Posts Tagged ‘J Michael Straczynski’

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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Anyway, so: the middle five episodes of Crusade. There are a couple more here I remember from when the series actually ran in the UK, but they are not the best examples of the series. Then again, none of the episodes I’ve seen so far have honestly been what I could call great, just memorably weird (and not intentionally either).

In Visitors from Down the Street JMS delights us by taking up his Sledgehammer of Comedy (TM) as the Excalibur encounters a drifting Flying Saucer and takes it on board. From it emerge two aliens wearing 90s-style suits with some sort of leguminous tuber growing out of their heads. From the design of the suits and the fact that the female alien’s tubers are a strawberry blonde colour, it is instantly clear that a not-terribly-subtle parody of another well-known fantasy series will soon be underway. And so it proves, with very obvious jokes about Roswell, an appearance by an evil Cigarette Smoking Alien, and characters starting lines of dialogue with ‘The truth is…’ before doors are slammed in their faces.

Stop it, Joe, please. Oh, my sides.

It is, for one thing, not nearly as clever or funny as any of The X Files’ own comedy episodes, and 1999 is at least two years too late for an X Files parody to be genuinely topical or strictly relevant. The general air of the thing is not helped by the heady aroma of raw sewage apparently drifting through the ship (there is, believe it or not, a B-plot about the ship’s plumbing being on the blink).

In the end, loveable Captain Gideon opts to reveal the truth about alien life to Mulder-alien and Scully-alien’s home planet. Lt. Earnest Telepath, the first officer, makes the reasonable point that some might say that they are meddling in a foreign society. Gideon shares his response to this in detail: ‘Screw ’em.’ I still find no reason to like this character whatsoever.

Oh well, on to The Well of Forever, which at least has Galen in it. There’s not much more to be said in its favour, as the plot concerns a trip off to a special place in Hyperspace and Galen effectively hijacking the ship to pursue an agenda of his own. Normally you would expect Captain Grumpy to have him shot for this sort of behaviour, but the format demands everyone be friends at the end.

There is an inconsequential B-plot about Lt. Earnest Telepath having an assessment to make sure he hasn’t done anything interesting with his psychic powers, but the most interesting scene is one of the weird ones: the Excalibur encounters giant space jellyfish and one of them starts dry-humping the ship. Wacka wacka.

Each Night I Dream Of Home is a real everything-but-the-kitchen-sink episode, featuring, in no particular order, a battle with the nasty Drakh, revelations as to the nature of the Five Year Flu, a slightly creepy storyline about deliberately infecting someone for medical research purposes, a guest appearance by Richard Biggs, and a non-guest appearance by Tracey Scoggins which nevertheless feels like one as she’s in the series so infrequently. Plenty going on, obviously; probably a bit too much, to be honest.

We’re back in the Land of the Knocked Off Trek (or so it certainly feels) for Patterns of the Soul, in which a mission to forcibly relocate some colonists takes an unexpected turn, as always tends to happen. Every time a gruff senior officer packs the protagonists off to do something to some colonists which looks ethically dubious, you just know the colonists are going to turn out to be in the right and the plot will revolve around the captain coming up with some sort of clever wheeze to con the evil old brass. There’s a B-plot about Ship’s Thief, whose main talent seems to be climbing up things in tight leather trousers, finding a colony of her own people on the same planet, but zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

The Path of Sorrows features an ancient vault which can only be opened using tears of sorrow, and which contains an ancient being which feeds on forgiveness. Clearly this is one of those episodes into which the series’ scientific advisers at JPL had a great deal of input. All that basically follows is the ancient forgivenessovore offering Captain Grumpy, Lt. Earnest Telepath and Galen a chance to articulate their various backstories in some detail. Now, this is by no means unwelcome, but it’s not exactly subtly handled. The alien suit is rather good, and parts of it approach creepiness, but on the whole it feels lumpy and primitive. Not only is it not very good, this series isn’t even consistently weird.

