Babylon 5 #89: The Deconstruction of Falling Stars

"You do not wish to know anything. You wish... only to speak."
IN THIS ONE... From a million years in the future, a look back at Earth history leading out from the birth of the Alliance.

REVIEW: Ok, so let me get this straight... A true series finale was filmed as part of Season 4, then B5 was picked up for some TV movies and a fifth season, so that finale (Sleeping in Light) was set aside to be aired at the end of Season 5. The slot was filled with this episode, made at the start of the S5 (note the absence of Ivanova), which nevertheless takes place wayyyyyy after any other events in the series. It's a clever out-of-order coda to the series (the chronology of which gets wonky from now on, with the next chapter being set years BEFORE the series), but not a particularly exciting one. From a million years in the future, an evolved human finds interesting clips to show at the Alliance's millionth anniversary, each time frame used to different effect, showing how the characters are seen by the media, by history, by themselves and by posterity. Ultimately though, the point is that what Sheridan and Delenn built endures well beyond the cycle of rebirth and destruction the Vorlons and Shadows maintained. Humanity has become a race of First Ones who can turn into energy, but Earth does not survive, its inhabitants moving to New Earth at this time to escape our sun going supernova. But getting to that point wasn't without obstacles.

In the first act, the archives are from the series' own time, with pundits arguing over this new Alliance, some for and some against. I can neither argue with the one who says things have already changed for the better with the liberation of Mars, nor with another throwing "at gunpoint!" in there. The way Delenn showed up in the previous episode would certainly have created this sentiment. 100 years later, an iUniversity round table is a good example of how History works, and how interpretative a discipline it is, it's just more talking heads. The sequence is used to tease some elements from Season 5 and beyond, though JMS has enough control over the material now that he knows he DOES have a fifth season, that the "spoilers" are of the order of G'Kar and Londo choking each other out, i.e. there's just enough missing information that we don't know just what's going to happen with the Telepath War, Garibaldi's possible death, and in T+20, the station's oft-prophesied destruction. It stops being an intellectual exercise when a wizened Delenn shows up to defend Sheridan's honor, and gets some emotion into the proceedings. I particularly like her death stare that shuts the skeptical academic up.

T+500 years is the best segment for me. It shows us an Earth once again divided and war-like, one ambitious faction wanting to leave the Alliance and looking to start the Vorlon/Shadow cycle all over again - killing civilians, amending history 1984-style, and so on. Part of their plan is to undermine the Alliance by creating holograms of our heroes who will act out retconned scenes from history, casting them as monsters. It's all a bit extreme, almost ridiculously so. The problem the technician has is that he's given his characters a close approximation of their true personalities and capacities, which puts them in a unique position to save people and the Alliance centuries after their deaths. Garibaldi gets a shining moment, acting as a computer program, betraying his "master", and keeping the legend alive. It's actually pretty cool. In T+1000, we find out the war was NOT averted, but the Alliance remained untainted and though the Earth has been plunged in a Dark Age, cut off from the larger universe, Sheridan and Babylon 5 became a great myth/religion. So did Sheridan and Delenn fail if Earth has fallen? No, because the Rangers, also a creation of "the One", are actively working toward a Renaissance, seeing a day when Earth can rejoin the Alliance and fulfill its destiny.

The way time is scaled is epic, and B5 works relatively well as a parable, the conclusions drawn here are coherent with the program's usual themes. But the title card at the very end thumbing its nose at the show's detractors who said it would never work or survive casts the whole exercise in a bad light. It becomes a case of "protesting too much" where the same strident tone that makes JMS the egotist say "look, see, we made it, ha ha" can be extended to the entire episode, there saying "look, see, my heroes are so awesome that they saved the universe for a million years, beat that every other SF hero ever, ha ha". There's a reason the opening sequence calls it the "dawn of the Third Age of Mankind", and I'm perfectly happy to have it work as a Camelot myth, but in the back of my mind, I can't help thinking they pushed it just a bit too far. Like Delenn, I find the train of thought that birthed this episode "immodest".

ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WORMHOLE: Voyager stole T+500's idea that history could be recreated (and changed) with holograms in "Living Witness". Enterprise had a similar epilogue, with Riker looking back at the birth of the Federation on the holodeck.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium - There's a difference between interesting and entertaining, and while Deconstruction has some good moments, it's mostly about the talking heads of people we don't know.

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

"Hey everybody, Delenn is ripping us a new one; let's sit here and let her do it."

As much as I dislike that part, my fondness for the two undercover Rangers on earth more than compensates.

