Babylon 5 #38: And Now for a Word

"We have to make people lift their eyes back to the horizon, and see the line of ancestors behind us, saying, 'Make my life have meaning'. And to our inheritors before us, saying, 'Create the world we will live in'. I mean, we're not just holding jobs and having dinner. We are in the process of building the future. That's what Babylon 5 is all about. Only by making people understand that can we hope to create a better world for ourselves and our posterity."
IN THIS ONE... ISN presents "36 Hours on Babylon 5" a news program smack dab in the middle of a skirmish between Narn and Centauri.

REVIEW: It's rare for a space opera show to go out on a limb and do a novelty episode like this one, in the style of a news special. It's a fun idea for sure, so the DVD formatting issues are doubly annoying. See, if there's going to be text superimposed on the news footage or interviews, and there frequently are, the image will be zoomed in, and in the case of interviews, badly cut people at the forehead. It. Is. AWFUL. Lots of blurry images too, and a distracting tendency to pop in and out of zoom-in mode. So gross. Even if I try to ignore the technical bugs (after all, the broadcast version had no such problems), the ISN Special Presentation isn't flawless. I'd say the main issue is that it doesn't know if it's straight news, a parody, or a sly comment on how people act differently in front of the cameras. It does all three at different moments, but these should probably be mutually exclusive.

Looking at the straight elements first, there's the actual story of the episode, or what the episode would have been about even if ISN's star journalist hadn't been aboard. Essentially, the Narn-Centauri conflict has come to Babylon 5, with ships blowing the crap out of each other right outside. Sheridan's forced to take action, which could compromise Earth's position with either power, and there's immense loss of life. Not that you'd believe it watching that smirking anchor. The characters we know and love are "real" even if they are trying to sell their agenda - disingenuous Londo playing hurt fowl, G'Kar playing the sympathy card, Franklin's outrage and impatience, Sheridan's great speech to make people realize the politicians are selling them a load of crap - but the journalist (whether it's the fault of the actress, director or writer, or all three) has failed to make a crucial choice. Is she a biased propaganda monger? An honest newswoman getting at the/a truth? Or a tone-deaf sensationalist (who, among other things, attacks Delenn just to see if she can make her cry)? I can't tell. It keeps shifting.

Babylon 5 does love its whimsy. Apparently there was a lot of horsing around on set. A fun show to work on, etc. Maybe, but when you're telling a story about war, maybe you want to reign in the onscreen shenanigans, eh? I'm not saying the episode isn't amusing - it is - and I'm not saying I disliked it - I quite liked it - but taken as a whole, the humor doesn't sit easily side by side with the tragedy. What works best is character-driven humor, things like Ivanova intimidating one of her crew during an interview just by standing a ways behind him, or the journalist saying her name wrong and describing her as "perky". But when they make jokes about the WORLD, I'm not so sure. The odds of B5 failing put up on the screen, or the cheesy PsiCorps commercial (the subliminal message is amusing if unrealistic), or the senator fawning over the journalist in his interview, well, those are stepping over the line into parody. I might also add the mixed metaphors and catch phrases (there's a Julie Chen moment in there), but those aren't so much parody as they are exactly what news programs do. At least the interviews are used to give us a little more background on the characters and their worlds. Delenn's crystal cities and G'Kar's tragic story about his father are highlights.

Ultimately, despite the tonal problems, the episode works because of its raw emotion. The camera dares stay on people a little too long, or capture them when they don't think we're looking, which is ironic, because the normal episode doesn't have a camera there at all, yet feels more rehearsed. Each actor in the regular cast understands his or her character well enough to show the right level of comfort, discomfort, media savvy or lack thereof that character should have. The outer space scenes, caught from floating cams around B5, foreshadow Battlestar Galactica's documentary style. In general, though the journalist could have shown more nervousness to sell her moments (coming closest when she catches a glimpse of Kosh), it's a good attempt at capturing the situation's urgent immediacy. It just could have been a little more improvisational to make it believable.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High - A worthy experiment (which actually rates lower on DVD because of all the technical problems) even if it is tonally compromised. There are a lot of nice speeches and moments in there, whether I think the montage is actually credible.


Anonymous said...

Things I liked: the smart Sheridan advising his crew to speak in complete sentences so they can't easily be taken out of context.

Things I hated: the dumb Sheridan who starts talking about nothing can stop us now, we will be an unstoppable juggernaut that reshapes the universe (or whatever) in reference to dating Delenn. God DAMN, Sheridan, for my favorite space commander ever you can be a colossal idiot some days.

LiamKav said...

I think you're getting this episode mixed up with "The Illusion of Truth". He's far more media-savvy in this one.

(And yes, when he makes that statement in "The Illusion of Truth" I shouted "NoNoNoNo you idiot!" at the screen, but we'll get there in a couple of months.)

