Babylon 5 #32: The Coming of Shadows

"For 100 years the Centauri occupied our world... devastated it... We swore we would never let that happen again. This attack on our largest civilian colony has inflected terrible damage and loss of life. They have crossed the line we cannot allow them to cross. As a result, two hours ago my government officially declared war against the Centauri Republic. Our hope for peace is over. We are now at war. We are now at war!"
IN THIS ONE... The Centauri Emperor dies on Babylon 5 and Londo has the Shadows destroy another Narn colony, starting another Centauri-Narn war. First appearance of the Rangers.

REVIEW: This is an episode where everyone has an agenda, but only the Shadows come out as the winners. Consider... In the Centauri corner - and we finally get a shot of the planet (the universe is slowly expanding; they've given us matte paintings of Mars and blasted San Diego too, lately) - a sick and weakened Emperor starts making choices for himself (including refusing to wear the outrageous hair that's in fashion, which makes for an oddly human Centauri) including making an historic apology to the Narn people. It gets to G'Kar, but isn't made publicly before he collapses from his illness. Had he managed it, things might have been different. Instead, Centauri conspirators, including Londo, have contrived to retake a Narn colony, letting the Shadows destroy everything, then taking the credit and moving in. Londo is the piece's MacBeth, taken by the current of his own ambition, but almost immediately regretting where that current takes him. Despite his professed hate for G'Kar, he's visibly disturbed that his opponent talks peace when he's just taken a deadly action that will lead to war. Even Narn deaths weigh on him. The Macbeth parallel extends to prophetic visions, previously discussed, but seen here for the first time - an Emperor Mollari dying in a disfigured G'Kar's clutches. And however much he denies his wish to be Emperor, he still makes his own destiny by changing the Emperor's dying words.

Though Londo's story is engaging, it's G'Kar's that really raises the game, or rather, Andreas Katsulas' performance. He starts out with his frequent mix of anger and indignation, incapable of seeing the Centauri Emperor's visit as an opportunity for diplomacy. To him, the man is Hitler, a monster (and he might once have been, even if we see him here as a sweet old man), and his very presence is an insult to the Narn people. G'Kar means to assassinate him - that's the only real opportunity here - and dictates his last will and testament, knowing it will be the end of him as well. Circumstances prevent him from carrying this out, and later, he's surprised to hear the Emperor's apology from Dr. Franklin. This changes his entire outlook and he's no longer free to simply demonize the Centauri people. Reclaiming territory is one thing, but the Emperor is offering the Narn their dignity back by admitting the Republic was wrong to occupy their world. (If it sounds like a slim compensation, do a little research and you'll find the descendents of victims of genocidal actions often ask for apologies and admission of guilt from the perpetrators' descendents; the Acadians - to only mention my particular ethnicity - got theirs from Elizabeth II in 2010, 255 years after the Great Deportation.) So the betrayal, when news of a Narn outpost's destruction arrives, is particularly painful. Rage, grief, betrayal, self-hatred at having let himself believe the Emperor's dream, dread at the coming war, and a certain sense of despair and defeatism all cohabitate in the man's body, voice and eyes. For once, G'Kar's red eyes don't seem so demonic as bloodshot. Riveting stuff.

And what of Earth? Sheridan thinks the Emperor's visit will be a great coup (lovely how the word has several meanings) for Babylon 5, but as events get out of control, it amounts to B5's greatest failure. The peace process has fallen apart and war has broken out, and BABYLON 5 WAS THE CATALYST. The station brought Londo and Morden together, and by going there, Emperor Turhan has left his Court vulnerable to opposing (and war-like) interests. So it's a Pyrrhic victory at best that Sheridan bluffs his way to, forcing Londo to let Quadrant 14's survivors return to the Narn homeworld so the equivalent of U.N. observers don't find out he's in league with the Shadows. That could actually get them killed. We'll see. The episode also treats us to the first Ranger - a Minbari-human group of Rim scouts that will become important - and reveals that Sinclair is their leader. His limited role as a recording is appreciated. He hasn't simply been retconned out. he's just operating from behind the scenes.

ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WORMHOLE: DS9 also has a shadowy species manipulating others into war, but the Founders won't actually succeed at that until the Klingons and Cardassians go at it in The Way of the Warrior, coincidentally the very philosophy Sheridan's dad taught him.

REWATCHABILITY: High - One of the series' turning points (and so, shares its title with the season entire), it features strong themes and excellent acting in addition to status quo-shattering events.