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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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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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Anyone following along with this Babylon 5 viewing marathon will probably recall that I was not initially enthusiastic about revisiting season 4, but then started to revise my opinion of it upwards. mostly on the strength of the first five or six episodes. Well, I have to say that six episodes further in my opinion is being revised right back down again: for the first time since I started this, back in September, it’s starting to feel like a drudge and an imposition to watch even one episode every two days. I see now why Neil Perryman and Toby Hadoke do this sort of thing with a friend or loved one, I assume then you always have a sense of being in it together for the long haul, and a shared feeling of achievement come the end. At the moment it’s just feeling like a very long haul with slim pickings along the way.

I suspect this is mainly because, with the Shadow War over and done with, the participation of most of the alien races is now minimal – in the four episodes on the current disc, G’Kar and Londo get one scene – and the focus is now almost entirely on the B5-vs-President Clark story (which, as I’ve also said before, is never the most interesting element of the show). The focus of the show has also shifted by this point, too: rather than guest characters and stories coming to Babylon 5, it’s now the case that the principals nearly always leave Babylon 5 to go to the story. You would think that this would result in the narrative universe of the programme feeling bigger and richer, but somehow the opposite is true – the locations they go to don’t feel like fully developed places, somehow. On the current disc the regular characters go to Mars for the first time, but all we really see of the place is a very generic cave set.

I could also talk about some very inelegant – I’m trying to avoid the word primitive – writing: ‘corny’ is the word a member of my family once used when they happened upon me watching one of these episodes a few years ago. The sense that the writer – which is, needless to say, JMS all the way at this point – has fallen in love with his own characters and his own voice is also hard to shake. Sheridan, Delenn and Ivanova in particular feel like exaggerated parodies of themselves a lot of the time.

The most recent quartet of episodes opens with Atonement, an episode as determinedly standalone as any this series: Delenn gets summoned off to Minbar by her family to learn if they will approve her proposed nuptials with Sheridan. All this really boils down to is the use of an ancient and somewhat dubious Minbari plot device (even JMS admits that how it functions basically depends on the requirements of the script) to fill in Delenn’s backstory and shed some light on the origins of the Earth-Minbari War. Given that this is a Minbari episode, it’s interesting enough, and the performance of the actor playing Delenn’s great mentor is very decent – but it feels very odd to be revisiting that particular war at this point in the show: in season 2 it would have felt like a logical inclusion, but here it just feels like Straczynski trying to cram in backstory anywhere that feels vaguely appropriate. Admittedly the plot to some extent revolves around the revelations concerning Valen that came out of season 3, but these are not really what the episode is here for.

Hey ho. The next episode is the oddly-named Racing Mars, in which Marcus and Dr Franklin arrive to make contact with the local resistance. As if an episode with a lot of Marcus in it wasn’t troubling enough – the disjunct between the cool, lethal Special Forces-type operator and the wacky British chap aspects of the character is as gapingly obvious as ever – there’s also another broadly-written character called Captain Jack in it (any resemblance to the Barrowman character from Torchwood, etc, is entirely nonexistent). Captain Jack has a funny accent and is clearly supposed to be endearing (come to think of it, most of JMS’s British characters may as well come on with t-shirts saying ‘I am cute’). Actually, he is annoying, and the A-story fairly forgettable (the revelation that government forces on Mars are using Shadow technology doesn’t quite feel plausible, but this may just be me).

More interesting, though not necessarily for the right reasons, is the B-story concerning the collapsing relationship between Sheridan and Garibaldi. As a major character, you can see why they’re finding stuff for Garibaldi to do, but – and a quick glance at Jerry Doyle’s post-B5 acting CV seems to confirm this – the problem is that the actor has a very limited range, and this plotline is taking him to the very edge of his ability. It’s also strange that this all boils down to Garibaldi becoming convinced that Sheridan is now the centre of a dangerous cult of personality: are we supposed to think, ‘Hmm, Garibaldi may have been interfered with by the enemy, but he’s got a point about that?’ There are certainly scenes in this episode and others that could be taken as reinforcing the idea that Sheridan has become an alarming, quasi-Messianic figure. But a lot of the rest of the time he’s just good ol’ John, trying to do the right thing. I can’t remember if this particular subtext gets developed further or is just a trick of the light; my gut instinct is to think the latter – it’s just too subtle, compared to the rest of the series right now – but I’m prepared to be pleasantly surprised.

