Babylon 5 #54: Point of No Return

"Intelligence has nothing to do with politics!"
IN THIS ONE... The Earth Alliance has declared martial law. Nightwatch makes a move on the station. Londo receives a seer (Majel Barrett) for fateful visit.

REVIEW: Truth adjustment. Londo does it to Vir's reports, but he also wants his prophetic dreams "adjusted". And there's the Nightwatch, of course, which is promoting a pro-president agenda, but truth can be adjusted both ways, and Sheridan uses a Sinclairian loophole to turn the tables on them. Thematically, the episode is pretty impeccable. Now, I'm not a fan of Nightwatch. The idea is presented in a most obvious way, and its members, except for Zack, have been caricatures. The lead Nightwatchmen in the last couple episodes, the never even named Security Guard #1 played by Vaughn Armstrong, relishes his role a little too much and comes just short of growing a mustache so he can twirl it. The other guys either look pitifully afraid to speak up or quit, but have no lines to express that, or DO have lines and appear to be vindictive loyalists who just want to take the captain down for its own sake. It's like the crack team Garibaldi assembled is made up of cowards and traitors - good job, bro - only Zack excepted. In other words, it's really satisfying to see them defeated on the eve of their great triumph.

The title of the episode, shared by the entire season, makes it clear that this Sheridan, like the fugitive General Hague, has officially set himself and his governorship (Babylon 5) against Earthgov. If there's to be a coup, B5 may have to be a part of it, or the station may just have to pull a Mars and declare independence. Already, replacing most of the station security with Narns takes B5 away from full Earth ownership and control and towards the kind of heterogeneous community that was the station's dream goal. It's also a strong symbol of the station's independence from Earth Alliance, which has thrown in with the Centauri. G'Kar, now more spiritual leader and wise man than anything else, waxes cryptically about sacrifice on a massive scale, and Minbari-like, is starting to see "us" as more than the Narn, but as all life. He describes a Christ myth on a collective scale. So when he asks Sheridan for a place at the army of light's table, I dare say he's proven he deserves it. Kosh in fact recruited him by unlocking ideas in his mind.

Another fount of wisdom can be found in the Centauri seer played by the Grand Dame of Star Trek herself, Majel Barrett. No Lwaxana Troi, this. The Lady Morella is a serious and earnest woman who really doesn't need the power of prophecy to earn our attention. She has several good moments, including an awkward elevator ride with Ta'lon which shows she's above the Centauri's imperial biases, no dialog needed, and her contention that we always have a choice, but usually choose to fob responsibility off to fate. I find the view that the future isn't written rather ironic from a writer who prided himself on a a five-year plan, but I do share it. The fun will now be to watch Londo refuse to make the choices that can save his soul according to Morella's visions. Why mention three if he's going to take the first out, right? This is a test he's already failed twice (the two Shadow attacks, presumably). Here's the prophecy, in case we need to refer to it again: To save the eye that does not see, to not kill the one who is already dead, or at the last, to submit to his fear, knowing it will destroy him. It's a redemption puzzle for us and Londo. She does confirm that whatever happens, Londo will become Emperor, but bombshell!, Vir will succeed him (though it could technically go in the other direction). With that she leaves them in a symmetrical shot, Londo wondering if he'll have to play Julius Caesar to Vir's Brute. Exciting stuff.

ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WORMHOLE: Majel Barrett has appeared (or her voice heard) on every iteration of the Star Trek franchise, only sometimes as a visiting VIP with mental abilities.

REWATCHABILITY: High - The one weakness is the Nightwatch's two-dimensional portrayal, but that seems to be at an end. The rest is top notch, with very exciting changes made and heralded.


Anonymous said...

That photo. Ta'lon: "She'll never figure out I'm the one who farted!"

It's been a long time, what was it Hague said to Sheridan that was later used as the basis for the loophole? The problem I have with these loopholes is that they're too often intended to be surprising and clever, but they usually come off as perfectly obvious (at least to me). There are plenty of times JMS springs a surprise that's a genuine surprise, and I fully admit to my jaw hanging open at some of them. Not this one.

Ryan Lohner said...

It actually wasn't Hague (for reasons that will be clear next time) but another general, who told Sheridan to respect the chain of command, causing him to realize that the civilian Ministry of Peace couldn't give such an order to the military.

Let me preface this by saying that I've met many great Trek fans during the course of my watching the series (in a giant year-long Netflix binge several years ago). They were perfectly kind and sweet, putting up with all my questions and never making me feel like some idiot horning in on their table like they easily could have. So I definitely accept that these people do exist. Unfortunately, there's also a pretty nasty and vocal segment of the Trek fandom who are incredibly elitist about the show and were outraged at B5 for daring to be a science fiction show that said the Communist sex utopia forseen by Gene Roddenberry might not actually happen, with the most common statement being that it was ripping off Deep Space 9 (when if anything it was the other way around, with B5 being pitched for five years beforehand, but I'll give them the slightest benefit of the doubt on not knowing that). They've quieted down a bit with the lack of regular new Trek to talk about, but their successors can be seen in the more militant fans of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, to the point where I'm pretty sure there's a good deal of overlap.

