Tuesday, February 11, 2014

What I'm watching now: Babylon 5 (Season 5: The Wheel of Fire)

Well it's time for the season that almost wasn't, season 5. The great lesson of Babylon 5 is that while sticking to the plan is tricky it is ultimately rewarding. As I've already mentioned JMS had a series of trapdoor contingencies for actors and plots, these small changes were really just course correction elements, the plan ultimately unchanged. (For example Sinclair left and Sheridan was shifted into his role. Sheridan then went on to do the stuff Sinclair would have done had Micheal O'hare stayed on with the series.) The existential crisis that truncated season 4, the fact that the WB was in financial distress and was likely to cancel the series, broke the 5 year plan. JMS was forced to wrap up the primary story arcs in year 4, effectively putting much of the fifth season out of the scope of the five year plan. Other things changed as well, Babylon 5 was a hit so the series was not only granted a fifth year but a chance to do more on another network. Four telemovies were commissioned and a spin off series for the TNT network was put into motion as well, so season 5 is in many ways a launch pad for the ill fated Babylon 5 spin offs as much as it is a conclusion to the show.
Before I go on with the inevitable Season 5 bashing (you all know it's gonna happen) there is one thing about this season I have to commend. My favorite title sequence of the whole series. It is a great final season title, looking back at the whole series it never fails to make me a little fluttery inside hearing Koch say "And so it begins" at the start of each episode...

Season 5 sadly is a game of disappointing expectations, picking up on two major plot threads that were left dangling at the end of season 4. These plots neatly divide the season into two major arcs, the second one I actually quite like. The first is the foreshadowing of the Telepath war, represented by the character of Byron. Byron is a rogue telepath who attempts to set up a colony of human Telepaths free of the Psy-corp on Babylon 5. (Needless to say this does not go well) I remember during the first run of the series just disliking the character, as many online did at the time. On this rewatch I actually found the character quite confusing, it is difficult to figure out just how we are supposed to feel about him and his quest. Byron is depicted as a quasi messianic figure surrounded by a largely silent group of followers, in many ways his plight is sympathetic, but in many other ways it has all the classic hallmarks of a cult. His people almost never talk, only communicating via telepathy, they are devoted to him unto death, they shun support from Dr Franklin when offered, and they do everything to exclude themselves from the rest of the human race. When learning of the true origins of Telepaths from Lyta (that they are all engineered by the Vorlons as weapons against the Shadows) he decides it is vital they press his wish for a home world for Telepaths, so they scan and try to blackmail all of the alien ambassadors. Naturally this goes badly but is an incredibly malicious act for a peace loving character to perform especially in a series that has noted how dangerous and traumatic unauthorized scans can be. The story is obviously supposed to be, man with good intentions goes bad for the sake of his ideals. But the creepy cultish nature of Byron's Telepaths goes someway towards subverting that reading. Not only that, to make the plot work they have to tweak the way Telepaths have worked in the past. If you saw this season in isolation you would almost think that no other races had Telepaths apart from humans, even though it was established in the pilot that the Narn wanted Telepath DNA to breed Telepaths to give them a defense against exactly the sort of thing Byron was planning to do! So if G'kar was afraid of this military use of Telepaths (and it's also been established that Centari Telepaths do this sort of thing for cash) why don't all the governments already have something in place to stop this sort of casual surface scanning to get secrets? Seeing as it is an established "thing" in this universe?
It probably also doesn't help Byron that his uncertain writing is paired against Walter Koenig's brilliant Alfred Bester. Of all of the series guest stars, Bester is the most consistently well written and performed and Koenig is really able to sell his character's unwavering faith in his own ideology so well that you can't really be blamed for rooting just a little for his bloodhound units as they hunt the "blips" on B5...
The other big and rather disappointing addition is Captain Lochley, with the departure of Ivanova at the end of Season 4 a new captain was needed for the station as she was the logical successor to the now President Sheridan. Lochley sadly is little more than a clone of Ivanova, a tough no nonsense female officer who we aren't given quite enough time to get to know. She very much feels like she is filling in an empty place on the show rather than bringing anything new, even her deep dark secret isn't all that deep or dark. (Would have been much more interesting if she had fought for Clarke's side during the war as was a red herring) Because she is new she gets little development in the season's much better second half, as most of that action is focused on the Alliance and bringing the more established characters to resolution.
The second half of the series, the titular Wheel of Fire, is for the most part very well paced and plotted. It is the sad tale of the fall on Londo Mollari and Centari Prime that had been hinted since Season one and in my opinion was probably originally intended to run somewhat parallel the war with earth as the series final chapter. The only issue in my mind occurs is when JMS attempts to tease the proposed follow up series "Crusade", leaving several elements of the story unresolved. The second last episode "Objects at rest" is very bad for that. First we get Lenir, hurt from watching his beloved Delenn marry Sheridan, commit the most pissweak "betrayal" I can recall. (After it being foreshadowed earlier in the season) He decides not to help Sheridan during an engine room accident on the White Star, leaves but then thinks best of it and comes back, only to run away again. Betrayal needs some malice to it, and this really was lacking much emotion besides the formally fine character having a bit of a tantrum. Also supremely frustrating is the final scene with Londo visiting Minbar. The tragedy of his last visit, him hoping that he could get drunk with his friends so he could share what he knew about the Drakh's secret conquest of Centari Prime, only to be hit by the fact that the Minbari can't consume Alcohol. Tragic and brilliant, less so with the cliff hanger that the scene leaves us on. Londo delivers a urn for Delenn and Sheridan's first born containing a Drakh keeper, the results of which we never learn because it's the last episode besides "Sleeping in the Light". It's a blatant "watch Crusade to see what happens" ending.
This season also includes the intended ending for season 4 "Sleeping in the Light", the very last episode in the Babylon 5 story. It is set 19years in the future with Sheridan facing his final demise after being resurrected by Lorian on Za'Ha'dum. It's an ok episode, really a prolonged goodbye to the series and its characters and little more. It seems a little out of joint after season 5, as many of the plot developments (like Lochley not being there) seemingly forgotten about. The glaring one is what happened to their son and the Keeper? Is Centari Prime still full of Drakh? Did the Centari rejoin the alliance under Vir? What happened in the Telepath War? What Happened to Lenir? All things that may not have been asked if this episode proceeded season 4, but vital questions after season 5 as they had just spent 21 episode making us care about these events.
Sadly Season 5 is a bit of a sour note for the series, it has some great elements in it but for some reason is just incapable of pulling them together.