifice dealing a blow to the Shadows they cannot easily come back from, upsetting them enough that Delenn and the others are able to press the advantage and end the war, using Sheridan's heroic sacrifice to cement the man's legend. The best figureheads are, after all, the dead ones - they'll never disappoint us by engineering suicide bombings, after all.
Arthur B at 01:29 on 2011-02-14
Double post because something just hit me.

Sheridan:
- Wants those filthy xenos to get the hell out of our galaxy.
- Is a champion of Law against Chaos (at least for the first three seasons).
- Has large numbers of telepaths sent to their deaths to further his ends.
- Unites the galaxy under a single political entity (the Alliance).
- Is greviously wounded and kept alive only by arcane forces which must inevitably fail one day.

Sheridan is the Emperor from Warhammer 40,000.
Dan H at 09:23 on 2011-02-14
Sheridan hadn't done anything to earn my love and respect, so I just disliked
him for his behavior.


In my (RPG-geek heavy) house we used to have a joke that Sheridan was a high-charisma PC being played by somebody who couldn't pull it off. So while he never says or does anything remotely praiseworthy on camera, behind the scenes he's all "dude, I've got like 47 Diplomacy, this is totally going to work."

I get what you mean about the funny taste thing. I think B5 was an early archetype for a type of show that's increasingly common nowadays, always stringing you along with the next mystery and always just about distracting you from the fact that what you're watching isn't very good.
Arthur B at 10:19 on 2011-02-14
Hm. Rereading a synopsis of Shadow reminds me that Sheridan releases Morden as a result of the pragmatic, strategic argument as opposed to Garibaldi's moral objections.

Which, of course, is absolutely fine from a character development perspective. He's a pragmatic, military man, he justifies his decision to release Morden with a (mangled) anecdote about World War II, as a whole the episode is supportive of a reading of Sheridan's character where he is entirely willing to do despicable things for the sake of the people and ideas he cares about and is more swayed by practical concerns than ethical objections.

The problem is that the rest of the series isn't so supportive of such a reading; from season 4 onwards especially we're expected to believe that Sheridan is not only a capable and pragmatic military leader, but is also a morally upright paragon of virtue. In theory the weird tuition he receives from Kosh in seasons 2 and 3 and his resurrection at the start of season 4 might conceivably have cultivated this more idealistic side of him, but it just doesn't quite work; it's hard to see how Kosh's lessons could have changed Sheridan at all, given how incomprehensible they are, and his resurrection consists of God saying "do you want another go?" and Sheridan saying "yes" and then God saying, "do you really want another go?" and Sheridan saying "yes" for the space of an entire episode. And furthermore, his behaviour doesn't really change after all that - the ends still justify the means for him, as the telepath suicide bombings show.

tl;dr: In the Shadow of Z'ha'dum gives you space to say Sheridan is a dick, the later seasons don't.
Cressida at 03:31 on 2011-02-15
Arthur, I see what you're saying, but even back in the earlier seasons, JMS seemed blithely certain I'd forgive Sheridan's dickishness (not to say brink-of-moral-unforgiveableness). And I was sitting there thinking, on a not-quite-conscious level, "But really, why should I forgive him? What's he got going for him except that he's thrust in front of me as the main character?"

It occurs to me that Sheridan's disorientation early in season 2 was the forgiveable, humanizing flaw for me, but Shadow pushed him too far over the edge for me. You were annoyed by Sheridan's early "wussiness," but Shadow seems to have served as the forgiveable, humanizing flaw for you, though.

Or, well, maybe I'm making assumptions; would you say you liked Sheridan before his Gary Stuishness achieved such massive proportions in Season 4?

Daniel, I really like your "47 charisma" comparison. Actually, that could also apply to your summary the show as a whole: it has a 47 in "deep and meaningful," but it can't quite roleplay it out.
Arthur B at 07:08 on 2011-02-15
Or, well, maybe I'm making assumptions; would you say you liked Sheridan before his Gary Stuishness achieved such massive proportions in Season 4?

Pretty much. Before season 4 he did at least seem to rely on the rest of the command staff a lot more. You will note that in the season 3 climax he does his own suicide bombing without dragging anyone else into it, which I find more respectable than letting coma patients do it. And I do like him in Intersections In Real Time, where he's been beat down so bad his aura of perfection is all but invisible.

Though I would say that whilst I like him more before season 4, he's not the main reason I enjoy seasons 2 and 3.
Cressida at 03:38 on 2011-02-16
Arthur, I think that's behind our different reactions to Shadow. It's one thing if you go in basically well-disposed toward Sheridan and another if you're still waiting to be shown he's worth your while.

Thanks for the writeup, anyway! It was very interesting reading.
Arthur B at 07:52 on 2011-02-16
Well, I wasn't massively well-disposed towards Sheridan going in, I just didn't actively dislike him, which is a far lower baseline. But I wasn't strongly invested in loving Sheridan, if you see what I mean.

It would have been perfectly acceptable for me if it turned out Sheridan was a low, cunning, "the ends justify the means" bastard; I thought the series had plenty of other credible moral voices like Dr Franklin. What my problem is with the later seasons is that Sheridan clearly does believe that the ends justify the means, but Straczynski doesn't seem to realise the implications of that.

My problem with the telepath suicide bombing isn't that it happened at all, it's that it happened but it's not really treated as the utterly vile act it is.
Cressida at 19:27 on 2011-02-18
Also, it's nice to see someone looking skeptically at B5. I can only seem to find gushing about how it's a classic that will endure through the ages, aside from you and the "Asking the Wrong Questions" article linked above. Does anyone know where I could find any other critical articles on the show?
Dan H at 20:48 on 2011-02-18
I've not found much critical commentary either.

I think part of the problem with B5 is that while there's a whole mess wrong with it in that it's ultimately a faintly juvenile bundle of SF themed Arthurian/Tolkein fanfic, it's *also* a classic that will endure through the ages. It's like those terrible sixties buildings around Oxford that are grade-two listed because they're so indicative of their time.

I think part of the reason there's so little B5 criticism on teh intarwebs is that it first aired quite early in the development of the 'net and as a result there were far fewer people around who'd bother putting up a website just to explain their minor irritations with a TV show (there were of course, plenty who would put up a website to describe their screaming adoration). You'll notice that the vast majority of critical responses to B5 are retrospectives.
Arthur B at 21:46 on 2011-02-18
I think part of the problem with B5 is that while there's a whole mess wrong with it in that it's ultimately a faintly juvenile bundle of SF themed Arthurian/Tolkein fanfic, it's *also* a classic that will endure through the ages. It's like those terrible sixties buildings around Oxford that are grade-two listed because they're so indicative of their time.

Oh, definitely. What I said in the review about season 1 really applies to seasons 2 and 3 and most of 4 too - Babylon 5 is an enormous tangle of different individual elements, none of which quite works by itself if you analyse it, but which come together to make a worthwhile and coherent whole anyway.

It's kind of like J. Michael Straczynski's plate-spinning act: fairly unambitious when it starts out, increasingly impressive as he keeps more and more plates in the air, but eventually it gets to a point where it's just unsustainable and everything comes crashing to the floor. But before that happens it's a lot of fun.

I think part of the reason there's so little B5 criticism on teh intarwebs is that it first aired quite early in the development of the 'net and as a result there were far fewer people around who'd bother putting up a website just to explain their minor irritations with a TV show (there were of course, plenty who would put up a website to describe their screaming adoration).

Also, to give Straczynski full credit B5 was one of the first shows which really went out of its way to engage with its internet audience. JMS was pushing the idea for the show on Usenet before he'd even signed the contract with the network, and from the beginning of filming right up to the very last broadcast he kept the main B5 newsgroup up to speed, pitching ideas to them, soliciting feedback, and so on. He kept this up even when this ended up being kind of inconvenient for the show - there was an incident when a fan on the B5 newsgroups came up with an episode idea which was a lot like Passing Through Gethsemene, so filming of the episode had to be delayed until things were smoothed over with said fan to make sure nobody accused anyone of stealing the idea - and he was very supportive of the early fansites to boot.