LiamKav said...

One more example of "Fun with the DVD title sequences"... as this is technically a season 5 episode, CC had to be taken out of the opening credits. Her bit was replaced with a shot of the Agamemnon flying through the explosion of the orbital platforms from Endgame. Obviously, the DVD doesn't do that because lol DVDs.

Ryan Lohner said...

The process of getting a fifth season is detailed step by horrific step in the script volumes, and it's a long tedious process that makes my head hurt so I won't spell it out here, and just note that it started with a meeting with TNT executives for rerun rights to the series, at which Doug Netter offhandedly mentioned "It's just too bad you won't be getting the full five seasons," as the WB guys had of course neglected to inform TNT. JMS calls this "the tutsi fruitsy," after the routine from the Marx Brothers film A Day at the Races.

Of course, getting that season came with a bunch of its own problems, the most immediate of which was that he had to write a whole new finale for season 4 in very little time. Luckily, everyone at the network was now entirely focused on season 5, leaving him free to do whatever he wanted, so he took the opportunity to go a bit experimental. There were a lot of articles at the time about B5's place in television and SF history, so he figured it would be neat to examine that same thing in-universe.

Bruce Boxleitner really relished the chance to play the evil Sheridan as he hardly ever gets to play villains (the closest role that comes to mind is Captain Awesome's overbearing father on Chuck). Richard Biggs, on the other hand, was quite uncomfortable with it, and the resulting differences in their performances are palpable.

The future Ranger is played by Roy Brocksmith, probably best known as the phony Rekall employee from the original Total Recall, though I'll always remember him as the landlord from Seinfeld who called Kramer's mother a "drunken stumblebum." This sequence also got a few fans angry for "betraying the show's principles," because the Alliance didn't stop all war forever and ever. Of course, JMS replied that this never happens, and each generation is entrusted anew with safeguarding the legacy of the last. Sometimes they fail, but with luck the things their forebears built will still be around to pick up the pieces afterwards.

I have absolutely no problem with the final title card. After four years of critics and Trekkies gleefully shitting on him, absolutely sure he wouldn't get the five seasons he wanted, and finally pulling it off against all odds despite even the death of the whole damn network, I sure know I would be sorely tempted to do the same thing. Even better is what he had to say afterwards:

"And yeah, that little closing card is going to remain on the show for its life...which will be long, long after its detractors (and admittedly myself) have gone to dust. On the one hand, it is a statement of hope to anyone else out there who has a dream, to follow it no matter who speaks against you, no matter the odds, no matter what they say to or about you, no matter what roadblocks they throw in your way. What matters is that you remain true to your vision. On the other hand, for the reviewers and the pundits and the critics and the net-stalkers who have done nothing but rag on this show for five years straight, it is also a giant middle finger composed of red neon fifty stories tall, that will burn forever in the night. In billiards, we call that a bank-shot."

Siskoid said...

Nope, still don't buy into it.

I dislike it when TV writers get indulgent (see a lot of my comments on Russell T Davies' run on Doctor Who), as it takes away from the integrity and immersive qualities of universe they've built. Suddenly, The show breaks character when I can hear the writer's shrill voice talking about things that aren't part of the universe, and here is rather graceless. You can win without being a shit about it.

Anonymous said...

About the Trekkies shitting on the Beefsters (or whatever they call themselves), I'd have to say there was a lot more shit directed at Trek than the other way around. Most Trekkies are happy whenever science fiction can make it to the screen at all, but it was the B5 crowd that accused Trek of stealing their concept, of Trek being the show for babies, and so on.

Eagerly awaiting the episode where the two maintenance workers are used as mouthpieces so JMS can tell his fans off. "Some people say that Commander Lochley isn't as good as Ivanova, but I say they should give her a chance. Also, Ivanova should have given that one guy a chance when he sent her space-roses and picked her up in a space-limousine."

LiamKav said...

JMS isn't alone in the seige mentality thing. It's basically how Jose Morinho manages football teams. You make your team/staff think that other teams, the press, the other fans are all out to get you. You make them think that they are unfairly picked on. And then you tell them to go out and show those bastards who's boss!

I think the problem JMS had is that at some point he forgot the game he was playing and started to believe it. He is certainly allowed his excentricities after writing 95% of a TV show I really enjoy singlehandidly, but it doesn't mean that some stuff like this doesn't come across as crass. It stinks of "small team" syndrome. If you're better, you don't have to keep shouting it out. (I have similar thoughts regarding the US/British war of independence. I have no idea why yanks - who, let us remember won the bloody thing - bring it up every single chance they get. I was watching one of the commentaries, and Jerry Doyle brings it up when Jason Briggs appears on the title card. Seriously, Jerry, we don't care. At all. In any way.)

