Babylon 5 #14: Signs and Portents

"Do you really want to know what I want? Do you really want to know the truth? I want my people to reclaim their rightful place in the galaxy. I want to see the Centauri stretch forth their hand again and command the stars. I want a rebirth of glory, a renaissance of power! I want to stop running through my life like a man late for an appointment, afraid to look back or look forward. I want us to be what we used to be! I want... I want it all back the way it was. Does that answer your question?"
IN THIS ONE... First appearance of the Shadows. The raiders attack Babylon 5 and a Centauri seer sees the station one day destroyed.

REVIEW: This one has the same title they gave the season, so it's gotta be important, right? It is! And damn mystifying as well. The biggest mystery is the guy who shows up on the station and asks every alien ambassador what they want. Evidently, he's an agent of the Shadows, the creepy aliens who drive sea urchin-like ships and make their first appearance here, a dark hint of what's to come. What are their intentions? Why the insistent survey? Why isn't Earth included? Neither are the Vorlons, mind you, but the way Kosh warns him off, it raises just as many questions as to HIS species' hidden agenda. If Babylon 5 is "not for" the Shadows, what claim do the Vorlons have on it? Why help Londo retrieve the Eye, his culture's most important artifact, and what kind of favor might they ask of him later? It's all very enigmatic and interesting.

So what do we find out? Well, Londo and G'Kar are really mirrors of each other, and can't both get their wish. G'Kar want revenge (he would call it justice), that the Centauri Empire be ground to dust. Londo wants his Republic to be great again, just like it was before. In both cases, their deepest desires are essentially selfless. They are heroes and patriots to their people, even if we might judge their motivations morally dubious. The Shadows side with the Centauri, apparently, or is the return of the Eye somehow going to lead to the Republic's downfall? I wouldn't put it past JMS. Delenn never gets to state her wishes because of a tremor in the Force; she's apparently attuned to the Shadows and their return, even in another sector beyond a jump point, causes her to break out in hives (or perhaps more embarrassingly, makes her Grey Council tattoo appear). The Minbari still get some love, as Sinclair brings Garibaldi into his investigation of the mission 24 hours and the security chief uncovers that Sinclair was the only station commander they approved for this duty. Is he some kind of sleeper agent? He must be starting to think he is.

While that all plays out as subplots - until revealed as the more important story - the A-plot concerns Londo's recovery of the Eye, and his subsequent dealings with Lord Kiro, a man with his eye on the Emperor's throne. His aunt is a seer who has predicted he would die at the Shadows' hands (and this happens) and in a possible future, the destruction of Babylon 5 itself. As it turns out, Kiro has engineered a raid on the station using the same raiders we previously encountered, faking his own kidnapping to keep the Eye out of the Republic's more official hands. They double-cross the double-crosser, but the Shadows get the final laugh. Fortune keeps changing from minute to minute. Of course, this attack means we get to see some outer space action, and it's the longest sequence we've yet seen. Is it me, or is this episode less blurry than usual? Whatever the case may be, the effects are fluid and well choreographed, with lots of fighters fighting in 3D space (by which I mean these ships turn on a dime and don't always feel like jets) and using the station itself as an environment. The raiders' carrier is also a cool design, and we get a better sense of how "jumping" works. Good stuff.

ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WORMHOLE: Prophecy is also an important element in Deep Space Nine.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High - A good mix of politics, mystery and exciting action, I would give it a High except that it does tend to repeat certain points several times (the station's possible destruction, for example) where it might have given us something new.


Madeley said...

They keystone episode of the first season- and first time around, I managed to miss it somehow. It was some time later that I finally watched it, and because of this I was first introduced to the Shadows at the end of the season. I suppose the one advantage of this was it made their later appearance pack an even greater punch, coming seemingly out of nowhere. But it certainly made things extra confusing for a bit.

I've often wondered what the mechanism for psychic powers in the B5 universe is, particularly the prophetic powers. Telepaths and telekinetics are obviously manipulating sqome kind of field or force- are prophetic psychics tapping into this, but with a temporal physics component? Not to spoil anything, but some prophecies come true, others don't, and the humans experience them during temporal shenanigans later on in the season, so maybe it's something to explore further when we get there.

I'm also curious to know whether the Centauri death-visions are also considered infallible. I assume not, because otherwise London would know for certain in any situation that he wouldn't die, like Arthur Dent in Mostly Harmless, and be totally fearless.

LiamKav said...

I think this is the only time we see a Shadow vessel "phase-in" while stationary. At the time, it makes it look like it's turning off a cloaking device. Later on it's more obvious that the phasing effects are how the Shadows enter and exit hyperspace.