As well as being really open and forward-thinking, this obviously also had the effect of really winning over the Internet crowd, so that might have contributed to dampening negative critical responses, at least online.
Cressida at 01:23 on 2011-02-19
while there's a whole mess wrong with it in that it's ultimately a faintly juvenile bundle of SF themed Arthurian/Tolkein fanfic, it's *also* a classic that will endure through the ages.

You think? I have my doubts, personally. Unless the franchise is given an excellent revival, which could happen, I think the chances of it engaging a generation who didn't see it when it was the cutting edge thing on tv are fairly slim. I think it's more likely to eventually fade into being a footnote in the history of broadcasting, because it did break a lot of new ground at the time.

Anyway, to hear some fans talk, you'd think it was right up there with Tolstoy, and even at its best, I don't think it ever reached that level. MHO, naturally.
http://mary-j-59.livejournal.com/ at 04:04 on 2011-02-19
I've been reading this thread with interest - although I don't have much to say - because I was, and am, a niner. I think DS9, though uneven, was the best "Trek" ever made. I also had some interest in B5 when it came out, and did watch a couple of episodes - saw the one about the child whose parents would not allow surgery, which I thought excellent - but I was actually turned off by all the B5 fans slamming DS9. My impression, right now, is that B5 may not actually be the classic it was thought to be when it came out. When I bought a novelization for the library, no one borrowed it, and I don't believe there has been any demand for the DVDs.

But I do think this conversation has raised two very interesting questions. One I've asked myself before: why is SF, and especially SF on TV or in the movies, so often militaristic and/or deeply conservative? And - I'm struggling to articulate this one - why do writers (Rowling, I'm afraid, is the prime example to me) get deceived into thinking that *of course* all their readers/viewers will see their characters as they - the writers - do? That's a particularly sticky trap, I think. It seems to me that, if you expect your readers to find your character admirable, you must not tell them he is admirable; you must show him doing admirable things. A disconnect between what is told and what is shown can be a fine technique *if* it is intended. But - often it's not intended. I can see that it might be an easy mistake to make, and I'm hoping, as a beginning writer, that I haven't made it.

My two cents. So - should I go and watch B5 now? I'd honestly rather rewatch DS9, or, better yet for the days when I'm feeling low, the Sarah Jane adventures!
Dan H at 13:14 on 2011-02-19
You think? I have my doubts, personally. Unless the franchise is given an excellent revival, which could happen, I think the chances of it engaging a generation who didn't see it when it was the cutting edge thing on tv are fairly slim


I think we're using the term "classic" slightly differently. B5 is a classic in the sense that it was a major, significant feature in the development of televised SF. It's not Tolstoy, but it's a milestone of sorts - that doesn't make it good, but it makes it important on some level. It's not going to speak to a whole new generation of TV viewers but I think a lot of people will come back to it and say "actually, I can see that this was doing a lot of really interesting stuff back in the nineties, and I can see echoes of it in more modern series."
Dan H at 13:21 on 2011-02-19
And - I'm struggling to articulate this one - why do writers (Rowling, I'm afraid, is the prime example to me) get deceived into thinking that *of course* all their readers/viewers will see their characters as they - the writers - do? That's a particularly sticky trap, I think. It seems to me that, if you expect your readers to find your character admirable, you must not tell them he is admirable; you must show him doing admirable things.


I actually don't think this is a "show don't tell" issue - a lot of things are but I don't think this one is, I think it's more of a problem with subjectivity and authorial intent.

If you want readers to think your character is admirable, you have to show them doing admirable things, but the problem is that what you think is admirable somebody else might think is merely decent or, in extreme cases, actually totally shitty.

A good example of this (since you bring up JKR) is the ever-controversial Cruciatus in Deathly Hallows. Rowling clearly believes that using the Cruciatus Curse to incapacitate a Death Eater is a genuinely "gallant" act - this isn't really a "show don't tell" issue, we see Harry cast the curse after all, and we see the consequences, it's just that a lot of people interpret the act in ways the author didn't intend.

See FB articles about authorial intent passim ad nauseum.
http://mary-j-59.livejournal.com/ at 17:24 on 2011-02-19
Oh - I see what you mean now, Dan, in saying that B5 is a classic, and that makes sense. I'd agree.

As for your other point, authorial intent - we certainly have been around the block about that one, haven't we? And I persist in saying that, to the reader, authorial intent does not and cannot matter. It is a matter of interpretation, as well as the author's skill. So that, when Tolkien says that it was his intent to show Sam in the wrong on the stairs of Cirith Ungol - to show that he reacted badly and helped push Gollum deeper into evil - I can find that illuminating. But Tolkien's skill, and his awareness of his text, are such that I have already come to that conclusion as a reader. I love Sam - he, to my mind, is the chief hero and protagonist among many - but he's not perfect, and does get things wrong sometimes. So, when I read a letter by Tolkien stating what he intended, I can find myself illuminated by it, and not simply aggravated. Because what he intended is (to me, and many other readers, anyway) *actually in the text*. When Rowling, on the other hand, tells me that the torture scene is merely meant to indicate that Harry isn't perfect because he has "a bit of a temper", I am just plain aggravated. A bit of a temper? That's not what the text shows! What it shows is a teenage boy being deliberately sadistic and enjoying it - and, furthermore, unlike Sam, never rethinking his act. Which is just plain repulsive to me.

And it doesn't matter what Rowling intended. Not to me. It doesn't matter what TOLKIEN intended. To my future readers, it won't matter what I intended. What will matter is the completed work, which should have its own coherence. If it doesn't, it means I didn't write my story as well as I could have.

Now, whether the originator of B5 wrote his story as well as he could have is another question. How do we know that we are supposed to see Sheridan as admirable? His counterpart, Sisko, is admirable at times, and comes across (as he's pretty clearly supposed to) as a basically good and decent man. But he's often uncomfortable with his situation and sometimes connives at things that aren't admirable at all. ("In the Pale Moonlight", for example.)
At those times, I think we are supposed to see that Sisko is (1) imperfect, and (2) trapped by his circumstances. To what extent do his circumstances corrupt him? That's for the viewer to decide.

I haven't seen enough of B5 to tell whether we can view Sheridan in the same way. Are we really supposed to see him as correct and admirable, no matter what he does? Like Harry? I hope not! That would make the show - well, simple-minded, and, from what I saw of it, it didn't seem simple-minded.

Cressida at 00:03 on 2011-02-20
Mary, I suspect JMS' intentions for Sheridan are those of any Gary Stu creator. He means Sheridan to be just flawed enough to be "realistic" and keep him out of "boring goody-goody" territory, but ultimately right about all the things that matter and certainly not flawed in any unforgivable ways. And by Season 4, JMS figures he's already established Sheridan's flaws, so he can concentrate on his most impressive and noble qualities ... and he lays it on with a trowel, while neglecting to consider that viewers may not agree with the way he presents things (see: forced telepath suicide bombers).

(Side note re Harry Potter, btw: the only way I can make sense of JKR's explanation of the "crucio incident" is to assume that she originally wrote the scene with some much milder hex. The whole thing would play out more or less as she describes if Harry had just put the Death Eater in a full-body bind or something. Then, at the last second, somebody decided, "This is a war, so there should be some serious curses flying here" and she substituted crucio without making any further adjustments. This scenario still makes her a jaw-droppingly careless writer, but at least it would mean she doesn't actually think torture is no big deal, so I consider that giving her the benefit of the doubt.)

"actually, I can see that this was doing a lot of really interesting stuff back in the nineties, and I can see echoes of it in more modern series."


Dan, I can get behind that definition of "classic" and prediction for B5's legacy too.
Robinson L at 00:36 on 2011-03-22
Somehow, I never did watch this show. It's been on my radar for years, but I've never found a sufficiently compelling argument in favor of watching it. If this awesomely detailed and thoroughly engaging article weren't enough, I think this may have convinced me to give it a try:

Alasdair: DS9 is usually praised as being the most risk-taking of the Trek shows, but compared to Babylon 5 its plotting and class consciousness are downright traditional.

