Posts Tagged ‘Babylon 5’

There’s a distinct sense of ‘Not with a bang…’ about the very last two bits of Babylon 5. Here we are entering the realm of the niche, if not outright obscure product. Normally I keep track of series that I like as much as B5, but as recently as eight months ago I was totally unaware of the existence of The Lost Tales.

I did vaguely know about Legend of the Rangers, though: a movie produced for the Sci Fi Channel (or whatever it calls itself these days), which is clearly a very thinly-disguised pilot for a new series. As spin-offs go, it seems rather more comfortable with its identity as a piece of B5 than Crusade ever did: not only does it retain the title of the parent show, but there are Narn and Drazi main characters (I nearly said regulars). Present to give the whole series the right sort of imprimatur is Andreas Katsulas as G’Kar.

There’s nothing especially innovative about the plot, which concerns the doings of the crew of a Ranger ship. The captain is in a spot of disgrace after refusing to die pointlessly in futile combat (this is apparently written into the Ranger Code, which leads one to wonder exactly how this organisation has lasted a thousand years) and so he and his associates have been assigned a starship which is a) falling to bits and b) haunted. Seriously.

The piece of cake mission they are assigned turns nasty when Near-Omnipotent Aliens From The Dawn Of Time turn up and start trying to kill the dignitaries they are escorting. This seems to have been a favoured trope of JMS’s, when you consider the Shadows, the Thirdspace aliens, and so on – there’s dialogue here suggesting these particular aliens are much worse and more powerful even than the Shadows themselves, which begs the question of why we’ve never heard from them before. Maybe they’ve just been bigging themselves up in their publicity.

The convolutions of the plot are not especially surprising, but Legend of the Rangers scores over Crusade in nearly every department – it looks good, the characters are interesting, and in places it is genuinely funny. Even the main character, who starts off looking like another bullish JMS space-jock, turns out to be rather engaging, and his relationship with his Minbari first officer has a definite Kirk-Spock vibe to it. Parts of it try to be innovative and just end up being weird – the fire control systems of the ship work by the weapons officer jumping down a well into a holodeck and doing aerobics in free fall. This, frankly, is silly, and only really works here because the actress involved (Myriam Sirois) is as agreeably lithe as she is. But on the whole this movie showed promise and I’m mildly surprised nothing else came of it.

Myriam Sirois keeps an admirably straight face as she prepares to jump down the well again.

Myriam Sirois keeps an admirably straight face as she prepares to jump down the well again.

The Lost Tales is another pilot which ended up going nowhere, but on this occasion JMS wielded the axe himself. It’s a direct-to-DVD movie consisting of two linked stories focussing on characters from the original show. The first of these is, to be honest, so bizarrely unlike anything else in Babylon 5 as to make one want to strike it from the canon. Faced with an apparent case of – and I kid you not – demonic possession, Lochley calls in a priest, thinking an exorcism may be needed. What follows is mostly three people in the same room talking to each other about extremely convoluted theological matters, pepped up only by some inventive direction (JMS again).

I was waiting for the scene where they figure out that the ‘demon’ is actually an alien entity or something to do with psi-powers being misused, but no: there’s no evidence that this isn’t something genuinely supernatural. This is at odds with nearly everything previously implied about religion in Babylon 5, and this – rather than the painfully low budget or the glacial, talky plot – is what really makes me dislike it.

The second story is better, not least because it has Galen in it (who seems even more of a slippery, ruthless customer than he did during Crusade). Galen indulges in his favourite hobby of giving Sheridan a glimpse of a looming apocalypse, in this case a devastating Centauri attack on Earth in a few decades time. Sheridan can avert this, says Galen, but the only certain method is to kill a teenage Centauri noble before he ascends the imperial throne.

We’re in ‘would you kill Hitler as a baby?’ territory here, of course, and when I say the story is ‘better’ that isn’t the same thing as saying ‘it’s great’. Once again you can sense the lack of budget acting as a drag-anchor on the whole undertaking, even though there are more characters and more effects in this segment of the movie. The resolution is not particularly surprising, but at least the performances are good.

The Lost Tales did well, but apparently JMS was fed up with having to squeak out B5 spin-offs on tiny budgets and declared he wasn’t going to do any more unless he was given more cash to work with: and the studio declined. Which leaves us where we are today, with occasional rumours of a theatrical B5 movie, but nothing concrete (as yet).

JMS said that all the spin-offs really achieved was to cheapen the legacy of the original TV show, and I tend to agree, as everything from In the Beginning on has a sort of bitty, half-baked, thrown-together air about it. If you really want to see something special, and powerful, and hugely influential, you should watch the original TV series, particularly the first three seasons or so. Going back to it has been, on the whole, a very pleasurable experience (even if discovering that late season 4 dragged quite as much as I recalled was a bit of a blow).  I’ve been intermittently quite rude about Joe Stracszynski throughout this project, but the fact remains that this is ultimately all down to him. One of the best SF TV shows of all time, and one of the most important TV shows of any kind: nice one, Joe.

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I am aware that writing in anything approaching detail about Crusade and its associated ephemera probably constitutes a waste of effort, for this is a series which is little remembered and less liked (although, and this may well be clutching at straws, doing so will at least set a precedent which will let me write about Hammer House of Horror at some future point with a little more self-respect). There was a whole raft of (broadly speaking) space opera TV shows which launched round about the turn of the century – this one, Enterprise, Firefly, Farscape, Andromeda, Lexx – and while some of them were more successful than others, none of them really had the impact that their makers were probably hoping for (I am astonished to learn, by the way, that Andromeda had the longest run of any of these series). This kind of honest-to-God starship drama seems to have gone entirely out of fashion, possibly as a result, which I think is rather a shame.

Crusade itself crept onto UK screens in the much-coveted (I lie) middle-of-the-night spot. Literally, about 3am – presumably the tiny amount Channel 4 could recoup from selling advertising meant it was more profitable to show Crusade than the test card. Lord knows how much they paid for the rights; probably a pittance. This was a train which everyone knew in advance would never be reaching its destination, or even the first stop along the way.

Observe the happy, smiling faces of a bunch of people who’ve just learned their show’s been cancelled before the first episode even got transmitted.

Compounding the problem, in a slight case of history repeating, the broadcast of Crusade was not preceded by the TV movie which sets up its premise (just as Babylon 5‘s first UK broadcast omitted The Gathering). JMS insists that A Call to Arms is a Babylon 5 movie, not the Crusade pilot per se, which seems very disingenuous to me.

