Friday, March 9, 2012

Staying Strong In The Rebellion Against Tyranny In Babylon 5 Season Four!

The Good: Well-written and conceived, Excellent acting, Great character development, Extraordinary plot, Themes
The Bad: A pretty-terrible season finale
The Basics: In the climax of several important plots, Captain Sheridan returns to take on the Shadows and the oppressive tyranny on Earth in the fourth season of Babylon 5.

The third season of Babylon 5, "Point Of No Return" is a tough act to follow-up on. In its third season, Babylon 5 reached perfection and held the attention of the viewers for twenty-two episodes that completely rocked and are exceptionally rewatchable. The fourth season of Babylon 5, "No Surrender, No Retreat," has big shoes to fill and it succeeds, for the most part. This season is robbed of perfection by its season finale, which is weak, directionless and fails to end the season on a note that makes us want to come back to season five with the same intensity as the prior seasons. Indeed, listening to the commentary by J. Michael Straczynski on "The Deconstruction of Falling Stars" (great title, regardless), the episode was not the original season finale and was produced only after the show was picked up for a fifth season. Unfortunately, it feels like it.

If you have not seen any episodes of Babylon 5, stop reading this review now. Go back, read my reviews for seasons 1, 2, and 3, go out, buy the DVD sets, watch them, then come back and read this review to make your final decision about buying "No Surrender, No Retreat." It is, quite simply, too late in the series to start watching if you have not already been watching. While season three is accessible to those who are just getting into the show, season four is anything but. This is a season that requires commitment from viewers, including doing the homework of watching the prior three years. This is a payoff season.

As with the previous three boxed sets, the mislabled "Introduction to Season 4" is truly a "Review of Season 4," completely ruining several of the key surprises in the season if viewed by one who has not seen the episodes already.

Beginning where season three left off, "No Surrender, No Retreat," finds space station Babylon 5 isolated at the edge of known space, alone in the night. Captain John Sheridan has jumped to his death on Z'ha'dum and the war against the Shadows has paused as a result. While Ivanova and Delenn search for Sheridan and try to salvage the alliance designed to stop the Shadows from killing every living thing in the galaxy, G'Kar goes on a quest to find Garibaldi. Sheridan and Garibaldi turn up soon enough, however, both significantly altered. Sheridan has found the abilities needed to help defeat the Shadows and the strength to take on Earth, while Garibaldi has become insular, paranoid and resentful of Sheridan, prompting him to abandon his friends and leave Babylon 5. And G'Kar, who went looking for Garibaldi, finds himself at the mercy of the insane Centauri Emperor Cartagia and the linchpin in Londo's plan to save Centauri Prime and his people.

This is a very intense season where major, climactic events occur on all fronts. When it appears that one character is fading to the background, they get a great plotline that pushes them back to the forefront. This is a season of profound intrigues and revelations and it is the story of the galaxy trapped in war. At the end of the day, it is pretty awesome.

Here is how the fourth season finds and develops the principle characters of Babylon 5:

Zack Allen - takes over as the head of security in Garibaldi's absence only to wonder what happened to the chief after he returns. While he becomes more responsible and more of an integral part of the station, he develops closer ties to Lyta Alexander,

Lennier - Still silently in love with Delenn, Lennier finds himself more and more isolated as Delenn and Sheridan grow closer together. He finds purpose when civil war breaks out on Minbar and he must put his love of his caste to the test,

Vir Cotto - Recalled to Centauri to aid Londo, Vir accidentally changes the course of his planet's history by being in the right place at the right time,

Lyta Alexander - Working with the new Vorlon Ambassador leaves Lyta abused and lonely, a vulnerable person who makes her susceptible to the advances of Zack and at the mercy of Psi Cop Bester,

Marcus - As the Shadow War reaches a head, the Rangers become even more important and Marcus takes on a leadership role. As well, his love for Ivanova continues to grow until he cannot deny the true depth of his feelings for her,