Class consciousness and atypical plotting? Sounds like something worth further investigation.

By Any Means Necessary sounds pretty good, though I think I can guess the ending from your hint, Arthur. After all, if I were in Sinclair's place, I would reason that “any means necessary” logically includes “give the workers what they want,” and proceed accordingly.

If I do get hooked into the series though, I think I'll follow your and Abigail Nussbaum's advice and bail out before we get to season five.

… he could have just held up a wad of cash and credibly called it Earth's dominant belief system.

Sad but true.

"Faith manages" is in many ways the motto of the show, and if you lack faith? Well, that's a moral failing; you've got to have faith in something.


Well, if you take “faith” to mean the same as “belief,” then as an avowed atheist myself, I have to agree with Straczynski. Not so much the moral failing bit, just the imperative of belief. I think atheists such as Joss Whedon and Terry Pratchett have reached similar conclusions. I'd argue that even nihilism is a form of belief—a very bleak one.

… for an atheist Straczynski often has an extremely religious way of looking at the world …

I fail to see a contradiction.

Dan: The problem with Sheridan is that he embodies a belief system which many people (particularly SF writers) subscribe to, and which despots and terrorists put into practice: that there are some people in the world who are so superior that their every action is justified merely by dint of their superiority.

Alasdair: Hm. This is persuading me to stop beating around the bush and dig out that copy of The Iron Dream, since it seems like part of Spinrad's motivation for writing it was to take the piss out of that attitude in SF.

[Adds The Iron Dream to reading list]

Dan: I think B5 was an early archetype for a type of show that's increasingly common nowadays, always stringing you along with the next mystery and always just about distracting you from the fact that what you're watching isn't very good.

Don't forget books like Retribution Falls. This was pretty much my second strongest reaction to The Knife of Never Letting Go. (The strongest, of course, being “What the F*** Spelling?”)

By the way, have people already gone over the whole thing with Straczynski's giving both lead characters his first and last initials?
Arthur B at 01:25 on 2011-03-22
By Any Means Necessary sounds pretty good, though I think I can guess the ending from your hint, Arthur. After all, if I were in Sinclair's place, I would reason that “any means necessary” logically includes “give the workers what they want,” and proceed accordingly.

Spoilaz:
that's exactly what happens. To be fair, it's more of a surprise because throughout the episode it's been hammered into you that historically speaking the Rush Act is used to provide legal cover for horrible, violent suppression of industrial strikes. And the sort of stunt Sinclair pulls there is the sort of thing which works precisely once before legislators scramble to close the loophole involved, not least because it effectively lets Sinclair write his own budget for the station and ride roughshod over EarthForce's own spending plans.


Well, if you take “faith” to mean the same as “belief,” then as an avowed atheist myself, I have to agree with Straczynski. Not so much the moral failing bit, just the imperative of belief. I think atheists such as Joss Whedon and Terry Pratchett have reached similar conclusions. I'd argue that even nihilism is a form of belief—a very bleak one.
The problem is more that there are specific things in Straczynski's universe that you must have faith in, such as Sheridan and Delenn being infallible on matters of ideology.

It's like Catholicism only instead of the Pope and the Mother Church you have Space Aragorn and Space Arwen.

Me:
… for an atheist Straczynski often has an extremely religious way of looking at the world …


Ye:
I fail to see a contradiction.
It's not a contradiction in the sense that I think it's perfectly possible for an atheist to write a story from a religious viewpoint or for a religious person to write from an atheistic perspective - it'd be difficult for them to do it and not fall into one horrible pitfall or another, but they could do it.

The thing is, Straczynski doesn't seem to be deliberately writing from a religious perspective so much as slipping into that by default without really thinking about what he's doing. By season 4 there's an immortal and omniscient (or as close to omniscient as makes no difference) precursor and guide of all sentient life, entities which can impart life to the dead and sustain life under circumstances when it would otherwise perish, a kind and merciful judge of those who are caught in the boundary between life and death who shepherds the peoples of the galaxy one by one into the New Heaven and the New Earth once they have attained a sufficient state of grace. There's even a vaguely transhumanist-flavoured afterlife and an individual (Sheridan) who is chosen by said Godlike precursor entity to lead the people of the galaxy into a new dispensation, and who when his work in mortal realms is over (at the end of Season 5) is taken bodily into Paradise.

That isn't just writing from a religious viewpoint, that's wholeheartedly and warmly endorsing it. (Questioning the precursor entity is as much of a sign of Garibaldi's fallen, sinful nature as questioning Sheridan is: we are meant to support and get behind all of the above.)

I'm not saying that atheists should be openly hostile to religion, that way lies Dawkins and Pullman. But I am saying that if an atheist finds themselves writing something which comes across as an advertisement for religion they may want to reconsider either their position as an atheist or the implications of what they are writing. (On a similar basis, if a Christian writer wrote a story in which they constructed a passionate and articulate argument that Christianity is at best a fallacy-ridden and archaic waste of time and at worst a positive force for moral evil in the world, and that Jesus Christ is possibly the worst teacher, philosopher, spiritual guide or role model anyone could come up with, I'd suggest that they might want to just bite the bullet and stop calling themselves a Christian already.)

By the way, have people already gone over the whole thing with Straczynski's giving both lead characters his first and last initials?

Ironic since both end up resembling a particularly famous "J.C." more than a "J.S.".
Robinson L at 22:00 on 2011-03-25
Re: spoilers:
Ha—knew it!


The problem is more that there are specific things in Straczynski's universe that you must have faith in, such as Sheridan and Delenn being infallible on matters of ideology.

Ah, okay. Fair enough, Arthur.

Re: the rest: You seem to be using “religion” as synonymous with “metaphysics,” and “theological metaphysics” at that. I agree that the Christian in your example needs a change of religious venue (unless they're a religio-masochist), but I see no reason to doubt their belief in a supernatural Creator or Creative Force. (The rejection of such an entity or force being towards the top of my list of atheist indicators.)

Thing is, I suspect there are people out there who believe in God—even a personal, anthropomorphic God—but who reject organized religions. And I know for a fact there are people who embrace organized religion who do not believe in a Creator-God or even any sort of metaphysical principle. Many of the latter self-identify as atheists, and for them writing something which comes across as an advertisement for religion (especially their own) is no cause to reconsider either what they've written or their self-identification as an atheist.

Not that I think any of the above applies to Straczynski - just making a general point.
Arthur B at 23:47 on 2011-03-25
Well, the series regularly declares that humanity's big strength is its capacity for organisation and building communities, and organised religions are almost always embraced as a force for good. Ivanova's grieving process after her father dies is completed by her family's local rabbi visiting the station and helping her hold a traditional wake, the monastic order that shows up in season 3 generally enriches the life of the station, and specifically helps Sheridan get in touch with other religious leaders from Earth who are against Clark (as far as I can remember there are no pro-Clark religious leaders depicted in the series)...

The big lineup of religious sorts that Sinclair puts together to illustrate Earth's dominant belief system includes an atheist, but it doesn't include "Joe, who's working things out as he goes along". The religious caste of the Minbari are a pillar of their culture with a major role in government, and whilst by the end of the series their influence has been deliberately diminished the religious caste are generally seen as being the good guys (with the warrior caste being dangerously misguided due to disagreeing with Delenn, and the worker caste being victims who need Delenn to intervene to help them out).

About the only criticism of organised religion is when G'kar becomes a guru and a bunch of Narn show an amazing ability to misinterpret what he's saying. But that's not so much a criticism of religious institutions so much as it's a criticism of blind hero-worship; if the Narn had actually listened to the teachings of the Great Leader and properly understood them they'd be on the right path.

And, of course, as well as having faith in the Father, the Sheridan, and the Holy Delenn, by season 5 it has also become axiomatic that everyone should want to be part of the Holy Mother Interstellar Alliance that they established, and those who are not willing to come unto communion with the Alliance are just wrong.
Alasdair Czyrnyj at 04:19 on 2011-03-26
@Robinson L:

Class consciousness and atypical plotting? Sounds like something worth further investigation.