Missed opportunities: This episode is structured as a news broadcast, right? Couldn't they have just left it at 4:3? It nmight have added to the documentary feel.

Siskoid said...

There is absolutely no thought given to the DVD packaging. It's universally terrible.

Anonymous said...

Oh, uh, thanks! Yeah, it's probably a bit early in Sheridan's and Delenn's relationship for him to be announcing that their love will annex the Sudetenland and launch a thousand-year empire.

Spoilers, I guess.

Siskoid said...


Ryan Lohner said...

Before getting into fiction writing, JMS did articles for several news magazines, which instilled a fascination for the way news reporting works, and even more how many subtle tricks can be used in supposedly objective reporting to lead the audience to the conclusion the reporter wants them to reach. In fact, both this episode and its later sister program The Illusion of Truth have been used in college journalism courses to demonstrate this kind of thing, which he says was one of the most gratifying things about the entire show.

The major technique here is that we know full well the real story of what's going on, yet we can also imagine how this news show would be received by someone who didn't have that background. Londo is polite, soft-spoken, and rational in his statements, while G'Kar is emotional and confrontational. We're conditioned to give more credence to the former approach, yet watching the show, we know it's the other way around. A far more subtle case occurs in the opening scene, where the reporter blithely glosses over the ongoing Mars rebellion, calling the rebels "terrorists." We know they do have some very legitimate grievances against Clark, but that's not the story the people on Earth are getting or want to get.

Along with B5 being the first show to make heavy use of CGI, this episode in particular may also feature the first use of it to simulate the effect of a handheld camera, something that has since been perfected by the likes of Firefly and Battlestar Galactica. B5 was a pioneer in so many ways, some of them rather underappreciated.

The episode provided the actors with a quite interesting challenge by forcing them to go against all the instincts they'd honed over their careers: suddenly they have to act aware of the camera, and also stumble over their words more than usual to add to the feel that this is all being filmed on the fly. The most impressive piece is the argument in the council chamber, with its mind-boggling number of moving pieces all captured in a single take. Though this becomes more problematic in C&C, where some bits had to be reshot and resulted in this being the only scene to feature traditional edits. Also, those flying cameras in the background of a couple shots were CGI'd in at the last minute when JMS realized a camera couldn't fit into some of the angles used. One more notable thing about these scenes is that we get a name for Lieutenant Corwin; Joshua Cox had been a background player in C&C since the beginning and everyone loved him so much that they put increasing pressure on JMS to give his character a name, so he ended up going with one from an old writing instructor.

For me, easily the biggest laugh comes from Kosh's quick retreat from the cameras. Not even Vorlons can handle the paparazzi!

There is just one false note in the episode for me, with the Delenn interview. JMS was going for the reporter not realizing how painful her questions were, again due to not having the full story, but her going so far as to say the relatives of people killed in the war would be offended definitely makes it look more like she's deliberately provoking an emotional reaction, and doesn't quite fit with her characterization the rest of the time.

Siskoid said...

The Barbara Walters moment is definitely where the journalist's character becomes this bizarre patchwork of different journalism styles I just can't believe are used by the same person.

As for "not even" the Vorlons not being able to handle paparazzi, I'd say they were actually uniquely unsuited to do so.

Travis Butler said...

Is she a biased propaganda monger? An honest newswoman getting at the/a truth? Or a tone-deaf sensationalist (who, among other things, attacks Delenn just to see if she can make her cry)? I can't tell. It keeps shifting.

That's the point, I think. Because journalism reflects life, and it can be complex and messy. The correct answer can be 'all of the above', depending on the context and the frame of reference.

Propagandist? Possibly even unintentionally, depending on her own preconceptions and beliefs; if the narrative matches what she expects to see, it's not hard to slip into presenting it uncritically. (Particularly if her j-school professors didn't put enough emphasis on stepping outside the box and trying to take a look at the situation from someone else's POV.) Hard-hitting investigative? Sure, if something goes wrong by the worldview you hold, you're going to dig and dig until you uncover the conflict. And a decent journalist is going to have the 'something strange here' bump that pulls them on to investigate in that way when something jars, again digging to find the source of the discontinuity - it's pretty obvious when Delenn triggers hers, hence the attack.

And that's just one potential interpretation. Another is that she's been given a program 'theme' by her producer, which she doesn't always agree with; so she sneaks in the discontinuities as hints to her audience, and engages in a flamboyant attack to distract her producer from what she's doing. I'm sure there's more we can come up with if we try.

The point here isn't to present one way as The Truth; it's to get the viewer to think about all the ways perceptions can shift, the different POV's something can be viewed from, and the way a POV can change the meaning of events that we have seen enough of directly to be able to read between the lines here.

Siskoid said...

I suppose if I take the journalist as an archetypal concept, that works. But this is a business I've worked in and still work with. The same person would not inhabit all these things in a single, edited news show.