I suppose he has a point in that only a couple of the Crusade regulars actually appear in the movie, and they are somewhat indicative of the tone of the series: there is a beautiful female thief and a wily, enigmatic sorcerer, and if this suggests to you that Crusade has much stronger fantasy overtones than the parent show, I would agree.

It all starts in fairly traditional B5 style with President Sheridan off to inspect some new warships the IA has been building since the end of season 5 (several years have passed in-universe). Garibaldi is along to give him another B5 regular to talk to. However, he is mystically contacted by a renegade Technomage, Galen (Peter Woodward), who shows him visions of a planet devastated by a Shadow superweapon and shows him the faces of a group of individuals he needs to gather to avert a terrible threat to Earth…

Well, Galen has many interesting powers, but key amongst them is a total mastery of Plot Contrivance – how else does he know all this? How else can he be so enlightened as to who to get Sheridan to bring along? Why, come to that, are the Drakh expending so much energy against Earth, a planet which effectively stayed neutral during the final Shadow War? If Galen is so clued-in to Drakh doings, why hasn’t he found out about their ongoing manipulation of a major planet like Centauri Prime? That said, the Drakh clearly have the same gift, as the project manager on the new ship site is one of their agents (his name is Drake, which is surely a bad move on the part of the Drakh – it’s a bit like the Shadows firing Morden and hiring someone called Shardow to work for them: not exactly subtle). Quite what Drake the Drakh agent has been doing is unclear, but his presence is very useful when the plot needs to be unravelled and Jerry Doyle needs something to do to justify his appearance fee.

It goes on in this vein most of the time. Tony Todd, an actor with a certain presence, makes what’s essentially an extended cameo appearance, but doesn’t get what you’d honestly call prime material to work with – he’s fourth or fifth banana in terms of plot significance and essentially just there to put a human face on a contrived self-sacrifice that resolves the movie plot. But not the ongoing plot – for the Drakh contrive to infect the Earth with a sort-of Five Year Flu, which will kill everyone on the planet, only not for five years.

It’s initially suggested this long delay is because the Drakh don’t really know how the Five Year Flu works, but later on we learn it behaved exactly the same way when the Shadows used it in the previous Shadow War (the one in the 13th century). Whatever the truth, this gives Earth a handy breathing space during which time a cure can be rustled up, the process of which can theoretically be covered by a weekly TV series.

Or so the theory went. The actual Crusade series is… well, first off, I haven’t seen it all yet. I caught the first three or four episodes during the UK transmission, basically lost interest, eventually bought the run on discounted VHS box-set out of a vague sense of loyalty to the B5 brand, never actually popped the cellophane on them, and didn’t really give it another thought until I picked up the complete B5 box last Autumn.

Anyway, nearly a third of the way in, I’d say that Crusade is a show it’s possible to like, in an indulgent sort of way, because it’s a curious mixture of a few really good bits, a lot of bad and/or baffling ones, with a sprinkling of just utterly weird moments: not entirely unlike Blake’s 7, but with less of a sense of humour.

Most of the episode plots don’t sound very special on paper and could potentially be rewritten to suit the Trek series of your choice fairly easily. I’m watching the series in JMS’s recommended viewing order, rather than that of actual transmission, and so for me the first four were Racing the Night, The Needs of Earth, The Memory of War and The Long Road.

Racing the Night and The Memory of War both revolve around the investigation of mysterious dead planets with dark secrets; one ties into the Five Year Flu (there’s a flashback in which the Shadows actually appear; I found myself bizarrely pleased to see them again), the other to the Technomages. Neither of the secrets is particularly difficult to guess even while watching the episode for the first time. The Needs of Earth is a sledgehammer-to-the-cranium-subtle exercise in commenting on cultural vandalism and the value of art, with one of those cod scenes where an alien hears Mozart for the first time and instantly realises how wonderful human beings are. (I suspect if we ever do make contact with extra-terrestrial intelligences, as a species we’re going to feel very silly about this sort of thing.) The Long Road is more of a character piece about the ethics of terrorism (with a typically great guest spot by Edward Woodward, who effortlessly acts everyone but his own son off the screen) and the kernel of an interesting idea about the unintended cultural effects a superhuman guardian has on those under his protection.

The main problem Crusade has – hang on, one of the main problems Crusade has is that most of its characters are uninteresting cyphers. Most square-jawed heroic starship captains in the American mass-media tend to be cut from very much the same template (lest I start to sound too harsh, the same is probably true of the British ones, it’s just we have far fewer of them – I suspect Dan Dare still qualifies), and it’s really down to the actor to give them a little personality and humour. Captain Gideon of Crusade, portrayed by Gary Cole, comes across as a cynical, intolerant jerk, and is very, very hard to warm to in the slightest. Remarkably, he is still marginally more engaging than most of the other characters – his first officer has no discernible personality beyond occasionally retreating to his cabin to search his soul about the right way to use his telepathic powers (which he never actually seems to do, by the way). The mission’s chief archaeologist is essentially a colossal prick – it may be that over the planned five years JMS intended to do something with him rather in the vein of his development of G’Kar or Londo, but they were both interesting and charismatic individuals from their initial appearances. The archaeologist is neither. Everyone else is just a bit dull – with one exception.

The star of the show, for me, is Galen the Technomage, who qualifies on both the counts mentioned above. Peter Woodward really is a find for this sort of JMS-led space opera, as he has a presence and a style of vocal delivery that actually allows him to put across JMS-bibble in a way that makes it sound thoughtful and occasionally witty. Woodward is probably the best actor on the show full stop – he might even have managed to make Marcus Cole a plausible character, but we’ll never know. Unfortunately, he’s only in six of the thirteen episodes, and I’ve watched three of those already. Grim times ahead, perhaps.

‘I am a mystic, and this is my -‘ Hang on, I did that gag talking about Grail. Bother.

Crusade tends toward small casts, mainly I suspect because this is a show palpably being made on a very small budget: some of the CGI is excruciatingly poor, and this really hurts a show which visits other planets on a daily basis (something early B5 never did). Still, I’m a British viewer of a certain age, so poor special effects don’t bother me that much. What is a persistent irritation is the music for these episodes (also the TV movie), which has no sweep or drama, seems remarkably low on melodic content, and generally sounds like a strange amalgam of ring-tone, muzak, and you-are-on-hold tune.

