Babylon 5 #57: Sic Transit Vir

"If kisses could kill, that one would have flattened several small towns."
IN THIS ONE... Vir is running an underground railroad for the Narn, but has just gotten engaged to a Narn butcher.

REVIEW: The focus on Vir makes this episode principally a comedy, and where Vir himself is concerned, it certainly works. Stephen Furst is excellent at reacting in a humorous way and is a great blurter of awkward statements, giving or receiving all the best lines. Making the conversation between Vir and Ivanova about Centauri sexuality actually work is a difficult proposition, but it does. Furst makes sex noises funny, while still selling how terrified his character is of going all the way to 6, and Ivanova's numerical value metaphor made me laugh out loud. If only the rest of the comedy worked as well. Ivanova's struggle with having dreamed she went to work naked, requiring everyone to say the word "naked" in her presence falls mostly flat (and seems gratuitous when you know JMS tried to court Claudia Christian), and the character's comical asides when no one is present feel staged. The romcom elements of Sheridan and Delenn's slow courtship seem to be on repeat at this point, mostly focused on interspecies cooking problems and badly timed interruptions. As for Londo trying to kill bugs in his apartments, it at least has the virtue of a psychological inference - that Londo is trying to kill his demons/Shadows.

In Vir's new wife Lyndisty, we find another of JMS' broadly evil caricatures I find so at odds with what he's doing with the regular cast. It may be a question of Carmen Thomas' acting, but only in part. She only ever has one tone, and it's that of the aggressively supportive wife. She might be a seductress à la Londo's 3rd wife, really only in it for the political advancement, or culturally brainwashed to dutifully love her husband-to-be regardless, or even a needy child-wife who only needs attention. She's all three, depending. We have to take whatever she says, when she says it, at face value, because the acting doesn't allow for any ambiguity or subtext. So it's very annoying when she turns out to be a psychotic racist killer of Narn going on and on about their lack of sentience with the same smile on her lips. Again, how can JMS write protagonists (Londo included) with so much texture, but have guest-stars like Lyndisty or the Nightwatch who are so obvious and one-dimensional as this? This image of the "good Centauri" created here is of a young girl skipping along, culling people like cattle, la la la. It's a gross simplification of a state's genocidal agenda and those who carry it out, and rings false.

This is all at odds with Vir's own national guilt which has led him to abuse his current station by providing transit papers for Narn refugees and faking their deaths so they would be left alone. Vir's good follows our definition of the term as opposed to Londo's "official" one (though his own guilt is perhaps more about the means than the ends), but if he can exist, psychologically and culturally, as a Centauri, then Lyndisty can't have that simple a portrayal. And no matter how much Centauri males are slaves to their lust, there is no way the final lovers' farewell is acceptable. Lyndisty is an abhorrent individual and Vir shouldn't be falling for her (especially if she's never going to appear again, as happens to so many guest-stars). In a way, that's the complex and ambiguous reaction I would expect from Vir, but Lyndisty just never earns it.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium - Some of the comedy works, but the flat villain threatens to sink the entire enterprise.


Anonymous said...

This is the prophesied second time I laughed at a joke on B5, the "Abrahamo Lincolni?!??" line. Such a stupidly bad alias name to our human sensitivities, yet it would make sense coming from Vir.

Dream sequences are real tough to get right on TV, apparently, because 99% of the time they don't feel dream-like at all. It ought to be real simple to do "authentically": Ivanova is up at her station, she suddenly realizes she's naked and everyone's going to notice any second now (probably a voiceover is the best way to communicate this), and that's when the giant rolls of toilet paper burst into the room.

Plus the inescapable ick factor of JMS perhaps trying to degrade Claudia Christian in small, plausibly-deniable ways.

Ryan Lohner said...

JMS hadn't quite decided what kind of episode this would be when the image suddenly struck him of the Centauri fountain hair slowly rising from under a counter, revealing that Londo was hunting a bug in his quarters. By this point he'd spent months with the stress of running the show while also writing every episode, which including getting hardly any sleep (and it didn't help that the wee hours of the morning are his favorite time to write anyway). So the idea sent him into hysterical laughter for several minutes, after which he realized two things: one, he needed some sleep right now, and two, if he needed a laugh so badly at this point then the audience probably did too.

