Babylon 5 #21: Babylon Squared

"Not every conversation has to be the end of the world."
IN THIS ONE... Where did Babylon 4 disappear to? It disappeared to this episode.

REVIEW: So the previous station was caught in a temporal anomaly and tachyon emissions are now leading the B5 crew to it? Geez. Did a Star Trek script get lost in the mail? Trek had done so many of these things, even by then, that it's hard to get enthusiastic about yet another. Babylon 4, all in green, is really a recolored B5, of course, and it's commanded by a mere Major (probably just the skeleton crew's overseer, and he's a terrible over-actor). The station disappeared four years ago, and it hasn't been too long from their point of view, but time flashes throwing people's consciousness backwards and forwards through time are already driving people crazy. If it's all emotionally charged like Sinclair seeing Garibaldi going out in a blaze of glory or Garibaldi leaving Lise, I can understand why.

This is an episode about the future. That's where B4 is heading, and according to the alien Zathras (now here's a worthy performance from a guest actor), there's a war between light and shadow there. Not so far off, then. Sinclair is involved in these events and is considered a savior figure ("the One"). We're definitely seeing JMS' plans for a continuing character here, but with O'Hara's departure from the show at season's end, we'll see if it the future is really set in stone or more malleable. I guess it might have to be, even if future Sinclair can't change things from what he remembers. And can't touch his past self without Blinovitching him into the next segment of corridor. At least he manages to save the crew, by stopping off in 2258, but is that really his idea, or does it only exist in a paradoxical loop? Whatever the case may be, we'll see these events again from the other side one day.

Delenn's future is also in question. She's called to the Grey Council because she's been elected its leader, but refuses the position and is forced off the Council. That's ok, because it would have meant her leaving the cast, and from the quick future scene at the end, it seems her destiny is wrapped up in humanity's. If she's right, it's a great one, and she has the greatest, most passionate speech about our species this side of Doctor Who. It's also lovely to hear the traditional words of the Grey Council, sitting between light and darkness, between the candle and the stars. The Minbari are about balance, and about the whole rather than the individual. Very interesting.

Because the show is a little heavy and esoteric, it's nice to see it open on a couple of comedy scenes. Garibaldi and Sinclair pranking Ivanova is priceless, and I can't decide if Garibaldi is the worst conversationalist ever, or the best. After all, he can talk about anything. As usual, JMS' novelistic approach isn't BALANCED - those scenes should not have both been clumped together - but we appreciate each scene as its own entity, regardless.

ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WORMHOLE:
Though Trek has done a lot of temporal anomaly stories (and flashing backwards and forwards through one's life is really the purview of DS9's Prophets), the episode really evoked The Tholian Web, with its trapped "ship" and spaceman fading in and out of reality.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High - A borrowed plot, but is sets up a lot of things for the coming seasons. Hopefully, B5 is able to follow up satisfyingly in spit of its cast trouble.

17 comments:

Madeley said...

Only a "Medium-High"? Shock! Gasp! Horror!

As mentioned on the previous thread, the UK VHS release schedule had this and the previous two episodes all on the same tape, and I remember watching it to death. I loved this episode, there was so much weight to it. And the flash-forward cliffhanger killed me off at the time, I don't think I've ever been so impatient to find out what was going on in anything.

To be fair, by this point while Star Trek was chock-full of temporal shenanigans, it was genuinely refreshing to see a time-travel plot where the pay off would be quite distant in the relative future, and not resolved within the same episode or two-parter. Yes, DS9 would be exploring similar territory, but in parallel rather than prior. To a viewer at the time, it isn't so much cribbing from Trek as taking a Trek idea and exploring the repercussions in a new way; it just happened that Trek itself would be doing something broadly similar (but quite different in substance and detail) on the other side of the wormhole.

Ryan Lohner said...

The process of writing this story still completely blows my mind. JMS knew full well that many things could happen to interfere in the story he wanted to tell between this episode and its followup then planned to be four years later, so he had to make contingency plans. And because he's a writer who just cares that much about playing fair with the audience, every single plot point had a multitude of potential explanations ready depending on which actors were available or several other real life issues. In the script volumes he says it was like constructing a tesseract, and he still has no idea how it ended up making as much sense as it does.