One can’t imagine Crusade‘s backers at TNT being delighted with much of this, and one of the pleasures of the show is trying to spot where the dead hand of the network is exerting its influence over JMS’s scripts. Well, there’s a crowbarred-in fistfight in one episode, a flying-motorbike chase in another (this really does break the bank CGI-wise), and The Needs of Earth has…

Well, there’s no way to be delicate about this: The Needs of Earth has a subplot about alien porn. It actually opens with the captain watching alien porn in his office (this does not appear to have been quite as rigorously edited for content as JMS claims), and when a visiting crewmember justifiably expresses surprise, he says he found it on a data chip given to him by the prick-of-an-archaeologist. This is apparently true, rather than a half-assed excuse made up on the spot, and the captain proceeds to make various judgmental insinuations about it to the prick-of-an-archaeologist throughout the episode (what a guy: I can imagine Sinclair or Picard doing exactly the same). There’s also a bit where he distracts some bad guys by playing the alien porn through their equipment. Given that the episode revolves around the entire cultural treasurehouse of an alien civilisation being stored on a set of data chips and under threat from a variety of Space Taliban, I was bracing myself for the denouement where there was a mix-up with the chips and the Space Taliban had their brains melted by the alien porn, thus resolving the story, but no: this episode was not nearly brave, or funny, or clever enough for that, it was just a little bit weird instead. Which I suppose sums up everything which is ultimately wrong about Crusade as a whole. Four down, nine to go…

Your reward for reading to the end: some hot Pak'Ma'Ra action! I'm sorry, this is the lowest quality picture I could find.

Your reward for reading to the end: some hot Pak’Ma’Ra action! Be grateful you can’t see what’s going on here in more detail…

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So, the initial batch of Babylon 5 TV movies. These are, as a little thought might lead you to expect, curious beasts, and difficult to generalise about as a group – some are deeply tied into the grand story of the original series, others are of necessity required to stand alone. Joe Straczynski has gone on record saying that none of the peripheral projects, like these and the other spin-offs, did anything but cheapen the legacy of the original show. I’m not sure I’d go that far, but it’s a near thing either way.

The first movie of the bunch is In the Beginning, which tells – in considerably more detail than we ever got to see in the weekly series – the story of the Earth-Minbari War, one of the main elements of backstory for the first couple of seasons.

Now, the immediate problem with this as a premise is that it’s going to be most appealing to people who’ve already watched the show and know a bit about the war in question already, and so most of the audience is going to know the story in advance. This is not a good recipe for drama, and so JMS works hard to build in lots of little shocks and revelations about the regular cast and their roles in the conflict, even if this sometimes comes at the expense of plausibility and good continuity.

So we learn that, as well as Delenn, both Londo and Sheridan are directly or indirectly to some extent to blame for the starting of the war, and that many of the characters first met many years before it was initially suggested. A lot of this they just about get away with, but I really am surprised we never got a scene where Sheridan and Delenn fondly reminisce about their very first meeting and her attempt to have him shot.

It looks very nice and there are some well-mounted sequences, but as the story nears its conclusion it really turns into just a simple recap of events, which the faithful will already know, and which new viewers will likely find go past a bit too quickly. Here the problem of knowing the end in advance really shows its teeth. In the end this particular movie has a lot of curiosity value but is by no means essential.

On, then, to Thirdspace, which is set at some point during season 4, but exactly when is a somewhat fraught question, as it is apparently almost impossible to find a moment when everyone’s in the right uniform and on the station as depicted here. This is a proper standalone story, though informed by the show’s wider universe. Coming home from a routine mission, Ivanova discovers a massive alien construct floating in hyperspace. Believing it to be potentially valuable or useful, Sheridan has it towed back to Babylon 5 and starts to investigate it, with the help of some passing xenoarchaeologists. Unfortunately, the presence of the artefact is having a very strange effect, first on Lyta, then on many of the station’s inhabitants…

JMS says this is his attempt to do a Cthulhu Mythos story in the Babylon 5 universe, to which I can only say ‘Hmmmm.’ There’s certainly a hint of At the Mountains of Madness in the initial set-up of the story, and the way in which the station’s inhabitants are afflicted with bad dreams certainly rings true to Lovecraft. However, a few dream sequences aside, the horror of the artefact is always floating off in the distance somewhere – it never envelops either the audience or the characters.

The way the story develops is also authentically very non-Lovecraftian, although I perhaps sense the dead hand of JMS’s network backers in this. The Cthulhu Mythos is quite short on fist-fights, and the idea of actually giving battle to Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones is laughable -and yet the climax of the story boils down to a lengthy brawl on the station and a massive space battle against encroaching aliens from another dimension. Everything is finally resolved by Captain John ‘Nuke ‘Em’ Sheridan reaching for his favourite brand of warhead again. Nice idea, very dubious execution.

'Take that, Nyarlathotep! Get that stitched, Ithaqua!'

‘Take that, Nyarlathotep! Get that stitched, Ithaqua!’

One thing you can say about  Thirdspace is that it at least looks fairly lavish: The River of Souls appears to have been made on a much more restricted budget. Set six months after the end of the series proper, this is another standalone story (though one which reuses the Soul Hunters from early in season 1).

You would have thought the people running the station would by now have instituted a blanket ban on any brilliant-but-maverick xenoarchaeologists being allowed to visit, as when they do it almost inevitably leads to disaster. Alas no, and so we have what’s a close cousin to a Wandering Loony story, with Ian McShane rocking up as someone who’s just pillaged a Soul Hunter crypt. Funding his operations is Garibaldi’s corporation, and so the man himself turns up to ask him just what he’s been up to. But the relic McShane has stolen is not what everyone thinks it is, and things become even more involved when a Soul Hunter turns up demanding his property back.

Playing the Soul Hunter is Martin Sheen. Martin Sheen! Possibly the most distinguished actor ever to cake himself in prosthetics and wobble strangely across a soundstage. To begin with, Sheen’s performance just comes across as incredibly mannered and affected – but then it sinks in that Sheen is genuinely trying to play this alien being as an alien being, not just a fantasticalised analogue of a German, or a Russian, or someone Japanese, which (let’s face it) is basically what most screen aliens essentially are.

