Babylon 5 #6: The Parliament of Dreams

"In a world where every day is a struggle for survival, you need all the gods you can get... gods by the bushel, gods by the pound! Gods for all occasions!"
IN THIS ONE... During a festival celebrating all faiths on the station, G'Kar tries to avoid an assassination attempt. First appearance of Na'Toth and Lennier.

REVIEW: The Parliament of Dreams (which I guess is the Minbari ceremony) presents us with what at first appears to be an ill-advised festival celebrating all the religions represented on Babylon 5. To everyone's surprise, it goes off with a hitch, and in the process, not only do we explore a couple of the show's main races, but JMS weaves in some interesting themes as well. The Centauri, for example, have a kind of Grecian orgy where they get drunk, eat too much and, decadence oblige, make fun of their gods. Londo even goes so far as to kiss one of his gods' asses. Truthfully, there is little of the divine in his culture, gods are but gaudy trinkets, genocide is celebrated as a joke, and faith is an excuse for a party. How perfect! Gotta love seeing Ivanova have so much fun as well. Russians and boisterousness, eh?

The Minbari are at the other end of the spectrum. It's not just that they're an obviously spiritual and wise people, but that every word they say seems to have hidden depths. Their sober ceremony isn't passionless, by any means, but it's formal and composed. The passion comes from Delenn's face when she eats the fruit of rebirth, a gesture we later realize may mean she just wedded Sinclair! At least, to her. The words of the ceremony are equally redolent with meaning. When she talks about feigning defeat, isn't that exactly when they did at the end of the Earth-Minbari War? So when, giving each member of the audience a fruit in turn, she tells them to leave behind old things (Garibaldi), old fears (Sinclair) and old lives (Ivanova), that has to mean something. With rather more obvious irony, G'Kar is told about his death.

Speaking of G'Kar, as the main focus of the A-plot - an assassination attempt by an old enemy - we don't really get to see his religion. The Narns surely have a set of beliefs - there's a line about the "next incarnation" in there - but perhaps G'Kar himself is more secular. And yet, one could argue he came closest to a religious experience. His life under threat, fear, anxiety and paranoia always about him, his soul was the most tried. As far as these kinds of plots go, it was well handled. It seems G'Kar has plenty of past indiscretions, as many as Londo presumably, and we meet his new aide Na'Toth touted in the credits (as does Delenn's, the reverent Lennier played by Lost in Space's Bill Mumy; I guess the cast is now complete). Apparently, the previous actress was unable to keep wearing the prosthetics, but where Ko D'ath was a bit of a caricature, Na'Toth is more likable and competent. I quite enjoy her, actually, and the camaraderie that eventually blossoms between her and the ambassador. One thing's for sure, Narn females are FIERCE!  The story thread is resolved cleverly, with the Narns getting the better of the assassin, and so on, all the while doling out equal measures of tension and humor.

And what of the humans? Well, Sinclair gets a visit from Cartherine Sakai, an old flame who disrupts his life every three years or so. Obviously a replacement for the pilot's Carolyn, and though you might at first expect her to be a dangerous femme fatale, it's what between them that's at fault. He's just as bad for her as she is for him. Or have they grown beyond that now? Maybe. I'd be more enthusiastic if my notes didn't tell me she was going to be in so few episodes. The relationship is adult, but their dialog a little over-written, leading to occasionally mannered performances. So was this JMS showing us where humans get their spiritual fix in our apparently secular future (going by Dr. Franklin)? Finding love in each other instead of in a giving God, and so on? That's the expectation, but then there's a twist. In the last scene, Sinclair leads the delegates to a corridor and presents an atheist. We know JMS is one, and this seems to bear out Franklin's world view from the previous episode. And then a further twist. The atheist is standing with a Catholic priest, a Muslim, an orthodox Jew, a Native holy man, and so on and on and on and on. A long line off people are seen as Sinclair rattles off Earth's every faith. Our contribution to the galactic community is - and JMS is out-doing Trek here - variety. I found this an incredibly poignant ending, bettering the "why do we need to go to the stars" speech from Infection. It made me feel so proud of my little planet, which is a really strange feeling to have. JMS may be an atheist, but he seems to be an enlightened one, unthreatened by those who do have a faith, and willing to embrace other beliefs as an artifact of culture, if not as scientific truth. I must say that matches my own attitudes, and perhaps that's why I was so touched. Regardless, here is a future where faith (human and alien) need not be an impediment to understanding or peace, but perhaps an engine of such.

A station-wide religious festival leading to romance is still some months off on Deep Space 9 (Fascination).

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High - Powerful stuff, even if I don't quite buy into the romance.


Ryan Lohner said...

JMS deliberately built up G'Kar as nothing but an antagonist in the first few episodes, letting us think that was all he would ever be. Then he hits us with this one, where nothing about G'Kar really changes, but because he's placed in the position of a victim throughout the episode, we're dragged into feeling sympathy for him, and ultimately we kind of like him. This is not a story about good and evil, but all the shades between.

Sinclair and Catherine are saddled with some clunky dialogue to get their backstory established, but once that's done we do get some nice chemistry between them, fully mined from JMS' own romantic history. And I'm actually kind of glad he wasn't able to fulfill his plans for Carolyn/Catherine, for reasons I'll explain later.

The other actors weren't told that Londo would climb on the table and go quite so over the top in his speech about the gods, so we're seeing their genuine reactions to it. Keep a particular eye on Claudia, who just about disintegrates.