Zathras was played by Tim Choate, who JMS can't praise enough in the volumes for how he completely disappeared into the character, to the point that he later had no idea who he was talking to for quite a while when Choate approached him at one of the season wrap parties. His speech patterns were inspired by JMS' paternal grandmother, a Russian immigrant who never quite mastered English. And sadly we have another case of a line that's quite uncomfortable in retrospect, with Zathras talking about how he would like to die. Choate ended up going out by crashing his motorcycle in 2002.

So, what are we left with to explain what we just saw? A much older Sinclair is "The One," who will take Babylon 4 to a different time where a great war is being fought. Whether that means the past or the future is unclear (and indeed, it could have been either depending on which contingency plan ended up being used). And his companion is clearly Delenn based on the voice, but we still don't get to see her, indicating that she'll somehow be visually different by the time we catch up to this side of the story. Again, this kind of thing was simply Not Done in television at the time, at least not on this scale, and even today you're unlikely to see this kind of multitude of plot points set up that won't be explained for years. Given the nature of the business I can't really blame anyone for not trying it (the fact that Babylon 5 actually got its intended five seasons is a goddamn miracle in the first place), but I'd still like to see at least one more like this.

LiamKav said...

I suppose a lot of your reaction to this episode will be dependent on your feelings about time travel stories. By and large, I love them. Especially at this point in time, where "Time Travel episode" is likely to bring to mind "Cuase and Effect", rather than the millions of episodes based around this premise that Voyager seemed to do. And to be fair, even in the case of Voyager the Time Travel episodes were usually the better ones.

Of course, the big difference is that Star Trek time travel stuff (at least pre-Enterprise) was all "done-in-one". What we have here is more part 1 of a two (or three) parter. It's just that the next part won't be airing for a good while yet.

JMS also makes a good point that the fans all identified Sinclair as "The One", despite the fact that Zathras looks RIGHT AT SINCLAIR and says "not The One". Which means that we are (probably) being lied to which, again, was simply not something TV did back then.

Zathras also gets the most important part of acting on Babylon 5... turn everything up to 11. B5 works best with grand, stage-style acting. Just look at (future) Draal, Londo, G'Kar, etc...

There's one other thing that I can't remember if it comes across in the episode (I'll try and watch it tonight)... B4 is supposed to be a superior model to B5. B4 has engines that allow it to move, it is bigger and stronger than it's replacement (which had many budget cuts, according to JMS). Some of this would have tied into the original original idea of having two 5 year series, but I'm fairly certain that JMS had abandoned that idea by this point, so I don't know if it's just a holdover, or if there might have been a different plan if "Points of Departure" hadn't been needed as an episode...

Not seeing Delenn's face is such a deliberate that it's impossible to ignore. I can only guess what the thinking was at the time, but I'm guessing it might have been more "age-makeup" related than, well, what turns out to be the reason. (Also, nerdy fact, her outfit doesn't match up when the time comes. Something that JMS went to great pains to avoid when a similar situation happens with Londo in season 4.)

Sinclair and Garibaldi's conversation in the shuttle is one of the first times I've actually relaxed while listening to Babylon 5 "comedy banter", rather than sitting there with gritted teeth. Although I refuse to believe that anyone who isn't dangerously unstable would do their zip up BEFORE fastening the top button.

(I think it slightly hurts putting the two Lise appearences right next to each other, as it will be some time before her next appearence. If the gap had been a bit bigger it might have made remembering her easier.)

jdh417 said...

Almost hate to mention this, but Delenn's speeches are often cribbed from one Gillian, the wizard from Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors. Both shows might have employed a certain sci-fi writer.

Siskoid said...

Don't really know what that is, but if it worked once...

jdh417 said...

Jayce was an 80's sci-fi cartoon. There's some episodes on Youtube. It was a kid's show, but it had its moments. JMS worked on it, as well as He-Man and the Masters of the Universe and Ghostbusters.

You can read a bit of a history here:

http://www.wheelies.net/wwb5/ww-b5-jms.html

Madeley said...

I loved Jayce when I was a kid. It had a really odd atmosphere to it compared to other cartoons of the era. No idea how it stands up today, I'm a little reluctant to revisit stuff from the era just in case it turns out to be duff.

LiamKav said...

" JMS worked on it, as well as He-Man and the Masters of the Universe and Ghostbusters."

There's a hell of a gulf of quality between those two cartoons. (The Real) Ghostbusters has some great episodes, especially as an 80s cartoon, whereas He-Man was the worst sort of toy-selling drivel you could get. It made other toy cartoons like Transformers and GI Joe look like masterpieces of the craft.

Cradok said...

