Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Rising Action In A Darkening Galaxy Envelops Babylon 5 Season Two!

The Good: Excellent story, Intriguing character development, Decent acting
The Bad: Addition of Keffer, No "dish" in the extras!
The Basics: As Babylon 5 tries to remain a neutral port of call, major powers in the galaxy take up arms against one another.

I never expected to enjoy Babylon 5 as much as I have. Honestly. My favorite television show of all time is Star Trek: Deep Space Nine which I loved for its deep characters, serialized story and great acting. Babylon 5 is a completely different puppy from "Deep Space Nine" and in the "credit where credit is due" department, the advantage Babylon 5 has in its story is that the series creator, J. Michael Straczinski, knew the entire five year story from day one and had what he calls "trapdoors" for each character, so if an actor/actress wanted to leave, he always had a plan of where to go with the story. Thus, Babylon 5 has an overall more consistent portrayal of the characters and universe it has created (unlike the Bashir Revelation in season 5 or the Sisko lineage discovery at the outset of season 7 of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine).

But these are two different puppies and there is little point in further comparison; they are both impressive. In the second season of Babylon 5, entitled "The Coming of the Shadows," the series continues its build-up in tension toward what appears to be an inevitable war. Opening with the usage of one of the character trapdoors (Commander Sinclaire is gone), Captain John Sheridan arrives to take control of Babylon 5.

"The Coming of the Shadows," the second season of Babylon 5 and not the episode within the season by the same name, explores the regrettable position Babylon 5 is put in as events begin to slide out of control. Following the assassination of the President of Earth, Captain Sheridan arrives to find the station in chaos. Ivanova, who worked with him previously, tries to help him get accustomed to life on the station while Garibaldi remains near-death in the MedLab and Minbari Ambassador Delenn remains in a cocoon in her quarters. G'Kar returns to the station soon thereafter with the firm knowledge that something evil has awakened on the rim of the galaxy that threatens everyone.

As Delenn adjusts to her knew physiology after coming out of her chrysalis, G'Kar does everything possible to raise the alarm about the creatures lurking in the darkness. G'Kar's attempts to garner support for his cause are complicated - despite one of the members of the crew seeing the ship of the enemy - when Londo's dark deal with Morden leads to an all-out war between the Centauri and the Narn. As Sheridan struggles to keep Babylon 5 neutral in the war between the Narn and Centauri, the greater threat gains ground and soon Sheridan finds himself learning the truths that could spell disaster for everyone.

The beautiful thing about Babylon 5 is how cohesive the show is. More and more in "The Coming of Shadows," the episodes gel together into a single story. There are a few "bottle" episodes, but even they have a thread that connects them to the main plots. As a result, the DVD boxed set is a great investment as when you sit down to watch episodes, their serialized nature makes it easy to sit and watch them one after another and become more and more engrossed in the rising threat posed to the heroes and villains in this universe.

Like all great serialized shows, the real focus is on the characters. Babylon 5 is no exception and here is how the second season finds the primary characters:

Captain John Sheridan - a former starship captain, Sheridan is the only human hero of the Earth/Minbari was as he led the only successful attack on a Minbari ship. Sheridan quickly adapts to life on the station, but finds himself drawn into a series of conflicts that put him at odds with the Earth Government and open him up to the probabilities of a galaxy erupting into the most horrific war ever known. He searches for his dead wife and discovers a growing relationship with Delenn,

Londo - The Centauri Ambassador finds that his allying with the mysterious forces marshaled by Morden may have come with a price he cannot pay. As the Narn reel from the destruction of their outposts, Londo finds himself gaining in prominence and becoming the backing to a political coup on his homeworld,

Ivanova - As first officer, she works to integrate Sheridan with the station and discovers herself building a friendship with the most unlikely person; Talia Winters. As tensions grow, Ivanova finds herself taking on more of the day to day responsibilities of Babylon 5,

Delenn - The Minbari Ambassador emerges from her cocoon with a startling revelation; she is no longer simply a Minbari, but a hybrid created as a symbol for the upcoming alliance between her people and the humans. She finds herself as an outcast and gaining strength from Sheridan,

G'Kar - The Narn Ambassador returns to Babylon 5 with the knowledge that the most ancient known evil may have returned to the galaxy. His quest to reconcile his animosity toward the Centauri is cut short when the Centauri invade Narn space and start an all-out war. His role as leader grows immensely as he fights for his people,