The story itself is decent but a bit underpowered. There’s also what initially looks like an unconnected B-plot about Lochley and Allen having trouble with someone operating an unauthorised holo-brothel on the station. This, frankly, comes across as a bit crass – Tracy Scoggins has to cram herself into a pink basque, there’s what appears to be a joke at the expense of SF critic John Clute, and it’s all a bit leery. It does connect up to the main story with the Soul Hunters eventually, but I’m still not sure it does enough to earn its place.

None of these movies is especially accomplished, with River of Souls in particular only being lifted above mediocrity by Martin Sheen’s performance. But they’re all fairly watchable and by no means as bad as the worst episodes of the parent series. Is JMS being a bit hard on them, then? I’m not sure – but I’d say his judgement was bang-on about Crusade and the associated movie, which is what’s up next.

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So, and possibly not before time, we come to the final six episodes of Babylon 5 – the end of the series, something long-planned, at the very least, and – some might argue – slightly overdue. Well, I wouldn’t say that, but neither would I go all the way to the ‘nothing in the series’ life became it like the leaving’ position.

Some description first, before we get into the analysis. The six split quite easily into a duo, a trio, and a standalone, beginning with Movements of Fire and Shadow and The Fall of Centauri Prime, detailing the course of the Centauri war and its immediate aftermath. I’m not sure any of this quite hits the heights of the episode immediately preceding, and Movements in particular feels very rushed, but this is still powerful stuff. I remember that at the time these episodes were originally transmitted, the US was launching bombing missions against Iraq on what felt like similarly dubious pretexts: events since 1998 have done nothing to make these episodes feel less relevant and powerful. The Fall of Centauri Prime is really the story of the final fall of Londo Mollari, and this inevitably makes it a memorable story and a powerful conclusion to the main arc of the season – and the series as a whole.

After which we essentially get Wheel of Fire, Objects in Motion, and Objects at Rest – three episodes suggesting the destinies of the various regular characters – or, if one was to be more critical, three episodes of everyone saying goodbye to each other. There’s an occasional grab at a genuine plot (someone tries to assassinate Garibaldi, there’s a somewhat unsatisfactory conflict between Sheridan and Lennier) but mostly it is just a protracted set of farewells. To a new viewer, therefore, I suspect these episodes would prove baffling, pointless, and dull – but then the same could be said of a lot of later Babylon 5.

Personally, I think the series moves towards its conclusion with considerable grace – there’s obviously a lot of potential here for mawkishness and schmaltz, but on the whole things are admirably restrained, and when JMS does let sentiment get the better of him you are inclined to let it pass.

Which brings us to Sleeping in Light, or the SF geek equivalent of Les Miserables (in my case at least). Yes, I Went a couple of times the first time I saw this episode, never looked at it again out of a vague sense of embarrassment, but then – what do you know? – found myself Going again twice viewing it again now. Once again, there really isn’t much in the way of plot, just the last days of Sheridan and the station itself. The chronology of the series means that G’Kar and Londo can’t actually be in it, which obviously stops it from being absolutely premium B5, but – even though I never really warmed to either character – Bruce Boxleitner and Mira Furlan wring every ounce of emotion from Sheridan and Delenn’s final farewell to each other (yes, this is one of the bits which always makes me Go).

Pass me a tissue while I try to think of a cynical and witty caption.

Pass me a tissue while I try to think of a cynical and witty caption.

So what are we to make of the end of the series? I know I questioned the point of season 5 when I started watching it again, but I think it is without doubt a better and braver conclusion to the series than season 4 would have made. The best Babylon 5 is all about complexity and ambiguity, and these episodes have that in buckets – it’s an extremely courageous decision to conclude the main story with the protagonists effectively defeated by the machinations of the Drakh, and still in the dark as to what exactly has happened – before we even get to the fate of Londo. The same could be said of the decision to end the main series with the fall from grace of Lennier (although this could have been better handled). Leaving the manner of Lennier’s passing, and Lyta’s fate, obscure, is also rather brave.

Is this then a case of all being well that ends well? Well, for one thing I’m facing the prospect of various TV movies and spin-offs, so it doesn’t feel quite like it’s ended yet. But – the least you can say is that these episodes constitute a very worthy ending to a classic and hugely influential piece of TV science fiction.

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It has, as I’ve said before, sometimes felt like a long haul to watch all of Babylon 5 again. Some of it has been very good; some of it a bit of a chore to sit through. With the finishing line finally coming into sight, I was all set to relax and coast through the last ten or so episodes. But then I found myself watching what was probably the most wildly disparate set of episodes yet – almost bafflingly so. It’s almost like 1980s Doctor Who in that way that the tone and quality of the storytelling varies completely from one week to the next.

At least there is, overall, a general upwards sort of trend. The first of the four in question is The Corps is Mother, the Corps is Father (subject of a memorable typo courtesy of one UK listings magazine back in 1998), another extremely atypical episode that one presumes is the result of budget cutbacks or cast availability issues. The plot is fairly basic stuff – a psychopathic telepath (telepsychopath? psychotelepath? hmmm) is on the loose on the station and obviously he needs to be caught before he can cause too much mischief. Man on the scene to apprehend the miscreant is Bester, accompanied, as usual, by his remarkable toupee, but also on this occasion by two trainee Psi-Cops. So far, so what.

However, what makes this a bit different from the usual fare is that Bester is, to all intents and purposes, the lead character and hero of this story, and I suspect we are supposed to find ourselves sympathising with his compassion and concern for his fellow telepaths. However, JMS and Walter Koenig have done such a full-blooded job of presenting Bester as a callous, self-interested fascist over the last four years that it would take considerably cleverer and subtler writing than we see here for this conceit to really work. As a result the various scenes of Bester sitting around at home in knitwear, gently fending off the advances of starry-eyed young acolytes, just feel very weird. The twist at the climax of the episode is hokey and the sets of the various Psi-Corp installations where the episode begins look like the kind of thing you’d usually see on a daytime soap. It’s so totally different that it stays watchable, but it’s not one to hold up as an example of the show on form, even late in season 5.

Meditations on the Abyss feels like a book-keeping, moving-the-pieces-about sort of episode, but does this with a fair amount of deftness and charm. There’s a trainees-in-peril A-plot showcasing Bill Mumy as Lennier, which isn’t too bad, some more stuff about G’Kar as a religious leader, some character stuff about Vir which doesn’t completely hold up (Stephen Furst seems to think serious material should be played as farce), and so on. In the background the main plot of the season is still ticking away. It’s very tempting to dismiss this episode just as filler, but I think that does a disservice to the considerable amount of stuff going on just under the surface.

