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Posts Tagged ‘Comes the Inquisitor’

One peculiar and probably unintentional piece of fallout from Babylon 5‘s structure is the way that its season finales are also its Christmas episodes, due to their being set at the end of the show’s in-universe year. As such they are probably amongst the most unusual Christmas episodes ever made in American TV, featuring far fewer uplifting redemptions and cheery miracles, and far more interstellar catastrophes and nuclear detonations than one usually finds in the form (though the British-made Doctor Who Christmas shows probably run them close for tonal strangeness on occasion). Nevertheless it was oddly satisfying to be able to sit down on Christmas Morning and enjoy The Fall of Night in the knowledge that this would probably be the one and only occasion on which I and the series were in sync.

The Christmas Fairy visits Captain Sheridan.

The Christmas Fairy visits Captain Sheridan.

The Fall of Night is another undeniably strong episode from a series at the height of its powers and confidence – coming so hard on the heels of The Long Twilight Struggle, it’d be easy to argue we’re at the zenith of B5‘s success and quality, the series having greatly improved across season 2. However, exhibit A against this suggestion is tucked in between these two episodes, in the dubious form of Comes the Inquisitor. As usual, it’s quite easy to work out the narrative jobs this episode is being called upon to do – illustrate the new status quo, make the Vorlons a bit more morally ambiguous, and be cheap to make – but it’s the manner in which it goes about them which is somewhat questionable.

Ambassador Kosh has decided – a bit late in the day, if you ask me – that he is not sure of Delenn’s commitment to the cause: this despite her undergoing the metamorphosis which has clearly caused her much mental anguish, the loss of respect and status amongst her own people, etc etc, all in the name of the struggle to come. To this end he summons ‘an inquisitor’ from the Vorlon homeworld just to give her particulars a proper examination. Somewhat to everyone’s surprise, the inquisitor turns out to be a human being. He admits to being from late-1880s London, wears a long cloak and a top hat, is disgusted at the moral turpitude he sees everywhere on the station, and proceeds to lock himself in with Delenn in an obscure bit of the station, where things quickly get a) sado-masochistic and b) rather theatrical.

It’s a very wonky, I’m-enjoying-the-sound-of-my-own-voice kind of theatrical, with the near-legendary JMS penchant for cod-profound soliloquy given full reign at considerable length. The actor playing the inquisitor is giving it the full Richard III treatment too, and one very quickly starts wishing they will wrap it all up and move on to something more interesting.

For all that it’s related to the bigger story, Comes the Inquisitor (the sub-Marvel Comics-style title is indicative of the tone of the A-plot) is really just our old friend the Wandering Looney Episode making a rare second season appearance. It seems to me that these episodes represent JMS wanting to explore the more mythic and symbolic elements of his story, and usually making a bit of a hash of it. The Wandering Looneys are, as often as not, archetypes, or based on iconic figures, whether that be from literature, myth, or modern folklore. If this sounds potentially iffy, you’re not wrong: but for all its flaws Comes the Inquisitor manages to make a visit to the space station by Jack the Ripper less ludicrous than that sounds as a story concept – but the stagey nature of proceedings doesn’t help.

I was actually rather more engaged by the B-story, which concerns G’Kar’s attempts to retain his authority amongst his people and reinvent himself as a leader of the resistance. This is, as usual, largely due to the strength of Andreas Katsulas’ performance, because the plot itself is very disappointing – G’Kar is presented with a serious challenge he must complete in order to retain his position. What does he do? He asks Sheridan for a favour. Which is granted, and so the challenge is completed (apparently) effortlessly and (certainly) offscreen. Set against this, there’s a remarkably powerful scene between Katsulas and Stephen Furst.

Nevertheless, the A-story torpedoes the episode. Between them, Comes the Inquisitor and The Fall of Night tell you everything you need to know about JMS as a writer, and (by extension) the series of which he’s now the only writer. When it comes to writing the epic, fast-paced, action-and-politics episodes, he’s not perfect, but he’s still very good: the things barrel along breathlessly, the big developments are usually moving and logical, and the results are undeniably effective. But give him the opportunity to have a go at a chamber piece or a weird little formal challenge and you get something wearily verbose and rather in love with its own pretensions. The tension between the two kinds of episodes will, I suspect, only increase as we proceed into season 3.

(I kept meaning to institute a ‘Straight to Hell’ running total throughout this season, possibly in tandem with a ‘Get the Hell off my Space Station’ tally – but JMS’s supposed fondness for this particular piece of dialogue seems apocryphal. Admittedly, in Points of Departure we hear how Sheridan sent the Black Star ‘Straight to Hell’ while Ivanova reveals the situation since Sinclair’s departure has also gone ‘Straight to Hell’, and in The Fall of Night we get a few more, including Sheridan blowing a Centauri battle cruiser ‘Straight to Hell’ – but I’d be surprised if it turned out there were more than half a dozen all season. One to keep track of in future episodes I suspect.)

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