Anonymous said...

Semi-serious theory: perhaps Morden doesn't ask "What do you want?" of humans, because it's too ingrained in our traditions that the Devil asks that question when he's trying to buy your soul. If Morden's going to go after humans he's going to need a more subtle approach, say, a white windowless van and offers of candy and comic books. (Even at age 47 I'd get in that van without hesitation.)

More likely suggestion: there's nobody of any potential for Earthly political power on B5, so there's no point in asking around. If there's any Shadow work to be done, it will need to be done on Earth.

Even more likelier suggestion: the Shadows are steering clear of the Psi-Corps. The Psi-Corps limits its activities to human affairs, so stay out of human affairs and you'll be fine.

Ryan Lohner said...

There are many impressive things about this episode, but perhaps the biggest of all is that filming began literally the day after a huge earthquake, with aftershocks continuing to plague the set the whole time. Poor Claudia Christian got the worst of it, with one of them happening during a scene where she was strapped into the Starfury prop and unable to get out. A crew member had been assigned to release her if this happened, but in the shock of the moment he forgot and ran out with everyone else. Claudia understandably had some VERY harsh words with him later.

Speaking of Starfuries, this is our first chance to really see them shine, and it's made clear what an advantage their being designed purely for use in space is compared to the hybrid design of the raiders' ships, whose wings are nothing but a handy target in a space battle and make them less maneuverable to boot. JMS also really wanted to avert the standard spaceship battle where two ships just plug away at each other until one wins the war of attrition, and instead show real strategy and tactics. We get a clear picture of how Sinclair herds the Raiders into a kill zone before Ivanova's group pops in to close the box, and it's very exciting to watch the whole thing come together.

And then there's Mr. Morden (who actually isn't named in this episode AFAICR, but everyone's using the name anyway so I guess I will too). He's played by Ed Wasser, who started on the show as a "reader," filling in for any actors who weren't able to make it to table reads. He also had played a member of the bridge crew in The Gathering, which given the show's tight continuity had some fans suspecting that Morden had been undercover at the time, but JMS shot this down, saying it was just a coincidence. He got this role because he was one of the few actors who didn't make Morden obviously evil while still exuding an oily "used car salesman" vibe that makes you instinctively not trust him. Plus he has that resemblance to Rod Serling going on.

The question "What do you want," left to stand by itself as it is here, is essentially an appeal directly to the id, provoking a response from "somewhere deep down you don't like to talk about at parties," as Jack Nicholson put it in A Few Good Men. It gets us to name our most desperate inner desire without regard to anything else, no matter how much we like to think we could never act on it. Delenn refuses to entertain the thought at all, G'Kar wants a very direct bloody revenge but Morden is disappointed that there's nothing beyond that, but then he gets to Londo, who has a truly ambitious dream with far reaching consequences, and that is clearly what Morden was looking for, even if we have no idea why at the moment.

Finally, we are introduced to the Shadows in quite dramatic fashion, as a spidery black ship whose texture actually seems to be alive drops into space and turns the Raiders' base ship to mincemeat in seconds. Like I said when this thing started, this simply was not how television worked at the time. You introduced a conflict and resolved it within an episode, maybe an occasional two-parter. The appearance of the Shadows broke all the rules, and after a set of largely self-contained episodes announced that this truly was a Novel for Television.

Oh, and one more thing: that texture used for the Shadow ships? It's a close-up of a dog's nose.

Madeley said...

Another point of interest: the Shadows were originally called the "shadowmen". I imagine the name was changed to better evoke the concept of the Jungian "shadow", and clearly differentiate them from "men" in the sense of "human".

But "shadowmen" in some way is creepier, and more visceral a name. It brings to mind urban legends of "men in black" in the UFO mythology sense (rather than the Will Smith sense), and in a weird way anticipates modern day internet myths like the Slender Man.

Anonymous said...

"He also had played a member of the bridge crew in The Gathering"

We've got a little bit of Other Side of the Wormhole going on then. The first person to speak in DS9 (beyond the stock footage of Locutus) was J G Hertzler, playing a Vulcan on the Saratoga bridge. Later he went on to play General Martok of the Klingon Empire, and Odo's metamorph "older brother" Laas. Other roles too throughout multiple Trek projects. ... Hey, he's even gonna be in "Star Trek: Axanar"!

Ryan Lohner said...

In the script volumes, he says he didn't go with Shadowman because it sounded too much like Doctor Who's Cybermen.