And then we come to Darkness Ascending. This must be something like episode #102, in terms of broadcast order anyway, with only another ten to go before the end of the series, and, watching this, for the first time I got a sense of a series suddenly contemplating its own achievement and its imminent conclusion. Some elements of the story are, if you ask me, just the stuff of soap opera – Sheridan and Delenn’s marital harmony is threatened, while there’s a subplot solely about Garibaldi’s drink problem and the lies he tells his girlfriend about it. And yet this is also an episode that takes the time to make specific references to long-past events – Garibaldi hearkens back to something that happened in Chrysalis, while there’s a conversation between Lyta and G’Kar that’s based on and pays off things that were set up in the pilot, for heaven’s sake. And the whole thing has a thoughtful quality – or perhaps I’m just imagining it. Nevertheless, this felt like a superior episode, with Bill Mumy getting more important stuff to do.


G'Kar wins the 'Who can do the best salute' contest on Centauri Prime.

G’Kar wins the ‘Who can do the best salute’ contest on Centauri Prime.


All of this is in preparation for And All My Dreams, Torn Asunder, which in its own way is something of a revelation, given we are very nearly at the back end of season 5. After months of build-up and increasing tension between the space powers, Sheridan and co (courtesy of Lennier) have finally got their hands on evidence appearing to prove that it’s the Centauri who have been attacking shipping lanes and destroying the vessels of other races. Everyone at the top of the Alliance knows this will probably mean yet another interstellar war, exactly the kind of thing the alliance itself was supposed to prevent from happening. Londo, naturally, refuses to believe his own people are responsible (we, the audience, know he may have a point), and the Centauri Court flatly refuses to acknowledge the authority of the Alliance or the other races in this matter, claiming it’s all another Narn plot.

I’ve said a lot of fairly unkind things about seasons 4 and 5, but All My Dreams is surely proof that Babylon 5 never completely lost its mojo – I would say that this is an episode which would not feel very out of place, in terms of its quality, near the climax of season 2 (surely the overall peak of the series). There is the same mixture of characterisation, poignancy, scope, and sense of events crashing hopelessly out of control that I remember from episodes like The Coming of Shadows and The Long Twilight Struggle. Really the only thing keeping it from being one of the best episodes of the whole series is the fact that the war is depicted as breaking out solely because the job of organising the peacekeeping force is entrusted to one man, who happens to be a drunk. Yes, it’s the Garibaldi-hits-the-bottle arc’s moment in the sun, and it doesn’t really convince on any level. Nevertheless, a very strong episode, and certainly one to make a person optimistic about this final stretch of episodes.

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Starting in on B5 season 5, I was rather scathing about the wisdom of the whole undertaking – something along the lines of ‘if the story’s already finished, why churn out another 22 episodes?’ and ascribing rather ungenerous motives to Joe Straczynski for doing so. And yet, and yet – while I’m absolutely not saying that season 5 represents the show at anything like its peak performance, I’m still finding it much more watchable than mid or late season 4. The choreography of the two main elements of the plot is adroitly handled and it seems to me that there’s a valid thematic link between them – namely, the terrible problems arising when one attempts to exert political power in an ethical context.

As we reach In The Kingdom Of The Blind, the main plot of the first half of the season is building to a (very slightly abrupt) climax – the DVD ordering of the episodes is clearly bobbins, as this is self-evidently taking place right after Secrets of the Soul – with the telepath cult now intent upon applying to the Alliance for their own homeworld. The tactics they choose to employ to leverage their position are a bit too confrontational and antagonising to really be credible, though, and one is forced to wonder just how messed up Byron really is if he thinks blackmailing every major power is going to work out for them – and how messed up the rest of the teeps are, for them to be so blindly obedient to him. Perhaps this is the Kingdom of the Blind to which the title alludes, a reference which is otherwise somewhat obscure.

This is all really an exercise in thickening the ongoing plot and raising the stakes, which the episode does competently enough in both the telepath plot and the Centauri-Drakh plot (which is only just getting started). The Londo-G’Kar matey double-act is a tiny bit grating, but they’re never not actually interesting to watch and the set-up on Centauri Prime is obviously interesting given the things to which we, as long-term viewers, are privy. I mentioned a while back that the Centauri Court stuff felt like JMS’s attempt at writing I Claudius, and it’s somewhat satisfying when an actor from the real version shows up (albeit briefly). Ian Ogilvy does as well under a Centauri barnet as anyone – obviously Derek Jacobi’s phone was engaged when they rang. (The image of Brian Blessed as a Narn has now lodged itself immovably in my brain – what a chance was lost there.)

It’s pretty much more of the same in A Tragedy of Telepaths, although this is marked out by the first of two back-to-back appearances by Walter Koenig and his hair, as Bester turns up to deal with the crisis of the rogue (and increasingly terrorist) telepaths, and also by a brief and somewhat baffling return by Julie Caitlin Brown as Na’Toth. The stuff with Na’Toth really just feels like attention-grabbing filler material, it comes out of nowhere and doesn’t set anything up – and the character has been so radically, if understandably, transformed in the three and a half years since Brown last played her that it’s not really recognisably her in the role. Hey ho.

The telepath stuff continues to be rather impressively gripping, with good intentions on both sides plausibly leading all concerned into a horribly tense and volatile situation. It’s just a shame that Byron is not, and has never been, someone you could actually warm to and genuinely care about. Is this the performance? Is it the scripting? (There’s a degree of JMS-bibble involved.) Is it the hairstyle? It’s a shame, whatever the cause.

How long every morning with the tongs and curlers, I wonder?

How long every morning with the tongs and curlers, I wonder?

It all gets resolved in Phoenix Rising, along with some new stuff – mainly concerned with Michael Garibaldi’s adventures in alcoholism – being initiated. For the most part, it plays and flows pacily and convincingly, although the hard edge hinted at in one early scene (one of Bester’s psi-cops turns up nailed to a wall – this never made it into the initial UK broadcast) doesn’t quite materialise. In the end the mass of hairspray Byron applies every morning spontaneously combusts and the tragedy is complete. I’ve been nice about the political sensibility and hard head of this particular plot arc, but Byron’s noble sacrifice doesn’t quite feel like it fits or rings true, quite – if you consider that Byron is clearly meant to be a visionary leader along the lines of Martin Luther King or Gandhi, and then remember what happened to both of them, you can see what I mean when I say that the sort of heroic self-immolation JMS cooks up is almost too nice a resolution – for Byron to reach a compromise with Sheridan and Lochley, but then be killed by his own supporters for selling them out, would have been the conclusion I’d have gone for. But then I’ve never even watched Murder She Wrote.