Lines of Communication follows along in roughly similar vein – there’s a scene where Franklin convinces the Martians by giving them Sheridan’s personal guarantee, which feeds into what I was talking about up the page – but one gets a sense of JMS trying to cram all his arc in rather than think about the subtleties of storytelling. There’s potential in this episode for a story about the ethics of terrorism (or, if you prefer, freedom fighting) but what ends up on screen has less depth to it than even the TNG episode High Ground, made years before.

Similarly, the A-story concerns what I suppose we must call First Contact between the main characters and the Drakh. When you consider the lengthy and very atmospheric build-up to revelations about the Shadows in seasons 1 and 2, for the Drakh to just pop up fully-formed like this is very disappointing. (I say fully-formed: the Drakh emissary in this episode is enveloped in a peculiar visual effect which does make him look very interesting and strange, but apparently this was just done at the last minute as the monster suit was decided to be not up to scratch. I’ve said it over and over again: every great SF and fantasy series can do a really crap rubber monster if they’re prepared to put the effort in.) The fact that the episode is simply resolved by a garish spaceship battle doesn’t bode well for the future, either.

Hold still when you're having your picture taken, damn it!

Hold still when you’re having your picture taken, damn it!

Which is not inappropriate, given that coming up straightaway is the Garibaldi-centric Conflicts of Interest, in which… oh, I don’t know, there’s a lot of skulduggery involving Garibaldi, his ex-girlfriend, her latest husband, some telepaths, a telepathic virus, and so on. I must confess to not having found it at all gripping, but then I was put off by a hopeless opening scene which is pretty much consistently duff from beginning to end. Meanwhile Ivanova is setting up Pirate Radio B5 to help with the resistance. This is about as interesting as it sounds, and so to spice the plotline up JMS includes a four-minute comedy scene with Ivanova and the twin brother of someone who essentially died in season 3. It is the kind of comedy – in-jokey and self-indulgent – which always makes me want to stick my foot in the fire to take my mind off it.

I suppose if you’ve really bought into the Garibaldi character and his surrounding soap opera, not to mention Ivanova and the comedy twin brother, then you’re probably going to find Conflicts of Interest a lot more engaging than I did. But this to me is starting to look like a series which is flailing around for direction and new ideas, and starting to feed on itself as a result. Hopefully things will improve in time for the season climax.

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For the first time since I started this rewatch of the entirety of Babylon 5, I’m finding it a slightly uncomfortable experience: not because the first third of season 4 is painfully bad to watch, but because I haven’t seen most of it since its first UK transmission in late Summer of 1997. At that point my life was in the process of vanishing down one of the black holes which have featured intermittently in my life since leaving university, and I can’t help but remember the time in some detail. And so these episodes have uncomfortable associations for me.

This is a shame, because they’re not that bad: The Long Night and Into The Fire conclude the opening movement of the season and wrap up all the major plotlines involved. The big event of Long Night is a spot of regime change in the Centauri Republic, which is competently written and presented. Unfortunately, very nearly as memorable for quite different reasons is a big scene where Sheridan has to send someone off on a suicide mission – the similarity to the Beyond the Fringe sketch with ‘Get up in a crate, Perkins, pop over to Bremen – take a shufti, don’t come back’ is striking. It feels rather corny, in other words.

Oh well. Into the Fire resolves the Shadow War plot, and does it… well, look, there’s a lot of theatrical Straczynski-waffle, Sheridan shouts ‘Get the Hell out of our Galaxy!’ with a straight face, lots of things blow up and – you know, I’m sure the version I first saw had a bit where the Vorlons decide to leave and the Shadows rather quaveringly ask ‘Can we come too?’, but possibly my memory is playing tricks on me. In any case the striking thing about the episode is not how it resolves the war, but that it does so only about a quarter of the way into the season.