Anonymous said...

"In the script volumes, he says he didn't go with Shadowman because it sounded too much like Doctor Who's Cybermen."

Declaring them "men" at all would tell us something about them -- that they should be thought of as men in some fashion -- and that would detract maximally from their mystique. "Shadows" doesn't tell us anything, except that they exist and are unknowable darkness.

David said...

Madeley: You could argue that Londo's not trusting his death-vision is a reflection of his culture, again. Faced with a mystical truth, he's jaded and won't really act as though it's true -- you can imagine how, say, Delenn would act in his place. I suppose it could also be pragmatism: he knows he'll die then, but in the meantime he still has plenty of leeway to be hurt and maimed, and he'd prefer to arrive at his pre-ordained death having lived as pleasurably as possible.

I liked this episode being another subversion of G'kar as the obvious bad guy. Yes, he wants to wipe out the Centauri... but as you say, it's essentially a selfless desire. He'd wipe them out, out of a sense of justice for his people, then put away his sword and go home without moving on to greater conquests. Whereas Londo's answer is far scarier.

...also, this episode sets up one of my favorite scenes in the whole show a season or two down the line, which is Morden asking Vir "what do you want?" :D

(The reason why Morden isn't asking the Earth people is, of course, a spoiler.)

Cradok said...

Aah, the episode around which, quite literally, everything pivots, both in-universe and out. It showed that the show was going to be more than just episodic television with some character mystery, that it had a plan. And nearly everything from here on out would spin out of what happens here. Although there's a couple of dud episodes coming next that do their best to derail that...

I was going to prompt people to think on the reason that Mister Morden picked Londo over G'Kar, but then everyone went and spoiled it. G'Kar's fantasy just wasn't enough for Morden and his associates.

David said...

Cradok: It's only sort of a spoiler. I'm fairly sure that I held the same opinion of it after my initial viewing of the episode -- it's pretty supported in-text without any extra analysis. (Admittedly I'm trying to reconstruct my years ago mental state here.) Morden goes around asking people what they'd do, and isn't satisfied until he meets someone whose ambition is unbounded.

jdh417 said...

Yeah, this was the episode where this show pulled ahead of DS9 for my affections. The loaded subtly of the "What do you want?" question was just sublime to the imagination. Morden's perfectly pleasant evil was impossible not to be infuriated by. His later smirking encounter with Vir would lead to one of the best moments of the series.

Chuck Lavazzi said...

Back when this show was being broadcast, fans used to refer to "wham" episodes; i.e., the ones in which the overall arc took a big leap forward and important characters and elements were introduced. This one starts/reveals threads that will play out for the next four years.

Lady Ladira's final vision is significant, but I couldn't find a way of explaining why without dropping major spoilers.

Chuck Lavazzi said...

P.S. you get multiple visions of the station's destruction because there are multiple possible futures. Only one turns out to be true in the end.

LiamKav said...

"Cradok: It's only sort of a spoiler. I'm fairly sure that I held the same opinion of it after my initial viewing of the episode -- it's pretty supported in-text without any extra analysis"

I agree. The episode is pretty clear in that regard. Morden gets excited when he thinks that G'Kar is ambitious, but when he realises that G'Kar just wants revenge/liberation and nothing else, he loses interest. Londo's excellent speech about wanting a vast and glorious empire, where nothing will stand in their way is what gets his interest.

Alex Osias said...

I loved how Mr. Morden actually seems very nice (except when he meets up with Kosh) in a lot of scenes. And yet we're sure he's the villain.

Also, I also loved how G'kar seemed to be a shoe-in for the Shadows pick -- until Londo's rant, showing a scope and a vision far beyond G'kar's that was apparently far more appealing to them.

LiamKav said...

"And then there's Mr. Morden (who actually isn't named in this episode AFAICR, but everyone's using the name anyway so I guess I will too)"
He's named at least twice. First by G'Kar and then by Delenn.

I've also missed a few episodes so I might be wrong, but I think this is our first glimpse at Dome Tech #2, later to be named Lt Corwin. He'll gradually start to replace the Dome Tech with the Eastern-European-accent-I-can't-place as our go-to Dome Tech Person.

Cradok said...

Heh, I didn't mean that the plot point was spoiled, just that the potential for discussion was. When discussing B5 with someone who's not seen the whole thing, I tend to prefer gently leading questions and enigmatically avoiding answering questions.

LiamKav said...

"When discussing B5 with someone who's not seen the whole thing, I tend to prefer gently leading questions..."

Such as "who are you?" and "what do you want?", maybe?


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