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Posts Tagged ‘Lines of Communication’

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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