Thursday, January 16, 2014

What I'm Watching Now: Babylon 5 (Season 3:The Point of no return)

One thing I haven't talked about yet which is one of my favorite aspects of the staging of Babylon 5 are the opening titles. Unlike many series, Babylon 5 had a new title sequence for each season marking off and setting the tone for each chapter to come. Each has a new monologue and also dates the series within it's fictional timeline; each season being analogous to one year of fictional chronology. I always find the opening of B5 satisfying, every time I watch it.  I'm sure it's the cinema studies student in me who recalls being told how important the opening and closing of a film is to the overall impression the film leaves. Season one and two were mostly the same, simply swapping the new lead actor into the intro and mentioning some plot advancement. For three we see the premise of the first two seasons stated and then refuted: "Babylon 5 was our last best hope for peace. It failed" showing us the evolving nature of the show. Most other shows quickly revert to the mean, but B5 is stating in its credits that the story moves on.
Recently an article on Salon talked about what television shows can learn from recent break out success Breaking Bad,  and the solution was to have an ending in mind from the beginning. This is where a lot of genre Television becomes unstuck, not having it's eye on a destination and how to get their instead pouring twist on twist and ending up with a weak unconvincing ending. Think of Battlestar Galactica's reboot (or even the original), the last two seasons of Stargate SG1 or The X files; all series that had a continuing narrative arc built in but obviously with no clear end point in mind resulting in dramatically diluted or rushed endings. Now Babylon 5 suffers from it's own issues largely due to the politics of TV, but while it is running through it's major story arc it has a pacing and momentum matched by few series because it is rushing towards an definitive end. But more on endings later, for now lets look at season 3.
After the upheavals of season 2 the cast of Babylon 5 is now mostly stable with the core four characters (Sheridan, Franklin, Ivanova and Garabaldi) and ambassador characters (Mollari, Delenn and G'kar) forming a very solid bedrock for the drama. Season 3 quickly expands on the concepts of "The coming of shadows" in its first episode "Matters of Honor". As hinted at the end of the last season the Shadows now act openly attacking worlds and helping the various races of the galaxy fight each other. While not the best episode it very skillfully sets up the themes and obstacles to come. It introduces Marcus Cole, the series first regular Ranger character. It shows us the shadows and their agents further influencing the Centari, the league of non aligned worlds as well as Earth government itself. It also finally introduces The White Star, a ship built by the Minbari to help Babylon 5 against the shadows. The introduction of the White Star is the most structurally changing element the series has brought in since replacing its lead actor, no longer is this series station bound but capable of traveling to other places to tell new and larger stories.
The season develops all of the themes from the season before, conspiracy, ancient evil, faith and hope. The character journeys push into the long dark period where they rise or fall, something that continues as a central theme of the series up until the start of Season 4. G'kar and Doctor Franklin for example go through transformations of character, falling to rock bottom but returning stronger than before. G'kar has always been played as a foil, the villain of the pilot and heroic underdog of the Narn/Centari war he starts this season on the path of bloody revenge and ends it two of his three steps towards his character's endgame rejecting the violence of a new war with the Centari and instead seeking to aid Babylon 5 against the darkness.
Season 3 has a number of stand out episode, possibly more than season 2. Not only the Messages from Earth "trilogy" of episodes (Messages from Earth, Point of No Return and Severed Dreams)but some of the best use of sound and vision in the series so far. My stand out besides the season closer (see below) is "And the rock cried out, No Hiding place", the tale of Londo's revenge against Lord Refer and a great character study episode of Londo and Vir.
In good old three act structure, this season represents the start and maybe the entirety of the story's second act. The ancient enemy is revealed at the close of season 2 but all of the true complications of the main arc appear in season 3; the succession from the Earth alliance, the rise of the Shadows and the truth about the nature of this great war. All this drives to the best season closer of the series, and one of the best of any genre show "Za'ha'dum". It is almost the perfect episode of B5, the pacing, the soundtrack, the drive towards a dark and gripping ending. The Christopher Franke electronic riff when Sheridan comes to the balcony overlooking the shadow city still gives the Krautrock fan in me chills whenever I hear it.
Seasons 2 and 3 definitely represent the peak of Babylon 5 as a storytelling vehicle, they are driven and exciting with only a little fat every now and then. Generally the plots are operatic and grand without becoming earnest or forced. The fate of the universe in many cases does hang in the balance as this show does rearrange it's fundamental tenets as the story moves on. TV hasn't quite gotten to the point at B5 where mains can be eliminated easily, but the structure below the cast can shift and change direction without resetting. Actions have consequences which generally pay off, we will get to where they don't shortly...

Till next time folks!