This attitude was largely not shared by the people actually involved in Trek, and one of the biggest supporters of B5 among them was Majel Barrett, who would take every opportunity to tell Trek fans at conventions that they should give the show a chance. The sadly inevitable result on this was those same fans turning their bile on her and calling her a traitor, whatever that means in this context, but JMS was quite touched and asked her to have dinner with him, during which he sprang on her that he would like her to be on the show. She jumped at the chance, and was utterly lovely to work with by all reports.

Much like The Coming of Shadows, what happens in this episode is mostly setup for later events, but it still stands on its own because we care so much about the characters and the story that's been built up. That's where the real magic lies, and what truly made it stand out. DS9 may have been the boldest Trek series with its own long term plot arcs (and I'm quite a fan of it myself), but it couldn't hope to touch the likes of this.

Anonymous said...

Oh yeah, that's what the "loophole" was; thanks! That's why it didn't seem at all clever to me: because OF COURSE the military doesn't take orders from non-military officials. It would be like the night manager of a McDonald's telling a policeman to turn in his badge.

B5 and DS9 are so dissimilar that I don't see why anyone sees either as the ripoff of the other. We've already covered the one genuinely suspicious similarity between the two (Vorlons and Founders have genetically manipulated other races into seeing them as deities), but as for the rest, space stations are nothing new in science fiction, and B5 and DS9 are similar mostly in terms of using the tropes inherent to the setting.

OTL said...

To be fair, the military does actually take orders from non-military officials (at least in the US), it's just that they don't take orders from just any non-military official. Both the office of the President and Secretary of Defense are civilian positions; military personnel can fill either position, but it's not a requirement. But other government positions (Vice President, members of Congress, cabinet secretaries, etc.) have no direct authorization over military personnel. (Even in this episode, they say it's just a delaying tactic. The orders may not have been sent via the proper chain of command, but Sheridan says outright that they'll just bump the orders up the chain of command until someone who does have the authority to issue them (even if it's President Clark) does so, and then they're in the same boat as they were in before. But the next few episodes will take care of that, so...)

Siskoid said...

Anon: Like OTL says (swooped in just as I was about to respond), we've enough Senators telling Sinclair and Sheridan what's what that it always did seem like the station had, at the very least, civilian oversight, probably because of its diplomatic mission. The "loopholing" was a matter of figuring out just who had issued the orders, so that he could say the equivalent of "nope, sorry, your supervisor is going to have to contact me or I won't do it".

Anon: I agree with you on the comparison between B5 and DS9, similarities between which are mostly due to the same premise - which doesn't make out derivative of the other necessarily - and to the realities of making television SF in the 90s, progressive though B5 was (same actors, same sociopolitical climate inspiring the writing, etc.)

Ryan: Not only was I a Trekkie, but I'm a Whovian, and there's no fandom more divisive and vitriolic than that. As with anything, find like-minded people and make them your friends. Who needs fandom to be a negative experience? That's just ridiculous.

LondonKdS said...

Having been a B5 fandom member while the show was being broadcast, I can say that some of the fandom was just as nasty about DS9 and all Trek, declaring that all Trek was a dumb utopian show where no actions ever had consequences and all episodes ended with a massive plot reset. Sometimes you'd get flamed just for saying something positive about a single Trek ep.

LiamKav said...

I had just got onto the internet around this time, and was on a couple of Star Trek message boards. Generally, the fans there were fine about it. They were smaller, more personal message boards, so maybe the arseholes just didn't frequent. Still, I'm fairly certain that while they existed, JMS would also reference them every chance he could. It helped create a siege mentality, and as certain Chelsea football club managers have shown, a siege mentality can do wonders. Convince your staff and fans that the Trek people hate them, and you've got a motivated production company and a fanbase that will shout your show to the heavens. JMS was as guilty of feeding the trolls as anyone.

One tech detail in this show I like: when Sheridan is scanning through the general's message, it actually fast forwards and rewinds like modern digital players, rather than having scan lines like he's going through a VHS tape. We still have screens that go to snow when the signal goes, but it's nice that this time someone realised that signals would probably be sent digitally.

In many ways, this is actually my favourite story of this 3-part mini-arc. Garibaldi gets to do some of his best acting when he's ranting furiously at his traitorous staff, and I've always loved Zack's arc as the guy who's stuck in the middle because he doesn't have enough information to know who's telling him the truth.

G'Kar is rocking some pretty extreme heals. I never noticed until this episode. I always thought Katsulas was just really tall.


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