Garibaldi - The Security Chief recovers from his near death with little memory of who tried to kill him or why. After working with Talia, he learns the truth and finds that station security is more and more a tool for the corrupt Earth Alliance government,

Dr. Franklin - Saves many lives, but at the same time starts to use the stimulants to keep productive. While his devotion to his work is challenged, he manages to make peace with his estranged father and work to the benefit of humanity by fighting covertly the actions of the Psi Corps,

Talia Winters - The resident telepath on Babylon 5 begins to explore the powers bestowed upon her in the first season when she must resolve conflicts between Garibaldi and his memory, herself and her ex-husband and herself and the Psi Corps, conflicts that resolve themselves in such a way that they threaten all aboard the station,

Vir Cotto - Begins his rise to being an assertive, actualized character as he begins to openly question Londo and his associates,

Warren Keffer - A new character, Keffer is a starfury pilot who has nothing to do on the show save show up for a few episodes, see a Shadow ship, and become obsessed with it,

Zack Allen - A new security deputy under Garibaldi, Zack attempts to woo Talia and falls prey to the seductive advances of the Nightwatch, an Earth group that is hunting traitors,

and Morden - The recurring villain is fleshed out as we learn that he is tied not only to the ancient enemy, but to Sheridan's dead wife, Anna.

Lennier and Na'Toth are also in this season, though the latter disappears near the middle and Lennier is not given much to do but relay messages this season.

The reason the plots remain engaging is that the characters are interesting and the more we learn about them and their desires and efforts, the more compelling the story becomes. The show uses computer-generated special effects that often look disturbingly like they came off a PC, but the show works and excels because the focus is on how the characters are rising to the challenges that are sweeping them along.

The acting in this season is absent the flaws and occasional poor deliveries of the first season. In fact, the actors are able to contribute even more in this season, like Claudia Christian, who broke her leg early in the season and had the injury written into the script. Christian does a great job of adding humor to Ivanova and using her voice to expertly convey urgency with Sheridan when necessary.

Andrea Thompson and Richard Biggs both shine, when they are given the opportunity. Thompson makes Winters softer and, at times, even more lethal. She exhibits impressive range that makes her character a pleasure to watch. Biggs has an amazing ability to alternate between easy affability and uncompromising intensity. Watching Babylon 5 now, it is sad to watch Biggs because his recent death makes us think about what a fine talent was lost that day.

The three acting heavyweights, though, are Bruce Boxleitner, Peter Jurasik and Andreas Katsulas. Boxleitner appears to flawlessly enter the mix, an impressive task for a new lead actor in the sophomore year of a show. Boxleitner adds an energy to the cast instantly that energizes the show from the first frames of the season. His ability to use that energy to create an instantly memorable character is what keeps the most far-fetched moments of the season watchable.

Peter Jurasik continues to do an excellent job with Londo as the character evolves from something of a buffoon to a credible leader of the Centauri. Jurasik does this by incrementally improving Londo's posture, vocal bearing and emotive depth with facial expressions. Jurasik is impressive in the role.

The big winner on the acting front in the second season is Andreas Katsulas as G'Kar. Katsulas overcomes the detriments of being stuck in the extensive make-up that he's in to create a character that is emotive, sympathetic and incredibly expressive. Katsulas has a vocal force to him that resonates when he roars and a softness to him when his character is broken. G'Kar has an intriguing character run this season, but Katsulas owns the character and he dominates every single frame he is in.

The only real drawback to "The Coming of Shadows" is in the character of Warren Keffer. The character seems added (which, according to the commentary on the last disc, he was) and does not add anything significant to the mix. In fact, he has a single arc in the season and he disappears for most of the season. Na'Toth, recast for this season, disappears after only a few episodes, but her absence is more conspicuous.

In order to appreciate "The Coming of Shadows," one must first see the first season of Babylon 5, "Signs and Portents." While a little more fragmented and not as polished, the first season establishes essential character and plot points that are not entirely covered here in the second season.

In the current age with political uncertainty and incredible decisions being made by very few individuals, Babylon 5 becomes more relevant and inspiring. And the last moments of this set will have you hankering for the next boxed set. Honestly.

For other ambitious science fiction television shows, be sure to visit my reviews of:
Invasion - The Complete Series
V - The Complete First Season
The Clone Wars - Season Three


For other television reviews, please visit my Television Review Index Page for an organized listing of all my reviews of television shows, series, and episodes!

© 2012, 2008, 2004 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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