Babylon 5 #67: Z'ha'dum

"G'Quan wrote, 'There is a greater darkness than the one we fight. It is the darkness of the soul that has lost its way. The war we fight is not against powers and principalities, it is against chaos and despair. Greater than the death of flesh is the death of hope, the death of dreams. Against this peril we can never surrender. The future is all around us, waiting, in moments of transition, to be born in moments of revelation. No one knows the shape of that future or where it will take us. We know only that it is always born in pain.'"
IN THIS ONE... Melissa Gilbert guest stars as Sheridan's Shadow-controlled wife and he follows her to Z'ha'dum.

REVIEW: Sheridan's wife is back, and she's Melissa Gilbert now (props for redoing the flashback scene and putting her in there), and she's a Shadow puppet. A rather obvious one. Luring Sheridan into a trap (ish, I think the Shadows are sincere in making an appeal first) isn't really contingent on his emotional connection with Anna, but on his wanting to go to Z'ha'dum regardless, for answers, for revenge and as he reveals in a message to Delenn, to perhaps prevent the dark future he witnessed in War Without End. But I wouldn't trust Sheridan to figure out my time travel puzzles. His logic is flawed. Was that future caused by his heeding future Delenn's (and Kosh's) warning not to go to Z'ha'dum? Or was it caused because he did go. The prophecy that he would "die" there (quotation marks mine) might have been his (false) clue - if he dies at Z'ha'dum, and future Delenn isn't surprised to see him alive, that means he didn't go, right? Except she wouldn't have warned him about Z'ha'dum if he HADN'T gone. Though everyone seems to act like the future mutable, some things really aren't. Sheridan was always going to Z'ha'dum, and I'm not sure it makes sense for all the seers to tell him he has a choice in the matter, except to create tension and expectation for the audience. So he does go (any other outcome would have been dramatically disappointing), but at least he isn't treated as an idiot and knows from the first that this isn't his Anna. He isn't, like so many television characters tend to be, blinded by love or some such nonsense. He goes in with eyes open. In fact, he's in love with Delenn, and says it for the first time in that message, even though it looked like Anna would split them up (if not as his "real love" coming back, then because of the breach of trust represented by Delenn not telling him her survival was possible).

On Z'ha'dum, the Shadows get to explain themselves, through a human called "Justin" (JMS' choice of names frequently seems off to me, but whatever), and according to them, we haven't been interpreting "light" and "dark" very well. This isn't a war between good and evil, but between order and chaos. Or if you will, this isn't Tolkien, it's Moorcock. In fact, Z'ha'dum is covered with black spires with glowing red runes reminiscent of Elric's soul-drinking sword Stormbringer. Chaos wants the strong to survive and sees it as its mission to cull the inferior races/cultures through cycles of war and strife. We've heard this philosophy before, in Acts of Sacrifice, where Ivanova had to endure arrogant aliens with just such a point of view (if more passively expressed). If the show has taught us anything, it's that only together can we prevail. It's karmic in the B5 universe. In other words, the Shadows' point of view has no real value. They can foster war and push for survival of the fittest if they want, but the capacity to make alliances IS an evolutionary adaptation. It's like saying humans are weaker than lions and pack/tribe/community behavior to take down that lion is cheating. Screw that. The Shadows' argument doesn't hold water, and I rather think they ARE evil, the way they try to achieve their goals is evil. Or else, why does the center of Z'ha'dum look like the very pit of hell as envisioned in the Divine Comedy?

I thought for sure they were going to make something more of that piece of Kosh inside Sheridan's mind, given the Shadows' fear of anything Vorlon touching the planet. Sheridan could have been a psychic suicide bomber. Perhaps he still can be. Who knows what happened when he fell down to the planet's core? And of course, the White Star crashing down into the dome (a mirror of the Shadow vessel bursting through one on Ganymede earlier) has Vorlon tech and the base IS destroyed (a base that somehow reminds me of so many 60s Star Trek sets). Not that Vorlon tech necessarily has anything to do with it, what with Sheridan having nukes aboard. Truth is, it's played as if Sheridan dies, but since he was told to jump by Kosh (a programmed message), we can expect him to survive. It's huge and epic and who knows where it goes from here, and that's more than enough to compensate for our knowing (today, at any rate) that he makes it. And he's not alone in cliffhanger mode: Garibaldi's Starfury has been captured(?) by a Shadow vessel, Ivanova finds herself holding the reigns of leadership, and Londo may be leaving B5 forever to assume a position at Court. What happens next? It's a wonder I haven't yet popped the next disc into the machine.

ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WORMHOLE:
Sheridan getting help from Kosh isn't unlike Sisko getting help from the Prophets, especially when season finales roll around. In a reverse twist, B5's Big Bad is all about Chaos, while DS9's (the Dominion) is obsessed with Order.

REWATCHABILITY: High
- Another huge episode. Babylon 5 isn't scared of change and of putting its characters through the wringer.

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

I wince every time they hit that line about how the Shadows' name for themselves is 100 syllables long or whatever. Even if they are a brazilian times smartier than us, two or three syllables, tops, should be enough to say "us". A hundred syllables is good for a mission statement, though.

I wonder if the case JMS is having the Shadows make for themselves is intentionally weak, or whether he hadn't arrived at a better justification for their behavior, maybe something along the lines of, "races war with or without us, we at least try to ensure that some growth comes of that war".

Siskoid said...

I think the phrase is 10,000 letters long. Same difference.

JMS did what all sound writers do and that's make the villains think of themselves as the heroes. From their point of view, they're doing the right thing. They see the Vorlons as interferers and manipulators who no doubt pick and choose who they want to help, and merit is a relative thing.

If the Shadows believe in "strength", the Vorlons might regard some other quality as important (let's call it moral enlightenment). So yes, Sheridan and friends were put through conflict at the Shadows' hands and they did come out "stronger", it brought out qualities in them that might have otherwise remained dormant. But as JMS asks in his commentary track for this episode, is "stronger", "better"?

I don't think he's making their argument intentionally weak, but from their perspective, they might not be able to explain it well because they can't empathize with the other point of view. Have you ever had an argument with someone who was unconvinceable because they just didn't see the world the way you did? Just think of any heated religious or political argument and you're there.

LiamKav said...

I'm guessing the Shadows never went through a period where they had to communicate via SMS messages. Otherwise their phone bills would have been huge.

Madeley said...

Without getting spoilerish, let's imagine that B5 has a happy ending, that a greater unity is forged between species, that everyone DOES end up stronger together.

Doesn't that mean, ultimately, the Shadows succeeded in their goal?

Madeley said...

(I don't believe that last comment is spoilerish because the truth is much more complicated than that, as we will find out.)

LiamKav said...

I'd argue that the B5 universe was heading that way anyway, even without Shadow interference. The Babylon 5 station itself was built to "prevent another war by creating a place where humans and aliens could sort out their differences peacefully". Humans and Minbari were patching up their differences. The League were united enough to have formed a league. There was fighting between the Narn and the Centauri, but we don't know how that would have gone without Shadow interference. If the Emperor had gotten to deliver the message he wanted to in CoS, would it have affected a probably still agressive G'Kar?

I think the idea of the races coming together would have happened anyway, just over a longer period of time, and without as massive a death count.

Siskoid said...

It's likely the Shadows would still think they'd lost because they clearly don't see alliances as a proper adaptation. They represent selfish, isolationist, and nationalist ideals (see what they did to Earth and Centauri?). They're what you get when you put the individual first, while the Vorlons are looking for those special people who can sacrifice their individual selves/cultures for a greater, collective good.

And I agree, we were headed there, though perhaps through their crucible was forged a stronger peace (harsher lessons give history more importance). That's why I consider them evil. They are destroyers, not builders. It's not that they want a strong galaxy, evolving towards perfection, it's that they want to kill its weakest elements and stifle their potential.

Ryan Lohner said...

JMS has two nice moments of self-deprecation in his commentary for this one: First, when Sheridan explains his logic over going to Z'ha'dum (an unfortunate consequence of moving War Without End to the middle of this season) he says "You are really overthinking this one, John. Or the writer was." And then he's silent for a while during Justin's explanation of the Shadow philosophy, before abruptly saying "This scene is too long."

Bruce Boxleitner and Melissa Gilbert had recently gotten married when the previous script was released to the cast, and Bruce came to JMS the day after to ask if she could play Anna, and she was even willing to take a substantial pay cut to do it. This had the lovely effect of also being able to have her look at a real picture from their wedding.

Justin is played by Jeff Corey, who was selected for the role thanks to his performance in the John Frankenheimer film Seconds, where JMS was very impressed with how he was able to explain a horrific procedure and actually make it sound like a good idea. He moved on to teaching acting in his final years, and one of his students was Greg Sestero, best known as Mark in the Plan 9 of our time, The Room. His book The Disaster Artist about the making of the film has some neat stories about those lessons (and Tommy Wiseau thoroughly turning the guy off in their first meeting).