Dr. Franklin - Recovered from his addition to stims, he finds himself working as an ambassador to the underground rebellion on Mars, trying to insure that Sheridan's support is known on Mars and preparing the people there for a full revolution when the time is right,

Commander Ivanova - Discovers the full potential of her leadership abilities when she must command the fleet against the Shadows and against Earth's oppressive government. As well, she becomes a voice for the resistance, offering counterintelligence to the propaganda machine that President Clark has built,

G'Kar - His attempts to find Garibaldi put the Narn Ambassador in critical danger and provide him with a unique opportunity to save his people, provided Emperor Cartagia does not kill him first,

Londo - Witnessing the full degradation of Emperor Cartagia's mental condition, Londo becomes convinced he alone may save his people from Morden, the Shadow forces, and Emperor Cartagia. In the process, Londo must confront G'Kar, his own fears, and works to get everything he has ever truly wanted,

Garibaldi - Returned from his abduction without any clue as to where he was or why he was removed from everything he knew, Garibaldi begins acting erratically. Abandoning his job and going free-lance, Garibaldi becomes convinced Sheridan is a menace and must be stopped,

Delenn - Amazed to find Sheridan alive after his death on Z'ha'dum, Delenn admits her complete love of Sheridan and almost as soon as they are engaged, she finds that events on her homeworld require her attention and she must resolve the dispute between the religious and warrior castes or everything she has ever believed in will collapse entirely,

Captain Sheridan - is miraculously resurrected by a surprising new ally, only to find himself returning to Babylon 5 where everything is on the verge of collapse. As Sheridan struggles to end the war with the Shadows, by defeating them and the suddenly aggressive Vorlons, he finds himself wondering how long he has left. And when the treacherous President Clark begins waging a propaganda war on Babylon 5 and a series of outright attacks on civilians who rebel against him, Sheridan leads a force to retake his homeland, at any cost.

This season is the climax of almost all of the major plotlines of Babylon 5. Since the first season, there have been plots involving the Shadows, the takeover of Earth by Clark and the threats posed by the telepaths through the Psi Corps. By the end of this season, only the Psi Corp plot is unresolved, and - like the other two plots in previous seasons - it is ratcheted up in the last few episodes of "No Surrender, No Retreat." The problem is that in the penultimate episode of the season, the complications that are arising are stated and the ultimate resolution to the problems is revealed, and then the season finale comes and its something so different and so incongruent with the rest of the series, that it fails to leave the viewer satisfied after so many truly great episodes.

And the truth is, outside the complete dud of the season finale, this is an amazingly tight body of work. Unlike other seasons, where there were episodes interspersed that seemed questionable (even the perfect third season had "A Late Delivery From Avalon" with the appearance of King Arthur, that raised my eyebrows), this is a remarkably tight season. There are no weird or seemingly pointless episodes, no setups for payoffs outside the season that require a lot of faith. Instead, this is a season of revolution and resolutions.

And it works because the plots are well figured out and the characters are well portrayed. This is a season where every actor in the ensemble gives an incredible effort and achieves a magnificent payoff. Unlike previous seasons where Peter Jurasik, Andreas Katsulas and Bruce Boxleitner have shined and overpowered the rest of the cast, acting-wise, this is a season where every actor is given a change to rise up and blow us out of the water and they succeed admirably. Claudia Christian gives a heartwrenching performance, for example, in the penultimate episode "Rising Star."

This is a truly great season of television and only the poor finale brings it down. It is a worthy payoff to a series that has built itself up from nothing into something that makes for a compelling view. This season will be appreciated by those who have seen the other three seasons.

How wonderful is "No Surrender, No Retreat?" I sat down with a friend and it was so gripping, we watched the entire 22-episode season over the course of a single weekend and we're already chomping for season five and to rewatch this season again.


For other television reviews, please visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the films and television shows I have reviewed!

© 2012, 2005 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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