(It also features Ed Wasser’s final ‘proper’ appearance as Morden. The day after I saw the episode I found my way to Wasser’s personal website, with half a mind to leave him a complimentary note for his performance. The website’s most prominent feature was an article from Ed Wasser enthusiastically endorsing the benefits of getting your colon regularly irrigated. Needless to say his acting went uncomplimented.)

You would expect, after a massive plot shift like the end of the war, for there to be a much quieter catch-your-breath character piece to follow it – but JMS, still operating under the assumption that this is the final season of the show, has another major plotline to develop and then resolve and only sixteen episodes left to do it. And so, with a mighty narrative krrnnnk of gears not quite meshing, we’re plunged straight into the B5-vs-President Clark storyline again.

Looking on the bright side, Epiphanies features Walter Koenig and his enigmatic hair as Psi-Cop Bester (whose hair is, I suppose, equally enigmatic). The problem is that not very much happens in terms of plot in the A-story: everyone gets on the White Star to go somewhere, but they don’t actually get there and come straight back. The A-plot of the episode is just helping to lay in elements of the arc story rather than functioning on its own terms. Still, there are a few nice character bits.

The news reveals the identity of the person who's been sneaking horsemeat into burgers.

The news reveals the identity of the person who’s been sneaking horsemeat into burgers.

The Illusion of Truth is a companion piece to And Now For A Word from season 2, but somewhat different in structure – the earlier story was partly about bias, whereas this one is about deliberate misrepresentation and outright propaganda, which requires the first two thirds of the episode to be a conventional drama so the audience can see just how the news crew involved in the story are deliberately distorting the facts. It’s not as good as And Now For A Word, but it does stand up as an individual episode in its own right: which is a good sign, given that the series now seems to be reverting back to this particular style of storytelling.

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You know, I have a confession to make. I haven’t really been looking forward to the latter stages of the current Babylon 5  marathon, mainly because I’ve barely watched anything from after the end of season 3 since its original UK broadcast – and my memories of season 4 from that time are not especially positive ones. As a result I ended up sticking with what I presumed to be the consensus, which is that the series peaked with season 2 and gradually declined thereafter.

This has a certain logic to it, especially given that – as was well-publicised at the time – the planning of season 4 was subject to some significant changes. Joe Straczynski had initially said that, after writing all of season 3, he would be looking to farm scripts out again, but this never happened. The reason this didn’t happen is presumably because of the directive he received from Warner Brothers, informing him that while season 4 would be made, there would definitely not be a season 5, and he should aim to conclude the storyline of the series within the next 22 episodes. (Of course, there did eventually turn out to be a season 5, but no-one knew that at the time.)

If season 5 is weaker than the others, then this is the reason why, but it’s harder to decide what effect it had on season 4 – presumably the events of the first half of this season would have been stretched across its entire length, but would the results have been better or worse?

Certainly the opening episodes of the season are very different in style to anything preceding them – in some ways they are very much more like some modern TV series – and I think the sudden change, more than anything else, is what I reacted so negatively to. There’s much less of a sense of individual stories taking place – instead there are three or four parallel narratives running through the episodes and occasionally impacting upon each other. Most of the episodes have a big set-piece development, too.

That said, The Hour of the Wolf is a rather brave piece of TV in that hardly anything happens in it. Everyone is staggering around in shock following the climax of the previous season, two major characters are strikingly absent from the plot, and there’s a genuine sense of no-one quite knowing what to do next.

Only the start of season 4 and I've already run out of hair puns. This bodes ill.

Only the start of season 4 and I’ve already run out of hair puns. This bodes ill.

The exception to this is Londo, whose thread of the story runs through these episodes strongly. He finds himself back on Centauri and a member of the Imperial Court – but unfortunately the Emperor is a delusional psychopath whom Londo finds himself compelled to try and remove from the throne. It’s surely not pushing the boat out to suggest that this is JMS’s go at writing I, Claudius, or a version of it: Cartagia is clearly based on Caligula, and Vir has many parallels with Claudius himself – which I suppose means that Londo himself is closest to Tiberius, a fiercely ambitious man who ultimately realises he doesn’t want the crown after all, but is forced into taking it anyway. Does this make G’Kar B5‘s version of Herod Agrippa? (Ironic, given the increasingly-blatant G’Kar-as-Christ imagery.) I’m probably getting carried away. Anyway, this is mostly good stuff across the episodes, with at least one scene as chilling and understated as any in the series (the one with the thing happening behind the door).