And on the whole Trek vs B5 thing... we've heard JMS talk about B5 plenty of times. Did Moore or Behr or anyone ever mention B5, either recently or during the making of both shows?

Anonymous said...

"I have no idea why yanks - who, let us remember won the bloody thing - bring it up every single chance they get."

One thing about the US, I believe, is that we've never been the victims of a foreign onslaught, so it's real easy for us to feel all puffed up about how we're the toughest guys around.

I use the term "foreign onslaught" advisedly. If you're from the American South, you possibly have bitter feelings about General Sherman marching his army through Georgia, but this was the Civil War so it was still American vs. American. And as for the British sending the US packing in the War of 1812, the British still regarded the Americans as kin enough to not brutalize the population the way they would that of, say, Kenya or Burma, so there are no scars from 1812. (General Sherman was on the humane end of things as well, for that matter.)

This also has something to do with why the US went nuts after 9/11. To be sure it was a horrific attack, but more than that it was an attack on a people who had no cultural reference point for savagery. We had no Hastings, no Coventry, no Magdeburg to compare to. 9/11 was the worst thing conceivable because we had very limited ability to conceive of worse.

LondonKdS said...

JMS's endcard is less unsympathetic than his DVD commentary for this episode, in which we discover that he does actually believe that the role of historians should be to tell inspiring stories about Great People, and that historians who try to suggest that social/economic/geopolitical forces would have caused broadly the same thing anyway are "shameful" jealous little people trying to tarnish their betters.

LiamKav said...

Which is...confusing. At first it seems that the message of Babylon 5 is that the individual isn't important, it's what the group does. And then in season 4 it changes to the "great man" idea.

LondonKdS said...

Yes, that's my big problem with B5 as a whole, as you may have worked out from previous comments. At some point, the whole thing starts being designed primarily to glorify John and Delenn, and it comes across that while JMS likes to write speeches about the glory of democracy, the show's idea of democracy is "everybody voluntarily decides to do what the Great Leader tells them, without any repression being necessary".

It really becomes clear with the revelation that Garibaldi only opposed Sheridan because he was under the control of Bester's anti-Shadow wing of PsiCorps. Although I think if there's a single turning point it's the flash-forward in "War Without End", where it first becomes obvious that David Sheridan will definitely become a huge figure in galactic history just because of who his parents are.

You can also see it as something that started off as SF being completely overcome by pseudo-Medieval fantasy conventions.

LiamKav said...

I have no idea why Londo is confused by the celebrations at the beginning of this episode, with his "who died?" comments. He's just been to the (apparently human/North American) wedding ceremony and apparently enjoyed it, so I dunno why he'd be all gloomy about the after party.

I'm also slightly uncomfortable with the whole "faith manages" concept. Take JMS's comments on the episode:

"It is a statement of hope to anyone else out there who has a dream, to follow it no matter who speaks against you, no matter the odds, no matter what they say to or about you, no matter what roadblocks they throw in your way. What matters is that you remain true to your vision."


Now, if your dream is to make a 5 year long sci-fi series, then fair enough. If it's to be an actor, good for you. A doctor, brilliant. If it's to devote your life to helping others, amazing. However, if it's feverent desire to make sure that gay people are to be treated as criminals, or that other people should be made poor so that you can be made rich, or if it's to conquer Belgium, then that's less good.

Basically, "faith manages" by itself it neither good or bad. It's what your faith is telling you to do. So standing behind such a comment doens't make you look good, when it can be used for evil just as easily.

Why does this episode start in 2262? It's still season 4. The opening credits say "the year is 2261". Why not make it December 30th 2261?

Finally, poor Delenn. She finally gets to kiss John whenever she wants, and he has a beard. Unless Minbari women are immune to stubble rash, or something.

LiamKav said...

Sorry, just thought of something else that annoys me about this episode: The second sequence with the "intellectuals" is supposed to make us think that their argument - that the indiviual isn't important, history would have caused these things to happen anyway - is wrong, and that Sheridan and Delenn were important, were unique. It's a hilarious argument to make about Sheridan, a character LITERALLY CREATED to replace another character. Surely Sheridan, Lyta/Talia/Lyta, and maybe even Lochley all show that it's the guiding force of history that makes people do these things?

 

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