The filming of the final scene was attended by numerous network executives, all arriving independently and unable to quite describe why they wanted to be there. And it's quite a powerful scene, with a representative of every Earth religion simply existing side by side in harmony. What makes our religion special is the ability for so many different kinds of faith to develop, and co-exist. Though JMS still gets his atheist dig in by having the atheist be the first introduced, and the best dressed.

Siskoid said...

My take on the atheist scene quite as cynical. Regardless of intent, it makes the twist work. We're so used to the secular humanism of SF, that it lets you believe for an instant B5 is no different.

Alex Osias said...

The ending scene never fails to give me chills.

LiamKav said...

I think this might be the only time in the series that Mr Garibaldi is addressed as "Mike". JMS stated that he felt that in a post war society, everyone would be a bit more formal. Hence the usual "Jeffrey"s and "Michael"s.

LiamKav said...

Also, I love Londo throwing a bread roll at Sinclair's head.

LiamKav said...

The bad guy will assassinate G'Kat in 48 " Earth hours". Urgh. At least they balance it out with "The Earthers have a phrase: 'Keep your friends close and your enemies closer'. I believe they stole it from us."

I love where they try and have G'Kar impressed by the size of his bodyguard, even though Andreas Katsulas is clearly over 6 foot/182cm and slightly taller than his bodyguard.

LiamKav said...

Hey, Sinclair knows Tennyson. I wonder if that will have to be clumsily transposed to another character at a later point...

Cradok said...

I'm pretty sure that the only time Sheridan references Tennyson is all the way in the fourth season, and even that's in relation to Sinclair having left the poem on his desk when he left.

LiamKav said...

Yeah, but it always struck me that JSM really wanted to use that poem at a Crucial Point, but because he'd written it for Sinclair he had to find a way for someone else to say it when *spoiler* *spoiler*, rather than just not using the poem.

Siskoid said...

Whatever we think of JMS' opus, I can't forget he's also the guy who threw out Superman and Wonder Woman's characters to make them fit his plot lines.

LiamKav said...

There's some stuff that JMS writes about this episode on the Lurker's Guide that gives a fascinating insight into the man's personality:

"It helps in that I'm not generally a big laugher; when I go to plays or movies with other people, and they're comedies, afterwards I'll always get "Why didn't you like it?" "I did." "You didn't laugh." "I was just thinking about how funny it was." Usually I can see a punchline coming, and part of my brain is racing ahead to what it might be. (And half the time at least I'm right.) So I've adopted the philosophy that if I find something extremely funny, other people will laugh at it; if I'm so tickled that I absolutely laugh out loud, I know it'll probably kill several people. As a result, if I'm going for a funny scene, I don't leave it alone until I laugh at it."

First of all, the whole "I find things funny on an intellectual level, which is why I don't laugh out loud" thing? Please don't make me sit next to this man. Second, the "my brain is always racing ahead to guess the punchline, and I'm right half the time because I have such a sophisticated sense of humour and am very clever" thing? Don't put me on the same row. And as for "If I laugh out loud, then because I have such an advanced sense of humour it will kill some people"? I'm just gonna leave the theatre, thanks.

I know that to do a show like Babylon 5 in the face of such opposition probably required a big ego, and an unshakeable faith in his own abilities. But still, to come out and say that he gets at least one belly laugh an episode... sorry Joe, but unless my sense of humour is drastically different from everone else watching this, you really don't.

Siskoid said...

B5 is certainly no laugh-fest!

Because I've worked in improv comedy (and drama) for almost 30 years, I have a similar reaction to, say, stand-up. It's not intellectual really, it's more like, if I see the joke coming or if I made a better one in my head, I'm not gonna laugh. For me, laughing is as much about delight as it is surprise, and those evaporate when I can improvise better than someone writes and prepares. JMS is pretty pretentious, which isn't a problem when you are what you pretend to be or aspire to. When his B5 is weaker, that's probably when he fails to reach his pretense. It's certainly why I don't like his comics work.

Chuck Lavazzi said...

Something else to bear in mind about Straczynski's approach to writing is that his heroes are guys like Norman Corwin, Paddy Chayefsky, and Arthur Miller. He's not necessarily a fan of "conversational" dialog—which puts him in opposition to the flood of naturalism that has engulfed much of American writing for the screen and stage over the last few decades (Tony Kushner not withstanding). You can call that pretentious, I suppose, but I see it as more ambitious; an attempt to move beyond the verbally mundane.

Siskoid said...

That isn't a problem for me. I embrace stylization, so long as it's coherent. I'm a big fan of Mamet, to name a truly unnatural sounding auteur, for example. B5, being HIS world, works best of all his works, whereas a lot of his comics work (which is really the only stuff I've been down on) doesn't work because his style works against the characters and world he's decided to write.

In B5, I think it shows when certain actors aren't able to carry the stylized dialog in a way that sounds truthful.

LiamKav said...

"Because I've worked in improv comedy (and drama) for almost 30 years, I have a similar reaction to, say, stand-up. It's not intellectual really, it's more like, if I see the joke coming or if I made a better one in my head, I'm not gonna laugh."

Oh, I get that. Improv seems to be your life's passion, and so I can see how it would be hard to turn it off. I have similar issues when I'm watching, say, 24, and some IT stuff comes up. It's really hard to turn off the part of my brain that's saying "No, that's not what a firewall does! You've just taken out the battery, not the hard drive! If you want to stop the download, just go and pull out the ethernet cables!"

I think my issue with JMS's comment is mainly the "if I find it funny, everyone else will find it HILARIOUS". It makes him sound like a complete wanker. Worse, a wanker who thinks he's hilarious. And as we'll see, Babylon 5 and comedy are not happy bedfellows.

Siskoid said...

He certainly cultivated a cult of personality in order to keep fans engaged with the show.


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