Back on B5 itself, the story is mostly concerned with the Vorlons turning hypergenocidal and the need for the Army of Light to stop the Shadow War, permanently. Needless to say, by the end of episode three, The Summoning, Sheridan and Garibaldi have both returned to the station, Sheridan bringing with him an alien named Lorien who, given half a chance, is as great a purveyor of JMS-waffle as anyone in the series. JMS seems to have thought the actor in question was very good at putting his dialogue across, as he’s cast in three roles across the series and waffles his head off in all of them. (Sheridan and Lorien spend most of Whatever Happened To Mr Garibaldi? waffling at each other while everyone else is conquering their grief or starting bar fights.)

The big set piece in Falling Towards Apotheosis is (spoiler) the offing of the new Vorlon Ambassador. It’s hard not to jump to the conclusion that the original plan was for Kosh himself to be revealed as ultimately hostile at this point and killed off, but the character developed in unexpected directions, leading to his premature demise in the previous season. As B5 FX-blowouts go, the killing of the Vorlon is not quite in the first division, but it’s still a turning point in the concept of the series – rather than the main characters participating in a grand war between Good and Evil, they are now very obviously caught in the crossfire between monolithic forces of Chaos and Order.

But the big question is, ultimately – does the change in approach work? Are these episodes any good? I have to say I think they are – you still have a lot of JMS-waffle to negotiate and the occasional wobbly performance from certain cast members, but the storylines themselves drive forward relentlessly and the overall shape of the thing hangs together. I still miss the more episodic feel of the previous seasons – there aren’t really B-stories and C-stories, just main plotlines running in concert – but the strengths of Babylon 5 are still demonstrably there. I’m curious to see how much the rest of the season compares to my memory of it.

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JMS’s philosophy when putting together every season of B5 but the first was something he would happily discuss on the internet and elsewhere: at the beginning of a series B5 was likely to get more new and casual viewers, and so to encourage them to stick around and become regular viewers, those parts of the season included more standalone episodes and stuff designed to bring people up-to-speed with what was going on. Conversely, fewer people were likely to watch the show for the first time towards the end of a season, and so the overall story was much more prominent.

This is certainly the case with season 3, with most of the final five episodes comprising one ongoing story, namely the planning and execution of a counter-attack against the forces of the Shadows and its ultimate consequences for all concerned.

Walkabout, episode 18, has the testing of a new weapon as its B-story. This part of the episode is competently done with some decent special effects sequences, even if some of the drama leading up to the climax feels a bit contrived (G’Kar has to be wrangled into sending a Narn ship to help in the test). My problem with the episode is the A story from which it gets its name: it’s just terribly, terribly dull, concerned with Dr Franklin (still coming to grips with his drug problem) getting involved with a cabaret singer played by a former Kid From Fame. (Her songs are JMS compositions, and all I will say is that the music of the 2250s seems to be looking over its shoulder to that of the 1980s.)

Hey ho. There’s a bit of a tangent in Grey 17 is Missing, which is partly concerned with the aftermath of Sinclair’s departure – apparently War Without End and Walkabout swapped places in the running order, which would have made this flow a little more smoothly.

With Sinclair gone, Delenn is taking on some of his responsibilities, including the leadership of a Human-Minbari paramilitary organisation, the Rangers. As she is a member of the religious caste, the warrior caste want one of their own people installed instead, and so recurring nuisance Neroon turns up making various dark threats against her person. Having been made to promise not to warn any of the station staff about the danger, Lennier gets round this by telling (oh dear) Marcus, who resolves to delay Neroon long enough to complete the transfer of power by challenging him to a duel.

It turns out you *can* get the staff after all.

It turns out you *can* get the staff after all.