The anchor might do the big interviews, but not the stand-up stuff. Some fluff rookie would be the one getting Ivanova's name wrong and they couldn't cut around it. The same person would not smirk at hundreds of deaths, yet struggle to get her agenda in under her producer's nose.

What it needed for me was a stronger performance, but probably also a distribution of tasks. A second banana chasing after Kosh and talking to the dock workers. I suppose it's a case of my knowing the world (or the real world equivalent) too well. My dad the doctor used to say he was always distracted by obviously fake medical practices in movies; I guess it's the same thing.

LiamKav said...

Wife's a doctor. I work in IT. We spend half our time saying "Don't..." to each other whenever we watch, well, almost anything.

Siskoid said...

Oh god yes! TV/movies must be head-exploding for anyone who understands how computers work!

I know I roll my eyes every time someone uses a fancy ultra-designed chat box instead of the programs we KNOW everyone uses.

LiamKav said...

I'm not too bad, and I can let some of it go. I do love how the UI in things like the James Bond films goes from roughly similar to now (Casino Royale) to Ultra High Tech Wizzy Hologram Screens (Skyfall) and back again.

But yeah, I do hate it when people go onto Facenovel or make a Chirp.

One of my favourite things from the South Park movie (which is 1999) is the part where Kyle is hacking into the Pentagon, and he does it just using a mouse. Because NO-ONE uses mice in films/TV. It's always dramatic typing, because that looks cooler than someone double-clicking on things.

Travis Butler said...

Well, I admit I never worked in the field; I was in print instead of broadcast, and when I graduated in 1990, the only people hiring were small-town biweeklies and corporate newsletters. Not exactly looking for someone who focused on science reporting. But yes, I did get my degree in journalism. (And then spent the next 25 years working in computers, but that's another story…)

So while I don't have the familiarity with broadcast production techniques, each individual journalistic issue did ring true for me, and some of them I'd seen/experienced in my time on the university newspaper. And a lot of them I've also seen in the rise of agenda-based broadcast sources.

Condensing them all into a single anchor makes sense to me from a dramatic perspective; as I said, I think the point was to explore all the different ways meaning can shift, that it's complex and not always a simple uniform bias. Putting it in one character makes that easier to highlight; I think putting in more reporters would have confused the issue and overcomplicated things from a dramatic standpoint. (I also think they were trying to imitate the style of newsmagazines like 60 Minutes, which IIRC did have the story anchor doing all the interviews.)

Siskoid said...

60 Minutes usually had one interview by the anchor, but other stories were by other journalists. The 36 Hours on B5 title makes it a direct copy of Dan Rather's 24 Hours, but like I said, Dan would be a lot more coherent in his style across the whole special.

I had a similar convoluted path. Started in journalism because I wanted to do print, then left when I'd done the print-related curriculum and was facing broadcast and P.R. for the last two years of the program (to go into English Lit). Wound up working as a radio producer (broadcast) and P.R. (well, communications, it's wider than "P.R.") which I'm still doing. Go figure.

LiamKav said...

- Hey, it's the dock worker from "By Any Means Necessary"! I like it when small characters are reused.

- I like how G'Kar's speaking in the show's normal dramatic way ("We are all already in far greater danger than anyone realises") in the context of a TV interview just makes him come across as a bit of a dangerous nutter.

- Delenn's collapse when the ISN reporter does the hatchet job on her does have the affect of drawing our sympathy to her. I know that we the audience know Delenn, but I can't help but think that even in-universe, it would have the same effect. I know it's only a decade out, but the first part of the interview paints Delenn as a lovely, sweet person. When she is made to cry, the audience would be on her side.

- The subliminal message is something you sort of have to pretend is more subliminal than it actually is (and, er, that subliminal messages actually work in any way). It has to be long enough for us to actually see it (and potentially pause our VHS tapes) but short enough that we can nod and pretend it was subliminal. (I also love that it was edited out in some countries, just in case, er, it made people trust the Corps? Sorry, did I say "love"? I meant "loathe".

- There's a slight conflict in how the Earth-Minbari war is played in the series. Often, apart from Sinclair (and a bit Sheridan), none of the cast act especially like they are a decade away froma massive war. Likewise, the figure shown in this episode for the death toll (250,000) is relatively small for such a war. This POV is also backed up by the "armchair quarterbacking" of the senator and belief that humans could win the next war. However, "In the Beginning" treats the whole war as a (to borrow a term) Extinction Event. Seen in those terms, a lot of the main cast seem a bit casual about the war, but Earth's increasing isolation and desire to look inwards make a lot more sense.

SpideyFan said...

It only makes sense when they mention that the Minbari bypassed the near Earth Colonies to attack earth. Perhaps the colonies attacked were relatively underpopulated. also there may be relatively few Minbari so they can only attack a few humans at a time.


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