Ooh, I was actually saying that DS9 didn't have those things while Babylon 5 did. Still, there are plenty of reasons to watch DS9, as Abigail Nussbaum elucidates at length. It's probably the closest any Star Trek series has gotten to making the Trek universe feel like an actual living entity (within limits, of course).
Robinson L at 15:30 on 2011-03-26
Okay, Arthur, sounds like you're saying Straczynski's portrayal of religion is unambiguously positive. I think we both disagree with this view, but I still don't see it as necessarily antithetical to a disbelief in God (i.e. "atheism"), which is the point I was originally questioning.

@Alasdair: Oops, I didn't make myself clear. I was referring to Babylon 5 in that quote, which, as I said a paragraph earlier, "I never did watch."

On the other hand, my family's been huge Trekkies for decades, Deep Space Nine is probably my second-favorite Trek, and Garak is one of my favorite Trek characters of all time.
Arthur B at 15:45 on 2011-03-26
I still don't see it as necessarily antithetical to a disbelief in God (i.e. "atheism"), which is the point I was originally questioning.

Well, I guess if you're enough of a Plato fan to regard creating and promoting a foundational myth for a civilisation to be a worthy goal and consider that it doesn't matter whether that foundational myth is true or just a fiction created to keep the masses following the cultural trajectory you desire, it's a-OK.

Amongst other things, it's revealed over the course of the series that there was nothing supernatural or divine about the foundation of
Minbari
, and it is hinted that the creation of organised religion in the first place was an enormous manipulation by the
Vorlons
. But even though the latter turn out to have their own agenda and aren't people you should follow or support 100%, people don't take the next step of saying "Hey, if these movements they initiated are based on a big lie, why do we continue supporting them?"
Robinson L at 18:30 on 2011-03-26
Hmm, when you put it that way, Arthur, it sounds like a very interesting question for a religious atheist to tackle. If you take the viewpoint that X religion is a positive force in both your own life and the world, to what extent does it matter if you believe its creation myths (to which many of your fellow believers subscribe wholeheartedly) are untrue?

(Though come to think of it, it seems to me there are a number of theists of various Christian denominations who do not believe the Bible is literally true but metaphorically - anyone who believes in evolution, for instance. So it's not even a question just for atheists.)

How unfortunate that - if I read you right - Straczynski failed to explore any of these fascinating lines of inquiry.
Dan H at 13:13 on 2012-01-08

She asks him whether space is worth it; he says yes, because one day the Sun will go out and if humanity hasn't spread into space by then the whole thing has been a waste of time


I've just started rewatching this series, and I think you're letting this speech off lightly. Not only does he say that "the whole thing will be a waste of time" if we don't get off Earth, but he also explains that "the only thing all scientists agree on" is that the sun will go out (whereas apparently they don't agree about - for example - genetics) and that it may apparently happen "in a hundred years."

JMS: You Fail Science Forever.
Arthur B at 16:23 on 2012-01-08
To be fair, Sinclair is a soldier turned reluctant politician, so I can overlook that he's got a shaky grasp of science.

What I can't overlook is JMS waving his transhumanist dick in my face again.
http://mandragora2.livejournal.com/ at 14:36 on 2012-01-14
Hi, I'm a long-time casual reader of you e-zine, and as I've also started rewatching B5 I came across this article. I don't quite understand what you mean by transhumanist flavor. I felt quite the contrary, what with the Psi Corps and all its failed attempts at creating "superior human beings". Same for the Vorlons' attempts (Lyta). Ironheart almost destroyed the entire station. Even the mind-wipe thing with Brother Edward pointed in the opposite direction. I thought the show was rather explicit that not much good comes out of attempts at by technological means "improving humanity".

I'm also a bit confused why you think that Sheridan or Delenn were portrayed as infallible (I think regarding Delenn, that was in one of the comments above). Garibaldi wasn't the only one critical of Sheridan post Z'ha'dum. Franklin for instance reacted rather shocked when Sheridan decided to use the unconscious telepaths. And as for Delenn, how can anyone be perceived infallible who basically started the Earth Minbary war? I've always felt that Delenn's almost desperate striving for a moral approach was an attempt to make up for that catastrophic mistake.

As for the ubiquitous season 5 criticism, I didn't think it was that bad at all. Even though the telepath arc was way too drawn out, I liked the Centauri arc a lot. Overall I liked it better than season 1, I thought it was about on par with season 2.

Sorry for any language flaws, English isn't my native language.
Dan H at 16:06 on 2012-01-14
Hi, I'm a long-time casual reader of you e-zine, and as I've also started rewatching B5 I came across this article. I don't quite understand what you mean by transhumanist flavor.


I'm not sure "Transhumanist" is quite the word I'd use (it's Arthur's phrase not mine), but there's a *lot* about Humanity's Great Destiny Among The Stars and all that, and the S4 finale (Deconstruction of Falling Stars?) ends with humanity evolving beyond their physical bodies and "leaving the cradle". Jason Ironheart nearly destroys B5 but there's a strong sense that what he transforms into is something fundamentally *better* than regular humans.

The mistake the Psi Corps are making, essentially, is trying to elevate humanity *artificially* instead of allowing it to happen *naturally* (which it inevitably will because blah destiny blah cradle blah Churchill).

And as for Delenn, how can anyone be perceived infallible who basically started the Earth Minbary war?


Because starting the Earth-Minbari war isn't presented as that big a deal, and because anybody who criticizes Sheridan or Delenn is *flayed alive* by the text. Every journalist who appears in the show, for example, is shown to be an evil, corrupt propagandist who willfully lies about the heroes just to make them look bad (and not even to make a better story).

There is no indication in the text that we are supposed to condemn Delenn for her part in starting the war, and there is a *lot* of evidence that we are expected to condemn humans who hold a grudge against the Minbari. In the world of Babylon 5, believing that the people who tried to exterminate your species shouldn't be controlling your government makes you a racist terrorist.
http://mandragora2.livejournal.com/ at 16:43 on 2012-01-14
Hi, thanks for your reply.

...there's a *lot* about Humanity's Great Destiny Among The Stars and all that, and the S4 finale (Deconstruction of Falling Stars?) ends with humanity evolving beyond their physical bodies and "leaving the cradle". Jason Ironheart nearly destroys B5 but there's a strong sense that what he transforms into is something fundamentally *better* than regular humans.
I agree that there's a lot pointing to the idea that humanity will evolve beyond their physical bodies, but I'm not sure I agree that the "higher" form is seen as fundamentally better. In Ironheart's case, it may seem like that. But I felt there's a strong indication that humanity will evolve into something like the Vorlons. For instance, there are scenes with Lyta in season 5 that seemed to point to that. "Deconstruction" also seemed to point to that. I think the notion that the Vorlons are fundamentally *better*, from an ethical POV, is questionable to say the least. Same for other First Ones species. Remember the encounter Susan had with that petty First Ones during their quest for allies? I don't see either the Vorlons or those other First Ones as more mature or more ethical. I remember my reaction after "Deconstruction" having been something like "hopefully that doesn't end up like the Vorlons" when I saw the episode last time.

There is no indication in the text that we are supposed to condemn Delenn for her part in starting the war, and there is a *lot* of evidence that we are expected to condemn humans who hold a grudge against the Minbari.
Well, there's also a lot of evidence that we are expected to condemn Minbari who hold a grudge against humans. Actually there's a lot of evidence that we are expected to condemn any people that holds old grudges in general.
I didn't mean we are supposed to condemn Delenn. But isn't there an area in between condemnation and considering someone infallible? I didn't see Delenn as infallible (she did some exceptionally stupid things in the series, like almost re-starting the war by stealing that Brenmar guy's body in "Legacies" and letting them blame the station command for it. I recall there were other occasions later in the series I can't exactly point to right now, since I haven't yet made it beyond season 1 in the rerun). Of course she isn't as flawed as, let's say, Londo, but I felt she's a long way from being presented as someone, for instance, like Picard, or McGonnagal in the Potter series (loved your reviews on Deathly Hallows, btw).