The Ragged Edge sends us off into the Drakh-Centauri plot full-bloodedly, with the back-on-the-booze stuff figuring quite prominently too. There’s a visit to the Drazi homeworld, which is interestingly written and directed in terms of the associations it’s designed to strike, even if the plot involved is a tiny bit corny. There’s an interesting B-story about G’Kar coming to terms with his new status as a religious leader – anything giving Andreas Katsulas a chance to do some proper acting is obviously a bonus. The Drazi homeworld stuff probably raises this one slightly above average, given some of the plot is a bit dubious – the top bods at the Alliance are suspicious enough of space debris to have it analysed to see if it really did come off attacking ships, but when someone finds a particular style of button at the scene of a crime they instantly conclude that this is absolute proof of who the criminals are. Exigences of plot, I expect, and moderately excusable. Season 5 continues to stand up pretty well regardless.

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Wandering Loonies, that is – well, sort of. Have I said before how much season 5 of Babylon 5 reminds me, in a funny way, of season 1? Probably due to the sense of something starting from scratch, although season 5’s ambitions are necessarily different. Certainly the most recent quartet has done nothing to dispel this impression, partly because the episodes are less about people in rooms arguing about political philosophy and more about oddballs visiting the station and bringing the plot with them.

However, it would be stretching a point to suggest that these are the startling wandering loonies of old – the days of Jack the Ripper or King Arthur turning up on the station are gone, alas. In Learning Curve the visitors are a bunch of senior Rangers and their trainees, who turn up to have a bit of a natter with Delenn about nothing terribly important. However, their presence does enable a story to get going where one of the trainees gets on the wrong side of one of the station’s gangsters: he is, of course, a Gaw-Blimey-Cockernee gangster of the kind JMS seems oddly fond and yet incapable of writing credibly.

It all ends up with a lot of moderately oblique Minbari philosophy and people hitting each other with pipes. This is not especially interesting as a story, except for the way in which the Rangers adopt a rule-through-terror philosophy against their enemies, overruling the local authorities as they do so. Once again, this seems very authoritarian and undemocratic – the Rangers come across as not far removed from a secret police force operating without any real checks, but there’s no sense that this is ambiguity is in any way intended by JMS, any more than earlier when the Alliance was promulgated.

Threaded through this story is a plotline about tension and distrust between Garibaldi and Lochley, which becomes more central in Strange Relations, the episode immediately following. However, this story is more about the plight of glossy-barneted Byron and his fellow telepaths as they are pursued by the very-possibly-synthetically-coiffured Bester and his fascist colleagues. Bester actually isn’t in the episode very much, and the confrontation between him and Garibaldi is bumped to a future point. There are some striking confrontations in this episode, but I do get the sense that this episode is more about setting up future plot developments than concentrating on this particular plot – the season arc starts to take on a bit more shape from this point on.

Secrets of the Soul comes next and would normally be considered a bit of an oddity, given that – of all the characters featuring in the title sequence – only three actually appear in the story, and minor ones at that. I would suspect the show of a little surreptitious double-banking if I didn’t know better. Anyway, Dr Franklin gets involved in a sort-of Trek-ish story about an alien race with a terrible secret, which works as well as it does only because Richard Biggs is as solid as ever as the doc. The main event is more stuff with Byron and his fellow telepaths being harassed by more British ruffians, and Lyta’s efforts to help him. This would work better if Byron was a slightly less irritating character, and there’s more apparently-unconscious ambiguity – irritating or not, Byron comes across as a cult leader and Lyta as someone deeply troubled getting in over her head.

It concludes with some telepathic whoa-ho-ho and a flashback sequence which I didn’t recall in the slightest, but then the only previous time I saw this episode  was on its original Sunday lunchtime broadcast in  the UK, when it was probably savagely cut for the sex and violence. Not content with getting his leg over, Byron goes all allegorical-Zionist and declares he wants the telepaths to have their own homeworld, something which is obviously going to have ominous consequences.

Only not just yet. Next, in the DVD set if not in broadcast or recommended chronological order, comes a genuine oddity, Day of the Dead, notable for being the only mid- or late-period Babylon 5 episode not written by JMS – instead the writer responsible is one Neil Gaiman, of thingy fame.

After nearly three years of JMS, a new narrative voice is very noticeable – and the story itself is very much the antithesis of Straczynski’s style. Where JMS tends to tell hard-headed SF action thrillers or character pieces, but do so using wildly eccentric plot structures and experimental techniques, Gaiman opts for a full-on fantasy story, but told in a very conventional manner. There’s a very rare alien religious festival about to happen and as part of the preparations for this, the aliens temporarily buy a large chunk of the station. G’Kar issues various grave warnings of strange events in the offing, but as usual no-one listens to him (you’d have thought, by this point…).

When the festival gets underway, the purchased area and everyone inside it is cut off, and instruments suggest it is in some way physically now on the alien homeworld. As if this wasn’t strange enough, everyone inside the affected zone is visited by the embodiment of someone they knew who has died. Londo’s old girlfriend from the start of season 1 comes back, along with someone Garibaldi nearly got it on with in season 2. Lochley is visited by a friend who died of an OD before she joined up, while – most promisingly – Lennier has an encounter with Morden, who appears to have changed his hairstyle since he died, but is still the same warm loveable human being. Rather curiously, no-one seems very interested in actually talking to their visitor, except Lochley, and this is because her subplot is just there to fill in her background a bit. It’s an interesting, if rather weird premise, but not very much comes from it.

'...and, then as a punishment, they did this to my hair.'

‘…and, then as a punishment, they did this to my hair.’

Meanwhile, in a B-plot, Penn and Teller guest-star as a legendary comedy team visiting the station. I like Penn and Teller very much, but they are almost supernaturally unfunny as the comedians here, and the forced fake laughter of every other actor in the scenes where they are supposedly being hilarious is deeply grating. Once again, this thread doesn’t seem to go anywhere, and the episode as a whole doesn’t really live up to Gaiman’s reputation – it didn’t really at the time, and it certainly doesn’t now. Nevertheless the break from JMS is rather welcome, and makes one wish he’d given someone else the reins more often.