One interesting bit of trivia, during Sinclair's flash-forward of Garibaldi's last stand, Garibaldi's eyes flash for a moment. There was a lot of speculation at the time about what it could mean...

It turned out a bored animator waiting for something else to render had idly done it, and accidently saved it, which nobody noticed until people started commenting on it. Oops.

LiamKav said...

Other stray thoughts:

- It's pretty unfair that Ivanova shouts that Garibaldi is a dead man... Sinclair's really the one who pranked her. (And where's Jeff going, anyway? He hasn't eaten his breakfast either.)

- The bit with the Starfury sitting in front of the main bay not docking REALLY reminds me of trying to dock in Elite. (For some reason, Alpha 7 moves from in front of the station to along the side.)

- Alpha 7 also has a custom paint job. I REALLY wish the SFX had been done at a higher resolution... I'd love to see more of these custom Starfury patterns.

- The Babylon 4 uniforms match the current uniforms used in the series (including the big leather stripe), rather than looking like those in "The Gathering". I'm guessing that we're supposed to put the pilot uniforms in the same category as Delenn's makeup... we just didn't see it correctly.

- Despite it's attempts at trying to think more about these things than most TV shows, B5 still suffers from "one entry point per system" syndrome. Was the ONLY way to get to B4 through normal space? Couldn't they use a jump-capable ship to get closer? Or is it that once you're in a system, everything else has to be done sublight?

- Garibaldi's "you're always so serious all the time. Not every conversation has to be the end of the world" functions as both viewer comment on Sinclair, and the words of a concerned friend. It actually serves to humanise both Garibaldi and Sinclair. Good job.

- So, the Grey Council are on the standard Minbari Sharlin-class ship. It's a nice design, but I do sometimes wish there was a bit more variety in the capital ships of the alien races.

- Is this the first time Valen is mentioned?

- I forgot that Delenn was offered the leadership of the Minbari. One difference between the cast of this show and Trek (even DS9)... a lot of people are VERY upwardly mobile.

- Lots of off-hand comments about the "monsters" attacking being hard to see ("You think I don't see you?"), and during the flash-forward to the attack on B5 we also don't actually see what's attacking the station. (I'm not convinced that the eventual would-be attackers would use what appears to be a cutting torch, but that's a small thing.) I'm shocked that they didn't have a "I think I saw something... in the shadows" line, but there is the "side of light" comment from Zathras.

- Note that when it first appears "The One" appears to be making male groaning noises (and is referred to as "he" by both Sinclair and Zathras). I will be checking back at this comment when we get to WWE.

- Delenn says that the war with the humans was stopped because of Valen's prophecy that some humans had a destiny that could not be interferred with. That's... not quite true. And considering that "And the Sky Full Of Stars" has already aired, you'd have thought that JMS would have had that part nailed down by this point.

- Humans have a "unique capacity to fight against impossible odds". Someone might want to have a look at the Narn over the next couple of seasons...

- I'm pretty sure that Zathras is cosplaying as at least 3 different Doctors.

- Sinclair standing around talking while Garibaldi tries to drag him away would be annoying in any other show, but here it nicely references Sinclair's death-wish. Going down with his/a station/ship would be a good way to go.

- On the DVDs, you can actually see a small part of Delenn's face when she talks to future-Sinclair (although the dialogue is obviously looped in). On TV, you could only see her hand. You can see a nose, and a teeny bit of her forhead. I can't work out if it's Mira Funlan, or what (if any) makeup she is wearing. It doesn't look like she has eyebrows...

LiamKav said...

- Delenn is given a Triluminary. She tries to give it back, even though it would be an essential part of the machine she is building in her quarters. (Also, interesting fact... it can't really be seen in the show itself, but the chip inside the Triluminary appears to be a portion of an Earth Alliance Commlink. That's really neat forshadowing).

- "We're surrounded by Signs & Portents..." "It's like you're all astronauts on some kind of Star Trek..." "When you play the Game of Thrones..." "Doctor WHO?"

- If B4 shows up again, Ivanova wants to go, and for Garibaldi to remain behind. I don't know how much he planned out the details, but I can't think of any other show that does forshadowing and gives satisfying answers to well. (Once reason I've not go into BSG is that some people say that some of the forshadowing is of the "make it up as we go along", and can have pretty unsatifying answers.)

LiamKav said...

JMS comments on the identity of "The One":

"So who IS the One? Some of the evidence points to Sinclair, but other bits seem to indicate Delenn. Yet neither seems to fit all the facts above."