I think you are right when it comes to the journalists, though. Though I'm not sure whether this isn't more of a result of JMS, despite (or because?) having started his writing career, is having an issue with journalists himself ;)
Dan H at 17:06 on 2012-01-14
I think we're using the word "infallible" in slightly different ways - I think Arthur and I are using it slightly hyperbolically. I don't think Delenn is presented as being "infallible" in the sense of never making any mistakes, but I think she (and even more so Sheridan) have their actions presented in the most positive light possible. She makes *mistakes* but they're never mistakes that put her beyond the pale, even when they should be.

Starting the Earth-Minbari war is a good example. Delenn reacts to her anger at the death of Dukat by calling for the *extermination of humanity* (yes, she's angry, but she's one of the nine most powerful people in her species, and she issues the clear order to "kill them all"). The series treats this as a faintly shameful mistake which Delenn feels bad about, but doesn't engage with the sheer *magnitude* of that crime.

Basically I think when we say "infallible" what we mean is "they tend to get off lightly, and anybody who criticises their actions is actively demonized by the text."
http://mandragora2.livejournal.com/ at 18:01 on 2012-01-14
I think she (and even more so Sheridan) have their actions presented in the most positive light possible. She makes *mistakes* but they're never mistakes that put her beyond the pale, even when they should be.
That's probably true. Well, they're certainly supposed to be "the good guys". Question is, what does that actually mean. I think in B5 it doesn't necessarily mean that they don't do morally questionable or reprehensible things. It's more that they usually don't act out of base motives. There was this distinction the old lady in "Quality of Mercy" made between "doing the right thing" and "doing the necessary thing". When Sheridan uses the unconscious telepaths it's not because he isn't thinking or trying to hurt someone or because it's the most convenient solution, he does it because he feels he has no other choice. Which is the big difference to Potter's Unforgivables in Deathly Hallows. They were absolutely unnecessary, he clearly *did* have other choices. I'm saying usually they don't act like that. There are other examples, like the manner Sheridan treated Lyta in season 5.

Regarding Delenn, the main problem I am having with that character is that she is awfully manipulative. Especially when it comes to Sheridan. She clearly feels superior and thus she manipulates and goes on her solo-trips, regardless of any consequences. The biggest damage JMS did to the character for me was in that season 5 episode "learning curve" when she approved of that Minbari vigilantism thing.
Arthur B at 18:15 on 2012-01-14
I don't quite understand what you mean by transhumanist flavor. I felt quite the contrary, what with the Psi Corps and all its failed attempts at creating "superior human beings". Same for the Vorlons' attempts (Lyta). Ironheart almost destroyed the entire station.

Hi Mandragora!

Basically, I was using "transhumanist" not to refer to technological means to generically improve humanity, but to refer to the march towards something resembling what transhumanists call "the Singularity" in that infuriating pseudo-religious way of theirs.

Essentially, in the Babylon 5 universe it is both inevitable and - as far as long-term survival of the species goes - essential for humanity to move beyond the bounds of mere physicality and become transhuman entities of pure energy and thought. True, the Vorlons turned out to be not such good guys. But this wasn't because they had ascended to become beings of pure entity, but because having done so they hadn't taken the next step that all the ridiculous numbers of other ascended elder races had done in leaving the galaxy for the Great Beyond. In short, they and the Shadows sinned because they turned away from the path of continuous self-improvement rather than continuing along it still further.

The Psi Corps' error wasn't in trying to improve humanity - it was trying to a) only improve a small section of humanity (those with natural psi ability) and b) doing so in a regimented, controlled way which made the psychics slaves to the Corps. Ironheart's ascension nearly destroyed the station, but was ultimately portrayed as being a positive thing for him - and his psychic tampering with Talia was, if the actress had stayed with the show, supposed to put her along the same path (and ultimately help her liberate the telepaths).

Garibaldi wasn't the only one critical of Sheridan post Z'ha'dum.

And yet Sheridan is almost always shown to be in the right post-Z'ha'dum, which makes those individuals seem kind of goofy.

Franklin for instance reacted rather shocked when Sheridan decided to use the unconscious telepaths.

Franklin also energetically defends this course of action to the leader of the Martian resistance when she objects to it. (Which pissed me off to no end - everything we know about Franklin's ethics tells us he'd only allow that over his dead body.)

And as for Delenn, how can anyone be perceived infallible who basically started the Earth Minbary war?

Ah, but the Earth-Minbari war turns out to be cosmically necessary. It both forces the Earthers to take a new approach to interstellar relations, leading to the creation of the Babylon project in the first place, and
it lets the Minbari discover that some of their souls had been reincarnating in human bodies, which eventually led to the discovery that Sinclair and Valen were one and the same.


Even though the telepath arc was way too drawn out, I liked the Centauri arc a lot.

The problem with the Centauri arc is, as I say in the review, it goes to a lot of effort to set up a lot of stuff which never actually gets resolved in the series. All it accomplishes is setting up a bunch of cliffhangers which were only sorted out in tie-in novels, and I'm a firm believer in the idea that if you devote that much screen time to a plot in a TV show then you should really resolve that plot within the bounds of said TV show.

I didn't see Delenn as infallible (she did some exceptionally stupid things in the series, like almost re-starting the war by stealing that Brenmar guy's body in "Legacies" and letting them blame the station command for it.

That is a good point. To be fair to the series, I don't think Sheridan and Delenn are portrayed as infallible across the whole thing - it's a gradual process of increasing infallibility, so in season 1 or 2 they're still making the odd mistake and by season 4 then anyone who disagrees with them to any significant extent turns out to be morally in the wrong.

In particular, I'd say Delenn is portrayed as being considerably less enlightened and more fallible before she does the cocoon thing and becomes part-human. Sheridan is portrayed as being slightly in over his head early on in season 2 before he grows into the role of station commander.

Basically, every time Delenn and Sheridan level up they buy another level of Messiah, which makes their actions 20% more infallible.

Sorry for any language flaws, English isn't my native language.

I didn't actually notice any. :) Thanks for commenting!
Dan H at 18:30 on 2012-01-14
There was this distinction the old lady in "Quality of Mercy" made between "doing the right thing" and "doing the necessary thing".


Yeah, I get that, unfortunately that kind of thing increasingly fills me with rage.

A major theme of Babylon 5 is that Sometimes Good Men Must Do Terrible Things to Prevent Great Evil. This is something a lot of people believe, but in my never-terribly-humble opinion, it's a gigantic sack of bullshit.

The reason Sheridan uses unconscious telepaths as suicide bombers is because JMS wants to show that Sometimes Good Men Must Do Terrible Things to Prevent Great Evil, but the only reason he has to do it is because authorial fiat has declared that it is "the only option." Essentially a huge number of people are sacrificed not to defeat the Shadows, but to give Sheridan an opportunity to show that he will make The Tough Decisions (tm).

In this sense he absolutely *does* act from base motives - he doesn't do it to save lives, he does it because he wants to be the sort of person that will Do Whatever It Takes, he does it so that he can validate himself by reference to his (false and historically inaccurate) ideas about Churchill.

I'd also point out that the nonconsenting suicide bombers didn't actually make any difference to the outcome of the Shadow War, which after all was only really resolved by Sheridan standing up and telling the Shadows and Vorlons to get the hell out of his galaxy.

The entire attitude Babylon 5 presents reminds me very uncomfortably of the kind of speeches that Tony Blair would make during the invasion of Iraq. We must have the resolution and the courage to Do What Must Be Done to fight the Great Evil, and nobody is allowed to point out that what we're doing won't actually *help* at all, because Sometimes Good Men Must Do Terrible Things.
Arthur B at 18:33 on 2012-01-14
Correction there Dan: the involuntary suicide bombings are used in the war against President Clark, not the war against the Shadows. (Using those telepaths within a hundred light years of a Shadow would have been a poor idea.)

So it's like saying sometimes people must do unpleasant things when they are the leaders of an international coalition mounting an armed invasion of a sovereign territory in order to oust its dictatorial leader.

In other words, even more like the Iraq War than the Shadow War was.