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The Non-Spin-Off Year

Well, I have to tell you folks, getting to the end of Babylon 5 season 4 was such a long hard slog that I seriously considered cutting down how often I actually wrote about my progress – I was struggling to find things to say that even I found interesting. It’s fair to say my expectations of season 5 were even lower.

Season 5 is a curious beast, and one is forced to wonder why it ever got made. Throughout the first three seasons of B5, JMS’s standard line when interviewed was ‘This is one finite story with a beginning, a middle and an end – when we finish telling that story, it’ll be the end of the series’. And so, when that one finite story was wrapped up (a year early, as it turned out) at the end of season 4, you would have logically expected the series to conclude at that point in accordance with JMS’s stated rationale for the show.

Except, obviously, it didn’t. Why did Straczynski change his mind so dramatically and choose to artificially extend the series? Was it his popularity, and that of the show, with fans? Was it money? Was it simply a stubborn case of ‘I said this show would run for five full years and it’s going to run for five full years’?  I hesitate to say.

Regardless, this probably explains why season 5 feels like the series is starting over again – in fact, it feels rather like a spin-off from Babylon 5 more than a continuation of it. Most of the characters carry over (to begin with, at least), but the status quo of the series is subtly different, and for the first time in a year one gets a sense of the series being able to relax and breathe rather than constantly rushing to squeeze in every necessary plot development. The title sequence and change of music also add to this impression of a fresh start – the recap of the preceding four years really does give one a sense of an epic story unfolding, it just doesn’t make it clear that that story has now, to all intents and purposes, finished.

Anyway, No Compromises briskly establishes the series’ new rules of engagement, albeit with an arguable cheat with respect to Sheridan and Lochley’s former relationship (a soapy element I don’t recall contributing much to the ongoing storyline). People spend a lot of time in rooms arguing about politics and what seem like fairly abstract concerns, which happens quite a lot at the start of season 5, and we get to meet new recurring character Byron who (uh oh) is British and (uh oh again) has long flowing hair. He doesn’t have a beard but the impression that this is someone very much like Marcus Cole but with psychic powers is hard to shake. The A-plot of the episode is very much a means to an end but this is still much more accessible than most of the back end of season 4.

A big hand for the Gaim ambassador!

A big hand for the Gaim ambassador!

However, any sense that we are back in the realm of conventional drama is shortlived as we soon encounter The Very Long Night of Londo Mollari, another sort-of experimental piece of JMS psychodrama. Londo has a heart attack and winds up in sickbay, experiencing a sort of long dark night of the soul which will determine whether he lives or dies. Of course, he ends up living, and while the episode is inventively directed, it’s surprisingly dependent on the viewer being up to speed with much of what has happened in Londo’s backstory. The usual sense of JMS being in love with his own cleverness stops this from being a completely satisfying episode, too.

The Paragon of Animals gives us more people in rooms arguing about politics and ethics, while off-camera yet another SF retooling of Seven Samurai unfolds. There is some interesting material going on here about the conflict between political realities and the desire to be virtuous, and if the story never quite seems to come to life it’s because these concepts are, as previously mentioned, rather abstract. Like most of these episodes, not awful, but not brilliant either.

Also falling into the nice idea, shame about the execution box is A View from the Gallery, one of those episodes which is more about how the tale is told than the tale itself. The story purports to be about a mysterious fleet attacking Babylon 5 – the idea of completely unknown major threats suddenly appearing feels a bit implausible, following all that business with the Shadow War and so on – and the desperate battle to repel the aliens, who wear buckets on their heads. What it’s actually about is a pair of station maintenance men who wander about in a Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead sort of way, commenting on the events of the story. The problem is that the two onlookers don’t appear to have anything to say about the story which isn’t very obvious or trite – there’s no counterpointing or undercutting of expectation going on here, just some dialogue which sounds a bit like a lot of platitudes. Reasonably nice space battles, though.

Overall, then, four quite watchable episodes, and rather more likeable than most of season 4 – but still no sense of what season 5 is actually going to be about, and nothing really to suggest why JMS felt the need to make it at all. Onwards.

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Not Quite the Last Gasp

Oh, God, this seemed like a nice, fun idea when I started back in September – why not watch the complete run of Babylon 5 and occasionally write down my impressions of the series? Four seasons in, the writing, if not the watching, is beginning to feel a bit laborious – and I wonder if I’d be that bothered about the watching if I didn’t feel the need to complete the series of posts about the show.

As I’ve said before, my recollection of season 4 is that it was a tough old grind back in 1997, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that first half-dozen episodes were very watchable. Once the Shadow War storyline wrapped up, though, the ongoing story seemed to stall and go into a sort of nosedive from which it never completely recovered: the best characters had nothing to do, everyone seemed to turn into a cartoon version of him or herself, and there was a lot of corny and implausible writing from Joe Straczynski, who seemed to have lost the ability to self-edit.

Anyway, this final batch of season 4 episodes is bookended by two of Straczynski’s most soaringly experimental pieces of work. Opening the quintet is Intersections in Real Time, which seems to me to be assembled from various elements of The Prisoner and 1984. Sheridan gets interrogated at length by a banality-of-evil figure, there’s a spot of stunt casting (the guy who played Jack the Ripper and the Oldest Man in the Galaxy reappears under a new mask), and it all plays out in real time between the ad breaks. It’s certainly interesting but it also felt a bit smug and self-regarding in terms of just how out-there it is: you could easily skip it and not lose anything in terms of the bigger story.

With almost unseemly haste, Garibaldi proves he’s not actually a traitor and oversees springing his old boss in Between the Darkness and the Light, although this is not quite the main dramatic  thrust of the episode. This concerns an ambush being set for the insurrectionist fleet by evil old President Clark, using hybrid-technology starships which I fear just looked a bit silly to me. I’m not even sure the concept makes sense – we’re talking about a gulf in development even greater than that between Viking longboats and modern warships, and how would you go about splicing those two together? Suffice to say Ivanova gets gravely wounded. This episode is not actually bad, it’s just remarkably unremarkable for reasons I find very difficult to identify.

