Saturday, January 4, 2014

What I'm watching now; Babylon 5 (Season 2: The Coming of Shadows)

This week we continue on what is actually a pretty epic rewatch of Babylon 5, due to the Holidays I've been able to get through 3 or so episodes a day. (Despite the 2nd season boxed set disagreeing with my DVD player...) Over the next few weeks I hope to cover the whole series and maybe the movies as well. (Watch out SPOILERS below)
Season two, entitled "The Coming of Shadows", is for at least its first half and extension of the themes and pace of the first season. This is chiefly due to the writing having to backtrack a little due to the departure of Micheal O'Hare from the lead role of Commander Jeffery Sinclair and the introduction of Bruce Boxleitner as Captain John Sheridan. In a series as tightly plotted as Babylon 5 this is no simple task as a large part of the show's first year was dedicated to developing Sinclair as a character, hinting at his Destiny and mysterious connection to the alien Minbari. So the second season represents the series reconfiguring to accommodate the new lead character so it's narrative can pick up pace towards the end to catch up.

This results in two episodes to deal with the previous year's cliffhanger "Chrysalis"; the first "Points of departure" primarily deals with the rather notable cast change and resolving (not entirely) the mystery of Sinclair's abduction during the Earth/Minbari war. The second attends to the loose ends presented in the previous season cliffhanger, Garabaldi's fate, Delenn emerging from the chrysalis and Londo's extended dealings with the mysterious Mr Morden. In my experience this is the place most fans actually entered the series at, and it requires minimal backtracking to "get" the narrative by coming in at the start of the second season. (Which I understand is something Network TV likes, as heavily narrative series tend to be seen as "locking out" new viewers. Hence the reason many series like BSG often had strange non arc episodes stuck in the middle of seasons 3 and 4)
Season two as an introduction to the series is also helped by Bruce Boxleitner's John Sheridan who brings the charisma of a more traditional leading man to the role as opposed to O'Hare's brooding more complex Sinclair.
Once the season hits its ninth episode, the titular one for the season, the real arc for the year is unleashed. The Narn/Centari war is very much the warm up for the conflict that is regularly foreshadowed in the series narrative, it is both a conflict of nations and of characters as it is the axis that G'Kar and Londo Mollari's character relationship and the Earth alliance conspiracy plotline pivots on. It is generally a very nice war narrative, not bogged down in particulars just the effects of the conflict and the motivation surrounding it. Peter Jerasik's Mollari is definitely the stand out regular cast member of the season (and I'd argue the next as well); his characterization and writing is deep and conflicted. He is man who wishes not only the glory days of his republic, but his own youth, restored and does so via the malicious and manipulative Djinni in Morden. But he is also ultimately a man who is terrified of the results of his actions, the blood that must be spilled to feed the Djinni disgusts him no matter how much he desires the results. Mollari is also contrasted by two other characters, his aide Vir who has the youth he wants but has no desire for power or glory and Lord Refa who is the political animal Mollari wants to be without the conscience. His rise is one of this season's real pleasures to watch, all tainted by what we and he know will be his inevitable downfall.

Season two also deals with a major plot element that makes it a difficult tale to retell in our culture post 2001. The seeds of mistrust of authority sewn in the first season are regularly revisited with the revelation that the death of the Earth alliance president may have been assassinated in what was in reality a Psy-corp backed military coup. The Earth Alliance of Babylon 5 is very much a proxy for the United States, waxing between expansionist and isolationist and slowly coming under the grip of ultra-authoritarian elements. The tale of Earth in Babylon 5 is one of a culture that slowing goes mad after the twin shocks of the Minbari war and the death of their president. The rise of the Nightwatch, the Psycorp and the new "Ministry of Peace" (nod to Orwell) is a analogy of how easy it is for a democracy to become a fascist state and is steeped in imagery from Orwell, the Illuminatus trilogy and Patrick Mcgoohan's "The Prisoner".

Season two also continues the first's attempt to approach television sci-fi from a different angle than it had been approached before. Our characters are quite flawed for the most part, their actions are not always demonstrated as being correct or even just. Choices are made, not always the correct ones and the consequences of these choices provide new story elements for the long form narrative. Doctor Franklin is most emblematic of this, a deeply flawed man who is a brilliant medical doctor. While he is shown as capable he is also an overworked depressive whose flaws regularly creep into his bedside manner. His true test comes late in the season in the episode "Confessions and Lamentations", where he faces what could be called a true "Kobyashi Maru"; a no win scenario. In that episode an minor race, the Markab, start presenting a mysterious and deadly illness. The illness quickly spreads through the whole population of Markab aboard the station who see it as a spiritual affliction rather than physical and refuse aid. The story has Franklin working with a Markab doctor to try to find a cure or treatment; and when he thinks he has found one it is too late, the Markab are dead and with the virus also present on their homewold the race faces unavoidable extinction.  This episode is very brave for the normal sci-fi show format, where normally this sort of crisis is gone in the flash of a macguffin by the last few scenes. (usually just as the time runs out..) This episode presents the event as test of character for the Doctor as well as for Delenn and her aide Lennir who opt to tend to the ill rather than a puzzle to be solved or overcome.

The second season is also important as it expands many of the concepts from the start of the series. It reveals the Vorlon ambassador Kosh's appearance. (Kinda) It names the foe that is constantly hinted at. (The Shadows) It resolves the conflict between the Narn and Centari and moves the show towards its next stage. (The oft mentioned Shadow War) That is this show's great strength, the pace and consistency with which it moves it's story along. Season two and the following season "The Point of No return" represent this series at the height of its popularity and quality.

Till next time...