At the time this episode originally aired, B5 was still running in a teatime slot on Channel 4 and, as such, was occasionally savagely edited to fit the timeslot. This occasion was the first time I’ve seen it uncut (the same is true of Shadow Dancing), and I’m not completely sure what the fuss was about. All right, so there’s a prolonged action sequence in which Marcus gets beaten half to death (I’m tempted to say ‘pity about the half’), but not what you’d call buckets of blood. Some dialogue about broken ribs is fairly on-the-nose, I suppose. Anyway all is resolved in the stately manner one would expect of an episode about Minbari politics.

Except all this is the B-story! The A-story is a frankly rotten and silly one about a religious cult living in a hidden level of the station, complete with their own pet monster. Garibaldi – who’s never had much to do this year – discovers their existence, and, well, nothing much happens. The premise strains credibility, the dialogue is JMS-waffle, and the conclusion is nonsensical. I don’t think season 3 comes close to the heights of season 2, but it only contains one real stinker of an episode – and, mainly due to the A-story, this is it.

Centauri politics get some screentime in And The Rock Cried Out, No Hiding Place, a neat little political thriller which is basically setting up locations and plotlines for early in season 4. Peter Jurasik, Stephen Furst and Andreas Katsulas all get lots to do, which is always a sign of a good episode. The B-story about a convention of religious leaders visiting the station – complete with a gospel service – is a little clunky but on the whole this is strong.

Shadow Dancing is very much akin to Walkabout, featuring big space battles against the Shadows and Dr Franklin and his drug problem – though thankfully that gets resolved in this episode. The battle with the Shadows looks good, but doesn’t have the same emotional clout as the assault on Babylon 5 from earlier in the season. It leads very smoothly into the climax of the season, Z’Ha’Dum.

The lesson we learn from this story is that Sheridan makes a very bad houseguest. More than that? Hum, well, to me I don’t think this story is doing what JMS wants it to – the audience is so invested in the characters by now that it’d take more than a philosophical debate to make the Shadows’ point of view seem reasonable. JMS-waffle obscuring the identity of their key spokesman is also arguably counterproductive.

But if nothing else it’s a strong end to a reasonable season which is possibly the last one to show Babylon 5 as a consistently good TV series. Seasons 4 and 5, mainly for behind-the-scenes reasons, have – how shall we put it? – specific issues of their own, which will probably become apparent quite soon.

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After all the arc-related, format-shifting stuff going on in the second quarter of Babylon 5‘s third season, the sudden appearance of a Wandering Loony episode feels a bit like the return of an old friend. I should probably have made the most of this, as this may well be the very last one .

Having already treated us to visits to B5 from Jack the Ripper, Sugar Ray Robinson, and an ex-accountant searching for the Holy Grail, in A Late Delivery from Avalon JMS gives us his take on Arthurian mythology, as someone claiming to be King Arthur of the Britons turns up on the station. (Not surprisingly his sword and chainmail set off the metal detectors in the customs area.) A fight is averted when – oh dear – Marcus turns up and starts humouring the guy and talking the same cod-mediaeval argot.

Now, given that King Arthur is played by Michael York, best-known these days for playing Basil Exposition in the Austin Powers films, and Marcus is played (as usual) by Jason Carter, you would expect the results to be unwatchably embarrassing. And they nearly are. But at the same time the naive silliness of it is rather charming.


Oh, behave!

Eventually King Arthur decides to go all Charlie Bronson and clean up the crime-infested areas of the station (the revolution and declaration of independence doesn’t seem to have made any difference down here), and finds himself assisted in this by the newly-philanthropic G’Kar. We even get the start of a fight scene in which the duo take on some crooks, Arthur waving Excalibur about and G’Kar doing the angry-kitty-cat Narn martial art I have occasionally commented on in the past.

It gets a bit more serious in the end, and turns into a story about idealism and guilt: it turns out King Arthur is actually a bloke called Dave who accidentally started the Earth-Minbari War and then had the poor manners not to die in it. It’s an okay idea, but the presentation is very stagey – just a couple of actors in a set, often monologuing at each other. Then again, Michael York is a fine actor, even when required to perform straight down the camera lens, and there’s certainly some imagination in the writing and direction.