I always appreciate writers who give their villains motivations that are understandable, if not entirely sympathetic. And indeed, after this episode aired a good portion of the fans started arguing that the Shadows were right. And the statements about the Vorlons at least are dead on, as we know from the previous finale. Ultimately, this is a war not even between order and chaos, but two sides who are obsessed with being proven right. Kind of like what Lost did in the end, if only those writers actually knew that's what they were doing and didn't write it as a straight good vs. evil story against all logic.

Awesome as this episode is, also consider that it may well have been the end of the show. By this point B5 was literally the only PTEN show that was making any kind of profit, so it was announced that the network was folding, though JMS was assured that he would still have one more year to wrap the show up thanks to a deal with Warner Brothers. But then they decided to go out in one final blaze of incompetence, and no one bothered to tell the network's budget guys that the show would have another season, resulting in there being no money for it. After what I'm sure was a bout of language to make Tarantino blush, JMS and the rest of the crew decided there was no way they would let the show be killed by something this stupid, and came up with the money themselves. He's unusually vague in the script volumes about how exactly this was done, to the point that I kind of suspect at least part of it wasn't entirely legal, but the show was able to go on, even in what was then believed to be the compromised form of only four seasons. And we'll see how that went next.

Siskoid said...

Hi Mark!

Segue into my frenzied literary dissertation on The Room. Your brain may be changed by my revelatory style: http://siskoid.blogspot.ca/2012/10/down-rabbit-hole-room.html

Anonymous said...

Justin is the invisible hands of economics.

LiamKav said...

JMS also once said that he didn't like to do end of season cliffhangers. And indeed, the previous two have been more like how DS9 ends it's seasons... big stuff happens, but not quite a literal cliffhanger. However, if any season finale of B5 was going to end with "To Be Continued...", it's this one. It's pretty much G'Kar's final voice over that makes it feel more like Babylon 5. End the show with Sheridan jumping, the White Star Exploding, and maybe in there a shot of Garibaldi's Starfury being captured, and you'd have B5's answer to "Mr Worf. Fire". This episode has an excellent sense of riding dread. We know Sheridan's going to go to Z'Ha'Dum, but what will happen when he gets there? (And I even thought they did quite a good job with distracing us from Sheridan taking two PPGs by having the Kosh vision in the middle. Still, you'd think the Shadows would spring for some metal detectors.)

Despite JMS's insistance that Sheridan and Sinclair didn't have the same arc, I think we can all see what would have happened. Catherine/Carolyn would have gone missing right at the start of season 2. Sinclair would have morned, then gotten closer to Delenn. Delenn would reveal that Catherine went to Z'Ha'Dum, where she was probably killed. He would move on and start a relationship with Delenn. And then Catherine would return (dun dun dun!) I will give JMS credit for making the substitution work as well as it does (and I do think this is an excellent episode), but I wonder if it would be better if Anna had been a recurring character in season 1, so that we'd have gotten to know and maybe like her. The actress change doesn't help. JMS mentioned maybe going back and re-editing "Revelations", but he never did. I dunno if it was a rights issue, a cost issue, or Sheridan's mullet just didn't match the footage from the time (although surely they could have just shot the episode, given BB a haircut and then done the flashback).

This episode also contains another reason why they can't use Draal: apparently they can't get a good signal on their phones. Pity that Draal isn't running some sort of great machine that can monitor the entire universe or anything.

This is the second time Sheridan solves a problem by throwing a nuke at it. And once again, it works. There's a reason why he earned the fan nickname "Nuke 'Em" (a name which, delightfully, Bruce Boxleitner is aware of and has also used).

LiamKav said...

One of the novels actually goes into more detail on Anna, and reveals that she loved being a giant evil spaceship, flying around blowing up stuff. She hated being pulled out of it for her role here and basically only did it if the Shadows agreed to put her back in a ship when she was done. Apparently her scream at the end is one of triumph at her miserable half-life being over.

Siskoid said...

Hm. I don't think the novel's notion is earned.

LiamKav said...

I agree. I'm quite happy just with the whole "she was thrown in a ship, it destroyed her personality, this Anna isn't her at all". Her slightly creepy walk at the end is I think really effective.

True fact: Justin is never mentioned again. I wonder if JMS realised that while making the opposite of your charistmatic, dynamic leading character a quiet, behind-the-scenes old guy in a cardigan is a nice idea, it doesn't make for visually thrilling TV.

 

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