Monday, February 13, 2012

Poetic Titles Reveal The Enduring Questions And Concepts Of Babylon 5!

The Good: Great character moments, Moments of acting, Plot issues, Moments of effects, Themes
The Bad: Moments of effects, Why are villains so dumb?, Some predictability.
The Basics: With two very good episodes of Babylon 5 that tackle race issues in the unique universe of the show, this tape has some enduring value to it!

As I plod through the few Babylon 5 videos I can find, it occurs to me that there has not been a show on television that has such consistently poetic episode titles as Babylon 5. With the old VHS tape for "The War Prayer" and "And The Sky Full Of Stars," I found myself thinking of the importance of episode titles and the potentially beautiful poetics of them. Here again, Babylon 5 lives up to a higher standard!

"The War Prayer" finds Babylon 5 taking on more ambassadors and an old lover of Ivanova's arriving on the station. Ivanova's friend turns out to be an Earth-only racist with an agenda of ridding Earth outposts of alien influence. Seeing an opportunity to harm the Home Guard and learn its agenda, Sinclair and Ivanova attempt to infiltrate the organization while Londo sorts out a lover's problem between two young Centauri who are eloping.

"And The Sky Full Of Stars" finds the question that was asked in the beginning of the series resurfacing. What happened at the Battle of the Line; why did the Minbari surrender instead of wiping out humanity? And what happened during Sinclair's missing day? Two knights arrive on Babylon 5, abduct Commander Sinclair and attempt to wrest from his mind the truths they believe are locked there!

For a change, the episodes paired on the VHS tape are thematically similar, allowing the buyer/viewer a chance to capitalize on similar forms of drama. The knights that capture Sinclair are Earth-only extremists, like Ivanova's old flame. This tape, then, features some of the racial politics of the Babylon 5 universe and asks the big questions about how everyone there gets along. This opens the door for the Home Guard, an Earth-based extremist group that resents "alien influences" on humans and seeks to eliminate them.

It is that same hatred that motivates the knights in "And The Sky Full Of Stars." On some level, the knights are convinced that Sinclair has been compromised by the enemy, the Minbari. Though the Minbari are no longer the enemy of the humans, the war that nearly wiped humanity out left its mark and their abrupt end to hostilities is a mystery that has captured the imagination of the galaxy for the ten years since the war ended. Learning the truth to that mystery and how it relates to Sinclair motivates the knights. The interesting aspect here is that many of the most noble characters - Garibaldi, Sinclair - and the least noble - the racist knights - share the same goal, they are motivated to find the truth about the same mystery and that makes for an interesting character dynamic.

Less intriguing is the b-plot in "The War Prayer." The eloping couple allows the viewer to understand more about Centauri culture, but is mostly just filler. Sure, it gives Vir a chance to express himself and in that regard, the b-plot hints at future developments with Vir. Vir may be the aide to Londo, but he is not a carbon copy. Where Londo is motivated to better his people by attempting to reclaim the past glories of the Centauri, Vir is motivated by the desire to help people and he is willing to work for change in order to do that. In this way, "The War Prayer" begins to explore his character and gives actor Stephen Furst more airtime and a chance to establish his character.

The only real character faults in this pair of episodes come in the villains. In "The War Prayer," the lead villain - Ivanova's former lover, is just a complete idiot. Writer D.C. Fontana smartly devises the plan by which Sinclair may appeal to the racist and it makes sense. Sinclair fought the Minbari, so he could be seen to have a secret hatred of them and that's a pretty clever way to allow the character to roll. The problem I have is that the Home Guard bigot buys it. He swallows the bait big time and I would think members of a secret hate organization would be a little less trusting and a little more suspicious. After all, every club that works in secret does an extensive background check on its members (just look at the CIA!). The message is a good one; that conversation and understanding are stronger than racism and secrecy, but I find myself wishing the villains were just a little smarter.

In the case of the second episode, the villains are plenty smart and I like the side plot of the security officer who has gambling debts. In "And The Sky Full Of Stars," the station rules are established for how much security officers can gamble and that's a brilliant touch. With Garibaldi's officer bought due to his debts we see the reasonable purpose behind such rules and the attempt by Sinclair and Garibaldi to give the officer the chance to get right speaks volumes to their characters.

Genre fans will be delighted to see Judson Scott playing one of the knights. Judson Scott is well known as a character actor to fans of science fiction, notably appearing in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (reviewed here!) and the final episodes of the terrible television series V (reviewed here!). Here he adds to his repertoire with a cold, efficient performance as the bigoted Knight One. He was well cast for the roll and he lends an air of brutal efficiency to the part that makes the bit role seem well fleshed out.

Both of these episodes heavily reference the Earth-Minbari War and those who have not seen "The Gathering" (the pilot episode for Babylon 5) may be a little lost with the allusions. Outside that, the shows are very straightforward and they tend to focus on Commander Sinclair and begin to establish more of a relationship between him and Minbari ambassador Delenn. This is a nice pairing and the resolution to the second episode asks more questions than it answers. It's a great episode to sucker viewers into coming back for more!

It is in these episodes that Michael O'Hare seems to truly come into his own as Commander Sinclair. O'Hare plays a rather sublime, calm character and at times that has come across as stiff in prior episodes. Until "Mind War" (reviewed here!), when he was playing off Julia Nickson, he did not have a very natural chemistry with anyone outside Jerry Doyle's Garibaldi. In these episodes, he seems less stiff and more comfortable within the role, even when his character is distinctly uncomfortable. He loosens up some when appropriate and when he has to play bewildered, shocked and hurt - especially in "And The Sky Full Of Stars," it works wonderfully. He is able to convey confusion and suspicion with a masterful sense of body language.

And finally, Mira Furlan, of late recurring as Rousseau on Lost (reviewed here!), finally comes into her own, even though neither episode focuses significantly on her character. Delenn is a rather formal character and in the early episodes, it's hard to tell how much of her character's awkwardness is in the character and how much is Furlan learning to work around her extensive prosthetics (she has a pretty big headpiece!). In these two episodes, Furlan seems quite confident with her role and what her character is doing. She brings a grace to the role, especially in "The War Prayer" where Delenn's poet friend is assaulted, that is the embodiment of kindness, calmness and rationality. She steals the scenes she is in. And in the second episode, Furlan has possibly the best part, forcing so many questions into the light.

These are wonderful episodes, but they feel very much like they are a part of the larger whole and not as self-sufficient as some might like. They are, however, excellent for fans of general drama, even those who are not so big into science fiction. "The War Prayer" especially used very little in the way of science fiction conceits and holds up well, even despite the stupidity of the antagonists.

[Knowing that VHS is essentially a dead medium, it's worth looking into Babylon 5 - The Complete First Season on DVD, which is also a better economical choice than buying the VHS. Read my review of the debut season by clicking here!

“The War Prayer” – 6/10
“And The Sky Full Of Stars” – 7/10
VHS – 6/10

For other television reviews, please be sure to visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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