EDIT: Also the suicide bombers do manage to achieve a few things: they are able to take out some starships, enough to swing the balance of the naval engagement and to convince the Earth space navy to stand down.

Of course, actual bombs would have done the jobs too. But they wouldn't have got in because the cargo scanners would detect bombs, but not complex unregistered medical equipment. Or, you know, stowaways. Because of course ships (stellar or otherwise) have never had a problem with stowaways.
http://mandragora2.livejournal.com/ at 19:00 on 2012-01-14
@Arthur
True, the Vorlons turned out to be not such good guys. But this wasn't because they had ascended to become beings of pure entity, but because having done so they hadn't taken the next step that all the ridiculous numbers of other ascended elder races had done in leaving the galaxy for the Great Beyond. In short, they and the Shadows sinned because they turned away from the path of continuous self-improvement rather than continuing along it still further.
Question for me is, what does that "Going beyond the Rim" mean. From a more metaphorical POV, it probably isn't about "leaving the galaxy", but more about letting go of "the cradle", i.e. growing up, letting go of your old life and moving on. The Vorlons and Shadows and the other ones that stayed never actually grew up and never moved on. Hence that display of immaturity on the part of those Ivanova encountered.

And yet Sheridan is almost always shown to be in the right post-Z'ha'dum, which makes those individuals seem kind of goofy. [...]Basically, every time Delenn and Sheridan level up they buy another level of Messiah, which makes their actions 20% more infallible.
I don't know, maybe it's just me but I felt that as the show went on, less and less judgment was forced on the viewers what is actually "right". This is most palpable in season 5 (which is one reason I like it more than season 1), when I felt that Sheridan grew to be more and more "vorlonic", for the lack of a better expression. Maybe it was Delenn's influence, but I felt he became more and more manipulative, and more and more detached from the ordinary people. His treatment of Lyta is a prime example. And the Rangers became more and more questionable. Apart from that vigilance thing I already mentioned, they grew into some sort of paramilitary guardian force beyond any parliamentary or other control - which is a questionable enough thing in war times but an absolutely impossible thing in peace times. I'm positive that if the "Legend of the Rangers" series had made it beyond the pilot, we'd have seen an entirely different side of the Rangers. I felt during the entire season 5, JMS unobtrusively but decisively started to dismantle the moral integrity of Sheridan and the Rangers.

Franklin also energetically defends this course of action to the leader of the Martian resistance when she objects to it. (Which pissed me off to no end - everything we know about Franklin's ethics tells us he'd only allow that over his dead body.)
Unfortunately I don't remember what he put forward as an argument, so I can't really comment on that.

Ah, but the Earth-Minbari war turns out to be cosmically necessary. It both forces the Earthers to take a new approach to interstellar relations, leading to the creation of the Babylon project in the first place, and it lets the Minbari discover that some of their souls had been reincarnating in human bodies, which eventually led to the discovery that Sinclair and Valen were one and the same.
I've never thought of that.

@Dan

The reason Sheridan uses unconscious telepaths as suicide bombers is because JMS wants to show that Sometimes Good Men Must Do Terrible Things to Prevent Great Evil, but the only reason he has to do it is because authorial fiat has declared that it is "the only option." Essentially a huge number of people are sacrificed not to defeat the Shadows, but to give Sheridan an opportunity to show that he will make The Tough Decisions (tm).

In this sense he absolutely *does* act from base motives - he doesn't do it to save lives, he does it because he wants to be the sort of person that will Do Whatever It Takes, he does it so that he can validate himself by reference to his (false and historically inaccurate) ideas about Churchill.

I suppose there is some truth to that. At least in regard to JMS' motives. Not so sure about Sheridan's motives, though.

I didn't mean I wholeheartedly agree with that approach. I just wanted to explain what I think probably being "a good guy" means in B5, as compared to Potter, for example. Another take on what "being a good guy" means is shown in that new BSG episode when Starbuck waterboarded that Cylon. Clearly what she does is NOT the right thing, it's even questionable whether it is the necessary thing in this case, and yet the viewers aren't supposed to now condemn Starbuck and consider her one of the bad guys after that episode. It's just that, like RDM said, "sometimes good people do really horrible things". There's a difference of course in the portrayal, in that this new BSG-episode doesn't give the impression of trying to justify what Starbuck did.
Arthur B at 19:12 on 2012-01-14
I felt during the entire season 5, JMS unobtrusively but decisively started to dismantle the moral integrity of Sheridan and the Rangers.

Unfortunately, Season 5 ends with Sleeping In Light, which consists of a long conga line of characters showing up to express how much they love Sheridan, and then Sheridan dies, and between all that you're given the impression that things have all panned out for the best and Sheridan is a Great Man who deserves to be remembered as a hero for all that he's done.

Of course, Sleeping In Light was filmed during season 4, when they thought they might have to run it as the series finale at the end of that. It's entirely possible that had it been filmed along with the rest of season 5, it'd ended up have putting a different spin on things. As it is, season 5 goes "Hey, maybe Sheridan's decisions aren't so positive... ONLY KIDDING! Things turned out awesome after all."
http://mandragora2.livejournal.com/ at 19:23 on 2012-01-14
Unfortunately, Season 5 ends with Sleeping In Light, which consists of a long conga line of characters showing up to express how much they love Sheridan, and then Sheridan dies, and between all that you're given the impression that things have all panned out for the best and Sheridan is a Great Man who deserves to be remembered as a hero for all that he's done.
Yeah, but Sleeping in Light happens 19 years later (ever noticed that it was actually 19 years later? Like the Potter epilogue?) People tend to forget what didn't work out that great and only see what did pan out as great statesmen grow older and their successors keep getting worse (for example in my own country, Germany, I'm getting the impression that former chancellor Helmut Schmidt is about to be sainted lately). So, nothing unrealistic about that :)

Addendum re: Iraq war - I don't think that comparison holds. If that comparison were to hold, Sheridan a) would have invaded a planet not inhabited by humans but an alien planet, the humans and b) he would have had a fleet including aliens - something he explicitly ruled out. I can't think of a analogue in real world politics immediately; it would have to be a part of a nation's population that was expelled or had declared their independence, and then came back to liberate their own people.
http://mandragora2.livejournal.com/ at 19:25 on 2012-01-14
correction: strike "the humans" right before b)
Arthur B at 19:30 on 2012-01-14
Yeah, but Sleeping in Light happens 19 years later (ever noticed that it was actually 19 years later? Like the Potter epilogue?) People tend to forget what didn't work out that great and only see what did pan out as great statesmen grow older and their successors keep getting worse (for example in my own country, Germany, I'm getting the impression that former chancellor Helmut Schmidt is about to be sainted lately). So, nothing unrealistic about that :)

What successors? Sheridan was still in power and in control of the Rangers, he only hands that over to Ivanova during the episode. He enjoyed the sort of ridiculously long tenures in office that only the most successful dictators enjoy.
http://mandragora2.livejournal.com/ at 20:57 on 2012-01-14
What successors? Sheridan was still in power and in control of the Rangers, he only hands that over to Ivanova during the episode.
I was thinking of his Earth Force commission.

He enjoyed the sort of ridiculously long tenures in office that only the most successful dictators enjoy.
Oh I don't know, Kohl lasted 16 years as a chancellor j/k. Seriously, I thought the Alliance presidency was more of a ceremonial office, some sort of diplomatic supervisor, with not that much influence on practical politics.
Arthur B at 21:25 on 2012-01-14
I was thinking of his Earth Force commission.

Being head of the Rangers is way better than being in Earth Force (which he resigned from as of the end of Season 4, I thought.)

Seriously, I thought the Alliance presidency was more of a ceremonial office, some sort of diplomatic supervisor, with not that much influence on practical politics.

I dunno, in Season 5 we see him orchestrating the use of the Rangers as a secret police and military force, and the fact that he's the head of the Rangers means that anything he says as Alliance president has a hell of a lot of power backing it up.
Robinson L at 20:36 on 2012-01-19
Dan: A major theme of Babylon 5 is that Sometimes Good Men Must Do Terrible Things to Prevent Great Evil. This is something a lot of people believe, but in my never-terribly-humble opinion, it's a gigantic sack of bullshit.