Exactly.

What you have here in your message are two pieces of the puzzle. You're confounded by the fact that somehow they don't quite seem to fit into one another. That's because there's one last piece missing in this part of the picture, which fits in between them. The intent is to put this piece into clear view in year three, probably between episodes 8 and 11 approximately. At that point, the question of the One will be fully answered.


Interesting that he says that the final piece of the puzzle will be revealed during year three. I'm guessing by the point that "Babylon Squared" aired, they'd already either begun planning or making season 2 and knew about certain cast changes (elsewhere he mentioned the first episode of season 2 as being "Points of Departure", which is was, and which is a name that only really works for the episode that aired, not another episode that had a different JS in command). I wonder if that means that by this point he's already adjusted to WWE being a third season episode, or if maybe the Babylon 4 story would be told over an even longer piece of time...

Cradok said...

The uniforms, yeah, they fall into the same space as Delenn, the zoo in the alien sector and the funky weapons from the pilot, retconned. In The Beginning would have everyone wearing the same uniforms during the War.

Regarding jump capable ships, we see ships from all species make remarkably precise in-system jumps, so there's no reason to assume that that wouldn't work... except that they knew that some weird stuff was happening at B4, and maybe didn't want to risk a jump. Or maybe there were no jump-capable ships available, most ships that would come to B5 aren't able, it's usually capital warships that are.

And speaking of, nearly every race we see has multiple ship variations, even if they're sometimes just differently scaled versions of the same shape like the Drazi or Vree, but for some reason, the Sharlin is the only capital ship we see the Minbari use.

Discussing the end of the Minbari War is... probably still a spoiler. If I remember, I'll come back to it when it no longer is.

And finally, the exact timing of when O'Hare would return was probably unknown at this point, JMS said when he talked about the real reason for his leaving that it was up to him as to when he came back. I'd be astonished if JMS didn't have some plan in place to wrap all of it up without O'Hare if necessary.

Whew!

Siskoid said...

So many comments, Liam, I'll answer the one about BSG:

I personally think it's as great an achievement as B5, using an opposite method. Satisfaction is in the eye of the beholder, and just because JMS had a plan doesn't mean everyone will be satisfied with the way things shake out. Same with BSG even if Ron Moore's team improvised a lot more. In a way, that's even more impressive.

Perhaps I respond to it more because 1) I'm an improv player, and 2) making connections between older and newer stories to mold the scripts is exactly how I design my RPG campaigns. It's also why I like Chinese director Wong Kar-Wai.

The most impressive thing about a 5-year plan is that they let him do it in the uncertain world of television. But if you have the network's trust and are allowed to do what you want to do, it's pretty easy from there. Risky, but easy. You just follow your plan. Proof is in the pudding: People on here are most impressed JMS was able to carry things off despite problems like cast changes, and so on. In other words, the improvisation is at least as impressive as the plan.

LiamKav said...

Oh, I have no problem with the more "improv" shows. I just prefer them to be, well, improv. DS9's occasional attempts as prophecy never seemed overly convincing (stuff like the writers apparently deciding Sisko was a profit once season 7 started seemed very abrupt), but overall it hung together very well, and was probably better on an individual story front than B5.

The thing that impresses me about B5 is that you can watch Babylon Squared, and KNOW that there will be answers. Likewise, Londo telling us how he will die in the very first episode, and then the revelation about it what it actually means. The comments I've read about BSG seem to say that when the show tries to do phophecy, it doesn't succeed quite as well (but, as I said, I haven't seen it yet.)

Siskoid said...

I'd say prophecy in BSG remains more ambiguous, and that's a perfectly legitimate (in fact: real world) way of looking at such things.

Anonymous said...

To me, this episode (along with War Without End and the various snippets in other episodes) should be the textbook example on how to do time travel stories and big story arcs. Stuff you hardly notice the first time around pay off big time. Unlike every other show nowadays with a story arc, when this one is done you feel like it was all meant to be instead of writers working furiously at the eleventh hour (I'm looking at you, BSG)

The other thing is the "zip/fasten, fasten/zip" scene is one of my favorite scenes in B5. I saw it as their answer to every time the ST:TNG crew went out in a shuttle craft and just stared out the window without talking to each other. The B5 crew fell asleep over their breakfast, had inane discussions and read the paper while the TNG crew felt like mannequins half the time.

 

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