Anonymous said...

I seem to recall this episode opened with Sheridan and G'Kar arguing, and it was one of the few times in a TV show where an argument feels real. Well done!

Londo has had the luxury of being several steps removed from carnage all this time, but all of a sudden it's on his hands. Hard to be so abstract about massive suffering, is it?

We're at the 100 year anniversary of the start of WWI, more or less; people minimize WWI as the so-so prequel to the really big show, but if there's anything that characterizes the start of WWI, it's that nobody had any sense of the carnage they'd unleash. Certainly not the Austro-Hungarian Empire (which I figure the Centauri were based on); they thought they could punish Serbia, claim some territory, and be done with it. Well, the Austro-Hungarian Empire did not survive the war, and what's more the war ended up unleashing an even greater horror. That doesn't precisely match what happened to the Centauri, but there are certainly the same echoes of "civilized" people destroying themselves through "respectable" forms of inhumanity.

Ryan Lohner said...

First, the most trivial issue: after the prank that resulted in the Centauri hairstyle, JMS quickly realized he had a problem, as London was far from the highest ranking Centauri. This meant anyone higher than him would need bigger and even sillier hair, and finally this resulted in his making the emperor such a revolutionary figure largely just so he could be made bald and avoid the enormous hair fountain the position would entail.

The emperor's presence also gives our first look at Centauri Prime, made entirely of pillars and curtains so that it could be set up inside an already standing set without striking it. Having such a low budget forces creativity on you in some unexpected ways.

This was the first of two episodes to win a Hugo Award, and JMS describes it as one of the few times in his whole career where he felt no insecurity about what he'd just written. And the interesting thing is, there's really not much story here. It's all setup for later, and the reason it works so we'll is that we've become so invested in these characters and their situations.

Sinclair's message was a place where having the whole story planned really paid off. After learning he would only have the actor for one season, JMS was able to quickly figure out how he could still be kept part of the story, and at the end of shooting season one, he took O'Hare aside and privately shot the video, keeping it secret from everyone until they got this episode's script. This also allows for more subtle foreshadowing, as like the Ranger says, they've been in the show as background extras this whole season. Can you say rewatch value?

jdh417 said...

Just a little sidenote. Doyle lived with Andreas Katsulas for a while. There's a hysterical story up on Youtube involving a store receipt. It ends with Andreas saying, "If you tell anyone about this, I will kill you."

LiamKav said...

- I remember when I first watched this show in my teenage years, getting annoyed by Londo (and others) saying things like "I have no choice", thinking that the were just doing things to move the plot along. Now, older, I realise that it's actually an excuse used by Londo to justify his actions to himself. It becomes obvious that when ever anyone in this show says "I have no choice", they are in fact choosing to do the worst thing they could possibly do.

- This episode seems to suffer from even worse picture quality that usual. Plus, I've only just realised that the opening scenes which have the credits on them are also blurred. Since for this episode that includes the really quite important Londo/Refa scene, it really ruins the visual makeup of the episode. Combine that with an extended scene in that CGI observation room between Sheridan and the Emperor, as well as lots of fades, and this Very Important Episode looks like shit half the time. Even some of the "normal" scenes (like Franklin telling G'Kar that the Emperor was going to apologise) are covered in horrendous amounts of film noise.

- Na'Toth's absence is really felt in this episode, especially as she's mentioned several times by G'Kar. It does help isolate him, I guess.

- This is the first episode on the DVDs that uses the season 2 version of the theme for the closing credits. All the others up to this point have used the season 1 version.

- I love how the scene of G'Kar attempt to kill Mollari is basically a mirror of a similar scene in "Midnight on the Firing Line", except with G'Kar and Londo's positions reversed.

- Vir is nicely understated in this episode. I rewatching "Midnight" last night, and it's amazing how far he's come. He does beg Londo not to go through with using Morden, but the rest of the time he just sits staring at Londo and Refa.

- The reveal of Sinclair is a great reversal of 90s TV expectations. By this point, I'm sure most people had realised that Sinclair had been replaced completely by Sheridan. For the former guy to suddenly pop up made the galaxy seem bigger, and made this episode seem like even more of a Big Deal.

- Seriously, Lord Refa is awesome. Like Londo, he knows exactly how much scenery to chew. "It's a small enough price to pay for immortality".

Siskoid said...

Looks like crap, you say? I just watched And Now for a Word, imagine how I feel.


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