Babylon 5 #53: Messages from Earth

"The decision is mine and mine alone. And it's made."
IN THIS ONE... Sheridan goes up against Earth to destroy a Shadow ship found on Ganymede.

REVIEW: I'm not saying I'll remember more details about my original viewing after this, not at all, but I remember Messages from Earth as the episode I watched that hooked me into the series. It doesn't take long, watching it today, to figure out Michael Vejar is at the helm. G'Kar withdrawing into darkness, the various voice-overs superimposing dialog with action in a way that's both efficient and artistic, the furious hand-held action... Vejar is way ahead of the game compared to the show's other directors. And of course, it's a cool, action-oriented episode that sees Sheridan destroy a Shadow ship in some memorable visuals. It all starts when Marcus' "package" arrives right on schedule, a literal week since he mentioned it in the previous episode - an archaeologist who dug up a dormant Shadow vessel on Mars, which later escaped (confirming something Garibaldi experienced, but never talks about), all of which was covered up by Earth's fascist government. A second ship has been found on Ganymede, and of course, Earthforce is hoping to use it as a weapon, but the human pilot loses control and a battle ensues. It's not just eye candy. It's also one revelation behind another. The PsiCorps' involvement, the biological nature of the Shadow ship, its touch of death, and so on.

JMS raises the stakes by not making this about the war with the Shadows, but rather about the split between our heroes and Earth. Sheridan's decision to take the White Star into Earth-controlled space puts him in direct confrontation with the one ship he can't abstract as a faceless object, his former command, the Agamemnon. And he refuses to fire on it. The escape is the episode's one weak element, creating a jump gate in Jupiter's atmosphere much too easily for a maneuver never attempted before, ever. But even before then, Sheridan's technical treason weighs on him. The Sheridan-Delenn relationship has been on the back burner this season, but the scene in which he shares a story from his childhood with her, and she just naturally comforts him, is incredibly sweet. These guys have something pure going, a relationship that's pretty unique in television.

The secret war between Babylon 5 and Earthgov ignited here isn't just fought in space, but on the station itself. We feel it in Ivanova's annoyance with Marcus, who doesn't fit anywhere in the chain of command. By the end of the episode, she's warmed up to him (their sense of humor is so similar, how could they not?), but may also realize SHE doesn't really fit in the traditional chain of command anymore. Zack is, as usual, being squeezed by Nightwatch, pushed to betray Garibaldi, which he refuses to do. That's the real cost of Gestapo-style fascism, where the State becomes more important than individual friendships and family relationships. Zack personifies humanity's battle against itself. The episode also includes a worthy scene with G'Kar, still in a cell after his assault on Vir and Londo, completely at peace, and an amusing-ish teaser about how hard it is to get bacon and eggs on B5. Adds texture to the universe, but I got distracted wondering why this would be so. I mean, can't the future keep an egg fresh and intact during a hyperspace trip? Or how about importing some chickens? See?! Still distracted!

ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WORMHOLE: Half a year earlier, the Defiant flew into a gas giant's atmosphere to even the odds against a Jem'Hadar ship.

REWATCHABILITY: High - A lot of action, interesting revelations, morally gray territory... That would get it to Medium-High, but the fancy direction takes it up an extra notch.


Ryan Lohner said...

Mike Vejar's (soft "j" sound) nickname among the crew was "Vejarder and Vejarder," for how he was always pushing for a bit more out of everyone. And it really paid off in episodes like this. Even little things he insisted on with no purpose besides "It'll look cool," like the two pods that slide closer together in the White Star's battle mode, just work somehow.

The Ranger outfit does a good job of hiding it, but Jason Carter is actually a rail-thin guy who you'd never believe was capable of kicking any ass. And yet the opening fight scene here is all him, including running up the wall. One person who was utterly unimpressed on first meeting him was Claudia Christian, who couldn't believe it when JMS said he would be her new love interest now that Talia was gone. And that was exactly the reaction he was hoping for, as it bled into her performance and resulted in Ivanova's standoffishness towards this new guy she can't understand completely believable.

This is one of those times where having Sheridan rather than Sinclair is a real bonus. It's hard to imagine the Mars-born Sinclair being quite this troubled over going against Earthforce, but it provides some great character stuff for Sheridan that will continue to evolve quite nicely.

One thing I've never seen anyone else mention: Boxleitner almost blows his line "Damage to the ship?" during the battle. Were there really no better takes of it?

Doug Hudson said...

As much as I love the Federation and Klingon starships, B5 has Star Trek beat hands down when it comes to starship design. Not only are the ships visually impressive, but each of the major species has ships that match their physical and psychological characteristics. You can immediately tell which ship is Minbari, which human, which Shadow, etc.

I think my favorite are the Centauri ships, which mirror their side-mohawks.

Green Luthor said...

Probably worth noting (especially since it won't be dealt with in the show) that Garibaldi's encounter with the Shadow vessel on Mars was featured in the DC Comics Babylon 5 series, which came out well before this episode. (The other person he was with was, in fact, Sinclair; if I remember correctly, that was when the two first met.)

LiamKav said...

"I think my favorite are the Centauri ships, which mirror their side-mohawks."

I dunnno, I think that borders on being a bit too on-the-nose. (I'm also thinking of the comment in Matters of Honour where Ivanova says that the White Star looks "just different enough that it won't be recognised as Minbari". I'm pretty sure that they just took the tail fins from the Minbari flyer and stuck them on the White Star.)

I also think it's a bit unfair to Trek. By and large, a Federation ship looks like a Federation ship, Klingon ships look like Klingon ships, and so on. Both suffer a bit from "only one capital ship" syndrome.

LiamKav said...

The little tweaks to the White Star bridge continue to help. Obviously someone else had the same worry you did, Siskoid, about the high ceilings. The first shot of Sheridan and Delenn on the bridge show the ceiling, helping the whole place feel less like a set.

Compared to my original viewings a decade ago, I'm really like the Seridan/Delenn relationship. It might be because I'm now married myself, but in a world where all TV romances are treated as if the participants are a pair of hormonal 20 year olds, it's nice to have this slower, sweeter approach. Sheridan has already been married, and Delenn is pretty zen, so it makes sense they'd just gradually drift towards each other like this.

I love how this episode makes you think that they've gotten away with it. We have the conflict (the Shadow vessel), then the complication (oh no! Sheridan's old ship is here and is trying to capture/kill them), but they manage to escape. Garibaldi says "we got away with it", we then get a cutesy end scene with Marcus and Ivanova, all is good and OH NO THEY HAVEN'T GOTTEN AWAY WITH IT EARTH IS UNDER MARTIAL LAW OH SHIT!

I've had to put the next episode on even though I need to go to bed. I can't stop here!

LiamKav said...

I never knew the fact about the oft repeated "The Price of Freedom" line that I've just read on the Lurker's Guide. I only ever hear it said by Suspicious Types who want to infringe out freedoms by making us suspicious of everyone and spy on our neighbours. That it's a quote warning you to be wary of a government that wants to infringe your personal liberties is fascinating.


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