The success of comedy is really far more on the head of the actor rather than the writer. For me the greatest example of this is the film Running Scared, where hardly any of the jokes work on paper, yet Billy Crystal and Gregory Hines' crackling chemistry sell every one of them (it's really a shame they didn't work together again). And here Stephen Furst and Claudia Christian ably rise to the challenge, though Claudia is also hampered by some moments that remind me of Hugh Grant's comment to Richard Curtis on the Love Actually commentary: "You always write these bits where a character is talking to themselves, and they are unactable!"

I completely get why people would be creeped out by the dream sequence, but there is one big mitigating factor: right in the script, he gave Claudia herself the option of doing it nude or in a nightgown.

PTEN made another of their typical bonehead moves by openly giving away the twist with Lyndisty in the commercials, which was such a bad case of this that JMS got on the message boards to warn fans to change the channel if it came up.

Personally, I see Lyndisty as a big improvement over the Nightwatch. Like Bester, she's someone who absolutely sees herself as the hero of her own story, because it's simply the beliefs that she was raised with. The inspiration was a film strip JMS had seen in school featuring a group of the sweetest old ladies you could imagine...who continued being just as sweet when they talked about how black people couldn't help being genetically inferior. If this fails to come across fully I'd largely put it down to the actress, who's quite theatrical in a role that really calls for a more naturalistic touch.

And lest I come across again as a JMS apologist for that last bit, the ending rings completely false, and that's all on him. It's no surprise that Peter David opted not to touch this story at all in his Centauri Prime novels, instead giving Vir a pseudo-romance with Londo's ex-wife Mariel.

Siskoid said...

Definitely actable, but the actress gets that operatic faraway look in her eye, it all falls apart.

And yes, those teasers are AWFUL. When they don't give away the game, they're completely misleading! I only ever watch them AFTER the episode, and usually get a good laugh out of how bad they are.

LiamKav said...

"I completely get why people would be creeped out by the dream sequence, but there is one big mitigating factor: right in the script, he gave Claudia herself the option of doing it nude or in a nightgown."
Of course, the "joke" wouldn't have worked nearly as well if Ivanova had been in a nightgown. So she was a sport, she did what was best for the team, and so on.

(Note, I'm not saying that she was in any way pressured to do the naked version. JMS might not have even been aware of such subtleties. But you don't have to go far for examples of women in largely male working environments feeling pressured to do things they aren't completely comfortable with doing less they be decried for not being a team player.)

JMS is the writer of this show, and controls wiat Ivanova does. He is the Executive Producer of the show and controls whether Claudia Christian has a job or not. He has recently had an awkward non-date with her where it's apparent that she doesn't return his affections. Maybe, just maybe, don't write a scene where she could potentially be naked?

"The success of comedy is really far more on the head of the actor rather than the writer."

I'm pretty sure that there are a lot of comedy writers who would kill you for saying such a line. Otherwise an awful lot more "funny" actors would be doing stand-up. It's a collaboration, but unless the actor is allowed some leeway to improvise, it's gonna largely come down to the words on the page.

Anonymous said...

"I'm pretty sure that there are a lot of comedy writers who would kill you for saying such a line."

Agreed. Talk to any comedian with any kind of success, and they'll tell you that comedy is hard. You have the germ of an idea, you have to turn it over and over in your mind until you can figure out a way to make it funny, and then you have to get the delivery just right to make it pay off. While there may be some amount of "comic" material that fails because the actor isn't up to the part, I'll bet vastly more fails because the material was not approached from the right direction, or the material simply lacked potential.

How is it that JMS can find talented actors and actresses who are known for their range, yet they can't make JMS's comedy writing funny? Beyond a certain point, I don't find myself blaming the actors.

"Maybe, just maybe, don't write a scene where she could potentially be naked?"

Or do the scene so it leaves the actress a little less vulnerable (again, she's working at her desk, when she looks down and thinks to herself, "oh crap I'm naked", and then wakes up), and don't keep going there with male actors bringing up nakedness. Maybe even give Sheridan the same nightmare, and neither of them wants to talk about it.

LiamKav said...

I never realised that the Centauri Vi is talking to at the beginning was first seen all the way back in "The Quality of Mercy". I can't quite tell if his personality is a little... inconsistent.


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