Thank you Dan. This is one of those propositions which always annoys the fuck out of me whenever I bump into it, which is all too often. Thanks for the fantastic takedown.
http://lightcastle.livejournal.com/ at 03:34 on 2012-08-29
I was given permission to perform necromancy on this post.

I was a big Bab5 fan, although I am sure I would be more critical of it now. Mind you, even being an active participant on usenet back in the day, and a huge fan, I wasn't slavish to the cult.

It's funny to read this, and recognize some of the arguments I got flamed for on usenet. Somewhere in Season 3, I believe, is when my friend Nina and I started actively pointing out that Delenn must have started the Minbari-Earth war. Also, that Sheriden was slipping into acting like a monster to fight monsters. We thought that clear, and supported by the show itself.

And then... JMS chickened out. Other than one little comment about herding the Alliance into safe sectors to allow for an easier massacre being "What I would do" and Delenn flipping out, there's no REAL sense of Sheriden slipping. Indeed, as Arthur points out, he gradually becomes unquestionably good in everything and it is a sin to rebel. (The Garibaldi arc pissed me off no end.)

Delenn turns out to have had one bad moment of grief which she immediately repented but couldn't stop the war, instead of having prosecuted it to the extreme until the epiphany of the soul migration. Again, the element got touched on, but then shunted aside.

I even remember JMS coming online to tell people how when the Shadows got to make their pitch, about 1/3 of people would be for it and think they were right, 1/3 would acknowledge their position, but not think they were right, and 1/3 reject it outright. And then we meet Justin (who was fun) who gives us some mumbly crap like being a secret illuminati and a weaksauce version of Social Darwinism lite as the Shadow motivation.

It's like JMS knew where he could go to make this really a difficult moral scenario with flawed heroes, but then just couldn't abandon his desire to have the perfect Mary/Gary Stus.

Side note, Arthur, you mentioned the makeup change from the pilot, but no one seems to have mentioned the sex change. Originally, Delenn was supposed to be male, that's why the makeup looks like that. They couldn't get the voice modulation to not sound intensely fake, so they gave up on the idea. The bit where Delenn goes into Chrysalis was supposed to result in not just becoming half-human, but becoming female as well.
Arthur B at 10:33 on 2012-08-29
I even remember JMS coming online to tell people how when the Shadows got to make their pitch, about 1/3 of people would be for it and think they were right, 1/3 would acknowledge their position, but not think they were right, and 1/3 reject it outright. And then we meet Justin (who was fun) who gives us some mumbly crap like being a secret illuminati and a weaksauce version of Social Darwinism lite as the Shadow motivation.

Oh, I dunno, I can easily believe that around of the third of the hardcore SF audience (the choir JMS was intent on preaching to with the series) believe weaksauce Social Darwinism crap.

Less glib response: this just convinces me all the more that where B5 does work, it works despite JMS rather than because of him and he doesn't actually understand what's good about it. I loved the Justin scene not because the position he was outlining was even remotely sympathetic (it really wasn't), but because of the sheer lunacy of having this old guy puttering around in his cardigan and slippers orchestrating galaxy-wide conspiracies from his comfortable sitting room in the middle of Mordor, and because of the way the big reveal of the Shadows' origins and plans unfolds kind of like an Oxford don giving a tutorial on ancient galactic history up until the Shadow strolls in and Sheridan starts shooting.

Originally, Delenn was supposed to be male, that's why the makeup looks like that. They couldn't get the voice modulation to not sound intensely fake, so they gave up on the idea. The bit where Delenn goes into Chrysalis was supposed to result in not just becoming half-human, but becoming female as well.

I completely didn't realise that; I can't remember whether Delenn is ever referred to as "he" in the pilot but if so I must have misheard it as "she" thanks to the combination of Mira Furlan plus hundreds of episodes where it's never suggested that Delenn is anything other than female.

I dunno how I feel about this. On the one hand keeping the original makeup but having Delenn be female would have been fun simply to have at least one major species whose members present masculinity or femininity in strikingly different ways to the way humans do. On the other hand having Delenn be male and then transition during the series would have been the opportunity to have an interesting trans-friendly plotline, which would have made the neckbeard contingent deeply uncomfortable but I tend to consider that an advantage. On the third hand having someone change gender for political reasons at best doesn't really resemble the experience of actual trans people and at worst could have led to a scriptwriting disaster. On the fourth hand having Delenn be male for the entire series and having Sheridan fall in love with him anyway would be an even better way to enrage reactionary SF fans.
James D at 18:09 on 2012-08-29
On the fourth hand having Delenn be male for the entire series and having Sheridan fall in love with him anyway would be an even better way to enrage reactionary SF fans.

Did you just suggest Space Jesus should've been gay? They're already coming for you, Arthur. The last thing you see will be greasy neck hair as it crushes your retinas.
Arthur B at 20:21 on 2012-08-29
All I'm saying is JMS doesn't get to claim the Minority Warrior points if the sole gay relationship in his TV show is buried under such an enormous pile of subtext and plausible deniability that most people aren't even aware it happened. Even Joss Whedon did better than that.
However, I've got a book club coming up, so I'm going to be reading some Robert Heinlein first.

Irony!


Oh, I know, right? I read some of his books because, well, you know, he's touted as this classic sci fi writer, one of the greats, etc., and so I thought they'd be really good, but they were so disappointing and skeevy.

...How did that go, anyway? I mean, I know it's been over a year but considering recent comments on thread necromancy, hey.
http://fightsandtights.blogspot.ca/ at 00:21 on 2013-11-11
All I'm saying is JMS doesn't get to claim the Minority Warrior points if the sole gay relationship in his TV show is buried under such an enormous pile of subtext and plausible deniability that most people aren't even aware it happened. Even Joss Whedon did better than that.


Oh, what would Ferretbrain be without the unnecessary potshots at Whedon? I dread to think.

In JMS' defense here, this series came out in the 90's, and back then, the gay rights movement was only really starting to pick up steam. LGBT rights have advanced tremendously within the past decade alone, and what is commonplace now would be considered utterly unfit for broadcast then, particularly on network television. Everything I've heard suggests that he wanted to be more overt about it, but wasn't simply allowed to do it. Is the lack of overt gay characters problematic? Yes, but then again, we're examining it through the lens of hindsight in a society that's far more accepting of same-sex relationships. Having even a mention of Ivanova/Talia was pretty fair for its day.
Arthur B at 01:44 on 2013-11-11
In JMS' defense here, this series came out in the 90's, and back then, the gay rights movement was only really starting to pick up steam.

Er, what? Stonewall riots, AIDS activism, rise of gay pride parades, did these get delayed until 1993 in your timeline or something?

LGBT rights have advanced tremendously within the past decade alone, and what is commonplace now would be considered utterly unfit for broadcast then, particularly on network television.

Oh, as someone who remembers that era I'm not disputing that, I'm just saying that precisely because of the compromises he made JMS can't really claim to have broken down many barriers through Babylon 5.

Yes, Ivanova/Talia was at least mentioned in the series, but the acknowledgement done was in an incredibly careful and timid way, such that plausible deniability could be retained as to whether "I loved Talia" meant "Me and Talia banged" or "Me and Talia were bestest friends".