It’s a very odd episode, not toned down much by a housekeeping B-story about Sheridan and Ivanova put together a new defensive alliance for the station, and a comedy C-story about Garibaldi falling out with the Post Office. Speaking of the station defenses, exactly how big is a Minbari war cruiser? The ones in the establishing FX shots pass behind the station and stay visible, which (given that Babylon 5 is five miles long) means they must be enormous, much bigger than they were implied to be in the first season.

Oh well. Walter Koenig and his possible-you-know-what return in Ship of Tears, a much darker, mildly horror-inflected episode in which the achilles heel of the Shadows is finally revealed. Well, sort of. The exact details of when the Shadows woke up and why, and how they infiltrated the government of Earth, remain rather murky and possibly even become more confused; I’ve stopped keeping track of all the references. Koenig is always fun though; I thought I remembered a concluding scene where he gets a big soliloquoy he delivers to his popsicle lover, but either it’s been cut from the DVD release or it’s in a different episode.

The next episode, Interludes and Examinations, follows on virtually directly, with the Shadows finally on the march, and desperate measures being required to stop them. It all goes a bit bish-bash-Kosh in the end, but the demise of a character who’s basically a strange confluence of curtains, Christmas lights and a plastic bucket is oddly moving when it comes. Elsewhere Morden gets up to some skulduggery involving Londo’s old girlfriend from the first series – the way Londo falls for this smacks of melodrama, to say nothing of Peter Jurasik’s wracked-by-grief acting – and the Frankin’s-drug-habit plotline rumbles on. If Richard Biggs wasn’t such a good actor this would really be a slog, but possibly JMS is mainly including this thread to give Biggs good material.

And so to the main event of mid-to-late season 3, War Without End. This is the other end of the story we saw bits of in season 1’s Babylon Squared, as the gang – or selected members of it – go back in time to steal Babylon 4 and send it back to the last Shadow War. Along for the ride is Jeffrey Sinclair, and if you thought Michael O’Hare’s performances were restrained when he was in charge of the station you ain’t seen nothing yet. You might expect a scene with both O’Hare and Bruce Boxleitner in it to be vaguely reminscent of two men fighting over a parachute in free fall, but it’s not too bad, and JMS wisely keeps them apart a lot of the time.

You can’t fault the ambition of the series for attempting such a complex and challenging story, but the problem is that towards the end one gets a definite sense of this being an exercise in connecting the dots rather than telling a story per se. There are obvious places where Babylon Squared and War Without End just don’t match up, which surely defeats the object of the exercise. The scope and barely-suppressed craziness of it – past, present, and various alternative futures all whirl around each in mildly confusing style – make it a novel change of pace, though.

(JMS-Dialogue-O-Meter Roundup: After a quiet few episodes things perk up in this batch: we have a Get The Hell… in Ship of Tears after Bester pinches Sheridan’s seat, and another Straight To Hell in War Without End, referring to the alt-future Garibaldi gets a message from. They’re still less common than it felt at the time.)

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Halfway through the run of Babylon 5, I find myself in a bit of a quandary with regards to my ‘no spoiling the major episodes’ policy, as we’re getting to the point where nearly every episode is  fairly significant. I must take solace in the fact that the odd detail will probably be almost totally meaningless to anyone who isn’t already au fait with the series at this point.

Anyway, Season 3 Disc 3 finds us already some way into what’s effectively a three-part story – and the next episode after that follows on fairly closely, too. Point of No Return is an exercise in tension and suspense, which if nothing else gives the special effects people more time to work on the massive demands of the following episode. With the political situation back on Earth rapidly deteriorating, the characters spend the episode trying to fend off the influence of their enemies in the government, buying time in the hope that events back home will go their way.

The stuff with the Gestapo-in-all-but-name is not especially subtly written – I expect I will be writing that a lot from this point on – nor well-performed by many of the actors, and I thought the most interesting parts of the episode concerned the non-human characters. Sort-of connected to the A-plot is some stuff with Delenn and G’Kar and the changes, in particular, in the latter’s personality.