Everything (finally) climaxes in Endgame, with the final advance on Earth and the liberation of Mars and lots of other things going on. There’s a lot of action, most of it well-mounted, although I think the exactly method whereby Sheridan disables the majority of the Loyalist fleet remains a big ask for the audience and needs a bit more setting up. That said, it doesn’t carry anything like the emotional punch of earlier big battles. This is also the episode where Marcus (I’m tempted to say ‘finally’ again) snuffs it, but again, it’s quite difficult to get really excited about this either way.

I didn't know who she was either, but now I want to see her take on Trinity Wells. FIGHT!!!

I didn’t know who she was either, but now I want to see her take on Trinity Wells. FIGHT!!!

The job of tying up all the loose ends falls to Rising Star, in which everything gets amicably sorted out and justice and order are restored to the Galaxy, unless you’re Marcus, in which case you just get stuck in a fridge to be revived in a spin-off short story. Obviously, the impact of Rising Star is somewhat muffled by the fact that it’s doing a job – concluding the main part of the series – that turned out not to be necessary when season 5 got commissioned after all, but it does that job quite well. Delenn’s big speech about the brave new era and the benefits of the Interstellar Alliance still sounds very authoritarian to me – shades of Michael Rennie’s ‘behave yourselves or we’ll blow you up’ declaration at the end of The Day The Earth Stood Still, another movie perhaps not as liberal as it first looks. Londo and G’Kar’s transformation into Statler and Waldorf is not exactly winning either.

Still, at least they’re in it, which is more than you can say for The Deconstruction of Falling Stars, a very weird episode written to fulfil an almost impossible brief – filling the final slot of season 4 without introducing any new story elements in earnest, for hardly any money. As JMS says on the DVD audio track, it’s an anthology of B5 short stories, and, as he doesn’t say, an opportunity for him to indulge himself again both in terms of both story structure and his own personal interests – so he gets to have a pop at the media, academics, anyone who said the show would never get finished, and so on. Several of the segments make big demands of the audience’s ability to suspend disbelief, but considering the circumstances it’s a miracle it’s as watchable as it is.

Which leaves just season 5 and the movies. One last lap, I’m sure I can do this…

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The underlying story of Babylon 5‘s fourth season is that of one man daring to take on the universe virtually single-handed, mocked and derided by his opponents, but still consumed by an iron self-belief. He has an army of devoted followers, but some people once close to him are beginning to wonder if his prior achievements haven’t gone to his head, and he is showing signs of poor judgement, even megalomania. The big question underlying this is, of course, whether the name of the man in question is Sheridan or Straczynski – or, to put it another way, how much of what’s actually up on screen inadvertantly reflects what was going on behind the camera.

Five episodes this time round, and a proper mixed bag they are too. We open with Rumors, Bargains and Lies, in which the storyline about the Minbari civil war limps on while Sheridan contemplates a way of getting the minor planets to allow him to police their borders. The main problem with this episode is that almost no-one in it acts in a remotely credible manner – a group of Minbari clerics (one of them is Lieutenant Gruber from Allo Allo!) are alarmed by gossip that one of them thinks he’s overheard and instantly decide upon a mass murder-suicide pact. Sheridan comes up with a scheme to get what he wants, but not only is the plan so ludicrously convoluted that the Mission Impossible team would reject it as impractical, but he doesn’t bother telling anyone what it is. This is solely for purposes of dramatic tension, the requirements of the script overriding the truth of the story. At least the two plots complement each other on that level.

Moments of Transition at least sees the conclusion of the Minbari civil war, a plotline which never felt like more than a piece of mid-season padding. It is resolved through the use of an ancient Minbari tanning salon and a frankly improbable sacrifice by a recurring character that borders on a deus ex machina escape for Delenn. More interesting is a rather downbeat story about Lyta struggling to make a living as a rogue telepath, with events conspiring to put her in the power of Bester and his enigmatic hair. (This is the one where Walter Koenig gets to deliver an expository monologue to a deep freeze – the joys of B5.) It’s not terribly memorable, either, but at least the episode concludes with signs of the series sparking back into life.

No Surrender, No Retreat is by some way the best episode of this bunch, as Sheridan decides to start the liberation of Earth territory by force. Watching this again now what’s striking is that this seems like a unilateral decision on his part, and one is forced to wonder why he gets as much military support as he does – given that the Rangers and the White Star fleet were both expressly assembled to fight the Shadows, how come no-one’s been agitating for them to be demobbed? Here’s where we again get the impression of Sheridan as some kind of cult leader.

Anyway, the climactic battle is decent if a bit garish and the episode’s examination of the ethics of warfare is not the sort of thing you often see in this kind of story. I have to say that one of the highlights of the episode for me, though, is a scene in which Londo desperately tries to establish some kind of relationship with G’ Kar, despite all the history between them and their races. Again, it seems to me that one of the real problems with later Babylon 5 is that it constantly struggles to find meaningful things for these two characters to do: the main story is happening elsewhere now.

The religious overtones are so all-pervading that Sheridan's spaceship even has its own stained glass window.

The religious overtones are so all-pervading that Sheridan’s spaceship even has its own stained glass window.

The Exercise of Vital Powers takes us back to the story of Garibaldi and his new employer, who finally turns up on screen, and also features Franklin and Lyta trying to defrost the telepaths they found in some Shadow fridges during season 3. It’s a fairly telepath-centric episode, but also a Garibaldi-led one, and – again I repeat myself – Jerry Doyle is operating at the outer limits of his acting ability. It’s funny, I watched this episode only two or three days ago and I can only remember a few details from it, which may tell you something.

The Face of the Enemy is an episode which JMS really likes but I can’t find much genuine enthusiasm for. There are some nicely put together sequences, as Garibaldi lures Sheridan to Mars and turns him over to his enemies in the government of Earth, which gives a real sense of this being a turning point in the series, but my main problem is not just the quantity of the exposition at the climax of the episode – Bester’s hair turns up at the climax and delivers what feels like a five-minute info dump – but what we’re required to believe, both in terms of how convoluted the various relationships of dubious parties on Mars really were – A is in league with B, who is in league with C – C hates A, and B isn’t wild about them either, but they need A so they’re working with them anyway without telling A of their dealings with C, and so on – but also the level of coincidence involved in the story.

Oh well, only a few more episodes to go and with the Minbari civil war and the Garibaldi conspiracy storylines sorted out hopefully things will get a bit more straightforward and pacy for the climax. Then again, season 5 is lurking round the corner…

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