Babylon 5 #85: Intersections in Real Time

"The truth is sometimes what we believe it to be, and sometimes it's what we decide it to be."
IN THIS ONE... Sheridan's interrogation.

An extremely spare bottle episode, Intersections in Real Time (damn, these titles are pretentious) is essentially a two-hander between Sheridan and his nameless interrogator, played in a single, monochromatic room with only three pieces of furniture, each act playing out as a single scene in real time. It's efficient, to be sure, but as time/money-savers, it's also plenty audacious. If Sheridan is deprived of food, light, quiet and stimuli, we too suffer a deprivation of a kind. It has the kind of Eastern Europe feel we'd associate with Orwell's 1984 or Kafka's The Trial, and in fact, dips deep into those two works for inspiration. The truth, we're told, is fluid and subjective, a theme in both aforementioned works, and the interrogator goes out of his way to both tell the truth and exemplify that idea, contradictory though it seems. A real chameleon, the interrogator can be friend or foe, devious trickster or sound counselor, and proves his point by presenting things with absolute earnestness, though they may later be proven false (the time of day, the broken Drazi, Sheridan's execution). The point is that these things feel true and so are true, though that truth can change without notice.

It's very interesting that though "subjectivity" is supposed to justify Sheridan's surrender - after all, Earth's truth is as good as any, and far less painful to believe in - Sheridan spins it the other way. He cannot win, that's the truth the interrogator wants him to accept in the end, but he can turn anything into subjective victory, in his case, a string of victories, one for each time he says "no". The people Sheridan is presented with are playing roles, mutable ones, so it's ironic for Sheridan to find his one absolute truth, his rock and foundation, is a hallucination of Delenn. The one fake person in the room is the only one he can trust, and so long as she provides sanctuary for his mind, he'll be able to resist. The strategy of resistance he exposes to the Drazi is exactly right - he need only say "no" more times than they say "you must". Or if you will, he need only hold out until he is rescued by a repentant Garibaldi or friends from Babylon 5. And if he never is, he made his peace the day he instructed his people to carry on without him, that the mission was always more important than the man. One thing that seems completely impossible is his ability to escape. Help must come from outside. But by then, what will be left of his psyche?

As the interrogation starts over with a different interrogator working from the same script - a scene evoking Kafka, yes, but also The Prisoner - we see how far Earthgov is willing to go to change Sheridan's narrative. As we move forward, I hope we see one or more new interrogators making him relive the cycle until they get it right. It would be a fitting continuation of this abstraction.

ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WORMHOLE: The episode must live in the shadow of "There are four lights", but manages it with some aplomb.

REWATCHABILITY: High - A bold, Spartan episode, deliciously twisted and taking its cues from great existential and absurdist literature and television.


Anonymous said...

Goddamn, Sheridan. Goddamn, Boxleitner. Goddamn, JMS. (The "goddamns" here are expressions of amazement.)

LondonKdS said...

Is it too aggressive to say that I think this episode is a dreadful disappointment and pretentious, cowardly grandstanding about a very serious issue?

This one was hyped for weeks as a brutal, unprecedented confrontation with the issues of torture and political oppression, but when it was actually shown, some fanboys' main reaction was "I could have toughed that out better than Sheridan did. A bit of puking and that's all?" You can blame 1990s US mainstream TV's standards for on-screen violence if you like, but the much-despised-by-B5-fans "utopian kiddy show" Star Trek: The Next Generation produced something much more disturbing five years before in their "Chain of Command" two-parter.

I have other very serious criticisms, but they're unfortunately too spoilery to mention for a while.

Incidentally, according to JMS, this episode was originally intended to be the cliffhanger ending for the fourth season, if it had been produced as planned, which might have given it a bit more impact.

Madeley said...

Personally, I think this is probably the best Babylon 5 episode, and I don't think it's pretentious at all. I think it says some very incisive, and very correct, things about the terrible actions average, "normal" human beings are willing to do to another. Chain of Command and this episode are doing two different things, in my opinion. This episode is, I believe, about the torturer, while Chain of Command is about the victim. I find them complementary, rather than contradictory.

Anonymous said...

"This one was hyped for weeks as a brutal, unprecedented confrontation with the issues of torture and political oppression"

I'm glad I didn't see the hype then, because if I take it just as an episode where Sheridan is being interrogated and they're trying to play with his mind, it works quite nicely.

"some fanboys' main reaction was "I could have toughed that out better than Sheridan did. A bit of puking and that's all?""

I can totally relate -- one time my 9th level ranger was being tortured but all he did was laugh as they cut off body part after body part. Sheridan is a pansy.

Ryan Lohner said...

I'm not sure where the statement that this was going to be the ending comes from, as in the script volumes he says he'd planned for a while to make it the first episode of season 5, with the hiatus giving the impression that Sheridan had already been going through this for months.

JMS actually completely chicken out in his original script, becoming very insecure about his ability to sustain the concept, so he threw in a lengthy extra scene outside the room, giving himself all kinds of excuses about how it was thematically complementary. And then a funny thing happened: due to the various pauses to add to the theatrical feel of the interrogation scenes, the episode ended up coming in a full eight minutes too long. And then as fate would have it, the episode right after it ended up coming in eight minutes short, so JMS suggested simply transposing the outside scene wholesale, and it ended up matching TO THE SECOND. Atheist or not, sometimes you get the feeling the man really was on a mission from god.

Siskoid said...

I don't think of B5 as realism, I think of it as parable. The interrogation episode isn't an exploration of torture and human rights abuses, but rather a meditation on the fluidity of truth. It's an intellectual exercise, just like the works it poaches the most from.

I reserve the right to take issue with how little this experience seems to impact Sheridan later, of course.

Ryan Lohner said...

Another post of mine disappeared; any help?

Anonymous said...

Just on the general note of horrifying interrogation, have you ever read "Darkness at Noon"? Classic of the genre. Prisoner in (not named, but pretty clearly) Soviet Russia, a former prominent member of The Party, is imprisoned for his supposed sins.

I think it's a relevant reference here especially as 1984 has Winston clinging to objective outside truth as his shield (Not very well, mind), while the protagonist of Darkness at Noon fundamentally agrees with his captors on a number of levels from the start. It's brilliant.

LiamKav said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
LiamKav said...

This is another in JMS's continuing series about "the banal face of evil (usually wearing a cardigan), which also included Justin and Edgars. It was an episode that I was both really looking forward to rewatching, and dreading. And I kinda agree with everyone... if you're looking at it simply as a show about Sheridan being tortured, then it doesn't quite work. If you're taking it as a show designed to show people working slowly and methodically to break Sheridan's mind, and him managing to resist (for now), it works brilliantly. Maybe I'd have added Sheridan getting beaten after he was captured to the flashback at the beginning to remind people he'd already been physically abused.

Ryan: "I'm not sure where the statement that this was going to be the ending comes from, as in the script volumes he says he'd planned for a while to make it the first episode of season 5, with the hiatus giving the impression that Sheridan had already been going through this for months.

It comes from the Lurker's Guide.

JMS: "if I had known *with absolute certainty* that there would be a season 5, then season 4 would have ended with 418, 'Intersections in Real Time.'"

I believe that in the US, WB had a habit of holding back the final 4 episodes of any season and showing them just before the next. JMS's comments seem to indicate that they did so for this episode, which means it did kinda function as a cliffhanger.

I do wonder... was Sheridan getting to the first interrogator by the end, or was everything an act? Or does it even matter?


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