There’s also some jolly stuff with Londo, Vir, and guest star Majel Barrett, on a visit from – depending on your outlook – either Centauri Prime or the Trek universe. Both the regulars get some perhaps-unwelcome news of their future, and there’s a very peculiar scene where the dynamic between the trio becomes rather reminiscent of that of Arkwright, Granville and Nurse Gladys from Open All Hours (or maybe that’s just me).

Despite all the faintly wobbly stuff here, it does end on a terrific ‘soft’ cliffhanger – I’ve been pretty strict about my no-more-than-one-episode-a-day regime so far, but broke this for the first time to go straight on into Severed Dreams, one of the absolutely focal episodes of the whole series. It builds irresistibly to probably the biggest and best space battle in TV history. It doesn’t look quite as gobsmacking as it did back 1996 – this episode was very nearly appointment TV at the time – but it’s still essential B5.

It’s followed by the rather more sombre Ceremonies of Dark and Light, which, as you may be able to tell from the title, finds the series in slightly awkward reflective mode and the characters involved in picking up the pieces left at the end of the previous episode. We’re back in a subtlety-free zone for the most part, and on top of this there’s a lot of Marcus bringing his very special magic to the proceedings. Even beyond that, the stuff between Sheridan and Delenn that’s been building up for the last year finally starts kicking off in earnest. There’s nothing actually bad about the basic story, but the sense of being beaten about the head by the various themes incorporated in it makes it a slightly annoying episode to watch.

The arc story finally calms down a bit with Sic Transit Vir. You really have to applaud the overall achievement of getting B5 made at all, regardless of the occasional wobble in the actual quality of the stories: getting through the story roughly as planned, even with the endless potential problems of actors not being available or wanting to leave. Actors going off to do other things explains why some of the supporting regulars occasionally drop out of sight for a bit – sometimes this is addressed in-story, sometimes it isn’t.

Stephen Furst’s commitment to another show meant he wasn’t able to appear in much of the first part of season 3, and this was handled on-screen: Vir got packed off to Minbar, part-time, for a bit. As the title indicates, in Sic Transit Vir he comes back, for an episode which is essentially all about him (this is a better episode than Bill Mumy or Julie Caitlin Brown ever got).

Centauri Prime: where every day is a bad hair day.

Centauri Prime: where every day is a bad hair day.

Vir’s reports from Minbar have (with the help of a little judicious rewriting from Londo) made him a rising star at the Imperial Court, which brings unexpected consequences: a wife has been arranged! Her name is Lyndisty, and she is played by Carmen Thomas, who does a good job of making her sweet, charming, and brainless. However it appears that Vir has been using his clout as the Centauri attache on Minbar to pursue a few private projects, and his name is appearing in connection with the death certificates of thousands of Narn refugees. With vengeful Narns in pursuit of Vir and his new wife, it looks like his newfound respectability will be rather shortlived.

Elsewhere, the crew are getting used to the station’s change of status, not to mention their own. They are all wearing the whizzy new uniforms Delenn has been handing out, for one thing (she must have had Lennier sewing away like a demon between episodes). Sheridan and Delenn are still dancing around each other (I mean, talk about a slow burn). Garibaldi is taking time off while Jerry Doyle’s arm gets better.

In retrospect it’s easy to see that Vir is JMS’s attempt to do a character who’s basically Claudius from I, Claudius: the good-natured apparent-idiot who survives calamity and rises to great significance simply due to being disregarded by everyone around him. I’m not a particular fan of Furst’s twitchy performances, but he carries this particular episode well. It’s a funny concoction that starts (like so many of the Centauri-centred plots) as a dark comedy of manners, but then becomes progressively more serious (it very nearly turns into Schindler’s List at one point). Possibly a bit too serious at one point: a spot of injudicious editing leaves it unclear as to whether or not a minor character has actually been murdered. On its own merits, it’s a fairly lightweight, disposable episode, but after all the heavy-duty stuff that preceded it it’s a welcome change of pace.

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