Keep in mind that this was at a time when Deep Space 9 - a contemporary of Babylon 5 aimed at precisely the same market and with a premise so close the two shows were regularly accused of ripping each other off - had Dax loudly acknowledging having past relationships with women and having at least one same-sex kiss onscreen. Granted, the Dax stuff was in the context of Dax being a Trill (a symbiote who occupies a series of bodies over its lifespan and therefore has had both male and female hosts over the years) and had faily "wow, we've come along way since then haven't we?" elements of its own, but when a nigh-identical show running under comparable constraints is able to be vastly more open I can't help but think that the Ivanova/Talia relationship was treated with excessive coyness, and that whilst JMS probably didn't have network clearance to be utterly overt about it, he could have probably fought for a bit more openness than was actually delivered in the final product had he cared enough to do so.
I gave up on B5 about half way through the second season, due to the combination of a nearly all-white cast, terrible acting (when you add a classic TV hack like Bruce Boxleitner to the cast and the average quality of the acting improves, there's a problem) and the fact that the one black character was the one with the drug problem. Doesn't seem like I missed much.
Dan H at 17:05 on 2013-11-11
but when a nigh-identical show running under comparable constraints is able to be vastly more open I can't help but think that the Ivanova/Talia relationship was treated with excessive coyness


I think that's being a little unfair on B5/easy on DS9. There was one onscreen same-sex kiss in quite a late episode, and it was kind of a big deal, but there was no indication whatsoever that Dax had any homosexual inclinations whatsoever except in the one episode in which she is tempted to return to a previous relationship which had (at the time) been a heterosexual one so I don't think it's really fair to say that DS9 pushed the envelope more than B5.

Indeed I seem to recall that Trek writers are on record as observing that they *couldn't* have any openly gay characters on the show, because the only way to have a gay character in a TV show in the 1990s was to have Very Special Episodes About Gayness, which wouldn't have worked in a Trek context. I'd argue that B5 actually did somewhat better here in that they included a relatively long term, thoroughly canonical (although also annoyingly truncated and subtexty) same-sex relationship that wasn't filtered through metaphors or alien bodyswapping.

Although at this point we're basically arguing over which set of heterosexual white men get the most/fewest minority points, which probably isn't a helpful avenue to be going down.
Arthur B at 17:22 on 2013-11-11
Although at this point we're basically arguing over which set of heterosexual white men get the most/fewest minority points, which probably isn't a helpful avenue to be going down.

Oh, entirely, I think both shows were both extremely constrained and extremely timid. (One could lament that the Trek that was all "fuck the police, we're going to show an interracial kiss" was nowhere to be seen in the 1990s.)

I guess I think that if shit happens off-screen on a TV show and is subtexted to the point where people can fail to realise it happened (or flatly deny it existed) then that's inherently pushing the envelope less than presenting something which definitely did happen, can't be missed, and which you can't pretend didn't happen, even if the latter is filtered through faily metaphors. But on the other hand, we are still talking about very, very gently pushing the envelope as opposed to shoving it out of the room so nobody gets to claim to be revolutionary here.
http://wrongquestions.blogspot.com/ at 19:34 on 2013-11-11
Indeed I seem to recall that Trek writers are on record as observing that they *couldn't* have any openly gay characters on the show, because the only way to have a gay character in a TV show in the 1990s was to have Very Special Episodes About Gayness, which wouldn't have worked in a Trek context

That's actually what ended up happening on TNG, in the episode in which Riker falls in love with a member of an androgynous species who defines herself, in deviation from the norm, as female. It's pretty cringe-worthy if you watch it now - there's a total failure to separate gender and sexual orientation, the episode is rooted in weirdly regressive ideas about gendered behavior, and the whole thing is pretty much ruined by the choice to cast a woman as the supposedly androgynous love interest (apparently Jonathan Frakes pushed for a man in the role) - but you have to at least acknowledge the good intentions, and the episode's boldness in articulating them. I remember my mother being very moved by the episode when we first watched it.

At the other end of the scale, I know that the TNG production planned to make Geordi gay, but held back either because of their own timidity or interference from higher up.
Dan H at 20:37 on 2013-11-11
It's pretty cringe-worthy if you watch it now - there's a total failure to separate gender and sexual orientation, the episode is rooted in weirdly regressive ideas about gendered behavior, and the whole thing is pretty much ruined by the choice to cast a woman as the supposedly androgynous love interest


I haven't watched that episode in *years* but while I could see what was *trying* to do, I seem to recall it being one of those episodes that could very easily be read as making the exact opposite point to the one it sets out to make. Although the point of the episode is that it is wrong to persecute a person on the basis of their gender identity/sexuality (as you observe, the episode doesn't really distinguish between the two), I seem to remember it coming across more as suggesting that it is wrong for a society not to include the assumption of binary gender and heteronormative relationships. Of course it has been literally decades since I saw the episode, so I might be misremembering.
http://wrongquestions.blogspot.com/ at 10:09 on 2013-11-12
one of those episodes that could very easily be read as making the exact opposite point to the one it sets out to make

That's an occupational hazard with these kinds of reversal of prejudice plots. The implicit assumption is that the audience obviously supports (either explicitly or simply because they've never thought about it) the kind of prejudice being addressed, but that reversing it - white people are the subjects of racism, heterosexual relationships are outlawed - will blow their little minds and force them to reexamine their assumptions. But even leaving aside the fact that a modern audience probably won't share those assumptions, these episodes end up plugging into the persecution complex that a lot of prejudiced people seem to suffer from - the kind of people who see affirmative action as racism against white people, for example. So while an episode like this can encourage empathy and open up new points of view for some people (or maybe did when it was first aired) the fact that it implicitly treats a heterosexual relationship as good (and non-heterosexuals as evil for trying to ban it) starts to feel like it's reinforcing prejudice rather than challenging it.
Robinson L at 15:06 on 2013-11-16
Dan: Trek writers are on record as observing that they *couldn't* have any openly gay characters on the show, because the only way to have a gay character in a TV show in the 1990s was to have Very Special Episodes About Gayness, which wouldn't have worked in a Trek context.

David Gerrold (to the best of my knowledge, a white queer male) also submitted a script for Next Gen's first season with a gay romance subplot (one of whom dies, and the other probably would've never showed up again), and an AIDS theme. It was rejected for reasons unknown (but feel free to speculate).

(The script was subsequently re-tooled for Star Trek Phase II, but that didn't go so well.)

Arthur: (One could lament that the Trek that was all "fuck the police, we're going to show an interracial kiss" was nowhere to be seen in the 1990s.)

Yep, and one could also lament that the J. J. Abrams reboot has, if anything, dropped the ball even more. At least the 90s gave us Commander (later Captain) Sisko.

Wrong Questions / Abigail / (How would you like me to refer to you?): That's an occupational hazard with these kinds of reversal of prejudice plots.

Wasn't that (one of) the downfall(s) of the season one episode Angel One?
http://wrongquestions.blogspot.com/ at 12:15 on 2013-11-17
"Angel One": that's an interesting case. It's kind of hard to tell what the original intent was beneath the awful writing and execution (combine first season TNG flaws with the kind of drivel Hollywood comes up with when it tries to write matriarchies and the result is not pretty), but unlike "The Outcast," I never got the sense that the episode was trying to argue against the prejudice it reversed. On the contrary, it strikes me as a story that plays into reactionary fears about feminism - if women's lib goes on, men will be locked up in harems, etc.

But who knows, maybe I'm just playing out the dynamic I described in my previous comment and not giving the episode enough credit. But it is such a horrible hour of television, and in some ways so blatantly misogynistic even for its era, that it's hard to believe it was written to make a progressive point.

(Abigail is fine, by the way. I should probably get around to requesting a FB account but I'm too lazy.)
Robinson L at 15:06 on 2013-11-30
Abigail: it strikes me as a story that plays into reactionary fears about feminism - if women's lib goes on, men will be locked up in harems, etc.

Oh, huh. It's been a couple years since I've seen it, but the commentary I have seen around Angel One has taken the view that the makers of the episode were well-intentioned, just horribly incompetent. At least two have brought up Riker's summation speech about how equality between the sexes is an evolutionary inevitability (showcasing Next Gen's charmingly wrongheaded understanding of evolution) as something which they read as well-meaning, but should have been given to one of the female characters.

But it's probably not worth revisiting to try to figure out what the hell they were trying to say.
Craverguy at 10:15 on 2015-03-14
Despite its many flaws, I can't bring myself to write off Season 5 because it contains the Bester-centric "The Corps Is Mother, the Corps Is Father," which is one of my favorite episodes of the series.
In order to post comments, you need to log in to Ferretbrain or authenticate with OpenID. Don't have an account? See the About Us page for more details.

Show / Hide Comments -- More in January 2011